Damon Wise speaks to William Oldroyd, director of this year’s most-nominated film, Lady Macbeth.
Before its UK release in the spring of 2017, William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth was the most sought-after British film of last autumn. Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, it moved on to be fêted at events in San Sebastian, Zürich, London, then many more across Europe and the Middle East, before starting its American odyssey as a Sundance Spotlight title. From a first-time director and with a cast of unknowns, Lady Macbeth struck a chord literally all over the world – it reached South Korea in April and Australia in June – with its searing story of a 19th-century British bride who rips up the rulebook for good behaviour after being forced into an arranged marriage. “It’s had an enormously good response, actually,” says Oldroyd, modestly. “People have found it to be what we’d hoped we were making, which was a different sort of period drama.”
At this year’s Bifas, the film has already been rewarded with an embarrassment of nominations – 15 in all – including two for Oldroyd, and producer Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly, one for screenwriter Alice Birch, plus nods for its three main cast members – Florence Pugh, Naomi Ackie and Cosmo Jarvis – and its key creative team, including cinematographer Ari Wegner and casting director Shaheen Baig. For Oldroyd, a theatre director and former theology student, the ride has been as exhilarating as it has, at times, been stressful. “The difficulty for me,” he notes, “is that, in theatre, it feels like a team sport. I can sit there as the coach and know that at half time I’m going to give a pep talk, and then in the bar afterwards I can say, ‘How do you think it went tonight? Well, let’s try something new tomorrow…’ Sitting in a film, when it’s all locked, is sort of excruciating if you don’t feel like you’re getting a good response – because there’s nothing you can do. You can’t turn round and say, “Well, it’ll be better tomorrow night…”
Here, William Oldroyd talks about the genesis of the project…
How did you get involved with Lady Macbeth?
I met Alice through our agent. We have the same agent – Giles Smart at United – and he sent me a play of hers, which I read, and then I arranged to meet her for a cup of coffee. When we met, she brought this book out of her bag and said, “What do you think about this?” It was Lady Macbeth Of The Mtsensk District, by Nikolai Leskov, which is a mid-19th century novella and also the source material for the opera of the same name by Shostakovich. So I read it and said, “Yeah, it would be terrific as a film.” In fact, I was amazed that it hadn’t been made before. I know there was an old Russian version [Katerina Izmailova, made in 1966], but when you think of all the films that are made of novels like Thérèse Raquin and Madame Bovary and so on… Leskov’s story is so refreshing, and so modern, and so different in terms of other women in the literature of that period, who seemed to either run away, or suffer in silence, or kill themselves.
So it was just serendipity, really?
Yeah. It then took a couple of years to actually get the thing going, but I knew from the moment I read it that I wanted to make it. And also knowing that it would be in the hands of Alice – this was the key thing, I think. Knowing that Alice wanted to do it. It had all the story beats in it, but actually what Alice did when she adapted it was to fill out the characters.
How faithful is it to the novella?
It’s faithful up to a point. There’s a revision at the end, basically – without saying too much. Essentially, where it goes in the book, we felt, was a step too far. I think it’s a stronger ending that we have.
Was it always going to be a period film? It could easily be contemporary…
We talked about that, and I think the question for us was, if that’s the case, how do we represent isolation? Especially in the UK, where you can easily pick up the phone, or just walk down the road and bump into somebody. We wanted to find an isolated place that represented the isolation of Russia – where the novella is set – in the UK. Even in the most remote parts now, it’s still possible to get phone reception. Also, when you see low-budget feature films, they tend to be contemporary and urban and not period, and I wondered why that was. And so I set out, as a personal challenge, to try and do that – could we make a low-budget period drama? I wanted to make a virtue of the low budget.
Was it just a practical choice to shoot in the north or did you have personal reasons for shooting there?
I studied at university in Durham, so I knew the area. I knew that I wanted to go back, and that we’d have easy access to an area that felt quite isolated and which, in certain parts, hasn’t really changed in 150 years. So if you’re filming a period drama set in 1865, you can just point the camera and get away with it. It’s lovely. You really do feel that you’re away from all the modern trappings of technology.
Did it turn out to be difficult to make a period film on a low budget?
No, I don’t think so. I mean, what’s great is that area in the north-east is that so many of those big houses were built at the time of the industrial revolution, and a lot of coal was being sold to America, that there were loads of those properties around that we could use – and they were all pretty derelict. You can just go in there and have a look around. We just basically set up camp there for a month. It was terrific. And what it meant was, we could grow the production out of the area too. So we had easy access to Newcastle, and to Sunderland, and to Durham, working with Northern Film & Media. We had the North Pennines just to the side, and the Northumberland National Park within easy distance. It’s worth mentioning that Bob Duff, who is the estate manager for Lambton Estate, was very, very generous in what he was able to help us with, to facilitate that.
There’s a heavy emphasis on sound design and virtually no music in the film. When did that become a choice?
