Kevin Macdonald

Kevin Macdonald: Filmmaking in China

Kevin Macdonald, the award-winning director behind One Day In September, The Last King Of Scotland and Marley, is making a documentary about Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang. Although Cai now lives in New York, his work is deeply rooted in his Chinese heritage, so Macdonald found himself thrown in at the deep end on his first ever trip to China...

Published on 11 November 2014

“It was the first time I’d been to China, let alone worked there. I was only there for about 10 days shooting, but I’m going back again - to Hong Kong for BAFTA, then mainland China for another 10 days shooting to finish off. Cai doesn’t speak any English, so, because of my lack of Chinese, I was constantly surprised - “Oh, we’re going there,” “Oh, we’re not staying here” - which makes it a bit tricky to shoot, particularly because I didn’t want to shoot in an observational way, I wanted it to be a bit more considered, framed…artistic, I suppose, in keeping with the subject matter. That proved to be quite hard.

“I went with Cai on an extraordinary tour around his suppliers - he works with fireworks and gunpowder a lot - and factories in the countryside, where they manufacture fireworks. So, I saw rural China, manufacturing China, and Beijing. I also went to his home town of Quanzhou. There was a lot of moving around. I went to about four different cities by plane, and each was about an hour away from the other one. Then there was a lot of driving. They move very fast in China - everything happens fast. Huge distances to cover.

“I worked with a Chinese crew, which was pretty interesting. It all happened very last minute, so I didn’t have time to take anyone with me. Normally, I’d at least take a director of photography, but I was recommended a local guy who had worked with filmmaker Zhang Yimou, but he’d never done documentaries before, so it was quite a challenge getting him to understand that this wasn’t like a news report or a feature film, but somewhere in between. He didn’t speak any English, so there was a lot of gesticulating and pointing at the monitor. It took a few days to develop a means of communication, and for him to understand what he was meant to be following with the camera. Cai’s assistant spoke English, so when she was with me she was able to help. But there was something interesting about having to articulate in a way that you wouldn’t normally expect with the DP, so I learned something. It proved most difficult when we were filming lots of long meetings, because I didn’t know what was being said – I started to read much more into their body language. And I think I saw a side of China that most people don’t see, certainly not on their first visit. There were lots of long lunches with officials, all making mid-meal speeches and toasting each other with glasses of beer or wine. There’s quite a lot of social “finding of consensus” through long lunches. But they were communal, the crew were always invited to sit with the officials. It was very inclusive.

“The quality of filmmaking there is very high. There are a lot of people making a lot of commercials, a lot of homegrown TV, film - it’s a big, big industry. Plus, I was surprised that the prices for crew were comparable with Britain; it certainly didn’t seem to be any cheaper. They tend to use bigger crews, too. As it was a documentary, I only wanted to use a few people but I ended up with quite a lot, partly because I was shooting with an Alexa and we weren’t allowed to take the lithium batteries on to planes, so we had one person dedicated to sitting on trains transporting the batteries, which was slightly bizarre.

“The crew were professional even though they didn’t really know about documentary, and I think if we had gone with our own crew we’d have faced more obstacles. I’d expected more people to be questioning me - “What are you doing?” “Please put that camera away” - but there was none of that. Nobody seemed to take the slightest notice that we were shooting. That may have been because it was an entirely Chinese crew (except for me), but I didn’t come up against any issues at all. But also I’m making a film about an artist that’s not a particularly political film, so it wasn't very controversial.”