Life in a Day: Interview with Kevin Macdonald

Director Kevin Macdonald is no stranger to unique and challenging documentaries with award-winning works such as “One Day in September,” which won the 2000 Oscar. 

Although Macdonald has since directed feature films, his footprint continues to gravitate towards real life experiences—“The Last King of Scotland,” although fictional, profiled the life of Uganda’s military dictator Idi Amin with an Oscar winning performance by Forest Whitaker.

He stays: “Life in a Day” was a wonderful opportunity to hear the voices of ordinary people describing the world as they see it, telling us their fears and loves.  I always knew this would say something fascinating about who were are as a species and what we value – but I never realised how emotionally affecting the result would be.”

Ground Rules

The agreement between the producers Scott Free UK, their partners YouTube and the director was that the film would be confined to a single day, running from midnight to midnight.  The date was decided on fairly quickly.  It was a date after the World Cup, but early enough in the summer not to lose too many contributors to their holidays. The date, 24 July, was also a Saturday – a day when it was felt many people could devote more time to the project.  What the team didn’t account for was that the date was also a full moon.

Clips of the Moon

“We literally got hundreds of clips of the moon,” says Macdonald.  “So it evidently seemed the most natural place to start – at midnight, with a full moon seen from a dozen different perspectives around the globe.”

The time limitation of 24 hours did not hamper the creative process for Macdonald.  “You have always got to have limitations,” he says with a smile.  “We could have said, “Oh, what’s it’s like to be alive in 2010″ and collected footage over the space of a year. But, apart from the impossible quantity of footage we would have got, the film wouldn’t have had the same sense of magic that is given to it by knowing this was more or less all happening at the same time all over the planet!  That idea induces a bit of awe – for me anyway.”

Structuring the Concept


The resulting influx of contributions amounted to more than 80,000 submissions–totaling about 4,500 hours.  All of these submissions had to be viewed, categorized and filed for possible consideration by the team.  A small team of dedicated researchers-viewers, many of whom were film students, poured over the mass of footage whilst Macdonald, his editor Joe Walker and the production team begin structuring the concept of how to use all this footage to take the audience on a cohesive journey.

Order to the Chaos of Life


“By their very nature many documentaries are exercises on giving order to the chaos of real life–in the same way as a journalist has to chose and order his facts to write a newspaper article, so a film-maker has to give a documentary narrative and thematic cohesion.  In this instance there was more chaos than usual.  My attitude, however, was always: what is this material trying to tell me?  What are the collective themes and preoccupations that the contributors are pointing me towards?  In other words, I tried to remain as open-minded as I could – not bring too many of my own pre-conceptions to bear on what I saw.”

Looking for Patterns


“That’s maybe what gives me the most pleasure about making documentaries,” Macdonald continues.  “We can revel in the chaos of it and look for order, patterns.  All of our experiences in life – when we walk down the street and have children and all these things we do–is kind of chaotic and random.  But we are always trying to give meaning to it.”

Macdonald had very little idea of the scope of footage he would be sent.  When the project was announced, it was hoped that the team would be able to pull together enough material to fill a full-length documentary.  The message to contributors was simple – “Tell us your story, tell us what you fear and show us what you have in your pockets.”  By creating this basic framework, Macdonald hoped to steer people towards certain patterns of response that could be compared and contrasted.

Provocative Discussions

“I suppose the questions helped to provoke certain discussions,” says editor Joe Walker.”  Our attitude to possessions, say.  It offered us wonderful ‘time capsule’ material.”

“More than anything, I wanted to get honesty,” Macdonald admits.  “I wanted to get people to give me a little insight into their lives and that could be, on the surface, seemingly banal – it could be their journey to work in the morning.  Obviously, maybe one of those journeys is banal, but a hundred of them intercut showing all the different commuters, all the different pedestrians, all the different modes of transport from bicycles to foot to trains to chauffeur driven cars…  suddenly becomes really fascinating.”

Banal and Cultural Relativism

“What we might see as banal, living in our own culture, is not banal to somebody growing up in Dakar.  And likewise what seems banal now to somebody in Shanghai, is probably not banal to somebody in Colorado.”

The team was also keen to receive material that wasn’t just about the process of living and special happy moments to contribute.  They were looking for emotion, disquiet, opinion and exclamation.

The concept of taking a project like this, which is global, is not new, but the medium on which the elements are laid out – the Internet, and in particular, YouTube – is certainly groundbreaking.  

Internet and Connectedness


“I think that the Internet is a great metaphor for and a creator of connectedness,” offers Macdonald.    “The film is doing something that wouldn’t have been possible pre-Internet, specifically pre-YouTube.  The idea that you can ask thousands, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people all to contribute to a project and all to communicate about it and learn about it at the same time belongs essentially to this age that we live in.  Life in a Day couldn’t have existed 100 years ago, 20 years ago even 6 years ago.”