EXCLUSIVE: On Friday, the New York Film Festival opens with the world premiere of The Tragedy of Macbeth, the Shakespearean thriller adapted and directed by Joel Coen, and starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, alongside an accomplished cast. Coen, Washington and McDormand have 10 Oscars among them, and the film from Apple and A24 lands smack in the middle of another awards season and I expect it to quickly establish itself in the race. Sticking with the chilling dialogue from Shakespeare, the film about a man who with his loyal wife plots the murder of the popular Scottish king for his crown takes on a style all his own. Coen’s Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are older than in most productions, and Coen’s decision to shoot in black and white creates shadows and textures that ratchet up the elements of the supernatural and horror. Right down to a haunting portrayal as each of the three witches by stage veteran Kathryn Hunter (whose vocal and physical manifestations Andy Serkis might marvel over). Here McDormand and Coen discuss the film, the controversy over producer Scott Rudin taking his name off the credits after a bullying scandal, Coen working without his brother Ethan for the first time in decades, to what surprisingly will be a short but illustrious producing career for McDormand. And how they have done great work together and stayed in their lanes in ways that have fortified their long marriage.
DEADLINE: Fran, you went to Yale Drama, and you came up on the stage. How many times have you gotten to play Lady Macbeth?
FRANCES McDORMAND: When I was first reading Shakespeare in English in seventh grade English class, I had a teacher who, the first thing we read was Macbeth. A lot of English teachers start with Macbeth because it’s a good one for 14-year-olds. It’s really good. It’s scary, it’s spooky, it’s got murder, mayhem, and witches, and so we put together some scenes. She said, let’s memorize them and we’ll do them after school for your parents. I did the sleepwalking scene and a couple of the witches’ scenes. Literally, now I know that was when the hook went in and it’s never gone out, in terms of wanting to be an actor. And I just kind of pursued that my entire life.
I’ve auditioned a couple of times for productions of Macbeth, but I never really pursued it until I did it at Berkeley Rep, probably six years ago, when I was 56, 57. I’m really glad I didn’t do it until then. You know what? It’s a small supporting role, Lady Macbeth, and I didn’t want to be in a bad production of it. So I waited until I could work with Dan Sullivan and Conleth Hill, who played Macbeth in Berkeley, at a theater that I really respect, and then with Joel and Denzel. I’m so glad I didn’t do it when I was younger, I’m really glad I waited because it also led us to this interpretation that I think is really fascinating. That is one of an older couple who is at the end of their ambition rather than at the beginning.
DEADLINE: I’m no Shakespearean scholar, but I looked this up on Wikipedia and saw that Lord Macbeth was 52 when he died. Denzel Washington is 66.
JOEL COEN: Interesting.
DEADLINE: In a lot of the productions of Macbeth we’ve seen, the main character and his wife were played by actors of a younger age. How did putting years on those main characters change the dynamic of this drama compared to what we were used to seeing?
COEN: When Fran and I first talked about doing this, it was interesting to me that at that point in both of our lives and careers we were older, and therefore it would have to reflect an older couple. I’m also not a Shakespearean scholar in any respect, but the more I got into the play, I started to think that the age was giving it a dimension which was interesting to me because Fran and I were older at that point, and the way to think about it was in terms of your own life and your own experience. Actually there were two things about that. One is, of all the heterosexual relationships in Shakespeare there are a lot of good ones, but there’s only really one good marriage. And that’s the marriage of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. They happen to be plotting to kill someone, but the marriage is good. That was an aspect I wanted to explore in this adaptation, but I also thought it’s even more interesting to explore it if the marriage is a substantial marriage and they’re an older couple.
It’s interesting that you say the age of the historical Macbeth. Traditionally, this is usually a play done by younger people. There is a very interesting interview with Roman Polanski where he says the opposite. He is saying, you know, usually Macbeth is an older couple and I wanted to do a young couple. I was like, really? That’s not my experience with Macbeth. Usually it’s cast younger, but it was very much part of the conception of this from the beginning.
DEADLINE: It did feel like the narrative went from coveting the crown and Macbeth’s own ambition enough to kill a most popular king to something more like, this is our last chance to seize it. How challenging was that to get across when the actors are still reciting Shakespeare dialogue time tested since the early 1600s.
McDORMAND: We changed the tense in one line, from present to past tense, because there’s really only one line in the play that jumped out for us in terms of them being post-menopausal. The fact that they cannot produce children and that they hadn’t successfully kept a child alive seemed to be a real part of the depth of their sorrow. My idea was that Lady Macbeth’s job was to produce an heir. That’s her political job, that would be her job, as queen. And because she can’t get him that, she can help get him the crown. She can at least give him the crown. Also, it’s going to keep her alive. In that society at that time, women were expendable, and if she doesn’t perform her job then…so, I always found that to be really interesting politics. The line that we changed was, ‘bring forth men children only, your undaunted mettle should have composed nothing but males.’ Rather than ‘should’ compose. But we didn’t mess with it that much, did we, Joel?
