On the show, today is academy award-winning documentary and film director, and producer, Kevin Macdonald. He is one of few directors who dance the line of film and documentary seamlessly. He directed documentaries like Whitney (2018), crowdsourced documentary – Life in a Day (2011), Marley (2012), among others.
He is famously known for his 2006 drama film, The Last King of Scotland, starring Oscar-winning best actor, Forest Whitaker. Kevin has made a huge name for himself and his work over his 27 years in the industry – dabbling in commercials, films, and documentaries.
As a boy, his granddad, Emeric Pressburger who was a legendary filmmaker in the 1940s lit his passion for filmmaking. When his grandfather passed, Kevin wrote a biography in 1994 about his grandad’s life journey, titled, ‘ The Life and Death of a Screenwriter’, which he later made into a documentary ‘The Making of an Englishman’ (1995). This was the start of him becoming a documentary maker.
In 1999 he directed the Box office hit and Oscar-winning documentary, One Day in September, which is about the 1972 Munich Olympic Games massacre, featuring a lengthy interview with Jamal Al-Gashey, the last known survivor of the Munich terrorists.
This project catapulted his career big time. He then made the adventure-docudrama, Touching the Void, another critically acclaimed film that won Best British Film at the 2003 BAFTA. The true story of two climbers and their perilous journey up the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985.
Kevin’s directorial debut on a film was the Oscar® winning, The Last King of Scotland. It is an adaptation of Giles Foden's 1998 novel by the same title. This historical drama which also carries a political thriller genre received riveting reviews and performed exceptionally – both commercially and critically. Forest Whitaker's performance stole the show and earned him an Oscar for Best Actor. This $6million budget film grossed $48.4million at the Box Office and has an 87% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The story details the brutal reign of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin as seen through the eyes of his personal physician. James McAvoy stars as the doctor who slowly realizes that he is trapped in an inescapable nightmare, and Forest Whitaker assumes the role of the notorious despot.
In commemoration of Youtube’s fifth anniversary, Macdonald was hired to direct and produce the very unique film, the Life in a Day (2011) documentary. It was crowdsourced from 80,000 Youtubers and regular people all over the world sharing their life in one day. The film serves as a time capsule to show future generations what it was like to be alive on July 24, 2010. The completed film debuted at Sundance in early 2011
In February of this year, Kevin's latest film, The Mauritanian was released in the US. He explains in this interview that it was a very difficult subject matter to tackle. The entire movie was shot in two locations. Both in South Africa and in Mauritania.
The Mauritanian is a suspense legal drama based on the 2015 memoir Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Salahi, a true story of Salahi's experience of being held for fourteen years without charge in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. The film stars Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, Shailene Woodley, and Benedict Cumberbatch.
You going to really enjoy this conversation. We dig into the nitty-gritty of documentary structuring, tales of directing huge movie stars and navigating the Hollywood machine.
Enjoy my conversation with Kevin Macdonald.
Alex Ferrari 0:06
I like to welcome to the show Kevin McDonald. How you doing, Kevin?
Kevin Macdonald 0:09
I'm good. How are you?
Alex Ferrari 0:10
I'm very good. Thank you so much for doing doing the show. I am. I've been watching your films for quite some time since since the early days. So I'm very excited to get into the weeds with you on your your filmmaking process and your adventures in this crazy, crazy business of ours.
Kevin Macdonald 0:27
Thank you. I'm really happy to be here for a little bit of shape. So it's exciting to join you.
Alex Ferrari 0:33
So So how did you get into the business?
Kevin Macdonald 0:37
Why? Well, I got into business a really weird way. I guess. I my grandfather was a filmmaker. There Wellman, United Kingdom things Emeric Pressburger, which you can imagine not a great British name he was he was a East European Jew, from Hungary more or less. And he made films in Germany. And then he ended up in Britain on his way to Hollywood, he thought and met a man from Michael Powell. And together they formed a partnership and he stayed in Britain and that that partnership went on to produce 20 something films together, which were unique because a bit like the Coen Brothers, they were older films were written, produced and directed by micropile, and requested to share all the credits. And they did some classics like the red shoes, black Narcissus, a matter of life and death, and in great classic movies of the 1940s. Now, I then grew up on a farm in Scotland, so I had nothing to do with him, I'd be doing movies, and but when he died, I thought, I'm going to write a book about his life, which is fascinating life escaping that Germany and arriving not speaking any English in the UK. And then, you know, within four years, he won an Oscar for screenwriting in English. And you know, it's kind of amazing man. And I said, writing his biography, and got really interested in movies, and watching all movies for researching that book that I wrote about him. And that was what got me interested in it. And then I also made a documentary about him at the same time. And that got me into a documentary. So for many, many years, I was a documentary maker, I was really, you know, not interested in drama, except, you know, loving watching, watching your movies. And then I made a film in 2019 99, I made a film called one day in September, which won the Academy Award for documentary, it was about the Munich Olympic Games massacre, right? In 72. And it was a kind of a revolutionary film, in a way at the time, because it was a concept was, let's make a documentary thriller, let's see if we can make that and that thriller. It's a document, you know, using documentary material only. And so film was, was was was, you know, well received. And that allowed me to go on and make another one. And I made a film called Touching the Void, which is about mountain climbers that begins with a documentary, but it uses it uses. reconstruction uses actors to reconstruct a story of a very dramatic server to climbers who have a mantle in the Andes. And one of them ends up breaking their leg and the other one tries to rescue him, but in the end, has to cut the rope on his friend and sort of see his friend go to his death, or we think through his death, and turns out he's not. Anyway, but it's like, so I did something which I thought I'd never do, just try and combine documentary and, and drama. And it worked. And it was a big box office hit for me for that category for a documentary, and able, suddenly, people were saying, Oh, you want to make a feature film. ever thought about making a feature I'd never thought about making? I mean, are you making you making a dramatic feature film, I never really thought I really had thought of myself as a documentary maker. And I thought, well, why the hell not? I, I found I probably never get another chance to do this. I mean, I said, you know, your, your subject. And I'd read this book, The Last King of Scotland, which was that area mean, in Uganda, and a doctor from Scotland who goes and works for him. And it's kind of a political thriller, I suppose you would say with lots of great African music. And, and so I went and did that. And I didn't know anything about making a film. So really, the first time I'd ever been on a drama film set pretty much was when I turned out for day one. That's that's,
Alex Ferrari 4:26
that's fascinating. So Alright, so we'll get into last King of Scotland, which I just absolutely adore. But you are one of those few directors that, you know, that are prolific in many ways in both documentary and narrative. And you kind of dance the line because it's not like you gave up documentary once you started doing like after you did last game in Scotland. You You kept going back and forth, and you continue to go back and forth. How do you dance that line? And because there's not many to my knowledge directors who are able to do both very well.
