Movies: Interview with Lady Macbeth director William Oldroyd
Lady Macbeth is riding a wave of feminist revisionism that emerged with Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad and crests with the forthcoming Ophelia, but director William Oldroyd says more women’s stories should be told. Not just because they’re full of drama. But female actors are available. They’re better. They’re also cheaper.
By Katherine Monk
In 1865, an author by the name of Nikolai Leskov picked up on something his contemporaries were doing. He revised Shakespearean drama for a Russian audience, playing with context but keeping the core of the character intact. Ivan Turgenev offered up Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District in 1859, and Leskov published Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District — a bodice-ripping, bed-post gripping romance featuring a young woman in a loveless marriage.
A century and a half later, we can see a similar trend emerging as filmmakers once more revamp Shakespeare, as well as other classics, to find modern truths. Sofia Coppola recently gave us the Beguiled from a female point of view. Margaret Atwood already rewrote the Iliad as the Penelopiad and soon, we’re going to get Ophelia — the other half of the Hamlet story starring Daisy Ridley and Naomi Watts.
English Filmmaker William Oldroyd wasn’t setting out to be part of a creative wave when he met with playwright Alice Birch, but when she told him about Lady Macbeth, an 1865 novella about a headstrong young woman named Katherine — he was intrigued. Two years later, he premiered Lady Macbeth — his debut feature scripted by Birch — at the Toronto International Film Festival to glowing reviews.
The Ex-Press reached Oldroyd over the phone from Toronto earlier this week, shortly before Lady Macbeth’s Canadian release.
Ex-Press: How did this all begin?
Oldroyd: Creative England has a program to create and nurture first-time filmmakers. They raise money through the British Film Institute and this fund is open to anybody with a little bit of experience in other fields. And I had experience in theatre, and I applied. They received about 300 applications… so we had to get through several rounds. I think it went from 300 to18, to 10 to five, and then three that were actually greenlit.
Ex-Press: What were they looking for?
Oldroyd: They asked for something audacious. So we said how about a period costume drama made for under half a million dollars… They obviously loved the story and what Alice had done with the script. I guess there’s an element of risk there and they were encouraged to take a risk…
Ex-Press: Shakespeare in England seems sacred. They bought into the revision, obviously.
Oldroyd: That was all in the original book. We kept the period of 1865 when he wrote the book, because it heightens Katherine’s sense of desperation. She was so isolated. She was the property of her husband. That didn’t change until 1870, when the Married Woman’s Property Act came in. Essentially they were interested in the idea that a man had written this in the mid-19th century — and that he would understand how a young woman would do such despicable things, which was a bit like the Lady Macbeth of the play. But Lady Macbeth asks to be unsexed in order to be cruel. But we felt a woman could be as cruel without that implication. That she was pushed into it, basically.
Ex-Press: Was that the central attraction? How did you find the story?
Oldroyd: Alice (Birch), the screenwriter, introduced me to the book. We share the same agent. I had made a bunch of short films and I was encouraged to make a feature. She introduced me to the book. And I had read some of her plays and this is her first screenplay. When we met, she said she had this book which she was thinking of adapting in some form. I read it and thought it would be great. The central character is so interesting mainly because we’re so used to, in the UK, the conventional young bride who is trapped, and begins and affair and is stopped. And we know the usual narrative is that she is punished, or kills herself, or runs away. And what was so exciting about this was that Katherine has none of those outcomes. She actually fought back and this takes us into a different genre. Not a revenge thriller but something far more hot-blooded. I really liked that quality to it.
The central character is so interesting mainly because we’re so used to, in the UK, the conventional young bride who is trapped, and begins and affair and is stopped. And we know the usual narrative is that she is punished, or kills herself, or runs away.
Ex-Press: She does manifest a lot of primal predatory female behaviour… how did you relate to her, given you’re a man? Do you understand women any better?
