Jake and I made sure that [the script] was 100 pages, or under a 100 pages. So that when somebody would pick it up, they would sort of roll their eyes when they saw it was Macbeth. But then they would look to see how long it was, and perhaps go, ‘Oh, it’s only 100 pages!’
From its opening shot on the face of a dead child in a field of heather, shale stones over the eyes, the new adaptation of Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, Macbeth makes clear two things: that it will not fear straying a bit from the stage play and that it will reside deep in the darkest places of an already dark masterpiece. As such, there is much blood – Michael Fassbender is strappingly undone as the famous Scottish Thane, ripping through bodies with a heavy sword as lethally precise as his reading of some of The Bard’s greatest lines.
It’s surprising then to learn that the adaptation began a decade and half ago when Jacob Koskoff and Todd Louiso took it on, imagining Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whom they had worked with on Love Liza and The Fifteen Minute Hamlet, in the title role. The project almost got greenlit in 2004, but then languished. After Hoffman’s tragic death early 2014, it resurfaced when producer Iian Canning asked to option it. He then put director Justin Kurzel, Koskoff, and Louiso together to reawaken the script. Though the final shooting draft was further honed by Michael Lesslie, many key reinterpretations of the original play, including Lady Macbeth’s famous “Out damn spot” soliloquy and making real the idea that the Lady and Macbeth have lost a child at the drama’s outset – an idea the 400-year-old play only vaguely insinuates.
The resulting film is the goriest and bleakest cinematic rendition of the play, which has previously been tackled by Orson Welles in 1948, Roman Polanski in 1971, and Akira Kurosawa, whose 1957 version, Throne of Blood, relocates the action to medieval Japan.
Koskoff and Louiso spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about their long journey to screen, the terrible burden of cutting Shakespeare and how, in the one of the plays most famous climactic scenes, they used fire to visually redraw the witches fatal prophecy that Birnam wood would come to Dunsinane and finally undo Macbeth.
What was the impetus in 2001 for you guys to take on not only Shakespeare, but Macbeth?
Todd Louiso: I’d just finished shooting my first film, Love Liza with Phil Hoffman and I was trying to think of something else to do. I had a lot of experience with Shakespeare when I was younger… I had done a short called Fifteen Minute Hamlet that’s a play by Tom Stoppard. It was just interesting to me. I was trying to think of something else to do with film and the idea of doing Macbeth [with Hoffman] was strong, because to me, he was just perfect.
Jacob Koskoff: What I remember is Todd just asking me one day, do I want to adapt Macbeth with him? And I said, “Yes.”
There’s writing, there's adapting, and then there's Shakespeare. And then on top of that, there's Macbeth. I'm curious, approaching material like this, what did you want to do with this material?
Jacob Koskoff: Yeah that’s a good question. You know people ask us sometimes, “What, did you just take the play and put it into Final Draft?” And that is exactly what we did. So we just straightly admit it to them. But from that point on it really became a pretty intense exercise in making it work as a film – how do you justify it? And that was much more difficult than I expected.
To that point, one of things that struck me is how this film opens, not with the witches, but with a dead child being mourned over by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. I’m curious why this was decided as a starting place, and why that’s so important?
Todd Louiso: Everyone always – well, not everyone – but Shakespeare scholars speak about how [Macbeth and Lady Macbeth] probably had a child, and the child probably died. That's always been sort of around the play. We just decided that that would be an interesting starting point. And then to have the child come back throughout the film would be interesting. It also starts off from a place where you feel for both of them deeply.
Jacob Koskoff: And this was an element we added late, after Justin got involved. What Iain Canning did, which was really wonderful and which I think all producers should try and do, was he arranged for Justin to come to Los Angeles and spend three days with us, just going through the scripts and coming up with ideas. You know, this was now based on a draft that was for us like 12 years old. So we really wanted to make it fresh for us. And we came away with a lot of, for us, the most exciting ideas from that process of working with Justin. One thing that we went to everyone with after Justin was this idea that they had lost a child and that was haunting them. It’s sort of a precipitating event.
We didn't start it with that in our last draft – that was done by Michael and Justin after. But we think it definitely works. And our take on the witches was just – whenever we tried to really use what was there in a straightforward way it just seemed – you know, the intention of the witches is to be scary. And they didn't seem scary. We really struggled to figure that out and come up with something for that problem.
Todd Louiso: We also had conversations about what scared us in film, what characters have actually scared me in film. We brought up the two women in Don't Look Now – the two sisters who have prophecies for Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. So we sort of made them regular-seeming, as those characters are.
Tell me about some other key reconfigurations, or omissions, that that you guys wrestled with here.
Jacob Koskoff: You know, it was really fun. It got to the point where it was really fun to challenge ourselves, and say, “Alright, how can we make this more surprising? How can we do something different with it?” Once we really let ourselves approach it that way, it was really exciting for us. Pretty much every moment in the adaptation required making a concrete decision about how we wanted to interpret this. The most challenging thing for us was the more iconic moments, with Birnam Wood, with Lady Macbeth’s “Out damn spot” soliloquy, and a couple other moments like that…
Guide me between the directorial approach and the script itself, in terms of her saying that to the child here…
Jacob Koskoff: When we revised our old draft after our meeting with Justin, we came up with the idea that the spot that she's referring to is on the child. How it was revealed was definitely a directorial approach.
