LargeUp Interview: “Marley” Director Kevin MacDonald

April 20, 2012

Words by Jesse Serwer—

After years in the making, the documentary Marley hits theaters—and Facebook (where its making history as the first movie to screen on the site the same day as its release)—today. We caught the movie at its U.S. premiere in Miami last week, and it is an impressive document, rich in facts, perspectives and unseen footage new to even Bob Marley’s biggest fans—and the artist’s own family. We recently spoke with director Kevin MacDonald.

Large Up: One of the most interesting things about the movie was the choice of interview subjects and the depth of them. Can you tell me how you went about deciding on who to interview? Did you pick all the subjects or did they come to you?

Kevin MacDonald:
Everything about the film is mine. There [was] nobody else involved in any creative decisions about the movie. I just started by wanting to interview as many people as I could. So the project grew in an organic way from the desire to just find out about Bob and speak to everybody who was closest to him and who knew him best and were intimate with him. I started interviewing the family and then it turned into musicians and in the end I interviewed over 80 people, and I think 60 of those ended up in the film. Because there wasn’t a huge amount of archived footage of Bob, I [decided] to make the movie a kind of oral history of Bob Marley. The portrait of him is really painted by the words of the many people who appear in the film. Bob is quite an enigmatic figure. Most people believe he’s a huge star but I hope that, by the end of the film, everybody has contributed a little mosaic piece in the final portrait of Bob becoming visible for you.

LU: With all of those interviews, only two of his children were in the movie. Was there any reason why?
KM: I interviewed others but most of the children were so young that they didn’t really have anything to say directly about Bob. I didn’t want to make a film where people were just giving me their opinions on how it felt to be Bob’s son—it was meant to be a portrait of the man. There are only really two children who have particularly strong memories of him, Cedella and Ziggy, and that is why they were the two who ended up in the film. They were 14 and 12 when Bob died and the others were, I think, eight or under so they were really quite young, and hadn’t spent that much time with Bob in the last couple of years. If you think about what you remember when you were that age, you can’t remember huge amounts.

LU: You traveled to Germany to the town where the medical facility was where Bob got treatment for cancer. What led you there?
KM: Well, I think there has been so many stories told, so many conspiracies about Bob’s death, the illness and… I was interested, as I was in most cases in the film, in meeting the people who were there and finding out what the truth was rather than relying on second opinions and research. I hired a researcher who found the doctor who flew in the airplane with Bob, a couple of his neighbors, his nurse and I interviewed all of them and one ended up in the final film,  the nurse. I think it was very interesting to see what the effect of Bob was on somebody from such a completely alien background, such a different culture as this woman was. And I was touched to see that he had a very powerful emotional effect on her and she remembered him so vividly.

LU: The photos that you had there at the end of him in his last days—had those been published before?
KM: I think one or two of them had been in books but a lot of those came from local press agencies in Germany, in Bavaria and Munich. A huge amount of making this film was trying to find photographs, archive film, acoustic versions of songs. I had a great research person who was just tirelessly contacting every photo agency, every newspaper…  for every twenty hits you made you probably got one result but that meant that we got things that were really special, pictures of Bob in the snow, with his sunglasses on when he’d lost his dreads—kind of very striking surreal images.

LU: Yeah, I’ll say, I had never seen those sort of pictures of him, in that state.
KM: I think one of the most interesting things for me was, even Bob’s family, even the children didn’t really know that much about what had happened at the end of Bob’s life. That is one of the reasons why we thought we should go into some detail. It could be the subject of a whole film in it’s own right.

LU: Was there anything that you were asked not to include, or were you allowed to go into all the warts and things that you uncovered.
KM: Nobody asked me not to include anything. That was sort of part of my arrangement with the family and with the producer. I’d made films about musicians before and I know how difficult it can be in terms of permissions and how sensitive people can be, and I didn’t want to get involved in that kind of arguments about cuts. I wasn’t interested in making a kind of airbrushed version of who Bob Marley was, and I made that clear in the beginning and the family were very happy to go along with giving me total creative control.

