TOIL AND TROU­BLE

Snow­town di­rec­tor Justin Kurzel tells Michael Bodey why Mac­beth was the per­fect choice for his fol­low-up film

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

It’s not as though Mac­beth hasn’t been at­tacked with gusto on screen be­fore. Or­son Welles, Sean Con­nery, Ian McKellen (in a filmed stage ver­sion) and Pa­trick Stewart are among the stars to have en­veloped them­selves in the sound and fury that sur­rounds Shake­speare’s Scot­tish kingslayer turned king, while Welles, Akira Kuro­sawa and Ro­man Polan­ski are among the di­rec­tors to in­ter­pret the play for the screen.

Even Aus­tralia had a dip with a 2006 gang­lands Mel­bourne in­car­na­tion di­rected by Ge­of­frey Wright of Romper Stom­per fame, fea­tur­ing a young Sam Wor­thing­ton in the lead role.

So of all the plays in all the world, why did the Aus­tralian di­rec­tor of the ac­claimed Snow­town, Justin Kurzel, choose Mac­beth as the source ma­te­rial for his sec­ond full fea­ture? That’s tak­ing on some sort of bur­den, surely.

“Yeah, well you’ve got to get over that kind of quickly,” the South Aus­tralian film­maker says.

“To be hon­est I felt more of a bur­den do­ing Snow­town — there was the sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity for a true event and real peo­ple’s lives that were de­picted, and the un­cer­tainty of how that film would be re­ceived.”

Kurzel’s chill­ing 2011 drama­ti­sa­tion of the bod­ies-in-the-bar­rels mur­ders on the out­skirts of Ade­laide en­grossed any view­ers bold enough to watch it. While Mac­beth is also a bloody story, it’s a very dif­fer­ent pro­ject, Kurzel says, if only due to its om­nipres­ence.

He un­der­stands that hun­dreds of pro­duc­tions of Shake­speare’s tow­er­ing work have been pro­duced for the stage and the screen. So the pres­sure is dif­fer­ent “be­cause you have a piece that’s so fa­mil­iar and you’re do­ing it for an au­di­ence a lot of whom have prob­a­bly seen it be­fore, and you’re try­ing to give a fresh in­ter­pre­ta­tion to that.’’

In one re­gard, Mac­beth is sim­i­lar to Snow­town, which as The Snow­town Mur­ders won a spe­cial jury prize in the Crit­ics Week sec­tion of the Cannes film fes­ti­val (a decade af­ter Kurzel’s short film Blue Tongue screened at Cannes; Mac­beth was cho­sen for the Cannes of­fi­cial com­pe­ti­tion in May). But that’s where the sim­i­lar­i­ties end as Kurzel moves from the bar­ren, im­pov­er­ished sub­urbs out­side Ade­laide to a sweep­ing Scot­tish plain that be­comes the bat­tle­field rather than the orig­i­nal text’s heath.

And af­ter di­rect­ing a cast of no-name, first­time ac­tors in Snow­town, Kurzel has a cin­e­matic dream team of Michael Fass­ben­der in the ti­tle role and Os­car-win­ning French ac­tress Mar­ion Cotil­lard as Lady Mac­beth. As such, the whole en­ter­prise was a shock to the sys­tem, the 41year-old ad­mits.

“It was so out of my com­fort zone — even though I came from the theatre and had de­signed Shake­speare plays and was kind of fa­mil­iar with work­ing with the verse, it was still a re­ally dif­fer­ent choice from Snow­town. And then to be an Aus­tralian com­ing over here to make a film in the UK by Wil­liam Shake­speare?” Kurzel is still a bit sur­prised at se­cur­ing two of the world’s hottest ac­tors for the film.

The re­sult is a stun­ning, fu­ri­ous, un-stagy ver­sion that has al­ready been em­braced by the au­di­ence most likely to tear strips off it: Bri­tish film crit­ics. In a four-star re­view BBC critic Ni­cholas Bar­ber de­scribes Kurzel’s adap­ta­tion as “au­da­cious” and “awe-in­spir­ing”.

Yet the film is al­most an ac­ci­den­tal Mac­beth. Kurzel had laboured for 18 months on another pro­ject that fell through very late in the piece. He con­cedes he was “kind of de­pressed” and lurch­ing through “that sec­ond film syn­drome” and ag­o­nis­ing about what to do af­ter his sin­gu­lar fea­ture de­but.

Then Kurzel met Fass­ben­der, star of the X-Men se­ries and Os­car nom­i­nee for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, at a Lon­don pub — just to trade mu­tual ad­mi­ra­tion. But di­rec­tor and ac­tor soon re­alised they “felt like two like minds that hope­fully one day could work to­gether”.

As it hap­pened, the English-Aus­tralian pro­duc­ing team be­hind The King’s Speech, Iain Can­ning and Emile Sher­man, soon de­liv­ered

Kurzel a Mac­beth screen­play by Ja­cob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso, not­ing Fass­ben­der was “re­ally in­ter­ested in it”.

