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Making Macbeth: Week Two

By Will Haydon | 25th June 2015

“A production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth”? “A version…”? “An adaptation…”? “Based on…?” How films signal their mediatory influence in the process of getting Shakespeare on the big screen can speak volumes, even folios, about the direction in which they’re taking the play.

One extreme could be the 1979 RSC Macbeth directed by Trevor Nunn as a play and Philip Casson as a TV movie, but giving neither much prominence on title credits or marketing materials; and this fits well with the skeletal, back-to-basics approach of this production. On the other side we could have Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, which famously forgets to make reference at any point to its heavy Shakespearean debt, and this too suits the film’s radical digestion and reproduction of Shakespearean script and setting.

Thomas, Kit and first Assistant Director Paul mull over their last take. (all photography by Ben Bentley)

Thomas, Kit and first Assistant Director Paul mull over their last take. (all photography by Ben Bentley)

The GSP team isn’t at the title-card or marketing-material stage just yet, but initial evidence suggests they’re opting for something of a middle way: acknowledging Shakespeare’s founding position as masterful storyteller, thanking him for getting the ball rolling, then declaring their fresh revisioning of the play. Take the front page of the script, which clearly states its point of origin, but presents its adaptor and co-adaptors with no less prominence:

Film script

Film script

And each creative player behind GSP’s Arri Alexa camera instinctively inhabits this mode of balancing fealty and irreverence. Kit, directing, spoke to One&Other about the weight of audience expectations for the crucial Macbeth moments (see the above clip), and about confounding these expectations with a simple and beautiful, rather than self-consciously novel, interpretative style.

Producer Thomas Mattinson says one of the main reasons for picking Macbeth was that they know “there’s a story there that works”, a prerequisite for a film in which the mode of storytelling will transfix as much as the story itself. And Judith, the Shakespearean scholar, who (as in the filmed interview, above) can probably speak feelingly about any one of Macbeth’s 2453 original lines, told One&Other about the necessity of decisive cutting in the film version.

Script changes

Script changes

The adaptation process doesn’t end at the script, of course, and we’ve had the chance to watch as crew and cast alike leave their fingerprints on the production. In the first week of shooting Mark and Akiya got through most of their Macbeth and Lady Macbeth scenes, moments intense enough in their rightful position in the play, but which when filmed one on top of another gave us all – the two leads, the crew, observing bloggers – a mild case of heat-oppressed brain.

This week, the rest of the cast began flooding in, including Al Weaver as Banquo and Kian Conroy as Fleance. On Tuesday they played the brief and touching father-son exchange that precedes Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger…” scene. Theirs could be the most unsullied relationship in the play – at least, Shakespeare’s scant characterisation of Fleance often encourages such an interpretation, and in Kit’s original script the boy is smiling and vacant.

Kit Monkman giving notes to Kian (Fleance, front), Al (Banquo, right) and Mark (Macbeth, back)

Kit Monkman giving notes to Kian (Fleance, front), Al (Banquo, right) and Mark (Macbeth, back)

But no text is ever finished, least of all a film script, and somewhere along the creative journey to performance a new idea gets floated. In the latest version, Fleance now uses a kid-sized dagger to carve out his destiny in a piece of wood while his father blithely ruminates on his cursed thoughts; then Macbeth arrives and takes Banquo aside to discreetly discuss witchy matters, and all the while a disinterested Fleance sharpens his dagger behind them.

Such is the nature of the filming process: despite the best efforts of the adaptors beforehand, new conceptions and reconceptions inevitably arise on the day. It’s to the credit of the GSP team that despite a pretty watertight schedule and a demanding set of daily responsibilities, they’re flexible enough to enjoy the fruits of eleventh-hour sparks.

Thomas Mattinson keeping an eye on the watertight schedule.

Thomas Mattinson keeping an eye on the watertight schedule.

NEXT WEEK: In a marked contrast to the relatively unpeopled green screen room we’ve been used to – with any given scene involving four cast members, tops – next week the set will be jam-packed, as scenes at Duncan’s court and at Inverness castle are shot. With the bustle of crew and cast the set heats up quickly; fingers crossed for cool weather, or “sticking place” will take on an entirely new meaning.

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