Kevin MacDonald

LU: Were you surprised to be approached about doing this movie?
KM: I had tried to make a movie about Bob about seven or eight years ago—a documentary tracing the journey of a handful of Rastas from Jamaica to Ethiopia for the big concert that was being put on there in Ethiopia for Bob’s 60th birthday. I got to know Chris Blackwell and I spoke to a couple of members of the family and I met Diane Jobson, Bob’s lawyer and various other people. The film didn’t happen for a bunch of reasons but two years ago I got a call from the producer of this film, Steve Bing, who had bought the rights to the music to make a movie, and he said, “I’ve heard from Chris Blackwell that you are interested in Bob Marley and you’ve tried to make a film before, and are you still interested?” And I said, “Yes, very much so.” I loved the music so to me it was genuinely a dream come true.

LU: You grew up a fan?
KM: I was thirteen when he died. I grew up in Scotland in the countryside but I remember Marley was obviously present, I don’t know how. One of the first three or four albums I ever bought was Uprising in 1980 and throughout my teen years I was very interested in Bob and I think partly that’s what gave me the motivation the make the movie. I think when music means that much to you when you are younger, it forms a part of who you are. So that’s why I wanted to understand who that man was.

LU: There have been more than a few efforts in the past at putting Bob’s life into a movie and this is really the first time that it’s ever come together. Why do you think that is?
KM: Well, I think there’s a difference between the films people are trying to make, which are biopics, fictional movies with actors. I think the reason those haven’t happened has a lot to do with the reluctance of the Marley family to see anyone else playing Bob. Biopics are very difficult. I mean look at what Michael Mann did with Muhammad Ali. Great filmmaker, very well-made film, great actor but they didn’t really capture who Muhammad Ali is. And you wonder whether it would work with Bob. He’s so well-known, his face—would people accept it? I think also there are disagreements within members of the family about which project they’d like to back. A lot of different people have a voice in the Marley estate. My experience was that they were very keen to make this film and to give somebody creative freedom to make it. There were other directors meant to make this film before. I think maybe I had the good fortune of coming in at a point when everyone was just desperate to get it done. I think one of their motivations for making this film is very simply they wanted to know about their father. There were a lot of things in the film that they said to me, Oh we didn’t know that and we’ve learned a lot. They found seeing the film a very emotional experience, and a very educational experience for them. And that’s been one of the most gratifying things for me, to hear that from them.

LU: For somebody who’s life that has been parsed through so much, it seemed like you really found a lot of new details that people didn’t know about.
KM: A lot of books have been written but they’ve all relied on the same basic material some of which is kind of dubious. Particularly in the 70’s people were a little less than scrupulous sometimes with their factchecking and things just get passed on. We spent the time and the money and the effort to be thorough and to persuade people to talk. I think about a third of the people in this film had never spoken before so it had a lot to do with the happy time we are doing this. People feel like they want to talk now, but it’s also we persevered in trying to persuade them to talk. We were rigorous about this. Bob is such an important figure, who we recognize more and more as a huge cultural icon, not just in music but in all culture, and I think he deserves that kind of rigor, and I think he deserves to be treated in a way that’s historically respectful. And that’s why I wanted to make a movie that is not your average rock n roll documentary. I can’t put everything in but I thought this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to make this film and make a really comprehensive movie about Bob so I’ve got an obligation to history in a way.

LU: Who did you have to be most persistent with to get them to share their story?
KM: Three people. Pascaline Bongo, who is the daughter of the president of Gabon; Allan “Skill” Cole, who was Bob’s greatest friend in the late ‘60s and ‘70s and professional footballer, has not really been interviewed before on camera; and Bunny Wailer, who has done interviews before but has grown very cynical about the sort of Bob Marley commodification.

LU: How did you come on that story of the princess of Gabon ?
KM: I had been told by a few people that she had been very important in the last years of his life, in introducing him to Africa. The first time he played in Africa he was invited by her father but her, really. That seemed like a key point in his life. Obviously Africa means so much to him. I thought here’s a bizarre story, a strange individual in this incredibly luxurious environment and you feel like that’s a million miles from Trenchtown, so that appealed to me. They’d had a relationship that went beyond just a girlfriend relationship, I think she’d been also instrumental in a couple things in his life. She visited him in Germany before he died.