by Anmol AhujaMar 29, 2022
To adapt stage to cinema is imparting it another dimension altogether. The painted canvas background in a cinematic landscape may now be a limitless sky, a fathomless field, or another confine more soundly constructed. The world assumes depth; its edifices, definition. The fallacy here though is that the medium of projection is still strictly two-dimensional, even if the world in it may not be. The characters are farther from the viewer, even when the emotional crevices on their faces may be closely viewed. It's a rather dichotomous relationship, and both have immensely benefited from as well as invited didactic comparisons through the adaptability of one medium to another. Designing for these worlds, however, remains a particularly tricky task: freeing, and at the same time, immensely guided by predecessors - a factor compounded by the adapted literature being Shakespearean. Which is principally why I come off particularly impressed by Stefan Dechant's stellar design of the 2021 feature, The Tragedy of Macbeth. Striving on a rare balance that doesn't stave off its roots as a filmic adaptation of a play, and yet producing something entirely unique, Dechant's design is stark and minimal, and yet bold in its conception of harbouring human deceit and ambition. In an exclusive conversation with STIR, the Oscar nominated production designer talks about his distinct influences, creating architectural abstractions to inhabit the film's world, and navigating stylistic choices to make it all feel just right.
Right from the opening scene, an ignominious gloom hangs over most of the principal proceedings in the film. A flock of ravens circles over a battlefield as our troubled protagonist is introduced and visited upon by three sinister witches, whose prophecy is to prove his unbecoming. A thick fog blankets not just the field and the witches' robes meeting the parched ground, but even the sky from which the camera descends - an introduction to Joel Coen’s 'stage' for the dire drama to unfold. The two most obvious observations, at least visually, right as the first frame appears following the opening credits, are the high contrast black and white, and the near square aspect ratio. These two choices to shoot and present the film are inescapably omniscient, impinging upon the viewer, and major determinants on not only how one experiences the film, but also on how the film was created behind the scenes. Both of these choices are, in a way, very direct descendants of how one would perceive a stage production: the limited space of the theatre, and the dramatic play of light and shadow in isolating duality. Coen’s script, comprising a great percentage of Shakespeare's original text from the play mouthed verbatim by the actors, is then just a smidge of how much Macbeth alludes and aspires to its theatre counterpart.
“It just felt right,” stated Dechant, as we got deeper into the chat on the film’s look and feel, and how it came to decide nearly every aspect of the production design. Apart from the ‘human’ angle that is immensely played up in the squared up aspect ratio and the monochromatic shots of the film, with the medium tailor-made for capturing faces, expressions and tensions, the-squarer-than-academy-ratio allowed Dechant to design more consciously along the vertical frame. The increased longitude imparted an unmistakable scale to the proceedings of the tragic epic, manifested with finesse in the rather oblong medieval edifices of Dechant’s creation.
These sets, as much as you can say, are constructed out of wood, or plaster and paint. But they are also constructed out of light and shadow.
Another major way the stage, the theatre, influences the production design of the film is in the abstractions of place in the film, a sort of distortion on a historic lens of place that befalls most period pieces. Despite being set in the English hinterland, the film is bereft of any typical notions of a castle or fortress, or of any dominant architectural motifs of the time or nation. The architecture is simultaneously that of the present and of the past. By not adhering to the rather stringent classicality of architecture or being true to architectural systems and roots affords the film two things. The first - the film is easily able to dissociate itself temporally, alluding to the theatrical aspiration of complete immersion. The second - through the “no-place”, a feeling of uncanny eeriness is driven home - in line with the gloom of the impending tragedy in the play. At any point in time, Dechant’s structures in Coen’s film have an air of deceit, a melancholy about them, irrespective of whether the space is inhabited in that instance by a human or not. Why this is a surreal achievement for me particularly is because now, the architecture emotes on human lines, but without a host. The world of the film, confined to a metaphorical stage, may thus come to exist in true isolation.
Akin to what Grant Major, Oscar nominated production designer for The Power of the Dog, elucidated during his interview with STIR, Dechant too had a plethora of classic film references at his disposal that helped him form a visual library for his production design. From Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter, to Akira Kurosawa's Macbeth adaptation Throne of Blood, to even Universal's Classic Monster universe, Dechant seemed particularly inspired by the abstracted, even at times rudimentary nature of these sets and how effective they were still, the metaphorical and literal darkness in them, bringing them to a degree of refinement that was much more in line with the times. Yet still, several nods to the theatre emerge in the form of painted backdrops - a starry sky painted on a vast canvas, standing in stark contrast against an imposing Inverness - the latter itself inspired from Casa Luis Barragan. Interestingly enough, Barragan dabbled in colour in nearly all his buildings, with the monochrome far from his palette. But the scale, the form, and the mass of solidity in relation to the openness seemed perfect for both Coen and Dechant as a structure housing secrets, and the site of Macbeth's orchestrations and eventual descent into madness. By pitting artifice against edifice, and vice versa on certain occasions, Dechant's work evokes the starkness of realism with the feeling of walking in a fever dream.
This subtle subterfuge between artifice and edifice is particularly visible in Macbeth's apparitions and visions, and in a fair bit of overshadowing as is typical of Shakespearean tales. The isle of columns in the Throne room doubling up as the logs of the Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane hill, for instance, is an excellent parallel between the built and the unbuilt, and an indication of things to come, the fulfilment of the witches' prophecy. During his Soliloquy, Macbeth sees the door handle shaped like a dagger, sealing his fate in that moment. Additionally, in what is easily the best set and scene in the film, when Macbeth is visited by the three witches in the apparition room as it slowly fills with water, Dechant, Coen, and Bruno Delbonell, the film's cinematographer, deliver an essential masterclass in build, composition, and framing in shots. A narrow beam of light pierces the setting, as the three witches perched atop orthogonally placed rafts play out their orchestrations, and Macbeth hallucinates through the water he collects in his hands.
To Dechant, this monochromatic deluge of references and styles were instinctive, feeling “just right”, aiding him in casting a land at the exact precipice of fiction, fantasy, and dream. The black and white, along with the square aspect ratio of the film then don’t feel like stylistic choices or something even resembling an afterthought. It’s the way the film was supposed to be shot and made, set in stone, and it is hard to even begin imagining an alternate form for it.
The film, in the running for Best Production Design, Cinematography, and Best Actor for Denzel Washington at the 94th Academy Awards, is now streaming on Apple TV.
Watch the full interview by clicking on the cover video.
Mise-en-scène with STIR:
In a series of conversations with this year's Oscar-nominated production designers, STIR attempts to decipher the genesis, visualisation, and the process of breathing life into fantastical cinematic landscapes. From the dusty depths of Arrakis, to the uncanny concrete landscape of Inverness, the rustic barns of the West, and a dubious fever-dream disguised as a carnival, discover new worlds in stimulating conversations with Oscar winner Patrice Vermette, and his fellow nominees Stefan Dechant, Grant Major, and Tamara Deverell.