HOW I LIVE NOW
Green and Pleasant Land: The Shoot & Locations
For a time, despite the war, the idyllic homestead where Daisy rocks up to live with her cousins exists as a children's paradise. With Aunt Penn too preoccupied to offer much supervision, the farm is an isolated pastoral Eden, and remains so for a few blissful months after hostilities break out. It's in this slightly feral atmosphere that Daisy's bonds to her cousins, and Eddie in particular, begin to grow into something special.
The eight-week shoot took place over summer 2012 in locations around southwest Wales, with a final week on the outskirts of London. The key to everything was finding the rambling country house that would become Brackendale, the heart of the story and a character in its own right. It needed to be beautiful, magical and remote, nestled in picturesque surroundings, but also a bit dilapidated and unmodernised. "To find that anywhere near London was impossible because everything nice has been snapped up by a multi-millionaire and given an underground swimming pool," says Macdonald.
The locations team scouted far and wide, from Dorset to the Peak District, before finding a place that offered everything they were looking for in the rolling, verdant landscape of south Wales, near the Brecon Beacons. A large Welsh farmhouse and grounds called Mandinam, it had a ramshackle feel, funky gardens, and easy access to other Welsh locations. "I instantly fell in love with it," says Macdonald. "It sits on top of a hill, surrounded by trees, hidden away, and the house itself was built originally by Oliver Cromwell's doctor after the Civil War as a place to get away from all the blood and gore that he'd seen. In Welsh, Mandinam means 'place of healing' so that also seemed appropriate."
The production dressed every room in the residence to make it feel like a modest but extremely cozy and comfortable family home, with the children's rooms decorated to reflect their characters and Daisy herself taking the bedroom that was her mother's when she was a girl. It's a house filled with history and stories. Whereas mixing and matching locations is common filmmaking practice, Macdonald decided to use the house for both exteriors and interiors, in part because a single location gave the production the flexibility to react to the variable Welsh weather.
The story never specifies where in the UK the Brackendale farmstead is situated since it's thematically a representation of Britain's green and pleasant land before being ruined by invasion. The production removed signage, including the bilingual signage that's part of the Welsh landscape, as would happen in any war to deprive the enemy of any advantage when trying to navigate unfamiliar landscapes.
WALES & LONDON
Once they'd located Brackendale, Macdonald instructed the locations team to find as many unusual locations as they could nearby: a quarry; an abandoned church; an old garden centre with windswept trees; a modern, tidy housing estate where Daisy and Piper are briefly housed. A European-style village constructed by the Ministry of Defence in the Brecon Beacons for urban-warfare training served as the grisly site of a wartime atrocity the girls stumble upon during their journey back to Brackendale. The production also made use of Longcross Studios in Surrey, an agricultural farm near Guildford and Cardiff Airport for Daisy's arrival scene, all dressed to convey the oppressive nature of a nation on military high-alert or under occupation.
Macdonald was also keen to show that Daisy and Piper's journey back to Brackendale is a long and arduous one and thus sought out a variety of different landscapes for them to cross. This included a woodland on the outskirts of London where the starving pair have a perilous run-in with a pair of modern day armed bandits. Before the war, Macdonald presents an idyllic portrait of the countryside: rolling pastures, ancient glades, forests and streams, including a swimming sequence in which Daisy's faĆ§ade finally melts in the face of her cousins' friendly persistence, and her feelings for Eddie come bubbling to the surface.
Any film shot in Wales is going to face challenges with the weather, and How I Live Now was no exception. Between cool temperatures and constant rain which turned locations into mudtraps, the weather mostly refused to cooperate. Locations had to be swapped at short notice, and sunshine -- when it appeared -- needed to be put to instant, advantageous use. The cloud-and-water factor disrupted Macdonald's best intentions to shoot in chronology as much as possible.
"We had to grab the sunshine whenever it appeared and we're grateful because when you watch the film, it actually looks like a nice summer in the first half, which is what we wanted," says Macdonald. "But when you know how much pain went into that, you feel envious of a film shooting somewhere where it is sunny every day. Other than the complications provoked by the weather, though, it was one of the happiest shoots I've been involved in."
Macdonald envisioned two distinct atmospheres: the first half of the film is loose, spontaneous and organic, with a significant amount of hand-held camerawork and rich in saturated colors; in the second half, as the story becomes darker and Daisy and Piper are forced to fight for survival, Macdonald switches to using dollies, cranes and long, static shots.
"It becomes a little bit more alienating and cold," the director states, adding, "It's the first film I've shot digitally. We debated about whether to shoot the first half on film and the second half on digital, and in the end we went digital all the way. There are some real advantages to it, in particular when you're working with children. You can do a lot of different takes and keep it spontaneous without the stop-start-and-reload of shooting on film."
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