When he was originally approached to make a documentary about Whitney Houston, Kevin MacDonald had absolutely no interest in doing so.
The Scottish director of “One Day In September,” “Touching The Void” and “Marley” had long lost patience and sympathy with the legendary singer because of “her endless tabloid exploits and battle with drugs,” which culminated with her death at the age of 48 on February 11, 2012.
But, eventually, that was exactly the reason why MacDonald decided to oversee “Whitney,” as it gave him the opportunity to explore how Houston’s self-destructive behavior impacted her extraordinary singing talent. Especially as he wanted to give pop culture aficionados the chance to finally appreciate and take Houston seriously.
This task proved to be a lot more difficult than MacDonald could have ever envisioned.
Not only did he immediately realize that those close to Houston were repeatedly lying to him in interviews, but there also was very little material for him to work off, too.
But MacDonald recently revealed how he was still able to cobble together a riveting and eye-opening documentary on Whitney Houston, which is surprising, poignant and will make anyone who watches it realize why she was the voice of her generation.
You can read my full interview with MacDonald about “Whitney” below.
Why Whitney Houston?
I was first approached about 2 and a half years ago, in January 2015 by the producers. My first reaction was, ‘I am not really interested in Whitney Houston.’ They said, ‘No, she is more interesting than you think.’ I shared the same opinion as most people. I had lost sympathy with her though her endless tabloid exploits and battle with drugs. It was hard to have compassion for someone who is such a self-destructive addict. They asked me to meet a couple of people, one of whom was Nicole David, Whitney’s film agent for her entire career. She emotionally asked me, ‘I really want you to make this film. Because I loved Whitney but never understood her. I need somebody to help me understand how she ended up the way she ended up.’ So, we wanted to celebrate her music, and celebrate it in the context of a way that humanizes Whitney. So that was very appealing to me. And then I read this New Yorker article about her singing the Star Spangled Banner, and the way that song is sung and understood, particularly by African Americans. And I thought, ‘What an amazing thing to have changed the meaning of a national anthem. Particularly the American one.’ Those two things meant that I could make a really interesting film about her, but one that would be investigative and a detective story that tried to figure out who she was and why did had such a tragic path. And where did the emotional force of her voice come from, and where did that incredible ability to move people come from.
Was there a specific aspect of Whitney that you wanted to explore?
My whole interest in the film was to see if I could make a serious film about a person who is not taken seriously. A serious film about a tabloid figure, and a seemingly superficial tabloid celebrity. And actually can they say something serious about our times and about race and about identity and at the same time be a moving personal story. That was my aim. In some ways it is a perverse aim. Because you are setting yourself a challenge. You’re saying, ‘This is somebody that nobody really takes seriously. But can I make them take them seriously’.
Were any aspects of her life that you thought you would cover but fell by the wayside?
Not necessarily anything that fell by the wayside, but I just thought that it would be an easier film to make. As I looked more and more into Whitney, she gave very few interviews. And when she did they were mostly so superficial, and she was clearly not engaged. She had no diaries or letters, and she didn’t really leave much behind for us to interpret her. Because she didn’t write most of her own songs, like Amy Winehouse did. With Whitney it was her interpretive powers that were so amazing not the works themselves reflecting her life. She was an enigma. That was frustrating as a filmmaker. Because you can’t seem to get at someone or find someone inside them. At the same time it just makes you more intrigued. I thought it would be a lot easier than it was. Especially because I had the permission of the family to make the film, and they were willing to give me interviews, archive footage, and access to people. But actually of course they themselves were very protective. So it took a long time, months and months, and several interviews each. I have interviewed several of the family members at least three times to try and peel away the layers to try and get it. What became the key to the film was what Gary Houston says, ‘We were a family with a lot of secrets. And if you don’t talk about your secrets they never go away.’ It took a long time to get that. We also did so much research to try and find bits of interview where Whitney was being more sincere. Delving into the archive footage, just watching them and seeing them naturally acting in their home environment or in the studio goes a long way to making us feel like we understand and learn from them. In the film there’s 30 or 40 minutes worth of material in there that has never been seen before.
Talk about working so closely with the family.
Right at the start I told them I was only interested in doing the film as long as I had control over the editorial content. They gave me the final cut of the film, but were very nervous. At first they said all the right things, ‘We want to make the film to understand Whitney and there’s so much that people will get wrong.’ I think they are right, there is so much of her perception that people do get wrong. But at the same time they weren’t really willing to go beyond platitudes themselves. It took a long time, to begin with some of them were actually quite dismissive and aggressive. But by the end of it, the two brothers, Michael and Gary especially, told me, ‘This has been the therapy that I needed to have. We are glad that we did it, even though it was painful.’ When a couple of sensitive things originally came up, they were both like, ‘You cannot put that in.’ And I would say, ‘I am afraid I am going to.’ But they eventually came around to see it in my way. It wasn’t a simple situation, but in the end they feel like they are pleased with the film and feel like they are glad they did it and it has been good for them in a certain way as well. I had never experienced that before, where the film had such a therapeutic effect on members of the family.
You said you’d never worked on a documentary where so many people told so many lies, what was your process in that regard.
The process of it was simple. There was so little of interest written about Whitney. And so little research that I could do that I just started interviewing people. I didn’t want to just interview people on the phone, I wanted to interview people on film. So my research was the filming. Most of what I was discovering and finding out, well 95% of it, was on camera. So that has pros and cons. I interviewed a lot of people, in fact I wasted a lot of money and time talking to people that in the end wouldn’t give me anything, wouldn’t open up, or just didn’t have anything to say. There were also a lot of lies. There was a woman called Lynn Volkman, who was Whitney’s publicist for years, who started to cry when I asked, ‘Why is everyone lying?’ She said, ‘The thing is Kevin, we have all spent so long covering for Whitney. 20, 30 years lying. Lying to the public, to the fans, to the record company about her addiction, where she was, her sexuality. We have all got so used to it. It is very hard to tell the truth and move on from that without feeling like you are betraying her’.”
“Whitney” is released on July 6.