COEN: No. Just to follow through on that, this does dovetail with the fact that they’re an older couple. The play is very much is concerned with issues of time; the word time appears maybe 30 or 40 times in the play. Time is all over this play, the obsession with the passage of time, Macbeth’s obsession with the fact that he may be king but his heirs won’t be kings. The obsession with the future is very much a part of the play, and when you start to think about all those things which Shakespeare weaves into the play about time, and then you add the dimension of the fact that the couple is not a young couple but an older couple, it takes on different colors. If you’re going to grab the brass ring, it had better happen now.
DEADLINE: How did you get Denzel to say yes?
COEN: Oh, it was so easy. Maybe five or six years ago, Denzel and I had lunch together and we talked very generally about, it would be cool to work together at some point, if the right thing came along for him and for us. So, when we were casting this movie, it was very much…Denzel? And it was [like you heard a] click. I got together with him at, again for lunch in LA, and I said, what about doing Macbeth? And he was like, yeah, cool.
McDORMAND: It couldn’t have been more perfect, actually. There aren’t many actors, contemporaries of my age, that could handle the character but also who consistently does theater the way Denzel does. Even though he and I, the majority of the time we’re working on film, we have also been really committed to doing theaters our entire careers. And he had recently done The Iceman Cometh, which is a huge monster of a memory job. We were like, oh, he can probably pull this off, just technically.
COEN: He also has a long history of doing Shakespeare, and everything felt right about it and it wasn’t like he needed to think a long time about it at that lunch. It was like, yeah, okay, so know, what do we do?
DEADLINE: That is a good lunch. Who paid the check?
COEN: That’s a really good question. You know what? It was in a place that Denzel goes to a lot, so I think I let him. I think he had a tab there.
DEADLINE: Fran, this is a departure for Joel, who directed the first time without his brother Ethan, and has done his first Shakespeare adaptation. How much did your stage turn as Lady Macbeth lead to this?
McDORMAND: Joel saw that production and we also talked a lot about my performance, and it had a lot to do with the reason we wanted to collaborate on Joel’s adaptation. Over the years I had often said to Joel, what about Macbeth? Let’s do Macbeth on stage, and he always responded with, ‘no, I’m not interested, nor would I be good at a stage production. I don’t like rehearsal, I like the design and the shooting of a film.’
COEN: Now, that’s not true. I don’t think I said I don’t like rehearsal. I said, thinking about it from the point of view of the stage is thinking about it from one visual perspective, which is the audience looking at it. The issue is, the way my brain works. My brain works in terms of breaking things down for a camera, and so that’s why I said to Fran…
MCDORMAND: So anyway, I never got anywhere talking you into doing it on stage, but when we started talking about what we’d like to do together in the future, it was on the list, and it swiftly moved to the top of the list. We and then Joel…we also have a really, really dear friend who was a professor of Shakespeare in Montreal for years, and he and Joel and Hanford [Woods] met often.
COEN: I thought it would be interesting to read the play a number of times with this old friend and question him about things like the history of the production of the play, and just interrogate the text with him because I’m not a Shakespeare scholar and this is out of my wheelhouse. It was a deep dive into something that was new to me, and I wanted to examine it with someone who knew it very well to see which ways to go and what was going to be interesting.
DEADLINE: The cast is very diverse.
McDORMAND: As always happens, you must adapt to the company that you’re in, and one of the most exciting things about our company in Joel’s adaptation is that we’re a very mixed company. Some of us are American English speakers, some of us are British English speakers, some of us are Irish English speakers, some of us are trained Shakespearean actors, others like Denzel and I have done some but not a lot as opposed to Kathryn Hunter and Alex Hassell. There was a lot of variation in our expertise, but when it came to our company, we created a style and a language for working together for almost a month of rehearsal together, so that time we had in a kind of classic rehearsal space really set the tone, I think. Don’t you, Joel? So, we really got to sit around the table with the language and then Joel taped out the kind of topography of what the set is going to be, so we were actually able to get up on our feet and work in a space that was going to be similar to what we eventually shot on.
COEN: It was nice to have that. It is rare you get to rehearse that length of time. This was not a lengthy shoot, 35-36-days which is the shortest, I think, that I’ve ever made a movie.
