How ‘Macbeth’ Sparse Design Brings Shakespeare to the Foreground

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The biggest challenge for production designer Stefan Dechant in bringing Joel Coen’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” to screen was finding the right tone. Early conversations with Oscar-winning director and film director Bruno Delbonnel described a visual grammar that included sparse but moody sets designed to accommodate the camera.

“Joel had a vision from day one and didn’t want to recreate an authentic period piece,” Dechant explains. “He and Bruno collected images and one of the first images that was shown to me was that of photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. It had that artistic blur and was completely abstract. Joel said: ‘I think it’s infamous.’ “The trio discussed a number of references from German expressionist cinema to English director and set designer Edward Gordon Craig, who is known to create shapes and forms simple to compensate for actors and lighting in the theater.

The motivation for the designs was a rich monochromatic palette where Dechant digitally sketched the sets during prep to better understand what worked visually before the art department built the physical pieces for the soundstage. “Once the decision was made to shoot in black and white, anything that stood in the way of dialogue was avoided,” explains Delbonnel, a five-time Oscar nominee.

With that in mind, the production designer and cinematographer considered the film’s aesthetic to be haiku-like by keeping it simple and avoiding any visual distraction in the scenes while adding enough emotional weight to carry the film. story. Dechant created textures in the sets to add subliminally to the black and white images. “All the sets have gradients or shadows painted on them,” he explains. “Some decors are completely black and the arches have darker tones painted underneath. It was quite a way to accentuate shapes and forms with the help of paint.

To illuminate the stages, Delbonnel deployed concert-style lights which allowed him to create contrasts. “With my gaffer Michael Bauman, we invested in lights that would give us a hard edge and hard shadows. We controlled them via a computer so that we could zoom in or darken them to give us the exact look we were looking for, ”explains the cinematographer.

The framing was also key to the intimate story, one where Denzel Washington plays Lord Macbeth with Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth. One of the first images we see of Macbeth is of him walking through a field of fog and he stops in an extreme close-up of his face. “We wanted something really strong here,” explains Delbonnel. “It comes to you as an audience and we end up on this close-up as kind of a statement. That’s why we chose the Academy format because a close-up fills the frame.

With tighter shots, the Shakespearean lines become more powerful and we can look them in the eye. Other times, for example, when Lady Macbeth is seen more as a tyrant, there is a scene where she walks up a flight of stairs and Delbonnel tilts the camera slightly at a symmetrical Dutch angle to add to her character’s uneasiness.

The production shot for 35 days in Los Angeles, where Coen devised detailed shotlists for the scenes. “Joel is an incredible director and has his own language,” says Delbonnel. “It’s all scripted and he’s not doing a cover. The scenes were built around specific lines and close-ups, because if the line was important, he didn’t want to lose it. One of those essential moments takes place at night in the steeple where Lord and Lady Macbeth discuss their future plans. The director grabbed McDormand’s face, separated by a dark background to bring the veracity of what she said onscreen closer.

Other moments played on the psychosis of the tragedy – a fixed room being a long hallway with a door at the end with a dagger for a knob. Lord Macbeth passes there several times because it acts as a metaphor for his perilous journey. “It was a critical design element for the story,” Dechant explains. “By week 2 we had it recorded on stage and we were able to find the rhythm to see how long it had to last. The directing, the cinematography and the choreography were so intertwined and unlike anything I had done before. “

Light and shadow had a vital place in the sequences and Delbonnel worked closely with Dechant to shape the light in a rhythmic manner to match Lord Macbeth’s acting and emotional state.

“In terms of the look, we tried to provide a sort of musical score. It’s a big gray palette with very strong black and white images where it’s not pure white or pure black, but a kind of contrast. It’s a palette of gray and nothing else, ”says Delbonnel. “So we tried to follow the musicality of Shakespeare’s verses. When Shakespeare goes from pure monologue to iambic pentameter, we wanted to find a way to emphasize it and show it to the audience without killing the image. So the visuals are a tribute to the English language in many ways and we tried to support that idea. “

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