Justin Kurzel is a newcomer to the film industry, with just two feature length films to his name. But he is ascending the ranks as quickly as the Thane of Glamis — only with less murder and witches — as his second film is the critically acclaimed Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Next year, they’ll all be back adapting no less venerated source material: Kurzel’s Assassin’s Creed has perhaps the highest artistic expectations of any video game movie.
Kurzel spoke with Inverse about updating Shakespeare, the perils of filming in Scotland, working with an actor of Fassbender’s caliber on his second movie ever, and Assassin’s Creed.
Warning: The conversation below is filled with 400-year-old spoilers.
First, let’s talk about Macbeth’s gritty, brutal, gorgeous battle sequences. Where did you get the idea to film them the dreamlike way you did?
Well, schedule and budget didn’t allow us time to shoot them over a long period to really give battle scenes justice. It gave us a solid idea to shoot them as points of view from Macbeth, and set up at the beginning of the film that the audience is watching through the eyes of a soldier who is kind of traumatized by it.
The idea is that the war sort of spent Macbeth; he sees all the violence and brutality through these timeless little moments. That made it really focused and interesting. Then the idea that the witches came out of that imagery. It suggested some kind of notion that he was ill at the beginning of the film, and that he was traumatized in some way by being a soldier. So it was really using those imageries to help suggest the psychology of our Macbeth.
The way you did the witches was interesting too — they almost reminded me of the Thenns in Game of Thrones. How did that take on them come about?
The witches really came out of me wanting to make them feel like travelers; make them feel quite real. So it was really from that and my research on travelers and gypsies of the time. And also those four girls, I was interested in their personalities. It was making them feel as real as I could possibly make them.
Aside from Macbeth’s psychology, did you decided to film battles the way you did to capture the attention of the modern audience? Were you worried at all about the attention span for Shakespeare in the social-media age?
I just tried to make something that I found engaging and compelling. I wasn’t deliberately assuming I was making it for a young audience that wouldn’t be connected to it because of a shorter attention span. It was kind of just trusting what I found compelling and interesting about the story and hoping that others — including young people — would as well.
I’ve used the phantom camera before. I wanted little moments where they all slow down and really be pronounced and then cut back to Michael watching and seeing that as time stood still. So the technique of using the camera sort of fit into the idea that we wanted to give the audience the field point of view from the beginning. I wanted to do something that felt rugged and real and earthy and sort of familiar. I wanted to stay away from something that felt arch or contrived.
Was that the most challenging part of adapting such old material for a modern audience — not making it feel contrived? Or were there other challenges in the production?
The conditions were pretty horrendous. The time of it and the cinema of it — that was the hardest. How you place these words in a real way, but also capture them in a real landscape. We didn’t do it in a studio; we did it out in the wilderness in the middle of Scotland. So how you create an intimate scene and crush it in wide western-style shots — that was tricky. It’s an ambitious play and there are ambitious things in it; war and all sorts of stuff. To try to achieve a certain scale and a certain ambition in the budget and time we had was challenging.
The screenplay read like a western; there was a lot of spark in it. The world was definitely influenced by real landscape. It was describing a Scotland that we could bring to life. How do you create a piece of cinema that’s like poetry, and present it in a way that feels grounded and part of the world you’re filming? That became the most challenging.
It must have been daunting to tackle iconic soliloquies too. The way you filmed them was interesting. For example, the “unsex me” soliloquy panned to images in the church as well as Lady Macbeth’s face. Could you talk about the decisions you made in filming the soliloquies?
With soliloquies in the theater, most of the times I’ve seen it said to the audience and the back row. We tried to make it so the soliloquies were being said to someone or something. So the dagger scene with the boy soldier on the battlefield was done to the vision of their lost child. It was done to someone or something, so it created an intimate layer and allowed them to connect to something else. I was very conscious that the soliloquies felt a little bit more intimate and contained and personal, rather than projected into air.
And what was it like for you to work with actors like Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard for your second feature film ever?
It was amazing. And Paddy [Considine] I’m a huge fan of as well. For my first film, I didn’t work with mainline actors and that was an extraordinary experience. Casting people from the street and building intimate relationships to get great performances out of them was so real and great.
To work with extraordinary and experienced actors was a different experience. At the same time, it was kind of similar because they’re really interested and curious about being in the environment; creating something that feels like you can only do it once. That comes from a crop of actors that really listen. I had a small thing with first-time actors in Snowtown, they’re incredible at really wanting to be in the moment. Great acting is about being present, so there were certainly moments in both films that made me experience it.
