Documentary Filmmaker Enters the Realm of Fiction
by Roger Durling
Kevin Macdonald won the Academy Award for best documentary in 2000 for One Day in September, which chronicled the 1972 Munich Olympics terrorist attacks. He followed it with another documentary in 2003, Touching the Void, the true story of two climbers and their perilous journey up the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. Now, he has made his first dramatic film, The Last King of Scotland, and it features a tour de force performance from Forest Whitaker as Uganda’s Idi Amin Dada. Durling recently sat down with Macdonald to talk about his work.
How did you transition from making documentaries to making your first fiction film? I think I just got a little bit bored doing documentaries and thought it’d be a challenge to try something new. I’d always been a purist at documentaries. I was always into the anti-fiction films, but I learned to love the other, and decided that it would be interesting to do this film. I had read the novel [by Giles Foden] on which this film is based, The Last King of Scotland. As one of my pre-film careers, I worked in publishing, and the publisher I worked for published this book. And completely coincidentally, about six years later, the producers, Lisa [Bryer] and Andrea [Calderwood], who had optioned the book, called me up and said: “Are you interested in doing something in Africa? We have this book called The Last King of Scotland; have you heard of it?” And I said I knew it very, very well, and that’s how I got involved. I started working first with screenwriter Peter Morgan, and then with a screenwriter named Jeremy Brock, and here we are now.
This is one of the first films to shoot in Uganda since the second unit of The African Queen in 1958. This film was the only film shot in its entirety there. And, initially, the producers obviously wanted to film this in South Africa because that’s the default African country for African-set movies. I said I wanted to shoot it in Uganda, the real place, using the real buildings, because all the buildings in [the movie] are the places where Amin really lived. A lot of people working on the film had known him, had obviously grown up during his regime. So I thought that would have an impact on the way the film felt. Coming from documentaries, that was important to me.
And how did the people of Uganda feel about the fact that you were telling this story? What was so surprising was that we met with nothing but enthusiasm — and I know that’s what any filmmaker would say, but actually it really was true — we met with people who really wanted this film to happen. The government gave us permission to film all over the country, to use the army, and to film in the Parliament while debates were going on below. And the people who worked with us on the crew and who we encountered every day were excited that Amin’s story was being told. I remember one of the actors said to me: “The reason that it’s important this film happens here is because at the moment Uganda is best known for Idi Amin, and I want it to be best known for The Last King of Scotland.”
You’re probably going to tell me Forest Whitaker was the first choice. How was the process of casting him? I’m not going to BS you. When we faced the script, I actually thought “There’s nobody to play this part,” and I looked around and watched a lot of tapes. I met people in Britain; I met a few South Africans; I watched tapes of some South African actors. And I thought for a while, “Oh my god, there isn’t anybody.” And then I came to America and I met Forest. Andrea and Lisa, the two producers, were always saying to me Forest Whitaker is the one, and I was always saying to them: “I’ve never seen him do anything like this; I’m not sure, I’ve seen Forest do wonderful performances but to me he seems such a gentleman, such a sweet person, so internal in a way.” So I couldn’t imagine him doing this explosive, angry, terrifying performance. But then I met Forest and I realized all my preconceptions were wrong.
I saw this movie as a bizarre kind of beauty-and-the-beast love story. Absolutely. That was the first thing that the writer and I said to each other: “This is an unlikely love story between two men.” And I think that comes across in the film, as bizarre as it may sound. I think it does come across as a weird, warped love story. The heart of that to me is the scene when Idi hugs Nicholas, and then Nicholas hugs him back. Even though he’s trapped and frightened, Nicholas hugs him back, and that says something about what’s at the heart of the movie.
How much of the documentary experience that you’ve had helped you with this film? I think it influenced me enormously. I had never worked with actors before, really, and I had never worked with a script before. So obviously what I brought to it was my documentary experience and what I wanted to try to capture was the kind of spontaneity of a documentary in a fiction film. We would often try as much as possible to do long, long takes, and try not to break up the scenes, and we tried to keep going when no action happened, to try to capture little bits of things in the scenes that were unexpected. We did a lot of filming when people didn’t think the camera was on — for instance with extras — just to get moments that are spontaneous.
4•1•1 The Last King of Scotland will be screening on Friday, October 13 at the Riviera Theatre. See our Movie Guide on page 84 for more information.