A Set Fit For a King: Nine Production Design Tips from Macbeth Show that Economical Can Also Mean Beautiful

“Limitations should be viewed with an eye for opportunity.”

I was taught that early in my career. Of course, it was those who doled out said limitations who proffered that advice… but still, it’s true.

Designing Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth required, as all independent films do, a great deal of flexibility. We were up against all manner of limitations—time, money and the brutal weather conditions of the Scottish countryside. Yet learning to sidestep and accommodate these constraints only strengthened our production design, and our lessons can be yours, too.

1. Ask for Help with Visual Research

Time is always of the essence on a low-budget film. The more preparation done in the early stages, the clearer the path for the crew. On each of my films, I have spent the pre-pre-production phase gathering a large body of reference as a basis for the look.

I work closely with a visual researcher and together we refine the visual direction. The initial financial investment in my researcher pays dividends down the track, bringing in-depth results far more efficiently. My researcher can gather hundreds of images in a matter of days. We bounce ideas off each other and follow threads, fleshing out ideas with the director.

For Macbeth, we spent months researching 11th-century Scotland as comprehensively as time would allow. And we found images that were varied and broad: Contemporary photography like Tim Hetherington’s photographs of soldiers in Afghanistan sat alongside the 11th-century Bayeaux tapestries.

Sketches by Macbeth’s production designer, Fiona Crombie

Sketches by Macbeth’s production designer, Fiona Crombie

2. To Get Everyone on the Same Page, Place it in Their Hands

A huge document laid Macbeth’s visual journey out. We had it available digitally as well as in hard copies, and I plastered the art department walls with the pages. Each story beat was represented. The textural and tonal shifts were immediately clear. This document was shown to everyone from producers to cast and crew. The first thing that I asked of the crew that joined the art department was to sit and digest the document. I do this on all my films. With time and money so tight, detailed visual communication is essential.

3. Look for Multitalented Crew

I come from a theater background and so I lack certain skills. I can’t run a budget and I can’t draft—but my crewmembers can. A low-budget film means fewer crewmembers, so identify exactly what positions are needed to make the film work. I look for crew that have a variety of skills, and often they juggle several roles. On the mini-series Top of the Lake, my graphics person later became the on-set art director. On my most recent film, Blackbird, anyone that could draft was drafting. Pooling everybody’s resources makes for the best team.

4. Put the Money Where It Matters

The art budget is split across crew wages, set decoration and construction. Ideally, this should be 10 percent of the film’s budget for a film set in contemporary times, and 15 percent for a period film. There is no value in having money where it is not needed, so allocate funds accurately from the outset. One of the first things that the supervising art director and I do is run through the budget and make adjustments based upon our script breakdowns and conversations with the director. We then present our own version of the budget to the producers and the conversations begin.

Early on with Macbeth, we made the decision that Inverness should be a village, comprised of tents, rather than the castle of the play, though the initial art budget was determined on the film being locations-only with minimal construction. To build Inverness as a village would weight the budget in the wrong direction. Yet Justin and I felt very strongly that the village offered up visual and thematic opportunities that a castle wouldn’t. It would sit within the majestic landscape, exposed and at the frontier. Macbeth would walk into the storm on his way to murder Duncan, the elements beating down on him. I started designing a small village with a church, a central hall and small dwellings for the villagers. Each piece was crucial to the story.

The producers supported the decision creatively, though it was tough finding the money. After a prolonged wrangling of numbers, the village was greenlit. Weeks followed of standing in mud being blasted by the wind and rain. The little village took a beating but it is exactly as we envisaged onscreen: The Macbeths’ journey is so much more pronounced as they leave the monochromatic, weather-beaten, rough-hewn Inverness for the cavernous interiors of Dunsinane.

5. Let Budgetary Decisions Aid Artistic Decisions

Inverness as a village of tents was both a practical solution to the tight construction budget and a crucial concept of the film. Had we more money I would have wanted to build more wooden structures, yet the tents lent us some striking ideas.

Through the initial development we had been interested in the effects of war on communities. We decided to present the villagers as refugees from conflict. This village, with its church, graveyard, central hall and improvised dwellings, had sprung from necessity for a community making a life while wars raged. When the Macbeths moved to Dunsinane the transient villagers packed up their tents and moved too, tying the community to the Macbeths and so making their betrayals and failures more acute. Inverness becomes a skeleton. When Lady Macbeth returns, the loss is felt keenly as she wanders through the remnants of the village. It is one of the most striking images of the film.

Lady Macbeth returns to the former village of Inverness late in Macbeth, seeking repentance

Lady Macbeth returns to the former village of Inverness late in Macbeth, seeking repentance

Another example of economy-turned-artistry: On my first film, Snowtown, we wanted to shoot within the community in which the story is set. The houses were very, very small. There was never any option that we would build any element other than a bank vault that was integral to the story, so we found houses and made do with what we had. Yet the tiny cramped houses add so much to the film’s atmosphere, and the result is an intense and claustrophobic film that never releases the viewer from its hold.

