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AUSTIN, Texas - Depending on when you started paying attention to him, Kevin Macdonald is either a documentarian who ventured into fiction work or a fiction filmmaker who digressed into documentaries. After the success of “The Last King of Scotland,” however, he’s been impossible to ignore in any cinematic context and has repeatedly moved back and forth between the two disciplines as his career continues to deepen and develop.
His latest film is “Marley,” an epic biography of the life of iconic reggae singer Bob Marley. In Contention sat down with Macdonald at the South by Southwest film festival, where he discussed the challenges of examining such a ubiquitous figure honestly, reflected on the different directions his filmography has taken in recent years and offered a few thoughts about how he filters failure and success in an industry that looks at him as incisively as he does his subjects.
In Contention: The movie is terrific. What initially prompted you to want to make a documentary about his life?
Kevin Macdonald: Well, he’s just such an interesting figure, isn’t he? And his music still resonates around the world with everybody. There is no other musician who has had this impact, the sort of continuing impact that Bob has. You go anywhere in the world and for me in particular I went to Kampala and Uganda and when I shot “The Last King of Scotland” there and I went into the slums there and realized there was like a whole community of Rastas. There were portraits of Bob and murals and his lyrics up on the walls and you thought this guy sort of speaks to people in a profound way, in a philosophical way, to such an extent that they’re living their lives partly guided by what he says. There is no other musician who has had that kind of impact around the world; [although] in America and Europe there are Rastas and there are people who take it that seriously, maybe not that many, but there is just the fact that his music is absolutely ubiquitous and you can’t listen to the radio or go into a supermarket or go into an elevator without hearing one of his songs. And I think in a way, that was retrospectively part of what I think is interesting about making this film, that you hopefully people will listen to music that they’re already familiar with, and then hear it a different way because they understand the context of it.
IC: What did you already know about him, and what were the things that you particularly wanted to explore either for yourself or for what you would eventually put in the film?
Macdonald: I didn’t actually know. I just sort of felt like any documentary filmmaker -- you see an icon and you just want to get behind the icon. You know you’ve seen his face on a t-shirt, but what was he like? Who was the man? And I suppose I went in slightly cynical, probably feeling like he’s been so commoditized. But the thing is, I came out the other end feeling like he’s more of a hero and admiring him more than I did at the beginning for so many reasons, but I think largely because I think he’s not a hypocrite. I think he really lived the life that he preached and was truly driven to communicate his message to as many people as possible. That was the thing. That was why he was so ambitious and why he wanted his music to be heard. He felt he had this message that he wanted to get across, whether you believe in the message or not. That’s kind of an interesting motivation because it’s not the motivation of most certainly today or any time of most musicians, most rock stars or whatever.
IC: How careful did you have to be in depicting his willingness to make commercial decisions that even some of his band members would not have made in order to get that visibility?
Macdonald: I thought that was kind of interesting because obviously in the world of rock and roll, the whole concept of the sellout is kind of [a big deal]. And so there are a lot of people who say Bob sold out after, you know, when he split with Bob and Bunny and Peter and they were never as good again. Well, it’s shit. I mean they were better, probably -- they still did great, great music and many, many great albums. I think to me it was surprising when I learned just how ruthlessly ambitious he was and how driven he was, but I started to understand that he was partly motivated personally by his feeling of being an outsider, and that whole sequence in the film, the song, “Cornerstone,” and his attitude was I'm going to fucking show you white guys. I'm going to show you people why I'm going to be bigger and better than all of you.
So part was just personal psychology, but part of it was also the drive to communicate and put out the message, the teachings of Jah -- so even though Bob would kind of bend to the wind of commerce, do a disco mix of “Could You Be Loved” or whatever, he would do that in such a way that somehow it didn’t feel cynical and he would be then bringing people back to his records where there was a much wider variety of sounds and a more authentic reggae sound. So I guess it’s one of the great issues for any public figure, in particular for politicians -- how much can you bend to circumstance and compromise before you lose your soul? I mean it’s the subject of a million movies and a million books, and I think that in this case Bob certainly stayed on the correct line, but that very ambition and that drive is one of the things that I think is so misunderstood about Bob. Because I think people, the average punter who knows his music or whatever, suspects that he’s this dope-smoking layabout and actually he’s the opposite of that.
IC: As a documentarian how have you developed the ability to be very direct and aggressive about uncovering details about people’s personal lives? What to you is the key to asking people those questions without them feeling like you’re being invasive?
