Photo by Jay Paul
Angus Macfadyen portrays Macbeth in his film version of the Shakespeare play.
Train schedules are a matter of national security, movie or not. Thus, on a sunny but cold Saturday afternoon amid an industrial ruin in the city’s East End, actor Angus Macfadyen — a regular in the filmed-in-Richmond AMC Revolutionary War spy series Turn and the Wild West crime-solving series The Pinkertons, shot in Manitoba, Canada — is adjusting the scene while CSX freights grumble along the elevated trestle.
Macfadyen, directing and acting in his adaptation of the Shakespeare tragedy Macbeth, incorporates the train’s massive might and the shadows of the cars grazing across the brown grass into the scene. For this project, he’s using an unusual production company: Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts’ Cinema program. The making of the full-length feature embraces 40 film students, plus artists, fashion designers and technicians from throughout the university.
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Photo by Jay Paul
Angus Macfadyen (Macbeth) with Taylor Roberts as Lady Macbeth
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Photo by Jay Paul
Actor Seth Numrich as Macduff
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Photo by Jay Paul
Production designer Adam Stynchula inspects a severed head used as a prop.
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Photo by Jay Paul
Grip department members Waymon Chung, Ben Lemons and Greg Golter level the dolly track.
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Lucas Alexander, Zoe Sarris, Tori Lusik, Matthew Williams and William Rummel of the art department prepare the limo.
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Photo by Jay Paul
Sound team members James Grey Walters and Brandon Mueller prepare for the next set-up.
The End of the Road
Macfadyen portrayed Orson Welles in the 1999 film Cradle Will Rock, and counts him and John Cassavetes as directing role models. Welles himself once remarked that a film director is one who presides over accidents, and a film like Macbeth, made on a budget of less than $600,000 — an amount that some major productions might spend to feed the crew — while conducted at a fast pace, uses a form of naturalistic choreography. What occurs around the busy scrum of the actors and technicians may be threaded into the process, like the 35 mm film running through the camera.
Shooting was conducted during weekends because of the actors’ weekday Turn schedules. Macbeth’s cast rehearsed prior to filming, so that when the camera rolled, little time or film was wasted. Macfadyen didn’t want to overwork scenes, either, to allow for a raw, muscled performance.
In thoughtful written responses to questions from Richmond magazine, Macfadyen muses that Welles and Cassavetes “knew how to make a film by rubbing pennies together. They would no doubt approve of a shooting schedule which is two days filming on weekends, and five days off to prepare for the next assault.”
Several of the final scenes are getting shot on this Saturday in mid-January. A ragged cardboard sign, a film prop, indicates “THE END (OF THE ROAD).”
As Macbeth, Macfadyen sings the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech to a jazz-ballad tune. His big voice reverberates off the nearby ruinous brick walls. He later says he didn’t have a particular tune in mind. “I think there was a little West Side Story on ‘ … creeps in this petty pace from day to day.’”
In character, Macfadyen dances a macabre tango-waltz holding the limp body of his redheaded Lady Macbeth, portrayed by Turn colleague Taylor Roberts. Costume and makeup people circle her. Vivid blood is applied to her lips. The actors pace out their movements for the camera. Roberts wears Uggs for this bit, but when the actual shooting commences, the former ballerina, clad in a black slip dress, goes barefoot. After the whirling and dipping, Roberts critiques her performance.
“I don’t think I seemed dead enough.” Macfadyen isn’t troubled. “That’s part of it; we’re wondering, ‘She’s dead, is she dead?’ It’s gruesome.”
Then comes a scene in which Turn colleague Seth Numrich, portraying Macduff, whose family was slain at Macbeth’s command, confronts Macbeth. He pulls a pistol and aims across the roof of the 30-foot-long limousine that serves as the rolling center of the film. The two men roar at each other, in part from the emotion of their meeting, but also due to the train, the rumble as uncompromising as the character Macbeth, its cataract of noise underscoring the scene’s visceral nature.
“This is about Macbeth’s madness,” says Julian Pozzi, another of the film’s producers and a VCUarts Cinema instructor. “He’s in his body, he’s outside his body.”
The camera records a couple of takes from the men’s different points of view, accomplished in quick succession. The call for quiet on the set echoes around on walkie-talkies. The slate clacks. “Rolling … and … action!” This isn’t digital media; the standard rule is three takes for every one minute of film, but Macfadyen pushes for just one take.
