Director Kevin Macdonald discusses his latest film, which is based on the popular adventure novel by Rosemary Sutcliff
Kevin Macdonald began his career directing documentaries, like the critically acclaimed Touching the Void. But it was his work on the Academy Award winning feature film The Last King of Scotland that has made him one of the fastest rising directors working today. Macdonald has gone onto direct the film adaptation of the hit BBC television drama State of Play, which starred Oscar winners Russell Crowe, Helen Mirren, and Ben Affleck. He also collaborated with Oscar winning director Ridley Scott on the YouTube inspired documentary film Life in a Day, which will premiere later this week at the Sundance Film Festival.
Opening in theaters on February 11th is the director's latest feature, the "sword and sandals" epic The Eagle, which stars Channing Tatum (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra), Jamie Bell (Jumper), Mark Strong (Kick-Ass), Denis O'Hare (Garden State), and Donald Sutherland (The Italian Job). The film is based on the book, "The Eagle Of The Ninth," by Rosemary Sutcliff. It follows a young Roman officer (Tatum) in 2nd century AD who journeys to discover the truth about the disappearance of his father's legion in the north of Britain. We recently had a chance to sit down and speak with Kevin Macdonald about his new feature film, adapting the novel, reuniting with writer Jeremy Brock, and why he chose to have the Romans speak with American accents. Here is what the talented director had to say:
To begin with, the novel that the film is based on takes place in Caledonia, which is now known as Scotland. Since you are originally from Scotland yourself, were you familiar with the source material before you agreed to direct the film?
Kevin Macdonald: Yeah I read the book as a kid. I must have first read it when I was ten or twelve, and it was one of those books that as a young person I really liked. To today's kids it's hard to read, its quite linguistically challenging. But I read it then and it made a big impression on me. The romance and the idea of two people roaming the Scottish highlands, of course, I could go on this quest and I could visualize it because it was the world I knew around me that they were in. Then I just sort of talked about it with people, you know. About five or six years ago somebody told me, coincidentally, that a producer who I knew a bit socially, Duncan Kenworthy, had the rights to this book called "The Eagle Of The Ninth." "Oh, that book, my God I love that book," I said. So I phoned him up and I asked, "Can I direct it?" He said, "No." At that point I hadn't directed a feature film. I had just done Touching the Void and some other documentaries. So I went off and made The Last King of Scotland, and in the meantime he didn't get anywhere with the project. I think what happened was that he was thinking of making it as a $150 million movie. But I think it was around the time of Troy, and Alexander, and that stuff came and flopped. So after I made The Last King of Scotland he came to me and said, "You know what? Maybe we can do this in a smaller scale and with a documentary feel." So we started working on it then. I was going to do it before State of Play and then because it came up, and I thought it was such a great subject for a movie, I did that and then came back to this. So yeah, it's been around a long time in my life.
You mentioned making the film with less money than was originally planned, but the scale and scope of the picture is still huge and epic. Can you talk about how you were able to achieve the look of the movie with a smaller budget?
Kevin Macdonald: Yeah it's a small budget. If it was made in Hollywood ... well everything costs a lot more and everyone did it for a deal, all the actors, everybody and myself. It's $23 million, it's not a small amount of money, but by Hollywood standards it's not really a lot. We had to do it very quickly and I think that was the thing that was very difficult. We were filming in Scotland a lot of the time. I wanted to shoot in winter to get this particular look in Scotland that nobody has ever really gotten before, this other worldly, almost lunar landscape, with the low clouds, and the way the landscapes are bland and purple, not the romantic greenness of Scotland. So we only had often seven hours of daylight at that time of year and it rained all the time. It was so slow getting anything done and we had a short schedule so it was very tough. We had to adapt our shooting schedule greatly to that. So that is where more money would be great and a bit more time. Obviously when you do action scenes you can spend as much money as you've got but the philosophy of the film for me was lets go against the grain. If you want to do "Sword & Sandals" movies, people think that means it equals epic. That means that you have to have battles with a thousand people crated by CG, or in the old days for real, like Kubrick on Spartacus. I thought, lets reduce the scale and lets make it exciting, but make the jeopardy about the few individuals, or the two main individuals and what they had to go through. So the model in a way was the cowboy movie. I looked at a lot of cowboy movies, like The Searchers and the John Ford films. Another was Ulzana's Raid, which was a great '70s reflection of Vietnam but through a cowboy movie. It was about cowboys who get involved in a kind of atrocious thing. They commit these atrocities and it was a reflection of what was going on in Vietnam. In those movies it's really about individuals and the landscape. You can get a sense of huge scale and an epic feel but actually that comes from not having huge numbers of people in one cast.
