on location

Macdonald's 'Scotland' felt welcome in Uganda

The first day of shooting on Fox Searchlight's "The Last King of Scotland" was taking place in front of a hospital in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Director Kevin Macdonald yelled "Action!" and the scene sprang to life.

Suddenly, the ambulance that was supposed to pull up sputtered and died in the street. When Macdonald and his producers went to find out what happened, they discovered that the car had no fuel; it had been siphoned off the night before by persons unknown because gas is a valuable commodity in the African country.

"It was a very 'Welcome to Uganda' moment," Macdonald recalls.

The makers of the film about the fictional relationship between notorious Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) and a young Scottish doctor (James McAvoy) discovered that they had to draw on their own reserves to craft the film, the first and so far only movie to shoot entirely in Uganda.

The movie's financiers wanted the filmmakers to shoot in South Africa, but after Macdonald went to Uganda for research, he came back a changed man. "I come from documentaries, and I have this real desire for authenticity and place," says Macdonald, whose films include "Touching the Void" and "One Day in September."

Physically, Uganda has not changed much since Amin was deposed in 1979. Its 1950s and '60s architecture is still intact, if a bit worn. And because many still remembered Amin, Macdonald thought that reality would inform the film. Securing government permission culminated in a sweat-inducing meeting with the current president and his entire cabinet. The filmmakers left the meeting with the president's support, which included the use of the army and government buildings as well as a tax break.

But Uganda has no film infrastructure, so "when we had in the budget that we would pick up local crew, there was no local crew," producer Lisa Bryer says. "We had to train people as we filmed." Twenty percent of the crew got malaria or dysentery, and when the production was in the rural countryside, doctors were hours away.

Although the production had the use of Amin's home as well as his office, there were no guarantees that things were in working order. The filmmakers thought they scored when they found Amin's limousine but later found out that the vehicle could not go in reverse.

"But for everything like that, there were 10 things that were really great," producer Charles Steel says. And Uganda, despite its challenges, proved to be a safe and welcoming environment.

The production also did some good along the way. To get that fresh '70s look, the crew painted the entire facade of the capital's main hospital and city curbs. They fixed roofs. When they re-created a portion of a village, actual villagers moved in when the production moved out. The crew even gave up a week's worth of per diem in order to construct a school in one village.

"I didn't want cliches of Africa," Macdonald says. "The best decision in the whole film was choosing to shoot in Uganda, in the real places."