‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’: How The Sets Were Designed as One Big Optical Illusion

Production designer Stefan Dechant talks about blending day and night in the new Joel Coen film – and how “lime green cartoon moss” intruded on one scene

The Tragedy of Macbeth

In nearly three decades in the film industry, Stefan Dechant has worked as an illustrator (“Forrest Gump”), concept artist (“Minority Report”), storyboarder (“The Polar Express”), and art director (“True Grit”). It was that last credit, the 2010 Western directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, which recommended Dechant’s skills as a production designer for Joel Coen’s first solo directorial film, “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”

“I got a call right before Halloween in 2019, telling me that Joel would like to meet up and talk about ‘Macbeth,’” Dechant explained to TheWrap of the film starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as Shakespeare’s most diabolical couple. “One of the first things Joel said when we met was that he didn’t want to create a naturalistic ‘Macbeth.’ He wanted the whole thing to be filmed on sound stages. He wanted artifice.”

For Dechant, this meant the building of large interior sets without ornamentation and exteriors often cloaked in mist and fog. Still, the challenges to imbue psychology in the production design were intense, as Dechant described in our conversation about the film.

TheWrap: When you came on board the film in 2019, was it clear that Joel Coen already had the movie in his head?

Stefan Dechant: Absolutely. He had defined the look of the film, and Joel and [cinematographer] Bruno Delbonnel had been talking about the project for a year or more. They had amassed a collection of photographs and they were starting to categorize them per scene. I was able to dig into their archive and then start to make those environments. 

And what was your first impression of the ideas he had amassed?

It was all so economical, which was just so exciting to be a part of. I think people forget that ‘Macbeth’ is actually a lean, tough, economical story – and so it’s an economical design. By staying true to that, Joel crafted something quite beautiful.

There are many fascinating aspects to how this film looks. One is that we almost never see the central castle from the outside.

Yeah, exactly. We wanted to play with that ambiguousness and not revealing the castle from the outside was part of that. You’re not getting a glimpse of where you are. And right up front Joel said he didn’t want to lose the fact that the text was created for a theatrical experience. And always we were using Shakespeare’s text to understand the psychology of what was going on. And at the same time, abstract the environment.


Can you give some examples of how you did that in the production design?

Well, we also talked about the line in the play, ‘I have not seen a day so fair and foul.’ The days and night are not much different in this world, they would kind of bleed into each other. That led us to think about the film’s the point of view. Like when you see ravens in the sky in the opening shot, you’re not sure if you’re looking up at them or down at them. It’s revealed that you’re looking down at them. Joel wanted the audience to be confused about what point of view they had.

That’s part of the play. What’s the agency of Macbeth? Is he acting because he’s been foretold his future or is he destined to commit these murders anyway? It’s a murky environment and we wanted the imagery to remain pretty clouded.

There are also several scenes where we see staircases in the castle. And we’re not exactly sure if they’re going up or down.

Yes. And just like the ravens, the look of the stairwells were all in Joel’s screenplay. Whether we are looking up or down, that was all intentional by Joel.

Were you inspired by the stairwells in the art of M.C. Escher?

It wasn’t so much Escher. One of the artists we looked at was a turn of the century set designer named Edward Gordon Craig. He made very abstract stage settings, with cubes and long folding horizontal screens. One of his designs is actually called “The Steps.” We looked at a lot of his sketches.

It wasn’t that we were only interested in the past, though. We looked at some photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto. One of them is called “La Casa Barragan” and it just shows two walls intersecting and a square tower behind it, slightly out of focus and in black-and-white. That became one of our touchstone images.

There is also a scene where Macbeth meets the witches and the room fills with water. Can you talk about that?

It’s meant to be a big cauldron. That was also something Joel brought up in our very first meeting. The witches would be perched on rafters, so that they’re just out of our reach, above us. The darkness looking down onto Macbeth. And then transforming the room into a cauldron makes it a completely psychological place. That environment is totally driven by claustrophobia. 

And there is also a moment when large windows burst open and an avalanche of leaves blow in. That was the unique way of portraying that ‘Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane,’ which is one of the witches’ prophecies.

Oh, it’s fantastic, isn’t it? That is pure Joel. He said he never felt that the whole ‘Birman wood on the move’ had ever been captured successfully on film. I personally like the way it’s done in Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood,” with the trees moving through the fog. But Joel had the idea of these giant windows that Macbeth would open and then the whirlwind of trees would burst in. 

And then the throne room in the castle basically becomes the woods, right?

Yes. I love that Joel preserved the theatricality of it. We don’t need to see it in such a literal sense. The leaves pretty clearly tell you that the woods have arrived. Also, we purposely designed the columns in the throne room so they are not in a straight line. They’re at an angle slightly, so they mimic the forest of trees.

What would this film look like in color? Like, if someone had visited the set, how would it appear?

The sets were specifically designed for black-and-white. And that’s also because the sets are held together by light and shadow. That was a specific part of the tone that we created. If you went and looked at those sets in person while we were filming, they were essentially painted in black-and-white. We even painted the shadow lines into the sets, which was partly Bruno’s idea.

So as your eyes scanned the set, you were essentially seeing a black-and-white movie?

For the most part. But there was one funny story. For the scene set at the crossroads, we needed to bring in a textural element. We found a guy who had a big gun device that could shoot glue and moss at the same time, but he said, “Listen, I have a problem, I can only use bright green for the fake moss.” So he put some of the moss in a corner and luckily we had an iPhone camera, which let us see the moss in black-and-white and we could see it was going to be fine on camera. But it was a huge shock to see this set for a black-and-white movie that was covered in this crazy lime green cartoon moss everywhere. But in the end it all worked out.

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” is streaming on AppleTV+.