Kevin Macdonald has an Oscar at home. It’s well deserved, won for the excellent documentary One Day In September. After making his name in the documentary world, Macdonald moved on to narrative features; he made The Last King of Scotland, which won Forest Whitaker an Oscar. After that came State of Play, an adaptation of the British TV miniseries, which didn’t win anybody any Oscars, but is a good middle of the road thriller.
Now Macdonald is going for more of an action vibe. His new film, The Eagle, which opens this weekend, stars Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell; Tatum is a Roman soldier whose father led the Ninth Legion into defeat; he wishes to regain his family’s honor. Bell is a British slave whose life Tatum saves.
This mismatched odd couple goes north of Hadrian’s Wall into savage Britain to recover the standard of the Ninth Legion. The Ninth disappeared in the north of Britain, a major blow to the Roman psyche. Sort of like Vietnam. Or Iraq.
When I talked to Macdonald recently the modern context of the movie was very much on my mind, as well as his. This is what we talked about:
Coming from a documentary background, how important is historical accuracy for you when making a period film like this?
The appearance of reality is important, I think. If the audience starts feeling like that couldn’t happen or what that guy is wearing doesn’t feel right, it takes you out of the movie. If you’re doing Prince of Persia it doesn’t matter; it’s a fantastical amalgam of bits of the past and fantasy all thrown in there. My interest in doing the film is to make it feel as if this was what it was like. To put you there, on the ground, to not use CG - or when we used CG to make it invisible. It’s a different take on the sword and sandals genre. Sword and sandals these days seems to be where the classical world is an excuse for massive scale fantasy and massive CG. I wanted to do something that was more of an intimate adventure film, and more real. We’ll see if the people who grew up on the massive adventure films of the past few years will think this feels fresh or if it feels boring. l don’t know!
Something you do in this film is have people talk with modern accents. That almost never happens in period films; I can remember back to people complaining about it when Scorsese had everybody talk like New Yorkers in The Last Temptation of Christ. As we all know in ancient history everybody had a British accent.
I had a very funny test screening in England, and in the focus group a guy said, ‘It feels anachronistic.’ He was asked what was anachronistic and he said ‘Those accents! They’re anachronistic!’ Would it have been less anachronistic if they spoke in English accents? I wouldn’t put myself in the same universe as Scorsese, but the same way that he wanted to make Christ’s story more immediate and contemporary, in this in order to make it feel like it has some kind of resonance of today - to see Channing as an American soldier, as a Marine - it makes you see Rome in a new, fresh way. You may not realize it while you’re watching the movie, but hopefully it impacts you and, contrary to what some may think, makes it feel more real.
Again, the appearance of reality is important. They didn’t speak like that, the story is a fiction. When we go north of the border into Scotland we tried hard to use historical evidence for what they looked like, what they wore, how they fought, but there’s so little. A little bit in Tacitus, perhaps, a little bit here and there to tell you what people looked like in Scotland at that time. And a little bit of archaeological evidence - but very little.
You mentioned that Channing Tatum in this is meant to evoke an American Marine. In recent years there’s been a resurgence of cinematic interest in the 9th Legion. Centurion, The Last Legion - is that a direct response to Iraq and Afghanistan?
I don’t know if it’s a direct response. Like a lot of things you can’t really tell why something is part of the zeitgeist. You can rationalize it - maybe wrongly - by saying that the West is engaged in imperialism. We’re occupying countries, and one way or another that makes it a war of occupation, which has a parallel with Rome - a nation that steamrolled over cultures, tried to install their own culture in nations and some resisted and fought back. You’d have to be blind not to see some similarity. It wasn’t what I was thinking about when I was making the movie, but maybe subconsciously, unconsciously that’s part of what makes it feel resonant and interesting to me. And hopefully to audience.
This is your first film with major action. That first action scene in the beginning, the assault on the fort, is very big. Did that come naturally to you or was it something you had to really work on?