6. Don’t Spread Your Resources Too Thin

When we started Macbeth, Justin gave me a list of films to watch as a reference for what not to do. Invariably, these films had three things in common: They were period, they were low-budget, and they spread themselves too thin. Often these films had just one well-realized set piece where they had put all of their money, while the rest of the film had to rely on the landscape and smaller set pieces.

Consequently, one of my main worries was that Macbeth’s limitations would be visible. I was resolute that whatever we put in front of the camera had to be detailed and complete. As a result, the camera is so selective about what is seen onscreen that the parameters of the village are never clear. There was more mileage in having the small village feel complete and layered than having it feel sprawling.

Similarly, in the castle of Dunsinane, we decided not to overdress the sets in order to show the Macbeths’ ascension in status. Being inside the cavernous, beautiful rooms, the audience already knows that they are in the great castle. Instead, we gave significance to a few key items through their relationship to space—space that speaks to the scale of the castle in contrast to the humble dwellings of Inverness. The throne sits on a podium in the center of an empty hall. Its delicate carvings and its slight elevation indicate that it is central and important. It is not gilded or heralded in any way other than its position in the space. The bedchamber has a similar quality, sparsely furnished but with exquisite pieces, all laid out in a very considered way.

Embracing the scale of Dunsinane and being unafraid of its emptiness worked for the story as well as the budget. We didn’t try to fill the spaces, which would have been overambitious.

7. Use the Free Stuff—i.e. Nature—To Your Best Advantage

The Scottish landscape is awe-inspiring. We filmed on the Isle of Skye and the scale, textures and tones absolutely informed the design of the film. I remember standing and looking at the valley of Sligachan, knowing that Inverness would soon live there. The film’s wide shots of Inverness were deliberately designed so that the vast mountains miniaturize the village.

Every element we put into that landscape had to have a relationship with it. I wanted wildness to be a part of the interiors. Duncan is laid on a bed of moss and wildflowers in the Inverness church. Bracken was used to decorate and insulate the tents. Rustic poles cut from the forests prop tents up and are fashioned into crosses. Stone mounds peppered the ground. In the Dunsinane interiors, I wanted the thread of wildness and nature to continue, with rowanberry branches and wild flowers dressed throughout.

On Snowtown, which had an art budget of approximately $20,000, I collected furniture from the side of the road before the council got to it first. Macbeth was much the same principle. We didn’t have trucks on stand-by with alternative dressings to play with, but we had the forests of Skye, which became our best resource and inspiration. If we needed to dress something, we would head into the forest and come out with arms full of bracken and branches that became dressing—and had the added benefit of being free!

Director Justin Kurzel and Marion Cotillard on set in the windswept Scottish moors

Director Justin Kurzel and Marion Cotillard on set in the windswept Scottish moors

8. Choose Locations That Do Some of Your Work

Early on in pre-production I share the art department references with a film’s location managers so that they understand the vision for the film. Locations not only service the story and the practicalities of the shoot—a well-chosen one can also help enormously when the budget is tight.

In Top of the Lake, the incredible landscape of Queenstown provided an eeriness that spoke to the tone of the story. I remember being shown the A-frame house that became the enigmatic Mitcham family compound for the first time. It was a break though moment that informed the look of the series. The isolation of the house, its shape and scale, played beautifully against the smaller, squat houses in the town. This house had immediate status and mystery.

After numerous visits to castles and cathedrals, Ely Cathedral became our interior Dunsinane for Macbeth. Many elements linked this cathedral to the textures of our Inverness: It is carved from a milky, bone-colored stone, beautiful and intricate but also imperfect. The tiled floors informed the tiles that were designed for the Inverness church. The stonework inspired the design of the throne, crown and king’s sword.

9. Watch Out for Nasty Weather

The best-laid plans cannot always be realized. During Macbeth, we were relentlessly beaten by the weather. The ground was soaked and the winds were dangerous. One set piece—the central pavilion tent—became impossible to construct under those circumstances. I remember watching it being raised, thinking, “At last! It’s so beautiful!”… then I watched it slowly collapse.

The production could not afford a hiatus; there was nowhere else to go and shoot and no studio in which to take refuge. So we had to make a radical compromise and then push hard to make it work. We built our pavilion over the frame of an aluminium marquee and dressed every inch of it. The scale and shape were not what I had hoped for, but watching the film I find nothing out of place about it. The problem was solved because it had to be. MM

Macbeth opens in theatres December 4, 2015, courtesy of The Weinstein Company. Sketches courtesy of Fiona Crombie. Stills courtesy of The Weinstein Company. 

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