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