Duncan Kenworthy interview: The Eagle, 12A violence, flying blood and the British film industry

Ahead of the release of The Eagle, Nick caught up with producer Duncan Kenworthy to discuss the casting and making of the film.

WARNING: A portion of this interview mentions a few plot points from The Eagle. If you want to watch the movie completely cold, you may prefer to check back later…Duncan Kenworthy is surely one of the most important figures in British film over the last two decades. As a producer, he is responsible for Four Weddings And A Funeral, Notting Hill and Love, Actually, films which, whatever your personal opinion on them might be, are undisputedly heavyweight British success stories.

His geek credentials are also impeccable, having started his career with the Henson Company, and working on such classics as Fraggle Rock and The Dark Crystal.

Following a break from producing for eight years (in which he passed the time by chairing BAFTA) he has now returned with The Eagle, a passion project adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle Of The Ninth.

Ahead of The Eagle’s release, we were invited to a Hampshire town to enjoy a Roman Experience day, where were immersed in the lifestyle of ancient Rome. We’ll be covering the rest of the experience in more detail tomorrow, but one of the highlights of our visit was the opportunity to sit with Duncan Kenworthy for an interview about his film…

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What led to the decision to have American actors play the Roman roles?

It would have been hard for us to have English Romans and then English Celts, so it was a logical thing, and if it worked, well, it’s really up to you to answer that. There may be a resistance to the idea. There is a convention, and whenever you break a convention there’s always a danger it won’t work, but I think we’re pretty firm about why we did it.

Do you think the American audience will like being associated with the Roman Empire?

I don’t think people look in the mirror and see themselves quite how other people see them. But I think there’s a convention, maybe, there that’s even stronger than here that Romans are always played by Brits and that there’s a resistance on some level to that. It takes a bit of getting used to, but hopefully you can see it works.

What’s the core appeal of Rosemary Sutcliff’s original book? Why did you choose that to make, rather than an original story?

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Because we fell in love with it, and both Kevin and I are passionate about it. If somebody said, “Make Gladiator 2” it wouldn’t have been this. This speaks to us in a different way than, say, 300. It’s not a big stylish action film. It’s, hopefully, got a bit more depth, although it’s quite a simple story.

But I think, through that, is a sort of negative buddy movie, and through that relationship you get some interesting things, and although, of course, it doesn’t feel tense to me now, people have come up to me and said, “God it feels very tense.” And I think there’s something very exciting about the issues it explores, which Rosemary’s books do a lot, and she set them at the point of transformation with many Romans becoming English, and the native people being killed and then expecting to accept the Romans into their country. How can you be loyal to someone whose soldiers killed your family?

So, we wanted to show both sides, and by the end, Marcus is questioning his values. But the short answer is we both love the story!

When did you first acquire the rights?

A long time ago, although I have been doing other things in the meantime. I think I acquired the rights in 1996. I called Oxford University Press and it had just been optioned by the BBC, so I had to wait another year, and I remember being on the phone at the end of that year at the Ritz Hotel where we were shooting Notting Hill asking about it, and I finally got the rights contracted in 2004.

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That’s when Kevin came to me and said, “You’ve got the rights to this book and I’ve always wanted to make it,” and I said no. He hadn’t made a feature and I didn’t have a script, and at that point I wanted to make a big film, but then realised about a year later that, actually, I wanted to make a small film. In which case, a documentary filmmaker would be the best person to do that.

Then, just as we got the screenplay to our satisfaction, he said, “This is happening faster than I thought. I’ve just committed to direct Brad Pitt in State Of Play.” This was February 2007, so I said un-commit but he said, “I think I have to do it. Will you wait for me?” And, of course, I said, “No, I’m not going to wait for you, that puts it back two years, and apart from anything else, you’ll be a different person after that experience and you might not want to do this film.”

But then I thought about other directors for a couple of weeks and then I thought, “Well, I’ve waited all these years, what’s another couple more?”

The film industry isn’t an industry, really. You have to have passion for your projects or there’s no point.

What was the thinking behind the level of violence? Did you decide to go for a 12A?

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The contract we made between us and the studio is that we’d let the story tell us. It’s not 300 and there’s no sort of joy in the violence, but you can’t make a Roman film without some level of violence. So, the beheadings and the slitting of the two boys’ throats are there.

We feel comfortable with this, and this cut you’ve just seen, which is a 12A, was viewed by the MPAA in the States and given a hard R. The studio was very, very keen to have a PG-13, so they made a few cuts.

The thing the MPAA don’t like, apparently, is flying blood, so blood moving through the air is a no-no for them. So, we cut out the flying blood and shortened one of the hanging bodies shots and you didn’t see the leg finally being chopped off in the chariot scene, a few things we were prepared to live with, although I’m not sure.

In retrospect, I think it’s a worse film for having cut those bits out. We don’t think of it particularly as a boys’ film, so I hope that girls will want to go see it as well.

With regards to casting, who was first cast?

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We cast Channing [Tatum] first. The studio always needs a level of marketing to reassure them in the film. In the book, Marcus is written as 18. In the script, we made him 24, as we thought nobody 18 is famous anymore. This was before Twilight!

Kevin went to LA and saw everybody, but he was really impressed with Channing’s intelligence and personal qualities, and his all-out commitment. You can tell whoever played that role had to be in it one hundred percent. It was tremendously hard to play, and I think you get a flavour of that. He’s the most wholehearted person you can imagine and amazingly talented.

So, we cast him and then looked for Esca [played by Jamie Bell]. We had to cast it like a romance, so we cast someone who was the opposite, someone who was small, rather than a big slave, who might have been interesting if Marcus had been younger.

Donald we had always thought of for his part [Uncle Aquila], and he does it with great dignity. And Mark Strong [Guern], well, every film has to have Mark Strong.

And I’m very excited about Tahar Rahim [Seal Prince], as this was his first film he chose to do after his big success in A Prophet. A really amazing guy and very different from both his parts. He’s the sweetest person you could ever meet, very French. In fact, when he arrived, I met him in the lobby of the hotel and I was trying to work out who he was, and there’s this guy who I thought can’t be him. He had a little David Copperfield hat, long hair and a big scarf, looking very French.

At first he didn’t want to kill the boy at the end, but then said he would do whatever the director asks. But then, about two weeks in, he came to me and said, “I’ve worked out how to do it. I’m going to kill him and then gently put him down into the water.” So, he’s clever about things like that.

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Going away from The Eagle and being someone who might know a thing or two, what’s your take on the British film industry post-Film Council?

Wow, you ask the big question at the end! I wouldn’t have dissolved the Film Council. It’s ironic that their last act was financing The King’s Speech, because nobody else would. So, that tells a story.

All of the Lottery finance is going to be carried forward, however. My issue with journalists used to be that, I swear, about seven or so years ago, editors used to say, “Bring me a story about the British Film Industry and the Lottery funding!”

Overall, I think it’s in a good place. It’s very hard to get money for films and that’s as it should be. It ensures the films that get made have some commerciality, and that somebody’s passionate about it. So, I think the quality of those that do get made is high.

We have amazing actors and really talented current BAFTA and Oscar nominees. It’s a great answer to people who said a year ago that studios were only going to make blockbusters films from now on. It’s always up and down, but you have to positive.

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Duncan Kenworthy, thank you very much.

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