Kevin Macdonald: 'We burned Channing Tatum's balls'

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Kevin Macdonald pushed his cast to the edge to make ‘The Eagle’ in a wintry Scotland. Tom Huddleston covers his crotch to meet him

After directing films set in Peru (‘Touching the Void’), Uganda (‘The Last King of Scotland’) and Washington DC (‘State of Play’), the 43-year-old Scottish filmmaker Kevin Macdonald returns home with ‘The Eagle’, an adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff’s classic novel about a Roman soldier lost behind enemy lines in tribal Scotland. And with two more movies on the horizon – YouTube compilation film ‘Life in a Day’ is due in May, with reggae bio-doc ‘Marley’ set for release next year – Macdonald continues to add variety to a career that began with mid-1990s docs for British television and a 1994 biography of his grandfather, the filmmaker Emeric Pressburger.

Is Sutcliff’s ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’ really a book for kids, and is ‘The Eagle’ really a film for kids?
‘Good question! It’s a beautifully written book, sensitive to nature and psychology in a way that is quite adult. It’s very sophisticated. It has perhaps lost its place in the modern world – it’s hard to imagine modern 14-year-old boys wanting to read it.
I wanted to make a film which would appeal to my own boys, because everything I’ve made has been dark and adult. But the ambiguity of the central relationship, the classicism of the story, hopefully these are things an adult can enjoy as well.’

It’s a film which wears its influences quite openly.
‘We looked at a lot of films going in, notably “Ulzana’s Raid”, the Robert Aldrich movie. It’s a film about Vietnam, but made as a cowboy movie. That resonated with me. I thought we could make a film about cultural and military imperialism now, but as a Roman cowboy movie. The cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and I also looked at some Kurosawa films and John Boorman’s “Excalibur”, which is half a film of a genius and half the film of a fucking idiot. But it has that feeling of the magic of the country, the way the landscape infiltrates the psychology of the characters.’

How much period research did you do? The idea of Britain as a primitive, tribal culture may surprise some people.
‘With the Romans, you know what they ate and wore so you can be pretty exact. With the tribes, there’s archaeology to suggest there were people worshipping seals and sea eagles, and there’s a little bit in Roman writing about the defeat of the Scots in which they describe the face painting, the shaven heads, so we took that and tried to create something which felt accurate.’

Why did you decide to cast Americans as Roman soldiers?
‘That was entirely my idea. There’s a convention in movies that Romans are always upper-class Brits. Even Russell Crowe in “Gladiator” put on a British accent. It’s a convention born of early Hollywood movies, in which they cast the British Empire as the Roman Empire, and the free men as Americans. But that’s an outmoded way of looking at the world, and in fact the reverse is now true. Hopefully this helps draw the parallel, that this little fort could be in Helmand Province, that it’s peopled by marines, essentially. Some have called it anachronistic, which is absurd! But people are locked into their way of seeing things.’

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Was it a tough shoot?
‘It was. We decided to shoot on location, to make it as real as possible. I wanted to film in Scotland in winter, as I’ve got this idea that if you see a shot of someone up a hill on a horse and they look fucking freezing, it’ll be better if they are fucking freezing. For Channing Tatum as a Roman that works, because the story is about breaking him down. By the end, we’d been in Scotland for four weeks and he was miserable, wet and weak. He had an accident on set, during a scene in a river. They were supposed to pour warm water down his wetsuit and someone forgot to check the temperature and poured boiling water down him. He burned his chest and balls, it all gathered in his crotch… That was pretty bad! It all added to his misery, he was a shadow of his former self – this big, pumped-up American guy, destroyed. ‘But it was appropriate for the film. He accused me of having done it deliberately, in a Herzog kind of way!’

Your next movie, ‘Life in a Day’, opens in May. How much YouTube footage did you sit through?
‘I only watched about 200 hours. There were 4,500 hours of material, so researchers watched everything, then put it in a database and gave it a rating. They rated everything from 1 to 5, or 6 for so bad it’s good, and I watched the 4s, 5s and 6s.’

And your next project is a documentary about Bob Marley...
‘I was going to do a documentary about six years ago following a group of Rastas to a concert in Ethiopia. It didn’t happen, but it got me interested in Marley’s significance beyond being the most popular musician with students who like to get stoned. You can go to places in Africa and Asia and find Marley graffiti. In the slums of Nairobi, you see his lyrics painted on walls, and you realise he has this almost religious significance to the underclass of the world. He’s a guy born in a hut with no bed and now he’s probably the most listened-to artist in the world. It’s fascinating.’

Read our review of 'The Eagle' here



Author: Interview: Tom Huddleston



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