DEADLINE: People who have followed the films you’ve made with your brother Ethan might recognize some of the themes here that you’ve been drawn to in your films. There is a crime, and there’s going to be a price to be paid, and then it’s the journey of seeing how it plays out. There are elements of that in everything from Blood Simple to No Country for Old Men to Fargo. Even though you adhere to 400-year old Shakespeare dialogue, was that a personal connection to the material that helped?
COEN: Oh, absolutely. I think that’s what drew me to this particular play, and why this was more interesting to me than adaptations of other works of Shakespeare. Even as a kid, seeing productions of Macbeth was stimulating for me for all the reasons that you’re saying. There are a number of things here. It’s a very short play, the shortest tragedy that Shakespeare wrote. And in addition to being one of the greatest writers in the English language, Shakespeare was a writer of popular entertainment. That’s what these plays were about, and this particular play prefigures so many tropes of American popular entertainment, dramatic and literary entertainment and pulp entertainment. It’s a couple, plotting a murder. That essentially is American pulp noir fiction. That’s James M Cain, another writer we’ve always been fascinated with, both myself and my brother. And then, there are witches in this. There are elements of a horror movie in this.
All of these things which are very sort of close to my heart and my history in terms of things that I’ve been making over the last 35-40 years with my brother can be found in this play. So, it absolutely was at the top of our thinking about it.
DEADLINE: You say Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, but I read in the press notes you made it even shorter…
DEADLINE: What was not there and why did you do that?
COEN: Okay, so there are two ways in which the text, if you look at the sort of complete text of the play and then you look at it next to what you’re seeing on screen, are different. The first is that there’s a certain amount that is edited out. It’s not a lot, actually, because it was very important to me, that we do the verse and that we do the play and we’re not condensing it or abridging it too radically.
The places where it is abridged, it’s abridged not just for concision but mostly for pace. In reading the play, what I found was that — and this is tied up with another issue which is how people listen to the verse and how familiar they are with understanding the verse — when you read the play, what Shakespeare does a lot is he constructs a scene that has a dramatic point, it’s got a narrative point, it’s beautiful poetry, you get the point of the scene, and then he often elaborates, he embroiders with even sometimes more beautiful poetry, and makes another sort of subsidiary point but less important to the drama.
All those things are beautiful to see in the theater, but if you’re making a thriller, you want it to march along at a really terrific pace. To me that was a way of involving more and more people in the story who don’t normally go and see Shakespeare, and it was a way of bringing it more into a kind of idiom that would be accessible to people who don’t necessarily see or read a lot of Shakespeare. So, that was number one.
Number two is that often in that embroidery, the metaphors, the language, the poetry involves language which is more obscure to a modern ear, and I didn’t want the audience to get too hung up with the fact that, I don’t quite understand what that word means? And so was a delicate dance between doing that and not dumbing it down. I wanted it to be the real play, I wanted it to be the whole experience of the play. That was also a lot of the discussion I had with Hanford as we were going through it. I was going, supposing this gets cut and this gets cut and this gets cut? I want to say that most of the time that people do Shakespeare either on stage, in movies or on stage, there is usually some editing going on, you know? Some plays more than others, but there is usually a certain amount of editing going on.
The other part, the way in which the text was modified or rearranged is that often in Shakespeare, and Macbeth is no exception, there are soliloquies that are not addressed to anyone. They’re essentially internal thoughts, and traditionally in movie adaptations what happens is you have the actor sort of sitting there thinking, and you’re hearing him voice over the soliloquy. That’s the Polanski version, I mean, most versions of movie edits. I always thought, you know, you’re hearing a voiceover but it looks like the actor, he’s not actually speaking it as he would on stage, and I don’t know, he could be thinking about his lunch or where he’s going to go after the show is over. I just didn’t like it, so I wanted everything, even the soliloquies, to be spoken. But I didn’t want the soliloquies to be spoken to a fourth wall, to the audience out there. I wanted to combine them, I wanted to adapt it into the context of the scene, and it occurred to me a certain way through the play that most of Macbeth’s soliloquies, not all of them, are actually about information that actually one other character in the play knows about, and it doesn’t matter if it’s shared with that person, and that’s Lady Macbeth. So, some of those soliloquies got wrapped into scenes with Lady Macbeth where he’s actually speaking those things to her.
DEADLINE: Another innovation here is the black and white, and the shadows and spare nature of the castle. It reinforces the horror and witches part Joel spoke about. What were you going for here, and how did you make that happen?
