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William Oldroyd on Crafting His Debut ‘Lady Macbeth’ and the Mastery of Michael Haneke

Written by on July 13, 2017 

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One of the most accomplished directorial debuts of the year so far is Lady Macbeth, hailing from stage director William Oldroyd, who also previously won a Sundance award for his short film Best. Based on the Nikolai Leskov novel, the story finds a woman (Florence Pugh, in a star-making turn) who yearns for freedom from her dead marriage and begins an affair, one that brings horrific consequences.

Following the NDNF premiere of the film earlier this year, I had the chance to sit down with Oldroyd for a wide-ranging conversation about his influences, going from stage to screen, seeing Pugh’s performance on set, the lack of score, his experience at TIFF, and much more. On the eve of the films theatrical release, check out the conversation below, which we should note includes spoilers, albeit for an adaptation of a novel that is from 1865.

A lot of times theater directors will transition to cinema and it’ll feel kind of like they’re filming their own play, but with this it feels like it’s meant to be on the screen. I’m curious how you developed that.

I guess it has been a well-worked transition in the sense that before I started directing theater, I went to art college and that’s where I first used a camera. It was much more in the sort of venturous way, and it was not narrative, just catching images, and they did give me access to a very basic editing facility. So I was always interested in moving image, in the way to frame something. Once I was working in theater, I did keep a small Flip video camera like a moving sketchbook that I uploaded to YouTube, so I think I was always keeping fit in that way. But the first short film I made was a scene from a play that I had read, by a writer who I’ve directed a number of his plays, and when I put that together it was like filmed theater. I couldn’t understand why it didn’t feel like cinema that I liked, and I broke it down and realized it was mainly because I was too reliant on text. I was shooting it from more or less one angle which is basically where I would sit in the theater, and wasn’t making the leap to find something that was unspoken or move the camera closer in for a particular reason. So when I made my second short film which is called Best, which went to Sundance, is three minutes, very few words, that was really the moment when I started to realize how I could film something more successfully. And then, coming to this, I just knew because it would only be in one location, there was a danger it would feel like a play. That’s why I wanted to actually move around the house quite a lot and move it outside, and I just spoke to Nick Emerson, the editor, and Ari Wegner, the DoP, and they really helped me to understand how we make this film more cinematic relative to the camera.

It’s always said that with film versus play, in terms of directing actors, the camera picks up so much. Is there anything else that a regular viewer might not see that you would, because you’ve directed so many actors on stage?

Well, what I realized while I was making the film is that what you’re capturing really is the transmission of thought. If the engine of the play is the spoken word — actually what was really crucial for me when working with the actors for Lady Macbeth is in the rehearsal, we made sure that they knew exactly what the thought changes were. Because when we put them in front of the camera, all you need to do is get them to think, and the camera picks it up. Especially when we were doing the close-up, Florence [Pugh] at the end for example, when Sebastian comes in and confesses, the camera just sits with and looks directly at her and you see her processing in that moment, “What am I going to do to get out of this?” and I can see her going through that. First of all, she’s dealing with him very publicly breaking up with her. Secondly she’s thinking, “How am I going to get out of this?” Third she’s thinking of a tactic to save herself, and all the machinations of that you can see. That was something that actually she didn’t have to say anything for us to get. So it was making sure that all of the thoughts were very, very clear before we set about shooting.

Speaking of that, too, a lot of times here you film your actors at very confrontational angles. I’m thinking of any of the table scenes, but even in other scenes it’s very symmetrical, centered. You’re looking right at them and they’re talking to you. Especially at the end, kind of breaking the fourth wall, can you talk about what that adds to the movie?

I just liked it. I didn’t think it was particularly unusual. People will say, “You’ve got quite a fine eyeline here,” and I didn’t really know what they meant. All I knew is that I loved where the camera was in relationship to the actor, and it did feel very immediate, and it felt like if we were going to cut between something which was front-on and another angle, it would make sense for me to go ninety degrees to the side or behind. We also wanted to save our forty-five degrees for the third act of the film, when Agnes turns up, so we would have a different sort of grammar for each of the acts. So it would be locked off in the first act when we trap Catherine, then in the second act she starts to move and wake up, the camera moves with her, then in the third act we move to softer angles and a more usual perspective.

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I also want to talk about the most important casting of the film, which is obviously the cat. Where did you find that cat?