This approach is instructive for the students who make up the crew. They are of the digital age, when film itself is passing away. The fast-paced indie methodology and minuscule budget, Pozzi says, “requires a certain economic frugality.”
Nikita Moyer, the film program’s administrative director and a producer on Macbeth, was present at the advent of VCUarts Cinema in 2007. Part of the VCU School of the Arts, but separate from the Photography and Film department, it gives students an opportunity to make movies. As a student, she worked on the program’s first films, Drift and Poe Fictions, which were produced in partnership with the French public film training school, Le Fémis. They received their world premiere at the 2009 French Film Festival. (Returning to Richmond March 26 to 29).
Moyer graduated in 2010 and enjoyed the pace enough to stay. She sees herself as a problem solver, and her duties include maintaining the liaison between filmmakers and the accounting office. A defining difference from this and other programs is that students don’t pay out of pocket for their film projects. The school supplies these small budgets. In this way, the student filmmakers are able to include paid actors in their casts. “Third year is designed for completion as a distance course,” Moyer explains, “because it’s counter-productive [to stay on campus] if you’re doing well and can get work in the business.”
For students, assisting with Macbeth is a volunteer endeavor outside their regular course load; students from all years had the opportunity to participate.
A series of serendipitous events led to the filming of Macbeth. Macfadyen was cast in Turn, which recently ended its second season of filming in and around Richmond, though his part called only for occasional appearances. The actor says that he was “literally climbing the walls with boredom, and not wanting to go utterly mad led me to write the script about madness itself.”
He’d contemplated an adaptation of Macbeth for quite some time, and wanted to play the title role. “So I decided to give myself the gift [since no one else was offering it].” He had tried other adaptations, including some based in the tropes of the Western and a post-apocalypse setting. Nothing worked.
Macfadyen credits part of his inspiration with the ghost-town feel of downtown Richmond on weekends. Antique buildings nestle beneath glass skyscrapers, and, he says, there are “the haunting echoes of silence where a jack hammer can sound like a machine gun … and it just kinda … worked, because at 40 pages, I had stripped [Macbeth] down to its essence, and written an existential dark comedy/horror about the futility of violence, and the struggle for power in the macrocosm of our global banking dog-eat-dog war zone, and the metaphysical microcosm of our inner conscience, as a king and a queen, husband and wife, fight it out within the unbearable confines of the back of a limo.” The limousine concept worked on a budgetary level as well as for Macfadyen’s approach to the story.
He then sought a way to get his vision produced. Another Turn cast member, Hilary Montgomery, connected Macfadyen with Anne Chapman, a casting agent who works with the VCUarts Cinema program on its short films. “She threw me into the ring with Rob Tregenza,” he says.
Finding ‘Miss Desmond’
A VCU professor who heads the Cinema program, Tregenza is also an acclaimed filmmaker and educator. During his varied career, he has run distribution for foreign films including several by Jean-Luc Godard, directed commercials and worked as a director of photography on various art-house films.
This past summer, Macfadyen, through Chapman, approached Tregenza about making a film using students, and gave him four scripts. The director knew Macfadyen from his role as Robert the Bruce in Braveheart. “I liked the idea of translating Macbeth into Richmond and a different environmental space,” Tregenza says. The additional opportunity for VCUarts Cinema students to collaborate with professional actors in an independent production, combined with community partnerships, caught Tregenza’s interest. He became the project’s executive producer.
The concept of the setting within a limo intrigued Tregenza, too; it’s a departure from his own 1985 film Talking to Strangers, which is knitted together from nine 11-minute takes where the camera follows people through the streets of Baltimore with a fluid grace.
But then came the task of making it happen as part of a state-funded university project. Tregenza took the idea to VCUarts Dean Joe Seipel and Andy Edmunds, director of the Virginia Film Office, which agreed to put up about $30,000 toward the budget; the School of the Arts matched the donation. The university treated making the film, in a legal sense, as it would an invention created in its facilities. “We’re taking this through our Technology Transfer office,” Seipel says. “They worked out a partnership with [Macfadyen]. They’ve negotiated a percentage of profits, should they occur.” The under-$600,000 budget also accounts for the value of the professionals’ time and use of the university’s gear. “And this is state-of-the art 35 mm equipment that the Cinema program owns,” Seipel adds.
