Introduced by NFTS Head of Screen Arts, Sandra Hebron as one of the most talked about debuts of the year and receiving rave reviews across the board, we knew we were in for a treat when settling down to watch Lady Macbeth followed by a Q&A with its director William Oldroyd and NFTS graduate and Producer, Fodhla Cronin O'Reilly.
An adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Lady Macbeth is described in the Guardian as “a brilliantly chilling subversion of a classic” and in the Spectator as “plain terrific” while Sight and Sound praises “its skill at filleting contemporary relevance from a classic literary source.”
Fodhla, whose NFTS graduation film, Head Over Heels was nominated for an Oscar in 2014, met William after a friend recommended she watch William’s award-winning short film, Best. “I fell in love with it; it was very clever. I met up with Will and we chatted for hours and then we watched 12 Years a Slave – after that we felt bonded for life!”
The project came together when William and Fodhla joined forces with writer Alice Birch who had the original idea to adapt the Leskov novella as she felt that its themes - the subordination of women in society, life in rural communities, and of passionate illicit love - would be exciting for a film adaptation. Both William and Alice had made their names in theatre – he as the Director in Residence at the Young Vic Theatre and working with the RSC, and she as an award-winning playwright with work performed at the Royal Court and the RSC.
On what drew him to the Lady Macbeth story, William said: “I really wanted to see the central character Katherine on screen as she was very different to other heroines of that time who either had to suffer or die. Katherine fights back; we didn’t have to do very much to make it modern.”
Fodhla was drawn to the project for the same reason: “the complex female character appealed to me. “The challenge of making a period film on such a small budget excited me and I was also excited to find an original take on the genre. We wanted to make an anti-bonnet period drama.”
Lady Macbeth was made through iFeatures, the regional micro-budget filmmaking scheme run by Creative England and supported by the BFI and BBC Films. The scheme was particularly useful for William: “Everything was brand new for me so the iFeatures workshops were really helpful and we relied heavily on Fodhla’s experience having been to film school.” According to Fodhla, “iFeatures took a risk green lighting us but they were totally up for it and very supportive. We got to work with established executive producers and access their knowledge and experience which was invaluable.”
Sandra asked William if he had a sense from the outset of how to make a period film on such a small budget? “The story fit well with a low budget. For example, we couldn’t have many costumes but I’ve always thought it doesn’t feel real when you see so many costume changes in films. We had one location and a small number of characters, which is what we wanted to do anyway. We wanted to keep it focussed and nuclear; having lots of extras and a swooping score didn’t feel right.”
“The austerity and pared down nature of the film came from Alice’s script, which was my taste as well. We used an economy of camera movements, which lent itself very well in terms of representing Katherine on screen.”
On why the film was shot in scene order, William said: “That’s how you would work through a play. I found it difficult to hold a whole feature length film in my head so this approach was helpful with that.” Fodhla added: “It was six weeks intense prep and we shot the film in four six-day weeks. Shooting in order was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done. By the third week we had three quarters of the film edited and we knew which shots we needed to pick up. We left a few days free towards the end of the shoot to tie up any loose ends. We needed to block book the actors for the 24 days and half the cast had to be based in Durham but they were all very flexible and understood our approach.”
Ari Wegner is the DoP on Lady Macbeth. According to William, “Ari really understood the script and character. She has an incredible eye and had a symbiotic relationship with Florence who plays Katherine. We wanted to objectify Katherine like the men were so we locked off the camera with a static shot so she would be seen as an ornament and in moments of freedom, rebellion and defiance, Ari moved the camera with Katherine. We wanted it to feel like Katherine wanted to break out of the frame.”
One of the students asked William how the horse scene was filmed: “This was a moment when creative thinking and the low budget had to meet – we didn’t want to cheat as it was a powerful moment and the first time you see Katherine break down emotionally. We found an ‘acting horse’ who could fall over although it was only allowed to fall over three times including one rehearsal! We put aside a morning to film that scene and it was one of the only ones where we broke our rule and didn’t shoot in sequence.”
On why they decided to change the ending of the novella for the film, William had the following to say: “It was important to writer Alice that Katherine wins at the end even if it was a hollow victory as she felt that so many women were punished for what they did.”
In addition to its rave reviews and praise for subverting the period drama genre with a strong and unrepentant female character, Lady Macbeth is also garnering attention for having a number of black characters in its small cast. In a recent article, The Guardian asks: “Will Lady Macbeth end period drama’s whitewashing of history?” On this subject, William said: “There are no descriptions of the characters’ race in the book and the casting was completely open. The UK was a lot more diverse at that time than people think. Britain was white washed in that respect and not just in period dramas. We simply chose the best actors for each role.”
Lady Macbeth is in cinemas now, distributed by Altitude – our thanks to them for the screening.
For more information about the NFTS Producing MA, please visit www.nfts.co.uk/producing
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