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5 Questions with Director Kevin Macdonald

Scotsman Kevin Macdonald is perhaps one of the few directors that can go back and forth between documentary and narrative films and make both so memorable. Therefore, it is apt that the director’s upcoming In Conversation With… at TIFF this coming Saturday at 7:00 pm will be co-presented by Hot Docs. This is clearly a master in one form or another. We spoke to Macdonald by phone after a long night of shooting 11/22/63, based on the Stephen King novel. The miniseries is the first original program for Hulu, and will air on Super Channel in Canada beginning on February 17th.

Scene Creek: Was it the plan the whole time to shoot in Toronto?

Kevin Macdonald: Uh, yeah. The show is set partly in Maine, and the area around Toronto is quite good for that obviously in terms of flora and fauna, and partly in Dallas. So that’s a bit harder around here. But we are doing some shooting here for Dallas and we’re going to Dallas itself. It’s a very unusual Stephen King book. It’s not like his normal fare. There’s very little of the fantastical in it. It’s more of a historical novel, isn’t it? That’s a bit of a departure for him. It really evokes that period, taking it back to that time.

Scene Creek: How did you get on board?

Kevin Macdonald: I was sent it actually, because everybody seems to be doing TV. Seems to be this feeling that that’s where a lot of the more interesting work is going on, and it’s become harder to get smaller and less commercial films to be seen. I thought, like a lot of other people, that I’d try my hand on TV, and this project just came to me.

I thought it was fascinating, because it’s a strange mixture of historical novel, but also having this fantastical element to it, a rare combo, and piqued my enthusiasm. At that stage, it already had James Franco attached, and I think that he is absolutely perfect for Jake Epping. I had met him once before, but I’d never worked with him. He has the right tone of being great at comedy, but he’s also got a seriousness that you believe he’s a teacher, an earnest quality is in him, and you believe it. We know that Franco teaches himself, and he’s done many post-graduate degrees, and he very much sees himself as being part of the world of academia as much as the world of film. It’s kind of a natural fit. He looks a bit like Cary Grant in his suits and hats, and you feel like he can also be a teacher. Because he is a teacher.

Scene Creek: You seem to end up working with a lot of actors turned directors?

Kevin Macdonald: (laughing) Well, I have a few, yeah, Forest Whitaker, Ben Affleck, and Russell Crowe, even recently, Jude Law hasn’t done that yet. It seems like a natural thing that a lot of actors after they have been doing it for a long time and been on so many film sets, want to do it, they’ve been on set for a lot longer than directors are. It’s one of the odd things about directing, that you’re the person that usually spends less time on a film set than anyone else, and know less about really how this works, (laughing), you’re coming in, and if you’re lucky, you’re making a film every two years, every three years, but the guys and girls who are on your crew, they are on there every day. The actors are on there every day as well. It’s natural that they would want to try their hand at storytelling. That’s a natural thing.

Scene Creek: How are you able to move back and forth between documentary and narrative film?

Documentary is kind of my first love, it’s where I started. I wanted to get a job in journalism in college, so I got into documentaries as a form of journalism, I suppose. And working in the documentaries, I discovered the power of film and how it can be more than journalism. So I naturally made the progression into full-length documentaries and features, but I love making documentaries and dramas, because of the technical challenges of it, the artistry of it, the way you express things. But documentary is still my first love. I love the real world, and taking elements of the real world and trying to tell a story with them.

I start always from thinking “what would this really be like?” and “what would this character be going through?” and “how would this character really feel?” When you are in 2015 in America now, with all of America’s cultural issues, problems and self-questionings and doubts, the character is full of doubt, and then you go back into the past and King’s tried so hard to really layer on the detail. Sometimes slightly exhausting to see the texture and detail of that layering. So he’s kind of done the work for me in a way, to be as realistic as possible, and the only fantastical element is a time traveler. But in a way, I see that as minor, you know we don’t make a big deal about it. It’s about real characters in real periods of history, but one of them just happens to have come from the future. (laughs)

Scene Creek: How do you like being here, as you missed coming to present How I Live Now at TIFF, (as you were filming Black Sea)?

Kevin Macdonald: It’s funny, I’ve spent three months here and I already feel like I’m part of the film world in Toronto. I’ve been to the TIFF Bell Lightbox quite a few times, I went to see Alfonso Cuarón, seen a few films there, met a few people in the bar, and you get to know all the film people there, maybe temporarily but I feel like I’m part of the community. The great thing about Toronto is that film is pretty central to the identity of the city.