The approach that I took was that I didn’t have huge resources to make the film, so I thought if you could make it visceral, make you feel like you’re there, that’s something I could do on my budget. But I was also interested in making it like a documentary. Here’s some strategy and let’s use it to examine why the Romans nearly always won. It’s because they had superior technology of warfare. In those days it meant they had the best swords, the best shields, but most of all they had superior strategy. And hopefully early in the movie you see that superior strategy of the Romans, how they fall into formation and go out into the savages who are completely disorganized. There are many more of them, but they’re very disorganized. The Romans are like a tank rolling through a Vietnamese village. You’ve got a disjunction of levels of fighting know-how. They are so much more advanced than the people they are fighting against.
Your lead is Channing Tatum, who is an interesting choice because his career has very much gone between big, glossy action films and weepies, with a few grittier digressions along the way. What is it that you saw in him?
I think it’s the fact that he’s unexpected in the role. That’s always a risk - will people accept seeing an actor cast against type, will they think it’s interesting? Or will they think, ‘I don’t want to see that guy in that kind of movie?’ We’ll wait and see. But for me it’s because he’s played a lot of soldiers, and to me he’s the representation of the clean-cut, all-American, butch kind of guy. The parallel is there with Marcus [his character]; Marcus is very straight-forward, he’s a soldier and he wants to be good at it, he wants to regain the honor of his family by being the best soldier there ever was. No one can ever again whisper that his father lost the standard of the 9th Legion because he’s going to be so fucking good. When he loses that, I said to Channing ‘Imagine if you’re the high school football star and everyone loves you… then you break your leg and can never play again. How do you realign your personality and character to cope with that and be somebody new? How do you have the strength to project a new personality to the world? That’s what you have to do in this film.’
For me the center of the story is the two characters, Jamie and he and how they hate each other to begin with; they’re an odd couple - distrustful and resentful of each other and make a friendship out of that. It’s your classic bromance! But it was important that they be an odd couple, that they be as far apart as possible. You have Channing being big, physically adept, athletic, very American in every respect. Jamie, from Northern England, small, wily, feral, a lot going on in here [points at head]. The two of them are very different and represent two different cultures.
The buddy aspect of the film - the opening is Channing, but the rest is very much a buddy story - how do you cast that relationship?
It’s very much like casting a romantic comedy. The physical side of it is important. If you have two guys who look like Channing or two guys who look like Jamie it won’t work. You need to have a sense of great difference between them, but also something where they get on. I cast Channing first and then that made me think who could be a good contrast. I met Jamie, and he and Channing had been up for a couple of movies together - the Kimberly Peirce film, Stop-Loss, which Channing was in and Jamie ended up not being in, and they read together. Jamie liked Channing but thought he was so American, so different. He did think, ‘There’s something about this guy I like, we go drinking together, but I don’t get him.’ And that seemed right. They get on. They’re friends now. You can’t fake that.
This an adaptation of a Rosemary Sutcliff novel that’s pretty well known in the UK but not well known in America. I’m assuming that’s why the name was changed and that in the UK it will remain The Eagle of the Ninth?
No, it’s not. I’m disappointed that it’s not. I’m afraid it’s to do with corporate decisions. Once it’s been made here it’s difficult for them in the UK to change all the marketing. I was happy to have it changed here, it didn’t matter, but I was hoping for the original name in the UK.
It’s the start of a series, and it’s an unusual series in that it spans generations and follows that ring which is recovered in this film. Is that something you thought about? The film ends with a very open-ended, what’s the next adventure, feel to it.
I have no interest in making a sequel. This is the best of the books; the other ones I didn’t read as a kid, I read them more recently to see what happens. What she’s done is made a series of books about the edge of the Roman Empire, the end of the Roman Empire. The next book is about the time when Britain had its own emperor but still has a Roman army. The next one is after Rome has left Britain, which a fascinating time - I’d love to make a movie about that period - the last legion has gotten on a boat and left. It’s like what will happen when Obama pulls everybody out of Afghanistan. You’ve got a vacuum of power and do you carry on being Roman? The Roman British living in villas, do they go on like that? How do you maintain security? Of course they didn’t - it fell apart very rapidly, in a few years! She’s very interested in this not being a part of Rome but being on the edge.