The movie's screenwriter, Jeremy Brock, also wrote "The Last King Of Scotland," did you bring him on to the project or was he already attached to write it when you came on board?
Kevin Macdonald: Yeah, I brought him in. Interestingly enough, the first writer I brought in was a Scottish writer who wrote this film, Ulzana's Raid, in the '70s. His name is Alan Sharp and he wrote a series of fantastic movies in the '1970s. He did a movie with Peter Fonda called The Hired Hand and he was a dark character that came to Hollywood from England. I happened to have met him and told him that Ulzana's Raid is the type of movie that I think The Eagle should be like. So I said, "Lets get this guy to do this." But it had been thirty years since he wrote anything, so then I thought, lets just bring Jeremy in instead.
What was the collaboration like between you and Jeremy this time around? Did it make the pre-production process easier for you because you two had worked together in the past?
Kevin Macdonald: Yeah, I mean we changed the book quite radically and Jeremy was very opened to that. One of the things that I wanted to do stylistically was that I wanted to make it realistic, gritty and make you feel what it was like to be there a little bit. What it would feel like to wear those uniforms and be in the cold in Scotland. I really wanted to put the audience in it. It was the documentarian in me I suppose. I was also reacting against State of Play, which is a movie that is all dialogue. That was the point of it. It was a talky, talky, talky movie. I wanted to strip that back so I was telling Jeremy to take out a lot of dialogue. So we tried to do a movie with simplicity to it. It was interesting, the movie I watched recently was True Grit, which reminded me of something with the same sort of attitude of slow in some places, exciting in other places, and it takes you into the world.
At the heart of it, the film is really about a son's quest to clear his father's name. Is that the way you saw it and what were some of the other themes in the movie that you were excited to play with as a director?
Kevin Macdonald: I guess that is really the main theme at the heart of the movie. Marcus, Tatum's character is a guy who is really taunted at school because everyone knows that his father humiliated Rome. People talk about him behind his back all the time and that has turned him into an angry person. Someone who always feels that he is on the outside, which is how I saw it. Really in order, I suppose, to find out who he is and feel good about himself, he needs to find out what happened to his father. Did he die as a coward or not? What really happened to him? So that is for Marcus the through-line on the surface but we then layered in the relationship between him and Esca. That is something that has been radically changed from the book. Esca, the Jamie Bell character, exists but he is not quite the same. He becomes the slave and then he becomes this loyal servant who is loyal all the way through. There is no question of, is he going to betray him? There is no resentment from the underdog towards the superior individual. So I felt that in the '50s, when the book was written, you could do that. You could have a character that is just a loyal servant and that would be a great thing. Because if you were middle class in America then, you probably had servants and that attitude was still prevalent. Where is today with the idea of someone being from a country that has been occupied, our references immediately go to Iraq or Afghanistan. They feel resentment and like, can we trust these people? The idea that they don't want to have our culture thrust upon them and how do they feel about us being there and occupying their country. So all of that fed into that relationship and it becomes a much more fractural relationship. That became to me the movie. It's a buddy movie. It's an action, adventure, cowboy, and buddy movie, to coin a phrase. Yes Marcus finds the truth about his father, and he deals with his demons and the demons of his family. But the emotional aspect of it has to do with people from different sides of the tracks, completely opposite physically, mentally, culturally, who develop a friendship against all odds. That is the journey I saw.
Finally, can you talk about casting Tatum and Bell in their roles and your unique decision to cast American actors as Romans?
Kevin Macdonald: Well that was exactly for that. I wanted to go against the grain. First of all I wanted Americans to play Romans. The convention is that Romans are always British with posh accents because it represents the days of the empire. The idea is that they are meant to be Americans. He is a G.I. Everyone who is Roman in this movie is American. Well Donald Sutherland is Canadian but affectively. Channing has a slight Southern accent and we thought that wasn't right so he is doing a neutral American. Then Jamie and everyone else either speaks with a British regional accent, so the accent is similar to where Jamie is from. Jamie is from that area and coincidentally is a member of the tribe that is depicted in the movie. So they either speak in Gallic or they speak in English with a regional accent. I wanted to get that difference between the two. The convention is that they have English accents and I wanted to increase the contrast between the two of them. So physically I was in a radically different world. Once I cast Channing I knew I had to find someone was the opposite of buff and athletic. I wanted someone who was wiry, small and a runt. Also Jamie has a lot going on in his head. He has a feral kind of quality like a wild animal. Where with Channing, what you see is what you get. He is all-American and if you give him an order he will execute it, that's who he is. So I thought that was an interesting dynamic to play with. The sort of straight forward all-American boy and this slightly untrustworthy, unpredictable thing that Jamie has going on.