Journey Beyond the Edge of the Known World: Making The Eagle
Photo by Matt Nettheim
Centuries, Decades, Years
Late in the 20th century, one of Britain’s top movie producers, BAFTA Award winner and Academy Award nominee Duncan Kenworthy, noticed that a certain kind of story wasn’t being told any more on-screen; where, he wondered, were the historical dramas of high adventure?
He recalls, "As a boy, I’d read and loved all Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels about the Dark Ages, and about Roman Britain, but especially The Eagle of the Ninth. I remember describing it to Mike Newell, when we were on set shooting [the Best Picture Oscar nominee] Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1993, as my favorite childhood book.
"Mike told me one of his kids was at that very moment reading and loving it – many years after me – and that sent me back to it one more time. It’s a wonderfully resonant and exciting story, with characters, issues, and emotions as vivid to me today as when Rosemary dreamed them up. I decided there and then that one day I would make a movie of it."
Sutcliff had based her 1954 story on a tantalizing piece of then-current historical research: the disappearance of Rome’s Ninth Legion. Stationed for several years in Eburacum – present-day York, in northern England – the Ninth suddenly vanished from the records in 120 AD, giving rise to the belief that they had marched north into Scotland and never returned. Today’s historians are divided as to whether the Ninth did indeed vanish in the north, or whether they were instead posted elsewhere, but the original story of their disappearance remains historically viable. The novel, which has sold more than 1,000,000 copies over the decades, was previously dramatized for the U.K.’s Radio 4; and was made into a BBC serial of six half-hour episodes in 1977.
Kenworthy reached out to the late author’s agents, estate and publisher, but he had back-to-back projects in the 1990s. So it wasn’t until 1998, during the making of another of his hit movies, that things progressed. He reports, "I have a vivid memory of standing on location in the Ritz Hotel in London – shooting Notting Hill – on the phone to the Oxford University Press about the movie rights."
At first, Kenworthy’s intention was to make a big-budget sword-and-sandal movie out of the book, and when Gladiator became a blockbuster hit and the Best Picture Oscar winner of 2000, the cinematic pendulum swung in favor of his vision. Then Kenworthy’s pursuit of the rights in The Eagle of the Ninth came to the attention of director Kevin Macdonald. The filmmaker had won an Academy Award for his documentary feature One Day in September and had also recently made the docudrama Touching the Void.
Kenworthy notes, "I already knew Kevin; his brother Andrew and I had started DNA Films together and Andrew was my producing partner at the time. Kevin came to me saying he’d heard I had the rights to The Eagle of the Ninth, and that he’d always wanted to direct a Roman adventure movie and had always loved this book. Could he direct it?
"At that point, though, I didn’t yet have a script – I’d been waiting several years for one particular British writer who was passionate about the book but still unavailable – and Kevin had never done a narrative feature, let alone a big picture, so I didn’t think there was much point in talking. I’d only ever hired a director after I had a script I felt was ready to go; developing a film with a director was something I had never done before."
Macdonald, like Kenworthy, had carried the book in his consciousness for years. He remembers, "I read the novel when I was about 12 years old and was absolutely held by it. There was something about the atmosphere on the edge, and the way in which these cultures met – the Celtic, the British, and the Roman Empire – that stuck with me. The book fed my love of history, and now I felt I could tell it on film in a way that did justice to it and depict incredible worlds of 2,000 years ago.
"The story is also about friendship; the lead characters are two people from different cultures who don’t understand each other and who see the world in different ways, and who must move beyond that to see each other as human beings."
While the producer considered how to proceed, the movie industry sought to capitalize on Gladiator. Kenworthy comments, "A couple of ‘historical epics’ were made and released, and they represented the road I quickly realized I didn’t want to travel with The Eagle. They were too big, with too many computer-generated effects – replicated armies, invented cultures, and characters that didn’t seem to me to belong to the real world.
"What’s always been central to the appeal of The Eagle to me is powerful and credible emotional storytelling about real characters in a real world. Two men struggling through the mountains of Scotland; wet, cold, hungry, once wanting only to die but now driven to succeed. Yes, they pray to different gods, and the world is unrecognizably violent, but we know these men; we feel the passions that drive them. They just happen to live 2,000 years ago. I realized then that it would be wrong to inflate it in any way; that it should be as authentic as a documentary made by Romans, wearing their own clothes, shot in the places they’d actually journeyed to. Exciting, of course – entertaining, certainly – but feeling real in every way. And with that realization, Kevin became the perfect person to direct it."
So in 2005 Kenworthy contacted Macdonald, who was preparing DNA’s The Last King of Scotland. He notes, "Kevin didn’t hold it against me that I had hesitated the first time around, and we’ve been working on it together ever since."
Macdonald had been very impressed by screenwriter Jeremy Brock’s work on The Last King Of Scotland, and immediately proposed bringing him on board to adapt The Eagle of the Ninth. Kenworthy remembers, "We had another writer on The Eagle at first, one who was great but just couldn’t crack it. I was paying for the development myself, so it was a big decision for me as to whether to roll the dice again. Kevin suggested Jeremy, whose work I’d admired since Mrs. Brown, so I decided to give it one more go."
