Almost Like a Prophet: Kevin Macdonald on ‘Marley’

The director of the new documentary Marley explains Bob Marley's global significance and his upcoming feature with Saoirse Ronan.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


Kevin Macdonald is well known for both documentaries and narrative features. His credits include Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland, State of Play and Life in a Day. His latest film is another documentary, Marley, the story of Reggae singer Bob Marley. The film traces his entire life from Jamaica around the world and delves into the significance of Rastafarian beliefs and Marley’s work ethic.  We met Macdonald in Austin after the film’s premiere at the SXSW Film Festival to discuss Bob Marley.


CraveOnline: When did the interest in Bob Marley start for you?

Kevin Macdonald: I grew up with Marley. One of the first three or four records I bought was “Uprising” when I was 13 in 1980. I first talked about making a film really six or seven years ago. It would’ve been for his 60th birthday. I talked to Chris Blackwell of Island Records about doing a film which was not a biopic at all. It was following some Rastas from Jamaica, taking them to Ethiopia to Bob’s 60th birthday celebration in Ethiopia. I thought that would be a fascinating anthropological film in a way. The film didn’t happen for a lot of reasons and then I got to know Blackwell, so a couple of years ago he heard that Steve Bing was looking for a director for this and suggested my name. That’s how I got involved.


What decisions did you go through to subtitle portions of the English language interviews to help us with the thick Jamaican accents?

[Laughs] Well, we had a lot of debate about that. Basically I did the bits that I couldn’t understand. But obviously I’ve now got an ear for Patois so there’s probably a lot more that other people couldn’t understand.


I’ll admit, there were a few sections I wanted subtitles for.

Okay. There’s something patronizing about subtitles as well so you don’t want it for everything. Like “Oh God, no one in America’s going to be able to understand it.” Make them work. Make them work but hopefully it’s a balance. You don’t want to ruin people’s enjoyment by them not understanding it. In the end it was really just a personal decision of what I found incomprehensible.


To be fair, I’ve watched certain other movies with subtitles on DVD because I couldn’t understand the actors.

Okay, I’ll take that. It’s a good sign.


How did you create the presence of Bob Marley through the archival material?

One of the big challenges about making a film about Marley and one of the reasons nobody’s done this kind of film before is that the first 11 years of his career there’s no footage. There’s just a few photographs. That’s a consequence of growing up performing in a developing nation. They had one TV station that probably weren’t really interested in filming Rasta bands so there was no footage and there’s very few photos. So you have to be creative in using the small materials you’ve got. The father for instance, you’ve got one photograph of the father and I use it like three times, the same photograph. But that then has a power of its own. It makes you think, “Oh, why is there only one image? How mysterious is this man?” It’s about turning your disadvantages to your advantage. I also think we had access to the archive of the family and they collected over the years a lot of images and they’ve collected some film as well. And then we also just put the call out to all the collectors. Bob Marley attracts so many absolutely obsessive collectors who will buy up everything. So there’s a lot of things that belong to private individuals or collectors that we’d negotiate with them to go. In the film it’s pretty substantial, if you’re a real fan and you think you’ve seen all the footage, we have a lot of songs and new version of songs, footage you haven’t seen and photos you haven’t seen.


As a lifelong Marley fan, what was new information to you?

Lots of little things and also I guess the feeling of, in a larger way, the sense that Bob was so driven to succeed. Part of that drive came from his family background, the fact that he’s mixed race, felt rejected by both his white family and to some degree by some of the black people in his village where he grew up. Therefore he had this determination to show everyone. “I’m going to show you that I’m going to be somebody and I’m going to be bigger than you.” So that’s one of the things that drove him and also the understanding that he wasn’t a lazy dope smoking Caribbean dude that everyone thinks he is. He was a driven, hard working guy who rehearsed the band for 18 hours a day and came down hard on them if they got anything wrong. That’s why they were such a great live band because they were so incredibly well rehearsed and so tight. So he’s not really the person you think. You think he’s so laid back and he’s not really. He’s actually utterly focused and driven and ambitious, and that’s why he became the huge phenomenon.


Do you feel like even a lot of the fans don’t really understand the significance of Rasta?

I think so. I think they don’t understand the significance of Rasta and the significance of Bob. I think to me Bob is one of the most important cultural figures of the 20th century. He really is. His impact is so much bigger than any other popular musician around the world. You go almost anywhere in the world as I did – there’s a lot of places in the end credits, you see Brazil, Tibet, India and things – people adore his more. They’ve never heard of Nine Inch Nails, they’ve never heard of the Stones, they’ve never heard of Michael Jackson. They might have heard of Michael Jackson but [Marley's] work and his life are seen as being a philosophical example. He’s almost like a prophet to a lot of people. So that makes him far more significant to people than any other popular musician. So that means that even people who love the music don’t necessarily realize how important a figure he is around the world.


