By Gary Foss | February 7, 2022
The Tragedy of Macbeth
The Scottish Movie: Mary Zophres
After hundreds of years of adoration and interpretation, tackling Shakespeare is daunting for any production. However, the tragedy of the Thane of Cawdor turned King of Scotland is the directorial equivalent of walking into fire. Notoriously bad luck, the story is a mystical political thriller, murder plot, and historical drama. More time separated Shakespeare from the historical Macbeth than separates us from Shakespeare. The play was performed on a 44’ by 27’ stage. To capture that spatial limitation the film is shot on sets with minimalist architecture that cuts shapes and angles across a spare background so the characters seem to wander through an Escher drawing.
Costume designer Mary Zophres helped bring the players to life and worked at a breakneck pace. “Joel Coen and I had our first meeting in July. I would say there were about 50 black-and-white photographs that he and DP Bruno Delbonnel had assembled. It was very much the language of the film—Roman and Gothic archways and staircases fading into shadow and stained-glass windows. They were the visual beats of the movie, but there were very few shots of people with clothing on.”
The first thing to do for a Shakespeare adaptation is to decide upon the era and place. Contemporary productions might put The Merchant of Venice in Venice, California, or portray Hamlet as a frustrated high school prom king. “We weren’t locked into any time, but we were inspired by the medieval period when Macbeth really lived, in the 11th century, not when Shakespeare wrote the play.” The spare, architectural sets directly influenced her thinking from the beginning. “My first reaction when Joel showed me the minimalist, graphic, and linear photographs that inspired him was that we needed very specific silhouettes that are as graphic as these images to occupy these spaces. That was our launching-off point. It was a matter of finding those shapes.”
IS THAT A DAGGER?
The relationship of Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) is the bloody, beating heart of the story. Conjuring Macbeth meant considering the physicality of the actor as well as the role. “At our first fitting I brought a sketch that I had for him. When he looked at it, I said, ‘Yes, I am asking you to wear a skirt, but I promise it won’t feel like one.’ He thought that was funny. ‘Okay, when can we get started?’ He was totally game.” Macbeth’s garments required many fittings and adjustments. It couldn’t be too snug because he had a lot of sitting, movement, and sword fighting to do. Zophres had to make sure he was comfortable. “I did not want it to feel like he was in a costume,” she explains, “except one time and that was intentional. After the murder, he feels like he doesn’t belong in his clothes because he’s wearing King Duncan’s cape with gold stars.” He wears the dead king’s mantle for one scene after taking the throne, shedding it when he meets the murderers. We never see him in it again.
Lady Macbeth is the driving force of the plot, her ambition propels the action. Her look becomes the archetype for all the women of the court. “We found the silhouette that flattered her. It’s a triangle from the side with an elongated back. A very similar pattern is worn by Lady Macduff (Moses Ingram), and even the servants who are working alongside her all have that same silhouette.” Like her king, she wears a rare, precious brocade just at the moment when she reaches pinnacle. Later, when guilt and madness overtake her, and she sleepwalks through the castle, Zophres realized that her nightgown was going to need some special treatment. “When it first came out of the tailor shop, the hem was machine sewn. We took out the stitch because it needed to be done by hand. By exacting hands to be sure, but by hand.”
The most startling performance comes from the Witch/Witches (Kathryn Hunter) whose shocking transformation from weird sister to crow is accomplished by the actor’s extraordinary physical performance and some clever costumes. Zophres enthuses, “We had fittings at Warner Bros. and she would do some of her movements. When she twists her limbs, they don’t look human anymore. I remember saying, ‘She shouldn’t have her arms covered at all, and we need to see part of her legs.’ We just started taking things off of her. We had a cowl on her head that was a hand knit, then we glued the unfinished ends to her forehead. That was meant to take away her hair, ears, and neck—any human characteristics. It was so much fun. I’ll never forget that fitting.”
Director Joel Coen knew the scene worked because the first audience, the crew, responded to it so well. “First the crew put down their stuff and got close to the monitors. Then they moved to the edge of the set. When she finished, they burst into applause. There is no CGI, no tricks. Just Kathryn in costume on a stretch of sand.”
FLOWER & SERPENT
Like the Witches, Ross (Alex Hassell) is a character whose scenes weave the story together. Sometimes narrator, and at other times a shadowy provocateur has a courtly costume and another more discreet look when quietly up to no good. “We looked at hundreds of images and landed on this gown-like shape with wings. When I met with Alex, I saw he has broad shoulders, but a very narrow waist and hips. I saw his physique and said, ‘Oh, we can go very slim on him.’ In our second fitting, we just started taking it in and taking it in until the whole look became a sort of cylinder, which was in keeping with the geometric shapes.” The fitted sleeves form wings that are part of the pattern of the cowl he wears over his fitted tunic and gives the character a connection to the Witches and their crow theme. While his thin, angular silhouette suggests a scarecrow. Crow, courtier, and executioner, the combination conveys the character’s ambiguous motives. Hassell describes the experience lavishly: “It meant the costume married up with the character. You could never quite tell who he was. He seemed to have no fixed aspect in a way that was fascinating to perform, and I learned a great deal just putting the costume on.”
“This is a story of characters who are like chess pieces moving around the interiors,” she explains. Ultimately, the costumes become the epicenter of the tableau, and Zophres the chess master.