"It turned out to be a fantastic threesome. If it’s just two of you – writer/director and producer, or producer/director and writer – it can often go smoothly, but it’s rarely a marriage of equal voices. But having three people, each with a different perspective, somehow breaks the impasse; disagreement is simply one more way of moving forward. The three of us working together resulted in some of my most enjoyable moments on the film. We used to sit in Jeremy’s office high on Highgate Hill, talking about the story all day, testing ideas and coming up with new ones. Jeremy would go off to rewrite and then we’d come back and go through it all again. To have such privileged creative experiences is the reason I’m making movies."
Macdonald remarks, "The Eagle explores a specific part of history that has rarely been seen on the big screen before. Movie audiences haven’t much seen these people, these cultures, and these landscapes. Speaking of which, Black Robe is one film that influenced my concepts for making The Eagle."
The movie could already be seen in Brock’s pages. According to Kenworthy, "The key narrative structure of the film – two men on an impossible quest – isn’t itself complicated, though it has surprising twists and turns. But there are some very rich resonances. These two men are completely different: Roman and Briton, conqueror and conquered, neither of them liking or even understanding the other, yet tied together – not literally, like the two convicts in The Defiant Ones, but as master and slave.
"Yet they have strong similarities too: both of them are orphans, powered by the memory of the father they’ve lost, each at one point wanting to die, but saved – unwillingly and even inexplicably – by the other. The potential for all these emotional complexities, of dependency and resentfulness, longing and hope, was certainly there in the book, but Jeremy’s work has undoubtedly made the central relationship richer."
Macdonald explains, "While Jeremy has many great qualities as a writer, what’s particularly important is that he understands that characters need not be sympathetic all the time. To me, the more interesting movies are those that have ambivalent characters who can morally cross a line but still keep the audience on their side; Jeremy brings out in The Eagle the tremendous complexity between the two main characters, a friendship that is very hard-won. Marcus and Esca have to go through a lot – physically and emotionally."
Unlike the producer and director, Brock had no familiarity with the book, but on reading it he "immediately saw the potential for an exciting and entertaining ‘quest movie’ that would also provide the opportunity to explore friendship, rites of passage, and the clash of cultures.
"Adapting a book requires the screenwriter to stay faithful to the book, but not so faithful that the screenplay doesn’t become a proper movie. What I do is I read a book again and again. Then I put it aside, and I get possessive about the film."
Adapting a book about 2nd-Century Roman-occupied Britain into a major motion picture also required a fair amount of research. Brock notes, "We went up to Hadrian’s Wall – actually flew the length of it in a helicopter. We spoke to archaeologists and academics to get a sense of what it would have been like travelling north of the Wall, as Marcus and Esca do in the story. It was very important for it to be historically accurate, but not at the expense of the drama; that’s a balance the screenwriter needs to strike."
"I find that collaboration in the screenwriting process depends on the producer and the director, and how open they are to your ideas and how incisive they are about the script. Both Duncan and Kevin are gifted at development. We spent nearly two years, on and off, meeting in the flat where I write in London."
During this time, the trio made the crucial creative decision that the Romans would be played by American actors and the Britons would be played by British actors. As Brock explains, "It was key to our conception of the movie. We drew an analogy between Roman imperialism and the supremacy of the American military in the world today. It affords us a clear and concise paradigm which the audience will grasp; the clash of cultures is clearly projected in the difference of accents."
Macdonald elaborates, "There is a convention in Roman Empire films that the Romans be played by Brits, and the Americans play the slaves or freedom fighters. In the 1940s and 1950s, Britain itself was more of an empire so that was likely a factor, but nowadays it made far more sense to have Americans playing the Romans because America is the empire of today.
"Through Marcus and Esca, The Eagle addresses the extent of an empire; how far can you conquer a people, and how far you can conquer individuals and change their culture? So there are certainly parallels with world events in the 21st Century; you’re always looking at the past through your present."
He adds, "The major change that we made from the book was in making the Marcus/Esca relationship more complicated and fractious; who is the master and who is in control at any one point in the story changes all the time."
After working on the screenplay development and seeing the finished cut of The Last King of Scotland, Kenworthy realized that he had entrusted The Eagle to "one of the most visceral movie directors working today."
Worlds Known and Unknown
Once the script was ready, Duncan Kenworthy worked to line up financing for the movie. Kevin Macdonald meanwhile went into production on State of Play, with the promise that he would direct The Eagle next if Kenworthy would wait for him. Although State Of Play was eventually to take Macdonald away for over two years, Kenworthy had already decided that he "didn’t want to make it with anyone else, because by then Kevin had become so much a part of a project that all three of us cared passionately about."
By May 2008, Focus Features and the U.K.’s Film4 – which had worked with Macdonald on The Last King of Scotland – pacted with Kenworthy’s Toledo Productions to co-finance the new movie, with funding also being invested via tax credits in the two countries in which production took place.
Given the scope of the project, pre-production planning got underway while Macdonald was still in post-production on State of Play. The filmmakers, joined at this point by Caroline Hewitt as co-producer, had to decide where and how they could re-create the Scotland of 140 AD. Macdonald’s conviction was that "you cannot double Scotland – this was the starting point of all our discussions about where we were going to film. At least 50% of the movie is set in the highlands, so we were always going to shoot those parts of the story in Scotland. The question was, could we film the British parts of the film in England?
