Lady Macbeth is a thriller masquerading as a period piece, and first-time feature director William Oldroyd has reinvented the genre by injecting a much-needed dosage of adrenaline.
Florence Pugh is mesmerizing in the film, Oldroyd’s adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Set in Victorian London, Pugh plays Lady Katherine, a young woman bought by an older man (an electrifyingly sadistic Christopher Fairbank) and then forced into marriage with his shallow son Alexander (a gloomy, nasty Paul Hilton). Katherine is a woman who defies conventions and will do almost anything to get the freedom she craves in a society that refuses to give it to her—even it means committing unspeakable crimes.
Before Oldroyd’s first foray on the silver screen, he was an experienced theater director, which has clearly aided in his successful transition to cinema. The Gothic allure of Lady Macbeth is both refreshing and captivating, and make no mistake: There is nothing theatrical or stiff about the film. Much has been made about Pugh as an ascendant new star (including our own interview with the young actress, here), but Oldroyd himself is no less revelatory. He handles his camera in a way that demonstrates a formidable use of space—capturing our gaze with every frame, he means to shake us, and does. We spoke to the 38-year-old writer director about his leading star, the transition from theater to cinema and Skyping with his cinematographer.
Jordan Ruimy, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Florence Pugh is incredible in this film.
William Oldroyd (WO): Well, she brought that herself. We did everything to make her understand the conventions of the time because, a young woman representing Katherine, she wanted to fight for the character. Her instinct throughout was to fight back. A lot of it was in the writing; she understood Katherine’s predicament.
MM: Had you seen the previous film version [Siberian Lady Macbeth, 1962] from Andrzej Wajda?
WO: No, I had not, but watching that would be very interesting. I wasn’t aware of it when we were making the film, I only became aware of it when we were in Poland.
MM: Did you keep any of the fundamentals that you learned in the theater with Lady Macbeth?
WO: The two things I did were: We had a rehearsal, and we shot the film in sequence. I was a bit nervous about abandoning those two fundamental elements that I have used in theater. Usually, there are five weeks of rehearsal with the writer and actors and we just unpack the play. My job as a director is to help the actors understand what the writer is trying to achieve. We had 24 days to make this film, so we didn’t have the luxury to work on it as it went, so I wanted to have some rehearsal. I also very much wanted to shoot this film in sequence, which we were able to do because we had a single location, more or less. We were able to book our actors for those 24 days. I think that really helped me, it really helped me to not feel like I was jumping into something with any sort of bearings.
MM: On the other hand, did you fear the transition from theater to cinema might make your film feel too theatrical?
WO: I did feel very nervous that the movie would look like it was filmed in the theater. So, you know, working very closely with cinematographer and editor, I relied on them to help make sure it felt like cinema and not a filmed play. Making my second short film, “Best,” made me question what exactly the driving force of cinema is. The spoken word is the engine for theater and it may not be the case in cinema: There is less of a reliance on text and language. “Best” was me using less dialogue.
MM: Did you storyboard at all?
WO: Our shot list was pretty thorough. Our cinematographer lived in Melbourne so we did most of our preparation on Skype [laughs]. We had about three weeks on Skype doing the prep.
MM: How did you fund Lady Macbeth?
WO: There is a team in the U.K. [iFeatures], which is helped by BBC Films and the BFI, and every three years they produce three feature-length films which are made for 350,000 pounds [approx. US$450,000]. They take first-time feature directors, who have experience with short films or theater or TV, and allow them to jump into cinema. They had around 300 applicants, so there was a process of elimination with interviews in which we had to present material. They narrowed it down to 40, then 18, and then we pitched Lady Macbeth. It was a book our screenwriter, Alice Birch, had found and thought would be fantastic. Nobody had really made a period drama on that sort of budget; they thought it would be impossible. We thought it would, actually, be an experiment to see if it would be possible to do a British period drama on 350,000 pounds. Would it actually be useful creatively? They liked that idea, so they selected our project. That scheme is really the best sort of support I could think of in the U.K.
MM: Because the film is set in a single location, that must have helped the budget.
WO: Yes, exactly. We said it would be a film [with] six people and we would shot it in 24 days. We could afford to do that. The key was to have a script that people actually wanted to do.
MM: Were 24 days too little time?
WO: It gave me around three hours per scene, which meant I had to make a lot of decisions up front. If I had more time, perhaps I would have been more flexible, but it did help me make decisions on the fly. We were lucky as well because we had our editor on set, so he was assembling as we went because we were shooting in order. By the end of the third week, he had roughly assembled at least three-quarters of the film, which meant we could see what was missing and resolve those pickups in our last week. Those were things that were so useful to us. MM
Lady Macbeth opened in theaters July 14, 2017, courtesy of Roadside Attractions.