Last King of Scotland by Kevin Macdonald

It was supposed to be a wild adventure in a far-off country, but when a naive young doctor arrives in 1970s Uganda hoping for fun, sun and to lend a helping hand — he finds himself instead on a shocking ride into the darkest realm on earth: the human heart.

This is the story of “The Last King of Scotland,” a powerful thriller that recreates on screen the world of Uganda under the mad dictatorship of Idi Amin. Mixing fact and fiction and startlingly resonant with todays world, the film features a tour de force performance from Forest Whitaker as Amin and carves two unforgettable portraits: one of a charismatic but psychopathic ruler who ravaged his country and the other, of a witness to history who finally finds the courage to make a stand.

It all begins as handsome Scottish physician Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), fresh out of med school, jets off to Uganda, looking for excitement, romance and the joy of helping a country that truly needs his medical skills. Soon after his arrival, Garrigan is called to the scene of a bizarre accident: Idi Amin, the countrys newly installed leader, has smashed his Maserati into a hapless cow. Boldly taking the chaotic situation under control, Garrigan impresses Amin as brazenly forthright. Already obsessed with Scottish history and culture, Amin takes an instant liking to Garrigan and soon offers him the unlikely job of becoming his personal physician.

Its an offer so incredible, the doctor cannot refuse and thus is started his odyssey into the inner circle of one of Africas most horrific reigns of terror. At first, Garrigan is seduced by Amins famously charming personality and ambitious plans for Uganda, not to mention the rulers passion for fast cars, beautiful women and glamorous parties. As time goes on, seduced by his own desire for power, Garrigan becomes the dictators confidante, consultant and right hand man, witnessing increasingly unsettling events — kidnappings, assassinations and unspeakable atrocities in which he himself may be complicit. Trapped in the moral abyss of Amins murderous megalomania, Garrigan nearly loses his soul. But when he finally dares to try to stop the insanity, he winds up in a desperate fight for survival.

Based on Giles Fodens award-winning novel of the same name, “Last King of Scotland” is directed by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Kevin Macdonald (“Touching the Void,” “One Day in September”) from a screenplay by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock. The cast is headed by Forest Whitaker and James McAvoy, and includes Kerry Washington, Simon McBurney, and Gillian Anderson.

Shot in Britain and Uganda with the support of the Ugandan people, the rarely seen world of Idi Amins Uganda is captured by a team that includes cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, production designer Mike Carlin, editor Justine Wright, and costume designer Michael O’Connor.

Dictators Heart of Darkness

How would you respond to the seductive influence of power Would you bend or forget your own moral code to achieve it What happens to someone who starts with good intentions and ends up becoming a blood thirsty individual These are the questions raised by the gripping thriller “The Last King of Scotland,” which takes audiences on a heart-stopping journey inside the world of one of the most fascinating and frightening leaders of all time: Idi Amin, famed for his electrifying magnetism, yet whose brutal rule left as many as a half million of his countrymen dead.

The film also marks the first wholly dramatic film from Oscar-winning documentarian Kevin Macdonald. Renowned for his suspenseful filmmaking, Macdonalds previous two films were the breathtaking tale of mountain survival, “Touching the Void,” and the Oscar-winning “One Day in September,” a searing examination of the terrorist incident at the Munich Olympics. When Macdonald read Giles Fodens prize-winning, fact-inspired novel, “The Last King of Scotland,” he felt immediately that it had all the high-wire tension of a real-life tale of terror and survival — along with the human insight and textural richness of a fictional thriller.

Looking for Adventure

I saw it as a kind of classic story about a young man who sets out looking for adventure, gets far more adventure than he bargained for and, in the process, finds out who he really is, Macdonald explains. In some ways it could be a story about any tyrannical leader anywhere in the world, but I also found it compelling because no one has ever really a done a film like this about Africa.

Macdonald continues: Ive always been drawn to projects that take audiences to new places, that expose them to worlds theyre unfamiliar with and the hope is that even if youve never heard of Idi Amin, youll leave the movie thinking wow, now thats opened my eyes to something.

Giles Foden’s Novel

Many eyes were opened when Giles Foden first published his novel in 1998, winning the prestigious Whitbread First Novel Award, a Somerset Maugham Award, a Betty Trask Award and the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize. Foden, who moved from England to Africa when he was just five years old and grew up partly in Uganda, had long wanted to write a novel about the strange, terrifying regime of Idi Amin. At last, he found a way past the veils of mythology surrounding Amin and into the intimate heart of the dictators world by creating a fictional young doctor who becomes Amins trusted friend and confidante, only to discover he is trapped in a realm that grows more violent and out of control every day.

