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Oscar winner Kevin Macdonald is a director in demand. Recently in Los Angeles to help promote his sword and sandals epic The Eagle starring Channing Tatum for Focus Features, Macdonald is also putting the finishing touches to a biopic about reggae legend Bob Marley which is being sold at the European Film Market after the director picked up the reins from Martin Scorsese. He’s also behind Life in a Day, a project that could only be birthed from the digital age: A documentary woven together by Macdonald from hours and hours of footage gathered on a single day in July 2010 sent in by YouTube users around the world, the movie is exec produced by filmmakers Ridley and Tony Scott. Macdonald talks to The Hollywood Reporter‘s Stuart Kemp about being nervous when he sent the first rough cut to Ridley, finding global humor dull and a macabre submission that ended up on the cutting room floor.
The Hollywood Reporter: Why did the idea for Life in a Day interest you?
Kevin Macdonald: The point is it’s all found footage in a sense. It’s certainly all footage not shot by me. It’s closer to editing an archive in some ways and yet people from all over the world have sent it in. My input has come in the cutting room and there is a huge variety of material from 192 countries to go through. The interest is it feels like we’re using the internet in an interesting way and our lives are now and have become so entangled with the web that I wanted to explore just what that may mean for film. It was interesting to find what this new technology can achieve working alongside a more traditional medium [such as film].
THR: Is it true that British artist and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings is one of your influences?
Macdonald: I’m a big fan of Humphrey Jennings, and I made a documentary about him a while ago. It was his method of using direct observations and film everyday life and objects that made his art so compelling.
THR: Were his everyday documentaries an influence?
Macdonald: Absolutely they influenced the way we cut it. We had a roomful of researchers, 24 in total, each speaking different languages. They were looking for key words and star ratings in various categories we had given them. I screened them several films and documentaries to watch including Listen To Britain, by Jennings. It’s a 23-minute short film which is a complete study in free associated editing by Jennings’ editor Stewart McAllister. It goes from one part of Great Britain to another and captures the sites and sounds of the country during World War II. Jennings asked people to send in diaries for his work and in a way we did that but now you can get people to send small films in and make observations with the camera.
THR: You had more than 80,000 submissions — totaling about 4,500 hours. How did you decide what to ask for?
Macdonald: It ended up being 81,000. It was daunting. We asked contributors four questions to answer to begin developing a framework for the narrative. We actually ended up not using one of the questions and the submissions.
THR: Which one?
Macdonald: The question we didn’t end up using is ‘what makes you laugh?’ Strangely, what came in from that question was frankly quite dull.
THR: So which questions did you end up using?
Macdonald: We asked what do you love, what do you fear and what’s in your pocket? The last question is basically Jennings’ question about what’s on your mantlepiece? That way, we had a way to start structuring the film you’ve got into one with a narrative.
THR: How did you and film editor Joe Walker structure it into a feature?
Macdonald: I shouldn’t be taking so much of the credit. The film is an incredible feat of editing and the organizational elements in this is genuinely amazing. I jokingly referred to Joe [Walker] as our head of IT, his technical skills were always in demand. I mean who knew there are 60 different frame rates to deal with in video and film? It [the film] is an amazing feat of IT achievement.
THR: Ridley and Tony Scott’s Scott Free U.K. and YouTube are both partners. For a filmmaker, was that as strange a set of backers for a feature as it gets?
Macdonald: In a way it’s a return to sponsored films. YouTube sponsored the film but managed to bring in a major sponsor, [technology giant] LG, to put money in. And no, they didn’t give me a free telly. The backers told us they have no editorial control or interest, you just go off and make whatever film you want to make. They [the backers] didn’t even see it until it was finished. It was a fantastic experience for me as a filmmaker and it was probably the single most free experience as a filmmaker I have had.
THR: What about fellow filmmaker Ridley Scott, who certainly seemed very interested in the project?
Macdonald: Ridley was incredibly supportive of it. I sent the rough cut to Ridley and I was nervous. He came back and was very enthusiastic about the material and was totally spot on with the detailed notes he sent me on it. He’s kind of brilliant and after that I sort of realized that’s why he is Ridley Scott, this great filmmaker.
THR: Out of all the submissions you couldn’t use what is the weirdest thing on the cutting room floor?
Macdonald: The one thing that has stayed with me is footage we got from a group of Tunisian doctors. They’re standing around a body and one of them pokes in the dead body’s mouth and starts to slowly and gradually pull out an object. It slowly comes out and it’s a monkey wrench. It must end up being about eight inches long and once it comes out, the doctors just burst out laughing, they just can’t help themselves.
THR: One Day in September and Touching the Void were both highly acclaimed documentaries. Do you feel as a filmmaker you gravitate towards real life experiences as sources for your story telling?
Macdonald: I think so. It’s a world in which I feel more comfortable. I would love to make a sci-fi or fantasy film epic but you would probably find that I would try and infuse the characters with a lot of reality. I suppose I would try and make the characters real because I like something with a sense of reality. I’ve done a few commercials and find them very hard to do because the people in them aren’t real or act in a real world. When I make a documentary I try and make the narrative feel like a fiction film and when I make a fiction film, I try to make it feel like a documentary. I don’t think I am very imaginative.
THR: The day chosen happened to be one with a full moon. Did that prove to be problematic?
Macdonald: We didn’t realize it was a full moon. We chose the date for the day pretty much because we had the idea for the film in March and didn’t think we could get things ready any more quickly than July. It just proved good fortune and there was a lot of that and serendipity involved in this project. It starts with people from all around the world looking up at the moon — folks in Malawi, Venezuela, America all over, and ends up with a child looking up at the moon.
THR: Much of YouTube is considered to be frivolous or funny. What’s the feel of your movie?
Macdonald: It ended up with quite a lot of content being melancholic. We’re trying to define [visually] some of the darkness and pain in life, as well as the humor and ultimately show the unity of mankind in terms of how this one day shows how we share common experiences no matter where we are.
Name: Kevin Macdonald
Film in Berlin: Life In A Day in Panorama
Date of birth: 28 October 1967
Selected Filmography: One Day In September, Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland, State of Play, The Eagle.
Notable Awards: Best documentary Oscar for One Day In September, BAFTA best British film nods for The Last King of Scotland and Touching the Void.
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