Where Michael Bay has a distinct cinematic shorthand (explosions, chicks in skimpy shorts, loving slo-mo shots of military hardware), UK director Kevin Macdonald is one of those filmmakers who’s impossible to pin down.
He came from the world of documentaries, bringing us the searing human drama of ”Touching the Void” in 2003 before shepherding Forest Whitaker’s finest role to the screen as the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in ”The Last King of Scotland” (2006).
More docos came in amongst ”State of Play”, 2009’s political thriller starring Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck, very much in the vein of the great paranoid dramas of the 1970s. Then Macdonald played a crucial creative role in ”Life In a Day”, the experimental film form Ridley and Tony Scott assembling short YouTube clips into a documentary.
One wonders whether the current crop of young adult love story dystopias sweeping cinemas inspired Macdonald’s latest film, ”How I Live Now”, but he once again jumps genres to bring us something different. We spoke to the 46-year-old director from the UK.
The film had a real sense of urgency and cinema verite early on. Can you talk about going for that specific look?
We wanted to try two distinct visual styles in the film. In the first half when the characters are living through a peaceful time in the English countryside I wanted it to be a loose and human-feeling camera. Almost technicolour, bright and romantic and hand held, capturing little spontaneous moments in a very documentary style.
In the second half things change radically. The palate loses a lot of its colour. The camera becomes much more detached. The lens changes – we use much sharper, more modernised lenses. We also decided the camera should always be on a dolly or stakes.
That way the characters are more objectified. It’s not as subjective a worldview as the hand-held in the first part, not as spontaneous. It’s also going against type because in so many movies that hand-held style is used for warfare and chaos and urgency. We use it in the opposite way here, we make the film cold and detached in the wartime period.
There were shades of other movies and ideas in there. Were you conscious of making any references?
I guess most people look at other films or paintings or whatever, and they influence the film thematically or otherwise. I looked at a lot of movies about children in war and how they react in unexpected ways, so I guess a lot of influence just feeds in.
So you weren’t conscious of anything you wanted to particularly avoid that was similar?
No, the book it’s based on is very original work. One of the things I like about it is that it starts off being something you think you know. It’s a very familiar tale of a troubled American girl coming to England and falling in love. But then it takes this sharp left turn and becomes a very different movie. And I like the idea of surprising the audience. There are all sorts of things in it which I guess don’t belong in the normal mainstream young adult world of cinema.
You’re certainly not averse to abrupt changes in tone.
Yeah, and that’s one of the things I found effective in the book. It’s hard to make the audience feel like they don’t know where the story’s going these days. That’s what I was going for, a gripping story where you actually believe the characters might die and the leads might not get back together.
A lot of people have said it’s very bleak and dark. And it is, but is it any more bleak than the Dark Knight Rises? You don’t see much violence occurring, you see the aftermath of violence, and as we all know the imagination is the most powerful thing you’ve got with a film or a book. If you explain too much and give away too much you kill the imaginative process.
Explain Daisy’s (Saoirse Ronan) inner monologue.
In the book Daisy has all these social mores, things she’s learned from reading women’s magazines and things her friends have told her. She’s a confused kid and it’s a bit hard to get that across in a film, obviously in a book written in the first person you have access to somebody’s head.
Also there’s this idea that maybe Edmund, the guy she’s in love with, is capable of looking inside her head, we sense what he senses in her. It took a long time to figure how to do that, how to achieve that hearing this confused babble inside her head.
If there was a common thread through your career what would it be?
I don’t ask that question too much of myself, but I like stories about people being transformed by an experience. Going through a life-changing event during the course of the film and seeing somebody alter, that’s always interesting and it’s the hardest thing to achieve. Saoirse Ronan does that brilliantly in the film, she’s one of the few actors of her age who are able to transform from one person to another in the course of a 95-minute film.