November 4, 2021
Voodoo MacBeth Makes a Splash
By Joseph Syracuse
LEAVE YOUR EGO AT THE DOOR. That’s the heading on the application to join USC’s Feature Film Production class. Faculty Advisor/Producer John Watson (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) was looking for a way to give more of his students feature film experience and came up with the groundbreaking concept of uniting ten directors for a single full length film. Like a TV series, where episodes are often assigned to different directors, Watson’s directors are each assigned to a scene in the film. “We have consistent actors, a consistent DP, consistent production designers, consistent heads of departments across the board. The element that changes is the director,” says Watson.
This year, the class wrote and directed Voodoo Macbeth, a behind the scenes drama about Orson Welles’ legendary 1936 all-Black stage production of Shakespeare's "Scottish Play.” With eight writers and ten directors taking the helm of one feature film, you might expect Voodoo Macbeth to be a witch’s brew, a ‘lot of sound and fury signifying nothing,’ but here’s the rub—Voodoo Macbeth has been accepted into almost two dozen film festivals, winning the Audience Award at the Sedona International Film Festival and the Best Feature Film prize at the Harlem International Film Festival. Critics have called the work, “A tour de force, enhanced by a sterling cast and spectacular technical elements, including amazing costumes and sets.” (BWW.com.)
How is it possible, in today’s social-media-driven world where everyone airs their opinions, that a diverse group of strangers could agree on singular point of view? That feat is even more surprising when you consider the pedigree of those strangers—recent School of Cinematic Arts grads. Aren’t they meant to be the next generation of ‘Les Enfants Terribles’? You’d learn otherwise if you spoke to alums and Voodoo Macbeth producers Miles Alva, Xiaoyuan Xiao, and Jason Phillips. Their mantra is this: Collaboration is power. Phillips explains: “There was a day on set when we had eight directors; that’s a new director every 45 minutes.” To make that work, the leave your ego behind mantra is crucial. “Everyone has to agree on the idea that our film is a challenge to the Auteur Theory [the prevailing notion that a filmmaker’s artistic control over a movie is so great that they are regarded as the author of the movie],” says Phillips. “Our film is about a community coming together to make something special. It’s an all-is-one approach. Not the other way around.”
A still from Voodoo Macbeth
Given that Voodoo Macbeth deals with themes of racism, gender inequality and sexual orientation in 1936, an era when being gay was a crime, the dialogue between the filmmakers didn’t just inform what was onscreen; it opened the filmmaker’s eyes to different perspectives all around them. Phillips believes: “One of the unique benefits of the collaborative nature of this film is that artists from many different walks of life had a seat at the table. We often had frank and honest discussions with each other about the themes, characters, and issues tackled in the film. By listening and being open, we were able to learn from each other and simultaneously represent many different perspectives in one cohesive piece.”
In terms of Hollywood, that kind of collaborative approach is the future. As demand for content increases and streamers favor mini-series over features, studios are moving more towards entertainment that can be made quickly and efficiently by teams of visionaries rather than one creator. On Voodoo Macbeth, fast and efficient were de rigeur. The film had a modest budget of $250,000 and was shot in 25 days, an extraordinarily tight schedule for a period piece. The production had to cover an average of five pages a day, which amounts to ten or twelve scenes.
Based on the quality, you’d never know the pace was so fast. To keep the high production value, Phillips encouraged the team to avoid the term “student film” throughout the entire process. “We aren’t a student film. We are a professional movie, made by students and alumni. Even at film festivals, I often tell the programmer to drop the student film title for it,” he says.
A generous grant, as well as production support, from Warner Bros. helped the team maintain the rigorous aesthetic of a true-to-life period film. Warner’s execs allowed use of its New York backlot, and their creative staff also provided support to costume designer Maren Jensen and production designer Naomi Wolff Lachter, who did extensive research to ensure that the costumes and sets were period accurate. In addition, Panavision came in with a generous camera package allowing the filmmakers access to state-of-the-art equipment.
As Voodoo Macbeth continues to provide the international film festival community with an unforgettable cinematic experience, faculty advisor Watson points out how the project has also given the Trojan community the same thing. “We had close to one hundred former or current USC students involved in some capacity,” he says. “To get that experience, not only working on a feature film, but get a sense of what it's like to collaborate with fellow artists in a professional setting is rare. I’m thrilled that we've had the opportunity to create this completely unique form of filmmaking and been able to consistently keep doing it.”
Even the original ‘enfant terrible,’ Orson Welles, would be proud.