Tregenza emphasizes the advantages of working at VCU, a multi- and interdisciplinary institution. “We needed a sculpted head and got one made [by VCU graduate artist Morgan Yacoe]; the orchestra conductor composed the score and the players are in the school; Communication Arts people are making the storyboards, the theater department fight coordinator choreographed our fight sequences; the wardrobe and costumes came out of Fashion and Theatre [departments].”
Then came the search for the limousine. Macfadyen sought one with a sunroof, but about 10 years ago, regulations forbade removable ceiling panels in limousines because of the potential for accidents. Macfadyen used the online site Craigslist to hunt his quarry, and found it — in Powhatan County. Both a white and a black car were offered. According to the seller, their provenance was a Texas oilman who underwent a reversal of fortune in the 2008 financial collapse.
How to acquire the vehicle proved another challenge. The seller didn’t want to rent it and, anyway, the cost would have been nearly the same as a purchase. “Students aren’t good at haggling,” Pozzi notes. By this time, the seller was getting nervous. “There were somehow rumors going around Powhatan County we were some kind of international syndicate,” he says with a laugh. “And then I called with my New York City phone number and he got really suspicious.”
Then the seller told Pozzi that another buyer wanted one of the cars, but hadn’t decided which one. Pozzi rushed to Powhatan, not quite knowing what to do to save the black limo for the film except to buy it himself.
When he arrived, a father and son were inspecting the vehicles, debating the merits of the white versus the black. They went with the white limo, and Pozzi bought the black one. He’d rather not say how much he spent.
The 1997 Lincoln Town Car, tricked out with a bar setup, phone and double center windows, provided the perfect rolling castle for Macbeth. Macfadyen explains, “I thought of the limo to contain the play in a tight location, with the thrones being at each end of the stretch, for a play that’s about the isolation of power, agoraphobia, claustrophobia; and the car is a symbol of old-school decadence, not the party mobiles the stretch has become. In the 1970s, you’d see African dictators cruising around in them, so that spoke to me of Macbeth royalty.”
The cast christened the car Miss Desmond, after Norma Desmond, the demented former movie star living in decaying opulence in Sunset Boulevard.
Where’s the Purple Robe?
Tregenza says that having students work this closely to make a feature with an actor like Macfadyen, and using this kind of equipment, is a chance not even he had when studying at the University of California at Los Angeles. “To be an undergraduate working with professional actors and with 35 mm, to be 18 years old and on the set with Angus — there’s not a film school in the country right now where something like this is happening.”
Macfadyen concurs. He would have liked for someone to turn up and direct a professional full-length feature when, circa 1984, he was attending the University of Edinburgh, or at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London around 1989. He remembers, “We got a day with a video camera, 30 of us, which amounted to 10 minutes each. There was this snobbery about film. ‘We’re in the theater, darling.’ Utter rubbish.”
That the city itself served as the studio was important to Tregenza and the spirit of the program. “We can’t sit in our ivory tower,” he says. “We must get out into the community to make our movies.”
In the winter-dead fields of Fulton, where the sure sound of a movie getting made is the purring WhisperWatt Ultra Silent generator with a mat draped in front of it for sound shielding, there is a key costume component that needs to be located. VCU sophomore and first-year Cinema program student Monica Woolsey, a walkie-talkie wielding second assistant director, is calling for a “bloody purple robe that looks like it’s been lived in for six months.” First Assistant Director Bennington Sullivan Grant, a VCU senior who has completed his Cinema studies, is in charge of making sure that it’s delivered.
Grant admits that VCU was his “safety school.” He applied to Emerson College and the Pratt Institute, though his mother told him, “Don’t you know VCU is the No. 1 public art school in the country?” Now, even when harried about getting the robe “flown in” to the set from the costume tent, he says, “I can’t imagine not being in this program.”
Macfadyen also seems to have enjoyed the experience. “These kids have been great,” he says. “Very enthusiastic, lots of youthful energy to get through a hectic schedule and still pass their exams and go to classes.”
Macbeth is scheduled to conclude its post-production by this summer and, it’s generally thought, the cast will ride Miss Desmond to the Richmond premiere.