Kevin Macdonald 5:00
consistently, I think a lot of people see documentaries where they start out and then they get into, into narrative into drama. Maybe and they think, you know, that's that's grown up filmmaking documentaries, Jr, Lee. But I certainly that's the way it used to be seen. I think that I think because I started off as a real documentary nut, you know, I was really obsessed with documentaries. I even edited a book about documentary The history of documentary filmmaking, by all the retailers huge,
Alex Ferrari 5:31
huge, huge, huge box office,
Kevin Macdonald 5:33
Huge. I get it, I get a check for about $100 every year for actually. Good. Anyway. So yeah, so so I think that I just really genuinely love documentaries. And I love as much as the sort of just watching them and figuring out different ways to sort of handle real life stories and, and real footage, you know, as well as that. I also just love the fact that when you do a documentary of you and a couple of other people, and it's very low pressure, and you can make mistakes, and you can spend a few days doing something and your odds is actually not going to work. And when you making a feature film, the pressure is so much, there's so much money riding on it. You know, it's exhausting. As a director, it's, you know, it's one of the things I think you know, that you haven't made official numbers. It's, it's really exhausting physically and mentally and mentally, lately draining. And so, you know, after you spent two years or wherever it takes to make a feature film, to go straight into another one. I think it's kind of, for me, it's psychologically hard. So I actually like to do documentary after I've done a piece of a piece of narrative filmmaking. And I kind of done that pretty much deliberately. But also, yeah, there's times when you can't get the money for a feature film as what you are.
Alex Ferrari 0:09
so the how do you how do you approach structuring a document? Because I've, I've dabbled in documentary, but I've never actually sat and done an entire future. Do you construct it more in the Edit? On paper? Do you discovered as you go along? Do you have an outline to start? I mean, I'm assuming you start with a narrative that you're kind of looking for, or is it completely exploratory the entire way?
Kevin Macdonald 0:31
It varies, but I like doing ones which are completely explode exploratory. Where you kind of, I think the thing is, you have an instinct, do you think there's something interesting there, the story doesn't quite add up, or there's a, you know, the character or whatever it is, you think, hmm, there's some, I think it could be documentary. And then sometimes there isn't. And you said, you make something kind of boring, because you because you can't really find what you thought was interesting, but most of the time, your instinct is, right. And so I like to do it is just to start a lot of my documentaries, not all, but a lot of them are kind of interview based. So I just start interviewing people, and learning as I go and chatting to people for hours, sometimes I'll interview someone for four or five hours or something. And through that process, you come across fascinating things. Wrestling language, and behavior and psychology. And, and you just get to meet people. And if you're nosy, curious person like I am, it's kind of like, it's, there's no better thing you have that, you know, you're the perfect excuse to ask any question like, if people, so But I, you know, I, I genuinely have a sense of what the narrative is, I think, I think if I've got a talent, it's probably you know, being deceased, or see a story, whether it being a drama, or a documentary, and I pretty quickly can see, okay, that's the, that's the shape of the story, I can feel the shape of the story. Sometimes it changes a lot in the Edit, but usually you have something to start with. And then when you and then you've got all this material, whether there's merit, tainment material, or whether it's interviews, and archive or whatever. And then you just have to start somewhere and start with a seat. So you start cutting a scene, and then you've got another scene and they don't necessarily, and then at a certain point, like Well, I've got a lot of scenes, let's put them together and see what happens. And what and but I think this is the thing, I think that one of the reasons A lot of people have been like documentaries is it, I think, psychologically, it requires you to be really open minded, and to be open to you know, to not be not not not be prejudiced in your thinking. So you have to you have to think, well, maybe my original ideas were wrong. Maybe actually, that person isn't the key, the hero of the story, maybe that person turns out to be So if you kind of you have to balance the sense of, you know, I feel as a story, but also, oh, you know, maybe it's somewhere else, maybe it's And so that kind of open mindedness and a lot of directors are directors because they want to control every little thing. And if you're kind of directly control a little thing, then documentaries onthe whole pleasure of documentaries is not being controlled as spontaneity, you know, things happening unexpectedly in front of the camera.
Alex Ferrari 3:16
Isn't isn't a Hitchcock that said that when you're a director, You're the God of the of this, you're the God but when you're a documentarian the life is or nature or life or no God is, or God is in control, or something along those,
Kevin Macdonald 3:31
you know, well, I didn't know Hitchcock had said that, but I have my own version of that. Yeah. But I think that I yeah, I mean, I always say that, when I'm making, when I'm making a drama, I'm trying to take something that is, you know, written and sit down and dead in a way and try and make it feel like a document trying to make it feel spontaneous, to bring life into something that isn't dead on the page. And when I'm doing it, and when I'm doing a documentary, and trying to make what is chaos, feel like it was preordained, and it was scripted.