COEN: That’s a really good question and really hard to answer because tone is really what it’s all about. When you get right down to it, that’s kind of like the whole ballgame. But it’s a hard question to answer in terms of, like, real intentionality. You tend to reverse engineer what your own thinking was. I think it started, to a certain extent, with the idea that the whole thing is a bit of an abstraction. First of all, it’s a play, right, and that in and of itself is make believe, not real. And then it’s, okay, what’s the context of this play that you’re trying to make into a movie? Well, let’s go with the make-believe part of it. Let’s make the sets also a little bit abstract. Let’s not make the play specifically…let’s say the play is really not about Scotland, it’s about other things. Let’s say all of those things and then you say, well, okay, what’s the context for that? And I think we started looking at things like German expressionism, those sort of movies, Dreyer movies, movies from Germany, UFA from the twenties and thirties and those kind of things and what they were up to and that kind of stage design.
Beyond that, you go tonally, what do we want it to be? We want it to be…it’s a thriller, so let’s make it…there’s a darkness to it. There’s a bit of a horror movie, a darkness to it. So how do we incorporate that into it and make it a little bit spookier? All of those things contributed to an idea of tone that you have roughly in the back of your mind, and then trying, you just go, well, that fits or that doesn’t fit.
This predates this movie in a strange sort of a way. If I could make every movie in black and white and in a kind of flat aspect ratio, which is what we were using here, I think I would, just because personally it’s very vibey for me. It’s something I really like.
But if I think about why that is, one of the reasons why, and it’s especially relevant to this movie probably more so than anything I’ve ever done before, is that when you make something in black and white you are instantly abstracting the image. By taking color away, already you’ve tipped the image over towards abstraction, but it’s a kind of abstraction that everyone goes with. People, they understand what a black and white image is in relation to reality or to a color image. That kind of abstraction is something that I think was important to this movie because it’s not about reality. We weren’t going for, let’s do 12th century Scotland and shooting a castle and all that kind of thing, and then ride horses over the moors, you know? It was, let’s do it more like a theater piece where there’s a certain amount of abstraction in the whole idea, the design, the time period, and all the rest of it. So, black and white just puts you one step down that path already.
DEADLINE: So you didn’t have to shoot in some old castle…
COEN: It was all on a soundstage. Everything was built. I don’t think there’s a single exterior shot…a shot in the movie that was shot outside except an element of the last shot in the movie.
DEADLINE: This film was originally hatched with producer Scott Rudin, with whom you collaborated on in the Best Picture Oscar winner No Country for Old Men and other things. His name is not in the credits; he put himself on sabbatical after his bullying behavior toward subordinates was exposed by THR. His bullying was widely known in industry circles but presented and reframed by THR in this #MeToo moment, it created an outcry for him to be gone, despite him being an undeniable champion of taste-making subject matter like The Tragedy of Macbeth, which has always been hardest to get made. There was a report there that both of you witnessed an outburst by him toward an underling, and not reacting. It has nothing to do with what I just saw onscreen, but it is out there. What can you say about all this?
COEN: To work backwards from your question. I’ve made a number of movies with Scott over the years. I’ve known him since I started making movies, probably when he was head of production at Fox on our second movie, but if you look at all of the producers out there in the world, there aren’t that many who you would say, well, making an adaptation of Macbeth is a natural fit for the two of us. I mean, there’s Scott and then there’s nobody else that you would say that about. So, knowing him and having made movies with him, he seemed absolutely natural to go to with this, and in fact, he was. So, that’s that part of it.
As far as the allegations and Scott’s behavior, yes, I think there isn’t anyone who works in the business who hasn’t heard those stories over the last however many decades that Scott has been working. Yeah. I hear stories about all kinds of people, I myself have witnessed all kinds of behavior. I never witnessed any of it with Scott, absolutely never. But on the other hand, I heard the stories and to a certain extent, I didn’t doubt the stories. I knew there was…you hear a lot of it and you figure a lot of it is probably true. But like I say, I hear stories about lots of people and I’ve seen questionable behavior from lots of people, but I never, ever saw anything like that from Scott. I don’t condone it, of course, but I never saw it.
As far as people saying that we did, I just want to say this. I’ve been making movies for almost 40 years, Fran has been making movies that long, I think both Fran and I have reputations, and you can ask anybody we’ve worked with, for being aboveboard and honest, and the honest truth is I never saw it. So, I know I’m being honest about that. You can ask anybody who knows us whether they believe we’re honest about that.
So from my point of view, whoever is saying we did see it is not being honest. So, that makes me skeptical of anything else that particular person might be saying.
McDORMAND: Joel, since you’re speaking for both of us, I would like to interject, since you’re speaking for both of us, that I think the most important thing that Joel has said is that we have worked with Scott for many years, we have not witnessed his disrespectful bully behavior to his employees, and what Joel has just said, anyone that questions our reputation should speak to us about that. Because I think anybody in that industry would not question our reputation when it comes…we do not handle ourselves that way professionally or personally. So, I think that’s enough.
And so I’m really interested, this article in Deadline, is it about the film? It is.
