A decade ago, filmmakers Ridley Scott and Kevin Macdonald partnered with YouTube to invite people around the world to film themselves over a single day, with the resulting documentary, Life in a Day, capturing a tapestry of ordinary life across the globe as it was on July 24, 2010. Now, they need your help to do it again.
YouTube announced today that Scott and Macdonald are calling for submissions for a new documentary, Life in a Day 2020, which will once again weave together footage to tell the story of a single day on Earth. People worldwide are encouraged to film themselves on Saturday, July 25 (10 years and one day after the original’s filming date), and document their ordinary, day-to-day life — which, admittedly, is an unusual concept in these extraordinary times. (You can see submission guidelines and more here.)
“I guess any movie reflects its moment, whether you consciously want it to or not, but this even more so. I think it will be a time capsule for the ages,” Macdonald muses. “We’re living through this time of great political upheaval, and that’s maybe at the forefront of our thoughts. But for a lot of people, the lived day-to-day experience, which is what I’m hoping we’ll capture in the film, is not going to be about those big issues, at least not directly. It’s going to be about, you know, ‘it’s bath time for the baby,’ or, ‘what do I do on my Saturday off,’ or, ‘I don’t have enough food to eat, and here’s how I get by.’ I always say to people, ‘What’s boring to you, what’s normal to you, is gonna be fascinating to other people.'”
Life in a Day 2020 will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and on YouTube in 2021. Read on for more from Macdonald on what he hopes the film will accomplish, how the filmmakers shape thousands of hours of submissions into a coherent structure, and why a project like this is still unique in the social media age.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Were you planning on making a follow-up to Life in a Day before the pandemic hit?
KEVIN MACDONALD: We’d talked about it immediately after making the first one, and intermittently, I discussed it or it came up in conversation. But I think it only became real just around the time the pandemic hit — this would be three months ago. We were actually assuming, when we started talking, that the pandemic would be over by the time we came to our filming date, and it would not be a dominant aspect of people’s lives in the way that it still is.
What else went into the decision to do a follow-up film?
I grew up watching the Seven Up films by Michael Apted, and I always thought, “God, I would love to have done something like that.” I think this might be my version of that. I’m hoping that all the original contributors will film themselves again, and we’ll see how things have changed for them. And also, I’m hoping that we will get a much wider reach of people this time, because 10 years ago, 50% of the contributions were from the U.S. There were a lot of technological and economic reasons why that was the case — smartphones with video cameras, or actual video cameras, were more [common] in America. Now, you go pretty much anywhere in the world, everybody has a smartphone, sending photos and video of their baby to their aunts and their cousins.
On that note, social media has given us more and more access to people’s daily lives since the first film came out. What makes this project unique now that that sort of thing is much more ubiquitous?
What I’m hoping is that we can have a degree of integrity and honesty in the relationship people have to the camera, and what they film, that maybe social media doesn’t always apply. Many people’s social media is about presenting the perfect version of their lives and themselves. This is about honesty, and about simplicity. We want to see what life is really like for you. And it’s also about putting together the patterns, so we can see how things happening in one person’s social media feed are contrasted or echoed by what’s happening in Bangalore, or in Bangkok. That’s something that only a project like this can do.
How do you go about finding those patterns, and making something structured and coherent out of such a sheer volume of disconnected footage?
When we first did it, we had to invent a new way of editing, in a sense. We hired 25 or 30 assistants from all around the world, who spoke multiple languages. And as the material came in, we divided up, gave it to these assistant editors, and they catalogued it by key words and themes, and also, crucially, by quality. They would give it a star rating, from one to five. Five being, you know, “I’ll stake my children’s life on the fact that this is gonna be in the final film,” and one being, “Don’t even bother getting out of bed to watch this.”
The thing is, you know what the gold is when you see it: the character who really stands out, the person who says something so brutally honest and truthful that you’re just knocked back in your seat. And there’s not going to be a lot of that. That first time, there were four and a half thousand hours of material, and I think I watched 250 hours, which was all of the four- and five-star material. Any film you make, there are only a certain number of really golden moments.
What else did you learn from making the first film that you can apply this time around?
You know, when people started shooting their own lives to such a big extent, a lot of filmmakers felt quite threatened. Like, “Oh my God, what’s special about what we do?” But I think [Life in a Day] made me realize that actually, us filmmakers do have a skill to be able to tell a story, and not everyone can do that. And I think that the beauty of this is that, even if you can’t tell a story, you can shoot something which can be part of this bigger story. We encourage people not to cut the material they send us. Just send us the raw material, and then we can help them find the story, or where that fits into the jigsaw puzzle of the piece.
What do you want to say to people who might want to participate?
This is gonna be a rare opportunity to make a film which is an act of generosity to the world. And also, which is an even rarer opportunity, to make a kind of experimental poem financed by a big corporation. It’s a genuine piece of art, as well as being a time capsule of our times. And so I hope that people who are interested in human beings like I am, interested in recording the beauty and the mysteries of ordinary life, will take part, but also people who are aspiring filmmakers or are filmmakers, who want to shoot something. I hope that they’ll feel that there’s something exciting about the idea of this, and worthwhile.
This interview has been edited and condensed.