Director of photography Bruno Delbonnel’s first three collaborations with Joel and Ethan Coen ranged from a comic segment of the anthology film “Paris, Je T’aime” in 2006 to the NYC ’60s-era folk music dramedy “Inside Llewyn Davis” to their hilariously idiosyncratic Western “The History Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” But even having worked with the directors on a range of subject that wide, Delbonnel was still surprised by the next film Joel contacted him about, one he would be directing without Ethan by his side.
“He called me one day and said, ‘I want to do this little movie, it’s called ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth,’” Delbonnel told Indiewire in a recent interview. “I don’t want to shoot a play, I want it to be a movie — but I’m interested in exploring the theatricality, and what is theater. And I don’t want to go to Scotland, I want to shoot everything on a stage.” Over the course of a year of discussions and planning, Delbonnel realized that Shakespeare’s ideas and dialogue were so complex and beautiful that the simplest possible form would be ideal to express them; he adopted the idea that the film would be the cinematic equivalent of a haiku, where a whole world is conveyed in a few sentences.
To that end, Delbonnel and production designer Stefan Dechant eschewed as much ornamentation as possible in the lighting and sets, stripping the imagery down to its essentials. One of the first decisions Coen and Delbonnel made in order to achieve the abstracted quality they desired was to shoot in black-and-white; the other was composing for the almost square Academy aspect ratio (a choice that makes the film particularly stunning when viewed on a vertically oriented IMAX screen). “We wanted to focus on the rhythm of Shakespeare’s language and the power of the lines, and there is nothing better for close-ups and establishing the presence of the actor on screen than the Academy frame,” Delbonnel explained. “If you think about the same scene in anamorphic, you have a lot of air on both sides, which for us would have been counterproductive. You’d see the sets, when what we really wanted to see was the face filling the frame as much as possible.”
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That said, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is as striking in its wide shots as in its close-ups, with particularly dazzling work by Dechant and Delbonnel on exteriors recreated on soundstages on the Warner Brothers lot, for which they relied on painted backdrops rather than contemporary technologies. “We thought that the theatricality of a painted sky was more interesting than trying to create a sky later in post, so we embraced old-fashioned technology. If you look at ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ there’s a beautiful shot at the beginning where Henry Fonda is walking on a road and you know it’s on stage — everything is fake and it’s absolutely gorgeous.” Dechant collaborated closely with Delbonnel on the interiors as well, often painting shadows directly onto the sets to accommodate a lighting approach that was emotionally motivated but, in a literal sense, almost completely unrealistic. “There were very few windows, and almost no practical lighting,” Delbonnel said, “nothing justifying the light, basically.”
As has typically been the case on Coen films, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” was meticulously storyboarded and shot-listed, though Delbonnel clarified that planning the shots was a fluid process throughout pre-production. “There were three weeks of rehearsal,” Delbonnel said, “and while we storyboarded and shot-listed the entire movie before that, during rehearsal Joel would come to me every day and say, ‘In the rehearsal Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand did this,’ and based on that we would change the storyboards a little bit to make the shots more interesting.” Once production began, Coen and Delbonnel stuck closely to their planned shots, though Delbonnel still allowed the actors freedom of movement, lighting the sets in a way that gave them a “playground” in which they could perform. “For example, in what we called the oculus room, where Macbeth talks to the murderers and there’s a big shaft of light in the middle, I basically told Denzel Washington he could feel free to go wherever he wanted, because I could see him anywhere,” Delbonnel recalled. “He could play with the light, and sometimes he’d be in silhouette.”
Delbonnel shot “The Tragedy of Macbeth” in color and converted to black-and-white in post in order to use the RGB curves as a form of filtration. “We were able to play with the blue layers, for example,” he remembered. “If you do that on a color sensor and transform it into black-and-white, the blue behaves like a filter that changes the skin tones and everything else, so in the DI we were able to expand the gray scale using all three curves.”
Overall “The Tragedy of Macbeth” was a fairly smooth experience for Delbonnel, with the exception of one major challenge: the arrival of COVID-19 in the middle of production. “We shut down on March 13 — Friday the 13th, and here we were shooting ‘Macbeth,’ which is the ‘cursed play,’” Delbonnel said with a laugh. “When we came back four months later to resume shooting, the restrictions were so severe that I couldn’t change anything — I had to go with what I had rigged before COVID. I wasn’t allowed to have anybody change the light, so there are a few shots — no one would notice them but me — where it isn’t quite right.”
Nevertheless, to the outside viewer’s eye “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is remarkable in its consistency and in the precision of its visual corollary to Shakespeare’s words, which is just as Delbonnel hoped. “This movie is about rhythm,” he concluded. “It’s about the light being a rhythm inside the rhythm of the language, and the rhythm of the way the actors walk across the set, and there’s the rhythm of the sound design and music. It’s a rhythm inside a rhythm inside a rhythm.”