Insights Into Directing "Respect," Designing "The Tragedy of Macbeth," Scoring "The Last Duel"
Jennifer Hudson (l) and director Liesel Tommy on the set of "Respect" (photo by Quantrell D. Colbert/courtesy of MGM)
Director Liesl Tommy, production designer Stefan Dechant and composer Harry Gregson-Williams reflect on their respective films

Director Liesl Tommy recently showed a young filmmaker what a lookbook is, sharing the one she put together for MGM and producer Seth Bernstein as her pitch for Respect, the biopic about the late, great Aretha Franklin. Tommy, of course, wound up getting that gig, marking an auspicious feature directorial debut after first establishing herself on Broadway (including garnering a Tony Award nomination for “Eclipsed,” starring Lupita Nyong’o) and in television (Queen Sugar, Jessica Jones, Mrs. Fletcher, The Walking Dead, Insecure).

In revisiting that Respect lookbook for the purpose of mentoring, Tommy had her own eyes opened, seeing that what she created early on pretty much mirrored what the final film became. Her vision up front for Respect was indeed remarkably clear and defined. It was this clarity of vision that got her the job--and which yielded a film that brought a new awareness of and appreciation for Franklin while somehow meshing what on the surface would seem to be polar opposites in storytelling.

On the former front, Franklin, the Queen of Soul, has long been widely admired. Yet Respect--anchored by a tour de force, SAG Award-nominated performance by Jennifer Hudson--took that respect to a deeper level, shedding light on Franklin’s journey, commitment, artistry and perseverance in the face of adversity, focused on the span in her life which culminated in her finding her voice professionally and otherwise.

As for the polar opposites coming together in Respect, they were recently cited by cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau, ASC, during a SHOOT Chat Room interview. He recalled the challenge of creating for instance Franklin performing at Madison Square Garden in an epic concert, with thousands of extras. Achieving the epic is an accomplishment in and of itself. But that is only part of what Tommy realized in Respect, related Morgenthau who shared, “It’s one thing to shoot a concert and quite another to make it an intimate experience putting viewers inside the heads of the people in and behind the concert. We did that different times in different ways with a large number of songs.” 

The marriage of the epic and the intimate was integral to Tommy’s vision for the project, bringing to life the splendor of performance on a grand scale with a personal character study dynamic generating an empathy, deeper appreciation and understanding of Franklin and others in her life. Having the intimate to contrast with the epic, explained Tommy, was essential. “You don’t want to lose track of the person,” she affirmed, which can be the pitfall of focusing on the grandeur and immersive experience of an awe-inspiring concert and performer.

Morgenthau was among the many collaborators who helped Tommy strike that delicate, empathy-fostering balance. Tommy remembered bonding with Morgenthau during an initial phone call, discovering he was a musician, that he had a passion for soul, R&B and Franklin. She could feel a connection in their approach and sensibilities. Tommy observed that when doing a musical in the theater, your lighting designer becomes critically important. And having an intrinsic working rhythm with that designer lends a depth to the production. She thankfully wound up having that same kind of kinship with DP Morgenthau spanning the music, visual rhythm and storytelling. “I knew I was going to let the songs play,” said Tommy. Songs were performed nearly in their entirety which is not common for a biopic. “The lyrics of these songs,” she explained, “played as an extension of the scenes,” helping to advance the story and promote understanding of the characters.

Tommy also recalled being drawn to Morgenthau’s “sensitivity as he talked about the camera” during their first phone conversation. “I knew I wanted this film to have a vulnerability and an intimacy,” Tommy affirmed, adding that she sought “to shoot Black people in a way that sort of bathed them in love. I just felt like he (Morgenthau) got that...and could do that.”

This reflected Tommy’s connection to as well as the love and admiration she feels for Franklin whose many dimensions included being a civil rights activist, a devout Baptist, a woman who positively influenced so many and was positively influenced by women in her own life. “I wasn’t just a fan of Aretha Franklin as I thought about this film,” said Tommy. “This was a synthesis of everything I’ve been working on as a storyteller. I’ve done musicals. I’ve done content that features women--and Black women, their spiritual journeys. Coming from South Africa, I grew up in a political household as did Aretha Franklin. I had to marry my politics and my art. The more time I spent thinking about her story, the more passionately I felt about it.”

