Kevin MacDonald
Photo courtesy of MUBI

Kevin MacDonald: “You know it when you feel it”

Short Profile

Name: Kevin MacDonald
DOB: 28 October 1967
Place of birth: Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom
Occupation: Film director

Kevin MacDonald's new documentary, High & Low: John Galliano is in theaters now, and streaming on MUBI from 26 April 2024.

Mr. MacDonald, is it possible to be completely objective as a documentary filmmaker?

No, I don't think any of us can ever be totally objective. Films are all about manipulation and emotional reaction. If you make a film about someone you just deeply admire, you're going to be a proponent for them, you're going to be biased towards them. I suppose when it's something darker, something with a lot of difficulties and complexities, you have to try to be more objective. But the thing is, I’m a humanistic person; I don't believe there are very many villains or heroes in the world. Even the heroes have got something they probably be ashamed of, and the worst person in the world probably has something that might make you feel compassion for them.

You usually try to include both sides of the story in your films as well — in your documentary about the 1978 Munich Olympic terrorist attacks, One Day in September, you featured an interview with one of the terrorists.

Sometimes I get people saying that it’s wrong to include both sides, but I sort of disagree with that. I think it's the documentarian role to leave you asking questions and uncertain, to not to give comfort, rather than to just feed you propaganda. I think it's quite a big issue, particularly with political films in America these days, that they are so one-sided. They don't try to represent the other side in any way, or they don't represent the other side in a fair and a fair and compassionate way. And I think that is part of the reason for the polarization in the country. So I often find myself looking for people who can give a contrary opinion or a different side of the story.

“I learned in that moment, I’m never going to allow that to happen again. Basically, any film I do, I will have the final say, otherwise, I just won’t do it.”

Is that difficult?

Well, with my latest film High & Low: John Galliano, I found the hardest thing was to find people who were prepared to go on camera saying, “I don’t forgive him.” The only people who can say that in the film are Philippe, who is the victim from the bar, and [former Dior CEO] Sidney Toledano, who then does forgive him seven years later.

Even Naomi Campbell is on camera defending Galliano to the bitter end.

It is really interesting, isn’t it? I feel conflicted on that because part of me is like, “Oh, you're so unthinking,” but the other part of me is like, “Oh, you're really loyal to your friend. And it could be bad for you to appear on camera and to say this, but you’re willing to risk paying a price for the sake of your friend, and if that was me, I would like my friends to support me.” Thinking on a smaller scale, people who've done something horrible, like they cheated on their spouse or something, they still have their supporters, or people can even be nice to them despite feeling a bit disgusted by them.

With all that in mind, is there anyone you wouldn’t make a film about?

Good question! It all depends on the terms that we're making the film under. Very early in my career, after I made One Day in September, I made a film about Mick Jagger, and I did it because I thought this would be the most frivolous, fun thing I could ever do after having been involved in the quandary of the Middle East and terrorism and all the disagreements around that film. So, I did the film, and he took it off me and recut it and made it terrible. I learned in that moment, I'm never going to allow that to happen again. Basically, any film I do, I will have the final say, otherwise, I just won't do it. So when I’m approached with a request to make this or that film, most of those approaches go away, because I’ll only do it if they’re prepared to let me say what I want to say.

So if those terms were met…

If those terms were met and I was asked to make a film about Vladimir Putin, I would say yes. I mean, there probably are some people that are just too too repulsive. But I haven't met them yet. To me, this just feels like a really interesting quest, an interesting psychological study… Because heroes are not that interesting, ultimately.

How does the hero-villain dynamic shift when you’re making a feature film like The Last King of Scotland. It’s clear who the villain is from the start.

You’re right, I mean, the story of Idi Amin… He's a genocidal maniac. But he was also a product of the British Empire. And he really reflected back in this very warped way a lot of the things he'd been taught by being a member of the Queen's Ugandan regiment. I think I'm attracted to complicated stories and complicated characters, where they're not either completely one thing or the other. Think about a film like Silence of the Lambs, for example. He's interesting because he's complicated, because you can't completely hate him.

“What I’m looking for, in both fiction and documentary, are moments that are candid, like something that just happened in front of the camera, and it’s not going to happen again.”

What about with a film like The Mauritanian, where the line is a bit more murky, and initially we’re not sure if Mohamedou did what he was accused of or not…

With The Mauritanian, which is about a man called Mohamedou Ould Slahi who was wrongfully detained in Guantanamo Bay… He was vilified. For many years in America, he was seen as a complete devil. But you know, I spent time with him making the film, and he is just the loveliest person, he is now one of my closest friends. And so when you have that experience of really spending time with and really liking somebody, and then knowing that they've been so vilified, it makes you think, “Oh, we have to be very careful about who we vilify.” That might sound like I'm not prepared to take sides on anything, but I don't think that's the case. I just think that you can take sides on an issue and ideology without actually resorting to thinking people are subhuman. I’m very politically outspoken, but I would hope that I would not stoop to kind of that kind of dehumanization of people.

You once said that some of Tahar Rahim’s best moments playing Mohamedou in The Mauritanian were almost by accident. Are you trying to catch similarly candid moments in a documentary? Maybe even something shocking, or a confession?

What I'm looking for, in both fiction and documentary, are moments that you weren't expecting, and which the audience don't feel prepared for, moments that are candid, like something that just happened in front of the camera, and it's not going to happen again. Those are the moments you live for as a documentary maker. Where other directors just want to control everything, for me, I actually don't like controlling everything, I want to set up a structure and then allow the actors to play with the script to play with the character and hopefully something comes up that feels truthful in the way that I mentioned with Tahar. When I did the Whitney Houston documentary, there was a moment a week before we finished the edit, where Whitney’s housekeeper told us that Whitney had been abused as a child, and that suddenly explained the whole film, it really opened things up.

Is that how you know you’re making a film about the right topic, when something opens up in that exciting way?

Yes. When things feel like they're too neat and closed off, then I don't understand, what's the point of making a film? When you're doing these character studies of people like Bob Marley or Whitney Houston or John Galliano, I’m looking for a feeling of: there's something here that doesn't make sense, or there’s something that doesn't add up, and then figuring that out. And then as well, there has to be something that makes you feel like, “Oh I want to watch this, I want to read every word.” And that feeling is just… Well, you know it when you feel it, don’t you?