How Macbeth‘s Producer Brought the Rogue Adaptation to the Screen

Though Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth isn’t necessarily the kind of adaptation that promises to satisfy strict Bard purists, it may be one of the more accessible and artful adaptations committed to the screen. A measured melodrama, graphic western and disturbing horror film wrapped in a neat Shakespearean package, this Macbeth for a new age stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the titular Lord and Lady. Treading the well-worn story of greed and loss with newly thoughtful footsteps, Macbeth works from a screenplay that plays strict homage to the original work while allowing for the kinds of modern flourishes that bring to light issues of PTSD and infertility.

Despite its modern bent, the film endured a surprisingly long road after being discovered in screenplay form nearly 14 years ago, and struggled through an incredibly demanding shoot during one of the toughest Irish winters in history. We spoke with producer Iain Canning whose credits include such awards favorites as The King’s Speech and Shame, about his involvement with the project, his relationship with Michael Fassbender, and why he can’t wait for Macbeth to open in America.

You’ve had quite a prestigious career and have an amazing backlog of films, how did you get your start?

I guess, in a weird way, my start links a little back to Macbeth. I was hired straight out of University to be a sort of copy-making tea maker at a production company in London. And I would, probably inappropriately, read every contract and script that I had to copy. The company was Renaissance Films and had been known for producing Kenneth Branagh's Shakespeare films, and we were sent a lot of Shakespeare films as a result of having that legacy and that company name. The script that was the basis for the film came through Renaissance probably 14 years ago and I read it while I was photocopying it for all of the execs in the company, and thought if I ever became a producer that I would love to be a part of that film. I left that company and I ended up working with some Australian companies, and through that I became an executive producer in Control and Hunger and became friends with my partner Emile Sherman in that process. Then we thought we’d be brave and set up our own company, and then The King’s Speech was sort of our first producing job in that company. So it’s all kicked off from there.

Michael Fassbender is Macbeth. Courtesy Weinstein Co.

So even as early as Hunger, you were collaborating with Michael Fassbender. How have you cultivated this relationship with him?

He is such an incredible actor and his performance style and his authentic performance self is just incredible. We were just very lucky to find him. Steve McQueen enticed him into Hunger and the physical ordeal that that was going to require, and then in producing Shame we worked with him again. We worked in a slightly different capacity with Slow West, which he was an executive producer on and he came to us asking if we could help him fund it. Having had that set of films and knowing how incredible he is as an actor, it was pretty black and white that the way of making sense of making Macbeth was sending it to Michael, and if he would agree to do the film, then we could sort of see a road map for making it. Some critics have said that he was born to play the role, he brings such the right acting energy to it. So when he said yes, we were overjoyed.

Did he take a bit of convincing to get into the role? It’s a notoriously difficult one.

He’s a brave actor, and I think he had equal amounts of trepidation and excitement about playing that role. I think some of his heroes have played that role as well. He just grabbed it. And then I think it was really all about finding the right director to deliver the overall film that we wanted.

And Justin Kurzel, if he isn’t the right director I genuinely don’t know who would be. How did you get him attached to the project?

We’re an Australian and a UK company, and we try to be as on the ground as possible in terms of finding director talent in the UK and Australia, and [The] Snowtown [Murders] for Emile. It was just such an incredible meditation on how a central figure within a community can seduce that community into following them despite terrible deeds. When you apply the central core of Snowtown and you layer it into Macbeth, you can see that the filmmaker is going to bring something really special to it. And we were also lucky in the fact that Michael [Fassbender] and Justin [Kurzel] had met previously about another project that for whatever reason didn’t move ahead. And so Michael had already watched Snowtown and he’d already wanted to work with Justin. So it was a very easy combination of people considering everyone already wanted to work together, and this provided that opportunity.

Marion Cotillard is Lady Macbeth. Courtesy Weinstein Co. 

Despite how right the cast and crew seems to be, you guys faced some very serious weather when it came to shooting, is that right?

Well, it was a real 360 shooting experience in the sense that Justin was really super keen for the film to have scope and to mirror the emotional state of some great film Westerns. We were going to shoot in the winter, but then we had the worst winter of the last 50 years. We were hearing stories where whole sets had lifted off the floor and moved, it was pretty intense. But I have to say with everyone involved, that they so believed in Justin and the film and the adaptation that they just really battled through and I think everyone was incredible professionals. I do think everyone knew it would be a very strange Macbeth if it was blue skies the whole time. It was an incredible challenge in terms of morale and braving the weather, but I think everyone believed in what they were doing and believed in Justin.
And the film, it premiered at Cannes earlier this year and is still forthcoming in the US. It opened in the UK, what’s been the reception there?

