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Conversation: Kevin MacDonald, Director of ‘Life in a Day’


Academy Award-winning director Kevin MacDonald has made gripping documentaries and dramas before, including “One Day in September,” for which he won an Oscar, “Touching the Void,” “State of Play” and “The Last KIng of Scotland.” But his latest film is unlike anything he’s ever been a part of, he says.

For “Life in a Day,” a 90-minute documentary film, MacDonald, with help from a team of researchers, pieced together real-life footage selected from more than 80,000 YouTube submissions (which added up to over 4,500 hours of tape) all shot on July 24, 2010, from all over the globe.

Despite the radical differences that separate human beings on earth, MacDonald says the thing that stands out is how fundamentally similar we all are. The most common subjects? Children, love, work, illness and death — the whole life cycle is played out in a single 24-hour period.

Kevin MacDonald“Life in a Day,” which was also produced by Ridley Scott, will premiere Thursday night on a live-stream from the Sundance Film Festival, which is where MacDonald was today when I interviewed him by phone:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome once again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown, and joining me today from the Sundance Film Festival in Utah is Kevin MacDonald, well-known director of documentaries and dramas including “One Day in September,” “Touching the Void,” “State of Play” and “The Last King of Scotland.” And he’s joining us today to talk about a new project, “Life in a Day,” which is an experiment in filmmaking that premiers at Sundance on Friday. Welcome to you.

KEVIN MACDONALD: Very nice to join you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell me what this is and how this came about, this “Life in a Day”?

KEVIN MACDONALD: It’s a really novel, unusual, never-been-done-before, kind of documentary, and in another way it’s quite a traditional one. The novel part of it is that it’s using the power of the internet, specifically YouTube, to contact people all around the world and ask them to film their life on a single day. And the day we chose was the 24th of July, last year. They were asked just to film what’s going on for them that day, what’s important for them on that day and then answer a few simple questions: What’s in your pockets? What do you fear? What do love?

JEFFREY BROWN: How did you come up with those, by the way? What do you fear, what do you love, I get. But what about what’s in your pocket? Where did that come from?

KEVIN MACDONALD: Well, that’s a way of getting at themes to do with possessions, materialism, consumerism, inequality, because obviously what a farmer in Jaipour has in his pocket differs substantially to what an American teenager has in theirs. So it’s a kind of interesting way into discussing that theme or the themes relating to possessions and what we own. Also in a way it can be a useful kind of way of getting beneath the surface of people. If somebody pulls out a phone number on a bit of paper from their pocket and then they explain to you what that phone number is, you know, the phone number for their doctor, because they’re ill, or a phone number for the girl they’re really hoping to take on a date tomorrow night, or whatever it is, it kind of starts a conversation. So what we did was we put this big call out for anyone who wanted to volunteer to shoot on this day. We had 81,000 responses from 192 countries, which is only three shy of the total number of countries, I believe; there’s a 195.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re not missing too much of the world are you.

KEVIN MACDONALD: And we had four-and-a-half thousand hours of [footage].

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you do with all that? You’re the director of this film. Now, what does that mean?

KEVIN MACDONALD: Well, a director in a sense that’s probably kind of alien to most directors in that I had to sit back and just wait and watch and accept what I was given rather than actually being able to demand what I wanted. That was an interesting experience for me to be honest. I hired a fantastic editor called Joe Walker, and he and I together put together a team of about 24 researchers who all spoke different languages, because of course the material is in many different languages, and that material was then — all 81,000 submissions, the 4,500 thousand hours — was then watched by these researchers, and they then gave it key words like ‘dog on a beach in Brazil at evening,’ and they would put ‘sunset’, ‘dog,’ ‘Brazil,’ so I could find that material. If I wanted to find dogs I could just tap in ‘dog’ into the database, and it would come up with all the clips that had dogs, for instance, all around the world. These researchers also then gave it a star system from one to five — a star rating. And I watched really the four- and five-star material, so the best material, and then all bits and pieces obviously of the other stuff. But I watched about only 250 hours. I say, only, but still it’s a lot.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, that’s still quite a bit. And you made it into 90 minutes or so, right? So you still had lots of decisions to make. What kind of criteria did you use in trying to craft something that had a coherence to it?

