Production designer Stefan Dechant tells us how he did it on The Tragedy of Macbeth.
You haven't seen anything like The Tragedy of Macbeth. Writer/director Joel Coen and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel reference films you probably know, like Fritz Lang's Siegfried, Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter, and they take a foundation laid by German Expressionism to create an entirely new world for the tragic King of Scots.
Production designer Stefan Dechant played a key role in bringing The Tragedy of Macbeth to life through 35 stunning set designs and other genius visual storytelling elements. The film was shot almost entirely on soundstages at the Warner Bros. lot, and each set was created to reflect Macbeth's inner turmoil.
It's easily one of the most beautiful and visually interesting films I've seen in a long time, one that embraces the theatricality of a Shakespeare production but merges that sensibility masterfully with the scope and creativity of cinema.
Dechant spoke with No Film School via Zoom about the movie, its unique challenges, and his process as a production designer. Enjoy his insight below!
Editor's note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: I read that you really liked Bram Stoker's Dracula. I think that you liked the artifice of it, is the word that you used. Did that come into play on this film?
Stefan Dechant: I'm not sure how much it came into play. I think when I gave that interview before I was just saying that I had just watched that before Joel's producer Bob Graf reached out to me. And I love the artifice of it. I love the abstraction of it. I've always kind of been a fan of that type of design. I've never been able to have a project where I could go in that direction. I was just re-watching the original West Side Story, and all the angles and whatnot that are being used in there. But I just always was a fan of that type of artifice.
But when I got the call for Macbeth, Dracula never came into that creative process. That was more specific to references and ideas that Joel had already been looking at. So the artifice in Macbeth was about, I don't want to say it was purely German Expressionism, because German Expressionism—if you look at The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it's almost too artificial, it's too stage-like. You really understand the paint and the scenery about it.
We were looking at an abstraction on a cinematic level, and that's why we were looking at [F. W.] Murnau. And when we looked at Fritz Lang it was more looking at Siegfried. And the artist that we were really concentrating on was Carl Dreyer. So those were kind of the influences on Macbeth, as well as Charles Lawton's Night of the Hunter, which is a really interesting film in the sense that Lawton is looking at D.W. Griffith when he's making that film. And he's looking at pulling that stylized imagery of silent filmmaking into his process to create this kind of fairytale. So those were our cinematic influences.
NFS: You came on fairly late in the process, because they'd been together for a year, Joel and Bruno, putting together this lookbook. What was your process for taking those influences and making them a reality?
Dechant: Well, we had the first meeting with Joel, which he took me through his lookbook, as you say, that he and Bruno and Fran had put together. You really got the tone in the movie. There was no way to not understand where he was going with it.
And then we met the following week where Joel would take me through his script and the choreography of the scenes, where he wanted to place the camera, where he wanted to bring the actors in, how he saw the sets. And that was quite a bit of information to get in there. So we needed to move quickly. And since the sets were rather austere and didn't have a lot of detail in it, I felt like the best way to move through it and approach it cinematically was to hire set designers that specialized in 3D modeling, so that we could model these environments up very quickly. And then Joel and Bruno could put a lens on there and see if the sets were working.
But it was a process where I could just sketch something out. We didn't have to draw it and lay it down. I could just sketch something and go for it. In that sense, we were sketching in 3D, and that allowed us to move fairly quickly. And because Joel had laid out so specifically what he was looking for, we could break that up into knowns and unknowns. So the main thing was to get a bulk of the art department focused on those knowns. And that would be something like the Inverness courtyard, the Inverness stairs, the throne room. Those things we had a fairly good sense. Joel saying, "It's about this big and this is how I want to shoot it."
And then for things like where the second apparition takes place, those needed some time to figure out—and Macduff's. So you'd have half your art department really rocking and rolling and moving forward on these ideas that were a little bit more fully fleshed out, and then the other half is helping me explore new territory.
NFS: And this was your first black and white film, correct?
NFS: What were some challenges of working on a black-and-white project like this?
Dechant: It's interesting, black and white for me on this film was not so much of a challenge. The challenge was finding—like I say, Joel knew what the tone was, but we were still trying to figure out how we made that a reality. That was the challenge. But it was a challenge that I was involved with, with two incredible artists, Joel and Bruno. And so working with them we could develop these environments and these spaces. Because they're made out of light and shadow.
It's not an apartment that I'm building, and it's going to be lit a certain way, and it plays for a couple scenes. It's a psychological space that needs to reflect what's going on in the original text. And Bruno and Joel have a vision for how that's going to be lit.
So there's kind of this call and response that's going on in terms of me creating imagery, trying to reflect this back at them: "Is this the vision that you have?" And them working on top of those images coming back to me. So by doing that call and response we started carving out these spaces and how do they work? And do they carry the text and the psychological weight of the scenes that are taking place in the script?
NFS: I did have an observation-slash-question about that, because I have read about Frances making sure the length of that hallway was long enough for a soliloquy, and the trees in Birnam Wood matching the width of the throne room. I'm really interested in the ways that you made the sets work for the story. Are there any other things you can talk about in that area?
Dechant: Again, I need to stress that all of that, it was just Joel right there in his screenplay and in his direction. I'm trying to think if I can give you any new examples, because those are the go-tos that are in there.
I think another interesting set is the crossroads, because it can hold a variety of scenes. And I like the abstraction, in terms of when you see Macduff first arrive on that set. And to the left side of frame, you can just barely see Inverness Castle, and then it clouds away. But later when the murder of Banquo takes place at night, on the right side of that road, you see Dunsinane Castle, and it kind of clouds away. That's where the theatricality of it takes place. Not that these castles are sitting there truly only a mile apart, but it becomes a cinematic space that allows you to tell the story there.
So that's kind of on a conceptual level, when on a really kind of nuts-and-bolts level that's part of any production design is that you design the sets and then you go through this process of where you lay the sets out on stage with the director and the DP. You can do that with tape or cones or whatnot. But you're trying to find that space with those department heads so that they're part of that process all along the way. So with Joel, first thing we did was go to stage and tape out the colonnade to see how long we could do it for the soliloquy. How big did we want to have that handle, the door handle, so that we can make sure that it read as a knife? We could take a look at the doorway.
And then we also taped out the throne room. And it's again, the same things, like he and Bruno can get in there and then they can kind of line up—in the olden days you'd have a sight there—but you can actually just do it with an iPhone and then put in the proper lens, and just make sure that, "Okay, Joel's going to shoot across the throne room. We can line up and see Banquo coming across." All those specific shots want to be played out with those departments.
And like I said, that happens on every film but, that's just part of the process. We needed to start building in five weeks, we wanted to move through that process fairly quickly so we could go, "Are we on the right track?"
NFS: Can I also ask about the aspect ratio and how that affected your work?
Dechant: From the very beginning Joel wanted it to be Academy format. And again, all of this is all part of that abstraction and creating a theatrical yet cinematic space. And black and white does that. Instantly. Even when you watch a 30s musical, that abstraction helps to take you to a place where these characters are going to start singing. And Technicolor does that as well. Powell and Pressburger, when they use Technicolor, they could get that abstraction. Allows you to push the reality in a different place, a cinematic zone.
So with the aspect ratio, it's not so much getting the abstraction with your aspect ratio, but what it does allow you to do is to get verticality into those sets.
So even if you look at the Universal horror films of the early 30s, you get these wonderful sets. Dracula's got incredible sets with the stairs going up. Bride of Frankenstein, incredible sets with this verticality going on in there. And that allows you to kind of play off a different way of looking at those sets. So to me, it gave me a lot of verticality in there. It also allows you to frame the actors' faces in a different way than you would with widescreen, with the 1.85.
And also it hearkens back to an older style of filmmaking, which I don't think we were denying either. We weren't trying to mimic German Expressionism or silent filmmaking. We had influences by there, but I think it's a modern-looking film. We weren't aping a silent film. We were creating a new image, a new look that was a Joel Cohen look, but being influenced by those films.
NFS: So all the sets were just gray. And you were, as I believe you said, carving the set and painting things in new ways that you wouldn't normally. Can you talk more about the specifics of that and how you were creating those shadows?
Dechant: Well, we never even had a conversation about it, but painting it in gray just seemed the way to go, because then the actors know what the filmmaking is going to be and what the final imagery is going to be. And also there was just no reason to add color. I mean, it adds a complexity that I didn't need to deal with, or Joel, or Bruno. Because then we're not seeing what ultimately the image is going to be. So working in gray just seemed like a no-brainer, it was the way to go.
And then in terms of the shadow and the styling of that, that came in conversations with Bruno and past experiences he had. So what we did is we started painting, we started—I keep saying carving out the set, so that's the best way to think about it, is we start carving out the set by painting grays and darker areas underneath where windows were, where arches were, the way that the walls would be constructed and cut.
I would go, "Okay, I think the light source is from here," and then start playing that in there. Like in the Inverness courtyard, there was a swath of shadow going across the stairs, that's completely painted in.
