When your whole filmmaking career has been one of unexpected twists and turns, how do you surprise yourself? Adapt a Shakespeare play.
You make enough movies about people chasing after things — outlaws, money, a kidnapped baby — and eventually someone comes chasing after you. In Joel Coen’s case, his pursuer was William Shakespeare.
As Coen put it recently, “Shakespeare is unavoidable.” He gave a resigned chuckle and added, “For better or worse.”
In a filmmaking career of nearly 40 years, Coen has chronicled a spectrum of well-spoken criminals and enlightened dudes in stories inflected with varying amounts of brutality and absurdity. He has directed 18 features and written several others with his brother, Ethan.
Having built a filmography characterized by unexpected twists and turns, Joel Coen has himself taken what may seem like a surprising pivot away from that body of work. His latest film, “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” is a shadowy and phantasmagoric rendition of the Shakespeare play, presented in black and white.
The movie, released theatrically in December and on Apple TV+ earlier this month, stars Denzel Washington as the murderous nobleman of the title and Frances McDormand as his scheming spouse, Lady Macbeth. It has already received numerous postseason plaudits and is considered a strong contender for Academy Award nominations; reviewing the film for The New York Times, A.O. Scott called it a “crackling, dagger-sharp screen adaptation.”
Coen is a dedicated theatergoer and an avid reader, though not one with any special knowledge of or affinity for Shakespeare. “I came to it as an amateur,” he said. “I’m still an amateur.”
But look closer at “Macbeth,” and there are aspects of the play that make it fitting and perhaps inevitable subject matter for Coen. “It’s a murder story,” he said. “In a way, it’s even a horror story.”
This somber tale may have proved an ideal escape for the director, coming at an unfamiliar juncture when Ethan had decided to take a break from film. Just when Joel was seeking new approaches to his cinematic craft as a solo director, his inspiration emerged from a foundational text of English literature.
“It was a deliberate choice to do something I had not done,” Coen said. “It was an opportunity to go out of the wheelhouse that I’d been in before. It’s something that demanded I do that.”
Coen, 67, was speaking earlier this month in a video interview from California. His demeanor suggested a mixture of Harold Ramis and Larry David; he could be avuncular and witty, but also defensive and averse to self-mythologizing.
A kind of interplay between high and low, serious and preposterous, foul and fair would seem to be omnipresent in the Coen brothers’ filmography, which has won them four Oscars, but Joel is not necessarily inclined to consider the through lines in their work.
He acknowledged that he and Ethan had made some quirky films over the years but said that “it was a mistake to think that any of it is planned.”
He added, “There’s never been any real design or architecture to what we’ve done.”
But even that absence of strategy was upended after their 2018 western anthology, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” when Ethan decided to focus on other endeavors.
Joel said that their partnership was flexible enough to accommodate this kind of disruption.
“It’s not like when we first got together, we planned on working together for 40 years,” he said. “It just kind of happened that way. When we said, ‘Let’s do some other stuff separately for a little while,’ it’s not like there’s any plan for how long and what that would mean.”
Joel said that making a movie without Ethan was like “having one eye put out” but added that there was “probably something healthy in taking a break.”
At the very least, it gave Joel the space to contemplate alien terrain like “Macbeth.” This was a thought he’d been kicking around since at least 2016, when McDormand, his wife and frequent collaborator, asked him about directing a production of the play, in which she had starred for Berkeley Repertory Theater.
Directing “Macbeth” for the stage did not appeal to Coen — “I don’t think I’d know what to do,” he said — but as a film, he saw its potential to allow him “to retreat from a lot of the ways I’d been working before.”
“I wanted to go as far as I could away from realism and more towards a theatrical presentation,” he said. “I was trying to strip things away and reduce things to a theatrical essence, but still have it be cinema.”
On a visual level, that meant leaning into the ambiguities of Shakespeare’s play, avoiding depictions that would provide too much specificity about when or where things are taking place.
“There is nothing certain about this movie, nothing sure about where it’s set,” said Bruno Delbonnel, the film’s cinematographer, who also worked with the Coens on “Buster Scruggs” and “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
“We were creating this world where you never know if you’re looking up or down,” Delbonnel said. “You never know if it’s night or day.”
That also meant digging down to find an essential Coen-ness in “Macbeth.” Carter Burwell, who has composed the scores for almost all the Coens’ films since their 1984 debut, “Blood Simple,” said that their movies are consistently concerned with “the pathos of people desperately trying to impose meaning on this life, this meaningless universe.”
The stories they have told — including “The Tragedy of Macbeth” — put the viewer “in the position of seeing everything that’s going on and the poor characters being helpless,” Burwell said. “The characters think they’re smart, they think they’re on top of things. And we can see that, in fact, they’re just flailing helplessly.”
Unlike, say, the brothers’ 2010 take on “True Grit” — when he deliberately did not watch the 1969 version — Joel Coen immersed himself in influences on “Macbeth”: He considered cinematic adaptations by Orson Welles and Roman Polanski, as well as Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood,” which transposes the drama to feudal Japan. He looked at films from Carl Dreyer, Masaki Kobayashi and F.W. Murnau, and read up on Edward Gordon Craig, the early 20th-century stage designer.
