Maura Tierney, who’s succeeded in series television with “News Radio” and her continuing role in “ER” while building an impressive resume of film work via supporting parts in such features as “Primal Fear,” “Liar Liar,” “Primary Colors,” “Forces of Nature” and “Instinct,” has teamed up with her husband, actor (and now writer-director) Billy Morrissette (“For the Boys,” “Pump Up the Volume”) for a feature adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” The resultant film, “Scotland, PA,” will hardly be confused with Orson Welles’ 1948 filmization or Roman Polanski’s 1971 version, though. It sets the story in a small town in Pennsylvania in the early 1970s, and transposes the conflict from one over a kingdom to one involving the ownership of a fast-food restaurant; it also seeks laughs instead of the customary catharsis. The acknowledgments opening the picture may credit the story to Shakespeare, but the mood and merriment are distinctly Morrissette’s; after all, as the press notes inform us, his last directing gig was his eighth-grade class production of “Bye Bye Birdie” at Timothy Edwards Middle School in South Windsor, CT.
“As beautifully written as it [the original] is,” the adapter deadpanned during a recent Dallas interview, “the play never works, because within minutes you just want them [Macbeth and Lady Macbeth] dead–they’re horrible people! You’re just waiting for them to die. The play gets boring! I don’t know what he [Shakespeare] was thinking! It needed a good rewrite–for God’s sake, I’m glad that someone like me came along!”
Morrissette added that he believed his film was the first to give a “story by” credit at the very end of the list at the beginning of the picture, following even his own “written and directed by” credit. “‘Story by,'” he mused. “That’s the poor fellow who had the idea, and then they took it away from him.”
Shakespeare is in no position to complain, of course, and neither will a lot of filmgoers, who, even if they’re lovers of the play, may find the picture’s oddball take on the plot–and the presence of such actors as Christopher Walken (as a Columbo-like vegetarian detective named McDuff), James LeGros (as tousled-haired Joe “Mac” McBeth), Kevin Corrigan (as Joe’s bewildered buddy Anthony “Banco” Banconi) and Andy Dick (as one of three hippie “witches”)- -good reason to smile. Many will especially take to the performance of Tierney, who found the opportunity to work with her husband, and to tackle a role very unlike those she’s usually played, an enjoyable challenge. “I was excited,” she said. “I don’t usually get to play stuff like that, so I was really excited. I always play the sort of sympathetic housewife in movies–the ‘stand by your man’ type of wife or girlfriend. It was nice for me.” She also appreciated the expansion of the part that Morrissette effected. “Pat (McBeth) is in the movie much more than Lady Macbeth is in the play,” she noted.
When wife and husband were asked how it had been to work together, Tierney enthused about the experience, while Morrissette, as usual, mixed the serious and the jocular. “No problems whatsoever,” he said, then quickly adding, “I’m joking, of course. I was in hell throughout it. She was just ‘that actress’ over there, because it [the shoot] was just hell for me. It was twenty- four hours of work [a day], and I worked all weekend. I think I looked so pathetic to Maura that she was only sympathetic. We were never closer, both trying to do it right.” In fact, the couple is currently planning another joint project, which Tierney described as “much more of a straight-up comedy, not so dark” as “Scotland.” Morrissette elaborated on the script, set in early ’90s–“I believe it’s the first early-’90s period piece,” he quipped–about a woman who returns home to find her boyfriend dead and spends the rest of the picture discovering the truth about his past.
One of the nice touches about “Scotland, PA” is that it was shot in Nova Scotia. “‘Nova Scotia’ means ‘New Scotland,'” Morrissette explained. But it was entirely serendipitous that the comic take on “Macbeth” was shot there. “I didn’t even know that [the meaning of the name] at first,” Tierney admitted, and Morrissette continued, “We had seen Nova Scotia in ‘Dolores Claiborne’ and a couple of other movies, and we thought, ‘Oh, this gloomy, foggy atmosphere up there seems perfect.'” It also mirrored the rural Pennsylvania of thirty years ago. When the production funds had finally been nailed down, Tierney added, she was talking to their producer Richard Shepard, “and I remember saying, ‘I don’t know how much this would cost, but could we ever do it in Nova Scotia?'” Shepard explained that shooting in Canada would actually keep costs down, and they decided to go there; and so the meaning of “Nova Scotia” added an unexpected level of irony to the modern take on “Macbeth.” There was, however, one disappointment. “There was fog in pre-production, boy was there fog!” Morrissette said. “Then the first day [of shooting] was the sunniest day in the history of sun! We thought the curse”–the tradition that says that every production of “Macbeth” will be jinxed–“had begun.” Happily, the shoot proved otherwise uneventful, and audiences will now determine whether “Scotland, PA” has escaped the unpleasant fate of so many stage version of the original.