Working With Matthew Hebert, Ridley Scott & More From The Filmmaker
"Life In A Day," the jaw-dropping new documentary, edits 4,500 hours of YouTube footage, submitted from people just like you, into a cohesive whole about our globalized lives and intimate love affair with everyday technology. The man tasked with corralling that footage was Kevin Macdonald, a talented filmmaker who oscillates gamely between documentaries (like the Oscar-winning "Munich" precursor "One Day in September") and narrative features ("Last King of Scotland," the outrageously underrated "State of Play").
We spoke to Macdonald a few months ago when he was about to release his historical adventure "The Eagle," and it's a testament to his versatility as a filmmaker that we should be chatting with him again more recently on a project so wholly different. During our conversation, we talked about his work with experimental electronic musician Matthew Herbert who contributed to the score, finding the rhythm in all that footage, and what exactly producers Ridley and Tony Scott contributed to this one-of-a-kind documentary.
The Playlist: When did you get involved in this project?
Kevin Macdonald: Right at the beginning, actually. The origins of it are that YouTube approached Scott Free [Ridley and Tony Scott's production company] to celebrate their fifth birthday. And Scott Free came to me, asking about what we could do. We came up with this based on stealing ideas from here and there.
And what did you steal from?
Well, the big inspiration for it was from a big hero of mine named Humphrey Jennings did back in the 1930s and 40s. He made a film called "Listen To Britain" and it's a twenty-minute documentary about Britain during the war, and there's no dialogue it just moves around the country and you just hear the sounds of Britain in wartime. It's very poetic. So that was one inspiration. The other thing was from the same man, Humphrey Jennings, did prior to making films, which was started an organization called The Mass Observation. What they did was ask everyday people to write diaries, to record their everyday lives, and they would ask things like "What's on your mantelpiece?" Or "Name five dogs you saw today." And I thought that was interesting – asking questions that were a mixture of the superficially banal, like "What's in your pockets?," which of course gives you a root to find out something personal, but also questions that allow for very personal answers like "Who do you love?"
And that was always built in?
Yes, it was always part of the structure. I felt like if we asked people to document their lives, we might have trouble structuring it. We needed something to excavate a few themes and that's where the questions came from… although, in retrospect, we could have done something without them.
The main structure though seemed to be the day itself.
There's a lot of different structures going on and it was very important for the film to feel structured, because there's nothing worse than watching a movie and feeling, "I don't know where this is going and I don't think the director knows where this is going." The big struggle for me was how to make this feel like a piece – that it has an intention and an arc and feels like a movie rather than a collection of clips. So all of these structures came into play – one was the questions, one was the day (starting at midnight, ending at midnight), and there are two other modes of structure – one was the music, which is something that binds elements together, and the other was the repetition of characters. So that hopefully gives you enough elements that you feel like you're going somewhere with this movie.
How did you choose which characters to come back to?
We had 4,500 hours of material that came in and the editor had a team of 25 assistants and they worked for two and a half months just watching. And they gave everything a star rating from 1 to 5 and the 4 and 5 star stuff was what I watched. We spent 6 or 7 weeks just watching the good stuff. On day one, you're thinking, "Oh my god I'm in a man's toilet in Pakistan, this is so interesting! Look at his towel!" And then by the end of day two you think, "Oh my god, how many Pakistani bathrooms have I seen?" But in that bored state of mind, only the really good things would stick out. So it was actually really easy to cut it down to the characters you really wanted to return to.
Was Matthew Herbert using sounds from the documentary to score the film?
Yes, he's got a whole album of the sounds of food production, for instance. He's really interested in "found sound." He wrote the song that's repeated the song that's repeated three times in the movie and he also wrote a lot of the music in the middle of the movie that's made up largely of sounds that were sent in. One of the aspects of the film was that we asked people, if they wanted to get more involved in the movie, to record sounds on that day. Matthew asked for three sounds – breathing, we asked them to record their favorite sounds, and the third sound was clapping hands. So even if you're not aware of that, necessarily, I think it has a subconscious effect. And he also took sounds from within the film, like the bells of the goats, the sound of a woman bouncing a tennis ball is used as a rhythm track, the sound of the cow that's slaughtered. I think it works on a subconscious level.
The other aspect was the more classical form of music from Harry Gregson-Williams, who Ridley has a relationship with. And the great thing was allowing him to write a proper piece of music that stands on its own that's not just underscore.
What influence did Ridley and Tony have on the film?
Part of Ridley's involvement was just having his name, because it helps in terms of people taking it seriously. I don't think we would have gotten so many results without him. When we were publicizing the film we set up a channel on YouTube and Ridley put up a message and I put up a message. My message was, "This is an anthropological study and what may seem boring to you may not be boring to other people." Whereas Ridley's message said was, "If you're one of those people who's always moaning to be a filmmaker, get off your ass and get your camera, and go make your film." He talked about how his first short film ["Boy And Bicycle"] was a kind of "Life In A Day" in Yorkshire, where he grew up. So he was reaching out to aspiring filmmakers. Ridley also watched several of the cuts and was very astute, because he's fascinated by new technology, but he himself isn't a hugely technological person.
"Life in a Day" opens today.