Four years after debuting his first feature film, “The Snowtown Murders,” at the Cannes Film Festival, Australian director Justin Kurzel returned over the weekend to the event to premiere his follow-up, “Macbeth,” in the main competition. His brutal and robustly acted Shakespeare adaptation marks a huge leap for the filmmaker, whose “Snowtown Murders” was a similarly violent but much smaller film starring a mostly unknown cast. “Macbeth,” shot on location in Scotland, comes from mega-producer Harvey Weinstein and stars two of the biggest actors working in film today, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard.
Before its premiere on the Croisette, Indiewire sat down with Kurzel to find out why “Macbeth” appealed to him and what it was like to direct his incredible cast.
From Cannes Critics’ Week to the competing for the Palme d’Or is quite the leap. What went through your head when you learned that “Macbeth” had been accepted into the main competition?
Just pride. It’s always been the Mecca to me. I came here with my short film, staying in an apartment 30 minutes down the road with five other people. “Snowtown” was my first film, and [I remember] the nervousness of just that playing and experiencing watching a film for the first time with an audience. So I love the history of this place and I love the culture, and I feel incredibly privileged to be in competition. It’s really important — really, really important, especially for a director. To be here with a piece that is familiar, that people have seen “Macbeth” in its many forms, and the fact that it’s a piece that’s got its own swagger, I think it’s really exciting.
About taking on a piece that has its own swagger, did you take this on to surprise people with the vision you wanted to bring to it?
It was pretty organic. I was on another film at the time which fell through, and Michael [Fassbender] and I had met after he saw “Snowtown,” and we discussed working together. It was a perfect storm: they came to me with the adaptation, and they mentioned Michael was attached, and that to me was the most interesting. Michael completely set a tone to the film that I thought was really fresh. I read the script and it really read like a Western, and it was embracing a kind of landscape, and the brutality of a world that I think fed into a different way in which the characters were wired, especially that relationship between those two. The ambitions seemed to come out much more of a place of grief or loss, and much more to fill something, or replace something, as opposed to the hunger for power. That felt very human, and it felt very interesting to me. I could see how that could bubble away with an actor like Michael and Marion [Cotillard], so I got quite excited by how they were positioned at the beginning of the film.
There’s this classic car crash thing about “Macbeth.” You can just see this car driving at 100 mph towards this brick wall, and you can’t do anything about it, and the characters are desperately trying to stop it and can’t. I was watching a lot of “Breaking Bad” and, it was really interesting, it had a similar character who had a similar feel about him. You knew it was going to end poorly, but you just couldn’t take your eyes off it. So I think the idea of characters dismantling themselves in that way has always intrigued me. In a sense, “Snowtown” was a little like that too. I think it was giving in to a kind of evil, being liberated by violence in some kind of sense that intrigued me.
Violence is obviously something that intrigues you as a filmmaker, having seen “Snowtown” and this. What is it about violence [and its ramifications] that fascinates you?
I’m interested in how it defines people; I’m interested in how people use it to fill something that’s not in their lives. And I think that Macbeth is born out of a world of violence: he’s a warrior, he’s been surrounded by it, a part of it. The idea that he almost becomes liberated through it, especially with the murder of Duncan, and sinks into it, finds a kind of peace in it, was really interesting to me. I think that, usually, the guilt is played really heavily in the play; I think the idea of a man who is upended by that guilt is really strong, but I also felt there was something about this screenplay, and there was something about the point of view of Macbeth — where the violence, in a way, gave him freedom, and he got lost in it and couldn’t get himself out of the darkness of the forest. When Lady Macbeth looks at him in “scorpions of my mind,” she sees a point of no return. That’s what’s so tragic — she can no longer rescue him. So I’m interested in how people justify violence, I’m interested in how they use it, and how they find a normality in it. I find that, when that happens, to be devastating, and it definitely interested me in the film. And a lot of that had to do with the Western thing about it, where you feel it’s an environment that has borne tragic people because it’s completely corrupted by violence.
Why “Macbeth,” why now?
There’s just something so desperate in him. Also, a lot of it is about family, and two characters who are desperately trying to replace family, and everything around them reminds them of what they don’t have. I think that that is such an interesting and universal thing. I lost my father, and went into a process of grief with it that was all about how to replace that grief, how to fill it, and I think there was something very desperate in the way that I was replacing it. We all want to belong to something and we all want to feel as though we have a legacy, and when you see two characters that have had that taken away from them, I think that just feels very real and very human. And there’s something about that play, I think that’s why people love going to see it and why it’s done so many times. I think there’s a desperation about it that just connects in an everyday way.
How many times had you seen it prior to taking this on?
I designed it! I was a production designer and I actually designed it.
Yes, and then my wife, who’s an actress, was playing Lady Macbeth, and I’ve seen many productions of it in various “goods” and “bads.” You can’t help but be affected by the baggage of it, but in some sense it’s good because you have to be truthful to the process you’re going through, and respond and react to what is interesting in your world.
