Interview: Kevin Macdonald – 'TV is so full of optimism and money, whereas film feels like it's in retreat'

Interview: Kevin Macdonald – 'TV definitely is so confident at the moment, so full of optimism and money, whereas film feels like it is in retreat'

Filmmaker discusses streaming vs cinema, his influences and why Singin' in the Rain is one of his favourite films

Cromarty Film Festival returns to the small Black Isle seaside town just north of Inverness for its 10th annual celebration of much-loved cinema. Dubbed 'Cromarty "My Favourite Film" Festival' thanks to its programming of guests' treasured celluloid gems, the festival boasts remarkable presenters every year and 2016 is no exception. In addition to Channel 4 News' Jon Snow, Oscar-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan (Mad Max: Fury Road) and novelist Michel Faber (The Crimson Petal and the White), Glasgow-born director Kevin Macdonald will present classic musical Singin' In the Rain and his own 2003 docu-drama Touching the Void. We caught up with the filmmaker for a wide-ranging chat about his career, the benefits of online distribution and some of his all-time favourite films.

You're serving as a guest programmer at Cromarty Film Festival where you've been tasked with picking one of your favourite films plus one from your own filmography… how did you choose?

I sent them a list of five films and the one they are showing is Singin' in the Rain. It's one of my top five films, although I'm not really a great list-maker with a constantly evolving list of favourite films. But I do think that movie has stayed with me, whenever I see a bit of it on TV I have to carry on watching it – it's maybe the single most entertaining movie ever made. The level of plot, dialogue and acting brilliance, the amazing camera movement, dance and songs make it a purely cinematic experience. It's art meets entertainment in the best possible way. That's why for me it's one of the great movies.

I got into the work of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen was because one of the first bits of filmmaking I ever did was a little 15 or 30 minute profile of him for the [Edinburgh International Film] Festival. He was meant to come to Edinburgh for a retrospective programme about him but at the last minute he couldn't and invited someone to come over to interview him. I was working at the festival at the time and I interviewed him in New York and made a little documentary which went on BBC Scotland. Bits of interview were used to introduce the various films. That educated me in musicals, I'd always liked musicals actually; I'd love to make a musical but it's hard to get the opportunity these days.

Picking through your filmography, it's incredibly varied, from the documentaries and biopics to films like The Eagle, State of Play, How I Live Now… do you actively look to work in new genres?

I don't think about things in terms of genre, really. I prefer to think in terms of stories that interest me, or worlds that I'd like to do something in. With State of Play there'd been a TV show made which was very good, I didn't think there was a point of doing a film until I started getting interested in journalism and the state of journalism. In some ways that film is quite prescient of this election in America. It feels to me that one of the big problems in Britain and America, but mostly in America, is there's no politically objective press any more. There's no sense of journalism that everyone trusts, respects and admires. That film was about that sense in journalism and I thought it was dangerous thing, the death of the authoritative journalist and newspaper and the rise of the blogger, which is what it was then.

For The Eagle, I loved that book as a kid and I have three little boys and wanted to make a film they would like that was an old fashioned adventure. There's usually some personal thing or some intellectual thing that gets you interested. Like with Bob Marley I just thought he was a fascinating enigmatic story, it was just a personal passion for that story. I suppose I'm not a specialist, I'm not a professional in that way, I'm an amateur moving from one passion to another without necessarily developing a great expertise in any one area.

How I Live Now is probably the one film in my career I'm most disappointed in that it never really found its audience. Everybody in the film is good and Saoirse [Ronan] is particularly fantastic in it, it just fell a little bit in between being a teen film and also very adult in the darkness and the thematics of it. I loved that book and the intellectual idea of tricking the audience into thinking this is a familiar teen story or 'troubled American girl comes to Britain, falls in love and lives happily ever after'. I thought it [would] be interesting to take that and turn it completely on its head, you think you're watching a very conventional movie and actually it turns out to be deeply dark, unconventional and psychologically disturbing. It's alternative version of now, and that's certainly in the book, it's now with a twist. In fact it feels like the past, maybe the 50s because you have this Enid Blyton quality to the kids in the countryside going on picnics. That's really interesting to me, that timelessness. The tone of that book is very interesting, it's a bit of a masterpiece.

One of your upcoming projects is an adaptation of The Book of Strange Things by your Cromarty Film Festival co-guest Michel Faber. Did you know you were both contributing favourite films?

I've only met Michel a couple of times, but we optioned the book and I'm just in the cutting room now on my third day of editing a TV pilot for Amazon and we'll see whether or not they turn it into a series. I've just returned from Namibia and South Africa where we've been shooting that.

