Joel Coen: ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’

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Writer/director Joel Coen behind the scenes of “The Tragedy of Macbeth” now streaming on Apple TV+. Photo credit: Apple TV+

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes Academy Award winning director and writer Joel Coen, whose latest film is “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” currently streaming on Apple TV+. This is Coen’s solo directorial debut. He shared the Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars with his brother Ethan for their 2010 adaptation of  “No Country for Old Men.” Coen talks about playing with the line between theater and cinema for the adaptation of “Macbeth.” He says watching previous film adaptations of the play was helpful in determining what he did and did not want his film to be. And he talks about how casting his wife Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington as the leads led to a small but significant change in the story.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest Joel Coen has made many movies that were a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury. This is the first time he's gotten to use the line in the movie. The movie is "The Tragedy of Macbeth."  I can't help but think about this as an intersection of "The Passion of Joan of Arc" and "The Public Enemy." It feels like Dreyer and a '30s Warner's crime movie to me.

Joel Coen: Yeah, well, Dreyer was certainly a visual sort of reference point for us when we were thinking about the movie. And in another respect, from the beginning of thinking about it, we were also thinking about film noir and certain kinds of pulp fiction. It struck me at a certain point that it was interesting that this play in particular sort of prefigures a lot of 20th century tropes of American pulp fiction, a couple plotting a murder.

KCRW: You have made so many movies about marriages, and this fits into that, too. "Raising Arizona" or "The Man Who Wasn't There" or "No Country for Old Men," which even that's based fundamentally around a marriage and ends with one of the characters talking to a wife.  I just wonder what it is about marriages that's so interesting to you.

Coen: It's certainly there, although I don't know how consciously there it is. But with “Macbeth,” we did think about it specifically that way because it was first of all, a project that was brought to me by my wife, [Frances McDormand] and it was something that she wanted to do. I got interested in it despite the fact that she would be playing a part that's usually played by a younger actress, which sort of ipso facto meant that the story changes a little bit. It's about an older couple, and therefore the play becomes about a longstanding marriage. They've been together a long time. They have no children. So that was a conscious attempt to think about the material the way that you're talking about as a marriage.

Writer/director Joel Coen and Frances McDormand behind the scenes of “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” now streaming on Apple TV+. Photo credit: Apple TV+

KCRW: It's probably the only happy marriage in all Shakespeare, weirdly enough. They're working towards the same end. I guess I thought about this as being a natural for you because it's so much about scheming. And it could be the kind of stuff out of James M. Cain.

Coen: Exactly. It's a couple plotting. It's "Double Indemnity;" "It's Postman Always Rings Twice;" I mean, there are aspects of the play that feel like a horror film. Also, it's the witches, the magic. There's so much of it that intersects generically with things that we've done in the past. "Macbeth" has been adapted for cinema many times, just because it's a relatively short play, at least as far as Shakespeare is concerned, and it has all these crowd pleasing aspects of balls out entertainment.

KCRW: I was thinking about the Trevor Nunn version, which is like a psychological drama and then what Polanski does with it. It is a piece of material that people are able to really make belong to them. And I wonder if that was one of the things you found attractive, too. It is so flexible in its way.

Coen:Yeah. Like all of Shakespeare, it's flexible, which is, I think, the right word. Before I did this I was interested in seeing as many of the adaptations that had preceded it just for my own edification.  It tells you what you want to do and what you don't want to do and what's been done before. When we made "True Grit," I think I'd seen the movie as a kid, but I had no interest in going back and looking at the 1969 version of "True Grit." I thought that it was the wrong thing to do in terms of thinking about it.

I had just the opposite with this, which is, I wanted to see the Trevor Nunn version with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench. I wanted to see the Polanski version again. I wanted to see the Orson Welles version again. I wanted to see "Throne of Blood" again. There are things about all of those productions, which are very, very interesting to me and then things that I thought were not interesting or were clumsy or thinking about it the wrong way. And they helped me sort of refine what I wanted to do in my own head with the play.

KCRW: You mentioned "Throne of Blood," which is actually one of my favorite movies. I just think about the contrast in tone between that and Polanski's, which begins with a severed limb, if I remember correctly.  

Coen: They are such different movies. "Throne of Blood" is really a great movie, made by one of the greatest filmmakers ever. It's "Macbeth," and it's not "Macbeth." It's "Macbeth," in the sense that he's doing the story. It's very, very interesting how he gets into the issues of the play, but he's not doing the language. This was an attempt to foreground the language, to make that up here as much as possible and everything else to hopefully support that. 

