In Kevin Macdonald’s films, it’s not easy to tell fact from fiction, says Miles Fielder
Filmmaker Kevin Macdonald is trying to convince me that James McAvoy, fellow Scot and star of his new film The Last King of Scotland, is a prima donna. “He was really lazy. Everything was a big effort for him,” Macdonald says. And then his face cracks into a grin and he gives up on the joke. “Oh, okay. James is great. For someone who’s relatively young he has so much professionalism. He was a joy to work with.”
The Last King of Scotland, which opened the prestigious 50th edition of the London film festival in October, has been adapted fromGiles Foden’s well-received novel of the same name by veteran British screenwriters Jeremy Brock (Mrs Brown) and Peter Morgan (TheQueen). It tells the story of a young doctor, Nicholas Garrigan (McAvoy) who goes to work in Uganda during the reign of Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker). Garrigan’s naivety and arrogance allow him to be seduced by the charismatic African tyrant ( who at one point declared himself a suitable candidate for the throne of Scotland), and he becomes his personal physician and trusted advisor. It’s a flashy yet gritty film that initially plays like an adventuremovie before morphing into a political thriller, and it freely mixes fact with fiction (Garrigan is a fictional creation). Appropriately, The Last King of Scotland is the fiction film debut of Macdonald, who is best known for his 1999 Oscar-winning feature length documentary about the hostage crisis at the 1972 Munich Olympics, One Day in September.
“The main challenge for me,” he says, “was getting inside of the characters’ heads so that we can see what they’re thinking. Actors think in a different kind of way. Their reaction to the script is a different one from mine, an emotional one. So I had to try to understand their not entirely rational reactions.”
Macdonald, who was born in 1962 in Gartocharn on Loch Lomond, was never particularly interested in fiction filmmaking. In fact, he harboured no great burning ambition to make films of any kind at all. “I had an idea I wanted to be a journalist,” he says, “and so I wrote a few articles that were published here and there. But I left university at a bad time, during the recession when there were no jobs. So I went to Spain for a year and learned Spanish.” When Macdonald returned to the UK he continued to write for the national newspapers, and that led to a book, Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter, which Faber published in 1994. Together with director Michael Powell, Pressburger was responsible for creating big screen classics including Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes and 49th Parallel, for which Pressburger won an Oscar. Pressburger, who died in 1988, was also Macdonald’s grandfather.
A year after writing the book Macdonald made a documentary, The Making of an Englishman, which was a journey through Europe, tracing his grandfather’s origins from his home in Hungary to Berlin and Paris and then, fleeing the Nazis, to London where he met Powell. Commissioned by Channel 4, the documentary was Macdonald’s first professional filmmaking assignment, one which he undertook with his younger brother Andrew, who produced it between two fiction films that would make him one of the best-known names in Scottish cinema, Shallow Grave and Trainspotting.
The Making of an Englishman proved to be the making of a Scotsman. Macdonald followed the film with a series of shorts and television documentaries, among them Chaplin’s Goliath (about the Scots actor Eric Campbell, who played pantomime villain to Charlie’s Tramp), Howard Hawks: American Artist, and Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance, but felt stifled by the limits television imposed on his filmmaking.
“It may be arrogance,” Macdonald said at the time, “but I’d rather have 1000 people watching my film in a cinema, concentrating on it and then being able to talk about what they felt, rather than have it go out on TV.”
With former Edinburgh International Film Festival director Mark Cousins, Macdonald co-wrote Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary, which argued that documentaries need not follow the puritanical approach pioneered by John Grierson (who won Scotland’s first Oscar for his doc about Clyde shipbuilding Seaward the Great Ships). Instead, argued Macdonald and Cousins, documentary filmmakers should, as their book’s title suggests, embrace a more ambiguous relationship between factual and fictional filmmaking. “In the end,” Macdonald maintains, “you’re trying to present a set of interesting characters in a particular story, whether it’s documentary or fiction.”
Another year on, Macdonald put those ideas into practice when he made One Day in September. Criticised for playing fast and loose with the truth, the film nevertheless beat the hotly tipped Buena Vista Social Club to pick up a Best Documentary Film Oscar. One Day in September, along with Macdonald’s follow-up, the BAFTA-winning Touching the Void, paved the way for the kind of highly cinematic documentaries that are now regularly to be seen in multiplexes. That may be Macdonald’s great achievement, but he’s brought the tricks of the documentary trade to his fiction debut. The Last King of Scotland might fall into the latter category, but for Macdonald it’s not that black and white.
“I wanted to shoot the film in the real place,” Macdonald says of his decision to film in Uganda. “I guess coming from documentaries that’s only natural. I wanted to have that texture of reality. The thing is you’ve got very few choices in terms of what you say at the front of the movie. You can either say nothing, which is basically saying, this is fiction. Or you say this is a true story, or it’s inspired by real people. What you really want to say is some of the people are real, some of them aren’t, this bit is real and that isn’t.
“I like messing with people’s heads a bit,” says Macdonald. “I like treading that terrain.” The Last King of Scotland is released on Jan 12. Giles Foden writes about the big screen’s relationship withAfrica in next week’s ABC.
Taking a view: Kevin Macdonald at the camera Picture: Neil Davidson