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Toil and Trouble With Fries on the Side

Writing a fast-food 'Macbeth' was hard enough--then came the delays and potential stress of working with a spouse.

February 03, 2002|EMORY HOLMES II

Maura Tierney arrives a few moments late for an interview and steps to the curb just as the morning traffic on Larchmont Boulevard momentarily dies down. It's a jaywalker's dream, but Tierney hesitates, contemplating the infraction tentatively. As the traffic revives, she walks half a block to the crossing, where a few pedestrians are waiting for the light.

The actress, whose 37th birthday is today, has won recognition for her role as a nurse on "ER," yet she hardly seems a star. She wears her dark, shoulder-length brown hair in a ponytail and is dressed in loose-fitting vintage '60s blouse and pants, Birkenstocks and sunglasses. L.A. residents are famous (and ridiculed) for their reluctance to flout jaywalking laws, but "it was my Boston Irish Catholic upbringing" that stopped her, she explains.

The comment seems ironic considering Tierney's ardent portrayal of Pat McBeth, the driven, dutiful, murderous wife who is the centerpiece of first-time writer-director Billy Morrissette's dark comedy, "Scotland, PA.," which opens Friday.

Based--quite faithfully so--on Shakespeare's "Macbeth," Morrissette's reimagining of the Bard's tragedy as a comic farce was not the easiest concept to sell, as Tierney readily admits. "It sounds like a terrible idea when you tell people, 'Oh it's "Macbeth," and it takes place in rural Pennsylvania in the '70s in a fast-food restaurant, and it's a comedy.' People go, 'Hmmm ...'" Tierney giggles at her mental picture and concludes, "It's a hard pitch."

Nonetheless, Shakespeare remains remarkably popular as source material among contemporary filmmakers.

According to the production notes, "Scotland, PA." joins more than 180 film adaptations of Shakespeare stretching back to 1900 when Marrice Clement premiered "Hamlet" at the Paris Exhibition. More recent productions have unfolded in teen hangouts and high schools, including Baz Luhrmann's "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet" (1996), which is set on a Miami-like Verona Beach and stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, and Tim Blake Nelson's "O" (2001), an update of "Othello" starring Mekhi Phifer as a love-struck high-school basketball star. (PBS' "Masterpiece Theater" last week aired an "Othello" that retold the story of the Moor of Venice as a descent into madness by John Othello, London's first black police commissioner. In 2000, director Michael Almereyda cast Ethan Hawke as the gloomy head of Denmark Corp. in his version of "Hamlet."

And there have been at least 16 adaptations of "Macbeth," including Akira Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood" (1957), which placed the action in medieval Japan, and William Reilly's "Men of Respect" (1991), a mobster thriller.

Tierney and Morrissette were aware many hard pitches had preceded theirs. Morrissette, 39, Tierney's husband of nine years, said in a later interview, "I had seen all that Kenneth Branagh stuff, and I love that 'Romeo + Juliet' thing, but it's not the same. They're speaking just words. After I wrote it, I had seen, '10 Things I Hate About You,' and I didn't care for it. I thought they went a little too far, you know, 'Taming of the Shrew' in high school.

Although he took great liberties with the characters and setting, Morrissette claimed it was not difficult to remain true to the spirit of the text. "Being faithful to Shakespeare wasn't hard," Morrissette said. "Banco was a little slow because I remembered a guy in college who played Banquo, and I thought he was a little slow. So maybe I added a few of those things. But it came very, very naturally because these characters were all so involved in themselves. Malcolm and McDuff's characters in the play are exactly what I did in the movie; it's all just Shakespeare." (Morrissette's spellings diverge from the originals of Macbeth, Macduff and Banquo, in part as a play on the name of a certain fast-food chain.)

Even if interpreting Shakespeare ultimately wasn't a problem, the process of writing was another matter. "I can't tell you enough how much I am not a writer," Morrissette confides. "I was an actor for 12 years, and I had no intention of being a writer--ever." Morrissette said he conceived the idea for the film more than 20 years ago, back in his hometown of South Windsor, Conn.

"I was 16 and worked at Dairy Queen, and I hated my boss. I had read 'Macbeth' that same year and started telling people that this play would be hysterical if it took place in a fast food restaurant and everyone in the restaurant is named Mac. Nobody cared, of course. The idea went away, and I became an actor and in one bad year, as I was driving through L.A. on my way to a commercial audition, I heard something about 'Macbeth,' like, twice on the radio on NPR--two days in a row. It was like a premonition. My old joke and the Dairy Queen came into my head, and I thought, 'Oh, I should get a computer and try to write that.'"

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