Alex Ferrari 4:04
And Yeah yeah. Because it sounds very chaotic. I mean, just like, we'll do a scene here, we'll do the same there. And after I've done like, 10 15 scenes, we'll just put it together and see what happens that as a filmmaker, it takes a special kind of filmmaker to do that. Because if you've been trained as a narrative filmmaker, that's insanity.
Kevin Macdonald 4:22
Yeah, no, it's certainly true. It is. And I think, partly the reason that, you know, I enjoy is because I'm a chaotic person. And I believe that, you know, there's a lot of wisdom and beauty in the every day and in things that we you know, don't necessarily pay much attention to in, in in narrative filmmaking. And so yeah, I think I'm sort of turned on by the idea of things happening for real in front of my camera, a real argument or real, you know, a real murder or real whatever, that there's something about that. That's just too Super exciting, I think I mean, to go back to sort of Hitchcock, I feel like there are two types of directors broadly speaking, I think there are those who like the children of Hitchcock, who do want to control everything and imprint themselves and everything. And then there are the children of Victoria De Sica, you know, Bicycle Thieves and all that. And those people, which I'm one, want to try and capture a sense of reality, and a sense of the spontaneity of life. And they often use non professional actors and music realization and that kind of things. I think they're I think they're two very different schools of schools of filmmaking. And you're either putting reality first or you're or you're or you're putting your vision first.
Alex Ferrari 5:38
And sometimes, and I'm trying to think of Jeremy Cassavetes is, is a good example of that. Yeah, he's a really good example of that. And sometimes you dance between the two, sometimes you have a vision, but yet you're open enough to being to see what happens. Like I've made I've personally directed a couple films that were very improv based. And it's, you're on the edge, like, you're on the absolutely on the edge, because you have no control, you're really just there to capture the magic, it's pretty, pretty, it's fun
Kevin Macdonald 6:08
And I think certain, you know, it's like a performance every day when you do that. So if you're not feeling it, it's kind of like, you can't get the actors to feel it. And you can't, you know, you've got to be person sort of creating that atmosphere of improvisational magic. And so you've got to be on. And so that that can be difficult, but I think all you know, every feature film I've done, or every, you know, narrative feature I've done. I think, you know, it is always a balance, it's a balance between things that you really want to control, whether that be the design, or whether that be the lighting in the scene, or the symmetry from that scene, or the way a line is said or whatever, there are obviously certain things that you would you want to really control and then the balance is the other side of it is that spontaneous stuff? So I'm always trying to have both and in the recent film, I've done the Mauritanian I worked with a dp is a great great German British American dp he lives here in LA now but he's but he's from Germany, originally called Alvin cooker who, who worked with Lynn Ramsay, I'm sure you let your listeners know. And Danny Boyle, sunshine, and Steve Jobs. And he's very dramatic. And he very organized, he wants to know, what are we doing? What does this shop saying? And that's that was really good for me working with him because he's not chaotic. He is he does want to think you know, very intentionally about everything. And actually, I think the balance between the two of us worked out really, really, really well. He I sort of brought more spontaneity to him, and he brought order to me.
Alex Ferrari 7:39
Now, one thing, when you're doing docs, you've done two documentaries on two musical icons, Bob Marley and Whitney Houston. How do you edit down a life of an icon into a feature film? Like I mean, I'm assuming both of those could have been multi, you know, that series essentially?
Kevin Macdonald 8:01
Well, they probably couldn't be but you know, their very first of all, they're very, very different lives. So Bob Marley wrote all his own music, wrote songs, which are about his own life, and expressed the central themes of his life. And so that film in a way was, you know, it was about taking someone who is a legend, who is a myth, and humanize them. So who is this person really? Who is this person who we all know who's part of everybody's like, when you can't walk down a street anywhere in the world without hearing my illness? I'm coming out of a restaurant or a bar, or a show. And, and so it's like, Okay, so here's a guy who's, you know, got this whole mythology around him, you know, who actually was the what was really motivating him and that so that, to me, is often the interest I have in celebrities. It's kind of like, let's push aside the veil. Let's actually see who is this person? And I think that's the curiosity that I that I have for about celebrity. I once did a film I did another music film, which was a big disaster, which was about Mick Jagger and that was done his invitation outs and followed him around little cameras in 2000. What does he want? I actually watched the Twin Towers come down with Mick Jagger standing in a suit dressing again, that's my favorite memories.
Alex Ferrari 9:24
Favorite and worse at the same time?
Kevin Macdonald 9:27
surreal is the correct
Alex Ferrari 9:29
that's exactly right. Can you imagine?
Kevin Macdonald 9:35
So so so getting in that film didn't work, partly because he is a really difficult person to get a handle on and to get beneath the surface on the surface is very entertaining with the funny bit. You always feel like you're on the surface. He's very protected after 50 years of biggest celebrity. But I also don't think I learned was don't ever accept a job. You don't have Final Cut. And I didn't have final part in the movie, we're kind of taken away from me and recap. And I was like, I'm never doing that again. And that's a that's been a, that's been a real, I think important decision I made in terms of documentaries and documentary about celebrities is, you know, you there's no point even enter into a conversation with someone unless they're willing to give you the final part. Because you're going to end up having to make the switch. Right, exactly. Yeah. But but but obviously, Whitney Houston is a very different thing. If Whitney Houston was a mystery, it's like, Who is this person? She's this voice, which makes you cry, which is incredibly emotive. But she never wrote her own song. She never gave any interesting interviews her whole life really, you know, she was an enigma. And that that was kind of what the film was the film that a film became about, you know, what's behind the Enigma? Who is Who is this? Who really is this person quiet? This voice that why is it so emotionally affecting? Is there something in her life that is brought given her this kind of ability to reach out and squeeze your heart. And so that actually was really hard. It was probably the hardest I've ever made a because it was so dark for life and the family have so dark and so depressing go to work every day? To an extent, and but also because it was everybody around her kind of lies about the library. Nobody wants to tell you what really happened, which we'd really like was because what was really happening was so difficult to prime to even, you know, 10 years after her death. We met, they wanted to be a fairy story, but it wasn't a fairy story. So so. So yeah, that was a very difficult and different different kind of film to make.
