INTERVIEW: WILLIAM OLDROYD
This interview was originally published in Spanish magazine Miradas de Cine and can be found here.
The D'A Film Festival of Barcelona opens today with one of the most impressive feature debuts of the year: Lady Macbeth. Based on the short novel “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, by Nikolai Leskov, William Oldroyd's first film premiered at the Toronto Festival and won the FIPRESCI prize in San Sebastian last September. It was there that I was fascinated by its captivating formalism, and where I sat down with Oldroyd for a long conversation about the film. I think the first important SPOLIER comes as soon as the third question, so read at your own risk if you have not seen the movie (yet).
The film starts at a frantic narrative pace. Why did you want to enter history so quickly, without even allowing the viewer time to process where he is?
Because I thought that it was very important that we discover the characters and the situation through Katherine, through her point of view. There were some scenes that gave more information about her previous life, but we decided to drop them. We felt that if we entered directly into the film, at a point where she herself is looking around and trying to understand the situation, who is this man with whom she has married, who is the maid..., then we started the movie watching the world through her eyes, which is the goal. From there, we establish how her new life is going to be very soon, and this hits us just as it hits her. She is there on her wedding night, optimistic, because maybe this wedding will work... but suddenly the husband makes her undress and leaves her standing there against the wall and gets into bed. We thought that it was important to establish very soon that this is going to be her life, and thus be able to move quickly towards the rest of the film.
That’s a very powerful moment: when the husband tells her to turn against the wall and masturbates. It starts as a wide shot of her from his point of view (so we see what is exciting him), but then you cut to a profile close-up of her, which covers most of the scene. Is there a moral decision in that cut, in the decision of abandoning the husband's perspective?
Well, actually the idea was to try to get into her head. In the wide shot she is standing next to a vase of flowers, which is an object, just as she is an object. That wide shot at the beginning is mainly due to this, it expresses how she is objectified by this man and that is why I liked to put the two objects together. And then once we know what is happening, we cut to her in profile, because we want to see her reaction, what goes through her mind while she has to stay there and wait for him to end. We hear what the husband does in bed, and that is much worse than seeing him.
This idea that what is heard is more powerful than what is seen is very present in other parts of the film, such as in the murder of the father in law... Can you comment on this?
I think it's better for me to trust the imagination of the audience rather than having to show them everything. Although it's true that there are things you have to show them, like for example I wanted to show Alexander's murder, because of how fast and surprising it is, both for us and for Katherine and Sebastian. It is not premeditated, it is accidental: she has the impulse to take that and use it, in self-defense, and therefore it had to be a shock in the movie, and that's why we show it. But with poisoning of Boris, which is so premeditated, it is much more powerful not to show it and force us to imagine it from what we hear.
Actually, this is a little trick that I learned from the theater, where there are so many things that we do not see but we are told, because they supposedly happened offstage. It is something that comes from the Greek tragedies, from the messengers who came and described, for example, what had happened when Oedipus discovered that he had slept with his mother. And then Oedipus enters with the blood in his eyes and you know what he has done, but you have imagined it because they told you, not because you have seen it.
Speaking of the explicitness of the murder of Alexander... could you talk about how you shot the sex scenes, which are not hidden although they are not too explicit?
I wanted sex to be in real time, I do not like it when we just get a quick montage of a few seconds. That’s cheating. In the case of the first sex scene, I thought the scene had to last as long as it would last in reality, which makes it feel very realistic. Because we do not know when was the last time he was with a woman, but we can imagine that if he is so excited, he will be quick. So, we see the whole scene, in real time. Then there is another sex scene, the second, just before the priest comes... I wanted him not to be romantic but passionate, maybe animal. After all, Sebastian is a bit like an animal, and he's surrounded by animals all day.
Another important element in the film is repetition. There are many shots that repeat again and again, like the ones at the beginning of each day. Was this supposed to emphasize the oppression that the new routine of this house means for Katherine?
Yes, exactly. That's what we do with Anna going into the bedroom every morning. Also, if you create a routine and keep it, then at a given moment you can change a small thing and that makes a big difference. For example, when Anna enters one morning, and Katherine is not there. Because we know that every morning, in exactly the same shot, Anna enters and opens the curtains, the fact that this morning she’s not there makes us wonder where she is, and then we cut and discover it. There is a break, something different, and that should lead the viewer to wonder what has changed... and soon after the poisoning occurs.
That shot of the bedroom in the morning, which is the most repeated of the film, is re-framed by the door. This is device (the frame within a frame) that you use a lot in the film. Why?
Because it reinforces the idea that Katherine is trapped in this house. Especially in the first act, we try to get a certain prison feeling. Everything we did had to lead the viewer to feel that this girl is imprisoned in this house. Also, for example, in sound: the corset has to sound strong, when Anna brushes her hair it has to sound loud, violent, the door closing has to sound like the door of a prison... Everything goes in this direction.
