Cast members Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender pose during a photocall for the film "Macbeth" in competition at the 68th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes

The second feature film from Snowtown director Justin Kurzel, an adaptation of a work from the world’s most famous playwright, Shakespeare, Macbeth, arrived to great praise at Cannes Film Festival this weekend. We said in our review, “The director approaches the classic tale of murder and moral decline with the same level of visceral stylization that distinguished his debut, pulling off perhaps the fiercest cinematic translation of Shakespeare to date.”

The film stars Michael Fassbender as Macbeth and Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth, both of whom attended the press conference at the festival, alongside Kurzel and producer Ian Canning. We learned some fairly interesting things as the actors as well as the director revealed some intriguing insights into the way they approached their characters and their motivations. Check out the highlights below, along with the full press conference.

On the most challenging aspect of making the movie

Justin Kurzel started by saying, “Doing an intimate play, like this, outside in Scotland in the middle of winter was extremely difficult, but important. And I just think that dance between this beautiful, tragic love story and these incredible words with trying to find a cinema that felt as though it was natural to the story we were telling. That was quite challenging.”

Michael Fassbender, for his part, offered up this: “I guess dealing with the language first. It’s a bit rich, me saying, seeing as though Marion tackled it but it starts with the language. That was the sort of puzzle to break the rhythm of that and find the rhythm. And then to explore the avenues in the day were explored. I think I said it before that the very uplifting thing about Shakespeare is the fact that there are so many different ways you can do it; there are a thousand different choices in the language and the language can be interpreted in different ways. So it was kind of depressing at the end of the day to explore but also uplifting and, I think, a testament to Shakespeare. It`s why we are still doing the play today because the language is so extraordinary and the tale is so extraordinary.”

Marion Cotillard talked about the language problem as well, saying, “It’s a very intimidating play. The characters are intimidating too. I’d never felt so much pressure when trying to embody a character. Then we had time to do our work, technically speaking, the text was difficult for me; first of all it is English with a specific accent and I am always afraid of not managing to pay tribute to a given text, particularly when we are talking about Shakespeare. So that was perhaps for me what intimidated me the most.”

On whether there is a psychological toll playing a character with so much blood on their hands

macbeth_1Cotillard began by talking about the nature of acting as a profession: “It’s true that when you are an actor, it is a job, it’s a profession. When you are on a set you spend all day embodying someone, a character, so part of us is obviously going to be affected by that character. For me, this is the first time in a film that I have found it difficult to slip into the character. I’ve often played dramatic characters but never perhaps to this extent. All the characters I played so far were full of light or held up some hope but in this case all is gloom. Also the character loses control of the situation. I found it difficult in any event to prepare for the film and let myself be swept away by the character.”

Fassbender talked about his approach to the character and his psychology, adding, “I came across this play twice before I took this on. I came across it when I was 15 as part of the curriculum at school and then once again when I was in drama school. But never did it occur to me that this character is suffering from PTSD. It was Justin that said that to me in one of our first conversations and that changed everything for me. It’s not only the killing of many people, or you have a soldier that is engaged in battle month-in-month-out day after day, but the fact that the battle takes place in his bare hands. The sword is a weapon of choice and what it takes to pierce someone’s skin, drive the sword through somebodies muscle, break through their bone and then take the sword out of them. If the sword fails pick up a rock and smash it over someone’s skull.”

“Those kinds of images,” he added, “I definitely tried to dig up and explore to try and find that fractured character right at the beginning. And the idea that he is seeing hallucinations – we know from soldiers today coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan – that describe post-traumatic stress disorder and the fact that they have these hallucinations and they can be walking down the Croisette here and next thing it’s Basra, and it’s real time Basra. And so that made so much sense at the beginning with that character the fact that: is he seeing the witches? Are they there or not? And his sort of unhinged behavior. Do I carry some of that home with me at the end of the day? It’s inevitable that some residue is there but I’ve worked hard to try and leave everything on the floor on the day so a lot of times I spend in preparation so when I come to the day’s filming I can really sort of leave everything there and explore everything, but I try and sort of meet friends at the end of the day and I wouldn’t have many left if….but inevitably there is a residue.”

On whether Macbeth is an anti-hero

Fassbender agreed with the evaluation to a degree, saying, “I think he is…I think it’s the classic tale in terms of: Duncan is the king and enjoys the spoils of that title and position, and Macbeth is his general who sort of basically keeps the borders safe and continues his battle campaigns and keeps his kingship alive without the spoils of being a king. I think we have seen that sort of tale in real life and history, in drama stories quite a lot, so that was a knowing place to start from. What sort of anti-hero is he? I think he’s somebody that, as you said, is very fractured, from the beginning, because of his job, because he is a soldier and because he hasn’t been allowed to mourn with his wife the death of at least one of their children. We know that Lady Macbeth has lost one child and probably many more but all these things sort of culminate together to sort of a story of loss. People always talk about this as being as story about ambition — yes, that’s true and where your ambition can lead you and what you hope for and what the reality of that hope is, but I think it’s a story of loss: the loss of a relationship between a couple, the loss of their child, and the loss of their sanity. That’s how I see it.”


On managing the pressure with such a prestigious and storied role

Fassbender talked about how daunting the role was but also why that didn’t deter him. “Yeah it was pretty terrifying the prospect of doing it to be sure, but then when you start your preparation and start to get into the workload of it that kind of takes over and I think the best solution for nerves is work. So yeah I just immersed myself in the script and got on with it. Once the decision was made the train was going to leave the station one way or the other and it depends whether you are on it or not when the time comes. I did visit other renditions of the story and whatever was available I watched. If it’s out there gather the information can only help. Kurosawa’s [Throne of Blood] was my favorite out of all of them.”

