GFF 2010 In Focus: Kevin Macdonald

Ahead of his appearance at the Festival we talk to the Glasgow-born film director about his Scottish links and shooting his upcoming film, The Eagle of the Ninth.

Feature by Gail Tolley | 04 Feb 2010

Kevin Macdonald has shaped his career through telling tense, dramatic stories. Originally a documentary maker his first feature to include dramatisation was Touching the Void (2003) based on the true story of two climbers and their perilous descent from Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. He then went on to make the multi award-winning film The Last King of Scotland (2006) and shortly after a feature length version of his BBC drama State of Play, starring Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck and Helen Mirren. His next film, to be released later this year, is an adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth, about a Roman soldier who attempts to restore the honour of his father by searching for the emblem of his missing legion. Macdonald will be the focus of the Directors Cut event at Glasgow Film Festival where he’ll be discussing his life and work.

You’ve filmed in Scotland in the past, including for your latest film The Eagle of the Ninth, do you feel a connection to the local film industry here?

I got my start working for BBC Scotland and STV, I did my first things for them, low budget documentaries, so yes I do feel a connection, it got me on my way. And for The Eagle of the Ninth which was shot half in Scotland – six weeks in Hungary and six weeks in Scotland – we went to locations I had been to as a kid and had remembered. So it was an interesting experience for me. And it was a largely Scottish crew, from the make-up artists and set designers to the first assistant director.

It was thrilling to do a period film in Scotland and we were trying to find places untouched by human hands. We filmed at the time of year when everything is brown and wet and the colours are so fantastic you get that extraordinary atmosphere of the place, a very unique atmosphere. We filmed up in the Summer Isles and in Ullapool and Glencoe but also a lot of it in the Trossachs. It was about trying to capture the true flavour of what I remember Scotland being like rather than the picture postcard version.

In some ways Eagle of the Ninth seems like a departure from your previous films (it’s a historic ‘epic’ for a start), did it feel like a big leap to you?

It was very different from anything I’ve done before but then it’s nice to try and do a different subject and a different kind of film every time you do something. It’s a book I actually read as a kid and it captured my imagination.

There must have been new challenges involved as well?

Yes, many new challenges. I had never done a film on this scale in terms of the number of extras and the action – there were a lot of battles and various fight scenes and special effects. It was a challenge but really interesting and I worked with great people. We were trying to do an ‘intimate epic’, I suppose you’d call it, it’s got epic elements in it but it’s also got a very personal story about the relationship between two men and a master and a slave who become friends, having been enemies, and that’s really the heart of it.

You have a heritage of film-making in your family, do you feel that it has influenced your career or is it just something that the press like to latch on to?

I never actually imagined going into film, I wanted to write and to be a journalist and I did a little bit once I left University. If I’d been able to get a journalistic job that’s what I’d have done. My grandfather, Emeric Pressburger, had recently died and I thought I’d write a book about him. Doing that I got to know him and his films but also got more and more interested in film. Then I started making documentaries as it’s a more journalistic style of film-making. After that it evolved organically and after Touching the Void I was asked to do a feature film. I suppose you can say I was fortunate and one thing has led to another. I don’t think [that my heritage] has influenced my films or helped in a direct way but I think it makes it feel like it’s possible to do it.

Would you like to return to making more documentaries in the future?

I did one for Channel 4 a couple of years ago and I’d definitely like to make another one if I can find the right subject. It’s quite a good antidote to making a feature film because you can do a documentary with just one or two people and you can [touch on] non-commercial subjects. My ideal career would be to make both – I think each one is good for you and you learn a lot doing documentaries that you can apply to feature films and vice versa – it’s a healthy combination.

Directors Cut with Kevin Macdonald - Sat 27 Feb, 14.30, GFT, £7