An Interview with 'Life in a Day' Director Kevin Macdonald
Read my interview with the Oscar-winning director below!
On February 6, 2021, Life in a Day 2020 premiered for free on YouTube. The documentary consists entirely of crowdsourced footage sent in by people all over the world, filmed on one day: July 25, 2020.
I'm Jonathan Sim, and I got the opportunity to speak with the director of this film. Kevin Macdonald is an Oscar-winning director who has previously directed films such as One Day in September, The Last King of Scotland, and Whitney. He is a very successful director, and here is the transcript of our interview.
Jonathan: What inspired you to make a sequel to Life in a Day?
Macdonald: We talked about making a sequel to the original film right from pretty much the time we made the first one because we enjoyed it so much, and it was such a kind of novel idea at the time. But, you know, as with a lot of things, you talk about it, and nobody ever does anything to make it happen. And then last year in March, Jack Arbuthnott, the producer, got in touch with me and said, "You know, we have to do it this year. This is the 10th anniversary. If you don't do it now, we'll never do it." And I said to him, "Yeah, but what about COVID? Isn't that going to make it very boring?"
Because COVID was quite new then and he said, "No, it's all going to be over by June. COVID is not going to be a problem." Little did we know that we'd be here almost a year later and still much, very much in the thick of it. So, yeah, it didn't start out being a film that was going to document the extraordinary year that 2020 was. But I think that's one of the things that it does.
You know, it's a discussion a lot about COVID in it, both kind of as a background presence, but also directly addressed. And there's also obviously a lot about the politics that's going on in the world; protests, BLM, all of these things are very much presences in the story of that day, the twenty-fifth of July 2020.
Jonathan: What was it like to work with Ridley Scott on the film?
Macdonald: Well, you know, Ridley is not really a documentary maker. I think he was involved in documentaries when he was like 19. He told me once he did, he came to New York, and he worked with Leacock and Pennebaker, who were the original direct cinema inventors, you know, but his career obviously went that in a totally different direction. And he makes films that are very far from documentary. But having said that, you know, he loved the first film and he is a real fan of the sequel, too.
And he watches cuts. He sends you notes, and he helped a great deal just by doing a callout on YouTube to encourage people to take part. So he's a kind of godfather to the whole thing.
Jonathan: Well, that's wonderful. All right, now, what do you hope that audiences pick up from watching Life in a Day 2020?
Macdonald: I think that people will, first of all, be amazed by the diversity of this film. It covers pretty much the whole globe. There are 192 countries [that] sent in material. There are little babies through to ancient old people. It's pretty much all human life is there. And that's what's amazing about it. And you see things that you would never see normally in a documentary. You see somebody splitting up from their partner live on the camera. You see somebody proposing to their girlfriend, and they get rejected by their girlfriend. You see people dealing with the death of loved ones because of COVID.
It's, you know, it's the breadth of the experience that takes in and the range of the places you go. You know, within the first 30 seconds, you're in Mongolia, Outer Mongolia, with a family milking their cows at dawn, then you're in Indonesia with a transgender woman. Then you're in Nigeria in a hospital. You know, it's just like bam, bam, you're all around the world.
And there's something sort of just jaw-dropping with that. It makes you feel, "Wow, everybody in the world is kind of the same." You know, the things that seem to separate us are actually pretty minor in the background. It's the similarities that you really see.
Jonathan: Yeah, one of my favorite things about this documentary and the first one is how it just shows this incredible range of human experiences, how we all feel so similar and relatable, like in the long run. And I mean, like many people, they are just starting out in the film industry. And from the perspective of someone who had some success like you, what advice would you give to filmmakers and documentarians who are just beginning their journey?
Macdonald: Well, I think probably the best advice you can give to people is not to pay too much attention to the rules. You know, it's novelty that really counts. It's doing something different. It's surprising people, telling a different kind of story, telling a story that hasn't been told before. You know, people can get hung up on technique.
And ultimately, technique is not the most important thing. It's having something to say and saying something new.
Jonathan: And I'd say that you have definitely outdone yourself with that and especially for this movie. Now, according to my top-secret confidential sources, which are definitely not Wikipedia, you have another movie coming out soon called The Mauritanian. Tell us a little bit about that.
Macdonald: So that's a very different movie. That's a feature film which I shot last year in South Africa and in Mauritania. Mauritania, for those of you who don't know, which is almost everyone, Mauritania is the fifth largest country in Africa. It comprises a large portion of the Sahara Desert. It's below Morocco and above Senegal. And this is the story of a man from there who was sent to Guantanamo Bay. He was kidnapped by the American government and taken to Guantanamo and spent 14 years there, not charged with any crimes.
And it's the story of how he survives. And he's an extraordinary guy. The real man is an extraordinary, beautiful human being. And the character is played by Tahar Rahim, who's a French Algerian actor, who some of you might know from the wonderful Jacques Audiard film, A Prophet. And it also features Jodie Foster, the legend of the screen that is Jodie Foster, doing her first movie in quite a while, playing his defense lawyer, and the unsurpassable Benedict Cumberbatch as the prosecution lawyer.
And Shailene Woodley, who is just the most beautiful human being as another lawyer. And so it's a star-studded cast, and it's a really beautiful and moving film about a subject that is quite tricky. But I think it's handled in a way [that] is very personal and very, very human. And it will leave you with a smile on your face.
Jonathan: Well, I'm excited to see it now, but out of everything in your filmography, do you have a favorite movie that you have directed and why?
Macdonald: Well, it's probably The Mauritanian. I think it's maybe not going to be to everyone's taste, but I think it's the best one that I've made and the one I'm proudest of particularly because it was a very hard film to get together. And the cast [is] superlative. You know, they really are extraordinarily good in the movie. So, yeah, that's probably it.
And, you know, most directors feel like me, you know, you feel like, you know, you don't really want to look back at your old work and stuff. And when you do, you're a bit embarrassed by it. But in this instance, this film that I've just made, I urge everyone to watch it.
Jonathan: OK, and, well, I want to ask, do you have a favorite movie of all time?
Macdonald: Well, that's one of the hardest questions ever. Well, I have a personal connection to a movie that is certainly one of my favorite movies, which is, I don't know if you've heard of Powell and Pressburger, who were a pair of British filmmakers from the 1940s and 50s. And they made films which are sort of regarded as classics, Matter of Life and Death, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Red Shoes, which is a film about ballet.
And they are Martin Scorsese's favorite filmmakers, and my grandfather was one of them. And so there's a film of theirs called The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which to me is certainly the best British film ever made and certainly one of the greatest films, full stop. And I look at it with awe and think, "Wow, I'll never live up to that.
Jonathan: Wow. I mean, I'll be looking that up right after this interview.
Macdonald: Great. Really nice to talk to you.
And that was our interview! If you would like to see the rest of the interview when I showed him a magic trick, watch the video below:
Macdonald's next film, The Mauritanian, comes out on February 12, 2021, and if you would like to watch the newly released Life in a Day 2020, you can watch it below or click here for my review of the film.