This time two years ago, theatre director William Oldroyd was about to lock picture on his first feature film, the dark period drama Lady Macbeth. Based on an obscure opera from the early 20th century, and starring up-and-coming actress Florence Pugh as a resourceful young woman forced into an unwanted marriage, Oldroyd’s low-budget indie was very much an unknown quantity—not the ideal formula for a hit, given the here-today, gone-tomorrow nature of the contemporary box office.
But, surprisingly, after the film made its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2016, Oldroyd is still promoting his debut in the run up to the BAFTAs—where it is a contender for Outstanding Debut (an honor to be shared with producer Fodlah Cronin O’Reilly and screenwriter Alice Birch), Outstanding British Film and the EE Rising Star award—and the Independent Spirit Awards, where it is in the running for Best International Film. Indeed, in the last 18 months he has taken Lady Macbeth to almost every conceivable festival pit-stop in the meantime, gaining celebrity admirers such as South Korea’s Park Chan-wook, who’s about to direct Pugh for the BBC in a six-part serial version of John le Carré’s spy thriller The Little Drummer Girl.
In a few weeks, however, Oldroyd will begin the process of moving on, as the pace picks up on his latest project, a four-part adaptation of Lucy Kirkwood’s play, Chimerica, for Channel Four, in association with Wolf Hall’s Playground Entertainment. “I think she’s just a brilliant writer,” the director enthuses. “I love the play and I’m very excited by her adaptation of it. It’s a huge-scale piece, looking at the relationship between China and America in 1989 and in 2016, with Trump.” After that, Oldroyd will move on to his sophomore feature, which, at the moment, looks likely to be The Poisonwood Bible, based on the powerful historical novel by Barbara Kingsolver about an American missionary family moving to the Belgian Congo in the late 1950s. “Look out for that,” he says with a wry smile.
Going back to Lady Macbeth, what were your initial thoughts when you set out to make a feature film?
It started from an encouragement I received from Sundance, where I’d had a short. They made it sound so simple;it was like, “You’ve made a short—you should make a feature.” I think I had an idea of what a feature film was, but it wasn’t until I really started to go through it with Fodhla, and with Alice and then with [U.K. low-budget feature film initiative] iFeatures, I realized it’s very different. I think you can probably hold a three-minute short film in your head in its entirety, but trying to hold a 90-minute film in there is much harder; you need to break it down and just basically do it in bits. That’s quite difficult.
Had you worked with Fodhla before?
No. We were introduced through a mutual friend, somebody who’s a writer, somebody I’d worked with on a short film. He’d worked with her on a longer project, and he was also doing some script work for film companies, and he just said, “I think you two would really get on.” So he hooked us up via email. We met in Bloomsbury, at a café there, and got on so well that we went to go and see 12 Years a Slave together, which was quite a bonding experience.
What were the qualities that you were looking for in a producer?
I’ve met some great producers recently, and I think it’s a combination of being diplomatic, having charm and a sense of humor, having unbelievably insightful script knowledge and being very practical and pragmatic. It’s amazing, really. Sometimes you meet people who have one or two of those qualities, but somebody who has all three or four, they’re the very best, aren’t they? Someone with the same artistic outlook, I guess. Because ultimately I think what I’ve realized is you need to have people who are looking to make the same sort of films that you are, rather than…I’ve been in a few situations recently where I know if I took that job, I would be trying to make a film for that person, in the way they want it to be made, and not actually aiming to make the same thing.
What was your biggest fear going in?
What was good about Lady Macbeth was that we had a script, then we had a shooting process, and then we had an edit, and at each point there’s a sort of inevitable development, which you embrace. This might sound a bit sort of, I don’t know, stupid, but the film sort of tells you what it needs, and you respond to that. My fear is in other projects that I’m not going to have that sort of flexibility. People will say, “No, we agreed that you would shoot that scene like this.” And I’ll say, “Well I didn’t get it.” So what are you going to do? Re-shoot, I suppose. We were lucky with Lady Macbeth; having the freedom to be a little bit flexible was great. So I guess my biggest fear is inflexibility.
What was the biggest challenge?
Gosh! So many challenges. I don’t know, because actually all of the challenges seemed to actually work in our favor in the end. For example, you would think having so many execs would be problematic, because they are all so different, but ultimately that was a benefit, because they all were able to look at the script from a different point of view. A year and a half of script developments was great for the project—it meant that by the time I came to shoot it I’d done a year and a half’s work with Alice and Fodhla on the script, so I knew exactly what we were trying to do. The time pressure was a great challenge: having 24 days to shoot the thing actually meant that we had to be incredibly disciplined in the way we planned, it, so that was an advantage. The budget, which you would think was a bigger challenge, again, made us become incredibly resourceful and forced us to prioritize what we absolutely needed. I just feel that at any point it could have failed. We could have done it without Florence, and it wouldn’t be the film that it was, or without the rest of the cast. We could have done it without Ari [Wegner, cinematographer], and it wouldn’t be the film that it was, or Nick [Emerson, editor]. We could have done it without Jacqueline [Abrahams], our production designer, or Holly [Waddington], who did the costumes, or Shaheen [Baig], who cast it, I just can’t imagine what it would be like, you know?
Roughly how long did it take to make?
