Uganda shoot offers benefits for 'Scotland'


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, which is the first and so far only movie to film 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," explains Macdonald, whose previous 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, a tax break and use of government buildings for free.

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% of the crew got malaria or dysentery, and when the production was in the rural countryside, doctors were hours away.

For a shoot in a morgue, actual bodies, some in mid-autopsy, were moved to adjacent rooms only 10 minutes before the filmmakers arrived.

Although the production had use of Amin's real home as well as his actual office, there were no guarantees that things were in working order. The filmmakers thought they scored when they found Amin's actual 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 as opposed to such countries as Kenya and South Africa, which are known to be among the world's most dangerous places to shoot.

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 gave up a week's worth of per diem in order to construct a school in one village, and Bryer would return from England with suitcases full of sweets and soccer clothes for the kids.

"I didn't want cliches of Africa. It's not savanna with giraffes, it's not the slums of Soweto. It's a cool, prosperous and sexy world you're being taken to," Macdonald says. "The best decision in the whole film was choosing to shoot in Uganda, in the real places."