“I’m proud of this film because I think it’s complicated and breaks taboos,” says the director Kevin Macdonald about his adaptation of Meg Rosoff’s bestselling dystopian novel, How I Live Now.
“It’s not the normal fare that teenagers are being offered. When I was that age, I would have loved this film and responded to the fact that it’s not like anything else. It represents the complexity of what I’m going through as a teenager and it’s at a point where everything is new and exciting but also devastating.”
How I Live Now starts with the American teenager Daisy, played by Saoirse Ronan, coming to England to spend the summer with her cousins, the handsome Eddie (George MacKay), the gregarious Isaac (Tom Holland) and the young Piper (Harley Bird). There is an expectation of culture clash: the brash American kid becoming integrated in British life.
But just as we are settling into teen-drama territory, the Third World War breaks out and the kids must fend for themselves, as the story becomes more influenced by Lord of the Flies than John Hughes. To say it’s complicated is an understatement.
“I’m trying to put the audience through an emotional roller coaster. I want it to be loveliness that is interrupted, taking place in the English countryside, which is so beautiful and then the end of the world starts happening,” says Macdonald, best known for his documentary One Day in September, about the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics of 1972, and The Last King of Scotland, his biopic about Idi Amin.
“Sometimes as a teenager you are having this perversely idyllic time and you can forget that the rest of the world is still happening.”
This is also the first film that the father of three boys has made with a female lead. Ronan says of getting into the role of the gutsy Daisy: “The clothes and the look of the character helped me to get into the mindset of a feisty young girl from New York.
“I was born there. I go back to New York quite a bit now and I love their attitude, I don’t find it to be rude. I think they are very feisty and confident.”
I chatted to Ronan on the set of the film when they were shooting a scene in which Daisy and her sister witness a murder. When she got the script, she was surprised by the dark tones.
“I decided not to read the book. I will wait till after we’ve finished shooting. Kevin said not to read it. It’s a different version of the story and someone else’s take. Meg, the author, came on set a few times. She is so cool.”
Macdonald has made an atypical teenage movie. “The music we use is Amanda Palmer, Bat for Lashes, it’s ‘cool teen’,” says the director. “I would hope that this is a cooler film for a group of teenagers. This is about the truth of what it’s like to be a teenager, the edginess and the dark stuff as well as the glamour.”
This dark turn in the story tested Macdonald’s ability as a director when it came to directing Bird, at 12 the youngest cast member on set and famous for being the youngest winner of a Best Performer Bafta.
“I cast Harley because she is like Piper in the first half of the film. The fight with her was to dampen her down to have the trauma.”
The young actress told me: “Everyone kept on telling me, don’t act, just be yourself.”
There were no such problems for Holland, who won rave reviews in the 2012 tsunami drama The Impossible. “I think I’m a very good crier. I can cry in 20 seconds.”
It’s a good skill to have in this unusual, absorbing tale that is not just another teen movie.
• Tomorrow, Madinat Theatre, 9pm, and Thursday, Mall of the Emirates, 1.30pm. Visit www.diff.ae for more information.