Oscar-winning filmmaker Kevin Macdonald spoke with Solzy at the Movies about The Mauritanian, which tells the story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi.
The Mauritanian is based on Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s book, Guantanamo Diary, and is set to open exclusively in theaters on February 12, 2021.
Macdonald previously took home an Oscar for the 1999 Munich massacre documentary One Day in September. Select film credits include Whitney, How I Live Now, and The Last King of Scotland. In addition to The Mauritanian, Macdonald recently followed up on 2011 documentary Life in a Day with Life in a Day 2020. The new documentary premiered during the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is now available to watch on YouTube.
How did you first become attached to direct The Mauritanian?
Kevin Macdonald: I was sent the book by Benedict Cumberbatch and his company. It had been optioned by he and a producer called Lloyd Levin. Somebody recommended me for it. I read it. I thought it was fascinating but I couldn’t really see it as a movie. They said to me, “Just speak to Mohamedou,” the guy who it’s about and wrote it when he was still in Guantanamo.
I got on the phone to him and was kind of nervous about it because I thought—or it was a Zoom call like this or a Skype call. I thought this guy has been accused of being Al Qaeda—he’s been locked up, he’s been tortured. He’s going to be a broken man full of anger, full of desire for revenge. And actually, what I got was a guy who went, “Hey, dude, how you doing?” He spoke like an 18-year-old American because he’d learned his English from the guards at Guantanamo, who sang Black Eyed Peas to me, whose favorite movie is The Big Lebowski. He’s just not what you expect. He’s a super intelligent, very complex, multifaceted guy. I thought, I want to make a movie about him. That’s what the movie for me was all about from the beginning to the end.
This film features an impressive cast. What was it like to direct them?
Kevin Macdonald: A joy! When you’ve got a cast that’s Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch, and of course, Tahar Rahim playing Mohamedou, all you’ve got to do is not make too many mistakes, and you’ll get a good movie because they’re so powerful and strong. I think with this movie, we were all band together—the crew and the cast—in making this movie for reasons that weren’t to do with our careers or with money. We wanted to make a movie that mattered and we felt was an important story and a humanizing story. That’s at the center of this—to see this man as a human being, a Muslim man accused of terrorism. I think people may find that a challenging prospect, but actually, I think once they start watching it, they will see that this is as an entertaining film. It’s got humor in it. It’s got some wonderful characters in it. It’s got great performances.
What was the most challenging part of the production?
Kevin Macdonald: We didn’t have enough money but that’s what everyone has. It wasn’t actually a challenging shoot per se, that we had things that went wrong. Jodie Foster got very ill at one stage and couldn’t turn up after the Christmas break. That meant we had to mess things around in the schedule. We shot in Mauritania for a week, which is a country which most people have never even heard of, and has no infrastructure for film or anything like that there. You are improvising and using car batteries to light things and that kind of thing. But there was this beautiful, rich culture there, which we wanted to take advantage of in that opening scene in the wedding and some of the flashbacks to Mohamedou’s earlier life. It felt really important to get the authenticity of that but it was difficult.
I think maybe I shouldn’t simply but the hardest thing was actually getting the script right because it’s a very complex story. It takes place over many years. It has three different levels of time: the present, the recent past, and the deep past. It has three main characters that you follow at different times. One of the things I’m proudest of about this movie is that nobody has yet said to me, I was confused. I didn’t know where I was. Actually, even though with all those complex elements, it’s very clear as a story and exciting as a story.
This film is being released in theaters during a pandemic. Are you afraid of the film not being able to find an audience until the home release?
Kevin Macdonald: What do you think? Of course I am! (Laughs) Like so many filmmakers, I made this film to be seen on the big screen. A lot of love, care, and attention went into it. We waited as long as we could—for various contractual reasons outside of our control, the movie has to be released in the US before the end of February. That means that we are relying on an unusual release pattern. It’s going to come out in whatever theaters it can and it’s going to then be available online and all the different places where you can do PVOD purchases. I hope that the only upside of that is that people are hungry for good content, hungry for great performances and films, and that therefore it will find its audience somehow. But yeah, we’re all disappointed. We’re all worried. Filmmakers are all worried about what the future of film is after this.
When did you finally lock the film?
Kevin Macdonald: We only locked the film, actually, just at the beginning of December. We actually finished editing it in August but I wasn’t happy with the music score. Because there were no festivals, really—we decided the festivals were not really worth going to because they were mostly online and because there were no theaters open so no rush, we decided to redo the score. That took a little while so the film wasn’t finished till December. We were hoping to come immediately out then and well, you know what happened.
What were the challenges of doing post-production during a pandemic?
Kevin Macdonald: Well, actually, you know what? There was something rather pleasurable about editing during a pandemic because you’ve got no distractions and you’ve got no producers coming to the cutting room to sort of interfere. I quite enjoyed that. I guess the hard thing—it was hard to test the movie. In late September, we managed to find a theater open in Arizona, where we could do a test so we did a test there. We managed to get an orchestra to record the score in Austria. We couldn’t record here in the United Kingdom or in America because of the pandemic. But in Austria, the orchestras were still open. You had to be a little imaginative about how you did things. We found a way and actually, the only thing I’m regretful about the pandemic is that the theaters are closed. I want people to go and see this and get the attention that it deserves and for not just for the film but for Mohamedou.
This film takes place during one of the darkest times in recent American history. What do you want audiences to take away from viewing the film?
Kevin Macdonald: I think audiences will be surprised how this is not the sort of movie they think it’s going to be. It’s an entertaining movie. It’s a gripping movie. It’s fundamentally about human decency. It has a very optimistic and inspiring ending where you feel that this man who’s been through so much is not broken, is able to forgive, and is able to love still. That, to me, reason to see this and even in this time where things have been so dark and difficult.