Filmmaker Kevin Macdonald’s newest project “Whitney” takes an in-depth look at the late iconic popstar Whitney Houston.
The documentary received full support from Houston’s estate and will include unseen home movies and live performances from the late singer. The Knockturnal had the opportunity to sit down with director Kevin Macdonald and Houston’s sister-in-law/executor of the estate, Pat Houston, to discuss the film’s revelations and goals.
The Knockturnal: So many people have attempted to tell this story, what was your main approach to handling it uniquely?
Kevin Macdonald: Well I had the good fortune to have access to the family. They agreed to talk openly about Whitney really for the first time. But also that gave me access to a big archive of home movie footage, photos, and unheard music, so that’s really what makes this film different. I think its Whitney the human being, and it makes you understand her, maybe feel more compassion for her. If you had lost patience with her towards the end of her life, as many people had, I hope that the film will make you appreciate her again and her brilliance.
The Knockturnal: A major theme I noticed throughout the film is that you associate a lot of American milestones with Whitney’s by showing different presidents and different current events. What was your main drive behind doing that and using those associations?
Kevin Macdonald: I think you can’t understand anyone without understanding where they’re from, and I mean that in the wider sense that you need to understand the context of what they’re coming out of. So at the beginning of the movie we see Whitney at the height of her fame, early to mid-80s. It’s this very kind of bubblegum poppy, brightly colored, very white MTV kind of world, and then I start cutting into where Whitney is from and her earliest memories, which are of the Newark riots. That contrast kind of sums up for me what’s going on in the movie. You’ve got this surface of Whitney the image, the glamorous, beautifully dressed, lady about town. But then beneath that is a whole much more complex more racially and politically charged kind of world going on. So I wanted to keep that really alive throughout the movie to say, think about what else is happening in the world, think about the kind of more serious stuff that’s happening at the same time Whitney is singing whatever song she’s singing.
The Knockturnal: You conducted the interviews, so what was it like having to ask those type of questions to the people who were closest to Whitney? Was it an emotional experience?
Kevin Macdonald: Well you know I was a fan of Whitney’s music, but I’m not a fan and wasn’t a fan of all the kind of tabloid speculation gossip. I’m just not interested in that, maybe I’m the wrong gender or the wrong age. But anyway it didn’t interest me so I approached it I think in a different way to other people. I was just trying to see the human being in her and understand her as a human being. So the kinds of questions I was asking, they were quite intimate questions, but they weren’t necessarily sort of the tabloid-y gossipy questions. Nevertheless, it was hard to get people to open up. I interviewed 70 people, only about half the people are in the movie. 70 people and so many of them just gave me the puff kind of PR versions of the events. Even now, even so long after Whitney’s death. I think so many people are just used to lying about her. For so many years they didn’t tell the truth. In fact, Whitney’s publicist Lynn Volkman told me, ‘ You know for 30 years I’ve lied about Whitney so its very hard to sit here with you and tell the truth. It doesn’t come easy.
The Knockturnal: I got to see this movie and it was one of the most emotional experiences of my life. I feel like I really got to know Whitney as a person. How do you feel after watching it that the public will get to know Whitney as a person versus as a public figure?
Pat Houston: Well it’s time for them to get to know the human side of her. Everyone always puts celebrities on this God-like platform that they’re so perfect that nothing can go wrong. But in life they have triumphs and tragedies, and love and laughter, and disappointments just like we do. So its a film about a human story. Her story.
The Knockturnal: How did you guys decide as the estate that the story was safe in the hands of Kevin [Macdonald]?
Pat Houston: Kevin MacDonald has a great reputation, a very good vibe, and I feed off vibe. I always tell folk that Kevin MacDonald is, he is to film what Micheal Jordan is to basketball. When you give him the keys to the vault he looked in it, and when he looked in it this is what he found. Through all of his research and archives he did a phenomenal job, a brilliant job I think in representing her life.
The Knockturnal: Beyond your interviews how else were you involved in the film? Did you get any say in the editing process?
Pat Houston: Of course I had some say. He had final say, I didn’t want to micromanage and try to, you know I’m not a filmmaker, he is, and I knew how to stay in my lane. I know how to put people together to get things done, and I’m happy that, the people that we selected for this film, I’m very happy that we chose them.
The Knockturnal: And for you watching it as someone that knew Whitney, were there any parts for you that stuck out as really authentic, that you’re really glad made it in?
Pat Houston: You know, her life had many ups and downs, roller coasters. Her life was tragic because of the way she died, but you know she made a lot of choices in her life but she had a lot of happy times as well. The most intriguing parts for me was the musical part. Because I was never a fan, I was always her sister-in-law, friend, confidante, manager, but never a fan. But to sit back every time you hear her music you know why she is who she is and why people love her so much. She had the type of career and voice that brought cultures together, people together from one end of the world to the next. Everybody knew her name, and you realize that when you’re watching that documentary, the Whitney mania that’s there.
The Knockturnal: Last question for, obviously this is a really complete story. Were there any parts that you were hesitant, that were going to be revealed in this film, that you’re kind of glad they made it in now?
Pat Houston: There are revelations that were in the film. You know talking about molestation of course, her relationship with Robyn. I just feel a lot of things are insignificant at this point because she’s not here. I’ve said it before, we loved her for her music. No one in the film is trying to assassinate anyone’s character, they’re just primarily talking about their lives and those things just happened to be revealed.