How Kevin Macdonald found his fallout girl in Saoirse Ronan
At first, Oscar-winner Kevin Macdonald had doubts about casting Saoirse Ronan in the nuclear romance How I Live Now, but he quickly revised his opinion – “She’s the finest actor I have ever worked with”
Saoirse Ronan in How I Live Now
How I Live Now director Kevin Macdonald
The most haunting visions of England often involve contributions from outsiders. Emeric Pressburger, Hungarian-born producer, writer and director, helped Michael Powell construct peculiar idylls in A Matter of Life and Death, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Canterbury Tale.
Now, the great man’s grandson, Kevin Macdonald, has produced another, hypnotic version of England in his adaption of Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now. Okay, born and raised in Scotland, Kevin is not as much an outsider as grandad Emeric (or the Bostonian Ms Rosoff). But the depiction of rural England in the film – which details the lead up to and aftermath of a nuclear attack – trades in levels of romance that would cause most pure natives to balk. Leaves brush fecund ponds. Farmhouses crumble. Sandy Denny warbles on the soundtrack.
“Yes. We are looking back to the strength of English pastoralism,” Macdonald says. “Musically, what expressed that was Nick Drake and Fairport Convention. I set all that up just to shatter it. It seems to be about an American brat who is transformed by being there. But the second half of the film annihilates all that. Audiences may be divided into those who prefer the first half and those who prefer the second.”
The “American brat” is our own Saoirse Ronan. Shortly after arriving from New York to stay with cousins in a distressed country house, young Daisy falls for a sombrely charismatic local boy. Then war comes to undermine their relationship. I trust Kevin has something nice to say about Saoirse.
“We originally wanted an unknown and an American, but we just couldn’t find anybody,” he ponders. “Eventually I was persuaded to let her read and I immediately realised what an idiot I’d been. I was blown away. She’s the finest actor I have ever worked with: old, young, male, female.”
Steady on there. In the years since he established himself with the documentaries One Day in September and Touching the Void, Macdonald has worked with Helen Mirren, Russell Crowe, Jamie Bell and Donald Sutherland. Heck, he directed Forest Whitaker to an Oscar in The Last King of Scotland.
“She has something quite unique,” he continues. “She can express emotion nonverbally in an amazing way. She is also a delightfully mature person who has grown up in the industry and knows how to behave. She is a laugh on set. But she can always turn on that emotion when required.”
A softly spoken gentleman, who wears his 45 years lightly, Macdonald can now count himself part of a developing dynasty. Not only was his grandad a legend, but his older brother, Andrew Macdonald, is one the UK’s busiest producers. Trainspotting, Never Let Me Go and 28 Days Later are all on Andrew’s CV. It’s easy to assume that Kevin was destined to take this route. Do not forget, however, that Powell and Pressburger’s reputation had slumped by the 1970s.
“No, it was not inevitable,” he says. “My grandfather had been out of the industry and, indeed, had been a pariah for many years. He’d done nothing for ages. I think my brother always wanted to be a film producer. He was more directly inspired.”