Oldroyd: I was lucky to work with Alice (Birch), who wrote the screenplay, and Fodhla (Cronin O’Reilly) who produced. Ari (Wegner) was our cinematographer, and she helped a lot… I was surrounded by people who were guiding me and helping me see the story from Katherine’s point-of-view. What Alice so brilliantly does is help us understand why Katherine behaves this way. Because in the novella, we are never really given justification for Katherine’s actions. She’s just villainous, really.
What Alice so brilliantly does is help us understand why Katherine behaves this way. Because in the novella, we are never really given justification for Katherine’s actions. She’s just villainous, really.
Ex-Press: And Russian…
Oldroyd: I think what Alice has done, and what I aimed to do with the film, is give at least some justification for her actions. We set it up at the beginning as a very difficult environment. We were all staunch defenders of Katherine, especially Florence (Pugh, who plays Katherine). And that was important. We didn’t want anybody to judge her from a distance.
Ex-Press: As a theatre director. You must have directed a production of Macbeth.
Oldroyd: Yes. One production of Macbeth.
Ex-Press: What is the essence of Shakespeare’s character and what has been reborn here?
Oldroyd: Crucially, The Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play is concerned with power. But Katherine really just wants to be able to go outside and have some modicum of independence and freedom, which we don’t feel is a really unreasonable request. But in the context of the story she is denied this. She is kept imprisoned to do her duty. What Lady Macbeth needs, in the play, in order to achieve that is that she asks the spirit to let her be unsexed and filled with cruelty. Katherine doesn’t do that. She just has that determination from the beginning, and acts as any young person might if they are put upon the way that Katherine is. But she there are a few crossover elements. She is the one who gives Sebastian the courage to continue with her plan. She is also sleepless, there’s a sleeplessness element to it, which is a carry over… and she’s a very good actor. At that last moment, she processes things so quickly to get herself out of the situation.
Ex-Press: And that’s when her villainy is truly revealed. She’s a cold-hearted bitch. Or is she?
Oldroyd: Ha ha! Well. There is pleasure in seeing someone like that on screen. Usually we see men in that role. So I’ve really enjoyed seeing a woman in this way. Women are meant to behave themselves, and it’s nice to show a woman on screen who doesn’t behave. She manifests every contradiction, without apologizing. Basically, we’ve let people make up their own mind about her.
Ex-Press: Women rarely get benefit of the doubt. Oliver Stone said he wrote Gordon Gekko as a villainous satire of capitalism. He was a joke on greed, but he became an icon. A hero for the 1980s. Guys are allowed to be morally bankrupt and heroic at the same time. Look at Trump.
Oldroyd: Clearly. Look at Wall Street as well. They are awful people, but we are compelled to watch.
Ex-Press: What do you understand about that compulsion, as well as the gender gap?
Oldroyd: The whole femme fatale phenomenon. It’s easy to pigeonhole. I see this film as an opportunity to redress what you are talking about. But talking to my friends who know a lot more about feminism than I do say she can’t possibly be a feminist because what she does is for a man.
I see this film as an opportunity to redress what you are talking about. But talking to my friends who know a lot more about feminism than I do say she can’t possibly be a feminist because what she does is for a man
Oldroyd: I see it as just something she attaches her passion to. It’s not Sebastian. He is just a conduit really, but because he is a man, she can’t be a true feminist heroine.
Ex-Press: Is she a heroine for getting what she wants?
Oldroyd: She does some amazing things. And she is on screen 98 per cent of the time. So I’m not worried about that. I like that she’s there.
Ex-Press: And she is self-possessed for the duration. And because of that, I am there for the voyage. But finding the right pitch: How do you keep us from suspending judgment?
Oldroyd: By casting Florence. She has a great sense of humour, and she brings it to the character. She always found the right quality. The right levity in certain moments. I think what you are also referring to is that moment where she … says I’d rather stop you breathing … which feels like a threat in some ways. Essentially, she is saying you’ve got me but don’t cross me. He’s in too far at that point. But it’s about her control and how she does it. That’s the scene that should be, technically, the most romantic scene in the film because it’s about a declaration of love. But it’s one where she actually says don’t push me. Don’t betray me.