KEVIN MACDONALD: To begin with I had to sit back and just be nonjudgmental and just let material wash over me and sort of tell me what it wanted to say and listen to what it had to say. But then, of course, the time comes when you have to become the director and you have to say, ok, this is what I’m interested in, these are the themes that come out of this for me, these are my favorite clips for XYZ reason, and here is how I’m going to try and structure this. And really what we’ve done is we’ve structured it in kind of chronological order starting at midnight, ending at midnight. We’re taken through the day and through people getting up, people brushing their teeth, people having breakfast, kids going out to play, people preparing their lunch, etc., etc., etc., it goes on through the day. But at the same time we’re going through various thematics and so we approach some of that — the big issues of life and that’s really what the movie is about.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s what I was wondering about. You mentioned cataloging dog on a beach, but thematically what were the themes, what did people want to tell you about their lives?

KEVIN MACDONALD: I think that what people want to tell you is more or less that we are all fundamentally the same, and that sounds like kind of a cliche. Obviously we’ve tried to make a film which isn’t like a Coca-Cola commercial. It’s a film which is a serious movie and hopefully will be seen by people on the big screen and feel like a proper movie. There’s a lot of emotion, a lot of laughter, a lot of things we all expect from seeing a movie. But what struck me was that everybody has ultimately got the same values, the same things that were important to them. Kids, we love our children. We want to fall in love with someone; we don’t want to be alone. We’re scared of getting ill and we are even more scared of dying. And that’s basically — all of the fundamentals of life are maybe there: love, children, birth, illness, work, death. It’s kind of it. And there is something very, very moving about seeing whether it be a maasai warrior in Kenya or a boy who shines shoes in Peru kind of discussing their lives in the same way and actually having the same fundamental values. It’s very inspiring actually, and I think the movie is an inspiring thing to watch.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s chronological. It’s one day in the life. Does it add up to a — do you think it adds up to a larger portrait of humanity on that day or in that time?

KEVIN MACDONALD: I think it does. I think it does add up to a larger portrait of humanity. It’s a subjective one of course. Any other director could come in and make a different film out of this same material. It’s dependent on who we got to actually film and obviously there were reasons why we got more from here and less from there. And I wouldn’t say it’s objective, because no film like this could be objective. But yes, it does add up in my mind to being a film which is not just about a single day, but it’s about what it’s like to be alive and what the major emotions are that we will all go through in our lives.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me just ask you finally, you’ve had a lot of experience making different kinds of films — documentaries, dramas — this was different for you. Did you enjoy it?

KEVIN MACDONALD: I really enjoyed making this, because on the first instance the lack of control was actually a very interesting experience for me. Not being able to dictate what I was going to get. But also I think that it’s a great privilege to make something that’s so different. To be able to use techniques that haven’t been used before. It’s extraordinary that this movie couldn’t have been made five years ago. It couldn’t have been made 10 years ago or a hundred years ago. It could only really be made now with the advent of very high-quality but very cheap digital cameras that we could send out. For instance we sent out 500 cameras to the developing world — places in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, etc., where people weren’t likely to have cameras, weren’t likely to have access to the internet to upload it, of course. And we could do that very cheaply. For $40,000 we could get 500 cameras to send out. And with the advent of YouTube and the ability to upload vast quantities of video very easily, we could collect all this material that had been shot. Otherwise, you know, imagine 81,000 submissions if we’d had to FedEx it. That would have been pretty horrendous. And as a filmmaker I learned to appreciate the beauty of some of this amateur footage. There’s a great and very specific beauty to material that’s shot on handicams or even on cells phones and the kinds of shots that they can get, the kinds of shots that an amateur can get that actually professionals couldn’t get. And then finally I also learned something about performance. You know, I make feature films. I’ve got a feature film coming out in a couple of weeks called “The Eagle,” an action-adventure set in Roman times. And I learned a lot from making this documentary that actually in a way could have applied to that film, which is about what real emotion looks like — when people are really happy, when they’re really joyful, when they’re really getting lonely, when they’re really sad, when they’re really scared, what do they really look like, how do they really act, how do they speak. And that’s very educational, actually.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, the new film is “Life in a Day.” Kevin MacDonald, thanks so much for talking with us.

KEVIN MACDONALD: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure to speak to you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I’m Jeffrey Brown for Art Beat. Thank you all for joining us once again.

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