Oscar winning director Kevin Macdonald talks about the challenges of making his latest documentary about reggae legend Marley.
A decade ago, Kevin Macdonald - whose credits include One Day In September, Touching The Void and The Last King Of Scotland - had a very challenging time when he made a documentary about rock star Mick Jagger. He didn’t have full control over Being Mick: You Would If You Could (2001). So when he was given the opportunity to make a film about reggae legend Bob Marley, he was careful to guarantee his own editorial independence.
“Obviously, I was very aware of the dangers of dealing with major celebrities. I had contractual assurances that I would be able to make something in the way that I wanted it to be made, not to be forced to cut things. The film is what I wanted it to be.”
Macdonald pays tribute to financier/producer Steve Bing, who gave him his creative freedom and didn’t even demur when the director delivered a final film that was 144 minutes long. (Macdonald was originally contracted to make a movie under two hours.) “They (the financiers) were respectful enough in a way not only to let me put in what I wanted but also to make it (the documentary) long. It felt to me that he (Bob Marley) was a very important cultural figure and that he merited the length.”
Jonathan Demme and Martin Scorsese had both been linked with the project before Macdonald finally came on board.
“It was a long and messy history,” the Scottish director recalls. Scorsese originally planned to direct the Marley film after he finished Rolling Stones doc Shine A Light but he had too many other commitments and soon stepped aside. Demme took over. He reportedly did extensive research and even shot some footage. However, he never completed the film.
“I was third time lucky,” Macdonald jokes. He himself had already been trying to make a Marley-themed film several years before. This was to be a travelogue, following some Rastafarians from Jamaica to Ethiopia for Marley’s 60th birthday commemoration concert in 2005. He had spoken to Island Records founder (and Marley mentor) Chris Blackwell, an important contact for the Marley film he finally did make.
“You can see from the movie what are the challenges. It is difficult to get people to talk in Jamaica. There is a lot of politics and in-fighting between the different people - the band members, the family, the music right holders whatever…it’s a huge production job.”
Macdonald credits producer Charles Steel of Cowboy Films with helping him through the minefields. “There was a hell of a lot of negotiation for everything - every photograph, everything.”
On one level, Marley is a departure for Macdonald. He has always set out to make big screen documentaries that are as dramatic and intense as feature films. However, his account of Bob Marley’s life is chronological and full of talking heads.
The approach, he says, was deliberate. “Partly because of the difficulties people have had making films of him, (and because of) the problems with archive and the small number of photos, I thought I am going to make a very simple film. I guess it’s the most conventional film I’ve ever made in terms of style. It’s about Bob and it’s about people talking. It’s kind of an oral history, I suppose. That was the concept - keep it simple and let the complicated story be presented in the simplest way.”
“You need to educate the audience in a way, tell them what is Rastafri, what were the politics of Jamaica at the time…in order to be able to understand him (Bob Marley), you need to know his background. I felt if I did something more fancy I would end up making another Bob Marley The Legend kind of film. There’s a big educational element…if you reduce it down to under two hours, it becomes a ‘greatest hits’ film in a way. It’s the cumulative power of the detail, the background information that by the end I hope creates an understanding of Bob and the world he comes from,” adds Macdonald.
Macdonald’s film makes it clear that Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, Marley’s original bandmates in the Wailers, didn’t share Marley’s desire (fuelled by Chris Blackwell) to become a huge international star. “I think he (Marley) was much more ambitious than they were,”: Macdonald reflects. “(But) I don’t think he was somebody who wanted fame and fortune. He enjoyed it in a way but you can’t underestimate how religious he was and how much it was about (in an uncynical way) spreading the message.”
What the doc also underlines is the singer’s ferocious self-discipline.
“People think of Bob Marley as a lazy stoner but, of course, he worked 18 hours a day. He was taskmaster with his band…a lot of it is to do with ambition and desire for success. That’s very unromantic but it is one of the key things I came away understanding about him. Hard work makes you successful!”
Marley, which premiered at the Berlinale, was made through Shangri-La Entertainment and Tuff Gong Pictures in association with Cowboy Films. The producers were Steve Bing and Charles Steel. International sales are handled by Fortissimo.