McDORMAND: And so, this question, I think, is not what the article is about, so I think we probably addressed it enough. Is there anything else you wanted to ask us?
DEADLINE: About this?
McDORMAND: No, about anything else?
DEADLINE: Oh, yeah. Sure. Yeah.
McDORMAND: [She smiles brightly]. Oh, great. What is it?
DEADLINE: Fran, producing is something that you’ve added to your repertoire, and the results are undeniable. After starting with Every Secret Thing, you championed and produced Olive Kitteridge and it won eight Emmys. And then came Nomadland, which won the Best Picture Oscar, one for Chloé Zhao as only the second female Best Director winners, and one for you as an actress. What’s the most rewarding and challenging things about being the producer of vehicles? I can remember some of those scenes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It was an Oscar tape I watched with my son, and we would have to stop, look at each other gobsmacked, and we had to rewind to watch again because the dialogue and emotion was so good. That’s got to require a lot of concentration. And yet you’re off to an enviable start producing these things also.
McDORMAND: Well, thankfully I didn’t produce Three Billboards.
McDORMAND: That was really exciting, because it was in between all these other things I was producing. It was so relaxing just to be hired again as an actor, especially because Martin [McDonagh] wrote the role for me. So, that was really gratifying to know that I didn’t have to go back to work. Because one of the things that happened with Olive Kitteridge was for years I played supporting roles to male protagonists in film, and the more interesting roles that I got to play where in the theater. That’s why I often went back to the theater, because theater has space for female protagonists. It was also aligned at the same time when our son, Pedro, was graduating from high school, going on to his next move. I knew I was going to be bereft as a parent, I needed to fill my time, and so I started producing.
And for many reasons, and a lot of them being the fact that I had Joel and Ethan as mentors, and not as some people think, co-producers — because they had not been my co-producers until The Tragedy — a lot of people think Joel is going to show up, and lo and behold he doesn’t. It’s just me, but I had a kind of late in life career change that was really successful.
And frankly, I’m done. I just produced Sarah Polley’s new film with Dede Gardner, Plan B, and Emily Foley, my producing partner in my production company, they’re filming now. And what I realize is, I need a break, man.
McDORMAND: It’s been a full-on ten years, and I’m really glad you mentioned Every Secret Thing, actually, because that was the first thing I produced. It was a really successful attempt, not a very successful film, but a very successful attempt. There’s been a lot more than the ones that have been acknowledged by the industry, but what else can I do? I think I’ll go back working for hire again now. It’s easier. Absolutely. I just want Joel to call me and tell me that I’m acting in something in a couple of months, and I’ll show up.
DEADLINE: Was there a part of producing that led you to this change of heart? I can see the appeal of being able to shape something from the ground up. What did you find that were less fulfilling than breathing fire in a movie like Three Billboards?
McDORMAND: Well, it’s not that it’s not satisfying. It’s just so completely…consuming. It’s a full-time job for at least three years, from the development. From optioning a novel, finding a writer, working with a writer, working with a director, casting, preproduction, production, post-production, marketing, and then the fucking awards seasons. I mean, it never ends, and I say fucking because that’s not the part that any of us do it for, but then it ends up being a full-time job. It’s just never ending. I think that if I had attempted it in my twenties or thirties, I wouldn’t have been good at it, for one thing. I didn’t know anything, but I would have maybe wanted to pursue it farther. But now I kind of…I’ll know when I’m ready to do it again, but it’s not for a long time.
DEADLINE: Joel, as I watch the films you and Ethan made with Fran, it does occur to me because you are also married. What can you possibly tell her about how to make her performance any better?
COEN: Well, it’s always…it’s never about making the performance better, it’s always…I think with the stuff that we’ve done together, and with anybody, really, it’s more about specific things. You go, what if it was like this, or what if you did this when you said that. It gets really specific, so it’s more like…and then…
McDORMAND: Oh my God.
COEN:…it’s a discussion, you know? Like, a good example is, I’m trying to think. Well, okay, a good example is when we were doing the ‘come you spirits…
McDORMAND: ‘…that tend on mortal thoughts.’
COEN: Yes. Early in the movie when we’re with Lady Macbeth, and I said, what if you sat down on the bed and then you laid down on the bed and said this. Which was not the way Fran had done it, obviously, on stage, and implies a kind of different delivery and tone and all of those kinds of things, very different from what she had done before, and so that was a discussion, right?
McDORMAND: Right, but you have to understand, and of course you know, everybody knows, it’s how we met. We met on Blood Simple, we met working together, we’ve always had a really, really successful working relationship, and I think that one of the things I believe both of us are the most proud of us, that not only have we collaborated as an actor and director for 38 years, we’ve collaborated as life partners for 38 years, we raised our son and have created an extraordinary kind of performance piece of a life together, right?