Ex-Press: Women and men look at relationships from a completely different perspectives. And now we are seeing the other side thanks to Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, Sofia Coppola’s Beguiled. Soon, we’ll see Daisy Ridley in Ophelia. Does this fit into this feminist wave of revisionism?
Oldroyd: Yes, because Alice has changed the end of the book. In the book there is this whole fourth act where Katherine is punished, sent to a penal colony in Siberia, becomes jealous of someone Sebastian was in love with and throws herself into the sea….
Ex-Press: Perfect. Very Russian. Very period.
Oldroyd: But… we let her win. Even if it’s hollow, she defeats him with her wit…. If there is any revisionism that’s it…
Ex-Press: I always thought the Bard had a feminist streak in him. No?
Oldroyd: Well. Most of the action is still carried out by men. Alice actually has a play she wrote called Ophelia’s Room, which looks at Hamlet from her point-of-view. She’s only in a few scenes in Hamlet, so this is her doing what she is reported to be doing when she is not onstage. She is praying, sewing, reading… and I think sleeping. That was an interesting way of looking at it… And maybe Queen Margaret in the Henry plays… she’s amazing, but still not that many women in the work.
Ex-Press: What are we missing when we don’t get these fleshed out characters?
Oldroyd: Rich story. Also think of how many fantastic actors there are out there who are not getting the chance to shine. Women in the 35-50 bracket are particularly phenomenal, but they aren’t getting the chances. The argument can’t be that people won’t see them. Are women directors more inclined to make films with women at the heart of them? Maybe that is true. I happen to love the character of Katherine and loved making a film with her at the heart of it. Alice wanted to do the same thing. We have a real missed opportunity to not work with women because you can end up working with a far better female actor than you can a man, just because they are available. You are shooting yourself in the foot by not doing it, really, and they are better than the men… and, I say this as a joke, but they are also cheaper.
..Think of how many fantastic actors there are out there who are not getting the chance to shine. Women in the 35-50 bracket are particularly phenomenal, but they aren’t getting the chances. The argument can’t be that people won’t see them
Ex-Press: Yeah. True. Shouldn’t be the case, though… More work to do on that score. And more work for you, perhaps, with women. What are you working on now?
Oldroyd: I’m working on a Barbara Kingsolver adaptation, the Poisonwood Bible, about a minister who goes to the Congo to convert the Congolese, and told from point-of-view of four daughters. It’s a big book: Six hundred pages. So I’m looking for a way to tell the story. I’m just developing it now.
Ex-Press: What is your favourite part of the filmmaking process, given that this is your first feature, and you come from theatre? Would you go back to the stage?
Oldroyd: I’d love to go back to theatre, but the film work is taking up a lot of time. I love rehearsal. It’s where you really make it, and it’s an organic process. I am always looking for that in film, but you don’t have the actors before shooting. Maybe the edit is where you can try a few things out, but you have to have enough footage to play with it, enough coverage to totally change it if you wanted to…
Ex-Press: It’s a different kind of directing. Were you comfortable?
Oldroyd: It was the first time I had ever been on a film set. The short films I made in an afternoon, in a field or graveyard. This time, I had a proper crew. It’s like you are playing the role of the director. You are acting. That’s a tough position to be in. The more work you’ve made, the more you can relax. You have that backup. I felt like I was being tested by the whole crew, the whole time. Can he do it? And I had that question myself. I had to really plan and know what I wanted. Planning helped a lot. Not a great one for planning in the past. It was tough shoot. But I think it was better that way.
Lady Macbeth opens in select markets across Canada and the U.S. July 28, and expands over the summer.
Photos courtesy of D Films.
THE EX-PRESS.COM, July 29, 2017