The team behind Toronto premiere Lady Macbeth, touted as one of the hottest discoveries of the year, tell Wendy Mitchell about their unique approach to a period film.

Lady Macbeth

First things first: this isn’t Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. Also, it isn’t like any period drama you’ve seen, thanks to a talented trio of first-timers who tell one headstrong woman’s story in a unique way.

Director William Oldroyd, writer Alice Birch and producer Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly each make their feature film debut with Lady Macbeth, adapted from Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 Russian novella Lady Macbeth Of The Mtsensk District. Leskov’s basic storyline, about a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage who takes her destiny into her own hands, is transplanted to 1865 England.

Birch, who has written frequently for theatre with work performed at London’s Royal Court Theatre, says she was drawn to Leskov’s novella because of its central character, a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage who takes her destiny into her own hands. “It’s this incredible young woman. She should have been incredibly unlikeable but her passion and tenacity made me go with her. You think it’s a familiar story — a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage — but it turns into this unexpected journey.”

Birch told her agent Giles Smart at United Agents she wanted to move into the film world. He introduced her to another of his clients, Oldroyd, who had studied directing at RADA and was a director in residence at London’s Young Vic theatre. He was also looking to move into film. Oldroyd was impressed with Birch’s work and, like the writer, became obsessed with Leskov’s Lady Macbeth.

“In literature of this period, women usually suffered in silence,” he says. “If they were trapped, they would kill themselves or run away. For her to fight back, that was so different.” Oldroyd was especially impressed with Birch’s adaptation of the text. “Alice brought out the psychology of the characters,” he says, noting she also added pivotal new characters like Katherine’s maid Anna and changed the ending to leave the protagonist more empowered.

At the same time, Ireland-born Cronin O’Reilly, a National Film and Television School graduate who was Oscar nominated with Timothy Reckart’s 2012 animated short Head Over Heels, had already set up production company Sixty Six Pictures. She was introduced to Oldroyd by a mutual friend and the trio set out to create a special take on a period film (it went so well they are developing a second feature together).

Lady Macbeth, which is now touted as one of the hottest discoveries of 2016, has its world premiere in Toronto’s Platform section before heading to San Sebastian, with further autumn festivals to be announced. Protagonist Pictures is handling international sales.

In their update of Leskov’s story, Katherine (Florence Pugh) lives in rural England in 1865. She contends with an overbearing husband (Paul Hilton) and a disapproving father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank), before embarking on an affair with handsome farmhand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), with dangerous consequences.

Lady Macbeth is notable as one of the first micro-budget period films to be made in the UK. It was brought to life under the iFeatures scheme, the low-budget initiative run by Creative England, BFI, BBC Films and Creative Skillset to work with films with a base budget of $455,000 (£350,000), though this can be topped up with other finance as it was for Lady Macbeth.

Oldroyd attended a panel about low-budget feature filmmaking at Sundance London 2013 and liked what he heard from Tristan Goligher, the Weekend producer who was then executive producer of the iFeatures scheme. Focused on telling stories set outside of London, iFeatures launched in 2009 and has produced past features including Terence Davies’ Liverpool documentary Of Time And the City, Alexander Taylor’s SXSW selection Spaceship and Guy Myhill’s Venice selection The Goob.

The iFeatures process sees up to 12 teams each round selected for mentoring and training, and up to three films greenlit for production. Lady Macbeth was greenlit as part of iFeatures 3 alongside Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling and Dan Kokotajlo’s Apostasy which is still in production.

All the other iFeatures projects have been contemporary, but Cronin O’Reilly knew the scheme’s executives were looking for ambitious applications. “A lot of people thought we were crazy [making a low-budget period film], but we knew iFeatures asked for bold, audacious projects,” she recalls.

Cronin O’Reilly says the iFeatures structure was great for giving feedback and advice in development and pre-production yet not smothering the team during the shoot. “They allowed us to get on with it,” she says. The tight budget actually helped with the intimacy of the story; as Birch says, “There is a distance in some period films — this is more human.”

“We responded well to the time pressures [of the scheme’s deadlines],” adds Cronin O’Reilly. Oldroyd agrees the scheme kept them moving quickly. “You know you can’t be hanging around for four years,” he says. Indeed, they made the film in just two years from treatment to delivery.

One key location

The ability to stick to their budget was thanks to using one location — Lambton Castle stately home in Northumberland, north-east England — for 22 of the shoot’s 24 days. Cronin O’Reilly says: “We gave ourselves five months of prep time. That was the best thing we did.”

A single location allowed more time to prepare and work, and “not wasting time moving around”, she adds. They had key cast for 10 days of rehearsals in situ before they started to shoot, enabling them to map out everything beforehand.

“That prep was key for us,” says Oldroyd, who shot the film in sequence. He is quick to point out the role of his key collaborators in making sure Lady Macbeth didn’t feel like a typical period piece.

“Nick Emerson previously edited Starred Up so we thought it was interesting for him to go from a prison drama to a period drama; we thought it could give it that edge. Also, working with [DoP Ari Wegner], we had to represent Katherine’s boredom on screen which influenced the style of the camerawork. Then she wakes up a bit and the camera starts moving with her.”

Composer Dan Jones’ music is used sparingly in just three moments, with Oldroyd feeling it would be “dishonest” to have too much music. Instead, he explains, “we did a lot around breath”.

Other key collaborators were production designer Jacqueline Abrahams (The Lobster) and costume designer Holly Waddington (Ginger & Rosa).

Casting was crucial, not just for the role of Katherine but for the rest of the cast as well. They worked with casting director Shaheen Baig (Control, Free Fire) and, as Oldroyd explains, “We saw actors from all backgrounds and all classes, we really tested it.”

Rising UK actress Pugh, so far best known for Carol Morley’s The Falling, shines assuredly in her first leading role. “We met quite a few actors who you think, ‘You’re the Lady Macbeth we already have in our mind, with the icy glare.’ But [our character] had to start softer than that,” Oldroyd says. “Florence can come across as youthful and then become more hardened. Underneath, she is kick-ass.”

The film also stars former Screen Star of Tomorrow Jarvis, who impressed the team with his commitment to the role. He slept on the estate’s floor one night in preparation for a difficult scene, and worked with horses and dogs to understand life as a groom. “He was dedicated to the process,” Oldroyd praises.

Lady Macbeth’s triumvirate plan to work together again as well as pursuing projects separately. Cronin O’Reilly is a co-producer on David Batty’s music documentary My Generation, for instance, and Birch is discussing film and theatre projects. They aren’t unveiling their next film together yet.

Oldroyd clearly has the film bug now, and is talking only about future film projects rather than plays. He did find it an adjustment to switch between the mediums. “The differences are that with a play, you do all the prep and you have five weeks of rehearsal and tech rehearsals and previews – it’s a kind of constant conversation with the actors. With film, there are some people you don’t even meet until the day of the shoot.”

At the end of the filmmaking process for Lady Macbeth, which included a 16-week edit, though, he enjoyed that “you have more control of the final piece.”