Interview: Justin Kurzel – 'It was the vision of Michael Fassbender as Macbeth that first intrigued me'
The director discusses his gritty, bloody adaptation of Shakespeare's Scottish tragedy
Macbeth. The Scottish play. One of Shakespeare's most famous and bloody tragedies. An epic story that has been adapted time and time again on stage and screen (most notably by Orson Welles in 1947 and Roman Polanski in 1971). Nearly everyone has either studied it at school or seen at least one version over the years. Somehow Australian director Justin Kurzel has managed to make this 400-year-old text feel fresh with his new adaptation starring Michael Fassbender in the title role and Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth. The leads are backed up by a strong British and Scottish cast with Sean Harris as Macduff, David Thewlis as Duncan, Paddy Considine as Banquo and David Hayman as Lennox.
'It was the perfect storm. I was coming off another film at the time. Michael had seen The Snowtown Murders and we were talking about doing something together and he gave me the script for Macbeth,' explains Kurzel. 'But it was the vision of Michael as Macbeth that first intrigued me.'
Screenwriters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso streamlined the play, stripping it to its bones. 'I started seeing it as a western; there's something very interesting about these characters being isolated and brutalised by the environment and the times,' adds Kurzel. 'The badlands of 11th-century Scotland and how hard it was to survive. What it was to be a warrior in this place.'
Intrigued by the psychology behind the characters, grounding it in the real world, they explored concepts of post-traumatic stress, obsession and neurosis. Fassbender's Macbeth is an honourable man driven to violence and insanity, corrupted by his thirst for power. Unsurprisingly it's a muscular, formidable performance from a magnificent Fassbender. 'Desperate is a really great word,' says Kurzel. 'I always saw these characters as reaching for something unattainable, filling a void and filling their grief with ambition, but it'll never be enough. The witches are an extension of his psychology, his state of mind at the beginning of the film.’
Kurzel cleverly switches from intimate close-ups to stark longshots. 'You can bring the camera close and the verse can be like whispers or secrets. That became a very interesting dynamic, where you could be in the heat of a conversation between two characters then burst out into the landscape and make that conversation feel so small and almost irrelevant.'
Kurzel and his team were looking for the truth behind the story. They wanted to capture the grim reality of life in Scotland during the Middle Ages, and referred to Cameron Taylor and Alistair Murray's book On the Trail of the Real Macbeth for guidance. The imposing Scottish geography would become integral to the film, as would the grime, dirt and harsh conditions of the time. 'I didn't want to do a remake or set it in modern day. I was very excited by the idea of doing it in his homeland and embracing that landscape,' says Kurzel. 'My first trip to Skye, it was unbelievably beautiful but frighteningly majestic and ancient, you could imagine spirits and witches. It all made sense.'
However the experience of filming in the Highlands inevitably threw up its own challenges. 'It was unbelievably horrendous. It's an unforgiving landscape. We were shooting in the middle of winter. I did the location scouting in the middle of summer and it seemed so charming and awe inspiring. Then we arrived and you are watching your production designer flying across the camera, literally picked up [by the wind], or Marion Cotillard disappearing in a bog … it was really formidable. But it was also what we were getting most inspired by, this unforgiving land that we were just trespassers on.'
Macbeth is on general release from Fri 2 Oct.