An interview with William Oldroyd

| July 18, 2017

The continued issues surrounding the subordination of women in society are compellingly explored in director William Oldroyd’s feature debut Lady Macbeth.

Based on the 1865 Russian novella by Nikolai Leskov, the story follows Katherine (Florence Pugh) who has entered into a marriage with a man named Alexander (Paul Hilton). The heir to a mining company, Alexander has bought Katherine along with a small parcel of land from her father. The wedding night though goes unconsummated, and the morose Alexander’s lack of physical or emotional interest in his new bride causes her to start an affair with a farmhand named Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). However after Alexander confronts Katherine about her adultery she decides no longer to remain subservient, and will stop at nothing to obtain the life she wants.

Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Oldroyd about the production, and the challenges of directing his first feature film.

MV: From my understanding yours as well as writer Alice Birch’s background is primarily in the theater world, and I’m wondering if the transition into filmmaking was in any way difficult?

WO: Well, one is the question of perspective. When you make a play you stage it and then allow the audience to essentially choose where they want to look. I mean of course you are taking time to consider the lighting and blocking, but ultimately the audience themselves are editing the piece. In film the hardest thing was realizing I had to make the decision for the audience as to where to look and why. But I guess that’s filmmaking isn’t it? So that was a difficult process to determine where to put the camera, but it focuses your creativity. Then I guess the time pressure was not something I was used to. I’m used to having five weeks of rehearsals with all of the actors, the writer, producers and set designers in the room. We start with a script and in five weeks build it up, and we’re very open with one another. One day we might try one idea and the next decide that the idea is wrong and change it. We didn’t really have that luxury making the film. I did ask that we had some rehearsal time because I didn’t want to go into this process having abandoned the things I knew from theater such as working sequentially, which I understand is unusual, but for me it was quite necessary so that I could use the same brain I had been using.

MV: And do you think filming the piece chronologically helped the performances of the actors?

WO: Well, somebody like Florence I think benefitted from starting at the beginning of the story where she plays this young, naïve, hopeful bride and then over the course of four weeks, we had twenty four days to shoot, is sort of ground down by the demands of the filmmaking process and consequently becomes the tired person we see at the end of the movie. Her character is quite ruined at the conclusion of the story, and I think because of the pace of those shooting days she didn’t need hide much emotion.

MV: Can you talk a bit about your directing process? For this project were you doing a lot of rehearsals or did it come together more on the set? I imagine that because of the budget you probably didn’t have much time to waste.

WO: The most important thing to me is building trust between myself and the actors. They need to trust me, and know that I’m not going to put them into any situations they’re uncomfortable with. Because there was a good amount of violence and intimacy in the film, I needed them to know that I wasn’t going to humiliate them or make them feel vulnerable. I think those days of rehearsal enabled us to build that relationship because it’s a place where anybody can try anything, and there is no wrong answer. It’s a place of failure. I think that’s what I’ve enjoyed so much in theater. We don’t know what we can do until we take a risk, and the risk is failure. A lot of actors will wait to be told what to do by the director, and I’m far more interested in letting actors take the initiative. I’m interested in actors having a firm idea of what they want to do and then trying it out. I’m happy to move the camera where the actors want to move because I feel people move by instinct and impulse, rather than because the director says you need to be over here. Ultimately I would prioritize the actors’ needs over the directors.

MV: I understand that the financing of the film had its constraints as well. To apply for IFeatures it had to be made for under half a million pounds which for a period piece I imagine is a tricky thing. Did you feel these financial hurdles allowed you to be more inventive in your creative choices? As a viewer, I forgot all about that this was primarily taking place in the rooms of an estate. You have the ability to make it feel claustrophobic when you want, but also expansive.

WO: It really focused us as a group. There was enormous creativity from the producer (Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly) in terms of the budget she was able to create, and ultimately we just kept coming back to the story. What do we need to tell this story? We realized the film is roughly six people in one house over a period of time who only wear one or two costumes. Since we didn’t go away from the house for more than two days it became affordable. Although it would have been nice to have shown more of the estate and provided context, we began to wonder well do we really need those people to tell the story? We had to prioritize these decisions. For example I was very adamant when Katherine shoots the horse that I wanted it to be done in one shot rather than cut away. Otherwise the audience might feel cheated and it wouldn’t be as impactful. Of course there’s a cost to that because we have to find a horse who can perform under those conditions. Ultimately you say well that’s a priority and we’ll have to cut things elsewhere. We had half a million dollars basically to make this movie, but that was one of the exciting elements of the process. We were constantly experimenting with what we could do.

MV: One of the most impressive aspects of the film is the cinematography, but to my understanding you didn’t meet D.P. Ari Wegner until she arrived on set. I’m curious about that process as well. Were you two in constant communication before the shoot, and did you story board and map every shot out?

