Kevin Macdonald on the Last King of Scotland

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Sun, 10/15/2006 - 16:00

When Kevin Macdonald was deciding where to shoot his debut dramatic feature, The Last King of Scotland, the resounding advice he received was that he should shoot in a country with an established film industry infrastructure and skilled crews, like South Africa.

The story may be set in Uganda, but the received wisdom was that you'd be crazy to make a film there. Especially a first feature. Macdonald had previously won an Academy Award for his debut documetary feature One Day in September and a BAFTA for Touching the Void, but he was entering new territory with his first fiction feature.

Still, Macdonald didn't heed the advice. And probably just as well. Instead, he took a limited crew of 40 professionals to Uganda, and with 120 locals trained for junior roles and positions, he shot the first complete feature in the country's history. The film, which was financed in the UK, opens the London Film Festival on Wednesday.

Set in the swinging Seventies, it's a fictional account of how a young Scottish doctor, Nicholas Garrigan, becomes Ugandan dictator Idi Amin's personal physician. Scottish actor James McAvoy plays the cavalier, young physician and Idi Amin the bombastic dictator, who modelled himself as the last "king of Scotland", with a Scottish pipe band to boot.

Shooting in Uganda, Macdonald says, was the best decision he made and the decision he is most proud of. "It was an adventure... but sometimes a bit tricky."

The colour, the light, the people and the locations, suffuse the film with a powerful sense of place. It helped that the Ugandan government was welcoming, offering Macdonald use of state offices and buildings, like Amin's swimming pool and the state hospital in Kampala. Even Idi Amin's original limo, after some repair work, was requistioned into service.

Macdonald points out that having people around who lived through Idi Amin's reign helped both actors and director in creating that air of "authenticity" - an aspect of the film that he mentions frequently and was clearly important to him.

"You are surrounded by people that Forest and James could talk to about the real Amin, about those times, about what it was like," says Macdonald. "You can't get away with faking it if you are Forest Whitaker and you are standing up on a stage with 4000 Ugandans," he adds, referring to an early scene where Amin leads a crowd in a national celebration.

Macdonald admits that working on a set with many first-timers meant that his own lack of experience as a fiction director became unimportant. As in documentary, there was a lot of "thinking on your feet."

"It felt like everyone was kind of pulling together and people were going out of their way to do everything they could to make the film work and that's a nice feeling."

Rounding Amin's figure

Macdonald originally read the manuscript for Giles Foden's book on which The Last King of Scotland was based, while working at Faber and Faber. It had remained at the back of his mind until the producers approached him about the project.

The story offered an interesting play on the idea of the white man in post-colonial Africa and also a chance to explore the Amin behind the newspaper headlines.

During the Amin years, the British newspapers frequently carried stories about his butchery, for example, that he kept heads and body parts in refrigerators. The film far from skimps over these horrors, but Macdonald paints a more favourable picture of Amin initially.

"They (Ugandans) didn't want a two-dimensional image of Amin presented... this semi-mythical figure who was a big star of the media, in a way, in the mid-Seventies. He was always seen as the man who ate his archbishop's liver and the man who was a cannibal and the man who tortured and killed so many people. But there was another side to him. There was an optimistic side of the man, who is trying to do something good for his country, before he was brought low by his own character flaws and by his paranoia. So the only concern was to show a rounded human being."

Macdonald says the film, which depicts Amin's later years in sometimes grisly detail, has only been seen by a handful or so Ugandans so far. But he's encouraged that the country's Minister of Culture, who formerly fought against Amin, liked the film. He viewed it at a special screening to see if he should invite President Museveni to a Ugandan premiere which Macdonald is flying over for in January next year.

Life imitating art

In The Last King of Scotland, Garrigan, through a combination of fate, charm and his Scottishness, finds himself in the privileged position of the President's personal physician. However, after being lavished with gifts and taken into the President's confidence, his position becomes a curse, as he awakens to the queasy reality of Amin's brutal repression.

Macdonald says that his experience of making the film has followed a less extreme, but still disconcertingly parallel course to Garrigan's in the film. Both the authorities and the people of Uganda welcomed Macdonald warmly and he came away with a great film. But throughout the process of making the film he's become increasingly aware of the political undercurrents and human rights abuses that lie beneath the otherwise calm surface in the South of the country where he was shooting.

For example, President Museveni, who has been in power for two decades now, has been criticised for his aggressive handling of political opposition, Ugandan involvement in attacks on the Congo (see BBC story), and his handling of the particularly ugly war and subsequent peace process in Northern Uganda (this was covered in another documentary, Uganda Rising).

"There are now undoubtedly human rights abuses going on under the new regime," says Macdonald. "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."

"It puts you in a situation like Garrigan. You are there to make a film. You don't want to listen and hear about possible negative things that are going on, and I think in a way that is quite an example of the moral compromises that you make. You don't really want to know the truth. If things are going well for you, you're benefiting - how much fuss are you going to kick up? And...also how hard is it really to find out what is going on?"

He suggests it's not always easy to separate what is fact from rumour.

"I think that's what a lot of people from here (U.K.) don't appreciate is if you go to a country like Uganda as a foreigner you hear maybe a rumour about something, but it's very hard to find out about anything in a country like that, really that the government doesn't want you to know, because there isn't the same openness and honesty in the press - although it's relatively free for Uganda - there's no mechanisms for them to put the government on the spot or bring them to accountability. So things can go on for a very long time before they can become public knowledge."

Macdonald suggests that complicity, or to borrow a current expression from another film, ignoring of inconvenient truths, is something that we can all relate to.

"In one way or another we've all compromised in some way - maybe in our work to get ahead - we haven't wanted to see the negative consequences of our actions for whatever reason and we go into a kind of denial about it."

Forest Whitaker up to the task

Much of the power of The Last King of Scotland comes from the performances by the two main leads. Forest Whitaker gives a powerhouse performance as Idi Amin and James McAvoy plays the laddish young doctor with panache.

Considering how well Whitaker fills Amin's large boots, it's surprising to hear that Macdonald didn't take to him initially.

"I resisted very much the idea of him, I suppose. I thought that he's a great actor, but I've never seen anything where he has to be explosive, where he has to be frontfoot, or where he has to also be aggressive and violent. And it's not what you think of as far as Whitaker is concerned. You think of him as someone who is gentle, sweet and very internal and not very extrovert in that way that Amin has to be," he says.

"Forest proved to me that he could do it.... That was the turning point of the whole film. I despaired for a while that I would ever find anybody who would be right and then met him and was not totally convinced and he said to me, 'Oh, you're not convinced are you? Ok, I'm going to come back tomorrow and read a scene to you.' And he convinced me."

Whitaker, a vegetarian, bulked up for the role, but with his Ugandan diet of mashed bananas and beans he started sloughing off the pounds as the shoot continued.

"It posed problems for the costume people who had all these special costumes made and every week he'd be a little bit thinner," says Macdonald, chuckling. "You can notice it if you know what scenes were shot, when, but he was up to 18 stone so he was still big."

Casting James McAvoy (the faun in Narnia) as the young doctor was a much easier decision.

"There isn't anybody else under thirty here that is anywhere close to him," says Macdonald. "He's got the hardest part. He's got to try and retain the audience's interest and empathy, while being a schmuck and being morally reprehensible. I think that's a really difficult thing to do."