If I remember correctly, I think Fodhla, Alice and I had our first proper sit down, where we discussed making this, somewhere around January 2014. I’d come back from Sundance in January of 2014 with that sort of bug, which was, “Let’s make a feature.” I’d met Alice through our agent, Giles [Smart]; he set us up. She then gave me the book and then really it was within a month or two that we’d applied to iFuture. Because I think the first application round was March, or something, so we spent the first couple of months working on a treatment. So, January 2014, and then here we are. I think it’s all finally going to finish at the Independent Spirit Awards, on 3 March 2018.
That’s four years, nearly. Is that what you thought it would take?
Yeah, but the last two years has been basically just taking it round the world, to film festivals. If you think about it, we actually picture locked in May 2016. So really it took two years to get the film done. We could have actually started on another film right then, but we had a hiatus between picture lock and Toronto. Then we had another hiatus between Toronto 2016 and release in April 2017.
Would you recommend that kind of staggering? The industry seems to be getting quicker and quicker these days, in terms of releasing.
What we’ve really enjoyed is the longer life that this film has had, I think because of the wisdom of people like Will Clarke at Altitude [the film’s UK distributor]. There was a pressure, I think, to try and get it out quickly after Toronto, and then qualify for BAFTA 2017. Will said, “A film of this size is going to benefit from actually being out longer—people will have a greater chance to see it, so let’s not rush. Let’s let the 2017 awards films pass by, release it in the spring, and then enjoy the life of it after that.” And he was absolutely right.
Did you make any compromises along the way?
Compromises? Again, in a way, the challenges felt like they were advantageous in the end. I think anything that got compromised was just [out of] pure efficiency or necessity. So many of the things you might say were compromises in terms of limitations of production became advantageous to us because it played into an ambition, an aesthetic that we had, for the sort of period drama we wanted to make. Let’s say, for example, we decided that the characters would have one or two costumes only, because it fitted the world of the film we were making—their lives were a bit like that. Whereas some people would want more costumes. Also, we didn’t have very many extras, but that worked for us. We didn’t want to show that bucolic rural world, which you see so many times in Hardy adaptations. So what were the compromises? I guess if you talked to different departments they might say it would have been nice to have had a couple more members in the team, or a bit more time. But I think ultimately we made it work.
When did you realize you had something special?
There were a few stages. When I first read Alice’s treatment I thought, “This is excellent.” Then, when I watched the first couple of days’ rushes I was very excited. And then when we screened it for the execs, as a director’s cut; that was an exciting time. Then, the cast and crew screening on May 8 2016, also. People said, “Yeah, this is great.” I think there were several moments like that.
Was it gut instinct or is it possible to know objectively if something you’ve made is demonstrably good?
You get so involved in it, it’s impossible to see what’s good or what’s not. Personally, I think you’re working off a gut instinct, but you can’t see the whole. It requires outside eyes to help you to see where you’re going. It’s so big, you just can’t. You’ve spent so much time looking at the script, you can’t tell objectively what’s working and what’s not. You spend so much time with the actors that you rely on their creativity, and then when you’re in the edit it’s the editor who can help you objectively think, “That’s good,” or, “That’s bad.” I mean you know, but you’re taking on so much other stuff at the same time. That’s why having so many great collaborators there is a good thing—that’s what makes it possible.
The film premiered at Toronto. How did you decide your festival strategy?
Fodhla might be able to answer that question better. There was a lot of trading going on behind the scenes. Personally, I think that securing a good slot at Toronto—in the Platform section, which is obviously their elevated section—and knowing that there were no other films screening at the same time who were looking for American distribution, was crucial. Actually I had a chat with Michael Pearce last year, who was considering doing the same thing with his film Beast. I said to him, “I think Platform is just the best launch for a film.” Then, it all follows from there really. Then you work out where you want to have the European premiere. We were really lucky because José Luis Rebordinos [Artistic Director, San Sebastián Film Festival] loved the film and put us in main competition, which was great.
How did you enjoy your festival year?
I loved it really. If you talk to my agents, they think it’s been too long. [laughs] They said, “When are you getting on and doing some more work?” But when you’re proud of something you’ve made, you want to travel round with it and stand by it and be there to answer questions that people have, and to celebrate the film.
What’s the most common question you’ve heard?
People ask, why didn’t we use music? People say, what about the cat? People love the cat. They want to know how we all met each other; they want to know, why this story? These are the standard questions.
Had anything prepared you for the intensity of the festival circuit and the endless rounds of interviews?
Toronto was the first time I’d had to answer questions about the film. I think maybe I’d sat down with [one British journalist], before we went to Toronto, but that was the first time that Alice, Fodhla and I had actually spoken out loud about it. That was pretty good prep, because we actually were able to share thoughts on how we’d made it and what we felt about it. And here I am now, a year and a half later. It’s quite nice to talk again, because I got into a habit of just expecting the same questions and then giving more or less the same sort of answers. It felt safer to do that, you know?
What advice would you give a filmmaker who’s just starting out?
Well, you’ve got to find the right support. You’ve got an opportunity with a first feature to do something pretty bold, and make a statement, if it doesn’t sound too strange, but you may as well take a risk on the first one. I think a lot of people tend to think about their first feature being a calling card for their second, or they try and make something which will get them access to making bigger genre films. I think, just make something that feels personal and original. Because you may not have the same degree of freedom ever again, as you do with this first feature. I spoke to somebody yesterday and they said, “Maybe your first f*ck is your best ever f*ck.” I said, “I hope not.” But I know what she meant.