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‘The Tragedy Of Macbeth’ Production Designer Stefan Dechant On His “Hero’s Journey” With Joel Coen Film, Robert Zemeckis’ “Pretty Darn Great” ‘Pinocchio’ & More – Production Value

'The Tragedy of Macbeth' production designer Stefan Dechant on Production Value

For production designer Stefan Dechant, getting the call to meet with Joel Coen for The Tragedy of Macbeth felt like being whisked away onto “the hero’s journey.”

“Some of those calls…you get the call to action, so the movie ends if you even falter,” Dechant says in the latest edition of Deadline’s video series, Production Value. “And there was no reason to falter.”

Coen’s take on William Shakespeare’s classic 17th century play Macbeth for A24 and Apple TV+ watches as Denzel Washington’s Scottish lord is convinced by a trio of witches that he will become the next King of Scotland, subsequently conspiring to seize power with the help of his wife, Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand).

Dechant was first approached for the strikingly minimalist, black-and-white film right around the time when a Disney adaptation of Snow White that he’d been prepping had been shelved, finding synchronicity in the opportunity to work alongside Coen, after teaming up with him and brother Ethan Coen as the art director for their 2010 film, True Grit. “It was around Halloween and I’m a bit of a sucker for Coppola’s Dracula. So, I put Coppola’s Dracula in, and there’s all these references to Murnau in there, and the symbolist painters, and I was like, ‘Goddamn, I want to work on something like that,'” he recalls. “Then, that Saturday I got a call from Joel’s producer saying, ‘Do you think you could read this script, Macbeth?'”

When producer Robert Graf called Dechant, ahead of his meeting with Coen for the project, he described the filmmaker’s vision by saying, “Think Fritz Lang, and think that maybe a castle’s not really a castle.” Given that the production designer’s primary experience of Macbeth was via the 1957 Kurosawa film Throne of Blood, which transposed its plot to feudal Japan, he found that he would need to engage in “additional translation” of the script and play to wrap his head around the story and its world, finding assistance here in the book series No Fear Shakespeare.

“Then, I grabbed a couple of books that I had on production design during the silent era in Germany and took those with me, and then met with Joel. It was really interesting because from Joel’s perspective, he never wanted to lose the idea that the text was for a theatrical experience. But [he] didn’t want to film a play,” says Dechant. “It was creating a kind of hybrid of theater and cinema, but never losing that aspect of cinema, and then abstracting those images so that you were getting the theatrical quality out of it.”

By the time Dechant signed on for The Tragedy of Macbeth, Coen, McDormand and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel had already been working on the film for an extended period, collecting evocative references in the form of “3×5 prints of different films,” including F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. While these influences can certainly be felt in the final product, it wasn’t as if Coen hoped to imitate them. “It was like, ‘Look at this language and what it’s doing in its own abstraction.’ We wanted to take that, and what Joel is doing is creating a rhythm with that,” the production designer says. “The text is in a rhythm…but then there’s a repetition of imagery that comes in the text. So, that was kind of Joel’s dictate, was take these elements, but we’re not imitating them. We’re trying to learn from them what it is to abstract imagery. And then how do we tell this story so that he can be in dialogue with the actual text?”

Remarkably, while The Tragedy of Macbeth features some extraordinary exterior scenes, almost the entire film was shot on sound stages in Los Angeles, with sets extended via digital backings and matte paintings. Coen’s mandate in crafting the feature was to embrace artifice, given his sense that here, crafting an “evocative image” was more important than verisimilitude.

Given that the film would be shot in black and white, and told in a language of “light and shadow,” Dechant designed sets with lighting in mind, even working with Delbonnel to paint shadows onto certain structures. “The language…is…also to a certain extent [about] what’s obscured,” he notes. “If you think about it, Macbeth is a story about a man who mistakes a curse as a prophecy. So, we are obscuring images through fog, and then sometimes, these wafting elements of curtains and whatnot. But also, light and shadow are what’s creating the graphic sensibility.”

With The Tragedy of Macbeth, Dechant secured his first Oscar nomination. From the production designer’s perspective, the highlights of the project don’t pertain to particular sets, but rather to time spent with his collaborators, including Coen, McDormand, Delbonnel and set decorator Nancy Haigh. “There was a lot of cigarette smoking going on and I don’t smoke, but we’d just be standing outside the offices…talking about, what are we trying to achieve? And what’s this film about? And from those big levels to specific—like, how are we going to do the floor for this price? How are we going to get this?” shares Dechant. “Those are the moments that I kind of look back and go, ‘That’s wonderful,’ and with my crew, when somebody would have done something or brought something to me that’s just absolute genius.”