The quote I always heard is someone asks him why he doesn’t take a day off, and he says, “Because the people trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off.” Why is that not in the film?

I think that’s a quote that is not on audio or video. That’s in a journalist’s article. It’s something that he said but the archive of it doesn’t exist. I never found it anyway. I don't think it exists as a piece of tape, but it sounds like him. He was driven by the desire to spread his message and a spiritual message. He wasn’t driven by the desire to make money or be famous. That was the side product. He was driven because he felt he had to let people know about this message of positivity that he had.


What do you think Marley would think of reggae evolving into Reggaeton?

I don't know to be honest. I think that it’s very interesting in Jamaica now, nobody really listens to Reggae at all. Older people do of course but the younger audience is all dancehall which is such an anti-reggae. Its whole vibe is kind of sexist and violent and kind of unmelodic, difficult to listen to. I think it’s a reaction that comes out because any younger generation wants to rebel against what their parents like. They’re like, “You love all that sweetness and light and hippie kind of stuff. We’re going to do the opposite and have tough, hard music that you hate.” Kids always do that. They want music that their parents are going to hate.


Are they listening to LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It?”

[Laughs] They’re listening to Vybz Kartel and Movado. I think Vybz Kartel is now in prison for murder so that gives you some sense of the world. I went to a concert where those two played. There were like 30 acts before them. The concert started at like 10 at night. They didn’t come on until six in the morning and then as soon as Movado came on, there was a bottle fight and the police came and the whole thing ended in a huge punch up. I think that’s a good night out if you’re a young Jamaican.


You already have two and a half hours in the film, is there any more material for DVD extras?

Yeah, lots, lots more. There’s a whole little documentary I cut, 20 minutes about Bob’s influence around the world in all these places he visited. There’s three or four songs from an unheard concert. There’s concert footage, there’s 20 minutes of Bunny Wailer talking about how The Wailers created their songs at Studio One. There’s some stuff with the family, with the kids, more stuff with them talking about their dad. So there’s about another hour and 20 minutes of stuff which makes it a lot.


Was there any point where you wanted to try to whittle it down even more or let it run a little longer?

Well, originally it was three hours long and I was contracted to make a two hour film so we settled in the minute. I felt like the time was necessary. He merits the time. He deserves that. Otherwise you end up with the story which is overly familiar and where you have to stick to a three act structure and you’d lose all the detail which to me is the stuff that makes it interesting. I think if Martin Scorsese can spend four and a half hours on Dylan, Marley must deserve two and a half hours.


Does the possibility of a soundtrack help finance a documentary about Marley?

No. That was a kind of afterthought. We, we as in the people who made the film, don’t have any rights to a soundtrack. Universal are releasing a soundtrack to coincide with the film but it’s nothing to do with us really. We’ve given them our artwork.


How do you balance your time between documentaries and narrative features?

I like doing both so there’s different kind of pleasures as a filmmaker. In documentaries it’s inquiring about the world and curiosity can get satisfied by going off and exploring different topics. I feel so fortunate to be able to go make a film about Marley for instance and learn about that. I did a film last year called Life in a Day which was about the whole world and which was an experimental film. It was about trying something new with the documentary form. Whereas when you do a fiction film, the things that preoccupy you are more artistic decisions about how you’re going to shoot this, casting the actors. It’s more of the craft and artistry of it rather than the journalistic curiosity satisfying aspects of documentaries. Documentaries I suppose are more left brained and feature films are more right brained.


How did the Life in a Day experiment turn out? What’s the follow up?

I think it’s great. I’m very proud of the movie. I think it’s a really cool, unique movie. It’s not like anything else that’s been made before and that’s kind of nice. It could have been a dry rather tedious experiment and actually it’s a joy to watch, for me anyway. I was happy with it. It got released around the world in a small way theatrically. It’s not on YouTube and people can watch it for free there. Millions of people have watched it. And now various other countries are now doing their own equivalent. So there’s one in Japan and the BBC have done one in Britain. Jamaicans are doing one. Canadians are doing on, Canada in a Day, Japan in a Day. The Japanese just filmed theirs one year after the Fukushima disaster. They chose that day. The Italians are doing one so it’s kind of become a bit of a phenomenon.


What’s next for you?

Hopefully, if I can cast the right person, I’m going to do a film called How I Live Now, which is a small, dark, teen love story based on a book with the same name. It’s got Saoirse Ronan in the lead.


What kind of character will she play?

She’s playing American in it. Everybody else is British. She plays American and she plays a really messed up teenage girl who’s sent to stay with her English cousins for the summer. She falls in love with her cousin, and then the third World War breaks out. That’s just the first half.


Those are two bad things!

Two bad things. Needless to say I’m not going to America for any money. Cousin love isn’t big in the states. We all do it in Europe.


Does World War III have some action too?

Well, World War III happens but you don’t really see anything. It’s all inside the teenage mind.