Cannes: Justin Kurzel on What Makes 'Macbeth' a Western (Q&A)

The Aussie auteur discusses turning Michael  Fassbender into Macbeth, Marion  Cotillard’s 'aura' and why he’s attracted to dark material.

It’s been 10 years since Justin Kurzel first came to Cannes as a wide-eyed young filmmaker, fresh out of college, with his short film Blue Tongue. While his work has mostly involved theater production design and directing music videos, Kurzel returned to Cannes in 2011 with his first feature, The Snowtown Murders — a harrowing drama based on the serial killings that occurred near his Australian hometown — which won a special jury prize in Critics’ Week.

Now, he’s back with his first competition title, a sweeping, epic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. The 40 year-old-helmer, who’s been living in London for the past few years, spoke to THR about his connection to the Bard’s work, how he turned Macbeth into a Western and why Cotillard made the perfect Lady Macbeth.

How does it feel to return to Cannes with a film in competition?
It’s extraordinary to be in that group, among those other directors. The first time I went to Cannes, Gus Van Sant was there in competition with Last Days. It’s something I never thought would happen. It’s really pretty extraordinary.

How did you end up directing Macbeth?
I was in London working on another project, and it didn’t eventuate. I was approached by [producer] Iain Canning about Macbeth, and the added thing to that was: Macbeth with Michael Fassbender. And I was like, “Yes, absolutely.” I guess it was the combination. In reading the script, I could see how cinematic it was. It embraced the landscape and world much less like a play and much more like cinema, which got me excited and curious.

When did you meet Michael Fassbender?
Michael and I had met in London about one year before I even knew about Macbeth. We were mutually interested in finding a project to work on. He was a fan of [Snowtown], and he’s someone I really, really wanted to work with. So it was kind of the perfect storm with the timing of it all. I’ve been a designer, and I had designed Macbeth and other Shakespeare plays, so I had a connection to Shakespeare’s work, but there was something really fresh about this.

How would you describe your take on Macbeth in this film?
To me, it’s a Western. We shot it all outside. We were able to explore the madness in these brutal and unforgiving and beautiful landscapes, such as in Scotland. It gave it a whole new shade. There’s a simplicity in the storytelling that I think is unlike any of his other plays, and it fit in that Western structure quite effortlessly. It was at a time where kings were killed continuously, and it was a place where you’d be at war for years and years, and the idea of Macbeth being a product of that and having to carry what it means to be a warrior and the things that he’d seen and the things that he’d done — there’s something very interesting in terms of the post-trauma that’s connected to that.

Were you always interested in Shakespeare?
I think they’re some of the greatest stories ever written, which is why they’re repeated as models throughout screenwriting and playwriting. The themes are universal but very human. It feels contemporary because he’s dealing with human nature in such a visceral way. I’d just come off Snowtown, and I’d been in this world of serial killers, focused on someone who turns toward the darkness and can never find his way back. So I think just through researching that, there were some interesting parallels in terms of gravitating toward darkness and madness and guilt and defining a belief — no matter how corrupt it is — that becomes your rock.

Do you find yourself attracted to these dark stories?
I actually gravitate toward comedy a lot when it comes to what I’m watching, but maybe that’s because I’ve been on such dark work the last four or five years. I think Macbeth was a play that I’ve always gotten so much out of. My wife played Lady Macbeth in a play, and I designed it. There are things in there that are just kind of extraordinary.

How did you decide on Marion Cotillard for Lady Macbeth?
I think she’s one of the most extraordinary actresses in the world. There’s something that is so unusual about Marion and so cinematic. There’s an aura about Marion that is very powerful that I really wanted in the film. And I think that freshness and that tension of her doing it for the first time brought a whole new quality to Lady Macbeth and a kind of empathy for that character, which I think is going to be very new.

You’ll be working with both Fassbender and Cotillard again on your next film, Assassin’s Creed.
Michael was attached as a producer, and he started talking to me about it when we finished Macbeth. It’s a really fascinating and interesting project, and we wanted to work together again. Michael and I thought it would be fantastic if Marion wanted to do it. It’s amazing to continue those relationships and work on something completely different. I think you see that in a lot of directors and actors who form partnerships if [they] enjoy working together.