"When we started to look into that, we realized that if we wanted to make the film to fit our budget, we would need to be based in London. But within a 50-mile radius of London you cannot find the unspoilt nature, the forests, and the rivers that we needed. We sent a scout to Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Serbia, and Montenegro. In the end we decided that the best combination of infrastructure, talent, and topography was in Hungary."
Macdonald had already been to the country to film a documentary about his grandfather, the legendary filmmaker Emeric Pressburger, who was born in Hungary over a century ago. Other factors in Hungary’s favor were a wealth of fighting-fit extras – since there were to be real, and not computer-generated, masses on-screen – and an existing production infrastructure.
So it was that production offices were opened in Budapest and Glasgow, with filming to be done entirely on location – the "English scenes" south of Hadrian’s Wall would be filmed in the countryside surrounding Budapest, and everything north of Hadrian’s Wall was to be filmed in the rugged Scottish highlands. What interiors there were in the film – inside the fort and at Uncle Aquila’s villa – would be built and filmed on location.
The Eagle boasts a truly international crew, as the Scottish director and English producer hired – among others – an Australian production designer, a South African focus puller, a Hungarian stunt coordinator, a Scottish hair and make-up designer, a Danish gaffer, a Mexican second unit director, a Japanese second unit director of photography, and a German costume assistant.
Macdonald brought aboard a number of previous collaborators. He states, "On this movie, I wanted to work with key members from The Last King of Scotland production. For one, the individuality of Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography and his huge energy have made him world-renowned – and an Oscar winner [for Slumdog Millionaire]."
The reunited director and cinematographer mapped out a shooting style that would have key sequences filmed by two or three cameras at once, and that would emphasize handheld efforts over Steadicam work. During the combat sequences, for example, "the audience will feel that they’re right there in the thick of it," says Kenworthy.
Dod Mantle comments, "The second thing that will attract me to do a movie like this or Slumdog is if it calls for a highly visual approach. But the first thing I look for is always a story that touches me. The Eagle is character-driven, about men seeing their worlds and the world as a whole.
"We all decided early on that we couldn’t have carefully composed set-ups with the multiple cameras, given the unpredictable weather we’d be facing on location. I also shot against the light, muting it in-camera."
Macdonald and Dod Mantle also were keen to shoot the Scottish scenes in the fall. Macdonald explains, "Scotland is actually more impressive in the fall than in the summer, when the landscape is overly lush and green. With the leaves coming off the trees and everything going brown, we’d be able to capture the texture of the moss and the stones."
Macdonald was also reteamed with another Oscar winner, costume designer Michael O’Connor. For The Eagle, the director’s mandate to the costume department was to "reinvent Roman uniforms; Michael and his team managed to bring both authenticity and an individual flair specific to our story."
Another mandate from the director was "that our sets feel real, and unlike the cliché of what Rome ‘should’ be on film. To that end, [production designer] Michael Carlin and his unit did incredible work."
Kenworthy concurs, and notes that "when you’re dramatizing the past, there’s always a temptation to improve on it. But Michael O’Connor’s costumes and Michael Carlin’s sets were perfectly judged: impressive, even beautiful – yet gritty, real, and uninflated. Not that we held anything back budget-wise; production and costume design were to be key to the authenticity of the audience’s experience."
Carlin committed to the movie not only to reteam with the director but also "because I loved the book when I was a kid, and it was an opportunity to do a big movie that would be accessible but with interesting visuals."
The production designer and his team approached the assignment in a manner not unlike one of the story’s military campaigns. On location in Hungary, the countryside surrounding the historic city of Budapest doubled for the unspoiled lands of 2nd-Century Roman Britain. Wherever the unit went, the era had to be recreated in an immersive way for both actors and audience, allowing the drama and the action to play out with realism as their touchstone.
Macdonald remarks, "Coming from a documentary background, I know that what’s real is usually more complex than people expect. Using something realistic as a foundation, I can then expand on it for dramatic purposes."
Carlin says that the film’s "first part, in Roman Britain, is where most of the effort in terms of construction was. We had to recreate a world from nothing – every building you see in the movie, and most of the props and set dressing, we’ve made from scratch.
"We did have books and artifacts to refer to; there’s a lot of information on what the more substantial Roman buildings looked like. But the buildings in this movie needed to be very provincial, so we had to imagine their appearance from the foundations up. We remained as far as we could within historical accuracy, but at the same time pushed it all a bit more ‘downmarket’ in order to tell the story. The fort in particular is very ‘edge of Empire.’"
Farmhouse Julia, in Adyligent, was the location chosen for the fort at Isca Dumnoniorum – now modern-day Exeter in the southwest corner of Britain – where Marcus arrives to take command of his first legion. The imposing structure was built and decorated with meticulous accuracy in just seven weeks. Carlin reveals, "The main challenge with the fort was finding somewhere to build it; we wanted it surrounded by woods, with enough room to build the British village in front. We built three sides of the fort’s parapet as the Romans would have done, using rammed earth and timber. About a third of the inside was built; some of it was just façade, but all the main interiors were practical.
"Across the Empire, Roman forts were always built to a preordained plan: four gates, a road going in each way, and a fairly specific arrangement of how the different buildings were laid out. We changed it a bit to make it more utilitarian for us; our fort is a bit less cluttered, the parade ground would normally be outside the fort, and we closed off the road that would normally run straight through it to give us a 360-degree playing field for Anthony’s cameras."
