Kevin Macdonald: "Bob Marley's presence is so strong, no actor could have captured his essence"

Kevin Macdonald: “Bob Marley’s presence is so strong, no actor could have captured his essence”

Arte is taking advantage of the release of the biopic One Love to offer this documentary dedicated to Bob Marley.

In 2012, First was able to meet Kevin Macdonald, the director of Last king of Scotlandwho signed Marley, a remarkable documentary about the reggae icon. It can be (re)watched in streaming on the Arte website on the occasion of the release of the biopic one Love. The filmmaker then explained to us why no actor could play Bob Marley on screen…

Kevin Macdonald : (Big yawn)… Sorry… I’m exhausted.

First: Oh right? However, I am only the second journalist of your afternoon… and we haven’t even started.
It’s just that I’m doing interviews on Bob since one month. Yesterday I was in Jamaica, the day before yesterday in New York for the Premiere, today in Paris for the press… To talk about Bob, his songs.

That’s good, I’m not going to talk to you about his music. I don’t like reggae.
Pardon ?

I do not like it. Too repetitive, too smokey for me.
But… you didn’t like it Marley ?

Yes, I loved it. I found it to be a fantastic doc because there are stunning cinematic ideas in every shot and you manage to interest me in a subject that a priori doesn’t interest me…
It’s funny you say that to me, because I’ve never been a huge Bob fan. When I was 12-13 years old, I listened to his music, like everyone else…

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Almost everybody…
Yes, sorry, almost everyone (laughter). Deep down, the man has always interested me more than his music. For me it was first and foremost an icon, like Che or Jesus Christ. And that’s what I wanted to explore in this documentary.

So the idea was first of all to overcome fascination?
Exactly. Finding the flesh and blood of a guy who ended up being nothing more than an image on T-Shirts or posters. The distance I had allowed me, I believe, to ask basic questions (what did he eat? who did he sleep with? how many joints did he smoke?) almost naive which were not necessarily been asked…

This is the reason why Marley is your simplest film?
The simplest, I don’t know. The most classic certainly.

That’s what I was trying to say. You start with Bob’s birth and end with his death. The story unfolds chronologically and…
And most of the time, these are people talking on screen with bits of archives… We had to be clear. Because the context and his life are so dense, so “fussy”, that I didn’t want to add confusion with style or complicated narrative arcs. I had to be educational and never give in to the extravagance of the singer or his country.

Is this really crazy? I mean Bob, Jamaica?
Originally, the film was to be directed by Martin Scorsese. He dropped the case without having worked on it, but Jonathan Demme who took over the project did a lot of investigative work – I think he even made half of his documentary. Looking at his rushes, I understood that he had explored too many avenues and that he had drowned himself in wanting to tell everything: Rastas, Jamaica, politics, music, women…. So, I decided to be simple, direct. The only way not to sink was to make a oral history ; to avoid at all costs getting bogged down in Rasta esotericism or the legend of Bob.

Is that why you feature yourself in the film?
For that, and also because I understood very quickly that this documentary could only work in the form of a quest. When I started my outreach, I met people who told me: “you should talk to so-and-so”. And the so-and-so in question referred me to another person who advised me to meet a third guy… It didn’t end. The film was therefore put together in a very improvised, very organic way. And I wanted that to show on screen. Especially since, the more I progressed, the more I discovered the different facets of Bob… Appearing on screen basically allowed me to take the viewer on the same journey; that he discovered Bob at the same time as me.

We suddenly have the impression that you embody European rigidity in a surreal world.
That’s it ! I will even clarify: the universe reminded me of Garcia Marquez…

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Deep down you’re a bit like Bob’s Nicholas Garrigan (Nicholas Garrigan is the young Western doctor who witnesses the madness of Idi Amin Dada in The Last King of Scotland Editor’s note).
(laughter) It’s a bit like that… the witness, the distance, which comes from another world, from another universe. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but the parallel is funny.

Speaking of Last king of Scotlandyou who boxed Idi Amin Dada, what was your reaction when you found yourself face to face with Omar Bongo’s daughter?
This is probably the craziest thing I experienced during this film. I went there with contradictory feelings… I wanted to understand how Bob could have fallen in love with the daughter of a dictator… You can imagine that I have more than mixed feelings towards African wrens. And when I was told that Pascaline Bongo lived in a suite in a large Parisian hotel, I immediately imagined the worst clichés. Ultimately, it was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful interviews conducted for the film. Pascaline is a woman of incredible sweetness and kindness. I literally fell under his spell and I understand a little better what Bob must have gone through… And to answer your question, at the end of our meeting, Pascaline invited me to Africa, offering to meet his father to – why not – make a film about him.

What irony…
I’m not making you say it…

At the beginning I said that your film was very stimulating in terms of cinema.
As Bob was a huge subject, I had to come up with a strong cinema idea. It didn’t come through the structure for the reasons I gave you before, but through the photo and through a particular staging device. For the look, I wanted us to feel the heat, the humidity of Jamaica, for the viewer to understand in a visceral way where Bob came from. Hence these aerial views, these red, burnt and variegated tones which give a good idea of ​​this land.

And the device? Can you tell us about the sequence where Peter Arley, Bob’s white cousin, listens to Cornerstone.
Once again I wanted us to discover Bob as we had never seen him before. I wanted us to understand what this man meant to those close to him. By giving his family the keys to this song where he talks about his racial diversity and the racism he suffered, I hoped to discover new emotions on their faces, to capture feelings and memories live… Basically, it It was my ambition: to find Bob’s face behind those of his loved ones.

Have you ever thought about making a biopic?
It wasn’t in the original deal. But I thought about it… before quickly dismissing the possibility. On a subject like that, deep down it’s complicated. Look at Ali by Michael Mann: Mann is a genius; Will Smith is a huge actor. But they failed to capture the real Mohamed Ali. When I watch the film, I constantly see Will Smith in the process of embodying Mohamed Ali. And it would have been the same for Bob. He is so well known, his presence is so strong, that no actor could have truly captured his essence.

You say that after filming a biopic of Amin Dada: in the all-consuming personality genre, he still poses there…
It’s different : The Last King of Scotland is not a film about Dada. It’s a film about the fascination he exerts and, as you said earlier, the point of view of the film is that of Garrigan. But I have nothing against biopics. With less media personalities, I think it’s an exciting genre. Besides, here, I’m trying to put together a film on Peter Tosh and I wonder if I’m not going to make a biopic of it.

On this subject, I wanted to ask you a question: do you know how to recover the solo version of No woman No Cry of Peter Tosh ? Her version is crazy beautiful and I’m a little obsessed with it….
Sorry, it was a private collector who gave me this, it was never marketed… you’ll have to wait for the DVD to come out to be able to listen to it again! But I thought you didn’t like Reggae?
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