So, one of the things that is the foundation of it is that when we go back to work…like, come on, we don’t always work that well at home putting together a window treatment. That can be a real pain in the ass, but on the set, we know exactly…we do…it’s not unlike the way Joel…like, people are always asking about Joel and Ethan, they always ask me, well, you know, what’s it like when they work together? Do they argue? No, they don’t, because when you’ve got a good working relationship you fill in the gaps. Everybody knows what their job is, I know what my job is, I don’t try to do his job.
I think that what was interesting for me on The Tragedy, we call it The Tragedy, that we worked with so many people on The Tragedy that we’ve worked with for the last 35 years, and I think sometimes they would look over at me and they would look at me and they’d look at Joel and say, are we supposed to be listening to her? What is she doing here? Because they weren’t used to me being in a different capacity, there in a different capacity.
COEN: Sure, but there’s one other aspect of what you’re asking about which is interesting too, it just occurred to me, actually. Which is that, when we started on the very first movie that we did together, neither of us had Oscars at that point, but my assumption about Fran at that point was she knows much more about acting than I do. Even though she had just gotten out of drama school, and had only one or two other jobs. Still, I thought, well, she’s a trained actor, she’s gone to drama school. I don’t know what actors do. I mean, that was my first movie. I was, like, you’re the expert in terms of the acting, I assumed. And I think Fran, even though I’d never made a movie before, kind of assumed, well, you’re the expert in terms of what’s happening with the camera and how you make this thing. We didn’t really have a lot of evidence or right to make those assumptions, necessarily, about one another, but we did for some reason.
McDORMAND: Yeah. Yeah, and then we…and Joel, we just stuck to that for the last 38 years.
DEADLINE: At the risk of prying a little bit, Joel, you cast Fran in Blood Simple, and when does it become more of a personal relationship? Was there something specific that happened?
McDORMAND: Well, see, this is also interesting because…we had never worked professionally. Joel had made student films and I had done theater, but we both also had this other assumption, that it was very unprofessional to get involved with people you were working with.
McDORMAND: You know, I’d never been directed in a film and he’d never directed an actor, but we thought it was very unseemly to…have an affair with the director or with an actress, so we were actually very discreet and really didn’t create a relationship until we finished shooting. And then it became much more apparent that we, I daresay, couldn’t live without each other, and so we made it happen. Right, Joel?
COEN: Yeah. I think that’s accurate. There was a sense of propriety, I guess, in a certain way, and also even like, really, is this…yeah. I don’t know, but I think in that respect we were respectful of each other’s agency in the project we were doing, and it was an issue, but yeah, I mean…it is very interesting. I think it’s an interesting question, because there were assumptions there about whether either of us knew what we were doing without any evidence.
McDORMAND: Right. I mean, it’s also…I was just joking with somebody yesterday, they were talking about how, especially with people our age, often you meet people who’ve had professional career changes. We were talking with somebody the other day who used to be an anesthesiologist and now cleans people’s pools. And we were going, whoa, that’s a really different career, but the idea that you bring to…I don’t even know why I brought that up. Why did I even bring that up, Joel?
COEN: I have no idea. See it through.
McDORMAND: This is how you free associate at 64. I don’t know why I brought it up.
DEADLINE: Sometimes you get lucky and find what you’re meant to do early, as you guys did personally and professionally. For me, I don’t do anything else that competently and I met my wife in college, and that was that. I was on a cruise ship once and this comedian was asking this guy who had like a 50th anniversary, and they were like, you know, what’s your secret, and he just kind of looked like confused, but said, I didn’t die. If you love what you’re doing, and realize what you have, sometimes longevity results. As for me, Marge Gunderson makes it all worthwhile.
McDORMAND: Well, I’m glad, because yeah, we’ve always thought of Fargo as our family movie. We made it a couple of months before we met our son, Pedro. He’s adopted from Paraguay, so we were kind of keeping ourselves busy before we met him and getting in sync. By the time we met him, we could change diapers and figure out the sleeping patterns a little easier because we’d been up all night shooting Fargo. Right, Joel?
COEN: Pretty much.
DEADLINE: Well, for what it’s worth, we still quote Marge Gunderson dialogue in my house. So Joel, you and your brother Ethan have always worked together. I wouldn’t say it was two halves of a brain, but you could see in interviews that you seemed to share a sensibility. What was it like on this film, looking over and not seeing him standing next to you?
COEN: Well, it was weird. And unquestionably there were…you know, I missed him, right? There were moments when I missed him. You don’t do something for 35 years with someone and then all of a sudden go off and do it by yourself, especially since it was without exception a productive and wonderful collaboration that I’ve had with him on all of those movies. So, yeah, there were plenty of times when I missed Ethan.