The ac­tor’s at­tach­ment made “com­plete sense” to Kurzel, as did the screen­play. “It was re­ally in­ter­est­ing, cin­e­matic, and it read like a western. I’d been look­ing around at west­erns and I was quite in­ter­ested in land­scape.

“It had a lot of space in it, was set in Scot­land in the times — the last thing I wanted to do was a Shake­speare adap­ta­tion as a mod­ern-day thing, or hav­ing a high con­cept on it or any­thing like that.’’

He adds that “there was a clar­ity to it that made sense about what it must have re­ally been like in 1057, hav­ing the real Mac­beth a war­rior liv­ing in that land­scape, sur­rounded by that bru­tal­ity’’.

And, like Snow­town in a sense, this Mac­beth is an es­say on vi­o­lence, a look at a cer­tain kind of evil and mad­ness and guilt. Kurzel’s film is no­table for be­ing vis­ually ar­rest­ing yet chal­leng­ing, be­cause his char­ac­ters are worn and beaten. Early on he ad­dresses one of the key ques­tions of the play — Mac­beth and his wife’s lack of chil­dren — by show­ing them at their child’s fu­neral, frag­ile, grief stricken, tired and des­per­ate. Mac­beth and Lady Mac­beth see the witches’ prophecy of killing the king as a way of re­build­ing their lives to­gether, which makes this more than a por­trait of pure am­bi­tion.

For Kurzel, the nar­ra­tive in­trigue, sim­i­lar­i­ties to Snow­town and tim­ing made for a per­fect pro­ject, one that hap­pened rather quickly, the only speed bumps be­ing the first Lady Mac­beth, Natalie Port­man, leav­ing the role, and also a brief flir­ta­tion with film­ing in Aus­tralia be­ing killed by union op­po­si­tion to the for­eign leads.

“It was al­ways go­ing to be made in Scot­land, in the place it was set,” Kurzel says. “It would have been a real chal­lenge to shoot it in Aus­tralia, es­pe­cially the light and the con­di­tions.

“The film is so par­tic­u­lar to that land­scape and such a riff off that land­scape that I can’t imag­ine do­ing it any­where else now. Scot­land was a huge part of the grain and grit of the film and you kind of feel Mac­beth’s mad­ness def­i­nitely caught up in that land­scape.”

The Scot­tish lo­ca­tion was not with­out its chal­lenges, but they were ones that in­fuse the film with re­al­ity. “It is kind of ridicu­lous,’’ Kurzel re­calls, “stand­ing on a moun­tain, be­ing told you’ve got to get off in five min­utes be­cause a storm’s com­ing in from Nor­way that could kill ev­ery­one — and you’re try­ing to do the most in- ti­mate verse that’s ever been writ­ten. There is a kind of mad­ness to it but I think that’s what I was re­ally in­ter­ested in: how the verse didn’t es­sen­tially lead or mo­tor and fuel the whole film.”

Kurzel wanted to have the words “dance with an en­vi­ron­ment and a con­text and a place” as they do in west­erns.

“The idea there’s a space around words and when peo­ple do speak it’s soft and in­ti­mate and al­most like a con­fes­sion, and then you sud­denly cut out to a land­scape that is so enor­mous and so in­tim­i­dat­ing and sit­ting amongst it is that small lit­tle fig­ure you’ve just had a con­ver­sa­tion with,” he ex­plains.

That con­trast is a very Aus­tralian thing too, he ob­serves, in that we have a con­nec­tion with the vast­ness of the in­tim­i­dat­ing land­scape that sur­rounds us. The Scot­tish land­scape “that just goes on and on and on and com­pletely dwarfs you was just so right for this piece’’, he adds.

“And I guess it comes back to that ques­tion, where you can be so pre­oc­cu­pied by the past Mac­beths and the fa­mous por­tray­als of Mac­beth, and we never re­ally went there be­cause we were so inspired by the places and the land­scape in which we were shoot­ing,” Kurzel says.

He — and a num­ber of Aus­tralian key cre­ative team mem­bers in­clud­ing cin­e­matog­ra­pher Adam Arka­paw, pro­duc­tion de­signer Fiona Crom­bie and com­poser Jed Kurzel (the di­rec­tor’s brother) — aimed to cre­ate an au­then­tic world first “and then the story and the verse danced amongst that”.

“And there was this sense of want­ing to prove my­self a bit, too, to sort of come over here and do such a trea­sured piece and do it in Scot­land. I felt a real re­spon­si­bil­ity to make sure I was do­ing ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to make it work.”

Mac­beth opens on Oc­to­ber 1 and will be re­viewed next week by David Strat­ton.

YOU CAN FEEL MAC­BETH’S MAD­NESS IN THE LAND­SCAPE

JUSTIN KURZEL

Michael Fass­ben­der in Mac­beth, left; di­rec­tor Justin Kurzel on the set with Fass­ben­der and Mar­ion Cotil­lard, be­low

Lu­cas Pit­t­away in Kurzel’s first fea­ture, Snow­town

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