The latter most certainly was the case with his early film Touching the Void, an innovative movie about a daring mountain rescue that predated 127 Hours by many years. Then he directed Forrest Whitaker to an Oscar playing Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland and tackled the changing face of journalism in the movie version of the BBC mini-series State of Play, starring Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams.
Now Macdonald is tackling a story from the early days of England in The Eagle, a movie based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 novel “The Eagle of the Ninth,” set during the Roman Invasion of Britain during the 2nd Century. Channing Tatum plays Marcus Flavius Aquila, a Roman soldier and son of the leader of the famous Ninth Legion of Rome, 5,000 men who disappeared during the invasion of England twenty years prior to when the film begins. Along with his slave Esca, played by Jamie Bell, Marcus sets across the Hadrian Wall to seek out the truth about what happened to the Ninth Legion and retrieve their coveted golden eagle masthead, but each man has their own reasons for taking on the suicide mission.
ComingSoon.net spoke with Macdonald on the phone last week, mostly about The Eagle but also about the Bob Marley doc Marley that he’s been working on.
(Some might remember ComingSoon.net’s previous interview with director Neil Marshall for Centurion, his own story set in that time period. The Eagle acts almost as a sequel to that film, but not quite.)
ComingSoon.net: So I understand “The Eagle” is something that’s been an ongoing project for a long time, even going back to the days of “Touching the Void,” which was quite surprising.
Kevin Macdonald: Yes, well, I read the book when I was a kid and loved it and the book sort of stuck with me, then I heard around the time of “Touching the Void,” I think just after that so like, 2003, 2004, I heard that Duncan Kenworthy, the producer, had the rights and I thought, “Oh.” I hadn’t started chasing them, I just heard somebody mention, “Oh, we got this Roman book,” and they said what it was and I said, “Wow, I I love that.” So I went to see him and tried to persuade him to let me make it and he said “no.” (Laughs) He wanted to make it as a big studio movie and obviously, I had little experience. But then I think “Alexander” and “Troy” came out around that time, and both were pretty awful, and I think he felt like, “Oh, maybe there is a way of approaching this in a more kind of realistic mode sort of influenced by documentaries.” After I did “The Last King of Scotland,” he came back to me and said, “Let’s see if we can do it,” so we started working on the script. We were gonna do it a couple of years ago, and then I did a job here in the States on “State of Play,” because I was so keen to make a film about journalism and the plight of journalism, even though no journalist seemed to be interested in it when I made it. Ha! Then I came back and did it after that, so kind of been around for a long time.
CS: As you probably are aware, Neil Marshall made a film set during the same time period about the Ninth Legion, and I understand this is something that would be taught in history class, but it’s fascinating to me to have two movies by British filmmakers that seem to be told from the Roman perspective on what happened.
Macdonald: Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t seen Neil’s film, but I would hope that our film is not really only from the Roman perspective. The idea is that you start off with Marcus, Channing Tatum’s character, and you’re following him and he’s a straightforward kind of hero, then gradually, you start to see the Jaime Bell character, who is sort of slave class, so there’s sort of implicit racism in there. You think, “Well, I’m following Channing so the Romans are the heroes,” but then Channing will start to do things in the film, being very outspoken about his racist attitudes to Esca. This is how I viewed it, but maybe other people don’t, but you start to feel like you don’t like him so much, and you start to think, “Well, maybe actually I prefer Jamie. Maybe Jamie’s got a point. Maybe what he says about his family being killed, I start to sympathize with him now.” By the end of the film hopefully, you’ve gone beyond seeing them as one of the Romans and one of the Celts and start to see them just as individuals, which is the most simple and straightforward scene of the film. So yeah, the purpose for me was for it to not to be merely from a Roman perspective, but to play with people’s perceptions and play with their points of view so that you flip in the middle of the film.
CS: Both guys obviously have their charms, and there’s a point where they switch roles pretty much.
Macdonald: At that stage, you should be understanding why Jaime is doing that, and you should sympathize with him as much as you do with Channing. I’d like to see them both as sort of ambiguous characters rather than a straightforward hero and a sort of sidekick.
CS: I’m curious how faithful to the book you kept the movie? Is that relationship straight from the book or based on something in the book?
