Interview: Making ‘Lady Macbeth’

William Oldroyd and Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly are, respectively, the director and lead producer of Lady Macbeth. Based on a Russian novella of the same name, the film premiered at the London Film Festival in 2016 and was nominated for Best First Feature. This 19th century period drama details Katherine’s struggle for freedom against her repressive husband and father-in-law. It will be released in Irish cinemas on the 28th April 2017.


Did the original play Macbeth have any sort of influence on the making of the film? Several elements seem to have been inspired by it, for instance, the sleeplessness and guilt scenes towards the end.

William Oldroyd: Not for us. Our film is based on a novella by Nikolai Leskow, the Russian novelist. In the book, he gave Katherine the nickname Lady Macbeth because he couldn’t understand how a woman would do such despicable things without being like her.S o perhaps he put those elements in, and through the translation and adaptation we inherited them.

It’s great you pick up on the sleeplessness, because that is something we consciously thought about. If someone wants to pick up on it, it’s there. They did ‘kill sleep’ in Macbeth – and that does happen in our film. Sebastian, who I suppose is like Macbeth, is unable to sleep when he’s seduced by Katherine. His guilty conscience doesn’t allow him to.


What was it like adapting the novella?

Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly: The screenwriter actually spent a huge amount of time fleshing out characters.

William Oldroyd: And actually inventing characters. She invented Adla, the cook, to serve as a vehicle for Katherine’s jealousy. She became a really important character because she is like another Katherine in a way. Katherine is a servant to the bed and Adla is a servant to the house, and ironically she is the servant who has far more freedom. So there was a really nice contrast there.


I interpreted Katherine’s story as being two separate rebellions. One against societal norms, like in her affair with Sebastian, and the other against gender norms.

WO: Well, that was what drew us to the material in the first place. People have commented that even though this is a period drama, it feels quite modern. Well, it is modern due to the way she acts, for the period. In 1865, that’s just not how women were expected to behave.


If you were selling the film, would you pitch it as a period drama or an anti-period drama?

FCR: Someone had a great line about the film; it’s a radical drama that happens to be set in the past. I think that’s very much our positioning. Yeah, it’s a period film and we want people who love period films to go see it. We don’t have grand sets or lots of period costumes.

WO: So it’s anti-period drama in that sense. We felt that the things you expect to see in a period drama weren’t important to us. We did talk about contemporising it, we were like ‘this would work today.’ However, the stakes are immediately lower. You don’t have the sense of isolation in 2017. You also don’t have the most important theme, that Katherine is owned. She’s shackled. It wasn’t until 1870 that women could own property or stop being owned by their husbands. So that’s why we wanted to keep it in the past.

FCR: So we set out to make a British period drama but hopefully with an original twist. Hopefully that will entice people to go see it.

Katherine’s husband says directly in one harrowing scene that ‘he bought her along with the land.’ Was it to you to address this so directly in the film?

WO: There’s some places we’ve been to where gender politics are still stuck in the past. So we might say this is outrageous, the idea that someone would be owned by somebody else – that you could almost take it for granted. But we feel it needs to be addressed. I was asked this question before, about what progress has been made since 1865. On the one hand, a lot of progress has been made. On the other hand, a man has been elected to the highest office in America, and possibly in the West, who has openly humiliated a woman in a TV interview and privately bragged about sexually humiliating women. So you could ask ‘what progress has really been made?’


Sexual liberation is a major theme of the film, and is the main contrast between Katherine’s relationships with Alexander and Sebastian. How was it filming the sex scenes?

WO: When those scenes were happening, we would try to keep the room empty of anybody who didn’t need to be there. It was a closed set.

We had a female director of photography, a female camera assistant, and a female sound operator. Having so many women on set was fantastic and did actually create a different sort of environment. A safer one, I think, for Florence [Pugh]. I’ve talked to her since and she’s been on other jobs where she’s had to do some quite explicit nudity and sex scenes. She remarked that it quite repressive on the set because it was all men.

Without trust though, you couldn’t do those scenes. We had seven to ten days of rehearsal beforehand and they were able to get to know each other, so it didn’t feel as weird when they were doing it. Ultimately I would never ask an actor to do anything they weren’t comfortable doing.


Does Katherine love Sebastian, or is her affair with him mainly a ‘fuck you’ to her husband?

WO: It’s passion. It’s not him per se, it’s what he represents. Very strong emotion and means towards independence. So it’s a rebellion. She can’t imagine going back to her previous situation, but not necessarily for the love of this man.


The film is full of moral ambiguity – it is debatable whether Katherine is any more moral than the forces she’s fighting against. How do people react to her?

WO: We found that people will go along with her up to a point, and then there’s a line that is crossed. People are really split. Some people say that this is the logical conclusion for the film, and others are like ‘God, this is too far.’ There isn’t really an answer. It’s what you feel. But it’s interesting that it does get you to question your morality, and you find the point to which it is “justified”, for you.

FCR: That was one of the biggest challenges during development – trying to work out a way to make people empathise with Katherine when she does some God awful things.


Do you think Katherine ultimately loses the rebellion against society?

WO: Well, she uses class to get her own way. She’s not from that background, she marries into it, but then she uses it to her advantage. She knows that the upper class in Victorian England is going to take her word. She totally uses that tactically. At the end, I do think it’s a victory for her, but it’s a hollow victory. The irony being that she is now alone. She’s free of everything which she hated at the beginning, but she ends up more trapped than ever.


Why should people go and see the film?

WO: If you don’t like period dramas, you’re going to love this film. And if you do love period dramas, you’re going to love this film.

FRC: If you want to see a British period drama with a twist… go see our film!

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