Alex Ferrari 12:01
Now, so you were saying earlier, the last, when you did the last King of Scotland was the first time you were actually really on a proper narrative set. That's a heck of a first set. I mean, that's not a simple film to make. This is not two people in a cafe talking. It's a fairly complex, large scale. I mean, it is really a story about the you know, the two, the two main, you know, Forrest Whitaker and James McAvoy is, but there are other subplots, and so on, but it's a big
Kevin Macdonald 12:30
it's a big skill film. And but I think, you know, sometimes ignorance is bliss. You know,
Alex Ferrari 12:36
I've heard that so many times on this show. So many times on this show, I've heard that from guts.
Kevin Macdonald 12:42
If you don't know, you're stepping into, you know, something difficult. I think also, you know, if you look at people's first films, a lot of people's first narrative films, they're, you know, there's some of the most interesting because I think you're, you're breaking the rules, and you don't know you're breaking the rules. They're not self conscious. And so I was bringing my documentary techniques, and my love for certain kind of film and my love of music to this thing. And I didn't know, I wasn't trying, you know, I had actually a very interesting experience before, and my brother used to produce Danny Boyle's movies. And so when I got the gigs do the last year of Scotland. When it looked like it was actually happening. I found out Danny Boyle, I said, Will you teach me how to make a movie?
Alex Ferrari 13:30
First of all, not a bad Not a bad phone call. If you have that number, not a bad number to have.
Kevin Macdonald 13:35
We met for a cup of coffee and then an hour he gave me a you know, two years of film school. And
Alex Ferrari 13:42
well, I have to stop you there. What can you give me one or two of those little tips that in that one hour
Kevin Macdonald 13:47
was your right now? I mean, you know, there were things that there were things that were just like small technical things like make sure your close ups the eyeline is as close to camera as possible. And I I didn't really understand why that was important. But then when I started doing it and started to sit, you know, get your airlines as close as possible to Okay, I can see this a bit like when I make a documentary I often use the Errol Morris technique of having people looking directly into the camera using what you know. I direct they're called is reflecting things so you can have somebody seeing your face, but it's sitting from the camera and there's something about the connection between the eye and the camera that even if you can't even directly looking into the camera, they're just off it because the emotion the seat of emotion is in the eyes and that's where you want the actors to be so and then he said things you know, we talk about sex scenes. I had a you know, quite a quite a big sex scene in that Kerry Washington and James McAvoy and I was nervous as hell about that. He told me Look, you got to rehearse it until it's so boring, but it feels like you're doing the laundry. And so I did that. And nice. And then he said to me, if your crew like you, you're making a mistake.
Alex Ferrari 15:03
Wow, that's the first time I've heard that.
Kevin Macdonald 15:05
Don't worry about the crew yet. If you'd like us because you're letting them go early, and you shouldn't be letting them go, you should be pushing to the edge. Anyway, there were a few others.
Alex Ferrari 15:16
That's amazing. That's got to be a fly on that wall. That was, but like I said, it's a good phone call to have. But if you if you make that phone call, good meeting to take. So you you're shooting last King of Scotland. I mean, when you're when you see forest doing what forest does in that film. It's remarkable. I mean, I remember that year when that movie came out. I mean, nobody could everybody just could not stop talking about Forest Whitaker. And we've all I mean, Forest Whitaker had been Forest Whitaker for a long time. But that that moment, it was like, perfect actor, perfect part. Perfect director of perfect story all hit at the exact same time. When you saw Forrest working on set, did you have an inclination and like, this is something he's This is special. And this is something going on here? Or did you just go good take force, let's move on.
Kevin Macdonald 16:07
Well, you know, it was kind of complicated because I so I cast James McAvoy read quickly, but he wasn't a star. I needed somebody you know, it wasn't an expensive movie. It was made for five or $6 million, no five or six main patents. So whatever that seven or $8 million at the time, that's 15 2015 years. So so so I met with a loader came to came to LA and I sat in a room with a sunset with the Chateau Marmont, actually on Sunset, and lots of actors came in Now obviously, I'd never done auditions before, really. So I didn't know what you were meant to do. But all the experience experienced casting director and actress came in. And I met kind of every well known African American actor of the time. And Person person came in and I felt they're not right, they're not right. doesn't feel right. And Forest Whitaker and he put on the list and I had said to the Casselberry something here is so clearly not right. Because he's such a gentle guy, his whole thing was this very lovely Zan kind of gentle. Jones, right. And the customer had said to me, Well, you know, we can't, we can't, we can't say no now to him, because it will look, you know, offensive, let's just get a let him come in and, and first arrived. And so literally, I had less than zero expertise, I thought we were just taking the meeting, because we had to, and he came in, and he he prepared like two scenes, which very few actors do for an audition, you know, they're not, you know, main actors and other, he had prepared, said he is he did an approximation of a Ugandan accent, which he'd also had to prepare. So it was immediately clear that you're someone who really wanted this who really connected with, in some ways, actually,
Alex Ferrari 18:06
essentially, audition. He, he's an
Kevin Macdonald 18:09
