Oscar-winning documentarian Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September) hadn't been harbouring a strong desire to do a dramatic film. "The pleasure of documentaries are in the spontaneity," he says.
But after working with actors in his last film, the documentary re-enactment Touching the Void, and feeling the need to expand his technique, Macdonald decided to venture into the dramatic realm with The Last King of Scotland. which opens in the US on Wednesday in limited release.
Based on the novel by Giles Foden, The Last King of Scotland chronicles the bloody reign in the 1970s of Uganda dictator Idi Amin (played by Forest Whitaker) as seen through the eyes of his ambitious young Scottish doctor (James McAvoy).
Amin, who loved all things Scottish, did employ such a physician, but the character in the movie is entirely fictional "and some of the other stuff is not true," Macdonald says. "But we stuck to the reality of who Amin was."
The Last King of Scotland was filmed in Uganda.
"You didn't know what was going to happen," says Macdonald, who is the grandson of the renowned Emeric Pressburger, the directing partner of Michael Powell (The Red Shoes). "There was always a degree of the unknown. We were filming there with a small crew of Europeans; the vast majority of the crew were Uganda locals who had never worked on a film before. They were fantastic but sometimes unreliable.
"We didn't know what was going to turn up for the day or what wasn't. The army you see in the film were real army guys -- a lot them had experienced, very recently, horrific fighting in the north of Uganda, where there was a civil war going on."
Macdonald had the option of making the film in South Africa, which offered more experienced crews, but, he says, "I wanted to get authenticity of place and time. That was my documentary side kicking in."
Whitaker's name is being bandied about as a potential Oscar contender. Yet Macdonald admits he initially wanted to cast an unknown African actor as Amin.
"I came to (Los Angeles) actually looking for white male leads to play the James McAvoy part," he says, "and I met with some African-American actors really because the producers wanted me to.
"I had a preconceived notion of what Forest was like -- based, I think, on his roles. I thought he didn't have the ability to go into a dark psychological place. Then he came in and said such fascinating things about the script, I completely revised my opinion. He said to me, 'I can do this.' He did a scene and was so fantastic, immediately (I thought), he is the guy."