After Anna poisons her father-in-law, many of these repetitions begin to end. It seems that there is much less repetition, because obviously the routine has been opened or has become less rigid.
Yes, and even when the husband starts to leave, there is a change. Katherine goes outside for the first time... The camera moves differently when the men leave, and when they return, we return to a much more static camerawork, with the camera locked on the tripod.
When Catherine goes outside for the first time it is very evident that the camera is released like her. But there are also other interior scenes where the camera is not static but has a very subtle movement that introduces a variation. For example, at the beginning of the scene where he kills Alexander. Why?
It is very curious that you mention it, because that was very well-thought. On the one hand we had connected the free movements of the camera with Sebastian, starting from the first time Katherine goes outside. And on the other, the static camera is linked to Alexander [the husband] and Boris [the father-in-law]. Then, in this scene both worlds come together, which generates a great tension that is noticeable in the camera. It's as if we wanted to keep the camera static, but it still moves a little. And then when the fight starts the camera is released to try to capture that sense of energy, and it makes sense, because Sebastian's world (the free and moving camera) wins in the fight.
We said that the repetitions of shots in the house served to emphasize the oppression of Katherine, trapped in this house, and that is why they are diluted when she kills the men and the house stops being a prison. But then why do you repeat several of those shots of the beginning (corridor, window, stairs, sofa) towards the end, in the last scene?
Because we wanted to show that there is really an irony in all this, which is that she has achieved what she wanted, her independence and freedom, but she is actually not much freer now than when she started. The imprisonment of the beginning, imposed from the outside, is swapped now by her own imprisonment that she has imposed on herself. She has killed everyone who meddled in his way, but now she has returned to the starting point, to the same routine in the house.
There are many long takes in wide static shots in the film. Which filmmakers influenced you in this aesthetic?
I'm very interested in Béla Tarr's work. Although obviously his shots are much longer and have many movements. But I do not like tracking shots too much, because I become too aware of the camera and the director, unless it is very subtle. Even slow zoom-ins tend to make me too aware. I feel like the director is telling me how to feel, and I do not like it. As if he was saying: now I'm zooming in and so the tension is increasing, and I want you to feel it... I prefer to keep the camera in its place and move the actors closer to the camera, or far away, and change the composition this way. But I would never do what Béla Tarr does, because he cuts only every 12 minutes, when the roll runs out... and I think... They are amazing movies, but I cannot make a 7-hour movie. And much less as my first one, nobody would give me the money.
There are other filmmakers who have influenced me, the ones I like the most, I suppose. Like Michael Haneke, who I think is a master of composition and long shots, the greatest artist of simple compositions full of tension. In Caché(2005), for example, or The White Ribbon(2009). And others like Kelly Reichart, Gus Van Sant... For example, Last Days(2005) was a very important reference for us. Because we know what will happen, it is inevitable, that Kurt Cobain will die, and we are seeing his last days. So, all the information is given to us from the beginning, but the tension comes from when. Another film we look at is Night Moves(2013), which is a very tense movie, for the same reasons. Because you know what they are going to do but you do not know the consequences, you do not know what will happen... And they have this typical American minimalism, which is very beautiful. It's good to have movies like these in your head... It does not mean that we tried to copy them, or we were trapped by them. For example, we move the camera when we need it, but we also keep in mind that we want to maintain simplicity and minimalism.
You mentioned that you do not like noticing the camera and the director. Weren’t you afraid that this might happen when Katherine goes out for the first time and the camera moves so much? Because that way of moving the camera is opposite to the rigidity of the rest of the movie, were not you afraid that they would not connect, or that it would be too obvious?
If it was too obvious, at least it would be for a reason. As long as I could justify why the camera moves that way, I did not care to be obvious. But I think it works well, because we connect that movement with Katherine's freedom.
The scene in which the child is suffocated is not only shot in a single very long take, but also from the back of the characters, so that we do not see what is happening at all. Maybe this one would be in the middle of the other two murders, since one of them is fully seen and the other one fully off-camera?
Maybe. In this scene I was very clear that if we cut, we would lose tension. What I wanted was that if someone needed some relief from that shot, they had to look away from the screen. And if the viewer knew or felt there was going to be a cut, or if there was, then they would not feel that. While if we maintain the tension of the single take, people have to look even if they do not want to. And I also wanted it to be real time. Because I read somewhere that it would take like 2 minutes to suffocate someone. And I thought, "Why don’t we try to find out? It will be horrible, but it is the murder of a child... it has to be horrible. It has to make people feel uncomfortable." And if you cut, people can relax.
But why is that single shot a back-shot?
Because of what I told you before about sound: I thought it would be more powerful if we heard it than if we saw it. I realized this while doing the movie, I did not know it before, or I was not aware of it. Of all the scenes in the film that I did not want to cut, this was the most important one. I did not care if it felt too long. And in fact, it is the longest shot of the movie.
After the murder there is a beautiful moment when the light of dawn comes in and we see it on the face of Katherine, in the foreground. Is that a moment of guilt, or is Katherine starting to act?
