Production Blog: “Blood and Death”

On location with Macbeth, somewhere in England. It’s day 6 of 18, and the end of our first week. Remarkably, given that we have to average 8 minutes of completed drama a day, we’re on schedule and not too far from our projected budget. Patrick Stewart has had a great week, delivering for us a performance of great intelligence and intensity. And our director Rupert Goold seems happy, not least because we’ve successfully murdered Lady Macduff and her three children, shot Young Siward and the Thane of Cawdor, and run riot through Birnam Wood with a troop of marauding soldiers. There has been blood.

As is standard on films, we are not shooting our screen version of the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Macbeth in strict sequence. The availability of actors, the demands of specific locations, and the efficiencies of bunching similar scenes together mean that when you are shooting a drama you invariably jump around in the story. But we have a particular complication in that our Lady Macbeth, Kate Fleetwood, has been on stage in London in Life is a Dream, which closes tonight. So our first week has involved all the scenes from which she is absent.

This has meant that we have shot all of Act IV and much of Act V, plus Macbeth and Banquo’s first encounter with the witches. The production is played in modern-dress, set in a totalitarian state with suggestions of Russia under Stalin. Consistent with this, the witches are early on nurses in a military field hospital and later sinister harpies with overtones of contemporary horror movies. Towards the end, Macbeth’s and Macduff’s opposing forces are dressed in battle fatigues and wield (real) AK-47s.

This morning, Saturday, we have eight or so soldiers plus thirty crew in one of the most remarkable locations in which I’ve filmed. (Apologies, but we have agreed that we will not disclose where we’re filming, although I hope we can do so later.) To get to the site we walk several hundred yards down a wide, dark tunnel of immaculate brickwork. At one point, a side arch opens out into a kind of cloister, over the central courtyard of which hangs an iron and glass canopy in a serious state of disrepair. If one was to build this in a studio it would cost tens, and probably hundreds, of thousands of dollars — and even then you’d never quite get the roots branching through the metalwork, the slime on the cracked glass, and the dank, dripping moss.

Shoot Location

The platoon with us is led by Malcolm (Scott Handy), Siward (Christopher Knott) and Macduff (Michael Feast) as they prepare for their final assault on Macbeth in Dunsinane. There are moments when it feels as if we’re trying to shoot the sequel to Saving Private Ryan, albeit on a budget that might buy lunch on a couple of days for a production like that. But our director of photography Sam McCurdy achieves edgy visuals with shadows, shapes close to the lens, torchlight flashes and tremulous camera movement.

We are filming with a pair of RED digital cameras, recording our high definition images directly onto hard discs. As a consequence there are neither rolls of film nor videotapes, and this lack is initially disconcerting for any of us who have not worked with this technology before. But as soon as a group of two or three ‘takes’ is complete, this are transferred to multiple discs for safe-keeping — and the image quality is truly exceptional. You’ll see every detail of this scene’s drops of rain and spots of sweat.

Although the cast have not played their roles for some eighteen months now, this morning — as on each day — because they retain so much from nine months of nightly performances they are word-prefect on almost every take, and consistently deliver pitch-perfect performances. ‘Make all our trumpets speak,’ Macduff orders, ‘give them all breath, Those clamorous harbingers of blood and death.’ The speech is stirring, the delivery thrilling. The words are picked up by the rest as they rush forwards. ‘Blood and death. Blood and death.’

Our director Rupert Goold staged the original production at the Chichester Festival Theatre and then oversaw its triumphant transfers to London’s West End, Brooklyn Academy of Music and finally Broadway. Now he’s aiming to create a production for Great Performances that retains the essential qualities, including the thrilling performances from the stage production but that translates these into a dynamic film. As we stamp our feet to keep warm and avoid standing beneath the decaying glass for fear that a pain might shake lose, we feel some way away from the comfort and cosiness of a multi-camera recording in a theatre. The finished result should be all the better for it.

John Wyver is also posting daily production reports at the Illuminations blog,