An inherent challenge for Tommy was that Respect, her first film as a director, was also a major studio film. The experience entailed “learning the skill of diplomacy, how you fight for your artistic vision inside of what is making a studio film, a deeply commercial endeavor,” said Tommy who had to deliver a commercial product that “makes sense for the studio but also makes sense for me.” For Tommy, making sense for her first and foremost was crafting a film that was true to the legacy of Franklin. Respect would be a permanent part of Franklin’s legacy--a responsibility which Tommy felt deeply.

As for her biggest takeaway or lessons learned from her Respect experience, Tommy shared that when mentoring or talking to young theater directors, she used to say figure out what you love and put that on stage. “The more you put what you love on stage, the more it will resonate. That is one hundred percent true for film as well,” said Tommy who noted that her love for the cast and crew on Respect made for “a very joyful set,” spurred on by the feeling on the part of everyone that they were “lucky” to be working on a film about Franklin. 

Tommy said that part of the love she felt on Respect was rooted in the delight she had assembling a cast of theater actors and film actors--and affording people in some cases the opportunity to play roles that they wouldn’t normally be expected to land, such as Tituss Burgess portraying James Cleveland, a Chicago pastor and gospel musician, who entered Franklin’s life when she was a child, a particularly touching moment coming with his advice to her following the death of her mom from a heart attack. “Music will save your life,” Cleveland told the youngster. We see him at the piano, teaching the girl some of her first gospel songs. He continued to be a major influence on Franklin’s life. 

The Respect cast also included Forest Whitaker as Aretha’s father, pastor C.L. Franklin, Audra McDonald as Barbara Franklin (Aretha’s mother), Mary J Blige as Dinah Washington, Marlon Wayans as Ted White (husband to Aretha in a turbulent marriage), and Marc Maron as Jerry Wexler, the music producer/record maker with whom Aretha had a career-altering collaboration.

“Storytelling for me is an act of love,” affirmed Tommy. “If I don’t feel that for the project, then it won’t spread to my team and then to the crew.” A prime lesson learned from Respect, continued Tommy, is that such an experience is “precious” and she hopes to repeat that spirit of a loving experience in her future work, features and otherwise.

Stefan Dechant
Stefan Dechant served as art director on Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit, for which he was part of a team (headed by production designer Jess Gonchor) that picked up an Art Directors Guild (ADG) Excellence In Production Design Award nomination. Now Dechant’s return engagement with Joel Coen is the recently released The Tragedy of Macbeth (A24) which finds itself in the awards season conversation on varied fronts. Starring Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth, the film marks the solo directorial debut of Joel Coen who also wrote the screenplay adapted from the William Shakespeare play.

While doing justice to Shakespeare is daunting enough, the logistical challenge for Dechant was also considerable as some 30 sets were constructed in a mere 10 weeks. Making the task more manageable, though, was the creative framework and foundation built by Coen going into the project, enabling Dechant to craft sets that reflected the characters’ inner psyches, defining a world largely in light and shadows.

“Our first meeting (for The Tragedy of Macbeth) was two-and-a-half hours long,” recalled Dechant. “Joel was describing the movie he ‘made’--black and white, and he came with a collection  of images, a series of 3x5 prints--some of them art photographs of architecture, others were frame grabs from films.” Also in the mix were photographs by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. Coen had defined what each set should feel like. “The tone had been laid out,” recalled Dechant.

A week later, Dechant met with Coen again. The writer-director took him scene by scene through the script. Coen had mapped out the choreography, how things would be shot. “The week after that I started an art department. I had an incredible foundation--the tone that Joel had mined, his game plan for shooting it. Then the onus was on me to start creating imagery that reflects Joel’s movie back at him, at Fran (McDormand) and Bruno.”

Dechant described Delbonnel as a most helpful and valued collaborator with “a sublime knowledge of cinema history” and whose drawings and feedback provided a guiding hand of sorts in the development of the sets which were so abstract--spanning noir-like corridors and castles, battle encampments and other sparse yet emotionally charged environments. Coen wanted this abstraction, not a naturalistic feel. And to have an ongoing dialogue with Delbonnel, to be able to call the DP and get his feedback relative to the sets and camera movement within those environments was invaluable.

While the foundation that Coen laid was meticulous, it was not sacrosanct. The final look was still a work in progress. “There were times you would think it was all locked in and someone on the team would come up with a better idea. We had to call the construction coordinator and say some drawings aren’t coming today but it will be okay. We will work on it tomorrow and redefine what the look is.”

