MURDER BY NUMBERS
How Lady Macbeth director William Oldroyd filmed the year’s most harrowing scene
THAT OLD MOVIE adage about never working with children doesn’t cut much ice with William Oldroyd. The director’s debut film, Lady Macbeth, a masterfully chilly adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s 19th century novella, saw him —and consider this the mother of all spoiler warnings — tackle one of the most challenging scenes imaginable. In it, Anton Palmer’s young ward, Teddy, is suffocated on a sofa by Florence Pugh’s ruthless heiress Katherine, with some help from her lover Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), to free her from a potential threat to her fortune. It’s gruelling and deeply uncomfortable viewing, and to make it work Oldroyd needed the full cooperation of Palmer, then just seven years old.
“Trust was key,” explains Oldroyd, “so it was important that Anton got to know Florence, Cosmo and me a bit before we started shooting.” To capture the murder itself, Oldroyd played to his young actor’s competitive nature. “Anton was never going to understand what he had to do in the film, and his mother didn’t want him to know, so we broke the scene down and made it a series of games he had to win.” First, Palmer was bet that he couldn’t lie still and count to a hundred. “Then I said, ‘When Florence touches your head, you’ve got to jump up and run to the door — I bet you can’t get there,’” recalls Oldroyd, “so Florence was physically pulling him down. Then I bet him that when she touched his shoulder, he couldn’t lie still and count to a hundred.” Palmer was game.
“‘I bet you I can,’ he’d say.”
For Pugh, the murder was understandably “difficult and stressful” to shoot. “I was in control of this kid who has a manic amount of energy and thinks it’s a game,” she remembers. “But we did it and it was great that Will wanted to get it in one take. It kept it pretty short.”
The final three-minute shot — one of three takes allowed by Palmer’s watching mother — has divided audiences. “Some have been angry,” notes Oldroyd, “because up until that point they were rooting for Katherine and [suddenly] it’s no longer clear cut. Other people feel, no, it was necessary.”
As for Palmer’s take on the matter, we’ll ask him. When he’s legally allowed to see the film in 2028.
LADY MACBETH IS OUT 4 DECEMBER ON DVD, BLU-RAY AND DOWNLOAD