The first battle sequence of the film, when British warriors attack the fort, benefitted from the 360-degree field of vision afforded by so many of the Hungarian locations. The sequence took three nights and five days to film, with 300 extras, 50 stunt men, and 12 chariots. Six "hero" horses for the film were brought from England by The Devil’s Horsemen, the company that trained the actors to ride horses and chariots while also serving as horsemasters throughout the filming. The remaining horses, along with expert riders, came from Hungary and Spain.
Surrounded by beds of wild reeds, Lake Valencei, a nature reserve with 28 bird species nesting regularly and thousands of winged "transit passengers" taking rest during migration, proved the perfect setting to build the tranquil Calleva – modern-day Silchester –villa of Marcus’ Uncle Aquila.
Carlin muses, "By Rome’s standards, Aquila’s villa is modest, but it’s still a large house constructed around a formal garden – all of which we built – leading down to a jetty on the edge of a lake. As you look out over the lake, we layered in forced perspective cut-outs – of two-dimensional boats, façades of villas, and various Roman structures on the other side of the water – to give you the idea that you are in a country that has been civilized by Rome."
A short walk away from the built villa and the natural lake, Calleva’s provincial Coliseum was built. The wooden structure had to accommodate over 200 extras as spectators for the sequence in which a gladiatorial fight to the death results in Esca’s life being saved by Marcus.
"The Coliseum was quite a big set," states Carlin. "But ours was still a smaller-scale ‘regional’ Coliseum, a 360-degree free-standing structure with a little street leading up to it for a bit of a metropolitan feel. The Coliseum was built of solid wood, using probably the same techniques employed by Roman carpenters, and a lot of people could safely walk up the stairs at the same time."
The only non-British setting of the nine different Hungary locations was a Tuscan villa, re-created in Leanyfalu, in Pest. There, the unit filmed flashbacks of centurion Flavius Aquila as he says goodbye to his young son Marcus.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who is based in California and worked with Macdonald on State of Play, signed on as the movie’s second unit director in Hungary. On location, Gomez-Rejon found himself addressing numerous extras "in English, and then it would have to be repeated in Hungarian. But the stunt men are well-versed in taking direction."
Gomez-Rejon had also worked with Macdonald’s longtime film editor Justine Wright on State of Play. With Wright back in the fold on The Eagle, Gomez-Rejon knew that he would "try to get footage that will give Kevin and Justine options since they work so closely together. What’s great about shooting for Kevin is that there’s a lot of trust; I speak with him about what he wants to establish, and then he gives me more and more freedom."
At every turn through Hungary, Macdonald was impressed. He enthuses, "I would say to anyone wanting to make a film, ‘Go to Hungary.’ You only have to look at any one of our sets or costumes to see the craftsmanship, whether it’s the leather armor or the hinges on the doors. We wanted to make Roman Britain feel gritty but real, and the Hungarian craftsmen found ways of enabling us to do just that."
After six weeks of filming in Hungary, the crew flew direct from Budapest to Glasgow and then drove five hours north to the tiny village of Achiltibuie in the far northwest of Scotland. The unit’s decamping from one part of the world to another mirrored the characters’ physical journey.
Carlin explains, "Once Marcus and Esca cross Hadrian’s Wall, things are much more expansive and wild. We’ve made the north even more primitive that it would have been. What few structures exist are haphazardly put together."
The large village belonging to the Seal People, the fictional west coast tribe from both Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel and Jeremy Brock’s screenplay, "was our unit’s biggest feat of imagination," comments Carlin.
He notes, "For the village, we found a spot in northwest Scotland; you can’t see any buildings, and it overlooks the Summer Isles – it really does seem like the edge of the world, with a scattering of islands going off into infinity. It’s a highly exposed locale, so if the sun comes out it is quite beautiful, and if the wind kicks up it is truly harsh."
The set for the Seal People’s village – pre-fabricated in Budapest – was built half a mile up a hill on the Coigach Peninsula. Carlin, art director Neal Callow, and their joint Hungarian and Scottish team battled the wind and other elements at Fox Point over the course of four weeks to erect a mass of primitive huts and fish-drying racks. Callow reports, "The props department put up those racks everywhere, and we had the pleasant job of stringing up the smoked fish. We couldn’t get the smell out of our clothes afterwards."
The Seal Village scenes stayed on schedule during filming, despite some occasionally foul weather. "One morning in October, it was forecast to snow – but we were lucky enough to have torrential rain instead," smiles Kenworthy.
"We wanted moody weather for the Scottish scenes, to provide a contrast with the early scenes south of Hadrian’s Wall, and to make Scotland look as magnificent as possible. We certainly got what we wanted – it rained every day for the six weeks of filming. Not all day every day, but definitely part of every day for six weeks."
This had always figured significantly in the production’s logistics. Kenworthy explains, "Kevin and Anthony wanted that autumnal look for the Scottish scenes, which was why we filmed in Hungary first and moved to Scotland at the beginning of October. There were two production drawbacks: the poor weather that we wanted for the look of the film took a heavy toll on the cast, crew, and locations department; and the hours of daylight got significantly shorter as we moved into November.
