Filmmaker Craig William Macneill (2015's The Boy, Channel Zero: Candle Cove) hasn’t been one to shy away from creating compelling, layered characters led by their darker impulses, and his latest feature, Lizzie, is another startling reminder of how isolation can drive people to do terrible things. Starring Chloë Sevigny in the titular role, and featuring a talented ensemble that includes Kristen Stewart, Fiona Shaw, Jamey Sheridan, and Denis O’Hare, Lizzie doesn’t dawdle on the shocking events that transpired that fateful day when Mr. and Mrs. Borden were brutally murdered with an axe—instead, it turns its focus inward on Lizzie and how the repressive society she was brought up in caused her to live a life of isolation and bottled-up rage.
Daily Dead recently caught up with Macneill for a Q&A in honor of Lizzie’s release this Friday via Saban Films and Roadside Attractions, and he discussed what drew him to the project, collaborating with his cast, and how he worked with cinematographer Noah Greenberg to establish a palpable sense of dread throughout the film.
From your perspective, what was it about this story, and about Lizzie Borden in particular, that drew you in from a storyteller standpoint?
Craig William Macneill: I first became aware of Lizzie Borden and the murders when I was a child. I grew up in a small New England town close to Fall River, where the Bordens lived. My mother collected and sold antiques, and the top floor of our house was filled with old furniture that was covered in white sheets. The room always scared the hell out of me and my imagination ran wild with stories of ghosts and murders that were staged in the house. It was during this period that I became aware of the Lizzie Borden story.
As I grew older, Lizzie remained in my thoughts, but I became less interested in the murders and more focused on understanding the possible set of circumstances that may have led to these killings, which is the backstory that’s explored in the script.
When you came on board Lizzie, did you work with the film’s writer, Bryce Kass, on the script at all, or was it pretty much ready to go (the way you were able to dig into the characters here really reminded me of The Boy, which I loved)
Craig William Macneill: The script was completed before I came on board. We worked together to trim and adapt portions of it to fit our tight 23-day shooting schedule.
Can you talk about your approach to working with your cast, particularly Chloë and Kristen? I loved the economical use of dialogue in Lizzie, because I was really drawn in by how so much of this story is told through everyone’s eyes and how they carried themselves physically as well.
Craig William Macneill: In terms of performance, I like to give the cast as much freedom as possible. When you’re working with amazing, experienced performers, you really want to see what they’re going to bring intuitively to every moment. They know their characters so well.
The cinematography from Noah Greenberg is gorgeous, and I loved the way the camera often felt like it was drifting through the house. Because Lizzie is primarily shot in one locale, can you discuss how you guys approached the look of the film, especially because so much of it feels like it was shot in natural light (which I can imagine was not an easy feat)?
Craig William Macneill: Noah’s the best! Our process begins with me creating detailed shot lists and storyboards—well in advance of shooting. I like to map out the entire film before we start location scouting. Then, once we lock in locations, Noah and I collaborate to re-design the shots, adapting them to the locations. This advance preparation was particularly important on a film like Lizzie, with our tight shooting schedule and period-specific limitations. We often had to adapt the coverage to avoid revealing modern fixtures or structures.
Regarding the look and tone, I wanted there to be a lingering sense of dread throughout the film. To do that, we created an intentional awareness to the camera that helps build tension and gives us this unsettling feeling that there is something else going on—something bubbling under the surface. This awareness lives in measured zooms, slow creeping pans, occasional uninterrupted takes that let your eyes wander and pick up details in the room, and subtle facial expressions that might otherwise go unnoticed. And, we’d sometimes frame our characters asymmetrically near the frame's edge, with a lot of negative space, which I think makes us feel vulnerable to just what’s outside of frame. It’s what we don’t see that’s often the most horrifying.
Does working on a film that is based on someone notable from history carry any extra weight to you as the director?
Craig William Macneill: Yes, absolutely.
Through your various projects, it’s evident that you enjoy exploring these complicated characters who can’t be compartmentalized as just either good or bad. Is there something in particular about these types of characters that resonate with you?
Craig William Macneill: I don’t believe anyone is born evil, and I find it fascinating to explore how dangerous impulses might begin to manifest in someone.
In case you missed it, check here to watch Heather's video interview with Lizzie co-stars Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart.