Daggers drawn as Hollywood rivals do battle over Macbeth
"DOUBLE, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble." Four centuries after Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, two rival sets of film-makers are battling to produce a Hollywood version of the "Scottish play".
Both have major players in the film world behind them and both have declared similar intentions of appealing to a modern audience with special effects that play up the supernatural elements of the classic drama.
One version has Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman as Shakespeare's tragic Scottish king.
But the other, titled Come Like Shadows, has taken a huge leap forward in the race with the casting of two major stars. Sean Bean, star of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the James Bond film GoldenEye and the Sharpe TV dramas, will play Macbeth.
Tilda Swinton, the Scot whose stock has risen dramatically since appearing as the witch in The Chronicles of Narnia, will be the ambitious wife who drives him to murder and ultimately despair.
As well as Bean and Swinton, Come Like Shadows, which has a 5.4m budget, also has some big names behind the camera.
Steven Soderbergh, the American who directed Erin Brockovich and Ocean's Eleven, is executive producer, and Luc Besson, the French director of The Fifth Element, is also involved.
John Maybury, whose films include the fantasy thriller The Jacket and the acclaimed Francis Bacon biopic Love is the Devil, will be director.
Nick Saunders, a Los Angeles-based producer who is currently in the UK setting up Come Like Shadows, said: "I'm not worried about what anybody else is doing. We've got a John Maybury film with Sean Bean and Tilda Swinton and I think that stands on its own two feet."
Saunders said the producers would be "putting a spin" on Macbeth for a modern audience. "It's not modern dress. It's going to be an accessible, but classic interpretation of Macbeth," he said.
Witches, battle scenes and violent action could well appeal to an audience more familiar with Harry Potter and Quentin Tarantino than with Shakespeare.
"The elements of the supernatural are something we definitely want to play up," Saunders added. "We're going to take full advantage of the visual aspects of film. We are taking the tack that if Shakespeare were alive today what would he do?"
The dialogue would not be updated, just "scaled back. It's more a case of removing certain lines or words where the meaning may be lost on the modern ear."
Come Like Shadows, which takes its title from a line in the play, is scheduled to be filmed in Scotland in October.
Although a spokesman for Antidote Films, which is behind the rival adaptation, said their project was still very much alive, he admitted there was no firm timetable.
Belle Doyle, head of the locations section at the national film agency Scottish Screen, confirmed it had received active inquiries from both sets of film-makers.
"It's such a good story that it's one of those things that just keeps popping up in all sorts of guises," she said.
Macbeth has been adapted for film and television on dozens of previous occasions, often in a foreign language or with an entirely different setting. Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa and Roman Polanski have all made esteemed versions, but Saunders maintains the time is right for a major new production.
"Every generation really needs its version of some of the classics and I think Macbeth is one of those kind of stories," he said.
Vincent Regan, a Welsh actor with a passion for Shakespeare, wrote his script in the late 1990s and linked up with Besson when he appeared in a minor role in his film of Joan of Arc.
It got a new lease of life in 2003 when Regan appeared in the epic Troy and met both Saunders and Bean. The latter had recently played Macbeth on the West End stage and was keen to reprise the role on screen.
Saunders signed up as producer at the end of last year and approached director Maybury, whose initial reaction was "one of absolute terror" because of the distinguished previous versions.
For the role of Lady Macbeth he thought of Swinton, with whom he had worked on several films. He phoned her and she confirmed that she would be interested.
Swinton's agent Christian Hodell said the actress loved Shakespeare and she was attracted by the challenge of the role, the chance to work with Maybury again and to work close to home in Scotland.
Maybury, who with Saunders will begin casting supporting roles this week, admitted he would be taking "liberties" with the text to emphasise the supernatural elements.
"It's not going to be specifically targeted to Shakespearean aficionados," he said. "In fact I'm sure there will be a lot of them who will oppose what I'm trying to do."
The outline is similar to the version envisaged by Antidote Films, which has previously produced a number of acclaimed independent productions, including Thirteen with Holly Hunter and Evan Rachel Wood.
They are promising a "visceral adaptation... that emphasises the potently cinematic aspects of the drama".
Seymour Hoffman was committed to starring in their version before winning his Oscar for Capote earlier this year. The award makes the film more alluring to financiers, but it also makes the star more attractive to other producers and he is committed to another project in the autumn. Jennifer Connelly was lined up to play Lady Macbeth but it is not clear whether she is still involved.
Maybury said he was unconcerned by a rival version, which is not uncommon when producing classics. "It's like buses - none come along and then three come along at the same time," he said. "Philip Seymour Hoffman is a big name and he's a very good actor, but it doesn't bother me. If it's a running race, at the moment, we are in the lead."
THE SCOTTISH PLAY: FROM JAPANESE CLASSICS TO BINMEN
THERE have been dozens, if not hundreds, of film and TV adaptations of Macbeth, many of them in foreign languages or with exotic settings, for Macbeth has proven one of Shakespeare's most adaptable stories.
The most celebrated version is probably Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's 1957 film Throne Of Blood.
Around the same time, the British film Joe Macbeth re-told the story with the principal character recast as a gangster. Lady Macbeth was now Lily Macbeth and Banquo was Banky, with Sid James in the role.
Just last year a BBC TV production relocated the drama in an upmarket restaurant, with Vincent Regan (who has written the script for the new film with Bean and Swinton) as owner Duncan Docherty, James McAvoy as his ambitious chef, another Joe Macbeth, and the three witches replaced by three binmen.
Alluding to the theatrical superstition that prohibits mention of the play's title, one character is castigated for referring to Gordon Ramsay by name and told he should be referred to only as "the Scottish chef".
The earliest films of Macbeth date from the silent era. Orson Welles staged a voodoo theatre production in Harlem in 1936 and later shot a comparatively conventional film version on the lot at Republic, although he had to use sets normally used for Westerns.
Roman Polanski's 1971 version is famous for its violence, its nude sleepwalking scene by Francesca Annis and the appearance of a young Keith Chegwin as Fleance.
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