Only the brave (sometimes the foolish) fear to tread upon the hallowed ground known as Shakespeare. For centuries the works of the playwright have been treated as gospel for actors and all those involved in their production. Their rhythm and essence of these storylines have been the base and inspiration for much of modern cinema and theater. While the stories have been retold in their basic original form in film, on seldom occasion they have been reimagined. Such was the case with Geoffrey Wright’s Macbeth starring Sam Worthington in the title role, produced exactly 400 years (to the year) from what is considered the play’s original premier. Set in modern day Melbourne, this Australian production of Macbeth is a gangland interpretation. In a congruent fashion, Worthington (as Macbeth) is convinced by his drug addled wife to seize his destiny and assume power by killing his close friend Duncan, setting into play a domino effect of tragic events. This modern interpretation of a classic called for slick cars and suits while also wanting to give a nod to Scottish themes and touches of a more historic Macbeth. The film’s design has pops of color throughout the tones of greys and blacks. Once he became King, Macbeth owns his look donning color and texture. By the end of the film he is battling for his life in a more military garb. When a tale is as well-known and loved as Macbeth, the audience knows what to expect, just not the accent it will be presented with. It was paramount for this presentation of Macbeth to visually be set apart and above all others. To great means this was achieved through the talent and artistry of costume designer Jane Johnston. She readily admits to being terrified going into the production but her plan was to bite off small chunks and manage these bite sized pieces. The plan worked to the delight of Johnston, the filmmakers, the audience, and critics. The film’s director Geoffrey Wright professes, “I very purposefully sought out Jane Johnston to create the costumes and look of Macbeth. Her resulting vision of combining old world styles with modern fabrics was instrumental to its themes and moods. From a visual-textural point of view it remains the richest and most complex film I’ve directed and I was thrilled by Johnston’s planning, communication, and execution of craft. Johnston’s work was especially impressive in enhancing the character portrayed by the star, Sam Worthington, whose next film was as the lead in the biggest budgeted and most profitable film (up to that time) ever made – ‘Avatar’ by legendary director, James Cameron. Cameron’s company was impressed by Worthington’s impact in Macbeth and Johnston’s work was a critical part of the reason for that assessment. Worthington had never previously looked as good as he did in Macbeth. His elevation to an international star was made certain and Johnston received an AFI award, the highest Australian accolade possible, for her accomplishment.”
Jane’s very tried and true process involves reading and dissecting the script and coming up with tear-sheets to piece together her thoughts for looks. Meetings with producers, the director, etc. follows as a cohesive form evolves for each character. It’s essential to have conversations with the hair and makeup departments to see what they are thinking. Taking advantage of the city’s location itself, Johnston notes, “Melbourne has some interesting public art and some great locations which I think that added to the production design value but as far as costumes were concerned I think the fact that we were shooting in winter definitely added to the look. Needless to say, we would have made a very different film had we shot in Sydney. Melbourne is also known for its fashion and I tried to use interesting Melbourne designers whenever I could and mix them up with pieces of vintage clothing. There was one particular men’s label called Calibre who were incredibly helpful. I also found some really obscure independent fashion and jewelry makers whose products I incorporated into the designs.” She continues, “I remember sitting in my car outside a bar in Sydney with Sam Worthington ‘doing my pitch’ and hoping that he could see it too. Thankfully he was totally on board and excited by the character. I think it was one of those times that the look and clothes helped the actor feel grounded, and helped them see who they were. I started having fittings and our ideas evolved. Once we felt we had our character, I could develop it further and add certain touches or details to the point where I knew it was right.”
This Film Finance production of Macbeth received six nominations and two wins, one of which was Johnston’s Australian Film Institute (AFI) Award for Best Costume Design. The AFI Award is the highest honor in Australia and a massive achievement for anyone involved in the film industry. Describing the experience, Johnston recalls, “The event went over two nights with the first night being the technicians’ awards, which was our night. The second night was the more glamorous red carpet event where the actors turned up. The experience itself was quite surreal. A lot of people around me felt quite confident for the production designer and myself but you never know. David’s award (David McKay won Best Production Design for Macbeth) was called out first and he made his speech and then costumes were announced and I think I really stopped hearing anything in that moment! I gave my speech and thanked my fabulous team and met David out the back to have our photos taken. Then of course we celebrated! I think that the film overall had a strong impact; it was visual, had a great soundtrack, and it really hadn’t been attempted on this sort of budget before. The production design and the costumes worked really well together and I believe that helps for a film to receive recognition. I put Sam Worthington in a suit and that hadn’t been done before! I also put him in a kilt. I think it was a stylish looking film and it happened to stand out amongst the other films of that year.” Proof that with talent and quality material, you can excite and expose different generations to the most classical of stories.