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HomeColumnsDirector SeriesDirector Series-Kevin Macdonald-Last King of Scotland

Director Series-Kevin Macdonald-Last King of Scotland


Filmmaker Kevin Macdonald, an Oscar-winner for his 1972 Munich Olympics documentary One Day in September and a BAFTA Film Award-winner for his mountain-climbing film Touching the Void, returns with a real-life tale of terror, The Last King of Scotland. Adapted from the award-winning, history-inspired novel by Giles Foden, it explores the fascinating and frightening post-colonial reign of the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) through the eyes of a naïve and idealistic Scottish doctor (James McAvoy) fighting for his own survival.Whitaker delivers an outstanding performance as the tyrannical ruler, transforming himself from magnetic leader with ambitious plans for his nation into the megalomaniacal murderer of half a million of his countrymen.Deftly mixing performance and visual style, Macdonald takes the viewer on a shocking ride into the past as he and his crew skilfully recreate the mad world of Idi Amin’s Uganda.Below the Line: What appealed to you about this project?Kevin Macdonald: What attracted me was the central relationship, where you have two completely contrary characters—the larger-than-life, charismatic, but also psychopathic and terrifying Amin who embodied all these contradictions, and this small white boy who is a doctor just recently graduated from college who is sucked into his circle. He and Amin are at opposite ends of the spectrum. That fascinated me. I also thought it was a good vehicle to say something about the relationship between Africa and the West.BTL: You have never worked with director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle before. What made you choose him for this project?Macdonald: I met him once with my brother Andrew, a producer who had done Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, which Anthony shot. I thought that he would be the perfect person. He’s a part of the Dogma movement. He shot Lars von Trier films, like Dogville. He was used to working very fast. Because he worked in the Danish film industry, which doesn’t have a lot of money, he doesn’t complain if he doesn’t have all the toys. He figures out clever ways of doing things and finds creative solutions. He also loves Africa. It was important for the crew to really want to go there, to find it an exciting adventure, because it was tough. He was the only member of the crew who had filmed in Uganda. He is also a tremendous motivator. He was always the one keeping the energy up on set. That was very advantageous to me.BTL: The cinematography has a grainy, almost washed out look like footage from the film’s actual time period. It reminded me of old Super 8mm film.Macdonald: Exactly. That was one of the bold things we decided to do. We did not have enough money to shoot 35mm. It would have limited what we shot. Being a documentary filmmaker, I like to shoot a lot and see what I can do with it later. I wanted to shoot a lot of the scenes with two cameras. We couldn’t afford to do that, so we decided we’d shoot in super 16mm for most of the film. The night stuff—about 20 percent of the film—is shot on 35 because 16 doesn’t respond as well in those exposures. Also in some of the big crowd sequences where we specifically wanted to see detail, we used 35mm.We decided to go a stage further and go widescreen, so you really only get a small strip out of the middle of what is already a small piece of film. I think that it gives a real 70s flavor. That’s what we decided would justify using Super 16. It feels period and slightly dreamlike as well. It is the kind of thing that I haven’t seen done before, going widescreen from 16 like that. You couldn’t have done that a few years ago because you could never go widescreen with 16mm off an optical. It all went through a DI at the Framestore in London. They were fantastic. We had to do all sorts of things to make it work.BTL: Your costume designer Michael O’Connor is new on your crew.Macdonald: I knew Michael O’Connor a little bit socially and thought that he was the right kind of person. On a tiny budget of about $120,000, he made all the costumes in the film, a huge amount—all those period uniforms, the vintage costumes, the dresses for the women in the party scenes. He was sourcing everything in Uganda. He had to find seamstresses. He persuaded a clothes factory there to make the uniforms. It was a complex behind-the-scenes thing going on, not like a normal production where you go to the rental house and say I want a hundred of those. He did incredible things.BTL: The production designer, Michael Carlin, must have had similar challenges to overcome.Macdonald: Absolutely. Trying to do period for no money is hard, especially in Uganda where everything disappeared or was broken or destroyed. Certain