Macdonald: Well, I think this is not a cutthroat piece of political investigation. I'm not going in there and going “you have to tell me about this” and they’ll slam the door on me. It’s obviously not that. You have to judge and be sensitive to what they want to talk about and what you know. But I've found that most people that I've ever interviewed respond to genuine curiosity; if you genuinely are really interested, you’re not trying to make a point and you’re not trying to condemn them, people will talk about pretty much anything, and that was certainly the case.
The first interviews I did on this were with Ziggy and Rita and Cedella, and I was amazed by how frank and open they all were, and that sort of set the tone for the whole thing. They were, I think, relatively brave in doing that, and Cedella in particular, you feel this rawness of emotion that she still had, this resentment towards her father in a way, a sort of unhappiness, and she wasn’t sort of covering that up. I think in the same ways the audience senses whether somebody is telling the truth when they’re talking, the interviewee can sense whether the filmmaker is going in with an open and honest attitude. I don’t know, maybe that’s wishful thinking. One of the things I love about documentaries is you get to ask those really intimate questions of people without feeling embarrassed. I mean it’s the number one attribute of every documentary filmmaker: They’re all just really nosey.
IC: One of the things I really like about the movie is how detailed and thorough it is in terms of each development in his career, and that they all eventually sort of get integrated into the narrative of his life. Was there anything that either the folks that you interviewed didn’t want to talk about, or things that just wouldn’t sort of fit?
Macdonald: Yeah, I had my cut that had everything in it that I wanted to and it was three and a half hours. It was long. But I was contracted to make a two hour movie. But I started to uncover more and more stuff and more and more people talked who hadn’t talked before. I kind of felt that I had some responsibility in a weird way; it sounds a bit pompous, but I had some responsibility to actually make something that was not just a kind of 90 minutes wham-bam concert-footage, a few funny anecdotes kind of film. I wanted to make something that actually is historical.
It’s a balance in a documentary -- there is the educational element where you have tell people what is Rastafarian, what was the political situation in Jamaica in 1974, and you have to educate people in that. At the same time you’re trying to be entertaining and this film I suppose for me went further down the road of being sort of educational than anything else I had done before. But also because as soon as you step away from doing the wham-bam 90 minute version, you’re out of the three act structure. You’re into something more freeform, a sort of chapter-based kind of thing. And people said you could cut the bit about when he goes to Africa and beats up his manager and yeah, I think narratively I could have, but to me that tells you something about him. And it’s like if I was reading a biography, that would be a chapter I would be really interested in. So I'm going to keep it in.
A lot of some of my early documentaries, “One Day in September” and “Touching the Void,” the whole purpose of them for me is I wanted to make a documentary that works like a fiction film. It’s 95 minutes. “One Day in September,” the whole idea of it was make a political thriller that is a documentary -- it’s cut to thriller music and it’s pompous and kind of big music and whatever and kind of like hard-hitting. And then “Touching the Void” is structured very much like a fiction film. But maybe just in being bored of that or maturing or something, you kind of want more complexity from things and you want to allow room for people to be able to make their own minds up about things. People find their own path through it, and maybe some things they’re more interested in than others -- and whether or not audiences will respond, I don’t know. I mean obviously there is the audience, which is just Bob Marley fans who I'm sure will want to see the film. A general audience -- which is what I hope will go and see it, because it’s a really interesting life story and there is some great music on the side -- I'm hoping that those people will also enjoy it.
IC: In terms of the music how difficult or easy was it to figure out where to put the songs so that they actually had an emotional and a narrative context?
Macdonald: Well it’s just like an experiment, you know, an experiment of really trying things in different places. And there was a song, “Selassie is the Chapel,” which we used twice, and there is something about the quality of that song -- there is a purity and a spirituality to it that’s not sort of hitting you over the head; it feels like it comes from his heart and it was written and recorded in ’68 when he was at the height of his fervor I think and just been converted in a way. And it seemed like a great song to end with that wasn’t one of the cliché songs. But on the last night, I was watching the film play out and I thought on our end credits we’ve got “Get Up, Stand Up,” “One Love” and “Three Little Birds,” which must pretty much be the three greatest play-out songs of all time and they’re all in the same movie. I think that we were pretty lucky -- if you wanted to have that on your Warner Bros. action movie it would cost you two million dollars, probably, to license it. But they’re great, great songs; that’s the thing that’s easy to forget, [and] the reason we’re sitting here talking about it is because apart from all of what it means and whatever else, Bob is just a great songwriter. He probably wrote more real classic standard sort of beautiful songs than anybody but Lennon and McCartney, I suspect.