"I have to say that the cast, crew, and extras were troupers. There was no road to the Seal Village on Fox Point, so the crew would climb up and down the headland for 20 minutes, at the start and end of each shooting day – through peat bogs, in the dark – carrying their equipment. The cast and extras were transported in Haglunds, which are large caterpillar-tracked vehicles. But when they got to the top, they were in flimsy tunics whereas the crew were in wet weather gear."
Tommy Gormley, Scottish first assistant director on The Eagle, "is one of the world’s top first ADs – and he was crucial to the logistics of the entire production," praises Kenworthy. "So when he advised that we had to have shelter for the extras in the event the weather turned seriously foul, we built a special holding hut in the lea of the hill where they could go to get warm. Hypothermia was obviously a concern, though we managed to escape the Seal Village, thankfully, without even a turned ankle."
The biggest risk came the night before they left Achiltibuie, when the villagers put on a ceilidh in the village hall, and all the shaved-headed Seal warriors – locals as well as bussed-in Glaswegians – drank the local brew and the crew and actors tried their hand at highland dancing. Kenworthy marvels, "We were made to feel so welcome that we didn’t want to leave, and a number of the crew have been back to the area since the film finished shooting."
The production design team’s work extended well beyond what would be on-screen. Carlin offers, "We took an ethnographic approach to work out what the Seal People looked like, a logic for how they lived, what they lived on, and what they would have been able to make with the materials available. The idea was, they have no agriculture; they just hunt, and everything is largely from what they catch in the nearby sea. We built a series of huts dug into this headland, designed as a cross between Celtic stone houses and Inuit tents, made of [prosthetic] seal skins and dry stone. We also assembled a mass of [fake animal] bones embedded within the hut structures. The village is meant to be a savage Shangri-La – idyllic but cruel."
According to Macdonald, the Seal People are a "totally detached, uncivilized, remote tribe living in Scotland 2000 years ago. So everyone had to be inventive when it came to anything to do with the tribe, from actors to costumers."
The latter department put in months of work readying the Seal People’s costumes, taking to heart the idea that, as O’Connor puts it, "Marcus and Esca go into an unknown world, just as the first explorers of America did. It was a new world, and they were crossing borders. I thought about where the Romans had already been; since they had conquered the East and Africa, ‘tribal’ looks would not have been so strange to them. So we needed something quite unusual!"
Make-up and hair designer Graham Johnston was up to the challenge. He notes, "They’re the Seal People, so they behave like seals and wear the skins of seals. When Marcus first sees them, he has to be shocked by their appearance – and so does the audience. Kevin wanted something savage and ancient about them, so I decided that they shave their heads with just a small piece of hair left and they decorate themselves in a strange way.
"Romans’ descriptions of northern Britons who painted their bodies had been recorded, so Michael O’Connor and I agreed that we would cover the Seal People’s bodies with green mud and ash from the fire. This is a tribe far removed from any group’s influence – so they’re more feral, more primitive. It was exciting to see this Village come alive with the personalities that came about through the look."
With further research, more guidelines were put into place. O’Connor reports, "Research was done on far-out cultures from cold climates, because any tribe living in the far north of Britain would have had to adapt their clothing as such, at least a little bit. Duncan reminded us that we’d be filming with actors in a cold climate, so we had to make the garments with sleeves at a certain length and boots at a certain height. This way, we could add extra layers under the actors’ costumes even as they appeared to be nearly naked. Such tribes did tend to express the nature of their flesh."
As costume designer, O’Connor must coordinate efforts closely with every department. On The Eagle, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle made a specific request. O’Connor reveals, "What Anthony likes to do is have everything quite muted and then hone in on things that will reflect the light. With the Seal People, he asked to have a mirror or something comparable within the costumes. Our solution was to lacquer and polish shells that were placed in the Seal warriors’ necklaces and headdresses. These then reflected back the light and gave off a glint. Things like that add to the movement that Anthony imparts into scenes that Kevin works on again and again until he gets what he wants out of them.
"What Anthony and I remembered from The Last King of Scotland was that the main thing on a Kevin Macdonald movie is to never be dull with your options. Kevin likes the excitement and creativity of choosing; the more ideas you have for him to select from, the better. He likes the small details; he will identify what a certain mask means, what it suggests, and how it enhances the nature or the background of the scene. He understands the effort that goes into costuming, even when the overall impression is quite subtle."
Accordingly, Marcus and Esca’s costumes were designed to reflect their journey throughout the film. O’Connor remarks, "With Marcus, you have to believe that he is a committed soldier and an idealist when we meet him in the fort; he looks clean and official in his Roman leather uniform, but not too pristine or ornate. The battle sequence finds him donning his centurion’s helmet and a magnificent brass breastplate; he becomes more and more heroic. But after his injuries, he’s far more of a civilian. Then, on the road with Esca, he’s obliged to wear British clothing; long-sleeved tunics, cloaks and brooches – things he never would have worn or been associated with otherwise, but his and Esca’s cultures are meeting by necessity and the two men are coming to an understanding.
"Esca is enslaved, but he’s also the son of the slain chief of the Brigantes – so when we meet him at the Coliseum, he’s wearing leather britches with leather embroidery. That keeps something royal about him; this was not from research, but from our wanting to convey that there is and will be importance to this character. At the villa, his clothes become plain, simple and understated. Then, when he and Marcus cross the Wall, Esca tastes freedom and his clothes reflect that, with embroidered cloaks."