So to work with an actor like Michael Fassbender on a piece like the “tomorrow” soliloquy — how did you approach such a scene? Did you give him much direction; the way he was cradling her dead body? Or did you just let him go?
It was defined a lot by the fact that he was doing it to Marion. The idea that he actually did that to his dead wife — who he thought was alive or sleeping — I thought was compelling. The way Michael did that was almost like he was telling her a bedtime story. It was almost like he was saying goodbye to her through the rich piece of this. So it was kind of how that came about.
If you could do another gritty film version of a Shakespeare play, which one would you chose?
There are so many fantastic pieces. Merchant of Venice was a really compelling play and Henry IV was really interesting. But I don’t think I would do another.
Because Macbeth was so challenging? Or because you’re just ready to move onto different material?
There are so many things I want to do. I feel like I took on something really big for my second film — in terms of Shakespeare — and I tried to find something cinematic in it. I usually do things that scare me and I usually do things that are really different from each other. Like Snowtown to Macbeth and now I’m doing Assassin’s Creed, which is based on a video game. I pick very different things to do next to feel challenged.
Assassin’s Creed, although very different from Macbeth, is also a period piece in a sense. Or will you be focusing on the future timeline more? How will you balance the timelines?
It kind of goes between both. It’s the story of how Michael’s character becomes an assassin, so there are elements in the past, and then they combine continuously throughout the film. We’re three-quarters of the way through the film at the moment. So I’m not sure how it’s going to play out in the editing, in terms of percentages of past and present. But both periods are playing off each other.
Right, it gives you room for invention. Speaking of invention, Shakespeare wasn’t big on stage directions, so you included embellishments like their dead child, or sex. So much in Shakespeare is in subtext but not on the surface. How did you go about deciding what to bring out and how to embellish without straying too far?
What was kind of hinted to that in the screenplay — and even in the play — is the idea that potentially those two could have had a child and that child could have died. I was quite interested in the idea of a couple who were trying to survive the tragedy of losing a child. I was interested in how fractured that couple might be.
I was also interested in how hard it must have been to live through that time of 12th century Scotland. Macbeth is on the battlefield, exhausted. He’s probably seen things and done things that have been incredibly traumatic. He suddenly comes back and Lady Macbeth and him have to reconnect. They’re reaching for something new, something that would take them out of this tragedy.
The prophecy that the witches give them — I thought was a really interesting idea for them to use in order to reset themselves. Violence and murder has become the salvation for this relationship. It also gave the notion of Macbeth operating on a different engine, and it didn’t feel quite hysterical — it felt human. It was a different take on ambition: Rather than being governed by power, it was governed by grief. So that reshaped a little, and then Michael and Marion brought to that a lot of themselves to define their relationship.
And with the sexual part of their relationship — since it’s not overtly on the surface of the original material, you have a lot of leeway. Lady Macbeth is traditionally a seductress type, but your Lady Macbeth is slightly different. What made you decide to have Lady Macbeth do the seducing in the first sex scene, but Macbeth do the seducing in the second? Was there much discussion of who was doing the seducing and who was being seduced and how that informs their dynamic?
There was something interesting in her using her sexuality in seducing him to murder Duncan. We did talk about that; the motivation and plot came out of a charged moment. Then we sort of discussed the reversal of that. Not so much that Michael was seducing her, but the idea that she was looking at someone foreign to her — that she was looking into the eyes of someone that she couldn’t recognize.
Michael instinctively came up with a lot of things that just naturally felt right as we were doing it. So it was a combination of feeling and then playing off the intimacy that they had, but also just something that naturally felt right in the scene as it was happening.
Was that how the ending came about too? It was a beautiful final shot, and although it isn’t a cheery story, it rendered it less morose than it would be if you’d ended it on a shot of his dead body. How did you decide to end it with Fleance running off brandishing the sword?
I was interested in the curse of the witches and the idea that this would just repeat itself. War keeps repeating itself; the same mistakes that people make over and over again with war just keep repeating. I was fascinated with the idea that this is a story that will be told again. There was also the idea of Fleance almost following the witches into the woods after Banquo’s death. And legacy; Malcolm walking into that empty castle and having to assume the enormity of his dynasty and how that was going to play out. I like the idea of suggesting two potential kings thinking about their destiny.
And moving forward to your destiny, what are you most anticipating for Assassin’s Creed?
I hope that the fans of the game feel as though we’ve tried to bring something cinematic to what’s already an extraordinary world. We’re almost finished shooting. I’m hoping to do the film justice because the game and the world of it is something that is much loved.