The Tragedy of Macbeth, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Joel Coen’s austere new adaptation of one of drama’s most central works, is deceptive in its minimalist presentation. Filmed in striking black-and-white with a considerable nod to the spartan, it’s a bold remove from previous interpretations of the Shakespeare classic. But in fact, lurking within its aesthetic DNA is an explosive collision of influences and inspirations that blend together on the palette to yield an entirely new shade.
The project came to production designer Stefan Dechant suddenly, after one would-be collaboration with Coen and brother Ethan fell through. Dechant had previously served as an art director on the 2010 Western True Grit, under the Coens’ longtime design head Jess Gonchor, but The Tragedy of Macbeth would mark his first try at the aesthetic reins of a Coen film. And what an aesthetic that is, following the Coen brothers’ history of visual storytelling from the noir trappings of Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing and The Man Who Wasn’t There, to the sui generis tragicomedy of Barton Fink, Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou? But Macbeth would see Joel flying solo, and Dechant’s task would be to identify and amplify what the director had conjured in his mind’s eye.
“One of our references was Edward Gordon Craig, a turn-of-the-20th-century stage set designer, and I remember we were working on the exterior of Inverness and Joel came by,” Dechant recalls. “He goes, ‘I think this is really working. I’m seeing the Edward Gordon Craig.’ And I said, ‘That’s cool, but really, I just want the Joel f—ing Coen!’ So we were looking at the references, and there are definite nods to things, but it’s kind of being influenced by artists and then doing your own art.”
So, what was that process? The castle at Inverness in particular, where Macbeth (Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington) usurps the crown and begins his downward spiral, is a great lens through which to examine Coen, Dechant and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s choices. It all started with an out-of-focus image—itself already something of an interpretation—of Mexico City’s colorful Luis Barragán House and Studio. A turn-of-the-21st century still from photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto inverts the usual effect of the rooftop patio setting, turning its stark lines into gauzy blurs and its soothing colors into chilly blacks and grays.
“Joel was looking at that and saying, ‘That feels like Inverness,’” Dechant says. “And if that was going to be Inverness, well that’s pretty similar to the designs that Fritz Lang had in Siegfried in the castle. So then we looked at that.”
Other references included F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise and Faust (particularly for the pivotal exterior crossroads set), Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. But the greatest muse was filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer, specifically for The Passion of Joan of Arc and a touch of Day of Wrath.
“Bruno would always be about the minimalism of Dreyer, and then stripping away everything so that the character and the emotion of that character is the sole focus,” Dechant says. “It wasn’t like, ‘This has a specific reference to this film or this artist.’ It was kind of like, ‘What’s the tone of that? And then how do I take that tone and now it’s my own thing?’”
Nothing in the film is of any era. What Coen wanted was an abstraction, something where even absolutes like night and day were hard to distinguish. The overall effect would be one of a murky fog that Dechant sees as conveying the Scottish king’s inability to comprehend the consequences of his own actions. It’s the work of expressionism, crafting external designs that reflect interior psychological spaces.
Take it a step farther with the throne room at Macbeth’s Dunsinane castle, which was designed as a direct reflection of the forest of Birnam Wood, i.e., that of: “Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be, until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.” One idea was that perhaps the leaves would blow in and carpet the floor, making the ensuing battle representative of being in Birnam Wood—the war finally brought to tragic Macbeth. But Delbonnel had the idea to begin transitioning from the columns of the throne room to the tree trunks of the forest, evoking a state of mind, on top of the Bard’s already brilliant twist involving soldiers advancing on Dunsinane while shielded with tree boughs cut from Birnam trees.
All of that said, Dechant doesn’t necessarily mark everything down to spoken intent, particularly with a filmmaker as instinctual as Coen. Sometimes he admits the conversation was as simple as mutual gut agreement on something.
“‘Are you in the Joel Coen state of mind?’ That was the most challenging aspect of it. ‘Is this the imagery that we want to create?’” Dechant says. “‘Have we done it? Is it evocative? And is the imagery decisive?’”
That’s where the dynamic between director, cinematographer and production designer becomes so crucial, he says. As much as sets are built out of physical elements, they’re also built out of light and shadow. How Dechant’s work is shot—as with Sugimoto’s take on Luis Barragán—will ultimately dictate how it is received.
“I think the thing about it was that, right away, the audience needed to come in and go, ‘I get it. This is artifice. And the artifice is telling me something,’” Dechant says. “You can work on all these separate elements, but they all need to come together and read as a whole. The best part about being in an art department is you go down that hallway and you’ve got all this reference art and photography, but where the real joy comes in is when they’re shooting and it comes alive. It comes alive with Bruno, it comes alive with the actors, it comes alive with Joel and how he’s presenting it.”