Having completed the Seal Village shoot in mid-October, the base moved to Glasgow, from where the crew drove each day to different locations around the Loch Lomond area. The woodland, mountains, and/or lochs of Strachur, Glen Finlas, Glen Luss, Applecross, Kilpatrick Hills, and Touch provided diverse and dramatic wilderness backdrops to Marcus and Esca’s journeys, and their encounter with Guern.
To film so many different and difficult locations over six weeks, the crew needed stamina and enthusiasm. At the Devil’s Pulpit – located just 20 minutes from Glasgow, outside the village of Drymen – camera, lighting, and sound equipment had to be winched down to the base of the 80-foot gorge. The crew themselves carefully descended vertical steps that had been carved into the rock wall many years before. Macdonald knew those steps well, having gone to primary school nearby as a child.
Throughout the Scotland leg of the shoot, medics were kept at the ready, frequently checking on actors and extras immediately after the close of a take. Additionally, hot soup was prepared daily, even on mountain tops; it was perhaps most needed in Invergulas, cited by The Daily Telegraph as the fifth-wettest place in Britain.
"It seems that water is a key theme with Kevin," Kenworthy notes dryly. "When it was not coming down on everybody’s heads, it was under foot. Staging the final battle with everyone knee-deep in a river was a wonderful directorial coup. Logistically insane, certainly, but creatively brilliant!"
Actors Take Flight
In casting the movie’s lead roles, Kevin Macdonald notes, "We had to think at all times in terms of two people, not just one. For a romantic comedy, you can’t cast one person in isolation and then find just another as a match – you need to take the chemistry between them into account. It was the same here.
"It was important to me that these two young men look completely different and be culturally different. The aim was to cast a true Celt to play Esca. It just so happened that Jamie Bell is from the same part of northern England that the character is from; Esca’s tribe, the Brigantes, hails from the Sunderland area, which is where Jamie grew up."
Adhering to the mandate established in development – American actors as Romans, British actors as Britons – the director "asked Jamie to use his own accent to emphasize his difference from Channing, who is speaking in his own American accent. This way there’s not only this physical friction between the two, but an ever-present difference in culture that comes out in the way each speaks and the way each moves.
"Channing and Jamie were committed and enthusiastic, and came prepared. That was a godsend, but what we couldn’t plan for is how well they got on; they became good pals. Right from the beginning, they steeped themselves in the period and their characters, and wanted to do all their own stunts."
Stunt coordinator Domonkos Párdányi was working with as many as several dozen men at a time. He reports, "With Channing and Jamie being game for everything we do, the cameras could get angles which they couldn’t have had with stunt doubles. It didn’t take long for these two actors to pick up fight choreography."
Duncan Kenworthy clarifies, "In the end we were able to let them do most of their own stunts, which – given the insurance ramifications – was quite unusual. Channing and Jamie became pretty skilled at horse-riding, fighting, and sliding down waterfalls! So the insurers grew increasingly confident. Of course both of our stars got their break in a dance movie – Channing in Step Up, and Jamie in Billy Elliot. They both have physical grace and the ability to learn from a choreographer, which is basically what fighting – and dance – is all about."
Macdonald adds, "Channing has played soldiers before, in American films, so he well understands the military mentality and has a lot of sympathy for these men. What Marcus wants to do is prove that he is a better Roman soldier than anyone, or than anyone expects. When he can no longer do that, he still has the drive to prove that his father was not a coward and was in fact a great solider. Channing creates such empathy that the audience will go with him on Marcus’ journey of rediscovery and of renewal."
Jeremy Brock attended the two weeks of rehearsals that introduced the actors to each other, and admits, "When you write a screenplay and you first hear it acted out, apart from the fact that you are ecstatically happy that something you wrote is getting filmed, you find yourself unable to go back to how you heard it in your head. It becomes the actors’ piece, and you alter it, making tweaks so that it sounds right coming from them."
He adds, "Channing approached the role with a wonderful openheartedness. Everybody knows that he is strong and charismatic, but what surprised me was how sensitive he was to the shifts in Marcus’ emotional journey. Marcus migrates from confident warrior to despair to a different kind of confidence, underscored by a new maturity. Channing negotiates that trajectory with great sensitivity and thought.
"Jamie really thinks things through. The first time he turned up at rehearsal, he had notes, he had a book, and he had questions. You feel that he is not acting Esca but that he is being Esca. He allowed himself to explore what it would feel like to be a Briton, with all that pride and sense of self submerged into slavery."
Playing so many of his scenes opposite Bell, Tatum found the younger actor becoming a valued colleague and friend. Tatum states, "There were emotional connections in our scenes together – whether they were emotional scenes or not, you are still opening up. Jamie will probably be a friend of mine forever.
"Our characters are two guys that are lost, broken, and alone. If you’ve wanted something your whole life, and then it gets taken away from you, what makes you keep going? Marcus and Esca have to discover that after they are imprinted on each other. Throughout this journey, what they get from each other is unexpected solace and repair. They learn a lot about honor, friendship, and trust."
Bell explains, "When Marcus and Esca meet in the sequence at the arena, they are in the same scenario; each is striving for a sense of belonging, while their freedom is being taken away from them. Their journey is made with the understanding that your saving grace could also be your enemy. This is an epic movie, but it’s also very subtle in terms of the relationship between these two lost men who go on a suicide mission.