I think it's the only time she realizes... She's trying to stay calm, but she cannot help feeling guilty. The child is lying there, dead, and she can see it. Then when Anna comes in, she wipes her tears, takes a breath and restores herself, because she has to be strong, so I think that is the moment when she begins to act, and then the doctor and the police will come...
Like the beginning, the end is also very synthetic. There are two shot-reverse shots at 180º (when Sebastian accuses Katherine of the murders and when Anna is speechless and cannot betray her) which seem to relate to each other...
In the first one you mention, the scene with Sebastian, I liked that the whole context disappeared, and we were left alone with them. Because Sebastian comes by surprise and starts to say that they killed him, and all I want to see is Katherine's brain thinking "fuck, fuck, fuck ...". In fact, I wanted to keep the whole scene in that close-up of Katherine, just listening to Sebastian out of the shot. But in the edit we thought that we needed the reverse-shot because otherwise it felt too much against the natural desire of the audience, who want to see Sebastian as well. Sometimes it is good to subvert the expectations of the audience, but if you go too much against what an audience naturally expects, you may push them away from the moment. If the audience is thinking, even for a second, 'why aren’t you showing us Sebastian?' then they get out of this intense scene, in which we need them completely inside, without stopping to think that we are playing with them. Again, it's the director's hand: I do not like that the director's hand is too strong or obvious.
... and then, after the scene with Anna (also shot in a shot reverse-shot in 180º) we cut directly to the car in which Sebastian is taken. There are many moments like this, in which you cut from one scene to another with very precise ellipses, entering directly into the next scene without any sort of transition or establishing shot. Why?
I think... Look, I'll give you an example. There is a moment in La vie d’Adèle(2013) in which Adèle is eating pasta in the foreground. You see her, but you hear the TV, and you hear others eating, so you know she's home, that the TV is on, and that she's with her parents. It is not necessary to make a general shot of everyone eating pasta, a close-up of the TV, then return to the first shot of her, a medium shot of her parents ... etc. Because you get it all in one shot, the first shot of her, through sound, again. And this is important, understanding that the audience is smart and understands things, and not wasting time spoon-feeding them.
In Lady Macbeth we have a very big story to tell in 90 minutes, so it's much better to go straight into the scenes, without too much introduction. Which also keeps the viewer awake, actively thinking and deciphering things: who are these people, where are we, what is happening, what will happen next? Thus, the brain remains active. I think there's a lot of TV, at least in England, that stops the viewer's thinking. They sit there, comfortable, and they are given all the information, so their participation is minimal. But it's normal: if you've been working all day and you're tired when you get home, maybe you don’t want to be thinking about what you're seeing, maybe you just want to relax and enjoy someone telling you a story in which everything is well explained. But for me, this is a film in which to create tension we need the viewer to be involved all the time, working, asking questions. And that is achieved, among other things, by entering the scenes quickly and without warning, as in the beginning. Then we try to maintain that energy during the 90 minutes, with only a few moments of release, like when we go to a landscape... that work as small breaks. I'll try to do that in the next movie I do too, keeping people trying to figure things out all the time. The audience always manages to connect the dots, that's why you have to treat them like intelligent people.
Rigor and control seem very important elements in Lady Macbeth's aesthetics, and I wanted you to comment on that a bit. Do you think it is related to the fact that this is your first feature, in that making a rigorous and highly-planned film is a good way to keep everything under control?
Yes. I planned everything very much. I have never planned anything so much as I planned this movie. Each of the shots was very well-thought, because I did not want to waste anything. I think there are times when there is the danger of becoming lazy as a director, when you see that the whole team is very tired and you think "well, we shoot it from here and from there... and then we'll make it work in the edit". I wanted to get away from that. I was somehow proving myself: can I tell this on one shot, and if I did, where would I do it from and how would I choreograph it? Because we only had 24 days to shoot, so the idea was to shoot each scene in as few shots as possible, almost always below 3. That was our challenge. And then do very few takes, of course. Normally it was 2, 3 ... the maximum number of takes we did was 7.
But all these limitations that come with the small budget that we had made me think a lot, they forced me to be creative. We knew that we could not have extra days, that we could only have a closed number of actors, costumes... But all these become virtues in the end, because we found a certain formal austerity in design and production, which arose from a need, but which ends up being very powerful. And having only one location, or almost, we were lucky to be able to shoot in chronological order. Because we had the house for 24 days, so we could start at the beginning and make it chronological. Obviously, there are exceptions, such as the repeated shots that we mentioned before, but within that, we shot mostly in chronological order.
Do you have a new project in hand? And in any case, how would you like your next films to be?
There are a couple of things, I'm reading scripts and there are some that interest me, but nothing is closed, and I cannot comment on anything. But in my next films I would like to keep the two things we have mentioned: treating the viewer as someone intelligent; and keeping the simplicity and formal control, focusing on one or two things without trying to cover everything.