Up next for the production designer is his frequent collaborator Robert Zemeckis’ live-action adaptation of Pinocchio for Disney+, which he says has wrapped production. “It’s fantastic. I love working with Bob, and it was really cool,” he says. “I think it’s going to be pretty darn great.”

Dechant grew up outside of Cleveland and first gravitated towards film at eight years old, when he took in the “transportive experience” that was Star Wars with his family. “Seeing that film was one thing, but then…they had a ‘making of’, and the making of showed artwork that was done by Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston,” he recalls. “Just seeing these images that represented other versions of this film that had never made it, I found very intriguing.”

Dechant never believed early in life that he’d be able to cultivate a career in entertainment, finding that to be “a nice fantasy” that “didn’t seem to jive with reality.” At the University of Cincinnati, he studied graphic design, believing he’d probably end up drawing “men in Haggar slags for Sears catalogues” or something of the sort. But in truth, graphic design wasn’t fully where his passion lied, so when his father encouraged him to pursue work in film, he committed himself to that path, gearing the series of internships he needed to graduate toward film.

He first interned at iconic graphic designer and filmmaker Saul Bass’ studio, Bass/Yager. His interaction with the Oscar winner was limited, and he spent most of his time there mixing paints. “Getting a certain blue correct could take almost all morning,” he says, “at least it could when you’re inexperienced and in your twenties.” Still, the job came with perks. “The cool part is to go in on the weekend and go down into the archives,” he says, “and then see the original storyboards from Psycho and from West Side Story.”

Dechant next interned for six months at ILM, overstating his mastery of 3D previous systems, so that he could land a job as an illustrator on The Lost World: Jurassic Park. This project saw him leave school for a year and head out to L.A., working under Oscar-winning production designer Rick Carter. “But before I did that, I called up NewTek, who made…this thing called Video Toaster that had a very early 3D modeling system, and let them know that I had just lied to get a job on Jurassic Park, and I needed some help learning how to use the software,” he shares. “The company sent me a manual. They told me where I could take lessons in Cincinnati, and they set me up with a guy in L.A. So, I would go in and try the best I could during the day to get things going, but then I would just stay up all night. I figured that I was young and had the energy, and that’s kind of how I got into art department.”

When Dechant’s time on Jurassic Park came to an end, he opted not to return to school, instead working with Carter as an illustrator on Forrest Gump. Carter then became his mentor, teaching him about the problem-solving his craft required, and how to be both director-centric and production-friendly. “I remember Rick, before my first job that really got off and running, and that was Kong: Skull Island, saying, ‘The first thing you have to think about as a production designer is the golden rule—do unto others,'” says Dechant of lessons taken from Carter. “It’s kind of developing an empathetic approach. So, where is the director? What is she or he looking for? And trying to see the world through their eyes. If you were the director and had a production designer, what do you need them to provide to you?”

After working as an illustrator on additional titles including Waterworld and Snow Falling on Cedars, Dechant would go on to art direct additional titles including What Lies Beneath, Cast Away, Jarhead, Lady in the Water, Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, Sucker Punch, Oz the Great and Powerful and The BFG. After once again climbing the rungs in 2017, he’d serve as production designer for films including Pacific Rim: Uprising, Welcome to Marwen and The Call of the Wild ahead of Macbeth. While Dechant says he never had “the muscle memory” to be the best of the best in illustration, the skills that he cultivated early on in storyboarding and 3D modeling have served him well on each project he’s taken on since. “Working my way up through an art department allowed me to understand the orchestra [that is the crew], and again developing an empathy,” he says, “so you know where your crew is coming from, so that you can get the best out of them.”

In the end, Dechant says, it’s “this crazy orchestra that plays jazz” that he gets to work with across projects that has made the career he’s chosen so gratifying.

The Tragedy of Macbeth also stars Bertie Carvel, Alex Hassell, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, Brendan Gleeson, Moses Ingram and Kathryn Hunter. Coen, McDormand and Graf produced the title for Apple Original Films, IAC Films and A24. Check out highlights from our conversation with Dechant above.

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