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The Eagle – How Director Kevin Macdonald turned convention on its head

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The Eagle - Director Kevin Macdonald and Channing Tatum
Academy Award winning director Kevin Macdonald and Channing Tatum on the set © 2011 Focus Features

Kevin Macdonald won an Academy Award as director of One Day in September, which was voted Best Documentary in 2000. But he’s better known for his non-documentary features The Last King of Scotland and State of Play.

His new movie, The Eagle, is based on the classic novel The Eagle of the Ninth. Set in 140 AD, it tells the story of Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum), a Roman commander who is determined to discover what happened to his father, Flavius, and the 5,000-strong Ninth Legion under his command, which disappeared 20 years before. With the reluctant assistance of his British slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), both men cross Hadrian’s Wall into the savage wilderness of the highlands of Caledonia, and dangers they could not have imagined.

Channing was very good in this film, but he would have been the last person I would have thought of for this role. Had you seen him in something that made you feel he could do this?

The Eagle - Director Kevin Macdonald
Academy Award winning director Kevin Macdonald of his Roman epic adventure © 2011 Focus Features

I’d seen him in a couple of things and I thought he was very good, particularly A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. But when I met him I had the same impression as you, I thought, ‘Well, he’s a dancer, and he’s very contemporary, and that’s not going to be right.’ But all sorts of things fell into place.

First of all, I wanted to turn the convention on its head of having always British people playing Romans, which is what happens in every other film and TV series including HBO’s Rome. The Romans are all educated at either Oxford or Cambridge, as far as I can tell.

It just seems like that convention has had its time and it has its foundations in the fact that in the 30s and the 40s Britain was an imperial power and it made sense to do that, whereas now the biggest power in the world is America, and the idea of seeing the Romans as Marines seemed to me as a very attractive contemporary way into making this film.

Channing had made a lot of films as soldiers, like Stop-Loss, I instantly saw him as a soldier. He’s got what I would call all the finest American qualities. He’s a beautiful looking guy, he’s totally straightforward, his word is his bond; he’s everything that is great about America. And I thought, ‘Well that’s perfect for this role,’ because it’s about somebody from one culture who has to represent that culture, who clashes and meets and eventually becomes friends with someone from a totally different culture, who’s Jamie’s character. I don’t know if people will accept him, I hope they will.

What about casting Jamie?

The Eagle - Tahar Rahim, Jamie Bell and Channing Tatum
Seal Prince (Tahar Rahim), Esca (Jamie Bell) and Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) © 2011 Focus Features

Once I’d cast Channing it was very quick for me to cast Jamie. I had already met him a couple of times and I wanted it to be a cultural odd couple. They had to be a physical odd couple, and obviously they are so completely different in everything they are, but also Jamie as a character in the way he acts is very, very different.

He has more of a feral quality to him and he’s got those eyes that take in everything that’s going on, can you trust him? Whereas Channing you know you can trust him, he gives you his word. So the complexity of Jamie against Channing was very interesting, and physically they are so different.

If you had to choose one, who is the hero of this, Marcus or Esca?

The point for me is that you start off thinking that this is about a simple, straightforward hero, who’s Marcus. But then he does some things where you think, ‘He’s a little racist, he kills that kid,’ and hopefully at a certain stage you start to go, ‘I’m not sure, do I like this guy?’ And then you start to think, ‘Oh, Esca, the one who I thought was from the culture we were meant to fear, maybe we’re meant to like him more?’ So that complexity was what I was aiming at.

You start off with a racist approach to Esca, which is that he’s the slave class, and then by the end of it you feel they’re both equal, and that was the idea. The idea was very simple, two people from totally different cultures and backgrounds who actually can become friends despite everything, and are bonded by the end of it.

Does their relationship fill the void of a romantic element?

The Eagle - Director Kevin Macdonald
Academy Award winning director Kevin Macdonald of his Roman epic adventure © 2011 Focus Features

I hope so. (he laughs) I think clearly the story is one where if you put in a romantic element it would feel surplus to requirements and you would be saying to me, ‘Why did you feel you had to put in this romance? It clearly doesn’t fit into the story.’ I’m not the one to judge whether or not it works, I hope that the friendship and the warmth that develops between the two of them is enough to make you feel like there’s enough heart to the film.

When Marcus is at the fort and it’s attacked, I could see a western popping up – is this your western?

Yeah, that’s exactly it. That’s what I said to Channing when I went to see him about it. The first thing I said was, ‘You’ve got to see it as a western,’ and I gave him and Jamie John Ford’s The Searchers to watch.

I saw it as a western in Scotland. It’s two guys on a mission, riding their horses, going somewhere. It’s interesting, because there are vague similarities to True Grit. When I saw True Grit I was thinking, ‘It’s a similar kind of [story]. It’s a quest.’ In True Grit it’s a quest to kill a man, in this it’s a quest to find out what happened to Marcus’ father.