things are very cheap there. The hospital where we shot was this huge building. The exterior was repainted for $2,000, the interior for another $500. You could have 10 people or more working for a few thousand dollars. Locations like the swimming pool, the Parliament building, the offices and the palace were all Amin’s real places. We painted and touched them up. We did a bit of building in a few places.Those things you could get done. But things like period cars were among the hardest things. Most of them didn’t work. They had to be pushed. The big car that you see outside of parliament literally wouldn’t go so everybody was pushing. James, the actor, would push it himself, then run around the side and jump in. A lot of things were like that, authentic things that we had found that were sitting in a garage like the Citroën that crashes in the cow scene. That was Idi Amin’s real car. The limousine was actually Amin’s limousine. That was a bit hair-raising, but it also gave the film a nice homemade feel.BTL: Did you have to bring your cameras and film equipment in?Macdonald: There has never been a film made there before. There is nothing there at all. We had local people working for the art department as carpenters or some who were trained in architecture. People who worked in makeup had little stands by the side of the road and did hair. The head of every department was responsible for finding and training local people. They had never been near a film set before, but the Ugandans loved it and were very enthusiastic. They made the whole thing feel fun. It was an exciting experience for them, as it was for us being there.BTL: What is it that makes you want to work with editor Justine Wright time and again?Macdonald: I’ve worked with her on all the feature documentaries and various other smaller things that I have done. She came from a commercial background. Originally I hired her because I didn’t want the traditional documentary editor. I wanted to do something different—to make a thriller documentary. Now that we’ve worked together so much, I feel very confident leaving her to get on with things. Almost always she’ll choose the takes that I want. She finds ways to make things work that I am convinced will never work. It’s a very short-cut relationship. We don’t have to discuss everything in detail. She is tremendously creative.We shot very quickly in Uganda. There wasn’t always the coverage or it was difficult to cut. Justine is very inventive and doesn’t just look for the normal type of coverage. The editor-director relationship is overlooked by the general public. They think the editor just puts shots together. There is always so much that has to be created in the cutting room. She is fabulous at that. She makes the film as much as I do in a way.BTL: I found the use of score, songs from the period and African music to be an especially effective musical style for the film. Was this combination of musical elements a new type of challenge for your composer Alex Heffes?Macdonald: It was, but he came to Uganda with us. Alex has done traditional film scoring, but I think he enjoyed the work out there recording traditional folk songs including the one sung by an 18-year-old girl with a beautiful voice. That was recorded outside under the trees. I did a lot of research while there. There were guys who col
lected old records. They did early evening clubs in Kampala and played me discs—Afro-funk, 70s African pop, sort of James Brown meets traditional Africa. Over half of the songs were found by Abi Leland [music supervisor]. I had the privilege of doing screen tests and auditions for the best singers in the country. Alex worked with them and arranged the music. He loved it because he was really part of the film instead of the usual thing where you get to the end of the edit and hand it over then.BTL: Did you have anyone in Uganda that helped coordinate for you?Macdonald: I had an assistant who was a local playwright, Charles Mulekwa, who made sure everything was authentic. He was able to say, “No, we would never say that,” or “No, the women weren’t wearing that.” I’d say, “I want this group singing in the background in this scene.” He would go off and make up a song with them. Then the women would sing and perform beautifully. He was invaluable to me.There was a wonderful woman, Emily Mabonga [location manager], a qualified doctor, who thought it would be fun to work on the film. She found the locations. She used to ride around with a letter from the president and say, “I come with the authority of the president. You’ve got to let me film in your house.” She is very feisty. Generally Ugandans are quite gentle. If someone says no, they don’t ask again, but she is the opposite of that. We could never have done the film without her. There were lots of people like that who were fantastic.

Written by Mary Ann Skweres

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