Kevin Macdonald is one of those directors who you can't really pin down. With a background in documentaries (he helmed the thrilling mountain climbing documentary "Touching the Void") which segued into Oscar-nominated narrative work with "The Last King of Scotland," he's proven himself to be a dexterous and visceral filmmaker. He chose to follow up 2009's vastly underrated newspaper thriller "State of Play" (seriously, Netflix it now if you haven't seen it) with a historical boy's adventure story called "The Eagle" (co-starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell and Mark Strong), a You Tube-produced documentary that he just debuted at Sundance, plus taking the reigns on an in-progress Bob Marley documentary. It's these kind of bold leaps in content and tone that make him such an exceptionally exciting director, and one well worth watching. We sat down with him and spoke about "The Eagle," his problems with the MPAA, the similarly-theme (and timed) historical flick "Centurion," and the one time he kind of liked Harvey Weinstein.
The Playlist: What drew you to telling this kind of story?
Kevin Macdonald: I read the book that this is based on as a kid and loved it. And I suppose it goes back to that, and I grew up in Scotland, and when I was reading it as an eleven or twelve year old, because it's one of those books that's somewhere between an adult book and a kid's book. Because I lived in Scotland, I could see the landscape in my head, I could imagine what it was like, and the idea of this Roman, so out of his depth, and wandering around in the Scottish hills on a horse just seemed very attractive to me. And then five years ago or so, I heard a producer I knew had the rights, and I hadn't really thought about the book for a long time. So I approached him and asked if I could make it. And then started working on the script with a writer I worked on with "The Last King of Scotland" called Jeremy Brock. But I think I wanted to make a cowboy movie in the Roman world. What else can I say?
What from the cowboy movie did you specifically bring over?
It's men and nature, it's themes of racism and of cultural domination, you know, all the best cowboy movies are about the clash between the cowboy and the Indian, aren't they? And differing attitudes, and differing cultures and values, and that's what this is about. And, you know, you have a film like "The Searchers" by John Ford, it's kind of very similar, thematically, to this, so that was inspiring. But also, I love Roman films, I love the classics, you know, "Spartacus" and "Ben-Hur," and all those. I grew up on those, seeing them on TV, and adored those films. And I had never seen, certainly since "Spartacus," I'd never seen anybody do a smaller scale, kind of dramatic movie set in this period. I've never seen a movie set in Ancient Britain, and I thought, that fascinates me. And I wanted to do something that goes against the grain of the sword-and-sandals type of "Prince of Persia" or whatever you've got, CG and wizards, and this is taking it back to it's basics, this is trying to persuade you that this is really what it was like, this is what it was supposed to look like.
So you were anti-CG then?
We were very careful to be authentic and make it as accurate as possible in the way that the Romans did their strategy in battle, and in what they wore, what the Celts wore, trying to stray as little as possible. But obviously you're making a movie, they're speaking English, it's never going to be a documentary. But to get away from CG...I'm kind of fed up with CG in these historical movies because I kinda think the temptation is always to go over the top with it and therefore you cease to believe what you're seeing... And that's the idea...if you don't have things happening in the visual effects you don't believe, then it makes the whole thing feel more credible and the whole thing feel like you're in that historical period and you're really aware of the physicality of life, of the inconvenience of it -- the wetness, all that....
Now you said you had never seen something set in this period, then you get ready to make this movie and then you see that "Centurion" is coming...
Well, worse than that, I had written the script of this with Jeremy Brock, and then went away to make another movie, "State of Play," and in the meantime the "Centurion" came along...and I haven't seen it, deliberately...
Huh, Neil Marshall said you guys had talked about it once.
No, I've never met him. I've been told about it, and I know what's in it. It's one of those things that happens in movies, it happens probably in journalism, and in all facets of life that, you know, you have what you think is a great original idea, and you find that someone else has had the same idea. So we sat back and said, you know, do we want to make another movie that's different and that's going to be based on what in Britain is a children's classic, or do we not want to make that movie because of this other film? And we took the decision that we wanted to go ahead and that there's room for both. Because I think his movie, from what I understand, is aimed at a different audience.
The movie is very intense, but sort of deliberately PG-13. Was it hard walking that kind of fine line?
I always wanted it to be a movie that could be seen and appreciated by fathers and their sons, where I've got three sons, and I wanted to make a movie that they could see. And they're young. But to make a movie to appeal to boys' romantic element to the story, the quest, finding out what happened to your father, and that -- but there's also that hope, enough in it for an older audience to appreciate and to be engaged in the filmmaking, in the fights, in the drama of the relationship between the two of them, the tension between the two of them. So it's a film that can work for adults and I guess, not teeny teeny kids, but eleven- and twelve-year-old boys. That's the audience it's intended for. So I made the film freely how I wanted to make it, no pressure in terms of a rating, and then when we delivered it in Europe, we got PG-13, and then the same cut here was given an R rating.
Interesting, so did you have to tone it down?
