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‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’: How Joel Coen Used German Expressionism to Create a Noir World for Shakespeare

Director Coen presented production designer Stefan Dechant with references from "The Passion of Joan of Arc," "Sunrise," and "The Night of the Hunter."

The Tragedy of Macbeth

“The Tragedy of Macbeth”

Apple/A24

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When production designer Stefan Dechant (Disney’s upcoming hybrid “Pinocchio”) got a surprise call to meet with Joel Coen on the spur of the moment to discuss “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” his noir-like Shakespeare adaptation of murder, madness, and mayhem, starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, Dechant was immediately hooked.

The look and design were explicitly laid out in a photo album that Coen shared with Dechant, after the director spent a year refining his black-and-white vision with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. It cried out German Expressionism, with images from movies (“Siegfried,” “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” “Sunrise,” “The Night of the Hunter”), architecture (Casa Luis Barragan in Mexico City, with its square tower with two very black walls), photography (Hiroshi Sugimoto’s monochromatic, soft focus impression of the Barragan house), and theater (modernist stage designer Edward Gordon Craig’s use of large geometric blocks). Inspired by the blueprint, the production designer went to work on the very spare Shakespearean world building, shot on sound stages in L.A.

“When we sat down, Joel had a very strong vision [for the look and choreography]: black-and-white, Academy ratio [1.37:1], German Expressionism, and it was abstracted so he was embracing the theatrical but you’re never denying the cinematic,” Dechant said. It was a visual design that expressed Macbeth’s troubled state of mind after conspiring with his wife to murder King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) and seize the Scottish throne. The sets, therefore, were carved out of light and shadow to accommodate Delbonnel’s lighting scheme. Plus, the arches were built on wheels and moved for the camera to create a sense of madness.

The Tragedy of Macbeth

“The Tragedy of Macbeth”

Courtesy of Apple

“You’re reflecting the text as imagery and Joel had it all organized,” added Dechant. “He talked about Inverness [where Macbeth lives] as the impression of a castle. This was always about block shapes. This is where Casa Luis Barragan came in and we looked at the simplicity of the castles in [Fritz Lang’s] ‘Siegfried.’ Then he talked about Dunsinane, which is the seat of the throne, as the place where you bring in this verticality. The stairs in Inverness had the same layout as Dunsinane. That was intentional and was also a part of the psychology of Macbeth. Then, woven through all that is repeating imagery from the original text: birds, blood, night.

“We talked about Murnau and creating an artificial environment, so we looked at the lake and marshes in ‘Sunrise’ as a touchstone that influenced the grasses along the ruins. And ‘Night of the Hunter’ because Charles Laughton [as director] did a similar thing: He’s looking at [D.W.] Griffith and then abstracting the night scenes with the twinkling stars. Those became the stars behind Duncan. I did some illustrations of the ruins and to me they were too real so I went further into that Laughton world. [‘The Passion of Joan or Arc’ director] Carl Dreyer was always about how much you can remove and have the actor there.”

The Tragedy of Macbeth

“The Tragedy of Macbeth”

Courtesy of Apple

The sets were large and built in sections and put together during the shoot, and the production designer relied on matte paintings fill in the environments. To him, it was a direct throwback to the multi-plane ingenuity of “Citizen Kane.” But they had to move quickly: The sand on the beach with the three witches (played by Kathryn Hunter) in the opening quickly gave way to the Birnham Wood forest recreation in Dunsinane, which spells doom for Macbeth. This scene was particularly tricky.

“In the throne room, those columns are the same distance as the trees in Birnham Wood,” Dechant said. “They’re laid out in a way that’s a reflection of the alley of trees. So when Birnham Wood comes to Dunsinane, the doors open up, the leaves come in and flood the floor. Originally that was going to be it. But it was Bruno who had the brilliant idea of bringing in the forest. So then we brought in the matte painting along the sides.”

The Tragedy of Macbeth

“The Tragedy of Macbeth”

Courtesy of Apple

Another design highlight was the return of the witches, which further seals Macbeth’s tragic fate. “When the apparitions appear a second time, they sit on the wood beams on the ceiling and there’s only a carafe, a little potion, and a glass [on the set],” Dechant said. “And the space accentuates the emptiness of Macbeth’s life during this ordeal.”

The last scene with a rider returning to Scotland to fulfill the witches’ final prophecy was shot at an L.A. ranch and composited into a densely woven environment with the aid of a matte painting and VFX. “We worked on that last shot for three months,” added Dechant. “The matte painting was iterated. We shot a plate with the rider coming down. And when Joel decided to break that camera move and go even further, it became its own thing. Bruno came up with the idea of the clouds coming across the grasses, and we used ‘Citizen Kane’-style multi-plane matte paintings. Then it came together.”

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