Dechant added that Coen pulls everyone through to the big picture, not falling into the trap of getting lost in the details. And just as the play itself moves in a certain rhythm, Coen works with the team spanning cinematography, production design, costume design and so on, said Dechant, “to create a rhythm as well, almost like he’s in dialogue with that original (Shakespeare) text.”

That rhythm and spirit of the scenes help define the sets. Dechant cited for example rafters placed in a room where apparitions appear. While “the beams make no sense architecturally,” said Dechant, they help create the feel of a psychological “cauldron” that’s holding Macbeth.

Dechant observed that Coen’s directorial vision was a consistent source of inspiration. The production designer described Coen as “somebody who’s guiding you even when you’re unsure of yourself or where you’re going. When you have that person who says ‘I have faith in you,’ it means the world. And you can kind of reflect that to the people you’re working with--crew members, set designers, painters on set.” There’s an overriding trust built and felt that you know where things are going and that you can help us all get there. Dechant said, “It’s a wonderful part of the process and kind of a gift.”

And that gift keeps on giving thus far this awards season as Washington earned a SAG Award nomination for outstanding performance by a male actor in a leading role. Furthermore The Tragedy of Macbeth recently made the BAFTA longlist for the British Academy Film Awards across eight categories--Best Film, Director, Cinematography, Adapted Screenplay, Leading Actress, Leading Actor, Supporting Actress (Kathryn Hunter) and Production Design. 

Over the years Dechant has been nominated for seven ADG Excellence in Production Design Awards, winning in 2011 as supervising art director on Avatar. In addition to the aforementioned nomination for True Grit, Dechant received ADG nods as an illustrator on Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, supervising art director on director Sam Mendes’ Jarhead and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and production designer on Robert Zemeckis’ Welcome To Marwen.

He has a track record of collaboration with Zemeckis, dating back to serving as illustrator on Forrest Gump and right through to the upcoming live-action adaptation of Disney’s Pinocchio with a cast including Tom Hanks, Luke Evans and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Harry Gregson-Williams
This awards season reflects the ongoing collaborative relationship that composer Harry Gregson-Williams has enjoyed with director Ridley Scott, most recently on House of Gucci (MGM, United Artists Releasing) and The Last Duel (20th Century Studios). Both films have made their mark on the awards circuit with House of Gucci garnering SAG Award nominations for Best Ensemble, Leading Actress (Lady Gaga) and Supporting Actor (Jared Leto), as well as gaining inclusion on the BAFTA longlist for Best Film, Adapted Screenplay, Leading Actress (Gaga) and Actor (Adam Driver), Supporting Actor (Leto), Casting, Cinematography, Editing, Costume Design, Makeup & Hair and Production Design. House of Gucci’s makeup & hairstyling also made the Oscars shortlist cut. Meanwhile The Last Duel got BAFTA longlist recognition for Production Design and Sound. And when it came to music, The Last Duel gained awards traction with inclusion on both the Oscars shortlist and the BAFTA longlist for Best Original Score. Additionally The Last Duel garnered a Best Original Score nomination from the Hollywood Music In Media Awards (HMMA).

Set in medieval France, The Last Duel (based on the Eric Jager book “The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat”) stars Matt Damon as Jean de Carrouges, a knight who challenges his former friend, Jacques Le Gris--portrayed by Adam Driver--to a duel after Jean’s wife, Marguerite played by Jodie Comer, accuses Jacques of raping her. The events leading up to the climatic duel are divided into three chapters, reflecting the perspectives of each of these three protagonists.

Damon and Ben Affleck (who plays a supporting role as Count Pierre d’Alencon) reportedly wrote the first two chapters, giving Nicole Holofcener the third in which Marguerite’s POV is featured. Her bravery in accusing her attacker, daring to stand up for her rights against a powerful male, is inspiring. We also get her sense of what she’s had to endure otherwise--such as entering a marriage in some respects akin to a business transaction, and then the weight of the world being put upon her to give birth to an heir. We also see her intelligence in managing a castle when Damon’s character is away to do battle.

The Last Duel--along with House of Gucci--add to Gregson-Williams’ filmography with Scott which also includes Prometheus, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Kingdom of Heaven and The Martian. The latter earned Gregson-Williams his first HMMA nomination back in 2015. (Gregson-Williams has a total of three HMMA nods, the other coming in 2017 for the indie film Breath.)

