Kevin Macdonald is a Scottish film director famous for both his documentaries and his feature films, with titles like The Last King of Scotland (James McAvoy, Forest Whittaker), State of Play (Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck), The Eagle (Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell) and Touching the Void, the real-life story of a near fatal mountain climbing expedition in the Andes.
Having just released his long term project Marley, a documentary about the legendary Reggae musician Bob Marley and his family, he spoke to View’s Matthew Turner about how the film came about, the fascinating detail he got from friends and relations of the singer, and just how central the part of 70s Jamaican politics and the history of enslavement is to his story.
I thought the film was fantastic, first of all. An extraordinary, lengthy documentary ...
Well, it needed to be lengthy. I was contracted to make it under two hours, as you always are, and when I cut a version that was under two hours it just felt like I was leaving out so much. It felt so superficial, because I'd found out so much stuff, interviewed so many people and it felt like there was a sense of responsibility in a funny way because nobody's really given Bob the time that he deserves, I think.
It's funny, because at the same time, he's one of the great icons of music and yet people don't know that much about him and I thought, 'Well, I've had the opportunity to do this – or had the money to do it – nobody's ever going to get to do this again, I'm going to tell the complete story'. And luckily the financier and the producer both agreed that it worked better longer. And so it's kind of like a test as to whether people have a little bit of patience. [Laughs]
When I cut a version that was under two hours it felt like I was leaving out so much, because nobody's really given Bob the time that he deserves...
I'm curious as to what you would have cut out if you'd had to make the two hour version.
Well, I just cut out a lot of anecdotes and that's the thing is that you lose a lot of the sense of the other characters – I think one of the pleasures of the film is that it's full of great, rich characters, eccentric characters and you lose a sense of that. And you lose things like Bob going to Gabon, with the dictator's daughter and playing there and beating up his manager and all those things, which are anecdotes that cast some light on him and on his naivety politically, on the violent side of him.
And you just sort of think, 'Well, it's lessening the portrait' and as I said, there was a responsibility to make something here that was historical, which sounds a bit pompous, but I did feel that, in making this, I felt I'd interviewed so many people, found out so much new stuff ... And he's worth it, you know, he's worth longer than 90 minutes, he's a more complex character than that. I didn't want to reduce it to the basic three act structure, you know? So it's an oral history of Bob Marley rather than a documentary, is how I sort of see it.
You shot so much footage, what did you end up cutting from the two and a half hour version that you were sorry to see go?
Oh, lots. Yeah, lots. I mean there's lots of great anecdotes, just lots of other things that cast more light on [his life] – a lot more, for instance, about his death in Bavaria. I mean, I talked to his neighbours in Germany and the doctor that flew back with him in the plane and more stuff about the strange German doctor. Again, it could be a documentary in its own right.
There was a whole load of stuff that I shot around the world, about the influence of Bob around the world, which was really the thing that got me interested in doing this to begin with. And there's really only a stump of that left, the residual element of that, which is the end credits where you go to Brazil and you go to Ghana and you go to all these places and people are sort of listening to Bob and dancing to Bob's music.
That, I did actually originally envisage having little sections every sort of twenty minutes in the film, of going to a different part of the world and seeing Bob's influence, but that had to go.
How much did you personally know about Marley before you started work on the film?
Well, I was involved in making a film about seven or eight years ago, about Bob. I was trying to make a film which was a very different thing – it wasn't a biographical film, it was going to be a film for his 60th birthday and there was a big concert in Ethiopia they put together, sort of African musicians and my idea was to fly a plane load of Rastas from Jamaica, who'd never been to Africa, and fly them to Ethiopia to experience Ethiopia and go to the concert. I thought that would be fascinating on all sorts of levels.
It wasn't strictly a film about Bob but through researching that, I met Chris Blackwell and I met Diane Jobson, Bob's lawyer and I met a few other people and started to read a bit more about Bob and a bit more about Rasta and so that was my kind of introduction to him, really. I mean, I'd known the music, I'd loved the music as a teenager, particularly, but that was my introduction to him as a man - actually learning about Jamaican culture and learning about him.
So that film didn't happen, but then luckily, a couple of years ago, I got a phone call from Steve Bing, who produced this film, saying, 'I've bought the rights to Bob's music, to make a documentary – I hear from Chris Blackwell that you tried to make one a few years ago – are you still interested?' And I said, 'Yeah, I'd love to'. So that's how that happened.