Exclusive: Interview with How I Live Now Director Kevin Macdonald

We sit down with director Kevin Macdonald, of such previous films as The Last King of Scotland and State of Play, to discuss his new young adult dystopian Saoirse Ronan starrer, How I Live Now.

Scottish director Kevin Macdonald’s latest film is How I Live Now, based on the 2004 novel by Meg RosoffHow I Live Now stars Saoirse Ronan (Hanna) as Daisy, a rebellious New York teenager who is sent to live with her British cousins at their pastoral country home, where she falls for her eldest cousin Edmond (George MacKay). But when an unknown enemy detonates a nuclear weapon in London, the family is plunged into a harrowing nightmare of war that separates the young couple and forces Daisy to become an adult. Macdonald is a tough filmmaker to categorize. He started out making documentaries about other directors – Howard Hawks, Donald Cammell – and moved into narrative features with 2006’s The Last King of Scotland, a fictional account of a doctor (James McAvoy) who becomes the personal physician of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker, who won an Oscar for the role). Since then he has continued to switch back and forth, alternating fictional features like State of Play and The Eagle with docs like Marley and Life in a Day. With How I Live Now, he brings a harder edge than usual to the much-maligned young adult genre, creating a truly terrifying war scenario against which his characters can explore their changing emotions. We spoke with Macdonald about bringing this story to the screen. Den of Geek: What drew you immediately to this when you read this book and what were the things that stood out for you? Kevin Macdonald: Well, I don’t read many young adult books. They just sent it – my producer friend who was making it with another director at the time just said, “This is a great book. You should read it.” And it seemed to me to be very original and very sweet and very moving and beautifully written. And had a kind of honesty about what it’s like to be a teenager that I don’t see represented much in mainstream film – you know, mainstream young adult films. And I liked the fact that they’re cousins and they have this relationship and I felt like I remembered having a cousin who I fancied. And I think when you’re a teenager and you’re trying things out and you’re experimenting and finding your sexuality and all this, you know, you think about this. I also liked the fact that it was quite brutal about the war and it actually starts off as this rather lovely pastoral world and then becomes something very different. All those things made it feel very original to me. And I liked the voice of Daisy a lot and that was actually one of the hard things about adapting this book, was finding that voice in a different way in the character, you know, because the book is written in the first person. Trying to somehow dramatize that and make it external in the film. Were the voiceovers – all the interior monologue that Saoirse’s character “hears” in her head – an element adapted in some way from the book? Yeah, there are two reasons to have that. One is that in the book there’s much more made of the fact that Edmond has some sort of preternatural kind of psychic ability and understands what she’s thinking – and when they’re separated that she’s trying to connect with him in some way. I didn’t want to make that into a big, big theme of the film but obviously it’s there in some way and I wanted for us, the audience, to be able to hear what he’s hearing – that he senses the kind of confusion inside her. And that confusion comes and is quelled by his presence and by the countryside and by the love of this family and this environment she finds herself in. And those voices calm down and she becomes still and I guess it’s part of figuring out who she is and finding contentment. What I didn’t know was how to do it. We experimented a lot in post-production to try and figure out different techniques, whether it be actual voices or whether it be noises or whether it be her voice or other people’s voices or, you know, how that would work. Were there a lot of things that had to be changed going from book to screen? Yeah, it’s quite different. In the book there’s another brother, an older brother who’s there. But because Saoirse and George are a little bit older than the characters as described, it didn’t feel right to have an older brother so I took that brother out. There are differences in the journey home and various things. But I think it’s true to the spirit of the book and the author, Meg Rosoff, has been very supportive of the film and is very sort of, I think, mature about the changes that we’ve made. I think as a writer you probably have to be, otherwise you’re condemned to feel embittered about the fact that somebody’s ruined your book. But she’s been very supportive of it and on some of the changes she said to me, “Oh I wish I’d thought of that when I did it.” Some of the structural things that we did – she wished she’d thought of that when she was writing the book.
 If you tried to pitch this story of a teen romance combined with an apocalyptic dystopian future type of horror fable to a major studio… They would say, “Are you crazy?” But the fact that it’s a young adult book and that seems to be all the rage now, did that help get it made? Yes. The book was a rare thing in publishing where in Britain, at any rate, it was read by adults as well as by kids. Girls would read it and then their mothers and fathers would read it. And they actually brought out an adult edition of it – with an adult cover that you didn’t have to be embarrassed about being seen reading on the tube. And I think that that’s maybe the same with this. You know, it’s edgier. It’s more challenging than your average teenage film. And I’m not kidding myself that it’s going to be challenging Hunger Games for box office. But I hope that we underestimate the hunger for interesting things amongst the teenage audience and getting away from kind of the normal escapism and fantasy. The look of the film changes gradually. The early scenes are shot in a way that’s somewhat still idyllic. And then the war kinds of creeps around the edges and begins closing in on them. How did you want to approach that? I always thought that for the early part of the film I wanted the camera to feel like it was very free and was capturing the sort of spontaneous moments of the kids enjoying themselves. We used old lenses from the 1970s to create, I guess, a more organic feel. Then in the second half that seeps away and it becomes a much colder, bleaker look. We drained out some of the color and used much sharper lenses. We put the camera on dollies and trip cranes and sticks. It’s more objective, more choreographed. It’s separate from the characters. It creates a more alienating world. And that, I thought, is a more interesting way to go than the normal way that people do warfare – you know, start shaking the camera. The feeling that I wanted to have was that somehow the world was a colder stranger more bleaker place.