Kevin Macdonald: Life in a Day
The Scottish filmmaker speaks to FILMINK about his latest film, 'Life in a Day', a cinematic experiment which attempts to tell the story of a day on Earth.
Last year, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott and Kevin Macdonald asked amateur filmmakers from around the world to capture something about their lives on July 24 and upload it to YouTube with the aim of creating a unique snapshot of a day on Earth. Receiving more than 80,000 clips and 4,500 hours of footage, the task of finding a narrative in this mix fell to Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald who has moved effortlessly between documentary work (One Day in September, Touching The Void) to acclaimed dramas (State of Play, The Last King of Scotland). It seemed an overwhelming challenge, but one that the lovely Scot was more than up for...
Can I ask why Ridley and Tony Scott approached you with the project?
Actually, one of their producers approached me and they themselves, Ridley and Tony, had been approached by YouTube who asked them, ‘Did you want to get involved with a film, using YouTube in some way?' and they felt that that was an interesting idea. Then I worked with the producer and Ridley to work out the concept and we quickly realised that it couldn't be a totally English film. We wanted to make a film that was representative of the whole world and not everyone in the world has access to a camera, a computer or the internet, so that's when we decided to send out little cameras to all corners of the globe.
How did the logistics of that work out and how did people in those countries respond to the project?
YouTube gave us money to buy 400 cameras, which we sent out into the developing world through various organisations, but in hindsight we probably should have sent a teacher with those cameras. The response was interesting though. The people who received the cameras have never seen a documentary before or even been asked their opinion. All of us in the west have this narcissistic idea that everything we say and do is fascinating and that our opinions are so important, but if you're a peasant in China or a villager in India, the idea that your opinions are of interest to anyone outside is amazing.
Was the majority of the footage from the western world?
The majority of the footage that we got came from Canada and the US. I think that's what you'd expect because there's more YouTube and amateur filmmakers there. We weirdly didn't get much from England or France. We got a lot from Russia and India. We tried to get films that are fairly representative of the world, but there's no doubt that Americans are over-represented in the film, because there's more good stuff from them. And in the end my job was to make a good film, not one that was totally balanced in that regard.
You received thousands of hours of footage! Why do you think this concept resonated with people?
I put out a message on our YouTube channel and one of the things I said was, ‘We don't want you acting cool. We don't want you making a beautiful but empty film. What's going to be interesting is if you're really intimate and honest'. Those were the two words: intimate and honest. That was then what I was looking for in the footage that I got - clips that really really got inside people's minds because that's what's so fascinating about this style of filming.
Did you have a certain approach or vision from the outset and were there any particular traps that you were wary about falling into?
I deliberately had no vision. It was really just about responding to what was in there and letting it build up organically. We just sat down and watched events in every country and territory, we watched things in different languages, we watched everything, and cut the material down to the best 350 hours of stuff. As I watched it, I thought, ‘Oh that looks interesting' or ‘There's a theme recurring'. Often lots of people would talk about inequality or illness. Certain subject matters came up, but also great characters or great stories that could be pillars for the film and you then start structuring the film around them.
Can you explain the motivation behind your decision not to name the places in the doco? Was it ever a consideration that you would?
At one stage we were going to do that and then we tried it out and it seemed very counter- productive. You saw the names up there and the movie became more an exercise in saying ‘We travelled all around the world and got all this material.' It was like National Geographic! What was more important was saying, ‘Well this could be anywhere'. That's what makes it unifying and that's what makes you feel connected.
Technology's criticised for often making us alienated and alone, but this is a great example of how it can be used as a unifying force. Do you have ambivalent feelings towards technology?
Like a lot of people, I hear about the really negative things about the internet like piracy and pornography and child abuse... Where am I going with this? [Laughs] No, but what you will see in this is the sense of community that can be created on the internet. Everybody who has contributed has spent a lot of time thinking about what they were going to film and upload. They weren't being paid for it. That generosity was really eye-opening actually. But the internet is also great in the way that it's democratising filming and the voices that you're going to hear. We're not used to hearing people from as diverse a selection of backgrounds as in this film, and it's only through the power of internet that you can achieve that.
Was there anything that this film taught you about humanity?
It's a cliché, but the notion that we're all the same was refreshed for me. We all love our children, we all go through the same basic sequences, we know that we're either going to get ill or we're going to die. They're the building blocks of life. The differences between us all are actually much more superficial, and not as important as the things that we have in common.
In comparison to the studio films you've done, do you find documentaries more satisfying with regard to having more control over the process and the product?
Yes, especially with this film. This was such an extraordinary experience for me because I had complete and utter complete control over it. It was a sponsored film so there's nobody wanting to get their money back from it and there's no commercial pressure. Even if you make a small documentary film, there's still half a million dollars of somebody's money, but with this, there's no pressure at all and nobody to tell you that you should be doing more of this or more of that. It was a really fun thing to do and a great opportunity to do something so different.
Finally, can I ask how the Bob Marley documentary is going and how that got started?
I was going to do a Bob Marley documentary about six or seven years ago, around the time I was going to do Last King of Scotland. I was approached by a company that were helping to organise a concert in Ethiopia to celebrate what would have been Bob's 60th birthday. The person who was organising it was going to fly over some Jamaicans to the event and I was going to follow them and record their experiences to ‘the promised land', but it didn't happen. But I did a bit of research and got very interested. I went to Uganda and in the slum areas, there were all these people taking Bob's music very seriously and treating him as a philosopher and a prophet. That was so interesting. The more I thought about it, the more I started to realise this connection to Bob Marley was everywhere in the world, especially in the developing world. He was almost a third world superstar. All these things got me interested, and now here I am, having almost finished the doco.
Life in a Day is released September 1.