Shortly after principal photography for The Last Duel was halted due to concerns over COVID, Scott reached out to Gregson-Williams over the phone. The composer recalled Scott telling him, “‘I’ve got half a movie here. I’d like to show it to you.’” Not surprisingly, Gregson-Williams found the work “utterly beautiful even as half a movie.” And then the dialogue between the director and composer began in earnest. “Ridley’s a workhorse,” affirmed Gregson-Williams. “The guy never sits still. He’s on fire creatively.” They talked about the story with Scott planting various creative seeds, asking questions of Gregson-Williams that spurred the composer on to further exploration and contemplation. 

Gregson-Williams related that Scott is a painter and uses painterly references--texture, tone, color--to convey what he envisions musically. It’s a language that the composer has embraced. Scott may listen to music Gregson-Williams has written and then guide him towards an evolving creative vision, perhaps requesting that the tone be made a bit darker or heavier, almost as if talking about a color palette on a canvas.

Beyond creating original music for The Last Duel, Gregson-Williams sought out unique talent to help execute and bring his score to fruition, a prime example being his connecting with Grace Davidson, a leading soprano in Britain, for the film. Davidson wound up performing a song for the final scene of The Last Duel, centered on Marguerite in the aftermath of the duel. That song, written by Gregson-Williams while the movie was in production in Ireland and France, became a source of thematic material musically that was used throughout the score.

Gregson-Williams related that among the major challenges that The Last Duel posed to him as a composer was “figuring out with Ridley how to deploy music in the third chapter,” including during the assault on Marguerite. The music should help bring viewers into the scene and then resume after the attack in a powerful manner. But the music could not overwhelm or undermine the scene itself. 

Quite similarly, noted Gregson-Williams, there had to be a delicate balance maintained during the duel. The composer explained that the majority of the actual duel was left to the deft use of sound effects. Music was deployed to bring the audience into the duel and then its aftermath. Again, it was a matter of figuring out how to do justice to the story’s suspense and emotion by when necessary having less be more--and then conversely using music’s full impact at opportune moments.

Gregson-Williams’ grab bag for the score spanned orchestral and choir performances, tapping into medieval instruments, a vocal ensemble out of London (Voces8), and leading voice soloists such as Davidson and countertenor Iestyn Davies. Period instruments included wooden flutes, hammer dulcimers, and viols (precursors to the violin, the viola and the cello) along with a lute and a cathedral organ.

Among what Gregson-Williams missed most of all due to the pandemic was not having the chance to sit in his studio right next to Scott. Not being able to bring the director “into our environment, to hear the score as I hear it.” The absence of this gave Gregson-Williams a deeper appreciation for normal circumstances, being face to face with a great director and collaborator--to be in the same room or to have lunch together and talk directly. The composer recalled having that luxury on films like The Martian and Kingdom of Heaven. The pandemic “made me appreciate how much of a team sport making movies is,” continued Gregson-Williams, adding, “I look forward to another time when we can be in the same room.”

Being around Scott, he said, is fun given the director’s artistry and “wicked” sense of humor. But since he and Scott had often worked together before, it made the restrictions of The Last Duel less onerous than they might have been if the film was their first time collaborating. “There’s a certain level of trust and understanding” that the two had going in, said Gregson-Williams, that made The Last Duel eminently doable.

Gregson-Williams’ body of work encompasses more than his fruitful collaborations with Scott. He, for instance, wrote the music for Disney’s live-action feature Mulan which was directed by Niki Caro with whom he worked previously on The Zookeeper’s Wife. Gregson-Williams also co-wrote the original song “Loyal Brave True” for Mulan, performed by Christina Aguilera. Furthermore, Gregson-Williams was the composer on all four installments of the animated Shrek franchise, received a BAFTA Award nomination for the Oscar-winning Shrek. Gregson-Williams also netted Golden Globe and Grammy nominations for his score for Andrew Adamson’s The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The composer additionally collaborated with the late, great Tony Scott on Unstoppable, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Deja Vu, Domino, Man on Fire, Spy Game and Enemy of the State. Gregson-Williams also worked with director Antoine Fuqua on The Replacement Killers, The  Equalizer, The Equalizer 2 and Infinite. On the television side, Gregson-Williams’ credits include Whiskey Cavalier, the miniseries Catch-22, and creating the main title theme and scoring two episodes of the anthology series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams for which he received an Emmy nomination for “The Commuter” episode.

This is the eighth installment of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 94th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, February 8, 2022. The 94th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 27, 2022.

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