We were really open to the idea of a score. We budgeted for a composer, and it was always there, but we just wanted to see what we could get away with in the edit. Every time we screened it, within our small group of execs and so on, we said, “Be honest – are we missing something?” And if they hadn’t noticed there was wasn’t any music, then I knew we’d get away with it. As for the sound, our sound recordist had worked on Wolf Hall and was able to find the smallest little details – like, he’d put microphones inside the corsets, and the creak from the corset would be picked up. Something you’d think would be an error was actually something that could be very useful for us. We could focus on breath, and the tiny restrictions of the corset, and then we sort of amplified it with the sound of the shutters opening and closing, and the brushing of the hair, and the clatter of footsteps down the corridor – the bangs and the crashes and so on – which helped to create that prison for her.
Florence Pugh as Katherine in Lady Macbeth
When you were casting the lead, what were you looking for?
It was a totally open casting process. Shaheen Baig, who we worked with, is brilliant, and we talked about meeting everybody for that part. We didn’t have a particular person in mind. And what’s interesting is that there were a lot of girls that came through, and when you’d meet them, you’d think, straight away, “Ahhh, yes, you’re Lady Macbeth.” They had that incredible look, and they had that sort of steely gaze and the glare. But then I felt that, actually, if you met this woman at the beginning of the film, you’d think, “Yeah, she could kill people” – and then you’ve got nowhere to go. What Florence did so beautifully was, she was so centred. Ultimately, she is really tenacious. But when you first meet her, she can also appear to be the sort of virgin bride figure that we wanted – a young teenage girl coming into this forced arranged marriage but with a sense of expectation. She needs to look like she’s got somewhere to go. There’s the potential for the things that she does, but it’s not obvious from the beginning.
How did you find Florence?
She self-taped, she came in, I worked through some scenes with her, and then she came back to work with various other cast members, and by the end of that process we knew she was the one. I mean, it’s a tough role, you know. But I think she’s a really, really tough person and incredibly disciplined. She has fantastic instincts and she’s a hard worker. She absolutely carries it – she’s in 90 per cent of the film. It was fascinating when we got to the edit, actually. If we were ever in any doubt about where we should be looking, she really helped us with that, because you just don’t want to take your eyes off her face. She gave us all of that, and that became very useful for our focus in the film.
A lot has been said about the approach to race in the casting. Was it a coincidence, or did you take a colour-blind approach?
Colour-blind, yeah. We said that we would meet everybody from all parts. So when we met Naomi, for example, the part is somebody who loses the ability to speak halfway through, so we needed someone who could convey a lot with very simple expressions, and Naomi can do that. Shaheen and I were very adamant that we wanted to meet everybody and give the jobs to the best people.
Naomi Ackie as Anna in Lady Macbeth
Is the diversity angle historically accurate?
Yes. The area was far more diverse than we believe it to be. I think there’s been a whitewashing of history. There are plenty of photographs of black families in the north-east in that period, but, because they haven’t seen them before, people don’t think diversity existed back then, and it’s just not true. When you think about our history, with slavery – it was inevitable that there was going to be a movement of people around the country. It wasn’t just Bristol and Liverpool, the whole of the country was affected by that sort of economic migration, really. So it’s unsurprising that those people turned up in even the remotest places.
It’s a very concise and precise film. Did you go into it very prepared?
Yes. I knew that, because it was going to be tight – it was a 24-days shoot – I had to prepare like crazy beforehand. Ari Wegner, the DoP, lives in Melbourne, and so we spent two weeks on Skype meeting every day for six hours, draw up shotlists and talking about them. What was great was that, as she was going to bed, I was getting up, so she could recommend films to watch and I would go and watch them before our next meeting. She pointed me in the direction of Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves – a sort of American minimalism. Michael Haneke was another influence. I’ve always been interested in his work – the economy of his storytelling is so intelligent, really. For me, the films I love are the ones credit the audience with intelligence, that ask you to fill in the dots yourself, and don’t spoonfeed you – they’re very careful and clever with exposition. These are the films I really love. If you don’t know in the moment what’s going on, you’ll work it out. If you treat the audience intelligently, they will lean into the film, they’ll be engaged, and want to know what’s happening.
Did you shoot in chronological order?
Yes. For my first film, there were a couple of decisions that I made. One was to shoot in digital, because I needed to be able to watch the footage immediately and know if I needed to go again, because I was focusing on the performances. The other thing I needed was to shoot in sequence, because it’s how I’d direct a play – I’d start at the beginning, get to the end, and then I’d revisit it in the same order. I didn’t want to bite off too much for my first film. It helped the actors too. It actually empowered the actors – they could actually chart the whole film through. And it helped me enormously, in terms of calibrating the emotions.
What’s next – would you be interested in making another period film?
I’m not averse to the idea of doing a period drama again, but I also have some contemporary ideas as well. I like the notion of chamber work – like, Lady Macbeth was a chamber play but broadened out – but at some point I’d love to get my hands on a great big massive epic. It would be great, doing all the sort of stuff we thought we would strip away in order to make Lady Macbeth.
William Oldroyd (centre) at the BIFA Craft Nominees’ Drinks at Kettners Townhouse.