Paul Risker chats with Lady Macbeth director William Oldroyd…
From the theatre and opera stage, director William Oldroyd has emerged as a filmmaking talent, named BAFTA’S ‘Brit to watch’ in 2016. His theatre work comprises adaptations of the works of Sartre, Beckett and Shakespeare, while his opera credits include work in Portugal as well as for English Touring Opera. If film is an offshoot of other art forms, Oldroyd’s pursuit of creative expression places the emergence of the cinematic craft at the heart of his creative identity.
Lady Macbeth, written by Alice Birch and directed by Oldroyd is an adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1865). It tells the plight of the young newlywed Katherine (Florence Pugh) whose loveless marriage leads her into a forbidden and adulterous love affair with groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), and on down that most treacherous path of murder.
In conversation with Flickering Myth, the filmmaker discussed the process of transitioning into film and the challenges of learning the cinematic language. He also reflected on the process of developing a trust with his actors, the reliance of editing upon the shoot, telling a morally complex tale centred upon entrapment and his desire for the film to provoke an ongoing discussion.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I think it began at art college. I first picked up a camera not to tell stories, but as another tool with which to experiment abstractedly with moving image. After I left art college I became a stage director, so I was working more directly with actors and creating scene or stage pictures I suppose. But I always felt filmmaking or the camera was unfinished business, and when I found a scene in a play which I thought might be quite interesting to shoot as a short film, I picked up the camera again and tried to teach myself how to use it. But not just how to turn it on, but where to put it and why? And that was the hardest part for me, making the move from theatre to film.
Filmmaker Alfonso Gomez-Rejon told me: “The medium and the mystery of the process is that I could wake up one day and not know where to put the camera. Not that I know where to put the camera now, but you walk in with a certain sense.” How has your own understanding of the placement of the camera or rather use of the cinematic language evolved?
When we were editing my first short film, I realised that why it didn’t feel cinematic was mainly because I had shot it from roughly the angle I would have seen it from if I were watching it in the theatre. So it was in quite a wide shot from one position. It wasn’t just that, there were a few other shots too, but ultimately it did feel like film theatre because I was so used to watching something from the auditorium. And when you direct a play you essentially allow the audience to self edit. They choose where to look on the stage and the biggest challenge to me was that the director of a film, which was my job, had to choose where the audience looks and why. Once I started to think about that I realised you could put the camera anywhere in the room, and there were many different interpretations which would give different results. So it’s actually quite an arduous process, refining it, distilling it and focusing on what do we need to see, and why do we need to see it?
Cinema requires the actors to place their performances in your hands as the director, whereas in theatre they have a greater degree of authorial control.
Yes, and I think that’s where trust comes in because an actor needs to be able to trust a director, trust that they’re not going to abuse that relationship or humiliate them in some way. Where the actor actually has the control is what they can produce on set in the shoot – you can only work with what you capture on camera, and there’s only so far the manipulation can go in the edit. So my job I felt was to parrot the actors through rehearsal and then on the set to be free enough to try out lots of different things, to be experimental and playful, and for them to give their best performance there. And of course then they would not be afraid that I was ever going to abuse that when we came to edit the film.
There is a perspective amongst filmmakers that there are three versions of the script – the script that is written, the script that is shot and the script that is edited. Do you agree and is the process one of discovery leading up to the final cut?
Yes, that’s what I found when I was making this film. But you can only edit what you capture on the day. In editing you are bringing in sound, which creates a very different story or can change it. If you want to keep your takes quite long or your cuts quite simple, then you’d have to rely on having a good performance from the actor, otherwise it’s a repair job in the edit, and you never want to feel constrained in the edit. You want to feel that you’ve got many options, so you are not being dictated to as to where you have to cut because of performance – you cut because you want to cut at that point, knowing that the performance is good.
Filmmakers will often remark that editing is the best training ground for a director. From the initial understanding of the freedom to place the camera anywhere, how have your experiences of editing helped you to understand the language of cinema?
Before I made a film I thought that coverage was a dirty word, the idea that coverage meant that you didn’t know what you were trying to shoot – you were getting it from every angle so you could edit it later on when you had a lot more time. We had fourteen weeks to edit, but we had only twenty-four days to shoot. I now realise that coverage is not that, it’s about giving you useful options if you need to change the pace, the tone or the story. It’s not about not knowing what you are doing on the shoot days, it’s about having an insurance so that if you do want to try an idea in the edit, then you can. What I’ve also learned is that it’s so valuable to have the editor on set because we were able to watch the rushes everyday. He was also able to assemble our film as we went so we could assess whether we needed to pick up any extra shots or reshoot scenes in the last week.
Thinking about the aesthetic, the film has a deliberately slow pace, the action in front of the camera permitted to exist without the intrusion of the edit.