I was very excited by Scotland; I was very excited by that landscape; I was very excited by bringing a cinema to that piece, and how, at times, that verse, the prose, feels almost conversational, really intimate. Sometimes it felt like scenes out of “Goodfellas.” It does have this incredible intimacy about it and then this kind of broadness, and I think that dance between — how do you find an intimacy with this verse? How do you bring a camera that close and allow the verse to feel more confessional and more of a whisper, feel like it’s almost being said for the first time? That drove a real way of approaching them.
What went into your vision for this “Macbeth” adaptation?
Everything felt as though it was being driven by the characters, so the costumes felt as though they were being made by them, and you could feel the stitching and the texture. The crown was made of bone. The world felt organic and brutal and natural — I guess like a Western — and, somehow, the landscape informed the characters, and continually reminded them of how small they were. It was very organic, it came from just trying to be faithful to the place, and doing this verse in all exterior locations and allowing the natural elements to feed into the poetry in a really visceral way. That was the key to it all, even in the music. I think that once we established that it was going to come from a place, and that place was going to be brutal and it could feel almost like it was out of a Cormac McCarthy book, it dictated everything.
Someone told me that the shooting of this film was not easy, that you had the worst weather in that location for I don’t know how many years. And you shot for how long?
We shot for six weeks.
Pretty short shoot for such a big film. Most of it was set outdoors — was this hell to make?
It was really though. It was in the worst winter that the UK had had in many years. Marion fell through a bog, it was bitterly, bitterly cold. You know, Michael was in a nighty up until freezing conditions… it was just unrelenting. And him coming out of the lake — it was incredibly brave what he did. But I think there was a visceral nature to all that, and the hardness of it went on screen. I think that’s what’s really important in the film, is that it is robust and it is muscular, and I think a lot of that comes from the landscape and the unforgiving nature of it. That’s the beauty about doing it as a piece of cinema and shooting it there in Scotland; you believe that supernatural things happen there, the landscape is intimidating, really. Coming from Australia, I was really interested in that because the landscapes in Australia are just as intimidating in terms of the space and vastness of them and how brutal it is. I’m always fascinated by that, how environment manipulates character.
So you’re not planning to shoot your next film on a green screen just to get away from all this?
[laughs] I’m not sure. I’m not sure. I’m doing “Assassin’s Creed,” there’s a bit of green screen in that.
I’m not going to pretend to know what that is other than… it’s a video game? I’m not a big video game player.
Yes, it’s a video game, and it’s very interesting. Ubisoft released it, and it’s got 95 million players, and it’s really meaty. The themes and the ideas in it are really interesting and strong. It’s all based on real historical events and I’m very excited about it.
And Marion and Michael are both in that, so I guess they had a good time making this despite the harsh conditions.
We all had a good time! I love that, I love the idea that we can continue to work together and want to. It’s going to be completely different from “Macbeth,” it’s going to be a completely different thing, but I always do things that scare me at first, so this one definitely does.
About the cast — you worked with some unknowns on “Snowtown,” and on this one you worked with two of the most revered actors of our time. What prepared you for directing these two titans? Did you feel wholly ready and capable to handle them?
Look, it was pretty amazing. They are kind of these incredible thoroughbreds, they are like this incredible Formula 1 car — you direct by fractions because they are so precise and so extraordinary. It was a big learning curve for me to trust new actors, but they’re very instinctive, you know. Both of them are super, super prepared. They’re incredible listeners to each other, they’re so interested in the moment, they’re so interested in something never being repeated: there and then on that day only this could happen. I’ve always found it the most interesting thing and the thing I feel most passionate about in filmmaking, is directing actors, and that moment between “action” and “cut,” because you can’t ever get it back. And the tension of doing a take creates really interesting things, so they never come in with premeditated ideas about what they’re going to do, they’re extremely open to whatever is going to present itself, but, most importantly, they just connect. They’re just incredible listeners to each other, and that was pretty amazing to witness and be part of.
So Michael, obviously, was attached when you came on board, but Marion — what went into the idea behind that choice?
Well, we’re all just huge fans of Marion. There’s something very beautifully human about her, and there was something, I thought, really interesting about what she would bring to what, at times, has been played in a very one-dimensional way in terms of the moustache-twirling. I think that we’re interested in the idea of motherhood in her. We’re interested in the idea of a kind of fragility in her and a desperation in her. There’s just something so human about her; there’s an empathy that I think she brings to most of her roles that is always engaging and really fresh. And I think it was the exoticness of her and her being in that world of these pretty strong, muscular men, and the sophistication that she brought to that tough world and male world. I thought she would bring, and did bring, an amazing dignity to that character. It’s very easy, I think, for Lady Macbeth to become hysterical, especially with her descent into her madness, and I thought Marion could bring something, again, much more human to that descent.