"I saw in Esca a character with real range; I became fascinated with his wildness, his unshakable mental strength, his steadfast holding to the value of honor and the way he conveys that to Marcus. It’s not in the script, but I gave thought to the last hours and days before he was enslaved. Playing him, I often had to walk a fine line. Central to the film was something which I found relevant in terms of today’s society; the theme of unwanted customs, beliefs, and ways of life being thrust upon an indigenous culture."
Making the movie "fulfilled childhood dreams of mine," states Tatum. "I’ve been so blessed to have experiences like this in making movies. It was like I was in my backyard playing, even though I was riding out on cliffs and running through fields with swords."
Bell concurs, saying that he often thought, "I get to fight and use a sword? That’s out of most kids’ dreams."
The Eagle reminded Tatum of movies "like The Searchers, in terms of going into the unknown to find something and also part of yourself, and Braveheart – which is one of my favorite movies."
Tatum further cites not The Last King of Scotland but rather another movie from director Kevin Macdonald; "Touching the Void shows how great Kevin is at depicting relationships, especially friendships. The Eagle is an epic story, but it’s also a personal one about two men finding a reason to live. He can focus on two people and convey a sense of how they really feel about each other, what they go through. So I knew that he would get the essence of this movie right."
Bell agrees, adding that "Touching the Void, like The Eagle, sets its two men against a landscape. The two weeks Kevin spent with us in the rehearsal room is where I really saw his talent. He wanted this movie to work on different levels. During filming when we were against the elements on location, he would push you and push you, for the good of the film. I respect that kind of filmmaker being at the helm.
"When Kevin told me he wanted Channing to play Marcus, I thought the combination of the two of us would bring something dynamic and unique to the movie. When we started work in the rehearsal room, I got the chance to see how Channing approaches a role; to him, everything is personal. His depth and understanding of the character, and the way he came to life in those two weeks of rehearsals, was a joy to watch."
Tatum reveals, "This was the first time on a movie that I’d ever gotten to rehearse with a director, a screenwriter, and another actor. During those two weeks, we put the scenes up on their feet."
Confirming Kenworthy’s assessment of the two actors’ shared skills, Bell comments, "As we both come from a dancing background, we had a connection right away and it was naturally easier for us to grasp all the physical elements of the picture that were required. Channing is a very hands-on kind of actor, and he likes to be in the thick of it – seemingly, the more dangerous the action, the more he wants to do it! He enjoys putting himself through those physical tests; I believe it enables him to better understand situations, and chart the feelings, on his character’s journey. His stunt double often did not get so much as a sniff of the set…"
Kenworthy reports, "During filming of one sequence, Channing came up to me to thank me for letting me do the stunt. I told him what the deductible was that we would have to pay in the event of an insurance claim, and he said, ‘I’d help you out with that.’ I told him, ‘The way that you can really help us is by not having an accident!’"
Tatum had placed himself on "a special meal plan to get lean," which he commenced two months before the start of filming, and practiced mixed-martial-arts in advance as well as learning to wield a sword.
The actor says, "I don’t think I could have done this movie without having an athletic background. The physicality of Marcus is such an important component – the way he moves, walks and talks. We had training in horseback riding, marching, and participating in a Roman testudo [tortoise-shaped, shield defense] formation.
"That’s important, but for me, it was about getting right the more subtle things, like walking as a Roman would, and not being loose and relaxed. When you put on a pair of sandals, it makes you walk different. Then you sound different, because you are holding yourself a certain way and the resonance in your chest has changed, and you’re no longer sounding contemporary. It totally puts you into character. Marcus also has a limp through the majority of the film. I had to keep reminding myself of little things like that."
Bell, who also started prep work a couple of months before filming, remarks, "For me, the biggest challenge was, we were going to be on horseback for half of the movie. I had never ridden a horse before, and had developed a general anxiety towards them. I told Duncan and Kevin that it was imperative to get me in the saddle as soon as possible.
"I trained on a horse for about six weeks, three lessons a week. I owe everything to my trainer at The Devil’s Horsemen, Camilla Naprous, whose incredible natural affinity with horses put me at ease. Two weeks after the first lesson I was trick riding and had found a comfort and a delight at being around these animals. When you have to deliver pages of dialogue and access emotion, you need to be able to forget you’re riding a horse and my training helped me achieved that. I’m now searching for a great Western to do!"
Alhough he was no stranger to fight training and choreography, these elements of the shoot still required Bell’s attention and input. He explains, "When I approach the physical component of a role, it always has to be led by character. So I wanted to differentiate the way Esca approaches combat. Channing’s character is a trained fighter and soldier, an efficient killer trained by an efficient army, whilst Esca fights from his gut, using his finely tuned instinct and spirit. There is a profound aggression within Esca; every fight is a fight for honor, for freedom and for his family. There’s conflict for him at every turn in the journey with Marcus; Esca has found himself siding with his enemy and he struggles with questions of loyalty."
Able to hew closely to his own native Sunderland accent for the role, Bell found researching the role fascinating. He admits, "I knew very little about the Roman occupation of Britain, and of Britain itself during this period in history. What I found is that the only material of semi-accurate value comes from the classical writers; Tacitus, Strabo, and Caesar.
