Passion and Vengeance: A young wife finds her ruthless side in William Oldroyd’s 'Lady Macbeth'

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After spending ten years directing theatrical productions in London, Munich and Tokyo, William Oldroyd attended the 41st Toronto International Film Festival last September for the world premiere of his feature film debut, Lady Macbeth. The adaptation of the novella by Nikolai Leskov centers on a young wife in a loveless marriage who embarks on a passionate affair that unveils her ruthless nature.

“Nikolai Leskov felt that a woman who acted so cruelly and boldly would have to be somebody like Lady Macbeth in order to do those things. That’s where the comparison stops [with Shakespeare],” Oldroyd observes. The project started when the director had a meeting with screenwriter Alice Birch resulting from a suggestion by their agent Giles Smart at United Agents. “Alice said, ‘What about a film of Lady Macbeth?’ I read the novella and it was terrific. I met [producer] Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly through a mutual friend and then we started to make Lady Macbeth as a film.”

“It starts with the script,” Oldroyd states. “I was part of the development and adaptation process all of the way through, so I felt like I knew what Alice was trying to achieve. We worked hard on it. Alice’s first draft was beautiful. We had a long discussion about how we could avoid exposition, keep moving the story along, and let people join the dots together. It was the case of stripping the script right back. The script is similar to what you end up seeing.”

One has to be clever incorporating exposition into the narrative. “When you’re aware of exposition, that’s when it feels heavy-handed or clumsy. If you can bury exposition in an emotional moment, then it’s fine.”

A key visual reference was the works of Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi. “He had created austere worlds of that period,” explains Oldroyd. “The female subjects of his paintings were always isolated, standing looking out a window and usually facing away from the viewer. I thought that was powerful. Hammershøi was heavily influenced by Johannes Vermeer. You can see an evolution of that school of art. I took those paintings to Jacqueline Abrahams, our production designer. A lot of British mid-19th-century period dramas focus on the heavy fabrics, dark woods and stuffy Victoriana. We wanted to find something that was more Scandinavian in feel because we were in the northeast of England where there’s a Northern European light at that time of year, so that was in keeping with Hammershøi’s paintings.”

Costumes have a major role to play in the overall look and atmosphere of the movie. “Holly Waddington is also a brilliant designer,” Oldroyd says. “She had worked on Lincoln, so she knew the 1860s in America, but she was now working on this period in the U.K. Holly had a great team. The costumes were handmade in the traditional way, which was incredibly labor-intensive and costly, but they were determined not to compromise on that. The color palette came from the idea that Katherine [Florence Pugh] had to wear black after the death of her husband Boris [Christopher Fairbank], because she was going to be in mourning. What Holly was interested in was the patterning and texturing of fabrics but also what sort of black, because you can get blue blacks, green blacks and red blacks. She developed the palette out of the oily nature of a crow’s feather.”

Oldroyd continues, “We were lucky enough to be working with Northern Film & Media. A lovely woman named Gayle Woodruffe, who is the production service manager there, put us in touch with the Lambton Estate. They had some stuff shot there before and she thought it would serve us well, because it was big enough and had its own grounds. If we wanted to go out and shoot the exteriors, we could do it. We could keep our base there.”

Storyboarding was not necessary. “We were lucky because we shot for a month but we had the castle for six or seven weeks, so we were able to rehearse the scenes in the rooms that we were going to film in before they got all of the lights and equipment in there. I didn’t want to set anything too early with the blocking. That can sometimes kill a performance. I want to keep it quite fresh. Actors need to move according to impulse rather than because I’ve told them that they need to be here. It’s difficult because we have to think about where the camera is, but a lot of it was mapped out beforehand and with our cinematographer Ari Wenger there. She was taking photographs at the same time. It gently evolved over those ten days.

“We shot chronologically, so by the end of the third week our editor Nick Emerson had roughly assembled the first three-quarters of the film,” Oldroyd notes. “We watched it so knew what we were missing which could then be picked up in the fourth week. Nick did an assembly while we had a week between the shoot and the beginning of the edit. Also, every time we had shot a scene, Nick printed out a still from that and made a collage on the wall of his edit suite so he had the whole film played out in pictures in front of us. If there was a point where we were a little bit confused as to where to go next, we would shift the pictures around.”

Oldroyd adds, “I felt like coming from theatre, there were certain things I wasn’t prepared to jump into. I would work on a play from beginning to end, so it made perfect sense to me to start this film from the beginning and try to get to the end. Also, it helps actors to chart their performance. With a role like Katherine, you need that because by the end she is a different person.”

The auditions were orchestrated by casting director Shaheen Baig. “It was open to everybody no matter what their background was, so we met with a lot of people,” the director recalls. “But I had seen Florence Pugh in The Falling, which was the first feature film that she did for Carol Morley. Florence was fantastic. The moment we found her, we stopped looking.”

The supporting roles of Anna and Sebastian are portrayed by Naomi Ackie and Cosmo Jarvis. “We were meeting with actors for those characters at the same time. When we had Katherine in place, we knew everything else would fall into place after that. We did do a chemistry test with Florence and potential Sebastians, because it was important that we knew they would get on.” Other cast members include Paul Hilton, Golda Rosheuvel and Rebecca Manley. “I insisted on having ten days of rehearsal before we started shooting this film so I could use some of my theatre experience to get the actors as empowered as possible, so they knew who their characters were and what their objectives were to save time in the shoot.”

“There was some Foley to amplify some of the key prison sound effects at the beginning,” Oldroyd notes. “When Katherine is imprisoned in the house, we put in some metallic door sounds into the shutters, the brushing of the hair became harsher and the cracking of corset. I wanted it to feel oppressive and torturous. Hopefully, with enough subtlety to get away without it feeling heavy-handed, but if you have a daily routine it would feel like a sentence.”

Sound effects are prominently featured in two death scenes. “I didn’t want to give people the relief of the cut. I wanted to force them to have to look away because they couldn’t bear it.” Oldroyd adds, “It’s a theatrical convention that you have an offstage death. I felt like the imagination was going to be greater than what we could show in that respect.”

An original plan was altered, leading to Dan Jones being hired to compose the score. “I decided quite early on that we were going to try to do this without music. I was open to the idea and was budgeted that we would have a composer. But I thought: Why don’t we see if we can achieve it in the performance first and then see whether we need to augment it with any musical cues? What we came down to was something simple. There are three key beats where we thought a little bit of assistance would help tonally.

“Ari came over from Melbourne, Australia, where she lives, and worked with us on the color grade,” Oldroyd recalls. “Vanessa Taylor is a brilliant colorist and instinctively got what we wanted. What we had captured was good. There wasn’t much in the way of correction. It was about using what Ari had caught in the first place.”

A tricky scene caused some concern. “I was happy with the way the horse played out, because I was determined to do that in one shot. The horse would only fall over a certain number of times. We got a great performance from Florence and the horse. Everything seemed to work technically. When we watched the rushes that night, I thought it was special.”

Lady Macbeth was a learning experience for the moviemaker, who previously helmed a series of short films. “You never have to think about where to put a camera in the theatre. It’s self-edited when the audience sits there. Now I have a much better understanding of what you can achieve by moving a camera around. That’s the thing I will take into the next film for sure.”

The production was a collaborative effort: “We were able to get the best people because we had a very good script.”

Different possibilities are being explored for Oldroyd’s sophomore project. “There are a few things. Some are period. There is a contemporary idea. Some are chamber pieces, but there is also the ambition to make a much larger-scale project in the future. At the heart of it, there has to be an interesting idea.”