Lady Macbeth: Origins of the Film

Origins of the Film

Both director William Oldroyd and writer Alice Birch began in the theatre–he as the Director in Residence at the Young Vic Theatre and working with the RSC, and she as an award-winning playwright with work performed at the Royal Court and the RSC.

Birch had read the 1865 Russian novella “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk,” by  Nikolai Leskov, and felt that its themes–the subordination of women in society, life in rural communities, and passionate illicit love–were exciting for film adaption.

The original story, which had been published by Dostoyevsky, was most famously adapted into a Russian opera by Shostakovich in the early 1930s, banned by Stalin for being too subversive.

As soon as Birch told Oldroyd the story, he was fascinated: “In literature of that period, women like Katherine traditionally suffer in silence, fade away, or commit suicide. But here we have a young protagonist who fights for her independence, decides her own fate in a bloodthirsty way.”

They relied heavily on the plot of the novella, but made some alterations– inventing the character of Anna, and changing the ending; in the original, Katherine is discovered and punished for her crimes.

Producer Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly, Oscar nominated for a short film in 2014, met Will through a mutual friend and a bond was quickly established. “The most essential collaboration on the film was with Fodhla,” says Oldroyd. “Because my background is predominantly in theatre, I relied very heavily on her film experience to make that transition and to understand the specifics of how the process worked”.

Alice then drafted a short piece on why she wanted to write the story. Says Birch: “As a writer I am drawn, inevitably, to stories, to characters, to landscapes and languages that have the potential to cross into new territories. The trajectory is, initially, one that is not unfamiliar to us. Yet, the film takes new turns, is constantly surprising and urges an audience to keep up. Katherine will stop at nothing and as she embarks upon a series of murders, the film becomes something quite different from what we had been anticipating.”

The team applied for iFeatures, the regional low-budget filmmaking scheme run by Creative England and supported by the BFI and BBC Films. The scheme was in its third iteration, after producing some daring features from emerging British filmmakers, including Guy Myhill’s The Goob, which premiered at Venice Days in 2014; Martin Radich’s Norfolk, which bowed at Rotterdam in 2015; and Alex Taylor’s Spaceship, which screened at SXSW in 2017.

The strict parameters of the scheme–a regional setting, a bold authorial voice behind the camera and an ambitious idea were perfect for the film. But the filmmakers were conscious that their predecessors had been contemporary-set. No one had attempted a period piece on the scheme’s budget, under half a million pounds.

“We knew that what we were attempting was incredibly ambitious,” says Cronin O’Reilly, “and we were determined to use the limitations that the budget put on us as a virtue. From the first minute we had to be sure that we could achieve both the artistic vision and the production itself for the money we had. It meant we had to make creative choices about how we would shoot the film – from costume and production design to which rooms we could use in the location.” Oldroyd also saw the virtue of the restricted budget. “I was interested to learn why I hadn’t seen more low-budget period dramas,” he comments. “I thought there must be a way of making one. We couldn’t afford huge exteriors and set pieces with lots of extras, so we focussed right in on the psychology of a group of characters that happened to live in 1865.”

iFeatures gave the team the opportunity to work closely with executives from across the British film business, including Lizzie Francke from the BFI, Chris Moll from Creative England and Steve Jenkins from BBC Films.  The scheme gave the team the space to develop their vision, but also put enough pressure on them to ensure that they delivered to strict deadlines. “It was very useful for all of us, and particularly for William and Alice, neither of whom had really been exposed to the film business before. It gave them an overview of how development, production and distribution worked, led by some great people. We felt very supported, but also pushed to make the best work we could.”



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