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Too many of our local screenplays are about characters who react to the world … things happen to them. Shakespeare writes about characters who want things and want them very badly – and that’s an important lesson for Australian writers, Geoffrey Wright tells Andrew L. Urban, explaining why he wanted to make a film about an Alpha male like Macbeth, resettled as a gangster in Melbourne.

Looking suitably dramatic in a dark shirt with long whitish hair, Geoffrey Wright orders white tea with sugar as we settle down to talk about his adaptation from stage to screen of Shakespeare’s Macbeth from a historic Scotland to Melbourne’s gangland, retaining the original text in iambic pentameter, but allowing the Australian accents to wash over the words, creating a unique and vibrant take on the age old story of how power corrupts.

"Macbeth is the classic flawed Alpha male"

Why? Well it’s as simple as ABC really, it seems: “It’s about power: we’re all interested in the Alpha chimp, aren’t we? We might be the Beta chimp or the Gamma chimp, working for the Alpha chimp, but human strategy is hard wired to the use and abuse of power. Most people can handle a lack of power, but very, very few of us can handle a lot of power. We’re not very good at it. And a lot of Alpha males fail; they can get there but they can’t keep it. And Macbeth is the classic flawed Alpha male.”

When you put it like that, Macbeth as a Melbourne gangster seems pretty obvious, although, as Wright says, updating Shakespeare can take various routes. “You can take the corporate model or the gangster model and I haven’t seen the latter.”

After a successful showdown with an enemy gang, Macbeth (Sam Worthington), a loyal henchman to his crime boss Duncan (Gary Sweet), is convinced by three mysterious and strange young women that he will one day assume a position of great power. His ambition fuelled, Macbeth confides in his beautiful drug addicted wife (Victoria Hill) - a woman mad with grief over the death of their young child. Spurred on by this, Lady Macbeth hatches a plot for Macbeth to kill Duncan so he can rule over the gang himself. Macbeth is reluctant, but obsessively in love with Lady Macbeth, he cannot resist her murderous plan, which leads to further foul deeds and revenge.

So Macbeth is actually introduced to being an Alpha “by his wife – then he realises he’s quite good at it when she begins to fade,” says Wright, “and this is quite a conjuring trick in the play. At first she has the impetus, but in the scene when she sees the dead body of Duncan, suddenly the baton is passed to Macbeth. It doesn’t quite make sense but it’s a trick in the writing. And you buy it.”

These are some of the reasons why Wright cast Sam Worthington as Macbeth. “We had to justice to the idea that Macbeth was a gangster. Does he look edgy and unpredictable? I think yes. Sam’s the kind of guy who’s dangled people over the railing of balconies when in an altercation; I respect that and I’m impressed and I take notice of these things,” he adds laughing.

“To me he’s the Aussie Steve McQueen – I could be asking for trouble here, but if you look at McQueen, he’s laconic, moody, gruff and there’s a lot feeling there and I think Sam is like that. I didn’t want an actor who did it on stage in a Ken Branagh sort of way … we had a look at John Finch doing it in the Roman Polanski film (The Tragedy of Macbeth, 1971) and we admired it very much but … look, there’s a very interesting decision Sam made in the ghost scene when Steve Bastoni’s (Banquo) ghost appears at the dinner party: Sam said to me, ‘Finch is playing this like he’s scared of the ghost, which is the normal way to do it. I’d like to play it like I’m angry at the ghost’s appearance, interrupting my solemn supper...’ That is a product of Sam’s mind and how he approaches problems. This makes his Macbeth different…”

As for Victoria Hill as Lady Macbeth, Wright says she’s playing a character who is “like a private schoolgirl very badly corrupted … and she’s the only actress I know who could play the Wicked Witch or Snow White, on the same day, and be convincing as both.”

As for the three witches, Wright chose to make them young hotties. “If you want to lead a gangster astray, use a nubile young thing; it made absolute internal sense to us. You add a few drugs, you add a little booze, you get your teenage girls doing their business and hey presto, you’ve got a gangster led astray very quickly.”

"Shakespeare writes about characters who want things and want them very badly"

Wright insisted on keeping the text – with its theatrical and supposedly dated iambic pentameter of five feet per line – “because if we didn’t it would feel cowardly.” His adherence to original Shakespeare (much like Baz Luhrmann with Romeo + Juliet, which Wright used as a model for visual referencing) was driven by a firm belief in the old Bard’s grip on what he was doing. “Shakespeare doesn’t mess around; there’s an important lesson in Shakespeare. This is a writer who believes in highly motivated characters. Sure things happen to his characters but it’s a result of their ambition and their action. They take action.”

“Too many of our local screenplays are about characters who react to the world … and they’re shy of the world … things happen to them. Shakespeare writes about characters who want things and want them very badly – and that’s an important lesson for Australian writers.”

Published September 21, 2006

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Geoffrey Wright


Australian release: September 21, 2006

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