Well that was my intention. I really wanted to focus on performance and place the actors at the centre of the action. And as I said before to not rely on the cut. I think it came from a piece of advice I was given as we prepared to make the film, which is someone who knew we only had twenty-four days, and it would be a tight shoot with about a hundred pages of script, said to me: “Why don’t you just think about how you would shoot the scene if you could only do it in one shot, and then think about what other two or three shots you would need to make sure that you were covered in order to tell the story?” And that became a really important exercise for me because I was then thinking about how I could tell the story in one shot. There was the foreground, mid-ground and background, then bring actors into focus and out, and you obviously then find those close-ups or wide shots to focus the story or show an idea.
Carl Theodor Dreyer remarked that unlike silent film, sound cinema would not be as reliant on the frequency of cuts to create pace. The tendency towards excessive edits by modern filmmakers however works in opposition to Dreyer’s prediction.
We were editing on a reasonably good-sized monitor and then when we had our screenings for our financiers and execs, we screened it in the cinema. So working with the editor I would sit in the edit and I say: “Come on, we can hold this shot longer. This is going a bit quick, it feels a bit cutty.” And he’d say: “Well hang on. Wait until you see it on the big screen” because we were absolutely making this film to be seen in the cinema. When we watched it the pacing was absolutely spot on and think it must be something to do with the way the eye can take in information. If it’s on a bigger screen you can take information in faster than on a smaller screen, and it really made me think about the difference between editing for the big screen and the small screen. I found that very interesting.
The themes of the film are laid bare – characters doomed to suffer, whose desires propel them down treacherous paths. Katherine is emblematic of the inescapable circumstances of an individual’s human experience, although entrapment envelopes all of the characters to varying degrees.
For Katherine it’s made worse by the fact that because the film is set in 1865, she was the property of her husband. It was only with the Married Women’s Equality Act of 1870 that women stopped becoming the properties of their husbands, and could even own property. So we think of freedom now and when we are in a difficult situation there seems to always be an escape route. But for Katherine that was really limited and I hope that helps us to understand why she follows the path that she does. She’s isolated in terms of the geography, isolated in terms of her relationships and she can’t see any other way out, and that was something we wanted to explore fully in the film.
Everyone in the film is trapped in some way. Alexander is trapped by his relationship with his father, Anna is trapped by her circumstance, although in some ways she’s freer than Katherine because she’s allowed to go outside for example and develop friendships with the other servants. Sebastian is trapped by circumstance, by not being able to earn a proper living and the fact that he will always remain in servitude until he gets the opportunity to move into the big house with Katherine. So it is really about entrapment for everyone in this film and not just Katherine.
With this comes the importance to thoughtfully consider the morality of their actions. While it is easy to define characters as good or evil, Lady Macbeth is a morally complex film that requires us to consider their actions not according to our present, but by the time it is set. It could be described as a film that challenges our ability for moral interpretation.
I think you are absolutely right and we really wanted an audience to decide for themselves rather than by clearly saying. It was screenwriter Alice Birch’s great success to create morally complex characters. You root for Katherine in one moment and in the next minute you are appalled, and that’s very interesting that we are asked to make a judgement for ourselves. I also think that by for example showing the murder at the end in full I’m not shying away from the horror. We don’t present Katherine more emphatically. It should be a horrendous thing to watch and of course it is, and so the audience is then asked would they support Katherine in this moment or would they not? And I think we found that the audience at the end of the film is split. There are some that feels what she does is necessary, while some feel it went too far.
I always want the audience to be a participant in the film. And to feel that all ends are tied up and all answers are given, and then you can go away and it’s complete, it should continue after the cinema experience into a much wider discussion. Well they are certainly the films I have enjoyed, those that raise a question and ask you to find an answer for yourself.
Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling she explained: “You take it 90% of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” And if the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?
Yes absolutely! It’s made for them and it’s made in such a way that it asks the audience for intelligence and integrity. I think any cinema experience that feels like it’s dumbing down for me is not worthwhile and what we’ve found as we’ve taken the film on the road, people have drawn things out of the film I haven’t even seen, which is just as valid as what I had proposed. But I think interpretation is everything.
Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
In terms of making it yes, absolutely! I know far more now about filmmaking than I did before this. I think you can read as many books as you want and you can talk to filmmakers, you can do online tutorials, but you can only learn as a director by making the thing. And I couldn’t prepare for that. I think all art should be transformative in some way, and all art is transformative. It’s a noble ambition that you want people to feel that having witnessed or experienced whatever it is, for there to be some sort of change.
Lady Macbeth arrives in UK cinemas on April 28th.
Many thanks to William Oldroyd for taking the time for this interview.