By John Lichman | The Playlist April 19, 2012 at 3:59PM
Talking about icons can take a while, especially when you're tasked with an international musical legend like Bob Marley, whose face and music are synonymous with Jamaica, reggae and college dorms. Kevin Macdonald's new documentary, "Marley," takes over two hours to explore the culture and relationships that the singer forged in Jamaica, his politics and and the little details from this life that help show new sides to the artist that many have not have seen before. The Playlist sat down with Macdonald to talk about the film, how the scope and scale differs from "Senna" (which he produced), his thoughts on the Academy Award nomination process and what he's got coming up next.
One thing I've been wanting to ask you for a few years now.
Including Boney M in "Touching the Void," how does that affect the choice to do a documentary on Bob Marley?
[laughs] Well, I don't think it affected doing a documentary on Bob Marley. I think it was one of those moments where you, as a filmmaker, you revel with breaking with convention in a documentary as you go into this fantastical, ironic pop world. It's very unexpected to the viewer, which is what makes it work. It's one of those things that was a good iconoclastic idea -- there are good iconoclastic ideas and there are bad iconoclastic ideas. But you're always trying to break with what people expect. I suppose with the Marley film, for me the breaking of convention is it's the most conventional, formally, I've ever made. There's nothing stylistically, massively inventive about it. It's chronological, it's simple because I felt like the material was so rich and complex, that by imposing too much of myself on it I would be taking away from the strengths.
I was contracted to make a two-hour film, because everything has to be under two hours since distributors don't like it if it's longer. But when I put together the first cut it was three hours. I was like, 'Oh god this is going to be really hard.' To me, what is the most interesting thing about the film is the detail of his life. Not just the recounting of the superficial arc of events, which had been done before. But it's the detail, the anecdotes, the little asides and news clips. Those are the things that come to my mind. The sequence of the helicopter shot going over the mountains of Jamaica with the demo version of "No Woman, No Cry." It's a two-minute section of the film, but nothing's happening and you're watching the landscape of Jamaica. It relates to what's going on in Bob's life at that moment. In a normal narrative-driven documentary movie, that wouldn't come out. Those to me are the strengths of the film. Luckily, I had a financier/producer named Steve Bing who was enough of a music fan and driven so much by passion, really, that he allowed me to get away with a long film. I feel like it's the selling point of the movie--it's completist, authoritative if not definitive. And the length gives it that authority. Scorsese made a four-and-a-half hour film on Dylan and Dylan's not even dead, so. [laughs]
So you've been trying to get this made for roughly six years now?
No, not quite. Steve Bing, the producer, has been trying to make it for six years. He first talked to the Marley family about acquiring rights to the music for the film six years ago. My involvement dates back two years. Prior to that I tried to make another film about Marley that wasn't going to be a biographical film, it was something around what would've been his 60th birthday celebration and they were having a concert in Ethiopia. I wanted to take some Rastas from Jamaica over to Ethiopia, who had never been, and thought that would've been an interesting way about talking about rasta; it was going to be more observational than documentary. But for some reason that didn't happen, I did the research and met some of the people involved in the world of Marley, including Chris Blackwell. When Steve Bing was looking for directors -- a couple of people tried to make it, or talking about making it -- nothing got finished. Couple of years ago he phoned me up and said "Chris Blackwell said you're interested in Marley" and "Are you interested in this film?" That's how it happened for me -- a complex long history.
How much audio and video material did you have to work with? I thought I counted at least three or four interviews being used throughout the film.
I only selected [those] because there's probably only three or four interviews with Bob. Those were the extensive interviews. There'd be the odd little sound byte if he was touring in Germany and a camera crew came up to ask, "What's it like to be in Switzerland, Bob?" "It's great!" In terms of extensive things, there's very very little. That's one of the challenges about making this film. The first ten or eleven years of Bob's career and there's no moving footage of him. There's probably only 30 photographs. Up until 1973, there's nothing. Even then there's not that much. He didn't like giving interviews and when he did he went on the offensive quite easily, refusing to answer questions. There's quite a few audio interviews we've found, like the Rolling Stone journalist who interviewed him and taped him. Miraculously some of those tapes survived, so that's why we used those bits of voice. There's only three or four concerts properly filmed with multi-cameras, so we had to go searching for other bits and pieces from there, asking collectors and going on wild goose chases. It was a hugh challenge just to locate material and I think that's partly why no one tried to do this film about Bob before. Or why no one succeeded, because they didn't have the time, the resources and limitations to do that search. Every photograph in this film meant practically days of negotiation with somebody who's like, "this is their precious object." There aren't that many photos or bits of film. Put it this way: it's the absolute opposite of "Senna." "Senna" was about the embarrassment of riches and this amazing Formula 1 archive, where basically 90 percent of that film comes from. In that case it was crawling through all this stuff for one film, where you're searching for little bits and pieces.
[laughs] I wasn't surprised. The best received film I ever made was "Touching the Void" and that didn't get a nomination either. People talk about "Hoop Dreams" and they talk about Errol Morris' earlier films, which are brilliant, [and they] didn't get nominated. I kind of think the second tier films get seen. Somehow or other the process of the Academy seems to result in conservative choices. Also they're biased toward films which have a social campaigning element, which is understandable. People want movies to reflect the times we live in, so films about Iraq or Afghanistan or the banking collapse. They seem to be engaging in ruin. A lot of documentary filmmakers who feel that's what documentary should be doing. I agree that documentary should be doing that, but I also think they could be doing a lot of other things really well. So it's a schism of what people think documentary is. "Senna" did really well, great reviews everywhere. It did fantastic business in Europe and didn't do as well as I thought it'd do in the States for some reason. I guess there's not that many Formula 1 fans.
What else are you working on?
I've got a couple of things in development. I'm executive producer on a follow up for my "Life In A Day" film. It's a whole series being made around the world. One in Japan, one in Italy, one in Canada, one in Britain. The BBC are producing one called "London In A Day," and they're asking people to film their day. YouTube are involved in so far they provide the upload site, but they didn't put any money into it. Same idea that it's all amateur footage. It's fascinating look at the zeitgeist of the repression. It was shot on Remembrance Sunday weekend, which is the weekend we remember the soldiers who died in conflicted; the Occupy protests were going on in London. It's pretty interesting.
You're bouncing around fiction and documentary a lot, so what brought you to "How I Live Now"?
It's a book that I read quite a few years ago, which I really loved. At that time I was given the book by a friend, a producer of "Marley," Charles Steel, who I worked with a couple of times. He's one of the producers on "Last King of Scotland" as well. He was producing the film [adaptation] with another director and said, read this book. I did, it was fantastic. Then the other director dropped out. So I said, I'd love to do that. We've been working on it off and on for a couple of years. All goes according to plan, we're going to shoot in June.
Saoirse Ronan is the only actor cast so far?
Yes. Because it's quite a dark, little film. It was designed, financially, to be with no name actors at all. She so wanted to do it and I met her, she was so fantastic, and so right in age. Everybody else in this will be unknown, never having acted before. It's all kids. Two or three adult scenes, but all the main characters are kids.
"Marley" hits theaters tomorrow, April 20th.