Justin Kurzel interview: Macbeth, Breaking Bad, Snowtown

The director of the must-see Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender, talks to us about Shakespeare, violence, and Breaking Bad...

Director Justin Kurzel’s debut film Snowtown, a witheringly brutal drama about a true life crime family in Australia, deservedly garnered plenty of praise and awards attention. With Macbeth, Kurzel brings a similarly uncompromising sense of menace to one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays – itself a tale of a man’s path to violence.

Michael Fassbender stars as the Scottish soldier who wrests the crown from an unsuspecting King Duncan (David Thewlis), while Marion Cotillard plays Macbeth’s scheming wife and partner in crime. Through their superb performances and the way Kurzel captures the very real (and extremely chilly) Scottish backdrop, you can almost feel the blood chill in your bones as Macbeth unfolds.

As Macbeth opens in the UK, it was our pleasure to speak to Mr Kurzel about his approach to designing the look of this gloriously earthy film, battling the Scottish weather, and how Macbeth relates to the hit TV series Breaking Bad….

Sometimes Shakespeare films can be a bit cosy, if you know what I mean. Because you know the text, you learned it at school. But your Macbeth is really intense – visually as well as in terms of performance. Was that important for you to establish?

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I think so. I’ve found in the past, when I see particular productions of [Macbeth], it feels very distant. The way it’s presented, it’s up on such a kind of platform, that at times I find it difficult to emotionally connect. I guess with this one, because Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, there’s a lot of prose in it, there’s something quite grounded about it. To do it intimately, and let audiences experience it in a visceral way, that perhaps the verse would connect differently. So I guess intimacy became a big thing – how to engage an audience. That’s the beauty of doing a piece of cinema – you can take people very close into that point of view, and allow the verse to feel a little bit more confessional as opposed to presented.

That’s a big part of depicting the characters as well. When I chose to film in Scotland, and to really bring that landscape into the film, to have it part of the psychological context of the characters, was really exciting.

Snowtown was about what motivates people to kill. Did you think of this as a crime drama, almost – it just happens to be a period piece?

Yeah. More so like a western, I think. It’s interesting – my big interest in doing it was Michael [Fassbender]. I greatly admired him, and he was someone I really wanted to work with. And then, as I started rediscovering the play, I did see a lot of similarities with Snowtown. The fascination with violence and brutality. It’s about someone who’s liberated by it, and it shifts his moral code. I guess Michael and I were interested in the idea that the killing of Duncan was a liberating experience; that if you set him [Macbeth] up at the beginning as more fragile, as maybe suffering from some kind of trauma, coping with the grief of being a soldier – the idea of murder isn’t that far from what he’s been doing. We were interested in the idea that the guilt that he feels in doing that murder is conflicted with a sense of freedom. A sense of him being liberated in some way.

I read something that a psychologist wrote, which said that most violence comes from humiliation or powerlessness. I think one of the things that makes Macbeth timeless is that it holds water psychologically.

I think it is. I was saying in another interview, we’re all paper thin. It’s almost like we’re standing on the precipice of madness. I think there’s a very small step from opening up a door and sinking into that. Because we’re surrounded constantly by insecurities, loss, grief, who we are. I think those questions and those fears about what we could become – we wrestle with those everyday. There’s something really interesting about Macbeth and the way he opens that door and walks down the staircase. It allows you to imagine it.

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I thought that about my first film, Snowtown. That insight into the violence and brutality is touchable in terms of seeing a 17-year-old kid evolve into a killer. It didn’t take long. This whole rift – if you shift your morality, if you don’t worry, if you don’t care, you actually can enjoy this. I found that so frightening.

In Macbeth, it plays with and teases a perspective on violence and brutality that feels touchable. That’s what is so popular about the piece – that we all stand on the precipice of getting lost in ourselves. He just happens to do it. Shakespeare’s exploring it in the most extraordinary, sophisticated way in terms of the words he chooses.

It’s a reminder as well that as popular as things like Breaking Bad or Game Of Thrones are, their stories go way back…

I was watching Breaking Bad during editing!

Oh really?

Yeah. I’d never watched it before. It was really interesting, because I was trying to edit Macbeth and it was really challenging. It was distressing. So to escape from it all, I was watching Breaking Bad. So I was watching this thing, and loving it; I was watching Walter’s descent, and one day it clicked: my God, I’m watching Macbeth. I think that’s what inherently interesting about this piece. We love watching people dismantle themselves. We love watching the car crash. We’re watching Walter head towards this destiny, but we can’t stop him; we can’t stop watching. Macbeth is the same. You’re just charged by that car crash waiting to happen. I think that’s what’s so contemporary about it. There are lots of parallels between Macbeth and contemporary TV and films.

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I understand the shoot was difficult as well.

It was. We were in the middle of winter in Scotland. The weather’s always drizzly, and it was minus whatever. Gale-force winds. To recite the verse in that sort of landscape was really, really tough. But that was a big part of it – to make the characters feel exposed to those conditions and environments. At times, maybe it feels like the characters are trying to shelter themselves from that landscape and protect themselves, but then other times they’re giving into it. I don’t think it could have worked if I hadn’t done it in Scotland, and put that world up on the screen.

It comes through, doesn’t it? That rawness. Sometimes these sorts of things, because it comes from the stage, it can be very stagey: two people, a set or something. This is not.

Yeah. I think that helps ground it. You believe that the words are coming out of this place, this environment. It gives it a context that feels visceral and real. You can do that in cinema; on stage, you have to use your imagination to make up the world surrounding the actors on the stage. The great thing about cinema is that you can take an approach that feels very believable.

What was your approach to designing the look of the film? I loved the opening, where a bar of crimson scrolls up onto the screen. I’d love to know what your thinking behind that was.

Well, I was interested in the legend of Macbeth. The idea that the story had been buried under the land. It’s like we’re coming out from underground. You see at the beginning, the warrior Macbeth. There’s something about setting up this tale, and then instantly bringing you into the real people and the intimacy of it. There’s the sense of a legend at the beginning that I’m riffing off and trying to contradict a little bit.

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The design, the look of it, was inspired by 11th century times. I wanted it to feel as though things were simple, brutal. There was something desperate about the place. Also, every costume and set had to feel as though it was built by the characters who owned them. Or like it was designed from the inside out rather than this heavy world. We looked at a lot of pioneer photographs. I was inspired by a lot of westerns. I was reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy at the time, too. I was really inspired by those pioneering towns. Inverness became like one of those, like a town camped on the edge.

Like Blood Meridian.

Yeah, yeah. I liked the idea of these characters living on the land, and times almost being eaten by it. And then when they do become king and queen, then suddenly it becomes empty, the sense of community leaves.

The castle feels like a prison, doesn’t it?

Yeah, it does.

I thought the witches were interesting.

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Yeah. The witches and the burning woods were the two challenges of the film. I wanted to ground them, so that they feel as though they could possibly be real travellers. That they had a kind of dignity, they felt more human. My inspiration came from a lot of travellers, and the idea that they were from the land rather than mystic beings. Just underplaying them, really. Also, I’m allowing them to traverse through the possibility that they’re a figment of Macbeth’s imagination – created from the shadows of war. Which is why we were interested in having them appear on the battlefield, perhaps as observers and watchers of his tragedy. Again, just really simple. A simple use of them, as opposed to them being these supernatural manifestations, like witches and ghosts.

Justin Kurzel, thank you very much.

Macbeth is out in UK cinemas on the 2nd October.