Hollywood’s cultural dominance is something most people are all too ready to accept. But not Kevin Macdonald, the BAFTA and Oscar-winning director of films like Touching The Void and The Last King Of Scotland. As he tells me, his latest movie How I Live Now is in part an antidote to the glossy sheen that Tinseltown has given the concept of the teenager in global franchises such as Twilight and The Hunger Games.
As well as dealing with darker psychological themes, Macdonald explains that he wanted it to portray a greater reality of what it’s like to be a teenager. “I think it’s a shame that so much our image of what teenage life is like is based on what American television and film depicts it as – pretty girls with perfect hair and boys who play basketball and sing in the college choir,” he says. “That’s not my memory of what being a teenager was like and I don’t think it relates to what many people experienced around the world.”
Even more heartening is just how British the film is. Its first half (filmed with handheld cameras to make it feel “spontaneous, alive and organic”, Macdonald says to me) is set in a very recognisable England of muddy welly boots and scraped knees. A neurotic young New Yorker visiting family on a remote English farm, Saoirse Ronan’s character is gradually won over by the simple pastoral charms of barbecuing, fishing and outdoor swimming, as well as a ruggedly handsome young Brit.
An adaptation of Meg Rosoff’s award-winning novel, How I Live Now was guaranteed to come with a legion of fans nervous about how well the story would transition to the big screen. Despite the burden of expectation, Macdonald was unflustered. “I don’t usually worry about that sort of thing,” he reveals. “You have to make the film you want to make. If you’re adapting something like Harry Potter then yes, you’d have to worry about having all the bits that fans like, not changing characters or getting rid of characters. But if you’re making a small European film then it’s open to my interpretation.”
Just as in the novel, the burgeoning teenage love story of How I Live Now is interrupted by an event of almost apocalyptic proportion. Macdonald admits he was attracted by the chance to “pervert people’s expectations”, as he puts it. “It’s interesting to me to make a film that, like the book, is very much of two halves, where you have the idyll of the English countryside and the familiarity of a love story in the first half, and then to take it somewhere so utterly different and shocking. That radical left turn in the story is one of the things that really appealed to me about it.”
Getting Ronan, whose star continues to soar and who Macdonald describes as “an absolute genius actress”, for the lead character of Daisy seems fated. When the film first entered development and was offered to Macdonald, he was unavailable and Ronan too young. By the time it came back around and the director was ready, so was the exciting Irish talent. I ask if she can expect the same ‘Macdonald bump’ that boosted the careers of James McAvoy and Channing Tatum after they appeared in The Last King Of Scotland and The Eagle, respectively, but he remains modest. “I wish I could take credit. She’s a delight; very down to earth with amazing ability and intelligence.”
Although marketed as a teenage love story, the film is unflinching in its exploration of violence, separation and death. Macdonald refuses to describe these as adult themes, preferring (perhaps less patronisingly) to look at them as more universal. “I think as a teenager you are quite morbid, and death is one of the things you think about, more so than when you’re an adult,” he explains. “It feels to me like teenagers are perfectly able and, more than that, happy to concentrate on death and destruction. I also think that, like the book, it’s a film for teenagers but also for adults. Hopefully people from both generations are able to enjoy it.”
How I Live Now is available on Blu-ray and DVD on 10th February from Entertainment One.
Follow Nick Norton @OnlyForKoolKids