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People In Film | Kevin Macdonald

Kevin Macdonald | A Real World Director

Set in 140 AD, Kevin Macdonald’s The Eagle stars Channing Tatum as a Roman warrior and Jamie Bell as his Northumbrian slave. They both undergo a journey to search for a treasured golden eagle emblem lost years earlier by the Roman Ninth Legion. Based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel, The Eagle of the Ninth, the film is a tale of rivalry, defiance and friendship; an adventure that’s both intimate and filled with epic battle scenes; and an intriguing imagining of the Celtic and Pictish tribes that inhabited the highlands of Scotland. Producer Duncan Kenworthy had been inquiring about the rights to the book and was approached by Macdonald very soon after the director had completed Touching the Void. “I read the novel when I was about 12 years old and was absolutely held by it,” Macdonald says. “There was something about the atmosphere on the edge, and the way in which these cultures met – the Celtic, the British, and the Roman Empire – that stuck with me. The book fed my love of history, and now I felt I could tell it on film in a way that did justice to it and depict incredible worlds of 2,000 years ago.” Years went by until, as Kenworthy tells it, he approached Macdonald about directing the film; at the time, Macdonald was prepping Last King of Scotland. Kenworthy explains what made him conclude that Macdonald was the perfect match for the material:  “What’s always been central to the appeal of The Eagle to me is powerful and credible emotional storytelling about real characters in a real world. Two men struggling through the mountains of Scotland; wet, cold, hungry, once wanting only to die but now driven to succeed. Yes, they pray to different gods, and the world is unrecognizably violent, but we know these men; we feel the passions that drive them. They just happen to live 2,000 years ago. I realized then that it would be wrong to inflate it in any way; that it should be as authentic as a documentary made by Romans, wearing their own clothes, shot in the places they’d actually journeyed to. Exciting, of course – entertaining, certainly – but feeling real in every way. And with that realization, Kevin became the perfect person to direct it.”

Kevin Macdonald | A Real Film Legacy

For Glasgow-born director Kevin Macdonald, filmmaking began as a family affair. But although he is the grandson of the great Hungarian-born filmmaker Emeric Pressburger, film was not Macdonald’s first love. "I always wanted to be a journalist," he told the Telegraph. "But I couldn't even get a job as a trainee reporter. So, I taught English for a while, traveled and drifted into making documentaries." Wanting to learn more about his grandfather, Macdonald in 1995 made as his first picture a documentary portrait, The Making of an Englishman. (One year earlier he penned a literary biography of Pressburger, The Life and Death of a Screenwriter.) Other '90s docs included ones on the film directors Howard Hawks and Donald Cammell, the actor Eric Campbell and, years later in 2001, a portrait of Mick Jagger, Being Mick. Macdonald also directed a doc on the making of Shallow Grave, the noir thriller produced by his older brother Andrew. Has there been anything Macdonald learned from researching his grandfather that's guided his later film career? Yes, he told The Guardian: "My grandfather died before I started making films, but I definitely learnt this from him: believe in your own judgment and stick to your guns — 99% of the time, you’ll be glad you did.”

Kevin Macdonald | Starting with What's Real

Kevin Macdonald won the Oscar for Best Documentary with his 1999 film One Day in September, which told the story of the killing of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympic games. Among its archival footage and new interviews was one with Jamal Al-Gashey, believed to be the last survivor of the original group of Palestinian terrorists. Macdonald journeyed to Amaan, Jordan to meet the secretive Al-Gashey, who spoke in Arabic and whose face is in shadow throughout the interview. Wrote critic Amy Taubin in the Village Voice, “It could be described as the most gripping political thriller to hit the big screen in many years, although given the events it depicts through interviews, photographs, and news footage, the words ‘gripping’ and ‘thriller’ have inappropriately frivolous and commercial associations.” For his follow-up, Macdonald directed another interview-based documentary dealing with physical adversity. Touching the Void is the true story of mountaineers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, who almost perished while scaling the Siula Grande in the Andes Mountains. Macdonald trained his camera on both men for hours at a time, having them directly address the lens in order to, as he told Australia's ABC, "break down their defenses." He continued, "When a really interesting thing happens to most of us, we tell the story a few times to people and then after that, we’re not remembering the real event, we’re remembering the story that we’re telling about the event. And I think that is what happened to them. So I was really trying to push past that, get past that and get back to their real responses." Part of that process involved taking his subjects back to the site of their near-death experience and shooting in the mountains. "Going with them to Peru was physically a very difficult thing for me," he said. "It made me understand somewhat, what they’d gone through on the mountain.... how extraordinary their achievement was. But going back with Joe and Simon became quite an ordeal psychologically as well because they found it very, very difficult being back there." Touching the Void won the Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film at the 2003-04 BAFTA Awards.