Speaking of streaming on demand, your documentary Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang was released by Netflix

They picked it up. It premiered at Sundance and they bought it there, which I was very surprised by.

From reading industry press it sounds like they were pretty aggressive at Sundance [in 2016].

They were buying a lot of stuff and I think we were lucky to get swept up. They paid a lot and it's a very uncommercial film, it's the profile of an artist and isn't a big audience film. I was very happy they found it interesting enough to buy and put it on the platform and I'm sure it'll get a much wider audience than it would on any other distribution platform.

So the experience of it being picked up by Netflix as opposed to an indie doc distributor was a positive one?

It was very good. There are many aspects of the new streaming world we live in that's a bit scary for filmmakers, but that's one of the great things if you're making a very small film like Sky Ladder, a very niche film, and it gets picked up. You know first of all that it's going to be seen by many more people, maybe not theatrically, but it's seen by many more people. It never would have been seen by many people theatrically, but it also is going to have a longer life. And that's one of the things that's nice about the streaming universe.

Something like How I Live Now, which didn't really find its audience when it came out, is on Netflix and has continued to play. And that wouldn't have happened five or six years ago. Once a film is out and if it hasn't done well, that was kind of it. It might [have played] on TV late at night. Now I think there is a way to find your audience for longer and people rediscover things. The bad side is people aren't going to the cinema in the same numbers they used to, particularly to see smaller films. They may be going to see The Avengers, but they are not going to see smaller films in the same numbers with the same passion as they used to because they can watch so much good stuff from the comfort of their sofa.

Edinburgh, where I'm based, seems to be exceptional in having a such strong cinema offering.

Edinburgh has always had that, partly because of the Filmhouse, which used to be so well run and interestingly programmed. There's always been a passion for film in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Edinburgh has always been film-loving and maybe that's partly to do with the longevity of the film festival. You can go to places like Birmingham and they have no interest in film. There are many big cities you can go to and there's nothing [like that]. Even Manchester, there's not a lot. Edinburgh and Glasgow have big passions for cinema, Brighton has big passion for cinema.

I'm no expert but I think there is a way for cinema to continue. It's just harder and harder to get smaller films, particularly smaller British films, commercially viable in the cinema. So we have to acknowledge that TV or streaming funding plays its part. Recently I did this pilot for a Stephen King show called 11.22.63, and this pilot here for Amazon. I'm not sure I'll do any more but it has been an interesting thing to step into and see the differences between film and TV. TV definitely feels like it's just so confident and giving at the moment, so full of optimism and money, whereas film feels like it is in retreat.

What were the other films you picked for Cromarty Film Festival?

One of them was Sullivan's Travels, the Preston Sturges movie, just because I think it's a film about filmmaking just like Singin' in the Rain. It's a fantastic lesson to every filmmaker about what filmmaking is really about. Also, all the Coen brothers films come from watching Preston Sturges. I love the Coen brothers and they love Preston Sturges. I chose it as a representation of him and his influence.

Then I chose a film that is one of my grandfather's [Emeric Pressburger] films, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, for personal reasons because it's a film very much about my grandfather. He wrote it and it was an autobiographical story in some ways about this refugee coming to Britain and what he makes of Britain, how he feels at home and not at home in this country. It's full of personal resonances for me and my family. It's also a great piece of filmmaking.

I chose a couple of modern films, Barry Lyndon because it's my favourite Kubrick and having watched it again recently at the cinema I absolutely adored it. I had The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris' greatest film and the film that inspired me to go into documentary making. It's a bit dated now, but it's a model of brilliant investigative journalism and highly stylised, interesting filmmaking that raised the bar in documentary to new heights.

One of your upcoming projects is a documentary about Whitney Houston, how's that going?

I've done a few interviews for that, I'm getting into that for next year. That's a dark story, also, hopefully, with some lightness to it. The interesting thing about her, I don't even particularly love her music, but I love her voice. That feeling about someone whose voice can communicate such emotion and power and is touched by this amazing genius. What must she have to have gone through to have that emotional depth to her.

It seems that in these bio-docs the emotional tension throughout is always so high because everything you see up and until the inevitable tragic ending is so loaded.

I think that's a very astute point because that's exactly what I'm experiencing in putting the first parts of this together. That feeling of everything having such a loaded significance.

Cromarty Film Festival runs Fri 1 Dec–Sun 3 Dec.

Cromarty Film Festival

A film festival that fosters an intimate relationship between audience and guests.