addition. Now, and, and he and he, he prepared these scenes, and we did them. And and he was and he was, he was amazing. And he and and so different than what I'd seen the first week before. And I guess it's, it was a lesson to me, you know, you know, if somebody really wants to do something, let even if you think that there's no way they're going to be right, let them let them show themselves, you know, because sometimes you can have got other things inside, I remember seeing the Forest, you know, I thought you were too nice. And he said, I've got a lot of anger inside. And so, you know, I think like a lot of really nice people, you know, maybe they're hiding something else, you know, and maybe those that it's this way they brought being brought up or whatever is to sort of, you know, appear to be quite passive. So, so yeah, he came in, and he came to Uganda, where we were shooting it, which was, I think, a key decision for me, I decided we have to shoot this in Uganda, that's the finance who is wanted to shoot it in South Africa, which was the kind of the known film place in Africa. And I went to both Africa and Uganda. And so that person has made people look completely different, the landscapes, completely different dresses with, you know, architecture is different. And I said, we've got to be in, we've got to be in, in Uganda. And I think that's a consistent thing throughout my career. I mean, it's either a good thing or a bad thing that I have no imagination about how to turn one place into another place. If some, if somewhere feels like really real. I'm like, well, we should shoot it here. Why would we not shoot it here? This is the quality, you know, that we're not going to get if we try and build a set or we do it. Right, right. I think that texture of the reality the real feeling of the place is important in filmmaking. And so he came to Uganda a month before we started shooting. And he hung out, he learned the language, he started eating Ugandan food, he just really immersed himself in it in a way that, you know, was was was deeply impressive, but also sometimes slightly worrying, because he, he started to believe that he was Idi Amin, in a way, and he started to believe that he I mean, was an innocent man. And that all these rumors killed people. Well, it's just rumors, you know, it's not, it's not reality. Because as he said to me later, when he came out and said, I have to believe that this man is a good person, a sympathetic person. So. So yeah, he went in, he went in deep. So it became, again, a very interesting thing on set, actually, because often, I was having to push him to be more villainous, you know, more aggressive, more mean more, whatever. Because his instinct was always to kind of go, Oh, I'm really I mean, and I'm a good guy. And a very interesting dynamic. So you say that was I looking into and looking at his, you said at the started all this off by asking, you know, we're then looking at his performance and going, Oh, my god, there's something incredible and special here. I was, but I was feeling like, you know, this is a battle of wills, in a way for me to, for him to get him to show the side of video mean that he didn't want to show. So that was very interesting. Also, on top of that, there's a very interesting kind of racial dynamic, obviously. So, so forest was a African American guy who was going to go to Africa for the first time, and I think that can be for any African American, I think, can be a really profound and meaningful moving experience. So I think he was sort of dealing with all of that. And in some ways, I became a kind of surrogate for the colonial idea, you know, the clone list in Africa or something. And so it was quite, it was quite a, there was a lot of friction in it, you know, it all ends up in the film in a good way, because the film is about colonialism, about post colonialism. And about, I guess what we would now call white privilege, you know, the, you go as a white person into African, you're like, maybe you can touch me, I can do what I want, I'm special, like, I can just get up and leave if anything goes wrong. That's sort of what that's kind of what the film is about. And so the energy that Forrest brought and his attitude to me and never actually really played into the film. ,
Alex Ferrari 22:40
so like, you were saying that, a lot of times you want an actor's especially in these kind of roles, the director, sometimes you just let them go, and, and you kind of maneuver, but I feel that from what you're saying, it was your presence, and his presence together that really built that up, because you're saying that without that friction, he might have just been a really nice, nice murderer.
Kevin Macdonald 23:06
Exactly. And obviously, the one of the side of that goes, the movie is kind of like the other part of the character rather, is a guy who and what makes us good performance is a guy who is funny and likeable, and sweet, but also that is a monster. And he's like, Yeah, he's a, he's a child in some way, psychologically, who's, whose development has been stunted by his experience of colonialism, and the expectations placed on him by colonialism. And, and so he, he knows no other way to control things and through sort of temper tantrums and, and violence and aggression. So yeah, to the end, it was a fascinating experience. And of course, because it was my first first feature film, I didn't know this was unusual or abnormal, or what it was, you know, this was just like, Oh, this is an interesting experience. And we, you know, we did we had, you know, all sorts of things on that film, which, you know, you would never normally do is we had soldiers from the Ugandan army come and they had their real rifles with them. And a lot of them were, they were fighting a war in the north Uganda that time and they were war vets, and some of them had PTSD and an explosion with some they were gunfire and the film would go off and they would all go go kind of crazy. And terms of very febrile atmosphere, at times on the set, but it was also had a degree of kind of non professionalism, which I think was useful, you know, so we had a lot of the crew, we couldn't afford to take over our crews. We trained a lot of people in Uganda, who had done a little bit so maybe a local video or this or that or, you know, but they didn't, you know, like the electricians were just household electricians, their hair and makeup people we found who did hair and makeup in Kampala, the capital. And so we, you know, it had this homemade feel to it, which I think was really Really nice. And it also meant that I was always exposed to real Ugandan opinions about Idi Amin and about the story I was telling, and people would not be shy about thinking wouldn't happen like that, or no, you know, when that line isn't right. And I remember one in particular, that was like, the guy said to me that there was a scene where I mean is with two hookers. And they were originally called, you know, Susan and Jane or something. And this guy came up to me, he was like working on the film without fusions, he said, in those days, all the hookers in the in Uganda Kob. Betty, that's what they should be called. That was the name they all use, and wine. So But more than that, there were people coming up to me in the film people, crew members, Ugandan members who would say, you know, this is this, you know, this is an important story to tell, because, you know, I mean, kill my father, or this is the consequences of the, you know, the consequences of this for my family were x y Zed. So, it became this very meaningful experience for the whole crew, they were all doing something that actually affected everyone in the country.
Alex Ferrari 26:14
That's, that's a remarkable story. And so you so that you're directing first time, you're really directing actors in that you've gone on to direct, you know, bigger films, larger scope films, I mean, the state of state of play alone has an insane ensemble cast. I mean, remarkable cast. I mean, as I was, as I was watching him, like, he's in this too, and she's in this too, and just like, My God, like, how did he get all these? This is amazing. How do you what is your approach to directing actors? Because every director has their own kind of flavor of doing it? How do you approach directing actors?
