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.
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.
Yes, 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.
One thing that I felt was a little similar was Katherine in the beginning, under the patriarchal society, and the framing of her in the house where it’s completely lonely and it also feels like that’s weighing down on her, kind of suffocating her, like she can’t escape it. Can you talk about how you chose the frame of the film, especially the beginning?
We have a repeated motif, where what we establish as her routine at the beginning, where she gets up, she gets dressed, she walks downstairs, she sits on the sofa with the clock ticking, and then she goes back to the window box and falls asleep, that was repeated at the end, and hopefully people feel like there’s nothing to force her to do that anymore, but actually she needs to return to that in some way to try and keep sane — returning to the routine when she doesn’t even need to. Sitting on that sofa at the end, hopefully what you see is a completely different person. Perhaps it will remind you that, “Oh yes, we’d seen her do this before and she was a girl then. Now look at her after she’s been through these several months.”
The moderator who did the Q&A last night, when she introduced the film, she said she saw this the same morning at TIFF as Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. Have you seen that?
I haven’t seen Elle yet, but our trailer in the UK is at the front of Elle, so I have seen the trailer of Elle.
Both films very much defy the conventions for female heroines.
Oh great, I will go and see it, for sure, I’d like to.
With casting Florence, I wonder about the difference between the rehearsals and then seeing it actually filmed in editing suite. Was there any difference in terms of what you thought Florence would be like that was bigger and stronger in the editing?
There’s always a slight leap of faith when you cast somebody, especially if they’re in 95% of your film. I’d met her, she’d done one film before, and I’d seen her and thought she had enormous potential. We met her several times in audition and we worked with her and we thought she was fantastic, but you still haven’t put her in all of the scenes of the film and in the situations and it’s just one scene in isolation. It’s not the whole film, so rehearsals were equally for her to work at what she wanted to do and for me to gain some confidence that I knew what I was doing and could find a way of working with Florence and Cosmo [Jarvis] and Naomi [Ackie] to make this over ninety minutes. Soon as we started shooting it, I immediately relaxed because what was being given was so much better than what I had even anticipated. I knew she was good but I didn’t know she was that good. I could see that she’s a fantastically strong actor, but I sat watching the rushes with the editor and cinematographer during the shoot and we just watched some of the shots that we got with Florence and we just said, “Well, this is going to make our edit really easy because if we’re ever in any doubt as to where we need to be looking, we’ve got Florence and we just look at her.” And that is so fantastic that you know you are able to cut, because you want to make a cut at that point, rather than feeling you have to cut around a performance, and that’s great. I think it helped that she probably was about the same age as Katherine and was probably a young woman who didn’t need to travel that far in order to present the complexities of Katherine’s character. We got her at the right time, I’d say.
The way you filmed the forest, there aren’t many close-ups, so we really have to find the figures, and it’s another foreboding element that she’s surrounded by this kind of forest. Can you talk about shooting that? Was that your decision, the cinematographer’s, or a mutual choice?
Because we had twenty-four days and had no money, we weren’t really able to go off-site very often, so we were really stuck with the forest that was around, and what I wanted was structure. I like uprights. It would be nice if we saw people coming through uprights and we could just leave the camera where it was and people would dip in and out of the picture. But we had to find those trees and they weren’t everywhere; most of the trees are around a lot of bush and brush which was muddying the picture somewhat, so we searched quite hard. But once we found the woods, then we were able to drive our horse and cart through it, and put those people in there, and I was happy with the way in which it looked. But we did try it with lamps as well, because it was getting dark. The time of day we shot those scenes was important. We really just raced there, set up the camera, got people walking through backwards and forwards; when they returned to their starting positions we filmed that too, because we didn’t have any time to waste.
Another thing you touched on last night was the lack of music. You did say some of your favorite films have very little music. Can you talk about some of your favorites that you were inspired by?
Haneke, but when he does use it he uses it very powerfully; I understand his parents were piano teachers so he obviously has a lot of piano music. The choice and sparing use of piano in Amour, for example, is really, really powerful. Similarly, in The White Ribbon, the Schubert that they sing; once you see them singing it live, then you can use it non-diegetically because we already know where it comes from. So I like that sort of use of music, where we understand — it’s not quite like the sort of non-diegetic sense and then you come into the scene and someone’s got it on the radio and then they turn it off, but it plays a greater part if it’s used sparingly, and it’s actually connected to the world of the film rather than score used to heighten an emotion or something like that.
Like you said last night, if you hear a score you would sense something coming.
Yeah, I think that’s what it is: an audience starts to relax a bit. I had a drink with Nicholas Britell before the screening last night, who scored Moonlight, and he told me when he was studying he used to take friends’ short films and turn the sound off and then he would write different music to make them feel like a rom-com or a horror or a suspense thriller, and I just loved the idea. That’s absolutely what you can do. And we didn’t do that; we relied on the performance and the cut, I would say, to achieve those things.
