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The Last King of Scotland - Kevin Macdonald interview

Kevin Macdonald, director of The Last King Of Scotland

Inerview by Rob Carnevale

KEVIN Macdonald talks about directing The Last King Of Scotland and some of his hopes for the Oscar-tipped film…

Q. What are your hopes and expectations for the film?
A. In a way, the biggest decision I made was to shoot in Uganda rather than in South Africa, which is where a lot of pressure was placed on us to do the film cheaper and easier.

Most African films are made in South Africa but I thought we would get more from shooting in Uganda that would pay back in many many ways and I think it does in the finished film. My expectation was met in that way much to my relief.

Q. Did you ever find it hard deciding what to leave out? Or did your background in making documentaries help in any way?
A. Absolutely, my documentary background was helpful. That’s why I wanted to do it in Uganda because there was a certain security in knowing that this was grounded in the real place. It was a kind of
security blanket.

I wanted to show an African city that was different from what we think an African city is like. There are cinematic clichés like the Serengeti, zebras and the slums of Soweto. So, to see that Kampala is a very modern, cool and a sexy kind of city is surprising for many people. It’s exciting for me to take an audience to a world that they don’t really know, to make itfresh to them.

Q. Did you work hard to ensure that Idi Amin didn’t overwhelm the story? Or to allow James McAvoy as much of a presence as Forest Whitaker?
A. I always saw it personally as a two-hander. It’s about James’s character and Forest’s character equally. The events are seen through the eyes of James’s character but it’s about their interaction and what they each represent.

I think if we were making a pure biopic that might have been a problem but because I wasn’t looking at it in that way it wasn’t an issue.

Q. How easy was it to maintain the balance between fact and fiction?
A. Well, it’s based on a novel. When the book came out it didn’t seem to many critics to be anything unusual to mix fictional characters with real characters because in literature that happens all the time.

It’s just when you transfer that to film it’s a bit unusual. Here, you have a mixture of two main characters one of whom is completely fictional and the other who is completely real – but I don’t see why that should be a problem.

Q. Is it true that James’s character is a composite of several people?
A. Yes. He’s inspired by various real individuals. Amin did have a Scottish doctor as part of his fetish for all things Scottish, although he didn’t do any of the things that our Scottish doctor does. He did have a white adviser who was with him all through his regime and had the same trajectory as Nicholas. And there was also a Ugandan doctor who had an affair with Kaye.

Q. Do you know where Amin’s passion for Scotland stemmed from?
A. My understanding was that when he was in the British Army, his immediate superiors – who were junior officers who had worked their way up through the ranks – were Scottish and he got on very well with them. He found them to be warm and not racist. But then more of his superior officers were English and he didn’t like them and felt they were cold and racist.

He went to Scotland several times and he talks about going into houses and being invited in and receiving hospitality. I think also there was a showman in Amin; he liked to dress up and it’s a great national dress. I think he saw Scotland as another tribal society that had been downtrodden by English imperialism and he saw parallels between Uganda and Scotland. That’s why he offered to become King of Scotland and lead the Scottish in an uprising to free them from the yoke of English imperialism.

Read our review of the film