IC: At this point in your career, how do you decide between doing documentaries and fiction? And can you do those things concurrently?
Macdonald: Sometimes, yeah. We’ve started working on a documentary and then we’ve gone off and done something fiction and come back to the documentary. And I think because there is less money and less pressure, often in a documentary you can do that, but I just like the balance. I like to have a career where you can do both and because they both stimulate you in different ways and they’re both interesting in different ways. I'm hoping next to do a fiction film which will shoot in June, and I don’t have a documentary in mind at the moment but hopefully something will come up. I mean, fiction filmmaking can be a very bruising process and it’s much more all-encompassing, all-enveloping for you and you’re living your life through the movie for two years or whatever and that’s pretty exhausting. And to go from one to another to another is kind of nice to get a break and see the real world in between a little bit.
IC: What’s the name of the fiction film?
Macdonald: It’s called “How I Live Now” and it’s like a very dark teen romance with Saoirse Ronan, who is the lead, and I don’t have the boy opposite. I mean I've seen like 2,000 children in the last five months in England and I can’t find the right person, so who knows? It may not make it for lack of having a good boy.
IC: What sort of lessons do you learn from these two different disciplines of filmmaking? Because you’ve made these incredible documentaries, then did “The Last King of Scotland,” which was obviously very well received. And then “The Eagle” was-
Macdonald: Not so well received.
IC: I mean, do you learn something from going from one that is a significant success to one that’s a less significant success?
Macdonald: Well, I think anybody who has had a career of more than a few movies knows that some things work and some things don’t. And you know I've made three feature films and five feature documentaries or something like that, and lots of other little documentary things along the way, but two or three of them maybe have really worked and the rest kind of in one way or another don’t work -- and that’s just the way of it. I mean, I think that it’s obviously much nicer having a success, but I think you’ve got to develop a philosophy, otherwise you won’t survive. You have to develop a philosophy of, well, you learn from your failures and you go on and you try and make something else. Obviously the difficult thing is, particularly in the feature world, there is so much money involved that if you make too many flops it’s kind of hard to get the financing, whereas in documentaries it’s not quite the same.
IC: Do you feel like you can exert more control or authorship over something that is documentary than a feature film, like in a sense that you come out of “The Eagle” and it’s like, "Well, that didn’t really work," but are there more people who share the responsibility?
Macdonald: Yeah, well, no, I think as the director you’re always ultimately responsible. You feel you are, anyway. And what you have to realize is that in the films I've done that have been the biggest successes, there are things I don’t like, and in the films like “The Eagle,” which nobody much liked, there are a lot of things in that I really like. And so I think you have to not listen to the noise, basically, because if you do then you’re just going to be following "this is what I think people are going to want" and that doesn’t lead you anywhere good, I don’t think. So sometimes following your own instincts, your instincts are wrong. But I always do follow my instincts. I mean that’s the thing -- the choice of subjects I've made have always been because there was something in it that really interested me that I thought I’d like to explore that, and that’s an incredible privilege. There are not many jobs where you get to do that and you get to just sort of follow your own curiosity and your interests.
IC: How constructive can the feedback of reviews be?
Macdonald: I don’t read reviews.
IC: You don’t?
Macdonald: No, I don’t read reviews. I haven’t read reviews for a long time. People tell you what the reviews are. They say, “You got really hammered by The New York Times,” or whatever. I stopped reading reviews when I did “Touching the Void,” because I got the worst review ever in The New York Times and it was so upsetting reading this review and it was the first review that came out in America; it feels so personal. So actually in the end you know you know in yourself whether the film connects with the audience. You sit there. You do preview screenings. And I think now if I read a positive review, I kind of feel, "Oh, I don’t believe it," and if I read a negative review it just depresses you.
Having said that, I read other people’s reviews of other films. There are certain reviewers I really admire and who make you think about movies in a different way than you normally think about them. But it would be a very boring world if everybody liked or disliked the same thing. Some people like things and some people don’t like things, and that’s what makes culture and debate. And it’s nice to be able to argue with your friends about, “Why the fuck do you think that’s any good? It’s shit.” That’s what it’s about. If you make something that appeals to everybody, it’s bland, isn’t it? So people tell me whether I get good review or bad review, but I think reviews are like the lifeblood of the system.
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