“Sound Speed Camera Action!”: William Oldroyd's Lady Macbeth

Simran Hans chats to William Oldroyd, director of Lady Macbeth, a stirring, crisply framed period drama, about shooting sheep, shoestring budgets and the difference between directing for stage and screen.

26 April 2017
Simran Hans
By Simran Hans
Simran is a freelance writer, and the producer and programmer of Bechdel Test Fest, an ongoing celebration of films that represent women in a positive and progressive light.
Simran: Prior to making Lady Macbeth you spent 10 years working in theatre. Why did you decide to transition to filmmaking? 
Will: When I was at school there was this really great teacher who used to do these extracurricular classes in ‘weird film’.
Like experimental stuff?
Yeah, like Buñuel, Dali, we watched [the 1971 Nicholas Roeg film] Walkabout – films you would not ever really choose. I was 17. But it wasn’t a class or a course, it was stuff we did outside of school hours. So I was really interested in film, but at the same time I was also in the school plays, being a very bad actor.
When I left school I went to art college in Farnham for a foundation course. We did photography, fine art, multimedia, film. It was a chance to think about how you can manipulate image and what was in the frame. It wasn’t really narrative or acting; I didn’t shoot actors, I just shot stuff.
While I was doing my degree [in Theology at Durham University] I was also working with my mates in the theatre. We were putting on plays and I didn’t own a video camera. There wasn’t a video camera at university and you couldn’t record anything.
a girl stands in period dress in a old fairly empty house
Perhaps there was something inaccessible about filmmaking.
There was! It just felt like the idea of making a film when we were like 19, 20, was so far away from what we could actually achieve. We were writing comedy, we took it to Edinburgh. The Fringe felt like it was available to us.
Then I did an MA in directing. That was the place where I actually met acting students. For the next 10, 12 years it was a case of assisting directors I really liked, slowly building up work and then getting my first professional gig. But the stuff I’d done at art college never left me – the video work. And then slowly, people started getting video cameras, and phones started being able to record moving image.
Someone gave me a flip camera and I thought, well, I’ll just start. I kept a video diary and shot something each day for a year. I filmed steam. I filmed these kids running around. I filmed a sheep. But it was a way of beginning to think about moving image and the frame. And what interested me was that you could cut it, you could edit it on the camera.
That’s interesting to me because one of the things I liked most about Lady Macbeth was that sense of composition and framing. I thought it looked very clean in the way it was shot.
The hardest thing going from theatre to film was the question of where to put the camera and why. When I’ve directed plays, I’ve had to work out what the relationships are on stage, but the audience sits in one position from one angle and then they choose where to look. They self edit, if you like. [As a film director] you’ve got to decide for the audience where they’re going to look and why. 
Can you talk about the journey to making Lady Macbeth?
I saw [producer] Tristran Goligher give a talk at Sundance London [Oldroyd’s short film Best screened in competition in 2014]. He was telling us about this iFeatures scheme – £350,000 to make a feature film. Then we went to Sundance in Utah the following January, and I thought maybe I should apply for the lab, and [Sundance] were really encouraging.
I was thinking about iFeatures and I thought, all of the low budget feature films that I’ve loved, like Shifty and Lilting and London to Brighton seemed to be urban contemporary. Why is it that we’ve never seen a period drama on these schemes? They’d never made a micro-budget period drama.
I guess the instinctive answer to that is budget – and the costuming and period detail. How did you figure out how to strip it back?
Well you’ve just got to prioritise what is the focus. I knew that we were going to be in one house and there’s going to be six or seven main characters. I thought if they’re all paid equity minimum and if we keep our shoot days down to 24, surely we could manage it.
The good thing about iFeatures, I’d say, is that because it happens every two years, there’s a time limit. We felt like it would really force us to work fast and to get it made within two years.
a girl in period dress stands outside in front of a berry filled tree
How did you approach directing this feature, not having been on a film set of this scale before?
I knew that after 12 years in the theatre, I knew how to work in a rehearsal room for five weeks, I knew what it was to work with actors. I’d been in one or two technical rehearsals so you are there with the designer, and the lighting designer, and the sound designer.
You understood the relationships and how to get the performances, but was there anything confounding about the process?
Well, the language and the jargon. I relied heavily on our first AD. I didn’t know what the order was for people to say “sound speed camera action”! Even like that, even when I was saying the word action, it felt like it was surreal, it was a cliché.
It took me, I would say, the first week to gain confidence. I don’t know how else you can do it. I think short films are a way of doing it, but with a short film, I found, you can hold the entire film in your head from beginning to end. With a feature, I think that’s really impossible. You break it down into bits and you think about the manageable scenes and so on. You’re shooting out of sequence, well, we didn’t, we shot in sequence because I asked that we had a period of rehearsal and we shot sequentially, because they were the two things I needed to bring with me from theatre. So I wasn’t totally at sea.
What advice would you give to filmmakers who are about to make their first feature?
The script is everything. We were able to get a super experienced production designer, costume designer, hair and make-up, cast, casting director, first AD – because people knew we had no money but we had a fantastic script. A lot of people spend so much time doing money jobs, so when you present them with something artistically satisfying they can’t say no, because they are artists! Give them no option but to say yes because your script is so good.
Also, give yourself time in the pre-production so you can truly collaborate. It’s not easy. People are looking to you for direction, but you need to see what all the possibilities are before you make a choice. I’ve collaborated in theatre and everyone’s had a voice and they’ve had equal time to say these things. In film, there’s a belief that there isn’t the time to try things out and that you’ve just got to get on with it.
I think you’ve got to build into the working method the notion that you are not infallible as a director and, in the same way that you will allow anyone else to fuck up, that you should also be given that right. You can take the pressure off. Otherwise your pride is so strong that you end up never climbing down from your rock. Which is bullshit.
Close up on a girls face with light streaming through the windows behind