Are you saying there’s a rom-com version of Lady Macbeth?
I think Nicholas Britell would love to do that.
I wanted to talk about your festival experience. You came to Toronto and it was pretty quickly that Roadside [Attractions] bought it, right? What was your reaction, were you surprised?
Yeah, because the first indication we got that this was going to be a film that might travel was that we locked picture February last year, and then we began the color grade and sound mix and we were able to show it to some sales agents. We had a sales agent screening and Protagonist [Pictures] picked it up, and I think they have got such impeccable taste and have done such great films: The Lobster, American Honey, Love & Friendship. Then I thought, right, so it’s not just a film we’ve made for 300,000 pounds which is going to get some screenings in London Film Festival. It’s got some potential to go somewhere. And they have these relationships with Roadside, with Altitude [Film Distribution] in the UK, KMBO in France, and so on. And to be honest everybody, even Protagonist was slightly surprised by how well it was received. I didn’t read the reviews in Toronto, but everybody told me, “This is significant, because it will get you some attention now.” I think people see the crossover potential, that it was a British period drama but it also felt thrilling, and it wasn’t pure arthouse. So I’m absolutely delighted. I really hope people will engage with it here in the States.
I don’t know if you saw it, but Toronto announced they’re reducing their slate this year by 20%. Last year, for your film to even stick out, let alone get distribution that quickly, was crazy.
I think the Platform section was incredible. Platform was great, because we were one of nine films with Moonlight and Jackie, amongst others, Layla M. as well, I think Nocturama was there. There was some really fantastic films, and so immediately it just shines a light on these films. Had we not had that, had we been in the sort of more general section, I think it’s probably harder to get the people to come and sit to review it as well. But we were in great company.
So when you were on these festival tours and specifically you talked about the Platform section, did you get a chance to see other films during that?
I did. With the press commitments it was so tough, but I tried to see one film at each festival. So I saw Moonlight in Toronto, I saw The Blind Christ in San Sebastian, I saw Raw in London, I saw American Honey in Zurich. It’s funny; I really will have only have a couple of hours and it’s whatever is on, and that’s why I end up going and seeing The Blind Christ. I saw Porto, because I met Gabe [Klinger] on the circuit, I saw Free State of Jones. I try and see the films if I know the filmmakers are going to be there so I can at least have a conversation, which is the best part about going these festivals.
To talk a little bit more about your movie, you did say, it was the anti-bonnet movie, but I think there is more than that that sets it apart. Love & Friendship, for example, is set apart from the usual period piece tropes because the script felt so fresh and Whit Stillman’s style is infused throughout. Your film, I would say, is much more sparse, and different, but can you talk about losing those tropes?
Well, Alice wrote a script, and when we filmed it we withheld some of the information back, and then in the edit we were able to see what we really needed and pull back even more. So that refining process was really, really important, because we were always saying we wanted to show, not say, so that probably did make it stand apart. I think for example not showing the exterior of the house, is something which if you’re making a standard period drama is essential. A lot of establishing information, which you find in a lot of British period dramas, wasn’t there in Lady Macbeth, because I wanted people to basically fill in the gaps themselves or join the dots. The films I love, those European films by those masters, treat the audience with such integrity and intelligence, they say, “if you don’t get it know, you’ll work it out,” and it will actually keep you engaged. As long as it’s not obfuscated, as long as you don’t feel like you’re revealing too late, so that people are confused, then they can’t really enjoy it, because then I think about friends of mine who aren’t very patient in cinema. Because another key difference is that the British period dramas that I watch at home with my parents, for example, they enable an audience to relax because they frontload information. “So this is where we are, this is established, this is who this person is” and so on, and then we can just sit back and let it all unfold before us and then it plays out. Whereas the films I’ve really engaged with and loved are films which make you a participant, so the reveal is late, or they withhold information, and so that you have to then do some working out. You think, “Well who is that, and how are they connected to that, and why are they – oh my god, and then,” and so there’s always a thousand questions, and that’s really what I was trying with Lady Macbeth.
My last question, the experience of you directing your first feature and as you look towards other projects, what did you learn the most from this, that you will do differently next time or that you want to push further in a certain area?
I think that I always thought that coverage was a dirty word, because I thought that coverage makes it very general as though you don’t know what you want. Well, I think you get what you want and then you get coverage, because what I’ve realized is the edit, if you’re thinking in theatrical terms, the edit is the rehearsal. I thought the rehearsal was the rehearsal, or the shoot was the rehearsal: the edit is the rehearsal. So what I found is you need to get as much information as possible, so that in the edit, you can try an idea out, and if it doesn’t work, change it and do something else. Otherwise, you’re stuck. We couldn’t afford reshoots – we didn’t need to have them – but we couldn’t afford them, so that’s why we had to plan so carefully. I think I would always plan that carefully, because I think I like precise filmmaking, but I would also give myself a few more options in the edit.
Lady Macbeth opens on Friday, July 14. See a discussion with Oldroyd above.