Title: The Tragedy of Macbeth’s Otherworldly Design
Adapting a well known story from a prolific author can be bitter, bitter work. It’s a tall task to create something both unique and singular while also retaining what made that original so great in the first place and so it helps when adapting the father of modern drama that the visuals are just as dramatic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a greater marriage between director, cinematographer, and production designer than in this movie The Tragedy of Macbeth, a movie in which the visuals not only are stunning but they help in creating a deeper connection between the two mediums it exists within: theater and cinema.
One of the major things Coen stressed in the early stages of pre-production for Macbeth was wanting to preserve the playness of the original text, the theatrical presentation of the material. Uninterested in creating a realistic depiction of Scotland he placed heavy emphasis on abstraction[sfx]. Simplistic forms, hard lighting, and geometry. Minimal yet poetic visuals that in their lucidity work in revealing the deeper emotions of the characters.
There’s no furniture in Macbeth’s castle, not much anyways. Flat barren stonewalls reach upwards towards impossibly high open ceilings. Painted backdrops give us illusionary glances into the empty voids of implied rooms and Scottish lands abound. Curved monolithic archways give way to large volumes of light pouring over the cobblestone pathways. It’s in this design that Coen, DP Bruno Delbonnel, and Production Designer Stefan Dechant sought to preserve the artifice of theater. Conceptualizing both interiors and exteriors in their most simplest forms possible, as is often the case in more abstract drama. “Not a castle but the idea of a castle” We immediately understand that the setting is not a realistic lived in space, it’s a place to perform, and perform they do.
As an aside we know this concept of abstraction from other forms of art, mainly painting and sculpture. The use of often simplistic lines, colors, forms, and gestural marks in a way that untetheres us from realistic depictions and the overwhelming detail of the material world. In this case it’s not a complete abstraction, only partially, the forms are still recognizable. In Macbeth this abstraction augments the terrain, you might expect rolling green pastures and staggering rocky cliffs overlooking expansive ocean bays, or hefty medieval halls adorned with decorative ornamentation and regal opulence. Instead the environments in The Tragedy are desolate, flat, 2 dimensional, and uninviting, yet still mesmerizing in their profound beauty..
Despite their simplicity you can tell that painstaking work went into crafting this film’s world. Working on a tight deadline to produce 33 sets in 10 weeks, production designer Dechant used a mix of hand drawings and 3d renderings to sketch out the vision that Coen saw within his mind’s eye. The end result are images that are just as striking as the finished product while still retaining that theatrical abstraction and presentation when come to life.
If it looks like this was shot on a soundstage that’s because it was. The massive crossroads exterior shot on stage 16 at warners stretches to about 30,000 feet long. It’s here that they were able to build a landscape with the feeling of Scotland, if it were transported to an ominous nebulous void that is
Another thing to note about the visuals is Delbonnel’s use of vague, often unjustified lighting, creating the effect of scenes that look like they could be happening at either day or night which becomes rather intriguing as a narrative element. We see Macbeth’s character constantly wrestling between light and shadow, it’s as wavering as his conviction is, as artificial. Shooting on sound stages allowed them to control this variable of light as well as the use of large volumes for interior scenes. Walls and furniture on wheels that they were able to push in and out of frame to create the staging they needed to craft such evocative striking images. This along with the overwhelming presence of fog in the exterior scenes adds to this mystical untethered from reality look. This abstract portrayal of Scotland, removed from time or even place. It frames the conflict as one that’s taking place within the minds of the characters themselves, as tormented and distraught from the ensuing grief as they are.
It’s sobering, really. The interiors especially feel both empty but also immensely monumental. Their staggering stature weighing heavily on the shoulders of Macbeth, amplifying his moment of troubled contemplation before the deed, and his ensuing all-consuming anguish after. It’s this stark simplistic beauty of the world design that fades into the background allowing Shakespeare's detailed textual beauty to shine in all of its profound glory.
As much as this movie leans on the drama of theater to construct its world, it borrows from a number of cinematic influences as well. Black and white films from Sunrise, to Night of the Hunter to Gunnar Fischer’s cinematography in the Seventh Seal, they all served as heavy visual references for Coen and Delbonnel during the early production stages. One of the greatest examples being Joan of Arc which the Tragedy also borrows its academy aspect ratio from. A ratio whose impact is felt most during the film’s many closeups.
It’s through closeups that the artificiality of the sets disappears and the text, through way of the face, is brought to the forefront. Closeups obviously don’t exist in theater, so in this film they serve to reinforce Coen’s point of view, his desire to keep the language of cinema contained within the walls of a theatrical story. It’s the place where the drama becomes even more dramatic.
Another visually obvious technique you’d be hard pressed to find in theater is the use of black of white. Which aids in this abstract portrayal, adding layers of darkness to the details. One thing to note about color vs black and white for a film like this is that in color you begin to see the limitations of such minimal empty sets, in black and white those limits become textural in nature, Add depth with their inclusion. [the sets themselves were in black and white. Allowing the actors to be transported to that same ominous void as we are] You see there’s quite a bit of artifice in the cinematic as well.
It’s the summation of these details that really makes The Tragedy of Macbeth feel so powerful to me. The color, the aspect ratio, the abstraction of imagery, it’s quite an impressive visual feast, one that as I mentioned before blurs the lines between the theatrical and the cinematic. One that can really only be achieved if you have a clear visual goal from the onset. It’s in films like the Tragedy of Macbeth that I’m reminded how modern audiences still are aching for dramatic powerful stories. And when it comes to Shakespeare there’s more than plenty. Coen’s lens, with the help of his friends highlights the drama that’s already there, and how much of what we consider beautiful in cinema and theater is shaped by the many influences and inspirations that came before. They don’t make many films like The Tragedy of Macbeth often so when they do the best thing that you can do, that I can do anyways, is stand in awe and fully appreciate them.
Mind Theater is a solo effort produced and written by me, Ayo Akingbade. For updates on the show as well as my other content follow mindtheaterpod on twitter, IG, and tiktok. If you wanna show monetary support, the ko-fi link is in the shownotes. Thanks for listening. I’ll catch ya next time.