Macdonald: Well, in broad terms it’s pretty faithful, but the major change I would say is that the relationship between Marcus and Esca, which is the center of the film and is the emotional core of it with all the ambiguities that I spoke about. In the book, it’s a much more simplistic relationship because what happens is Marcus rescues Esca, and from that moment on, Esca’s a good and loyal servant and will do anything for his master. I think it’s a point of view that could only really exist in the 1950s when the book was written, which was still kind of a good thing to be a good and loyal servant, and society accepted the idea of that role. I think today it’s much harder to accept that, but I’d say it also feels like the opportunity to show the liberation between these two characters is still thematically very interesting. So that’s the biggest change that was made really in terms of the whole idea of, “Can we trust Esca? Can we not trust him? Is he gonna betray him? Is he not gonna betray him?” The fact that they only really reach a stasis right at the end of the movie in their relationship.
CS: I understand you were involved in a lot of the research for this before Jeremy started writing. Can you talk about what you wanted to look into before he started writing the screenplay and before you went off to make your other movie?
Macdonald: Yeah, I went to Hadrian’s Wall and I went to visit a place called Vinlandia, which is just South of Hadrian’s Wall in Umbria in Northern England and it’s a small Roman fort which is unique because the soil conditions around there mean that no organic matter has decayed very much, so you have anaerobic conditions, I believe they’re called. So there were all sorts of letters from soldiers, like intimate letters and postcards and things that survived. There were clothes and their shoes, and even the brush on the top of a helmet, all sorts of stuff that you’d get a personal sense of being close to these Romans who was up there on these borders on the edge of the Empire. That was important to me and very kind of evocative. Then, of course, just in terms of what the Roman world should look like, how everyone should be dressed. We wanted to make a film that goes against the grain of how most current sword and sandal films are, which is that they have fantasy elements and huge CGI, massive battle scenes with hundreds of people. I wanted to do something more realistic, more gritty, where you kind of feel the sweat on people’s brows, and the dirt. So we did a lot of research into what that fort should be like, what the room of the commander would’ve been, and what he would’ve worn. All of that stuff is as close to authentic as one could make it and everything is made specially. Then we go North of the border into the Scottish part, it’s definitely much harder to be authentic because nobody really knows what that was like. (There are) a few descriptions in Tacitus of the Scots talking about the people being painted and shaving their heads and that kind of stuff. There’s obviously a bit of archaeological evidence about sort of worshipping sea eels and worshipping seals. So we just took sort of those little hints in archaeology and in the literature and expanded on them to try to and create a culture that felt ethologically real. With the Seal People, I didn’t want them to be an Indiana Jones kind of bad guy. I wanted to see a culture that is kinda showing their ability and has its own regulations, and rules, and where there are real human beings underneath that makeup and underneath those seal clothes.
CS: I loved the casting of Tahar Rahim. He’s a great actor and I wondered how is he ever going to do American or British films with his accent, but because he’s speaking Pictish I guess…
Macdonald: He’s speaking Gaelic, because the Picts came later. That’s one thing Neil Marshall got wrong, the Picts came in the 4th Century (laughs) and nobody knows what the Picts’ language was. Gaelic was the language in Ireland at that time, and was starting to come across to Scotland at that time, so nobody really knows what people spoke in Scotland at that time, and Gaelic is the closest.
CS: How did you end up at Tahar to play the role though? It was really interesting casting.
Macdonald: Well, it was one of those incredible places of good fortune on my part. I can’t claim too much kind of amazing fortune, because I hadn’t actually seen “The Prophet.” I had cast another English actor, who shall remain nameless, who kind of pulled out from it as I started shooting. I didn’t feel like anybody else in Britain I’d seen who could work, so I said to the casting director, “Let’s go foreign because they’re gonna speak Gaelic and we can train them up in that accent. They’re not gonna have to do a perfect English accent, which is something that’s very hard for foreign actors.” So, she went back and found a few interesting European actors, and one of them was Tahar. “The Prophet” had just showed at Cannes. I hadn’t seen it, I couldn’t get a hold of a tape of it, but my casting director had seen it at Cannes and absolutely adored it. I did an audition with him over Skype because I was already in Hungary preparing to shoot or had just started shooting. He was so lovely and I was worried that he actually wouldn’t be nasty enough. (Laughs) Then I took a leap of faith and he came up to Hungary, he shaved his hair off and he jumped into it and he’s a fabulous actor, a fabulous person, and it was a really good fortune to have him.
