Writer/director Justin Kurzel broke out of the Australian independent film scene with SNOWTOWN (AFI FEST 2011), a disturbing true crime retelling of a vicious spree of cult murders in the 1990s.
Curious, then, that his next feature should be MACBETH, a Shakespeare adaptation that finds Kurzel working on a bigger-budget canvas carried by two Hollywood headliners: Michael Fassbender as the ambitious Macbeth, and Marion Cotillard as his Lady, tortured by guilt.
A premiere at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, and an AFI FEST Special Screening, this bold new version of MACBETH makes the title character’s descent into madness visceral, earthly and real — much like Kurzel’s striking debut.
AFI: Your feature debut, SNOWTOWN, was an Australian independent genre movie. Your next film was MACBETH, a big, bold Shakespeare adaptation carried by marquee names. Was this a challenging transition?
Justin Kurzel: I always seem to do things that scare me and take me out of my comfort zone. Doing a Shakespeare adaptation as my second film did make me nervous. But I thought the idea of Michael playing Macbeth was very exciting, and I did have a background as a theater designer so the text was familiar. I also loved how ambition in the script was charged with a strong sense of grief rather than power; I found that to be very fresh.
The biggest challenge was how to transform “Macbeth” into a piece of cinema.
MACBETH dwells in a world of witches, ghosts and other uncanny happenings, yet visually you keep the film grounded in reality. Why was this the right way for you to tell the story?
The screenplay was very grounded and seemed to evoke a realism that was guided by this whole notion of Macbeth as a battle-worn warrior. I liked the idea that it was set in the badlands of 11th-century Scotland, an unforgiving time and place. For me, the landscape of Scotland played a huge part in haunting the characters and their actions.
In terms of speaking in Shakespearian dialogue, and delivering a number of intense and poetic soliloquies, how did you direct your actors between takes? Cotillard’s “Out, damned spot” moment is one of the highlights of the film.
The actors knew the verse inside out when we started, so I directed in a very similar way as in SNOWTOWN, which was to provide an intimate place where the actors could engage with each other in as honest a way as possible. I think great acting is about listening, being emotionally present for each other, so the approach to the poetry was to keep it very real and grounded.
And yes, Marion is amazing with “Out, damned spot”; she brought a dignity to that scene which I think was very moving.
The last director to notably tackle the play was Roman Polanski. Did you take any inspiration from him, or did you avoid his controversial 1971 version altogether?
I am a big fan of Polanski so I was aware of his version of MACBETH. It’s a powerful and brave film especially considering it was made so close to the real-life tragedy in his life.
I have seen so many productions of MACBETH that it is hard not to be exposed to the many visions of it. The work has baggage, so you have to acknowledge that most people are familiar with the material and it is important to find your own voice in it.
What will American audiences find most surprising about your version of MACBETH?
That it has two of the most stunning actors in the world playing two of the most extraordinary characters ever written.
MACBETH opens Friday, December 4 in limited release. Watch the trailer below.