On whether they were inspired by any previous films and how language can be manipulated on film compared to the stage

macbeth_2Kurzel talked about how he tried to avoid previous incarnations on film: “I kind of stayed away from the films. Whether its films, whether its productions, everyone kind of owns a Shakespeare play, they had an experience with it. It’s unavoidable it’s got so much baggage to it. So there comes a point where you really have to do it from the inside out and find your own thing about it. I wasn’t interested in putting a concept on it. I was really focused on the word, on the opportunity of shooting in Scotland, how that landscape affected those characters and finding an intimacy with the verse. The beautiful thing about cinema is I can bring a camera just here [motions near his face] and the verse doesn’t have to hit the back wall. It just has to be here like a whisper, like a confession and I found that to be extremely exciting and kind of effortless. That became something that we were very excited about when we were filming.”

Fassbender stated: “Absolutely, for me when dealing with Shakespeare the idea of the language being the key to everything and finding the rhythm of the language. And from there it sort of dictates itself but it can also take over and it sort of becomes very much about dictating Shakespeare. It again was that fine balance of absolutely respecting the rhythm, respecting the language but always trying to respect and stay true to the state of mind and what we were trying to do in terms of observing the character, coming apart from the inside out. And I think what Justin did very wisely was to have the soliloquies almost being spoken to imaginary figures which I think was a great insight for the audience to see the unravelling of this man’s mind, as well as it being very helpful for the actors…”

Kurzel added, “The words are very delicate actually it’s an erroneous conception with Shakespeare, I think. They are very light to touch at times. So to be able to get the point of view right in there and taste them at times was something important.”

On whether it was especially challenging for Cotillard to master the Shakespearean verse

Cotillard explained the nuances of the problem by saying, “Yes, but at the same time the first thing that occurred to me was that it was a huge opportunity to play Shakespeare in England. Michael was very right in what he just said. Justin always encouraged us to go deep down in our characters, plunge into the depth of our characters. We almost whispered certain things. And he helped me to no end to find the right way of saying my words. These words are so very subtle and so very gentle sometimes against this background of violence. The violence in human relationships, the violence contained in many of the people this contrast was quite dizzying.”

France Cannes Macbeth Photo Call

On Lady Macbeth and whether she is terrifying

Cotillard stated, “Well, perhaps it’s the need to grapple with her fears. This creates a sort of imbalance in Lady Macbeth which turns her into a bit of a monster. Running away from this very painful despair leads her to create a wall protecting the couple. I think there is a lot of love between these two characters they are just too damaged to be able to turn to something more luminous. So she builds a wall based on power, a wall to protect them. She is consumed by ambition but that does not give her more power, it is in no way uplifting. What she tries to do is find a way to protect herself. She looks back while running away and that is what leads her to madness.”

On whether the film is about dangerous ambition

Kurzel began by saying, “In regards to ambition, I was really interested in grief and how you replace something you’ve lost. I experienced that in my own life and there is something very desperate about those moments. I was fascinated that these two characters were using the prophecy, and using ambition as a way of desperately keeping each other together and kind of holding each other together. That became a very human motor that branched out beyond power and greed that I think is very contemporary. As I think family is a very contemporary idea, I think we are all reaching for a tribe to reach around us and the tragedy about this couple is they look around them and everything they want is in the people in the families around them. I think that sense they don’t have a community was very, very powerful. You can feel it in the words. That became a real motor, a real human motor that gave us real insight into their love story.”


Fassbender added, “I think what was so special about the way Marion played the part was that we are used to the idea of a manipulative, ambitious woman and I found that she brought such loneliness to the character. I felt like she was so alone. Her husband is out campaigning, probably they don’t see each other for six to twelve months, eighteen months, and they have had this loss. As Justin said, the ambition comes through…she is such a sacrificial character: she gives herself up to whatever supernatural forces are out there to take away her maternal instincts to be able to sort of drive through this heinous act in order to save their union, in order to bring them close together. And so, yes, the ambition — they wish for something they think will change everything in their relationship, that they will be lifted out of this bleak existence. And it is just not the case. It’s the classic scenario of be careful what you wish for. It’s the violence in it that sort of sticks with me…so much and the loss, again, that these characters have lost so much. And this is a desperate attempt to forge this relationship, to try and, in some way, put it back on the rails because it has been so badly derailed. And Duncan is a very impotent king in terms of his power and how he is ruling his kingdom. A lot of people would think Macbeth is the rightful ruler but Macbeth is a soldier he is not a politician, he’s not a king. So I think it is more than ambition. But yes ambition is a dangerous thing, we all know that. We can see it in the world we live in today: greed and ambition and what that entails. But I think it goes beyond greed with these characters I think it comes from a place of desperation.”

On how the landscape affected the visuals and on the battle scenes

Kurzel described the power of the landscape, saying, “Being Australian and being surrounded by a vast landscape, like there is there, and how intimidating that landscape is I have a very special connection with what that is. And there was something about being up in Scotland that completely defined this film and reminded me how small a landscape like that makes us all feel and how intimidating it can be. And you kind of do believe that there are witches walking around this land. I mean Marion did literally disappear down a bog hole in Scotland. It kind of eats you up. It throws you around and it is just spectacular and dangerous and very visceral. Kind of like great westerns are. I saw something there; I saw a kind of way in which we could use that. And I think the battles were all about point of view. It was interesting when we were talking to some soldiers that had come back from recent wars and they were describing and imagining certain events that they they witnessed. It is always in minuscule and that seems to be always magnified and I was very interested in not doing a literal interpretation of the battle but somehow connecting Macbeth, what he endured but also what he saw in the witches, and the idea that the witches kind of came from this energy to me was really interesting.”


Macbeth premiered at Cannes Film Festival and will open in the fall. See our coverage below.


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