CS: How did you end up in Hungary? Was there any opportunity to film in Scotland or England or did you just have to find someplace remote?
Macdonald: No, no, no, it is filmed in Scotland. The Scottish part of the film is all Scotland, so once they cross the Wall everything is in Scotland. You’ve obviously never been to Hungary…
CS: Actually, I have.
Macdonald: Hungary is a much more gentle sort of lush sort of place. The English portion of the film is in Hungary for two reasons, one financially because you can get tax breaks there, but secondly also because there are incredible skilled craftsmen there – leather workers can make the armor and the stuff for the bridles and the saddles and can make swords and jewelry and all that sort of stuff which just doesn’t exist almost anywhere in Britain or in France or in America anymore. You just can’t do that stuff really. It’s become so specialized. There, those crafts still exist in a much more common kind of way. I didn’t want them to do the usual thing of making your armor out of plastic and molds, I wanted to do it kind of for real, so I could do that there. Also, there’s just the practical consideration that in Hungary, you could drive for 20 or 30 minutes outside of the capitol of Budapest and be in virgin countryside, whereas in England obviously in London, you would have to drive for three hours and even then, you’ve got motorways. So two-thirds of the film is shot in Scotland, which is all the Scottish part, once they cross the wall everything there is Scotland, and the English part, the southern friendly part is Hungary.
CS: I want to play Devil’s Advocate a bit, because when I see most films, the Romans tend to have British accents and British actors obviously play them a lot. I was curious about having American actors and accents for the characters and why you went in that direction, which is very different from what we normally see.
Macdonald: Well, because sometimes it’s good to turn conventions on their head. It’s only a a convention that filmmakers pretty much universally since the 1930s have had the Romans played by Brits, and usually by people that seem to have gone to Oxford and Cambridge, as far as I can tell. That convention obviously comes about because in the ’30s and ’40s, Britain was the Empire and there’s obviously a little history between America and Britain and colonialism there too, and that obviously feeds into that. Now that’s a long time ago and Britain is a minor power in the North Atlantic and no longer an Empire and the sole remaining super power in the world is America. I think the parallels of a giant power with overwhelming military superiority and might with America and Rome, it seems obvious to me. It seems like a much more pertinent prism through which to look at the Roman period in today’s world. It’s like in the 1970’s, people made movies about Vietnam and they weren’t really movies about Vietnam, they were cowboy movies. People made cowboys movies where were about some of the issues of what was going on in the war out there in Vietnam, but in a bleak way, in a metaphorical way. I suppose that the Western has always been a kind of mold to which you could pour the concerns of the day, but have them seen in the simple terms of the Western, of one alley or whatever. That’s really what this is, a Western set in Scotland.
CS: Your next project is very different from this in that you’re doing a Bob Marley documentary, so have you started that yet?
Macdonald: Yeah, no, I’ve been working on it for a little while and I’ve done quite a few of the interviews, but yeah, it’s a straightforward but hopefully revelatory picture of who this man is, and we all think we all know, and who’s such an icon throughout the whole world, and it’s the biggest popular music icon in the entire world. Looking at him as a man, seeing who he is as afresh.
CS: There seems to be a wave of interest in Bob Marley now. I don’t know how many other movies are being made at the same time, but I feel as if there are a couple, so do you see any conflict with having so many movies about him?
Macdonald: I don’t think there are any other movies being made. I mean, I’m working with the permission of the Marley family who own the music and everything. As far as they’re concerned, I don’t think any other movies are being made. (Laughs) I don’t know where you get that from, but I don’t think that’s accurate.
CS: I thought Jonathan Demme was doing a movie, too… or are you taking over the Jonathan Demme one?
Macdonald: No, well John Demme was going to do it, but he didn’t do it, and I’m making that same project. He never actually made the film. He was meant to do it, but didn’t.
The Eagle opens nationwide on Friday, February 11.