The Polanski movie has got really, really interesting things in it, but it really struck me at the time that I went back to see it again, as an artifact of the ‘70s. Does it feel dated? Not exactly. It feels very, very, very much of its time. I'm a huge Polanski fan. There are things that I think are fabulous and things that I'm looking at it, and I went, Well, I know that one thing I don't want to do is do the kind of “rent a castle” version of Macbeth. Go out and have people galloping across the moor, do it in a real castle. Polanski's version was sort of the barnyard version. That was something that I was like, Well, okay, interesting. Not what I'm interested in here. 

The Trevor Nunn version is really fascinating. But what that is is essentially a kind of multi-camera recording of a stage production, and a very, very simple stage production, a beautifully simple stage production. So again, something very different.

KCRW: The thing that dates a lot of these moves for me is the way that sound is used. The Polanski movie is really busy, sound wise.

Coen: Yeah, sound is interesting. What we were after with the sound and the music in the movie is essentially the same thing we were after with the sets and the visual style of the movie. We were trying to strip everything down to two or three essential elements that would repeat and would sort of echo each other. And the kind of metaphor we were using with Bruno Delbonnel [cinematographer], and Stefan Dechant [production designer] was let's think about each of these things as sort of haiku. There are three simple things, and together, they imply, or they evoke something larger than each of those three simple elements, whether that's a visual thing or a sound thing. And so, the sound was like, let's talk about rhythmic things. Let's talk about dripping pounding bells. Let's use the sound very sparingly. Let's talk about very simple backgrounds, when we're cutting from scene to scene. And again, what can we do aurally in the movie with effects and sound effects and music that sits below the dialog, sits below the verse that supports the verse, but doesn't compete with a verse? 

KCRW: I think about the entrance and the opening with the witches, and you choosing to dispense without seeing them, just offering that title and then us hearing those voices. I thought that was really fascinating because it makes it a lot more psychological.

Coen: That was there from the beginning. The adaptation that I did in going through the play and putting down a plan on paper for the play, which is essentially the screenplay, the idea that you would not see the witches, you would only hear them at the beginning was there from the beginning, but it was partly because of a number of reasons. First of all, I knew it was going to be Kathryn [Hunter's] voice, which is a huge thing. Secondly, I thought of it as in every respect, black and white, that you had a black screen, and nothing but a voice. And then you had a white screen, which was the fog. 

It's all part of the same thing: what's the most fundamental simplification that you can do at the beginning of the movie, a black screen, and a white screen, and out of that white screen, something starts to emerge, right? Thinking about it that way, it led to just a black screen with the voices, bang on white screen. And then a bird enters, a black bird.

KCRW: The witches' entrance says so much in all those different movies. And to just say that, well, they're here, but this isn't about them, it really does just pare it down that way. 

Coen: Yeah, that's interesting, actually. The idea that they're here, but it isn't about them.  The witches are a catalyzing agent for the plot. I think, to a certain extent, also they're crowd pleasers. 

One of the great things about "Macbeth," it's the entertainer genius of Shakespeare. He was very, very aware that he was doing this for the masses. He was doing it for an audience; this was all meant to entertain. Again, when you get into the weeds with all this, there are all kinds of things that lead to the witches. Shakespeare wrote this when James was the king of England and had written a book about witches called "Demonology." He knew who his audience was. From the hoi polloi, in the audience, to the king, all of whom are going to see this play. As with all of Shakespeare, he's up to so many things. 

KCRW: There's a line change in this about their age in the pretty instrumental speech and the change about children. Did I get that right?

Coen: Yeah. I mean, there's something at the center of this play, which is the fact that this is about a childless couple, and the prophecy that begins the play, that tells Macbeth that he is going to be king, but his children will not be kings. It's his friend Banquo whose children will be kings. This prophecy that Macbeth gets fixated on: this idea of, first of all, attaining the throne, but then secondly, the fact that his heirs won't be kings. The couple is childless, which is the sort of central torment.

It's so interesting in the play, because the play itself is in so many ways so much about time, and the obsession with time and Macbeth's obsession, in this case with what follows him, what his own legacy is, and what won't be his legacy is a very interesting part of the play. So there's a line early in the play when Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are plotting the murder of Duncan, where he essentially says, “Bring forth men-children only.” She is exhorting him to kill the king. and he's responding to her exhortation. Essentially he says that, “for thy undaunted metal, should compose nothing but males.” So he's complimenting her. That's the present tense and the way it's written, but because this is about an older couple, a postmenopausal couple, we put that line in the past tense. Yes, I think it's the only line that we changed in the play. There were lots of lines that are cut. But that was the only line that we changed.

