“Just Because It’s A Tragedy Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Have A Good Time,” ‘Macbeth’ Helmer Joel Coen Tells Elated New York Film Festival Opening Night Crowd

The 59th annual New York Film Festival kicked off Friday night with back-to-back world premiere screenings of Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth as the Frances McDormand, Denzel Washington-starrer met with loving applause at Lincoln Center’s full Alice Tully Hall.

There was much clapping throughout the evening, starting with Daniel Stern chairman of the board of directors of Film at Lincoln Center, who was first up with a nod to the times. “We went back and forth about how we can do this, if we can do this… Keep your masks over your nose and mouth. We really want everyone to feel comfortable.”

“We’ve been through a lot,” said Festival Director Eugene Hernandez. “Tonight feels like a homecoming for us because we haven’t been able to gather together in this space for so long.” There was a red carpet in between screenings and a lively indoor-outdoor party for the duration a few blocks away at Tavern On The Green in Central Park.

Programming head Dennis Lim Von dedicated the program to the late Melvin Van Peebles, calling him “a force of nature, an independent who broke all the rules and made up his own, a trailblazer who paved the way for a new African American cinema.” The festival, which runs through Oct. 10, had already planned a tribute screening in its Revivals section of a restoration of Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.

Lim also honored what would have been the centenary of Amos Vogel, one of the most influential programmers in the history of cinema and co-founder of the festival who died in 2012.

Coen, on stage to present Macbeth, noted a longstanding superstition connected to the play. “You probably know it. You’re not supposed to speak the name lest some horrible catastrophe befall you or the production. This is a superstition that all of us making the movie blithely ignored until Friday the 13th of March, 2020. Then we all got religion and after months passed and the show finally got back on its feet we started referring to it simply as ‘the tragedy,’” he said,

“I’d like to point out that just because it’s a tragedy doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time. So enjoy the tragedy.”

He was back for a Q&A following a long ovation for the masterful, minimalist melding of stage play and film that stays true to the language of the Bard but prunes it for clarity and milks it for drama. Deadline review here.

Coen and key cast discussed the unusual luxury of developing a film like a play, with long rehearsal times due in part to Covid, exercises where cast members played all the parts, and intense discussions exploring what the production would be. Older members learned from younger and visa versa, McDormand said. “We got to actually be what we were supposed to be, which is elders and mentors for a company, and we just kind of kept moving around to the point where we were learning as much from our youngers… following the challenges that [they] were throwing at us.”

See Deadline’s in-depth interview with husband and wife Coen and McDormand about the origins of the project.

Macbeth’s prominent berth on New York’s opening night represents Apple’s splashiest presence yet on the film festival circuit. It follows a series of increasing investments in a range of feature films, from record-setting Sundance acquisition CODA to major upcoming titles like Killers of the Flower Moon and EmancipationMacbeth will stream on Apple TV+ in mid-January after a Christmas theatrical debut via A24.

Macbeth hails from Apple Original Films and NYC’s own A24 and marks the third year in a row that a streaming title anchored opening night. In 2019, it was Netflix’s The Irishman, whose run to the Oscars began in New York, while last year saw a unique sendoff for Lovers Rock, an installment of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe films, which were released for Amazon Prime Video. Unlike Macbeth, last year featured a stripped-down, altered setup. McQueen and cast members were unable to travel due to Covid-19 and the film screened outdoors at multiple drive-in locations around the city. NYFF exec director Eugene Hernandez delivering an intro from a very socially-distanced video setup alongside the rows of cars whose honking horns expressed attendees’ enthusiasm.

Lincoln Center is familiar turf for Apple. Just prior to the launch of Apple TV+, the tech company went all in on a premiere at Lincoln Center for The Morning Show in the fall of 2019,

On that occasion, CEO Tim Cook and a roster of other notables gathered near the fabled fountain in the plaza of Lincoln Center (known for its appearances in films like The Producers). A sprawling black carpet set up along Columbus Avenue was festooned with logos and a broadcast test-pattern background of color bars. News anchors past and present joined the 1,500 guests clad in cocktail attire (ah, pre-athleisure pandemic days) as show business invaded one of the city’s temples of high culture.

Dade Hayes contributed to this report

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