WO: Our shot lists were sort of like storyboards, but again she hadn’t been to the set. It was all quite hypothetical until she got there, and then we were able to refine some of our setups. She’s based in Australia so for two weeks before shooting we Skyped every day from 6am until noon. It was a chance for us to read the script together, go through each scene and determine what the emotions of characters would be. When Ari came to shoot the film, because she knew those characters so well, there was never a question of positioning. She knew what the characters were going through and determined where she should be stationed to convey those emotions. That was absolutely vital. Much of our two weeks before she came to England was sharing films and film references. We would have an idea about something and she would say that reminds me of this film have you seen it? I would say no and then after the conversation I would go and watch the film. The next day we would get back into it and I’d say oh okay, I see what you mean. It was a great way of sharing, and because we’ve built that relationship we can continue with the same process moving forward.

MV: Did you always know you wanted to shoot the film in the Northumberland area?

WO: Yes, we wanted to keep that sense of isolation that exists in the original novel. You see we had to shoot in England because our finances came from England, and we couldn’t go to Scotland for example where there’s more remote wilderness to choose from. But North- umberland provides that isolation because it’s one of the least populated areas of England, and large parts of it look more or less as they did in 1865. So that landscape was very important to us.

MV: And in many ways the estate and the surrounding grounds become characters themselves.

WO: We had created this vacuum for Katherine in the house where she is sealed in, and when she goes outside it needs to feel that she connects that fresh air with life. But it’s also not a particularly calm environment. The wilderness has a good amount of danger to it as well.

MV: I’m curious about your first reaction when presented the source material. What’s interesting is that women in literature at this time are more subdued, but here Katherine is very active to say the least. How close to the novel did you stay, and were there certain aspects of her character you wanted to focus on?

WO: Yes, what drew me to the story was Katherine because I felt literature of the period featured women in a lot of the same roles; they either suffered in silence or killed themselves. What was unique, and actually quite modern, was that Katherine fought back. Now we did change the ending because Alice felt, perhaps as a bit of feminist revisionism, that Katherine should win. I completely backed her up on it and thought it would be an appropriate addition. In the novel Katherine actually dies, and it felt like it would be a nice change of pace if our heroine was victorious even if that victory was hollow because ironically she is free of those things that trap her in the beginning but in a way most trapped at the end of the film. That’s what we were really looking to explore.

MV: What’s great about the editing is that it builds this perfect tension and a sense of the unexpected. You really don’t know what’s going to come next, but in a very good way. I believe you spent 15 weeks editing and took a 110 minute assembly down to an 84 minute final cut. What was that process like?

WO: Well we didn’t have much wriggle room, but what I learned from Nick (Emerson) was the David Fincher idea that you arrive in a scene a little bit later than you expected and leave a little bit earlier in order to keep the tension. I thought that was a lovely thing to do, and it taught me a lot. Scenes in theater tend to resolve and then you move on to the next scene, whereas in film you need to suspend that idea and carry it over to the next moment. I had been interested in working with Nick because of a film he did called Start Up which is a contemporary prison drama. I thought it had a very fresh, modern style and that the elements would translate well to a period drama.

MV: The music, although used sparingly, really heightens the emotions of the scenes, and I’m wondering where the decision to limit its instances came from?

WO: Well, I really don’t like these emotional sign posts and the best scores don’t do that. They might even contrast with the emotion. We had money for a composer, but I had been very specific and said there’s just three moments I’d like to accent slightly with a tonal quality and these were the main murders. I said let’s see if we can get away with not using music elsewhere and have the actors and cut keep the tension. So we were constantly checking in with our execs when we had our three or four screenings during the editing process. At each screening I would ask do you think we need music, and they would say no it’s working. The funniest thing has been in Q&A’s when people say to me I notice you only use a piece of music once, and I say actually it was used three times but the fact you didn’t notice means it’s working the way I wanted it to.

MV: How did you first become interested in storytelling? Were you always drawn to it or was there a moment that put it all into motion for you?

WO: You see, in school if you were a loud kid you usually got placed in one of the good parts of a play. It wasn’t necessarily because you were a good actor, but rather because you were louder than everyone else. When I realized that acting is not about being the loudest person I became a bit less interested. Then when I was at University we had a comedy group where we would write our own material and perform it. If you weren’t in a scene you would find yourself in the room watching your contemporaries and they would ask what is or is not working. There you could jump in and say well, I think because you’re not doing this, etc. Then I realized oh, this is what directing is, and I thought I’m much better at sitting in the room and figuring out what’s not working. So then I was like well how do you make a living directing? I ended up enrolling in a Master’s program and started thinking about who were the directors I really respected and asked to assist them and learned from there.

MV: Also, do you find yourself drawn to a particular type of subject matter? What does a story need to possess for you to pursue it?

WO: I think it has to have a provocation at the heart of it. I like films where the discussion continues after the viewing experience; where you go and debate in the bar or restaurant after the screening. Ultimately there’s a thorny idea or complexity, and sometimes that can be quite surreal.

MV: And from this experience would you like to continue making films?

WO: Oh yes, absolutely. That is if people will have me.

Lady Macbeth is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.

About the Author:

Matthew Vasiliauskas is a graduate of Columbia University. His work has appeared in publications such as Conjunctions, Berlin’s Sand Literary Journal, Chicago Literati and The Pennsylvania Review. Matthew currently lives and works in Los Angeles.

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