Life During Wartime: Kevin Macdonald on How I Live Now

Kevin Macdonald’s latest fiction film is a darkly romantic drama about a group of young people surviving in war-torn Britain. The Touching The Void director talks about working with his young cast and imagining wartime from an askance teen perspective

Feature by Simon Bland | 06 Feb 2014

Director Kevin Macdonald is best known for crafting award-winning documentaries like 2003’s Touching The Void and 2012’s brilliant Bob Marley biopic Marley. His narrative work, however, has also had its successes, most notably The Last King of Scotland, which earned its lead actor Forest Whitaker an Oscar gold back in 2006. Macdonald returns to fiction for his new film How I Live Now, an adaptation of Meg Rosoff’s popular young adult novel of the same name. Combining charm and darkness, this sobering teen drama features Saoirse Ronan as a troubled American youth forced to come face-to-face with the stark realities of life when World War III breaks out during an idyllic summer she spends in rural England. We caught up with Macdonald to discuss the film's stark themes, the challenges of crafting a believable modern day wartime setting and his next movie, the submarine-based thriller Black Sea.

How I Live Now is a real loss of innocence, rites of passage movie that pulls few punches. How do you think post-Hunger Games young adult audiences reacted to it?

I think they felt that it was too dark, unfortunately. I felt people were probably more able to deal with the darkness than maybe they were, in a time when they probably want more reassurance. Possibly the resonance of this kind of story is too real for us at the moment. We live in an age of anxiety in general.

These darker qualities are similar to some of your documentary work – life isn’t black and white, good or bad. Is this what attracted you to Rosoff’s novel?

I thought it was a beautiful book, that was really what made me want to do it. I read the book and thought there was an unusual film in there. In particular I liked the idea of making a movie which, like the book, starts in one world – we feel it’s a conventional teen film or the type we’re familiar with about a troubled American girl who comes to England and falls in love and her troubles are going to fall away. Of course it is that but it’s very much more as well. I liked the idea of doing that – surprising an audience and taking them somewhere completely unexpected in the course of the story.

The film has two very distinct parts: golden-lit romance and gritty war movie. How did this affect life on set with the cast – was it hard for the actors to transition between the two moods?

I think the only way that it was a challenge was in terms of the dark aspects. Because of the weather we couldn't shoot in continuity – I had wanted to, for the sake of the younger actors, but that turned out not to be possible. We were always finding indoor stuff to do to get away from the rain, so sometimes we’d go in the morning and do something from the first part of the film that was very happy and fun, and then in the afternoon we’d have to do something really bleak and grim where people have died and horrible things have been seen. I think for the younger actress Harley Bird, who is wonderful but she’s very young, it was quite difficult to transition so quickly. Trying to get her to stop laughing and think ‘Your mother’s dead’ was quite tricky, but she’s such a brilliant young girl, she was so full of life and energy that trying to get her to calm down and be serious, to think about the consequences of the story, would have been difficult anyway but Saoirse [Ronan], she’s just a genius: she’s a wonderful actor and so she didn’t have any problem. She could switch from one emotional state to another instantly.

In saying that, I think it was probably the most fun I’ve ever had on a film shoot. We had a great time with a cast of young people who were just so brilliant and flexible and fun to be around. There was no ego, no nonsense that you get normally with actors in the cast and we had a great time. Most of the shoot we were living down in Wales around this farm where we shot a lot of the film and in the various villages and B&Bs and hotels and houses, and it was just quite an idyllic time.

“I liked the idea of doing that – surprising an audience and taking them somewhere completely unexpected in the course of the story” – Kevin Macdonald

Talking of Harley Bird, the last portion of the movie is just her and Saoirse Ronan. Was Saoirse a mentor to Harley while shooting that segment?

Very much so, yeah. She was really supportive of her and took her under her wing and gave her little pep talks, all very ‘Now we have to think about this Harley, stop messing around, stop playing with your toys’ or whatever she was doing, ‘Let’s be serious’. She was wonderful at that. She helped bring out what I think is a great performance from Harley, something that’s really difficult for a ten-year-old to do.

Was it hard to find Harley?

Well I had a great casting director, Nina Gold, who was wonderful and has worked on a lot of great movies. She searched high and low and came up with lots and lots of potential girls. By the time we found Harley it took a few months but to be honest the hardest thing was to find who was going to play the two leads. Originally I wanted them to be unknowns and wanted the Daisy character to be American. I looked in America for months and months and couldn’t find anyone who was right and it was only then that I realised, ‘OK, I have to not go for the real thing, I have to go for someone who’s just a great actor,’ and it was then when Saoirse stepped in to my life. She read the script and liked it and I was amazed. I wondered why I hadn’t thought of her right away,

It’s sobering how quickly things resort back to wartime conditions in the film. We’ve not seen many modern day visions of Britain at war on the big screen. Was it fun creating the look of that?

Yeah, obviously in some ways it’s harking back to the second world war, and the images and ideas and associations we have of that period. But also, of course, it’s not futuristic: it’s set in this kind of alternative version of the present. Everything around you is pretty much as it would be now except the situation – this war that breaks out. We didn’t want it to feel like a science fiction movie. If anything I would make the choice to go backwards in time in terms of props and set design, and obviously with the family themselves, who are living on this remote farm. They are this bohemian family who are probably stuck in the 1970s or 1980s, there aren’t many signs of the modern world there.

I read online that Saoirse Ronan’s dad plays a small role in the film – is that true?

Yes, at the end of the film two men are shot and the first one is her dad. He’s an actor, he’s done quite a lot of stuff. The conceit of the whole film has really been about Saoirse’s anger, the baby’s anger at the father and how bad a parent he is. At the end she shoots someone and actually in real life it’s her dad. I thought there was something quite nice about that.

You’ve just finished shooting submarine thriller Black Sea with Jude Law. How hard was it shooting in a confined space – you’re not claustrophobic are you?

It was very tricky. It’s basically filming in a corridor and within a few cupboards off the corridor. So it’s hard to move the camera, it’s hard to move the actors. Once you realise you’re missing a light everyone has to move out of the way and wait for the light to come in. Everything’s very slow and difficult, but it’s an amazing claustrophobic space. I think it’s one of the things that I love about submarine films is that claustrophobia: that thing that makes it hard to shoot actually, in the end, makes the whole thing really suspenseful and tense. You’ve got that constant threat of being somewhere you shouldn’t be, under the sea! And that any moment a leak’s going to spring and we’re going to go down and get stuck at the bottom of the sea. That in-built suspense is great.

From the archive:

Kevin Macdonald on The Eagle of the Ninth

How I Live Now is available on Blu-ray and DVD on 10 Feb from Entertainment One

Simon Bland: @SiTweetsToo