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Joel Coen Teases His McDormand-Washington ‘Macbeth’ Film as ‘Ticking-Clock’ Thriller

The film, officially titled "The Tragedy of Macbeth," stars Denzel Washington in the title role and has the backing of A24.

Francs McDormand and Denzel Washington play the leads in “The Tragedy of Macbeth”

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Joel Coen is going solo for his next movie, leaving behind his Oscar-winning partnership with brother Ethan Coen to handle the next big screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” Backed by A24, Joel Coen’s “Macbeth” is now officially titled “The Tragedy of Macbeth” and pairs Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand together for what is surely one of the most anticipated dramas now in development. Coen and McDormand recently participated in an Instagram live discussion (via Film Stage) and dropped first details about the project, which Coen decided to tackle solo after previously rejecting McDormand’s pitch years earlier to direct her in a stage adaptation of the Shakespeare play. McDormand and Joel Coen have been married since 1984 and she has starred in numerous films directed by the Coen brothers, winning her first Oscar for “Fargo.”

“I think a very important thing about Joel’s adaptation is that we are not calling it ‘Macbeth,'” McDormand said. “We’re calling it ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth,’ which I think is an important distinction. In Joel’s adaptation, we are exploring the age of the characters and in our adaptation the Macbeths are older. Both Denzel and I are older than what is often cast as the Macbeths. We’re postmenopausal, we’re past childbearing age. So that puts a pressure on their ambition to have the crown. I think the most important distinction is that it is their last chance for glory.”

McDormand added that it’s “very important” for her performance that Lady Macbeth never had a child. “But there have been many pregnancies and perhaps children born that have died either in stillbirth or very young,” she said. “I think that it is her personal tragedy that fuels her ambition to give her husband the crown because she has not been able to give him an heir. For me, that is the essence of the character.”

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By setting the film around the Macbeth couple in their 60s, Coen and McDormand said it adds a “ticking-clock” element to the story and reconfigures the drama as a thriller movie. “It puts a very specific time pressure on the characters, but also on the storytelling, which I think is the real brilliance of the adaptation that Joel has done,” McDormand said. “There’s a real suspense. “The time is running out not only for the characters, but also it propels the storytelling.”

“Yes, [it can be considered a thriller],” Coen added. “I think that is something that I’ve always sort of felt when watching the play and also something that became more clear and more interesting to me as I was getting into it and doing the adaptation. It’s interesting how Shakespeare sort of pre-figured certain tropes in American thriller and crime literature that were common in the early part of the 20th century.”

Coen said he’d be taking the “ticking-clock” nature of his adaptation and infusing it into the music of the film. “The Tragedy of Macbeth” will be scored by Carter Burwell, a longtime collaborator for the Coen brothers. The director said he is using 85% of the language from Shakespeare’s play, and even the dialogue has a time element to it since Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter.

“The music, whatever it wants to be, wants to be something which is largely percussive and time-keeping,” Coen said of the score Burwell will compose. “Beyond that, which is a very abstract way of thinking about it, nothing is concrete yet.”

A24 has not yet announced a release date for “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” Head over to The Film Stage to read more highlights from Coen and McDormand’s discussion.

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