Courtesy of Alison Rosa / Apple and A24

“Macbeth” is one of the most renowned stories in world literature. Written 500 years ago by William Shakespeare, the tragedy has been adapted time and time again. Among the most famous screen adaptations are Roman Polanski’s “Macbeth” (1971), Justin Kurzel’s “Macbeth” (2015) reimagining and Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (2021), which was screened at the Pollock Theater on Feb. 29. After the screening, director Coen and actress Frances McDormand took to the stage to answer questions from the audience and share insights into the creative process behind the film.

McDormand first suggested that her husband, Joel Coen, work on an adaptation of “Macbeth” in 2016, when she was playing Lady Macbeth on stage. The play is especially important to the actress for personal reasons, as her role in a high school production was why she developed her acting ambitions in the first place. McDormand shared that performing Lady Macbeth’s famous sleepwalking scene was a transformative experience for her as a child. 

“I believed I was sleepwalking, the same way I believed I was a pioneer woman when I was making mud pies in the backyard. I was only 14. I was still playing with Barbie dolls,” McDormand said. “But it was the perfect tradition from pretending, playacting as a child, being shy and then feeling the power on stage. And I just did it. And I’ve been doing it ever since.”

The director admits he was skeptical about adapting Shakespeare’s text at first but then realized its potential.

“I am convinced that in some aspects, Macbeth is the one that is supposed to be a movie. To me, it is like a pulp novel [about] a couple plotting the murder. And in the cinematic aspect, it has all that fun stuff: witches and ghosts and scary things. This is movie shit,” he said, explaining his decision.

A distinctive feature of this interpretation of Macbeth is casting older actors — Denzel Washington and McDormand — in the lead roles. Coen explains that for him, Macbeth is a story about an aging couple’s last chance to fulfill their ambitions.

“What I love about the Macbeths as an older couple is that he has been a warrior, and he has had a very clearly cut half of how to succeed in life … And she was to give him an heir and she never produced an heir. What can she give him? A crown. So, that becomes their shared ambition,” McDormand said. 

This approach reinterprets the traditional understanding of the source material and reveals Coen’s personal creative perspective.

Coen recalls that he and his cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel had numerous discussions about how to capture the essence of the play visually.

“I thought if we keep it like a play in terms of the design but be free to bandwagon the boldness of the controlling metrics of the cinema, it might be an interesting combination,” he said, reflecting on the creative process. 

To achieve a theatrical atmosphere, Coen pursued abstraction in his visual choices. 

“You don’t want to treat it realistically. Shakespeare isn’t real. It’s a dream, and the further you go from realism, the more you capture it,” he said. That is where the idea to shoot the film in black and white came from. 

“Black and white photography, for some reason, is instantly abstracting the image because it is not real. And if you’re telling a story in film, you tend to think about the pictures,” Coen said. 

The creators of the film chose to keep the original Shakespearean dialogue, using outdated words and phrases in a way that might be difficult for an average audience to understand. While we often see theatrical productions using the original dialogue, screenwriters usually tend to modernize it, so this choice seems especially bold for a film adaptation. While this decision may have been made to enhance the theatrical feel of the film, it is the visual resources of the cinema that made it possible. 

“Joel made sure to tell the story cinematically, so you didn’t have to understand the verse if you couldn’t. It’s like you can see some foreign films without completely understanding the language. That is the beauty of cinema; it is a universal language,” McDormand said.

When looking at Coen’s previous filmography, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” clearly stands out. The film has a much more serious tone than most of his films, devoid of classic Coen humor. It is also the first film Coen made without his brother, Ethan Coen. 

McDormand described how different it felt, even in pre-production: “The designers that Joel and Ethan worked with, they understood what [a] Joel and Ethan movie is. They didn’t understand that this wasn’t gonna be that.” 

While it is hard to say that it is the best of all of his previous work, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is probably his most exceptional film in a technical sense. Now that this is Coen’s last project to date, the question is, where will he go next? Will he continue to experiment or will he return to the widely acclaimed classic “Coen style?” Whatever his next step is, this picture allows audiences to anticipate Coen’s future work and hope for the best.