"Despite being forced into submission and servitude, legends like Boudicca and Calgacus arose through rebellion and kept the Romans on their guard. For me, reading up on the Celts – or, what they called Celts – and the Romans was fascinating. It was surely a surreal time for both the invaders and the natives. I read Calgacus’ speech – as transcribed by Tacitus – to his army before the battle of Mons Graupius, and was very moved and motivated. I held his words in the back of my mind the whole time whilst portraying Esca."
Although The Eagle is dominated by the two-man journey, three key roles called for actors who could command attention from both the other characters and the audience.
To play the only family that Marcus has left, Macdonald "always wanted Donald Sutherland – he was the first person I thought of. You can’t be a movie fan and not love him, given all those great pictures he’s made. When working, he is so engaged and intellectually curious. Donald gives his all, and that’s a marvelous gift."
Kenworthy adds, "Donald injects such unique energy into his scenes. When he is in a scene, you can’t take your eyes off of him. He is full of vitality – which is crucial, as his character helps brings Marcus back to life."
Tatum elaborates, "Uncle Aquila pushes Marcus, and makes him get out of bed in the morning which at that point in the story is the only thing that keeps Marcus going. He’s a wise, quirky man – and that’s who Donald Sutherland is, too."
The two-time Golden Globe Award winner was impressed by his younger costar, saying that "Channing tears in with a vengeance, pursuing the truth, digging it out all the time. One day, we were sitting around the Coliseum set. I noticed that he had headphones on. I thought, ‘Oh he’s listening to some on-the-edge band I’ve never heard of.’ But I asked him, and – turns out it was a book he was listening to. He downloaded books on Ancient Rome, philosophy, politics…the dedication that this young actor has is a wonder."
Mark Strong, cited by Kenworthy as "one of Britain’s most versatile and talented actors, who seems to immerse himself effortlessly whatever the role," took on the character of Guern, whose very existence comes as a surprise.
Macdonald notes, "Mark is an actor I have always admired. He often plays villainous characters but I recognized a sensitivity in him. Guern has carried a shame with him for 20 years, and realizes that he can now no longer run from his past."
Strong relished the opportunity to join what he praises as a "formidable team," and to delve into his character’s back story, since it impacts the journey of Marcus and Esca. The actor notes, "Guern is pivotal to the theme of personal discovery for the characters in this story, which I see as a coming-of-age adventure. I could see Guern’s past as being not many miles removed from the experience of young men who have had to experience Vietnam or Iraq; a young soldier, in the heat of battle, makes a crucial decision. He then has to live with that decision for the rest of his life.
"So, I didn’t need to do much research into Guern as a Celt, or Guern as a Roman; what I concentrated on was playing a person who as a young man had believed in something but then had an extreme shock – and has been in hiding thereafter."
Strong clarifies that "‘Guern the Hunter’ is his Celtic identity. His real name is Lucius Caius Metellus, and he was a foot soldier in the first cohort of the Ninth Legion."
Tatum feels that Guern’s presence in the story was enhanced by the actor’s commitment to the role. He reports, "On location, I came upon Mark sitting by the river one day and it just looked like he had just grown right out of the ground. He had this great look to him, and when we started playing the scene, his voice sounded like it has roots to the earth.
"Another character who I’m looking forward to seeing on-screen is the Seal Prince. The way Tahar Rahim played him, the majestic calmness makes him feel even more dangerous."
Rahim, the French actor who attracted the world film community’s attention with his starring role in Un Prophete, sees his character as "a hunter and a warrior who is protecting his people’s tribe. He may be a barbarian, but he’s not insane; he just has a different culture and rules that he lives by.
"When I read the script, I saw something political. It is about two people from different countries, who are opposite in everything but they have to work side by side. In the course of the trip, Marcus’ purpose in life changes. Travelling does change you, and if you don’t change, then you haven’t learnt anything."
Though he wears less clothing than the other main actors, Rahim spent far more time being tended to by Graham Johnston’s make-up and hair department. Yet it may have been a beneficial early call to have; the green mud used to paint the skin of the Seal Warriors was a Hungarian mud-mask treatment purchased in bulk from the famous spas of Budapest.
The actor reports, "It took an hour each day to put it on. This ancient tribal look – with mud everywhere, for their camouflage – was based in reality. I had to keep that in mind, playing scenes simply, because the look ‘talks’ enough."
Rahim found himself "very much enjoying the challenges of working with a foreign cast and crew – and having to say my lines in a language new to me." Fluent in English and Arabic as well as his native French, he "had to learn and say my lines in ancient Gaelic, getting the accent right while also understanding the meaning of what I was saying.
"Just by being in the movie, and in the landscape we were filming in, I was part of an amazing adventure."
The Eagle Has Landed
Duncan Kenworthy says, "Producing is usually a series of painful moments separated by occasional pleasures. This time, though, even when times were tough there was always pleasure, because with this team of brilliant, committed people I’d finally managed to do what I’d dreamed about for all those years – bring this great story to the screen.
"One of the things I most appreciate about Kevin Macdonald as a director – one of the things that mark him as special – is his drive to make every scene count. Nothing gets in the way of the storytelling. He wants to intrigue, move, and entertain you at every turn. I hope – I believe – that The Eagle does just that."
Macdonald offers, "The Eagle has a story that grabs you from the beginning, and you don’t know where it is going to take you. It’s also a serious character study.
"Above all, though, this is a rip-roaring tale!"