And that just gave us something that helped define the set a little bit more. And then Bruno could come in and work his lights how he wanted to do it. Now, Bruno was always a part of that process in terms of how we were painting it. So then he would come in and place his lights on top of that. And it'd create a very dynamic image that way.
NFS: I was texting with a friend yesterday about the final climactic battle on that very narrow battlement.
NFS: I think that scene is stunning too, but I'm interested in how you all landed on those dimensions and why it looks like that.
Dechant: Well, it was always going to be above the clouds. And at one point Joel had given me a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge above the fog. So you just saw two towers above that bridge. And so that became the inspiration for it. And then it also allowed for some fairly—again, always playing with those angles and those geometric shapes that we were working with, it just allowed us to play with that.
So I started painting up some ideas to show Joel based on what we had talked about and seeing the bridge. And then what we did is, I had the art department make—they were like giant kid's blocks. They were like eight foot tall and two feet by two feet. So you had these foam core, tall blocks. And we'd use those all the time. So if we were taping out the throne room we could just go, "Okay, here's where all the columns are." Or if we were taping out the colonnade we could say, "There's an arch between each one of these."
Again, every film does something like that. So we had these giant building blocks, and then Joel had a rehearsal space that he was working with the actors and with the stuntmen. And then they went in there, and he and Bruno and the stuntmen just kept pushing the blocks until they were like, "This is what it is." And then we just took the measurements and said, "There's our set. So we'll start building it from that."
But the sets are all defined by the action and the choreography. So yeah, just by Joel working out those scenes we could go, "Okay, that's going to work for us." And then we built that, and the ramp up there and the battlement on stage, and then we put bluescreen around that, and then placed in the tower in the distance.
NFS: What was your favorite set?
Dechant: My favorite set was probably—it's between the crossroads, which I just enjoyed taking up all of Stage 16 and having that backing there and then seeing Bruno light it, it was beautiful. And then they liked how Ross is framed against the rafters, when the old man is in there and you're looking up and you have all those jagged shapes. Because that was a little riff on Ivan's childhood. There was a little set where the kid goes in there and you have all these rafters pointed up. I like that. And I also liked the room where the apparitions appear the second time, where the rafters are above and you have the witches up there and the room fills with water.
There were two things. I liked how it shot, and I think it really worked well for the scene. It was also just a comfortable space to be in. And we had shut down for COVID, and when we came back for COVID you can only have a certain amount of people on the set. And it wasn't that stressful to work on, it was great to come back and be working, but COVID was—it's still kind of stressful. And I just always would find myself, if I needed a place to get away from everyone, to go sit in that set and just be comfortable and be in that space. So that was probably my favorite.
And then the other thing I just want to add is that what I love about the film is that Joel's having a conversation. To me, this is my point of view, but Joel may go, "No, you're way off." But in my point of view, he's in dialogue with the original text. And if you read that original text you'll find that there's a rhythm to it. And that is repetitive imagery. So I don't know how many times "night" or "time" is mentioned, but time is an incredible theme that's happening in that story. "Night" is mentioned, "birds" are mentioned. Even "mother's milk" is mentioned two or three times.
So there's imagery that's in that text, that's being repeated and creating a rhythm. And then what Joel's doing with the imagery and the design is he's creating that rhythm as well. And that's happening so that when you see that series of arches, you're creating that rhythm. When he's riffing off of a set designer like Edward Gordon Craig, who had these very simple geometric shapes but a rhythm—stairs create a rhythm, shadows create a rhythm. And we have our own repetitive imagery.
So the stairs at Inverness, it's very similar to the stairs at Dunsinane, that they rise up, they come to the landing, they rise up again. They're always on the left-hand side, there's an opening, there's a hallway on the right-hand side.
Those are repetitive themes, even looking up in that kind of—I don't know what I want to call it—but the foyer in Inverness, where you look up and see Ross and you can see the sky. You can see the sky behind the witches, there's an oculus room that's open where the murderers are met and the rain comes down.
That is really, I think, interesting. And that all comes with Joel, and even collaborations with Mary [Zophres]. So, if you notice, there's a shape that's on the capes that is this kind of chevron shape. And that chevron shape is carried into our doors, as well.
I think that it's such a cinematic approach and design approach to that text, where it takes it from being a purely theatrical experience to a cinematic experience. And once again, I can't take credit for that. I can only lay that with Joel, in his vision. I was really happy to be a part of it and a collaborator in that and to give what I could give in that collaboration as an artist with him. But I think that's why he's Joel Cohen.