KCRW: It stuck out for me because it really sets into motion for us that this tragedy has begun before the play has started in this way because of the couple's age. You were talking about time; I was thinking about that speech, tomorrow and tomorrow, which is really a speech, in this instance, about all the lost opportunities. There's a threat of the future being snuffed out in "Macbeth" and other versions, but here, because, as you say, they are postmenopausal, that when he makes a speech about time slipping away, in effect, it becomes really kind of riveting the way that I hadn't seen it before.

Coen: Yeah. If you get back to what we were talking about earlier, that this is about a good relationship in the sense that they love each other, that this is a good marriage in that sense that not only is it a combination of that  idea about about time that runs throughout the play, but it's also an elegy for his wife. I think Denzel and Fran and I, in talking about that scene, wanted to highlight or foreground that aspect of it that this is a speech that Macbeth makes, as he's looking at the dead body of his wife.

KCRW: We were talking about all these different film versions and ways that people try and figure out how to use the medium, and we think of what Welles is doing and there's it's almost exuberantly stagey. You feel the actors love of being around each other. You can just feel Welles' delight, too, that they could almost be doing in some weird way anything but they're doing this.

Coen: Yeah, it feels in a strange way–the Welles movie–like a movie made with his left hand. He was out to prove something, which was that he could make a movie quickly and on budget. At the time that he made it, I think he was under a lot of pressure. Even his accent in the play, he's doing this very Scottish burr.  It's all pretty funny, and yet it is interesting, because again, he's playing with something I was interested in, which was this line between theater and film. And something Welles was very involved with his whole life. And he does the movie all on stage sets. 

KCRW: But you use a lot of the sets for this too, don't you? 

Coen: It was all sets. This was entirely shot on sound stages. And again, that was sort of echoing the Orson Welles idea. We wanted it to feel theatrical.

KCRW: Well, it does. You give Denzel's Macbeth an entrance. We're watching a movie when Macbeth shows up. He even chuckles. I never heard anybody chuckle over that first line before. I thought, Oh, this is to understand we're watching a movie here, too. 

Coen: Absolutely. Well, I mean, that was the whole kind of game. The idea was how do we preserve the theater aspect, the play aspect of this great play? But still, of course, it's the only way I can really think about it is to have every moment or every scene be specifically designed for a camera. And you know, that's what makes it a movie. So that introduction of Macbeth coming out of the fog and walking into a close up is obviously something only a movie can do.

KCRW: There are so many expectations that people tend to have about seeing Shakespeare adaptations. And to just do something like that, that feels like a lived moment. 

Coen: It's an interesting puzzle. When you put those two things together, you say, are you solving this idea in the text in a movie way or in a theater way? When you see the ghost of Banquo with the banquet, do you want to push this towards theatrical or do you want to push it towards the sort of something that only a movie can do in terms of its revelation? Or take Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, which is a particularly vexed thing in the play. How do you make the realization of that prophecy at the end of the play palpable? How do you realize it on stage? And therefore, how do you do it in a movie? What does the movie let you do? Do you do it literally? Do you do it symbolically? If you're doing it visually, how can you compress the visual idea into something striking but still make it seem theatrical? 

I think that goes into the scene that you see in the alley of trees where everyone raises the branches. The branches become like a moving river is one thought that we had, or the other was that when Macbeth opens the window that the leaves blow in, and symbolically, Birnam Wood is coming to Dunsinane. That's kind of a theatrical gag, in a way, but it's done in such a way that, hopefully it makes an impact in terms of the way it was photographed.

KCRW: I could feel that you were tickled with the idea of solving these problems in that way. Also, it's choosing to underline things that were about the moment of conflation of both theatre and film. I really think that happens in the very last scene, which goes from theatrical to German expressionism.

Coen: No, I mean, all those things were great fun to think about because it's thinking about the ideas in the play. And then it's thinking about their  formal realization, and as a movie maker, it's challenging, but it's also great fun to look at a text that way. 

Look, doing Shakespeare is not something I ever planned to do. I found it intriguing when Fran brought the idea to me, but it wasn't ever an ambition of mine, but when France suggested it, the opportunity to think about doing a movie and think about those issues and those problems and what would be interesting and fun and effective to do in the context of a movie, that was all intriguing and great fun to think about.



Rebecca Mooney