Kevin Macdonald | Keeping the Drama Real

Following his two acclaimed feature documentaries, Macdonald chose as his first fiction film The Last King of Scotland, the fictional story of a young Scottish doctor who becomes Idi Amin's personal physician during the last years of the Ugandan dictator's regime. Based on a novel by Giles Foden that Macdonald read earlier while working at the U.K. publishing house, Faber and Faber, the film offered standout rules to two strong actors (James McAvoy as Dr. Nicholas Garrigan and Forrest Whittaker as Idi Amin), and a great character-based way of exploring an often-mythologized chapter of African history. It was also something of a crucible for Macdonald, who chose against shooting in a country with a real filmmaking infrastructure (like South Africa) in favor of the verisimilitude of lensing in Uganda itself. Until Macdonald's film, the country had never produced a feature, so the director and his team traveled with 40 technicians who trained a small army of Ugandans in the practices of moviemaking. And, just as it was for his doctor protagonist, the trip to Uganda was something of a consciousness-raising experience for Macdonald too. He told IO Film, "There are now undoubtedly human rights abuses going on under the new regime. That was one of things that I found quite disturbing in a way, I suppose, about making the film there. You arrive [to find] incredibly friendly people, an incredibly friendly country, the government giving you all the help you want, and it’s immensely peaceful and calm in the sense that there’s no crime really to speak of…. And gradually as you start to make the film, you start to hear, well, maybe not everything is as it seems.” The Last King of Scotland won BAFTAs for Best British Film, Best Actor (Whitaker), and, for Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock, Best Adapted Screenplay. Whitaker was also nominated for an Oscar, and his performance was generally hailed by critics, including Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek, who wrote, “This is a wonderful, horrifying performance: Whitaker doesn't take the easy way out by playing Amin as a killer clown, a treacherous buffoon. Amin might have been crazy, but Whitaker -- at the beginning of the movie, though not the end -- teases out threads of believable sanity and charisma. This is how dictators get away with murder: by wielding personal charm like a mace.”

Kevin Macdonald | Finding Solutions to Real Problems

Macdonald's next film, State of Play, was terse, topical thriller that generated drama both on and off screen. For his first Hollywood picture, Macdonald adapted the six-hour BBC mini-series about political corruption set within the newspaper industry — Macdonald's boyhood interest. "I thought the crisis in newspapers was something to be explored," Macdonald told The Guardian. "I love All the President’s Men and, in fact, all films about journalism. I thought we could make the last film about newspapers before they die.” Brad Pitt was set for the lead role.... until two weeks before shooting, when, citing script disagreements, he dropped out. Told Macdonald to The Guardian, "A week before shooting, I was left with this $2 million set of a newspaper room; it was dressed and ready to go. I was thinking it was all going to be knocked down unless I could find another actor.” That actor arrived in the form of Russell Crowe, who, paunchy and unshaven, was a far more believable version of Macdonald’s protagonist, whom he described to The Guardian as a "slightly closed-off, schlumpy kind of person." The film was generally well-received, although it became something of a poster child for the commercial challenges of the wide-release adult drama in today’s marketplace. Wrote J. Hoberman of the Village Voice, “State of Play is a deeply nostalgic movie. During the Depression, it might have been played for screwball comedy; 60-something years ago, it could have served as the basis for a private-eye story. Its heart, however, is in the '70s—the days when political conspiracy was hot stuff, investigative reporters strode the earth like so many grubby colossi, a journalist's greatest allegiance was to follow the story, and the promise of a shared byline was a bond stronger than sex.”

Kevin Macdonald | Finding the Real World Out There

The first of his two 2011 films, Kevin Macdonald's A Day in the Life premieres this January at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. And, he didn't shoot a frame of it. (Or, at least, that was the original plan — we’ll have to wait to see whether it turns out to be true.) On July 24, 2010, Macdonald along with producer Ridley Scott, Sundance and YouTube put out the call to everyday people to film that day in their lives. The finished "crowd sourced" film will be comprised of all those fragments. But how will they tie together? Before the project's start, Macdonald said he planned on a few organizing principles. The first would be temporal — the clips would be arranged, loosely, from dusk to dawn. The second would be musical; Macdonald would work with composer Matthew Herbert who would use the sounds of the clips as compositional material. The third would be thematic. "What are people going to film?" mused Macdonald in an interview with Moviefone.  "Am I going to get 10,000 people brushing their teeth or taking their dog for a walk? In some ways, that could be amazing — 10,000 people taking their dog for a walk, cutting from one to the other, seeing the different environments they're in and the different dogs. That could tell you a huge amount about life today and be very entertaining."


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