And when paring down “Macbeth” to under two hours, Coen didn’t hesitate to unsheathe his sword, citing Welles’s 1948 version as a gold standard of sorts.
“That’s a wacky movie,” Coen said. “Welles had no problem rearranging, cutting and inventing with Shakespeare. It was kind of liberating. You look at that and go, well, all right, he’s doing it.”
McDormand, who has won three Oscars for her performances and a fourth as a producer of “Nomadland,” joined “Macbeth” as its leading lady and as a producer, for self-evident reasons. “I’ve always worked with members of the family,” Coen said.
He had few words about the exit of Scott Rudin, who had produced Coen films like “No Country for Old Men” and “True Grit,” and who left this project and several others following a series of news media reports about his abusive behavior. “It’s a whole other discussion,” Coen said. “I don’t know what else to say.”
Coen and Delbonnel spent several months designing the aesthetic of their “Macbeth” and planning the shots for when filming took place in Los Angeles. Delbonnel said that Coen brought him in much earlier and more extensively than in movies Joel had directed with Ethan.
But in a fundamental way, Delbonnel said, Joel was no different than on previous films: “Sometimes he’ll ask you a question and say, ‘What do you think if we do that?’” Delbonnel said. “But then there’s a moment where he decides, OK, that’s what we’re going to do. And he knows exactly where it’s going.”
Not that there was much hesitation in casting Washington, a two-time Academy Award winner, as the title character. Washington said he was just as eager for the role, as he’d never worked with either Coen but considered himself a fan of their “dangerous” films.
“You’ll laugh or you’ll see somebody get their head blown off, possibly at the same time,” Washington said. “‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ is one of my favorite movies. I don’t even know why. It’s just so weird.”
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Washington found Coen’s eccentricities endearing, noting that the director would harp on one aspect of his diction.
“He would always talk to me about my R’s,” Washington said. “‘Make sure you hit the hard R’s.’ He was obsessed with R’s. I’m like, OK, arrrre you sure? He was crazy about it. ‘You gotta hit the R’s.’ What about the T’s or the L’s?”
Washington said he also appreciated Coen’s directive, beginning at rehearsals in early 2020, that there be “no stick-up-the-butt Shakespearean acting” in the film.
As the actor explained his take on this philosophy, “You can actually deliver a line and pick your nose at the same time. It’s OK, if your nose bothers you. If there’s a booger in there, then pick it, for crying out loud.”
Newcomers like Moses Ingram, the “Queen’s Gambit” star who made her feature debut in “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” said she felt as welcome on the set as its veteran leads and found Coen to be patient and compassionate.
Ingram, who plays Lady Macduff, said that sometimes after a take, “I’d run to the monitor and be freaked out by what I saw.” She continued, “He pulled me aside and said, ‘There will come a time in your career when you’ve done this enough, when you’ll be able to look at the monitor and see what you need to fix. This is your first feature, so wait on it, and feel it out and learn.”
Coen, in his idiosyncratic way, said he had no problem being gentle or firm with his actors as circumstances dictate. “I would never give an actor a line reading, but I would talk about the reading of a line,” he explained. “I’ve never had a problem going there.”
A greater concern arose well into principal photography, when the pandemic first struck and production was halted for several months.
“I was actually fairly certain that we weren’t going to be able to finish the movie,” Coen said. “I thought, this is going to be this strange thing where three quarters of the movie was shot and it never got finished.”
With its completion, Coen now finds himself with a second film reaching most of its viewership on a streaming service (following “Buster Scruggs,” which was released on Netflix).
While he sees the film business in a state of flux and hopes that theatrical moviegoing will survive, Coen was not particularly concerned that streaming would weaken “The Tragedy of Macbeth” or cinema itself. “I don’t have complaints about it, and I’m not a zealot in one direction or the other,” he said.
“There aren’t any filmmakers who want to see their work done on ever-diminishing platforms,” he said. “You worked too hard on making things, sweating all the details, and the difference between watching something on your computer alone and being in a theater with 400 people is obvious.”
However, Coen said that streaming services were “fantastic because they bring the movie to all kinds of people who ordinarily might not have given it a shot.”
The major platforms, he said, are “aware that this can’t just be a business where you’re dumping 40 new titles every other day on your service, and you want any of them to make a ripple in terms of people’s awareness.”
Streaming has also connected him to work like “The Beatles: Get Back,” Peter Jackson’s mammoth rock documentary on Disney+, which Coen called “a real mindblower,” adding, “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
Where possible, he tries to see movies in theaters or screening rooms. But if you find yourself beguiled by the convenience of home viewing, rest assured, Joel Coen does, too.
“I watch as much as I can and would like to see more things, and see them be in the theater longer,” he said. “But I’m also as guilty as the next person of going, oh, I’ll turn the streaming service on and see it there.”