Eagle, The: Interview with Director Kevin MacDonald

The historical epic The Eagle, directed by Kevin MacDonald, will be released by Focus Features on February 11.

On the Novel:

“I read the novel when I was about 12 years old and was absolutely held by it. There was something about the atmosphere on the edge, and the way in which these cultures met – the Celtic, the British, and the Roman Empire – that stuck with me. The book fed my love of history, and now I felt I could tell it on film in a way that did justice to it and depict incredible worlds of 2,000 years ago.”

On the Story:

“The story is also about friendship; the lead characters are two people from different cultures who don’t understand each other and who see the world in different ways, and who must move beyond that to see each other as human beings.”

“The Eagle explores a specific part of history that has rarely been seen on the big screen before. Movie audiences haven’t much seen these people, these cultures, and these landscapes. Speaking of which, Black Robe is one film that influenced my concepts for making The Eagle.”

“There is a convention in Roman Empire films that the Romans be played by Brits, and the Americans play the slaves or freedom fighters. In the 1940s and 1950s, Britain itself was more of an empire so that was likely a factor, but nowadays it made far more sense to have Americans playing the Romans because America is the empire of today.

“Through Marcus and Esca, The Eagle addresses the extent of an empire; how far can you conquer a people, and how far you can conquer individuals and change their culture? So there are certainly parallels with world events in the 21st Century; you’re always looking at the past through your present.”

“The major change that we made from the book was in making the Marcus/Esca relationship more complicated and fractious; who is the master and who is in control at any one point in the story changes all the time.”

On the Screenplay:

“While Jeremy [Brock] has many great qualities as a writer, what’s particularly important is that he understands that characters need not be sympathetic all the time. To me, the more interesting movies are those that have ambivalent characters who can morally cross a line but still keep the audience on their side; Jeremy brings out in The Eagle the tremendous complexity between the two main characters, a friendship that is very hard-won. Marcus and Esca have to go through a lot – physically and emotionally.”

“[He] immediately saw the potential for an exciting and entertaining ‘quest movie’ that would also provide the opportunity to explore friendship, rites of passage, and the clash of cultures.”

On the Crew:

“On this movie, I wanted to work with key members from The Last King of Scotland production. For one, the individuality of Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography and his huge energy have made him world-renowned – and an Oscar winner [for Slumdog Millionaire].”

On Filming:

“Scotland is actually more impressive in the fall than in the summer, when the landscape is overly lush and green. With the leaves coming off the trees and everything going brown, we’d be able to capture the texture of the moss and the stones.”

On Costumes:

“[Our goal is to] reinvent Roman uniforms; Michael [O’Connor – Costume Designer] and his team managed to bring both authenticity and an individual flair specific to our story.”

On Sets:

“[Another goal is] that our sets feel real, and unlike the cliché of what Rome ‘should’ be on film. To that end, [production designer] Michael Carlin and his unit did incredible work.”

“[The Seal People are a] totally detached, uncivilized, remote tribe living in Scotland 2000 years ago. So everyone had to be inventive when it came to anything to do with the tribe, from actors to costumers.”

“Coming from a documentary background, I know that what’s real is usually more complex than people expect. Using something realistic as a foundation, I can then expand on it for dramatic purposes.”

On Casting:

“We had to think at all times in terms of two people, not just one. For a romantic comedy, you can’t cast one person in isolation and then find just another as a match – you need to take the chemistry between them into account. It was the same here.”

“It was important to me that these two young men look completely different and be culturally different. The aim was to cast a true Celt to play Esca. It just so happened that Jamie Bell is from the same part of northern England that the character is from; Esca’s tribe, the Brigantes, hails from the Sunderland area, which is where Jamie grew up.”
“Channing and Jamie were committed and enthusiastic, and came prepared. That was a godsend, but what we couldn’t plan for is how well they got on; they became good pals. Right from the beginning, they steeped themselves in the period and their characters, and wanted to do all their own stunts.”

“Channing has played soldiers before, in American films, so he well understands the military mentality and has a lot of sympathy for these men. What Marcus wants to do is prove that he is a better Roman soldier than anyone, or than anyone expects. When he can no longer do that, he still has the drive to prove that his father was not a coward and was in fact a great solider. Channing creates such empathy that the audience will go with him on Marcus’ journey of rediscovery and of renewal.”

“Mark is an actor I have always admired. He often plays villainous characters but I recognized a sensitivity in him. Guern has carried a shame with him for 20 years, and realizes that he can now no longer run from his past.”