For production designer Stefan Dechant, receiving the call to meet Joel Coen for Macbeth’s Tragedy the impression of being carried away in “the hero’s journey”.
“Some of those calls…you get the call to action, so the movie ends even if you fail,” Dechant says in the latest installment of Deadline’s Production Value video series. “And there was no reason to falter.”
Coen’s take on William Shakespeare’s classic 17th-century play macbeth for A24 and Apple TV+, Denzel Washington’s Scottish lord is convinced by a trio of witches that he will become the next King of Scotland, then conspiring to seize power with the help of his wife, Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) .
Dechant was first approached for the surprisingly minimalist black-and-white film back when a Disney adaptation of White as snow he was preparing had been shelved, finding synchronicity in the opportunity to work alongside Coen, after teaming up with him and his brother Ethan Coen as art director for their 2010 film, The real courage. “It was around Halloween and I’m a bit of a Coppola fan. Dracula. So I put Coppola Dracula in, and there’s all these Murnau references in there, and the Symbolist painters, and I was like, ‘Fuck, I want to work on something like this,'” he recalled. “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, saying: “Think of Fritz Lang, and think that maybe a castle isn’t really a castle. .” Given that the main experience of the production designer in terms of macbeth was via the 1957 film Kurosawa throne of bloodwhich transposed its plot to feudal Japan, he found he would need to engage in “further translation” of the script and play to understand the story and its world, finding help here in the series of books No Fear Shakespeare.
“Then I took some books I had on production design during the silent era in Germany and took them with me, and then I met Joel. It was really interesting because some Joel’s point of view, he never wanted to lose the idea that the text was intended for a theatrical experience. [he] I didn’t want to film a play,” Dechant says. “It was about creating a sort of hybrid of theater and cinema, but never losing that aspect of cinema, and then abstracting those images to get the theatrical quality out of them.”
By the time Dechant signed for Macbeth’s TragedyCoen, McDormand and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel had already been working on the film for a long time, collecting evocative references in the form of “3×5 copies of different films”, including that of FW Murnau Sunriseby Charles Laughton the hunter’s night and Carl Theodor Dreyer The Passion of Joan of Arc. While those influences could certainly be felt in the final product, it’s not like Coen hoped to emulate them. “It was like, ‘Look at this language and what it does in its own abstraction.’ We wanted to take that, and what Joel does is create a rhythm with that,” says the production designer. “The text is in a rhythm… but then there’s a repetition of images that comes into the text. So that was kind of Joel’s diktat was to take those elements, but we don’t imitate them. We try to learn from them what abstract imagery is. And then how to tell this story so that he can dialogue with the text itself?
Remarkably, while Macbeth’s Tragedy features extraordinary exterior scenes, almost the entire film was shot on sound stages in Los Angeles, with extended sets via digital media and matte paint. Coen’s mandate in crafting the feature was to embrace artifice, given that he felt that here crafting an “evocative image” was more important than verisimilitude.
Since 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 on certain structures. “Language…is…also to some extent [about] which is obscured,” he notes. “If you think about that, macbeth is the story of a man who mistakes a curse for a prophecy. So we obscure the images through the fog, and sometimes these floating elements of curtains and so on. But also, light and shadow are what create graphic sensibility.
With Macbeth’s Tragedy, Dechant earned his first Oscar nomination. From the set designer’s perspective, the highlights of the project are not about particular sets, but rather the time spent with his collaborators, including Coen, McDormand, Delbonnel and set designer Nancy Haigh. “There were a lot of cigarettes and I don’t smoke, but we were just standing outside the offices…talking, what are we trying to accomplish? And what is this film about? And from these big levels to specific levels, like, how are we going to floor this price? How are we going to get this? shares Dechant. “Those are the times when I look back and say to myself, ‘This is wonderful’ and with my team, when someone would have done something or brought something to me that is just awesome.”
Next up 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 damn awesome.”
Dechant grew up outside of Cleveland and first turned to acting at age eight, when he had the “transportation experience” that was star wars with his family. “Seeing this movie was one thing, but then…they had a ‘making of’, and the making of showed artwork done by Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston,” he recalls. “Just seeing these images which depicted other versions of this movie that had never been made, I found very intriguing.”
Dechant never believed early in his life that he would be able to cultivate a career in entertainment, finding it to be “a pretty fantasy” that “didn’t seem to match reality”. At the University of Cincinnati, he studied graphic design, thinking he’d probably end up drawing “men in Haggar slag for Sears catalogs” or something. But in truth, graphic design wasn’t entirely his passion, so when his father encouraged him to pursue his work in film, he went down that path, directing the series of internships he needed to graduate in film.
He first completed an internship in the studio of the famous graphic designer and filmmaker Saul Bass, Bass/Yager. His interaction with the Oscar-winning actor was limited and he spent most of his time there mixing paints. “Getting some correct blue can take almost all morning,” he says, “at least if you’re inexperienced and in your twenties.” Still, the job came with perks. “The cool thing is to go on the weekend and go down to the archives,” he says, “and then see the original storyboards of psychology and of West Side Story.”
Dechant then completed a six-month internship at ILM, exaggerating his mastery of previous 3D systems, so he could land a job as an illustrator on The Lost World: Jurassic Park. This project saw him leave school for a year and move to Los Angeles, working under Oscar-winning production designer Rick Carter. “But before I did that, I called NewTek, who made…this thing called Video Toaster that had a very early 3D modeling system, and let them know that I just lied to get a job on jurassic park, and I needed help learning how to use the software,” he shares. “The company sent me a manual. They told me where I could take classes in Cincinnati, and they put me in touch with a guy in Los Angeles. So, I would come in and do my best during the day to get things done, but then I would stay up all night. I figured I was young and had energy, and that’s how I got into the art department.
When Dechant is on time jurassic park ended, he chose not to return to school, instead working with Carter as an illustrator on Forrest Gump. Carter then became his mentor, teaching him the problem-solving required by his craft and how to be both director-focused and production-friendly. “I remember Rick, before my first job that really started and worked, and it was Kong: Skull Island, saying, “The first thing you need to think about as a production designer is the golden rule – do unto others,” Dechant says of lessons learned from Carter. “It’s kind of about developing an empathetic approach. So where is the director? What is he or she looking for? And try to see the world through their eyes. If you were the director and you had a production designer, what do you need them to provide? »
After working as an illustrator on other titles including water world and Snow falls on the cedarsDechant would go on to direct additional titles, including What lies below, Castaway, Jarhead, lady in the water, Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, Sucker Punch, Oz the Great and Mighty and The BFG. After rising again through the ranks in 2017, he held the position of production designer for films including Pacific Rim: Uprising, Welcome Marwen and The Call of the Wild before macbeth. While Dechant says he never had the “muscle memory” to be the best of the best at illustration, the skills he cultivated early on in storyboarding and 3D modeling have served him well on every project he has. he has since undertaken. “Climbing the ladder of an artistic department allowed me to understand the orchestra [that is the crew]and again developing empathy,” he says, “so you know where your crew is coming from, so you can get the most out of them.
Ultimately, Dechant says, it’s “this crazy jazz-playing orchestra” he works with through the projects that has made his chosen career so rewarding.
Macbeth’s Tragedy 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.