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Brad Balfour

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An Oscar Winning Director Grapples With Life In A Day

Posted: 07/31/11 12:15 PM ET

A little over a year ago, I responded to the announcement of YouTube's global film experiment, to be called Life In A Day -- shepherded by producers Tony and Ridley Scott's Scott Free UK and director Kevin Macdonald -- by writing about it in a Huffington Post post.

I blanched at trying to record something of my life on that day, July 24, 2010, so I didn't. Instead, I wrote about the trauma of making such a public document.

Now, a little over a year later, I find myself marveling not only at what ended up as the 90-minute crowd-sourced compilation curated by veteran director Macdonald, but at the very feat of putting it together.

So, however you react to the mix and the feel-good message of the film, it's awesome to think of how the filmmaking process has changed through cheap digital recording and editing tools, and what lowering the bar of entry has meant to the future of long-form movie-making.

That consideration formed a large part of our conversation and made the following Q & A as much a continuation of that discussion on the future of film and media.

While Macdonald has made major fiction features -- including The Eagle, State of Play, and The Last King of Scotland -- the 43-year-old Scottish director has won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for his 2000 film One Day in September, about the Munich Olympics hijackers. His other feature documentary, Touching the Void (2003), enjoyed critical and commercial success on its release.

Such experience informed his curatorial approach and made him a good choice for overseer on this project.

Q: You've done documentaries like Touching the Void and action features like The Eagle -- very different things. How do you make a balance between that and your documentary work?

KM: I like to take a little of what I learned in fiction and apply it to documentary and vise versa. But my job is not a traditional director's job in this film. I didn't shoot any of the footage here.

My job was a curatorial one, primarily about giving structure to this amorphous mass of stuff and saying, "How do we make this feel like it's a movie?" -- something that actually works as a whole, rather than just a series of clips, like a ‛best of‛ selection.

Q: A narrative?

KM: Not necessarily a narrative in this case. But actually, feeling like it's a whole comes from fiction films rather than documentaries.

Q: When did this concept come about and when did you get involved?

KM: I came in right at the beginning. YouTube and Scott Free were talking about making a movie.

YouTube wanted to do a movie to celebrate or help celebrate their fifth birthday, which was last year -- amazingly, because it feels like YouTube has been around forever.

So then Liza Marshall, the producer, came to me because we knew each other, and said, "What can we do?" We came up with this idea together, which for me was inspired by something I'd learned about when I was studying documentaries.

There was this man, Humphrey Jennings, who made one of my favorite films, Listen to Britain, which is a 20-minute film with no dialogue, but sights and sounds of different places around Britain during the war in 1943. It's a classic and beautiful. There's inspiration in that.

He also was part of creating a movement -- which sounds like something from George Orwell in 1984 -- but it's called the Mass Observation Movement. And what they did was, they asked people in Britain during [WWII] and just before the war to write diaries detailing the mundane details of their lives.

They'd also ask them questions, actually. They'd ask them, "What do you have on your mantelpiece? What are the names of five dogs you've seen this week?"

Things that were sort of seemingly mundane, and they'd ask them these things, get them to write these diaries.

And then they would take those diaries and form [them] into books or magazine articles or whatever, trying to discover the extraordinary, the weird, the interesting in what seemed to be the ordinary.

I thought that's a great model; we could do that with YouTube. That's a way of exploiting this extraordinary tool, of all this material that's out there and all this material that's uploaded all the time.

Q: Is that how you came up with the three questions?

KM: Yeah.

Q: And that's the point?

KM: That's where that came from as well. So I thank this very obscure British filmmaker, Humphrey Jennings, for [my] stealing all his ideas for this.

Q: Were you torn between doing one movie of one question, then one movie of each of the other questions, or did you always want to integrate them? And then how did you decide on how much of each you wanted to run?

KM: Obviously, the point of the questions was to allow us to get a way into talking about important, intimate things. That love question obviously is transparent, the fear question's transparent.

The question about your pockets or handbag, that's really a way of getting to talk about materialism, consumerism, inequality, possessions, all those sort of things.

But that was just one way of structuring the film. Because there's no real traditional narrative, you find other means of structuring the film.

So there's the microscopic structuring of a montage about people brushing their teeth and going to the toilet, and [you say] okay, I'm going to make a two-minute thing about that.

Then there's the structure of pieces of music -- like the end girl and woman who are singing and beating their corn, and that structure's about food consumption and production.

So anyway, there's a lot of very obscure stuff.

Overarching it all, you have the structure of the day starting at midnight, ending at midnight, and you have a structure of different characters appearing then reappearing.

That gives you a sort of tension, a suspense. Because you're not sure -- is that person going to reappear? "I want to know more about them." Then maybe they do, maybe they don't, and you learn a bit more.