But it’s a little bit more complicated than that. I think there were a couple of things about this particular project. You know, when you say that people assume it’s sort of two halves of one brain or we share identical sensibilities or interests, that part of it is actually not true. I mean, what our careers are and our collaboration together is reflective of those points of intersection where we share interests in the same thing. You know, if you say, I’m interested in this and he’s interested in this, but what we do are only the places, the movies are the places where those cross, where we actually share them, right?
Not like we don’t have different interests and different ideas and predilections and all the rest of it. After 35, almost 40 years of working with my brother, we both were like, you know, we’re getting on. There are things that we want to do that we kind of take a break from each other and we pursue other things, and I think that this play in particular, doing Shakespeare is probably something that Ethan wouldn’t have been as interested in doing. And he’s doing things now that I’m not that interested in doing, and we’ve always done that when we aren’t making movies.
I mean, to a certain extent people go, why aren’t you…what’s going on? Why aren’t you working with your brother? And I go, give me a break. We’ve worked for 40 years together, for Christ’s sake. I’m 67 years old. Are you serious? It seems more natural than unnatural that there would be a point where you kind of go, I’ll do this and you’ll do that. It doesn’t mean we’ll never work together again, it just means that here we’re not.
DEADLINE: Fran, what did you miss most about Ethan?
McDORMAND: Well, I didn’t miss him in the way that Joel missed him on The Tragedy because I don’t have that relationship with him. I had a relationship with Ethan…I also have a familial relationship with Ethan that he and Joel experienced on a daily basis when they worked together, but for me it would be at holidays and film festivals when our families all got together. So I don’t really miss Ethan because I still get to see Ethan, and in fact, because they’re not working together, we see Ethan…I get to see him more because we have dinner with them. Joel, when they worked together, they were tired of each other. They didn’t want to have dinner with each other. Now we actually seek out more time with them that I get to experience. So, for me I didn’t miss him.
And I think that also, we’ve been celebrating…Ethan has had a whole career in the theater in the last ten to fifteen years. He started writing plays and having them produced, and we’ve been celebrating that with him for a long time. So this was, for me, watching Joel kind of…Joel has other pursuits that aren’t necessarily as public as Ethan’s in the theater, but this is the first time that Joel has gone from soup to nuts with an idea of his own. So that was really exciting for me, and I think it was exciting for Ethan too.
He came to visit and it was great because he came to visit and he really enjoyed being there because he didn’t have to work. He sat by the monitor and he hung out with Joel, and he saw everybody that he has worked with. And then he texted me the next day and he said, that was so great, I loved being there, and I’m right, I don’t want to do it for a while. That’s a lot of work. I’m tired.
So, I think that’s also something. You know, we’re going to work, Joel and I and Ethan, we’re all going to work until we drop. That’s just what we do, that’s our ethic. We have a work ethic that means we’re not going to stop what we’ve been doing for the last 40 years, we’re going to continue to do it. But like Joel says, we’ve always taken risk, we’ve always shaken it up, we’re going to continue to do it.
DEADLINE: When I watched Tragedy, I thought to myself, I can see and hear that they want a younger audience to give Shakespeare a chance, and not be turned off by the language. How much did you see this as an opportunity to bring Shakespeare to the younger audience, and what can you do to see that happens?
COEN: You know…
McDORMAND: Oh, Joel, can I just…I want to say something right off the bat, because don’t underestimate the younger audience, man. If anything, we should worry about our own generation, but the younger audience, their exposure to maybe not the language, necessarily, but their exposure to a wider range of entertainment, I think is so much broader than we might imagine. Go ahead, Joel. Sorry. I just wanted to get that in there. I don’t think we have to worry about them. I think they’ll come.
COEN: The short answer from my point of view is that it was primary, and if you want to sort of say both a younger audience and also, as I said before, an audience that, whether young, middle-aged, or old, isn’t necessarily the usual audience for Shakespeare, or has preconceptions about Shakespeare or difficulties with what they’ve seen of Shakespeare in the past, that was the audience that I wanted to address. The Shakespeare audience, the people who see every Shakespeare play or know the play inside out, weirdly I’m much less concerned about and not less, maybe even less interested in, a little bit. It was the audience that doesn’t. I thought that would be really exciting to address and stimulate.
And so all of those decisions that we were talking about before, you know, what was edited, how it was cast, what the tone was, what the pace was, what was the parts of the play that we wanted to bring out more, all of those things I think were really primary to that question, which was yes, that was the interest in doing this this way, and that it’s a movie and they can feel like a movie-movie, as opposed to an exercise or an “adaptation of Shakespeare”.