The cat belongs to the art director’s sister, who lives locally to where we shot the film. When we were doing prep, she just took a very quick video on her phone and showed me, and I was like, “This cat is perfect.” Also, what we really didn’t here in the film was that it made a really unusual sound too, so the cry was very human, which was very odd. Someone was telling me recently, because we were talking about another project, whenever they’ve had a cat around with a trained cat, they’ve had more trouble than if they just used an amateur cat or a friend’s cat, and sometimes when the trained cat is not available they bring in a lookalike cat and they have much more success with that. Cats are famously independent, so we just let this cat run around and then we just filmed it and we were able to use whatever we had, apart from when it sat in the chair, we needed that to happen. I’m very happy with that cat.

There’s a funny shot where after you realize she’s poisoning the father-in-law, that the cat jumps on the table and it’s kind of like his dominion with her. Narrative-wise, what did the cat play into the movie?

We always wanted to strengthen the relationship between the cat and Boris, that the cat was his familiar or a representation of Boris. In the first instance, the cat was another pair of eyes, watching her when she’s in the house, so she’s constantly policed even when Boris is away, the cat remains to watch her. The cat is just being a cat, but it’s policing her and spying on her. In the Russian book, when Boris dies, there’s a whole section where the cat starts to speak with his voice, and a woman hallucinates and sees Boris’s face on the cat’s face. So we did try — we recorded some of Boris’s lines and then put them into the cat’s mouth in one scene, and it looked so ridiculous that we just cut it. But we kept the cat there, and people have said to me that they feel like they can see Boris in the cat somehow, so there is an association.

The cat is one moment of levity in the film, which I think you said was unexpected at the first screening, and I feel like the biggest laugh is when the father-in-law returns, and because you’re with Catherine and her decisions throughout, the jump from what he sees from when he left is so drastic. Can you talk about whether you thought it was funny on a script stage?

There were some things I had definitely put in there knowing there was potential for it to be amusing, so that was designed. For example, when Katherine is quite wanton in her desire of Sebastian, and having sex quite flagrantly in the house, and then we have a quite hard cut to her having tea with the priest, I think I probably knew, and there’s a whole culture about the British drinking tea anyway. There were some others which were less expected. Anna at the end example, I don’t know if people laughed from a nervous place or not. Also, the Toronto crowd were very, very supportive of the film, and they wanted to show their support so they were very vocal throughout. For example, the death of Alexander was applauded in Toronto. They didn’t quite stand up, but I think that was really nice, that we felt they were getting behind the film.

It’s interesting, because that death is so cathartic and then when she smothers the child its the exact opposite of that. Have you had any confrontations from audience members from throughout the festival tour?

Yes, people have used the word “evil” and so on, I don’t know whether they’re being a little bit too simple in their appreciation of the film, but I understand that, and quite rightly, infanticide should appall people. I think we found that most people draw a line at that; that they think she’s crossed a line when she does that act, whereas they were totally on her side up to that point. Some people feel like they’re on her side all the way through, that they feel that that’s actually sort of a logical conclusion of her actions, that she does need to do that thing. I find it funny, coming to America, how upset people are at the death of the horse; sort of more upset at the death of a horse than the death of a child, and just take a moment to have a look at yourself. [Laughs] But we had to be very clear that the horse was not harmed. There’s a very strong support for animal welfare, isn’t there, in this country.

In both of those shots, you’d expect it to cut away, or to look at it from a different angle, and you keep on it.

william-oldroydYes, I really wanted to do that, and obviously there were cost implications. In any normal situation, you would film the horse, you would cut to a close-up of her with the gun, and then you would then cut to the wide of the horse having fallen over and you would replace it with a dead horse or a puppet or something. But I thought we would get more impact if we saw the whole thing happen, and that then required that we found an acrobatic horse that would fall over on command. And similarly, with the death of Teddy, I didn’t want to cut because I didn’t want to relieve any tension at the moment. I thought that if people didn’t want to watch it they would have to look away from the screen, and it just felt more impactful in that way.

There’s some directors that I think of like Michael Haneke or Lars von Trier where sometimes they get criticism because people think they use their characters as pawns for amusement or degradation, and I feel like you very carefully balance keeping a humanity to the characters. Were any of those directors an influence?

Both, I love both of them. Not so much the recent Lars von Trier. I’d probably stop somewhere around Dogville. I didn’t like Antichrist, I found it really a difficult watch even though I thought the ideas were interesting. I thought the dialogue [of Melancholia] would maybe have worked better in a different language or something.

I do think the protagonists of his early films, like Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, are much more intertwined with the emotional journey of the audience whereas the newer films feel more academic.

I agree; Breaking the Waves is a fantastic film, The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark, I love those films. But Haneke, I have to be careful not to essentially just copy him, because he’s such a master, really. I think his compositions are wonderful, and character, and what he writes for people to say; he’s the very best, I think.

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