Kevin Macdonald 26:48
Um, well, I think it's probably the thing that I was most nervous about. Or when I came from documentaries, that not really understanding and feeling the actors were kind of alien species, what is it? They actually do? I did that, you know. And that's, it's taken me quite a few films, I think, to get into a position where I'm comfortable, I feel comfortable in the presence of actors and comfortable understanding, I guess, what they're trying to do and how you had best to communicate with them. I think it is a complicated thing. I think people who maybe come from a background, and we've done a lot of short films ever done a lot of theater, whatever, it may be better place, you know, than I was when I started. But I think that, you know, what I try and do very simply, is to create an environment for the actor where they feel like they can try anything out. And I'm really kind of, I'm judgmental most of the time, because I'll try and, you know, I try and get people to feel not just comfortable on the set. And it's a kind of family atmosphere on the set, loose, loose sort of feel, and a place where they can make mistakes. And nobody's going to judge them. You know, I want my actors to make mistakes, I want them to sort of try something. And they actually that didn't work. Let's do, let's say, and I guess I'm always just trying to get it's what I said earlier, I think about spontaneity and trying to get it to feel like it's real. Fun feel like the emotion in that moment is, is real. And I think through improvisation, whether might be like, you know, just throwing things up in the air. So, you know, forget about the dialogue, just do in this scene, what you think you should say? And you try that once? And maybe you get, you might get a moment, that's really great. But it also might loosen them up. And, and also, I think one of the things you've learned is that, you know, I remember being terrified in my first couple of films, you do, you rehearse a scene with actors, and the scene doesn't work. And you're like, Oh, my God, why did this just doesn't work? And then you're left thinking, Oh, my God, what do I do about it? And do I rewrite the rewrite the dialogue, I might just cut this story would have. And I think that what you realize is that you listen to the actors, because it's usually not working because the dialogue is, or the or the action, as described in the script is not what their character would do. And they know their character way better than anyone else. And they are usually the one that can help them. They can say to us so many times your scenes are saved by an actor saying to me, you know, I just wouldn't say that. But if he said that, and I said this, then suddenly, like, that makes sense for my character. And you're like, Oh, yeah, that's totally right. And so yeah, I mean, I admire what actors do so, so much, and I and I, and I could never, ever do it myself. And I think there's nothing better than that moment of magic when the camera turns over the first time. And the actor does something to a scene that you thought you knew what it was about. And suddenly it's like whoa, this is about so much. More than I thought I was seeing the surface of this, and there's so much else going on here, and the actors just made that happen on camera. And I love that. But I also think nobody's gonna say that, you know, I'm always fascinated when I started out, I think I used to think I want to do lots and lots of rehearsal. And he's trying to get as much rehearsal as possible time with the actors. And I've slowly come to realize that actually, rehearsing usually with Screen Actors, is only useful up to a point, there's no point in doing more than two or three days of it. Because people do not bring their A game to the rehearsal, they maybe don't even bring their c game to the rehearsal, because they're holding it all home. But so what rehearsals are great for is going through the scenes, and trying to iron out those script problems that are going to cost you a huge amount of time. When you get on set. You don't want to be sitting there discussing my motivation in this scene two hours in the morning, when you've got a hell of a lot to do. To discuss your motivation that that's in that scene or to RNA dialogue doesn't work or just to genuinely talk about the scenes. It's great. But actually performance, I found that never ever you get something in rehearsal that really even closely resembles on set. So over the year now, I sort of I will try and do two or three days of rehearsal, if you think it saves time, ultimately, later on, but I don't think there's much value in doing more than that.
Alex Ferrari 31:33
Now, your latest film, and please forgive me, the more Mauritanian
Kevin Macdonald 31:38
Mauritanian, you got it? Right.
Alex Ferrari 31:40
There it is. I got it, the Mauritanian starring the legendary Jodie Foster. Can you talk a little bit about that film?
Kevin Macdonald 31:48
Yeah. So this is a film which I think try and make for like three years, it's a very difficult subject matter. I guess. It's about preserving the Guantanamo Bay prison. And we we sort of take his point of view through the film. And he's played by a wonderful French actor called to Tahar Rahim, who even might have seen him in a profit, the Jakob reorg film from like, 2009, I think it was, which if you haven't seen it, it's a great great prisons and gangster movie. And he is an old friend of mine, we work together if you you know, 10 years ago, and he is a French actor of Arabic origin and North African origin, and has recently learned to speak English wonderfully. So he, you know, he performs in French and Arabic and English. And I needed to catch in order to get even a small amount of money to make this movie. He wasn't obviously a star enough and I needed to catch some big names and I was lucky enough that one of the producers on the project with Benedict Cumberbatch, he of Sherlock fame, then Dr. Strange
Alex Ferrari 33:00
Dr. Strange. Yes.
Kevin Macdonald 33:02
Yes. So he's a he's a he's a producer on the project and and he came on board as an actor to play a supporting role. And then I you know, that still wasn't enough and then Schilling Woodley came on board doing again, if you know, I supporting role, and then I needed you know, the other kind of main role aside from Tahar Rahim plays the prisoner in Guantanamo, is the defense lawyer, the real person for Nancy Hollander, and the first person in my head was Jodie Foster, because I could see that this character is going to be someone who's really tough on the outside. But, and kind of, you know, brittle and doesn't want to let you in. But when you do see inside you see someone who's kind of a bit broken a bit on so comfortable in their own skin. And I thought that if you look back at Judy's best performances, they were always something in that area. Yeah. And I sent the script to her pretty much 100% certain she's gonna say no, because God doesn't really act anymore. You know, she's so fussy about what she does wants to direct. She kind of as even her agent said to me, you know, I'll send it to her. But yeah, good luck. Yeah, exactly. Three days later, she comes back to me, and she says, Let's, let's meet and talk. And funnily enough, because we're discussing the title that we're retaining,
Alex Ferrari 34:31
just rolls off the tongue.