So that was really my role, to try and figure out a way to make the film [all] of a piece.

Q: You had all those assistants. You've probably never had so many.

KM: It was great. A megalomaniac's delight. Nobody could watch all of this material on their own. Well, it would take them two years. I've calculated.

Q: How many hours?

KM: 4,500 hours. That's a lot of material. It took 24 or 25 people who spoke many different languages.

We had a Japanese, Chinese, Russian, Danish, a Swedish one, French, Italian and whatever speakers, and they watched all the stuff that came from their countries or in their languages. And then we had to send some out.

We had some very obscure languages. We had some Pygmy language from Cameroon, and that song of Angolan singers -- actually, they sing three different songs that weave into each other and they're in three different dialects.

There's something in a Balinese dialect of Indonesia. [It] was incredibly hard to find someone who spoke that in London.

Those people watched everything, all four and half thousand hours, 12 hours a day. It took them two and a half months.

As they were finishing that, I took a month off after the filming day and let them start, and then came back.

So what they did was rate it from one to five. One star for really terrible -- where they made less effort filming this than we were watching it -- up to five stars, "this is great, there's something fascinating here."

The editor, Joe Walker, is the unsung hero of this. We watched the four- and five-stars, 350 hours of them. We sat down and watched the best stuff.

Q: You had more bad than good?

KM: By the very fact that there were only 350 hours of four and five stars. It was all just different.

I'm not going to say it's bad. There was some bad stuff in there. But my attitude is, everyone who got involved in this was being incredibly generous, because they were doing something in which they had no chance of financial gain.

There was a prize in effect, I suppose, that people whose clips we thought were the best got invited to Sundance. Twenty people from the film were there -- the little Japanese boy and his father, the Peruvian boy and his father.

But other than that, people did it because they wanted to be involved in something and be generous and share something from their own lives.

So I'm not the one to say to them, "What you did was horrible.‛

Q: You show the film of the Japanese kids who recently lost their mother. Part of being Japanese is they are confined in a tiny room. Did you consciously choose this cultural element for them to represent?

KM: I chose the clips that were the best clips, and I thought that that single clip was the most beautiful short film I've ever seen. You learn something every second.

You learn something every moment as it's going on, until you get this [revelation that] his mother has passed away, so he's in mourning, he goes and lies back down. It's incredibly moving.

But it's also a piece of film art, whether it is intentional or accidental. It was almost a single shot; there's one cut in there.

If only I'd had 10 other films as good from Japan showing people on a farm, on a mountain or in a palace, I would have used them. But I didn't. So any sense that it's portraying clichés of any country is purely accidental.

The tricky thing was finding characters like that who made a film or, through a series of very short clips, you felt like you learned something about their lives and you got involved in the story about them and that you related to.

And those few people who managed to achieve that, those were the backbone of the film. Into that we poured all the different ingredients.

Q: How has making this film changed your life -- both you as an artist and as a person?

KM: It's changed me in both ways. It's made me even more aware of the use of serendipity, of luck, in filmmaking. I'm really admiring a lot of the visuals in this film. People have shot really beautiful things and there are ideas to steal in there.

I realized there are things that you can only shoot with a home video camera -- that you couldn't shoot with a professional camera. The fly being picked off the windowpane by somebody [for example].

You film by camera here, fly goes up to his hand, takes the fly, holds it in his hand, films his hand, goes through a door, the iris changes, the focus changes, he lets it go, you see the fly going off.

To do that using a conventional professional camera would be millions in special effects. Maybe not millions, but it's a big, complicated shot to do something that's very simple. There's a beauty to that, there's a whole aesthetic of the amateur, and I came to appreciate that.

I also think, from a personal point of view, I learned to be less cynical about the world, I suppose. I think about people maybe more positively. I'm a cynical person who's normally attracted to the dark side of things.

Q: We know from some of your movies.

KM: Actually, in this I felt like: Yes, you confront the dark side of things, there's a lot of death, pain, illness and tragedy and whatever in there.

But overarching everything in the material I saw, I got this sense of this tremendous life force, that people -- even when they're in their last hours or days of life, confronting death -- they still have this sense of wanting to live, of life being special and wonderful. That made me more optimistic.

A lot of people who filmed in this were very -- for want of a better term, I would say -- ordinary people.

They were not people who are part of the media, not the kind of people that I would necessarily meet when I come to America or go to Japan or whatever. They're not people in the film business, not people that are involved in media in any way.

There's something great about that, about giving voice to people who are just people, first and foremost -- before they're commentators, before they're this, before they're that. And that was kind of lovely.

For an extended version of MacDonald's Q&A and more by Brad Balfour go to: filmfestivaltraveler.com