The Eagle, Kevin MacDonald’s adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s popular novel, is out on DVD this week and we had the good fortune to speak with the film’s producer, Duncan Kenworthy.
The man behind Four Weddings, Love Actually and, most importantly, a couple of series of Fraggle Rock back in the early 80s tells us about his relationship with the source material, the casting of the two leads, Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell, and the current state of the British Film Industry as he sees it.
HeyUGuys: What’s your history with the book? What struck about the story that made you want to adapt it for the cinema?
Duncan Kenworthy: I must have first read the novel as a teenager – I loved historical fiction and read all of Rosemary Sutcliff’s Roman and Dark Ages novels – though I definitely wouldn’t describe THE EAGLE OF THE NINTH (EO9) as a children’s novel. In fact it’s more adult than a lot of supposedly adult fiction I’ve read over the years. The story just stuck with me, so that I remember asking Mike Newell when we were making FOUR WEDDINGS if he’d read it, and finding out he loved it too. I started chasing the rights in 1997, and waited for years for Hossein Amini to come free from his Miramax contract so that he could adapt it. He absolutely loved it and kept saying “don’t let anyone else do it – only another year and I’ll be free”. But he wasn’t and I gave up on him, and in 2004 optioned the book and moved on.
I guess I always thought that if I (as well as the one million people who’d bought the book over the years) was passionate about the story then there must be something there. Kevin Macdonald, too, read the book as a teenager, and was very keen to film it. In fact he approached me rather than the other way round.
I loved its slightly introverted wildness. It really made me feel that I was there in the second century, in a world with other gods, where things like regaining your father’s honour could fill a man’s life. And I thought the unlikely friendship between the two central characters – master and slave, both fatherless, from opposing cultures, wanting to die, hating each other but saving each other’s life at some point in the story – was a more interesting way into the ancient world than million-strong digital armies clashing on a Mesopotamian plain.
You’ve likened the film to a documentary made by Romans, this is in a refreshing contrast to the heightened drama of a film like Gladiator. What made you want to take this approach and how did you work with Kevin MacDonald and the actors to create this?
Before I’d commissioned a script – before I’d even optioned the book – I was imagining making it as a big film, whatever that meant. When GLADIATOR came out, a film I loved and which did huge business, it was easier for people to visualise a big second century film as a crowd-pleaser. But then in 2004, the year I optioned EO9, ALEXANDER and TROY were unleashed – two films which, whatever their merits, and I have some respect for both of them, were not films I wanted to make. I really resisted the inevitability of having to fake the past if you told a story on a gigantic scale where your armies, your fleets and so on had to be created in a computer. At that point I thought, why not go the other way with EO9? Since most of the story is just two men on horseback in the wilds of Scotland – and neither of those elements requires digital trickery – why not make a virtue of its scale and give the audience the pleasure of really feeling the reality of it? Make it as if it was a Roman documentary, where you revelled in the detail rather than the glory. And at that point, of course, Kevin became the perfect person to direct it.
In terms of production design in particular, it struck me that the authenticity of The Eagle was of paramount importance, what were the challenges of recreating the period?
Everyone got on board the idea of making it real. This if you like became the guiding principle of the production, from getting the historical detail as accurate as we could in the script to the detail of what you see on screen. From a production point of view I loosened the purse-strings for costume and production design so those departments had the wherewithal to perfect things by making them from scratch instead of renting stuff that was almost right. The costume budget doubled during prep. The Roman shields all have the decoration embossed instead of painted on. And so on. And the big sets we built on location (the fort, Aquila’s villa and the amphitheatre) were mostly built with the same materials the Romans would have used. All of this actually speeded up the shoot, as the cameras could go anywhere, look at anything, any tiny detail, without worrying about how it would be on the big screen.
How important was it for you to find Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell – what did each actor bring to the role?
We cast the two lead actors in tandem – well, Channing came first, but then we cast Jamie to complement him. If Marcus had been slight, then we would have made his slave Esca a big warrior. But given that Channing is physically imposing, it made sense to pair him with a smaller, more feral, wiry, quicksilver slave.
Channing gets a lot of stick in the online universe. Some of that maybe comes from the roles he’s been cast in, which haven’t given him an opportunity to show much range beyond his physicality. And maybe some of it is down to jealousy: he’s too good-looking, earns too much money, started as a model, has had it too easy..! But from my point of view he’s a movie star. When he’s on screen you can’t take your eyes off him, and that’s something you can’t learn: you’re either born with it or not. Yes, it’s happened quickly for him, and he’s had to learn technique on the job, and some things he’s better at than others. But he has the core, and the heart, and the smarts, and whatever technique he doesn’t have yet, believe me he’s acquiring. I think he’s absolutely terrific in our movie.
Jamie’s trajectory has been almost the opposite of Channing’s – to end up in the same place. Whereas Channing was given commercial leads from the off, and has had to learn a great deal en route, Jamie has built his career since BILLY ELLIOTT slowly, and under the radar. He’s done scores of low-budget films – or small parts in big budget fims – and has turned into a supremely skilled actor. It’s always slightly amazing when a child actor makes good, but Jamie has kept all the heart he revealed in BILLY and added to it maturity, acting technique and real intelligence. He shows his Brit origins in the research and prep he does: no method winging it for him. He’s always alive to what’s going on in the scene. And he was reading Tacitus in his trailer! He’s a truly wonderful actor.
With an actor such as Jamie Bell, do you think there a pressure on young British actors to travel to Hollywood, or would you rather see the homegrown talent stay with UK productions?
I can never blame Brits for going to Hollywood to work, though it’s not a one way street. I find that everyone in the UK simply assumes that anyone who’s had some success in Hollywood instantly relocates there. A year after FOUR WEDDINGS people in London were saying to me ‘Oh are you back?’ when I’d never been away.. With Jamie it’s different in that he definitely does split his time between here and there – but, crucially, he follows the work. HALLAM FOE, JUMPER, DEFIANCE, THE EAGLE, JANE EYRE, TINTIN.. I think his recent filmography speaks for itself. As a matter of principle, yes of course, I would love to see British actors telling British stories as well as American ones. But I think it’s great that Hugh Laurie goes from BLACKADDER to worldwide fame in HOUSE, as I have no doubt at all that he’ll be back. Or Chiwetel Ejiofor doing OTHELLO on stage at the Donmar Warehouse in London, AMERICAN GANGSTER in the States, SHADOW LINE on UK TV. It’s basically up to us Brit producers – if we give them the parts, they will come!
You’ve seen the British film industry evolve over time and been responsible for some of its biggest successes – how do you see the industry developing over the next ten years?
Big question, and one which I’m not sure I feel up to trying to answer. Delivery will be more and more by digital – whatever we want, where we want, when we want it – and I sincerely hope that the audience’s penchant for downloading digital content without paying for it doesn’t come back to bite them. I know everyone thinks the online world is free, but unless people who create digital content get paid for it, how will the next generation be able to get jobs on movies?
What are the greatest challenges facing the industry right now, and how do you think technology will help younger filmmakers get their films made and seen?
But of course there are positive developments too. Look at what Gareth Edwards did with MONSTERS. A truly amazing achievement.
Or buy a Canon still camera and shoot your movie on that!
In the end, the challenge for young filmmakers is the same as for old filmmakers – to find great material. What I’ve learned as a producer is this: if you have a great script, you’ll be able to get a great director. And with a great script and a great director, any actor in the world will want to be in it. And with all the above, the money will be beating a path to your door.
The Eagle is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.