McDORMAND: Right. It wasn’t an intellectual exercise. It was actually an exercise in entertainment. What I mean by what I was saying is, I watched every season of Game of Thrones. I love Marvel movies. Because we have a 27-year-old son, who loves mythological stories, Vikings, and Game of Thrones, I’ve seen all of them. And they make up their own language where they have these linguists who come in and make up a language for all the different people that populate those stories. So, I feel like there is something…it’s this prejudice that people have kind of laid on film audiences saying, oh, they’re not capable of letting their imagination expand into this world.
And I think, to Joel’s credit, he has made enough movies to be able to take this and know…I mean, you never know exactly if it’s going to work, but if you’re saying you want to offer it to a wider audience, you can figure out a way to do it. It’s not the language. The language is very easy because Shakespeare was doing it too. He had a peanut gallery. There were some people that didn’t understand every joke about the kings and the politicians he was making, right, Joel? I mean, he had all different types of audience members.
COEN: Yeah. I think the fundamental thing was that he wasn’t…
McDORMAND: He was a populist.
COEN: He wasn’t an elite dramatist. He was a dramatist who was writing for the masses and that this was, in its day, popular entertainment. Even though it also happens to be great literature, even though he was aware of the fact he was writing for King James or whoever was in power at that point, that there were all these other sort of considerations, and aspects to his plays. Still he was a popular entertainer, and that was something that we wanted to bring into this.
You know, the Game of Thrones thing, that’s a somewhat different argument from what I was making, because I think that kids are always into science fiction and sorcery, and that’s not the thing that’s stopping kids from watching Shakespeare. I don’t agree with that. They’re there already with those things. Shakespeare is a particular thing and it’s the stigma of Shakespeare in a way, in a lot of people’s minds. It’s that that I was trying to overcome. It’s that that I was trying to get past. So, it’s a little bit different, my point of view on that, is a little bit different from what she is saying. I didn’t want people to hear Shakespeare and go, oh, shit, no, that’s not for me.
DEADLINE: I can see that as being a challenge. You know…
McDORMAND: Well, do you think we were successful?
DEADLINE: Yeah. I do because it played like a thriller down to that last scene, which shook me a bit. The climactic battle scene, breathtaking, and it said everything about how tragic a figure Macbeth and his wife had become, in their last chance power grab.
McDORMAND: Yay. Me, too. I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to split because I’ve got some plants coming in.
DEADLINE: Just one more, please.
McDORMAND: Yes. Yes.
DEADLINE: When you gave your Oscar speech a few years ago and mentioned “inclusion rider,” it felt like a stepping stone for inclusion, and Nomadland felt like another. Since you made that speech, what do you think of the changes in this business? Are we moving fast enough?
McDORMAND: I really believe that it is going in the right direction. It shouldn’t go too fast because then the good work gets cancelled by the speed of change, but I have to say that what I learned working with Chloé Zhao on Nomadland is that we are the ones that need to think hard about diversity. Because filmmakers of her generation are already working with diverse crews because, that’s who they’re coming up with. Their generation is already more diverse. They’re already more interracially mixed than our generations were. We’re the ones that need to step out of the fucking way and let them come forward because they’re doing it. It’s just supporting them and mentoring them and not competing with them, and Joel and I talk about it all the time.
Joel has always had a diverse crew. They have championed women and people of color their entire career. I feel one of the things I’m the most proud of is that I have mentored…every movie I have done has been helmed by a female. So, I feel like we’re doing what we were meant to do, which is make opportunities for the people who are coming up, make sure it’s as broad and as wide as possible, and don’t try to make it so prescriptive.
So, by me saying inclusion rider, I think I gave people a bumper sticker. I literally made bumper stickers. I literally made them and passed them out because that’s what it is. I didn’t do the policymaking. I didn’t do the research. That was done by the Annenberg Center, they did the years of research. I just heard about it the night before and opened my big fat mouth and said something, but I think that the more important thing is that it just becomes a day-to-day, you just don’t…
So, but it’s not unlike…when Joel and I first met Denzel and Denzel said, Joel, so what about the black and the white in the thing. And Joel said, yeah, we’re going to shoot in black in white. And I said, ‘Denzel, I know that’s not what you meant, but that’s what Joel meant, and that’s all you’re going to get out of him.’ So, if we start thinking that way, it’s not about colorblindness, it’s not about colorblind casting or color-conscious casting, it’s just going to start reflecting the world, and film has always been late to the party. The film industry is like one of the slowest moving culturally perceptive industries. It’s always catching up, but I think it’s going well. I think it’s going well. I think, yeah, we old white people just have to, you know, have a little vacation, have other people take over.