Production Blog: “A Drum, a Drum! Macbeth Doth Come”

‘Turn over.’ ‘Turning.’ ‘Sound running.’ ‘Macbeth, one, take one. “A” camera — mark!’ It’s just before 9.30 on a beautiful Sunday morning in England’s East Midlands. There are four actors, some twenty extras, thirty or so crew and an awful lot of hi-tech equipment clustered around a grand piano in what was once a library. Each person, not to mention the cameras, sound kit and lights, is focussed on the first shot of a new Great Performances film of William Shakespeare’s great tragedy. Just under two years ago, this production, which stars Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood, was winning raves on Broadway. Now director Rupert Goold is creating a screen version of his hit show.

Macbeth Clapboard

As one of the film’s co-producers, with my colleague Seb Grant, I’m as engaged as everyone else here. My independent production company Illuminations is partnering with and with BBC in Britain to translate the vivid, contemporary staging to television. Earlier this year, for Great Performances again, we produced in a similar manner a film of the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet, which also stars Patrick Stewart (as Claudius) along with David Tennant as the Prince. For us, there’s little to beat the thrill of working like this with a great text, a great production and a great cast.

This Macbeth originated at the Chichester Festival Theatre in the summer of 2007. Originally staged in Chichester’s small Minerva studio space, the production is a thrilling, visceral, genuinely scary experience in the theatre — and that’s what we are hoping we can achieve on film too. The main stage set was a kitchen in an underground bunker, but this also doubled as a military hospital, a train and other settings. For the film, we can keep the kitchen at the film’s heart (Macbeth making himself a sandwich as he briefs Banquo’s murderers is a highpoint) but we can also open out the rest of the action.

We have found a truly spectacular location, with a warren of below-ground spaces. A touch frustratingly we need to respect the owner’s wish for us not to disclose where we are, but as we start to film our hopes for its particular beauties and strangeness are more than realised on the screen. We will be here for three six-day weeks, aiming to capture some eight minutes of finished screen time each day.

Rupert Goold has not made a film before but he has recently had an astonishingly¬† successful run on the British stage. The theatre company he runs, Headlong Theatre, has been touring his bold version of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. He oversaw a revival of Sam Mendes’ recent production of Oliver!, directed J B Priestley’s Time and the Conways at the National Theatre this summer, and also this autumn’s smash-hit Enron, which transfers to Broadway in 2010. He has also just staged Puccini’s Turandot for English National Opera, setting the action in a Chinese restaurant, a decision that was hailed by some critics and derided by others.

For us part of the key to working successfully with a debut director is to surround her or him with a great creative team. For the Macbeth shoot Rupert’s key collaborator is director of photography Sam McCurdy BSC. Sam is an immensely experienced cinematographer who has several low-budget horror films on his CV, and it was partly this experience that made him seem perfect for what’s unquestionably a grim and gory tale.

Day one is taken up with filming what’s known as the ‘England’ scene, an interlude in the play’s concluding action. Patrick Stewart begins filming with us on Tuesday but he has already come on a location visit, just to begin to feel this remarkable place and to have it help shape his performance. He has been working for nearly two years towards having this production, and his central performance, filmed for television. He’s excited as the rest of us about starting — and I’ll contribute regular updates here about his and our progress through the rest of the shoot.

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

Related Links: