Kevin Macdonald is, undoubtedly, the most successful British documentary maker of his generation. Yet, curiously, he sounds surprised to be the recipient of the prestigious Trustees Awards at this week’s Grierson Documentary Awards – which has previously gone to directors such as Penny Woolcock, Norma Percy, Paul Watson and Molly Dineen.
Macdonald is, after all, the director of Touching The Void, the highest grossing British cinema doc – until it was overtaken last year by Senna, a film he executive produced. He won an Oscar for his first feature One Day in September in 2000, has two Baftas to his name and has also directed Life in a Day and Marley. He’s also carved out a successful feature film career, directing the likes of The Last King of Scotland and State of Play and the upcoming How I Live Now.
Documentaries, though, are “the things I love to do more than anything else,” says Macdonald, who is also co-editor of Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentaries. His surprise at winning the award, named after John Grierson, the founding father of British documentary, is partly because Macdonald feels that he has “been doing battle” with many of the things that Grierson felt documentaries should do.
“Grierson described documentaries as being the ‘creative use of actuality’ and that still is the best definition of what a doc is,” says Macdonald, who adds that Grierson explored the use of drama, animation, music and poetry in his films. “But he also thought of documentaries as being primarily educational, and I think documentary has moved away from that.”
Macdonald says that he is more interested in stories, people and storytelling technique than he is in exploring the big issues of our time. “My films are not educational – certainly not compared to lot of people who have won this award before me who are very serious documentarians making serious films that alert people to issues that have enormous consequences. My films aren’t generally like that. They play with the form and use real life as a storehouse from which to draw interesting stories – stories that make you think, question things and provoke emotion.”
Macdonald thinks it is a fertile time for documentary making, which has migrated solely from television to reach wider audiences thanks to the internet and the success of cinema docs. “You can now make a doc about Peruvian parrots and reach everyone who is interested in Peruvian parrots via the internet,” he jokes. “And that is really exciting from a filmmaker’s point of view. But not necessarily from a producer’s point of view, because none of those things make money.”
But while filmmakers have more freedom, Macdonald acknowledges it is harder than ever to make a living as a documentary director. He recalls his first TV documentary for C4 had a budget of £140k. “One or two of those a year and you could make a living. Nowadays you are never going to make a living from one off docs when your budget is £40k. That restricts the scope of the film. And it means that filmmakers spend a hell of a lot of time not worrying about the film, but worrying about how to raise the money.”
And more and more documentaries are being churned out to a formula, he adds. He recalls how the production company behind Touching the Void went on to make a series of films that emulated the format, called Alive. “Everyone was made to a formula but reality doesn’t work like that.”
TV’s obsession with returning formats is one of the reasons he became interested in cinema docs. “As a filmmaker and person I am easily bored and tend to want to move on and find new things. Doing 20 versions of the same film is like a living death.”
This restlessness also explains his move into fiction. Macdonald maintains that his documentary making background has been helpful in the world of features, and vice versa. “When I do fiction I steal things I learnt from documentary, to try to make it feel as real and as spontaneous as possible within the confines of the script and schedule. But when I am doing documentary I do the opposite. I try to steal ideas from fiction and storytelling modes of fiction and put them into documentary. Each one feeds the other one.”
For now Macdonald is immersed in the world of features, completing the edit for How I Live Now. He is mulling an idea for a doc about another musician, “but it’s a bit pie in the sky at the moment.” But he very much keeps up with the latest in documentary making, and is quick to recommend two films, both about the Israel and Palestine – The Gatekeeper (“I bet that wins the Oscar,” he says) and Five Broken Cameras. “I notice that a lot of Hollywood actors I work with want to talk about documentaries. Because most of the films they are doing are not very stimulating, they always want recommendations.”
Born in Glasgow in 1967, Kevin Macdonald is the grandson of legendary filmmaker Emeric Pressburger (The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death) and the brother of film producer Andrew Macdonald (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later).
Macdonald began his career making biographical TV docs about filmmakers such as Pressburger, Howard Hawks and Donald Cammell. His first feature One Day in September won an Oscar in 2000, while Touching the Void won a Bafta in 2004. The Last King of Scotland marked his first move into fiction films, which also include State of Play and The Eagle. His most recent docs are Life in a Day (2011) and Marley (2012)
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