Kevin Macdonald 34:32
He says, It rolls off the tax rolls off me. That was the reason she responded to the email because she said, What the hell is the majority? She said?
Alex Ferrari 34:43
No, no. So note that never changed it. So that's so note to everybody make your title a completely very difficult word to say that no one recognizes and that's going to get
Kevin Macdonald 34:53
kind of an interesting thing because we did have a lot of arguments when it was sold under a different title than that, but it came back eventually to Mauritania. Thanks in part to Jodi's, Jody saying, you know, that's the title that hooked me. And also, there was a word of wisdom I got from my brother who's a producer and who produced the Alex Garland's film x maximum. There's another title, none of the knows how to say that
Alex Ferrari 35:17
rolls off the tongue
Kevin Macdonald 35:18
rolls off the tongue. But they had come to the conclusion when they were making that I think the producer Scott Rudin had said to them, it's fine to have a title that nobody knows what it is, because they that's intriguing. What is that? What does that mean? How do you say it? I kind of think this, you know, rather than kind of justice and honor, or something.
Alex Ferrari 35:38
Right? out, you know what, to be fair, if it would have been called justice and honor, I would have been like, but this No, you're absolutely right. If there is something to be said, I had a friend of mine who had a film called up solidia. And it was like, it's a made up word. And she told me, she was a Scottish director. And she and she told me she's like, it's the best thing because anyone looks, looks us up on Google where the only thing? We're number one, we're number one on Google for Absolutely.
Kevin Macdonald 36:06
Yeah. Anyway, to the to the to Jodi, and I talked about the character, we did some work, she was very astute about who this character was, and how much she needed. And that was, that was the first actor I've ever worked with, where she would go through the script and go, I don't need that don't need that. Because she says, precise about what she needs to express who this character is. And her whole feeling was, this is not about me, this is about Mohamedou, who's the prisoner in Guatelamo, and I didn't want to have like it to be about my personal life, my failed marriage. Those things can sit, you know, in a very nuanced way in the background, maybe. But this is about me being a lawyer and doing my job, and trying to create a relationship with this, this, this, this prisoner. And so, so, yes, she she, she worked in the script with me for a few weeks. And then, so yeah, and then, and that was, that was great. Because I think, you know, she is still, as you said, a legend, and she still brings a lot of cachet, you know, to the project. And that was the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle to get the movie financed and and get it made. And I you know, it's a it's a an amazing ensemble cast, if you think about it, you know, shaylee, Benedict, and, and dirty and Shahar is just magnificent. You know, I mean, I think he was made for glow, did a best act of God, one for Best Supporting Actor of the globes. And, you know, I think they deserve it. I think they deserve you know, more. So, you know, I think it's something magical. So when you get two actors together, who work in very different styles like God and to heart, the heart of every kind of improvisational, try this, try that. Jodi's very much like she's thought about it, she knows. But seeing them playing off against each other, that each one kind of seeps into the style of the other, it's really rewarding.
Alex Ferrari 38:12
So if our interview has said, our conversation has said anything, obviously you shot in Guantanamo Bay, so when you flew in, it was what everyone just let you in, right? It was no problem at all. You just got a permit. You just call up, you just call
Kevin Macdonald 38:27
It's what you know, we'd all seen Sherlock. Or dr. strange, but of course, we couldn't do that. There. We shot that in South Africa. We shot the whole movie except for we shot between South Africa and Mauritania, which is a country for those who don't know. So. I also by the way, on the subject of the title, my last word in the title, I said to people, you know, the Mandalorian nobody told them that doesn't mean anything. How do you say it? To be fair, people watching our movie, you've accidentally come into the theater thinking they were buying a ticket to the theatrical Mandalorian
Alex Ferrari 39:05
and they're and they'd be going, where's the baby Yoda? Where's the baby Yoda? I see Jodie Foster. I don't see a baby Yoda. If you would add a baby Yoda. It's a Final Cut somewhere. I think. I think the box office might go up a bit. I'm ready
Kevin Macdonald 39:16
to go. Yeah, so we we shot in Mauritania, which is on the northwest coast of Africa, below Morocco, Senegal. It's like one of the biggest countries in Africa. But nobody knows of it because it's like 3 million people. And it's desert is basically a big chunk of the Sahara Desert. And the people dress in this beautiful way and flowing to robes and the women are in colorful scarves and it's really a stunning place. June's camels, 500 miles of white beach that nobody goes on. It's amazing. And so we shot there for a week for the bits of the shed in Mauritania and the rest of it is South Africa. And we constructed the Guantanamo on the coast in South Africa because the real returns on the right on the coast in Cuba, I mean, it's kind of like, yeah, it could be a, you know, sandals Beach Resort or something there. It wasn't a prison. It's a kind of tropical paradise.