But that creation is a significant one. And that was one of yours, the spot of blood not on her hands, but on the child’s?
Jacob Koskoff: Yeah, there are just some moments where you hit on an idea, and you just feel great. And it's so surprising, but hopefully it's not seen as gimmicky in any way.
Todd Louiso: We did the same thing with the Birnam Woods [rather than soldiers carrying branches of trees toward the castle as in nearly every previous version, the woods are set on fire, spreading toward the castle]. We were just struggling because you’ve seen it done in every way before, and how do you do that? What’s a different way that no one ever thought of? And when that hit us, it was just sort of like, “Oh my god, that’s perfect.”
Jacob Koskoff: Yeah, Todd proposed that idea for Birnam Woods. And when he said it, it was just so simple and so perfect. It was such a relief, too, because we were very worried about how to pull that off. We both had visions of actors holding sticks or branches, walking forward.
Yeah, that was a big potential problem in the cinematic translation.
Jacob Koskoff: Exactly.
On Macbeth’s famous “Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy, I'm assuming this is directorial, but the way it's handled in terms of him carrying Lady Macbeth’s dead body – physically holding death and carrying it across the room – was this part of your generally more empathetic, mournful, tortured approach? Like how, by enhancing the loss of a child narrative, you're almost giving justification to the mad ambition that dooms them.
Jacob Koskoff: Hopefully we're not giving justification for it, but we are trying to understand it, trying to give the audience a way of connecting to it.
Rather than it just being…
Jacob Koskoff: Where it's set, and the time period… and how Justin executed it, it just being extremely bleak. You kind of understand how someone could go crazy – I mean just the first shot of the village where Macbeth lives, just the thought of living there…
No, I think I got pneumonia from just watching the film. It was very bleak.
Jacob Koskoff: I just wanted to add that Michael Lesslie worked with Justin in the end, really transitioning this script to the actual shooting draft, and we felt like he did a really great job….
That's good and important to say.
Jacob Koskoff: Which was a relief for us.
Right. How much of the play did you omit?
Todd Louiso: Jake and I were pretty devoted to the words and the prose throughout. We would check in with Shakespearean scholars and say, “Is this okay to cut?” And, “Is it okay to reassign this line to this character? So we did all that, and it was extremely important to us. You know, in making a film, sometimes scenes don’t work. Or there’s a tornado one day, and you can't shoot. So there are certain things that are missing. The one piece that’s missing which just kills me – and it’s not because of the film or anything like that, it’s just because of the scene – is the murdered sleep scene after they kill Duncan. And Macbeth has his big freak-out about hearing someone say, “Sleep no more.” That whole sequence. I was just like, “Noooo!” But it's just what happens in films.
I know back when you started this you were imagining Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Macbeth. That would have been amazing thing to see. This version, it's pretty visceral and bellicose. Was that part of what you were originally imagining with Hoffman?
Jacob Koskoff: You know, it's funny. I keep seeing the word “visceral” connected to it, and that was exactly the word we used from the very beginning when we talked to anybody about it. It's kind of amazing to me that that stuck through all of these years.
Todd Louiso: Because the one thing I was thinking of when we first thought about adapting it, was how I’ve seen other versions of Macbeth before on film, but I just felt like no one had really gotten it yet. I felt it's such a cinematic play – not many of his plays are as cinematic as this, with the violence, with the sex. It just had sort of everything for an exciting movie. And those are the things that really excited me about it.
Plus the fact that it’s his shortest play, that was a really big deal for us too. Because usually when you send people a script, the first thing they see is it’s Shakespeare. Then they look to see how long it is, you know? How long is it going to take to read this? And Jake and I made sure that it was 100 pages, or under a 100 pages. So that when somebody would pick it up, they would sort of roll their eyes when they saw it was Macbeth. But then they would look to see how long it was, and perhaps go, “Oh, it’s only 100 pages!”
Jacob Koskoff: We did cheat on the margins a little.
I'm surprised. I figured it was 115, 120 maybe. But 100, that's pretty lean. That's impressive.
Jacob Koskoff: Yeah. I mean going back to your previous question. Todd, how much do you think of the play we cut? Definitely more than half, right?
Todd Louiso: Well, we cut the porter, the double double. Maybe a third? There are still two thirds left.
That’s the good thing about Shakespeare. You can cut out a third or a half, and it’s still such potent stuff. In general, where and how do you guys write? Whether it’s together or individually, what is your ritual for the writing process?
Jacob Koskoff: We do get together. And basically hand the laptop back and forth and the other one will play Bejeweled on their phone.
Todd Louiso: I don't play Bejeweled anymore, man.
Man, “Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow/Creeps in this petty pace...” Bejeweled, that’s great. What would Shakespeare say?
Todd Louiso: I think Shakespeare would love Bejeweled.
Last question: as much as the visceral aspect has stayed true throughout this entire process, how different is this final script and this final film from what you were imagining back at the start?
Jacob Koskoff: For me, it became more visual every step of the way. And certainly once Justin got involved, everything intensified.
Todd Louiso: Yeah, I’ll have to agree with that. Once we started meeting with Justin, Jake and I had such a new viewpoint on the script that we had written. We were just very inspired by those three days that we had spent together and went forward in that way.