It’s gone incredibly well! It’s really achieved our goal of bringing in new audiences, but I am really keen for it to be released in the US. I think there’s a way that we’ve come at this film which allows people who would normally say, “Oh that’s a Shakespeare film,” to rethink it. And Justin comes at it from a visceral and emotional place, I think you can track all the characters. Whether you’re a Shakespeare expert, or you’ve never heard of Shakespeare at all, this is the kind of film that would embrace you and is told in a way where you’re sort of thrilled from start to finish. I think that makes it a universal story and I think that’s why I’m excited to see it released over here. Especially so everyone can see how Michael and Marion [Cotillard] are. They’re incredible actors and they’re really electric in the film.

I wanted to mention Marion because she’s astonishing.

She’s incredible. I think that we definitely knew that Marion was taking on quite a challenge when she took on the role. She had never played Lady Macbeth before, and in some respects, the verse is almost a foreign language within English, which is a foreign language to her in the first place. So that was always going to be a challenge, but she’s just an incredible actress. She’s committed and she loses herself within her roles. I think she realized it was a challenge and that she couldn’t allow herself to fail. There are parts in the film where she just makes sense of the character, especially because Lady Macbeth is sometimes played a little bit big in terms of being the aggressive, manipulative wife. I think Justin and Marion really spoke about bringing a more human edge to that performance so that we could emotionally track it. I just think you look into your eyes, you see her performance and you’re just mesmerized.

And was Marion a late addition?

Yes, Natalie Portman was originally going to be in the role, but due to scheduling conflicts, we had to find a new Lady Macbeth. It felt like it was a film thriving on challenges. In terms of the schedule, in terms of the weather issues and we just thought about who we could find. Actually, Michael Fassbender and Justin discussed it and came up with Marion and we supported that. We were very lucky that Marion said yes and that she was willing to take on that challenge.

They’ve got a really lovely and perverse kind of chemistry. Since Fassbender helped to find Marion, do you know if they’d known each other before?

I think they’d met before, but they hadn’t worked together before. They are now working together on Assassin’s Creed. As a producer, to bring those two actors together in those roles, it’s a dream, really. So I’m super happy. When you see the film and the history in their eyes, in terms of their relationship and the sadness and the hope, I can’t really imagine the film any other way.

So, even outside of Macbeth you’ve sort of displayed a propensity for grittier projects, or if not grittier, than simply more adult. What do you detect as your throughline in your projects?

I think, first and foremost it’s about the storyteller. Whether that be Jane Campion or Steve McQueen or a wonderful script, it’s really about a filmmaker or storyteller having a view on the world that we want to support. Secondly, I think on a personal level for Emile and I, we have to feel like the film is saying something about the world that we live in right now. In many ways The King’s Speech was about friendship, about breaking through personal limitations, and achieving things you might not necessarily feel are achievable and i think it’s sort of nice to get messages like that into the world. It’s also important to get messages out that for people who come from extreme circumstances, like war, that when they come back, we’ve got to look out for them. Care about them and make sure that they’re not too suffering from the memories of what it was like in war zones. There’s a huge allegory through Macbeth about PTSD and i think for us it’s about being able to support a filmmaker and storyteller and also say something about the world that we live in.

So is it safe to say a Marvel film isn’t in your future?

Not necessarily. If you look at X-Men, you could certainly say it’s a look at civil rights, different aspects of American society and history. Never say never. But it would have to say something about the way we live.

And what have you got in store for us next? I know you were working on something with John Cameron Mitchell.

Yes, it’s just about to start shooting. It’s called How to Talk to Girls at Parties, and it’s an adaptation by Philippa Goslett and John Cameron Mitchell, and it’s adapted from a Neil Gaiman short story. It tells the story of a young man growing up just outside London in 1977. He’s sort of embracing the punk scene, but like most of teenage boys, his focus is finding a girlfriend. After being kicked out of a club for being too young, He stumbles across a party and it’s full of incredible attractive people that seem very otherworldly. He mistakes them for Americans, rather than aliens, which is what they are. So it’s this Romeo and Juliet inspired story of a punk and an alien coming together and the unlikely relationship that forms from there.

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