Alex Ferrari 40:12
Yeah, it's, it's, I've heard I've heard a bunch of stories about I'm Cuban by, by, by birth. So I am, I've heard many stories of, of Guantanamo and the soldiers fishing and just hanging out on the beach, surfing surfing and stuff. It's a it's an insane, it's an insane place. It's like there's no other place like it on the planet. But really, sort of
Kevin Macdonald 40:36
the whole point of that reason that they opened the prison there is because it's America, but it's not. So American law, according to George Bush's lawyers does not apply, because it's actually Cuba. And America only leases it. So, of course, there's many, many contradictions in that it's kind of like, you've got a naval base there. And the people, the soldiers and and sailors have to abide by American law. There are there's even, you know, America's endangered animals laws apply there, because there's a lot of reptiles, as they call all lizards and things were one of the ironies of Guantanamo is that all over all over the prisoner, the signs would say, Do not touch the iguanas, fine of $10,000, if you touch the iguanas, or of course, the same time, they're torturing prisoners, and, you know, not offering people the opportunity to even have a trial. And that's, that's really what the film is about. It's about this, the idea that these people were plucked from places in the world that were accused of terrorism. And then never charged, because they didn't have evidence against loving 85% of people who went there, we're just innocent people who got picked up, because their neighbor, you know, get a deal with the American government, we got $50,000 off or whatever, you know, American dropped a lot of leaflets in places and said, you know, if you have no pride of member in your midst, we'll get into them, we'll give you 100,000 bucks. And of course, you would like I don't like, I don't like Brian, who lives down the road. And he's adamant, five Member Assembly, but I'm gonna get rich. And that's what happened. They do recognize at 85% of people that had nothing ever to do with terrorism. And he was one of them. And yet he was caught there 14 and a half years. And it's the story of that injustice. And I think, you know what, I think for me, the key the story and why I wanted to make it is there are so few movies to the American movies, maybe none in the mainstream, which have a sympathetic Muslim League. Oh, man. Yeah. So So here's a movie, which is basically the trick of the movie is we're trying to get you as someone who might be, you know, anti Islam, and terrorism. And you would never rule out terrorism, but you know what I mean? And you by the end of the movie, you fall in love with this guy. And you feel like, this is a terrible injustice. So you start off being like, I know, like, everybody went down, but he must be guilty. And you end up feeling like, Oh, I love him, I want to drink. And so that's the kind of that was the that was the kind of just a simple kind of goal of of the film.
Alex Ferrari 43:20
That's amazing. And it's where's it available right now
Kevin Macdonald 43:22
to see is available to see right now in a very few theaters. wherever it's some theaters were open. And that mostly available on DVD? I think it's on you know that all the usual pay per view.
Alex Ferrari 43:37
Now, I'm going to ask you a few questions. I asked all my guests. If you could go back and tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?
Kevin Macdonald 43:48
like sex or about moviemaking
Alex Ferrari 43:50
about life in general, but less, but let's keep it I mean, sex? Absolutely. We could all go back because Jesus Christ Really? No, I'm talking about the business, let's say about the business.
Kevin Macdonald 44:03
Okay. Um, would I go back? And? I that's a really, that's a really hard one. I think I think that, you know, the key to any artistic endeavor, I think, is to find out what your subjects are and what your style is, discovering who you are as an artist. And I think that takes some time and take some mistakes. And so I think that I think that, you know, movies are very high pressure business, and people are always terrified and a lot of the bad behavior that happens in the movie business because a year I would say don't be frightened, you know, expect to fail. Don't worry about it. You know, you that's how you make Discovery that's how you find what's good and what what you know what you really what you really should be doing. And also think you just have to accept that, you know, not everything you do works. And obviously, the old days in the studio system, you know, you'd be a filmmaker, and you'd make 10 films in five years, and three of them would make money and the rest wouldn't. And that wasn't a problem. One of the difficulties these days is that you know, you're just judged on your last performance of your last film, what was, and that's a very, very high pressure thing. So try and ignore that pressure, that would be my
Alex Ferrari 45:35
now What advice would you give a filmmaker trying to break into the business today?
Kevin Macdonald 45:42
Be yourself, try and find the ideas that are uniquely originally yours. And don't worry too much about technique I think a lot of young filmmakers I meet and talk to are so obsessed with technique with, you know, style. And I think well, ultimately, that if you're making a pop video, yeah, that's super important. But if you're making a movie that people want to really connect to and love, it really doesn't matter. I think people obsess too much about stuff.
Alex Ferrari 46:11
Now, what is the lesson that took you the longest to learn whether in the film industry or in life? This could be about sex?
Kevin Macdonald 46:20
I'm not going to inflict those on my Yeah. So what's the lesson? That I took the longest like, Well, I think maybe no, this is a cop out. But I'm going to I'm going to say, working with actors trying to understand and not be kind of not feel that actors are aliens. You know, directors are from Mars actors are from Venus. No, it's not true. We are. We're actually both from Planet Earth. And I think it's that is that sort of being talking in very simple, emotional terms to actors. And understanding, you know, what the limits of what they can do, and what they can bring to the scene. But I think, you know, I remember talking to Great British director Stephen Frears. And he said to me, you know, as a director 90% of your work is done before you even step onto the set. It's about the script and the casket. And if you've got those two things, right. It's hard to miss out. And I think I think there's a lot of truth to that.
Alex Ferrari 47:31
Yeah, absolutely. And finally, three of your favorite films of all time.
Kevin Macdonald 47:35
Oh, boy, you should give me some warning about that. Three of my favorites. Okay. The Battle of Algiers.
Alex Ferrari 47:43
Kevin Macdonald 47:43
Yeah. Which is very influential film on me. I would also say a filmmaker, my grandfather, which I'm alive to have in this list, and I would encourage everyone to watch is the British system Kane. It's called the life and death, of course,
Alex Ferrari 48:00
Criterion Collection. LaserDisc. I saw that many years ago,
Kevin Macdonald 48:03
hearing collection Exactly. And then I'd have to say, seeing the rain because it's the most perfect, we've even made
Alex Ferrari 48:10
it very, very true. Very, very true. Kevin, thank you so much for being on the show. It has been an absolute pleasure talking to you. And continued success. And I really am glad that there's filmmakers like you out there, still trying to push the envelope and taking those swings at bat with stories that are important and it's not. I'm a big fan of the superhero films. I'm big fan of the big pop films, but sometimes you take a nice meal as opposed to just fast food all the time. So I appreciate you, my friend. Thank you so much
Kevin Macdonald 48:37
It's always really nice to talk to you.
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Where Hollywood Comes to Talk
Oscar® Winning Writer/Director
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