Well I didn't have to tone it down. I thought about it and it's a movie I made personally for my own children to see and hopefully enjoy with me. Why would I want to cut off half the audience for the movie? So the problem with the ratings in America, I mean they're all crazy in every different countries in different ways, but in America it's so literal, you know, it's all about the letter of the law....so I did a movie called "State of Play," and it's not a movie any kid would want to see, but it's a movie with no real violence in it, but there was one shooting in it when a little bit of blood sprays through the air, and they gave it an R rating, and we had to cut it all up. But the same as in this, this is a movie which had some blood and had a few people get stabbed and things that you saw, but it wasn't a gore fest, it's not ever intended to be that. And they came back and said, "You've made a historical film. If you'd made it an action film, then we'd give you a PG-13." And I thought, hang on a minute, isn't that kind of weirdly back to front? What does that mean? It feels real, like it's historical film, could be educational, but it's not a good thing? Is that what you're saying? But anyway, we negotiated with them and we only cut out, relatively little, 20 seconds, and we got the PG-13 rating. And I'm glad I did it. No director likes to be forced to cut anything from their movie, but I'm glad I did it.
There are a lot of great, really weird shots in there, which felt very visceral, as well as all the the cut-to-blacks. Was that something you'd always thought about?
[The cut-to-black] was a way of provoking a sense of mystery, isn't it? Like I don't know what's going to happen, what happens next? I'm not shown part of the story. You're kind of leaping ahead in some way...but I worked with Antony Dod Mantle, the DP here who worked on the "Last King of Scotland," and he's brilliant and he comes from [the] Dogma [school of things]. And he's unlike a lot DPs at the moment who are obsessed with resolution and making everything 70mm and whatever. He understands that it's what you don't show often is more important -- that there be darker lines, that there be grain in there, actually increases your sense of physicality and your sense of kind of complexity of the texture. The big challenge for him on this movie was daylight hours. Usually in Scotland in winter, which we wanted to do because the colors are so amazing, and you've got the brown and the gold and purples and the low cloud. But I've filmed all over the place and it's the toughest environment to film in because it gets lights at around 8:30/9 o'clock and then sometimes at 2:30 in the afternoon it gets dark. You've got no time at all to shoot. And that leads to a way of shooting and a way of simplicity of approach which actually, I hadn't intended it to be so simple than a lot of the stuff we did. But it of course, feeds back into the film. You feel the wetness, you feel the darkness, you feel the shortness of the daylight hours and all that. And it sort of permeates the movie, in a way. But that was a big challenge for him, he had a really tough time light-wise.
The relationship between the father and the son and the importance of the eagle? We don't see that. Was it tough to exclude that?
Not for me. I mean, that's in my head, anyway. You know, hopefully, you're clear in the beginning of the story that here's an emotionally wounded boy, man who's held himself in and refused to connect with the world in a really terrible because of his loss, and because of the dishonor that's been brought on him and the taunts that he's probably had to suffer because of that. So he's very clenched and uptight. It's that side of him broken down. And that's there, present for me in who he is. Backstory like that sometimes is best when it's not entirely expositional, you know this is what happened and this is what he feels, and hopefully you discover it throughout the movie what his state of mind is.
What's next for you now that you're done?
I've just done a documentary which is in Sundance called "Life in a Day." It's a collaboration with YouTube where I got people from all around the world to film on a single day, 24th of July, 2010. And 81,000 people shot and sent in their material, and we cut it into a 90 minute movie. And it's kind of amazing, actually, it's very beautiful and original.
And you're going to head back to narrative soon?
And then I'm definitely going to do another narrative film. I've got a couple of things that I'm trying to develop. The hard thing is to find something that you really want to make. You don't want to add more pointless movies to the world.
Now you talked about the ratings with "State of Play." Now, a lot of people loved the movie, but it never really caught on in America.
Yeah, it did really terribly here. And I was disappointed, but I think it was partly a perception thing, which was that partly also because a whole strong of movies came out at that time, which were more adult movies, whatever that means, not aimed at a teen audience. And I think that made the studios go, hang on a minute, why are we making these movies, and why are we making them so expensively, paying movie stars crazy amounts of money to be in them. So, I think a movie like that would be made still, but be made for $20 million or $15 million, instead of being made in the crazy studios. Everyone would do deals to do it, but I think that there's a definite perception problem, because everyone sees it as a big studio release, and it's not really, it should never be that, it should not a niche film, but it's an adult film, the perception of the movie, it made $35 million, which for a movie that cost $20 million dollars would be a success, but for a movie that cost $70 million, that's a disaster.
Was "The Eagle" a response at all, in terms of saying, Well maybe I'll make a movie that people'll go see..?
No, "The Eagle" was already planned before I did "State of Play." I wanted to do "State of Play" because I thought it was a really important subject. And I'm very passionate about journalism and the place of journalism. And the funny thing to me about when that movie came out in Britain and in parts of Europe, it got a lot of attention because of that subject matter, but here, people didn't seem to give a shit. I mean even the journalists didn't give a shit, really. I mean it got pretty good reviews, but the sense of importance and passion of the subject... the only time I've agreed with Harvey Weinstein, he sent me an email saying "They totally fucked up the release, they should have made it all journalism." And we're going through warfare and newspapers and I thought, "I wish you had been distributing my movie...."