Meshing Dr. Nicholas Garrigans fictional moral dilemmas with shocking real stories from Amins rule, Foden forged an exciting window not only into Ugandas past but into the very question of how ordinary people react when faced with the worst acts of humanity. He titled the novel The Last King of Scotland after one of Amins grandiose names for himself. (Amins other extravagant titles for himself included Conqueror of the British Empire and Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea.)

When producer Lisa Bryer read Fodens book, she saw it right away as having cinematic potential. I felt it would fit right into the grand tradition of classic movie thrillers set against a real backdrop, such as SALVADOR and MISSING, she says. I thought it had universal appeal — anyone who loves a good story is going to be drawn into this one. Its also very relevant, because you see this kind of history repeating itself today.

Bryers partner, Charles Steel, was equally intrigued. This is a timeless story of a young man going out to seek adventure, losing himself along the way and then finding redemption, says Steel. But it also coupled with this fantastic, revealing relationship – almost a love story – between Nicholas and Idi Amin, a kind of beauty and the beast tale.

The Script

Bryer and Steel brought the idea to Andrea Calderwood, then head of drama at BBC Scotland, who helped to kick the project into high gear, eventually bringing in Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich of DNA and Tessa Ross of Film Four. Riveted by the subject matter, Calderwood was deeply committed to bringing the story to the screen, though she knew it would not be easy. The story of “The Last King of Scotland” is so unique and its got so much resonance, she says. Its not only really entertaining but also genuinely original, not a repeat of something weve all seen before. But at the same time, its quite daring in saying that Idi Amin was a human being — obviously a very flawed human being, but a human being.

It took years to get the project off the ground but ultimately a page-turner of a screenplay resulted from the work of two leading British screenwriters, Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock. The adaptation was very difficult, notes Bryer. You had to find a way to hold the audiences compassion for Nicholas Garrigan because hes the one you have to follow into the world of this brutal dictator. Finding that delicate balance between a young mans innocence and a madmans arrogance and violence was the key.

With the screenplay completed, the filmmakers searched for a director who would be willing to venture into wholly uncharted filmmaking territory in Uganda. Although relative newcomer Kevin Macdonald was a risk for a film that already was taking thematic chances, once he became involved, the producers knew he was a perfect match. Kevin is extraordinary, Bryer comments, Ive never worked with anyone like him. Hes so well read and bright and with his documentary background, his research is second to none. We couldnt have made this film without him.

There remained one potentially major challenge before production could start in earnest. Macdonald and the films producers all agreed it was essential to shoot the film in Uganda. But until recently, the country was largely off-limits to all but the boldest of Westerners and Idi Amin remains a controversial figure, who can stir up dangerous emotions there.

Uganda’s President Museveni

Furthermore, the country has no infrastructure for filmmaking and the project would require cooperation at the highest governmental levels. Would it even be possible With trepidation, the filmmakers wrangled a meeting with the President of Uganda himself — Yoweri Museveni hoping for his blessing. Everything hung on the meeting with President Museveni, recalls Bryer. We needed his full support both creatively and financially. After many weeks of negotiating with his office we managed to secure an audience. When the day came, John Nagenda, the President’s Special Media Advisor, made sure we were all in our best dress and on our best behavior, then ushered us into a huge room with Ugandan flags flying. Kevin, the three producers, line producer Andrew Wood and Ugandan location manager Emily Mabonga were all lined up opposite eight ministers and officials and a beaming president, with TV cameras and press photographers covering the whole thing.

Bryer continues: Halfway through the meeting President Museveni asked me where my tribe came from. Israel and South Africa Mr. President, I answered, hoping not to have blown the meeting. Two hours later we were all ushered out and told by his ministers that the President was not only incredibly happy to have us film in his country, but that he would give us the full use of his army, his parliament and his ministers!

Capturing a Realistic Africa

Macdonald was thrilled. Everyone thought we were a bit crazy coming to Uganda to film, but I felt very strongly it was the only way to make this film, he sums up. Uganda has got a very unique feel to it, with its great modernist architecture from the 50s and the 60s, which you see in the Parliament building and the Mulago Hospital. I wanted to capture that different, more realistic image of Africa, which I think will surprise people. And once we arrived in Uganda, we were surrounded by history. Almost everyone we met had been deeply affected by the time of Idi Amin in some way. Being where it all happened made a massive difference.