Usually when a documentary filmmaker decides on a project, it’s a subject that they’re passionate about or they feel that an injustice needs to be put right. But in the case of Kevin Macdonald and Whitney Houston, the subject of his newest film, Whitney, it began with what can probably best be described as… indifference.

“It was kind of an unusual process,” admits Kevin in an exclusive interview, whose credits include the Academy Award-winning documentary One Day in September (1999) and the disaster thriller Black Sea (2014), “because I wasn’t a massive Whitney Houston fan before. I liked some of her songs. I guess like a lot of people of my generation, if you thought you were cool in the ‘80s, you weren’t listening to Whitney Houston, but maybe you sneakily liked it and listened to it when nobody was around, you know?”


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He acknowledges that he’d also lost sympathy for her in a way in the latter part of her career, because of the actions that turned Whitney into tabloid fodder, including her stints in and out of rehab due to drug addiction. It was only when he spoke to her agent, Nicole David, that he became interested in making the documentary about her.“She was the one who convinced me that it was a film worth making,” says the Scottish born filmmaker. “And I suppose that was because she said, ‘I loved Whitney Houston more than anybody else I ever represented, and I never understood her. And I feel really bad that I don’t understand her, and, in a way, I want to know who she was.’ That was so intriguing to me as a filmmaker — that kind of invitation — and also the enigma and mystery of that. So I started off kind of unsympathetic to her in some ways, and I think by the end of the process I really fell in love with her. She truly is one of the greatest singing artists in the second half of the 20th Century, and she should be acknowledged as such.”

The challenge was creating sympathy.

Even with such a change of heart, it would seem difficult to paint a sympathetic portrait of someone who, from the public’s perspective, seemed to have it all and in essence threw that all away to indulge in a drug use that ultimately cost her her life.


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“It is tough in a way,” he acknowledges, “but also what you’re describing is the classical shape of a tragedy going back to Shakespeare. It’s watching the best, the most beautiful, the brightest, and the richest, and seeing them lose it all and be brought low. And somehow human beings are compelled by those stories. Why that is, I don’t know — you’ll have to ask a psychologist — but we are. And that is one of the attractions of Whitney’s story: there’s a sort of, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ quality to it. There were times in making the film where I felt it was hard to like her, and that’s a very uncomfortable thing when you’re making a movie about somebody. Normally I’m making a film about somebody that I really admire and love, or whatever. What’s the point in spending a year and a half in the company of somebody you don’t like?”

Roadside Attractions, the film’s distributor, comments, “Whitney Houston broke more music industry records than any other female singer in history. She also starred in several blockbuster movies before her brilliant career gave way to a troubled personal life. She survived a volatile marriage to R&B singer Bobby Brown, drug abuse, divorce, estrangement from her father, rehab, reality TV, and a disastrous comeback tour. She died in a Beverly Hills hotel bathroom surrounded by drug paraphernalia at the age of 48. For years, millions of fans have wrestled with the mystery: Why did this once-in-a-lifetime talent seemingly sabotage her own bright future?”


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Kevin expresses of the documentary, “There were some tough times making it, definitely, but I always came out the other end, and I hope that’s the experience the audience has is that they see a much more human, vulnerable version of Whitney Houston, and one very different from the tabloid perspective on her. Very different certainly than the iconic image of her. The hope is that in understanding her more, they can kind of forgive her. Hopefully, though, ultimately people will turn back to the music. Why else make a movie like this if you’re not going to make people appreciate the music more and think about the music in a different way? Where does the power of that voice come from? Where does the emotional impact of that voice come from? It comes from all the experiences she had in her life.”

After building her up, the public seemingly tore her down.

Which leads to one of the most surprising moments of the documentary, one of her last live performances where her voice was simply gone; not even an echo of its former self, resulting in the sold-out audience actually booing her.“It’s totally heartbreaking,” concurs Kevin. “It almost feels like a mythic thing, doesn’t it? You have this person who, as her mother said, God touched and gave her this voice. And then the voice is gone. It’s departed it. It’s like God has left her. What’s left of her life? Therefore, at that point is there anywhere else for her to go but to die? It’s enormously sad.”One of the big takeaways of the film is the way that it seems to serve as an example of the true arc of stardom: a woman comes on to the scene with talent and everyone carries on about her, turning her into a sensation, but the instant things start to go south, everyone — from the media to the public — is ready to tear her down. For Kevin, one of the most “horrifying” bits of the film is when you see excerpts from shows like Family Guy and Saturday Night Live that mock Whitney and her battles with addiction.


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“Once you see it from her point of view, you think, ‘Oh God, how cruel!’” he muses. “I don’t think you make a film to have a lesson within it, but maybe there is a lesson to be learned in this about having a bit more sensitivity in the media about people’s private lives, and realizing that you can impact them in a huge way emotionally.”

One of the most impactful moments of Whitney is when Bobby Brown is interviewed and he simply refuses to acknowledge drug use in Whitney’s death, proclaiming that it had nothing to do with drugs. What you see is someone in complete denial.

“I left it in, because sometimes when people don’t say anything, it’s more revealing than when they give you a lot of fluff,” Kevin points out. “I thought that just says it all about what he’s like as a person, and his attitude is the attitude of denial. It tells you more than having him sort of give you a half-assed excuse about it.


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“The truth is that I don’t think Bobby Brown is the evil guy that everyone painted him to be,” he adds. “That was always his image, ‘Bad boy Bobby, he ruined Whitney.’ I think the movie makes clear, that’s not really true. Whitney was in love with him, Whitney chose to be with him, Whitney stuck with him when any sane person would’ve gotten out of it. And she introduced him to drugs, really, not the other way around. She was already a heavy user, and, as her brother Michael says, ‘We ran rings around Bobby. He was a lightweight compared to us’ in terms of drugs. For me, the way I interpret Bobby is that he’s a very insecure person who is always worried about how he comes across, and he’s not a big enough guy to be able to actually really be honest about himself and to himself. One of the most tragic moments, which a lot of successful women will recognize, is the moment where Debra Martin Chase, who is Whitney’s producer in her production company, says this line about, ‘In order to make the marriage work, she had to step down to pull him up. She had to make herself seem small so that he felt bigger.’”

More hardships from Whitney’s early life were revealed, including the fact that she was sexually abused.

Equally shocking is the revelation that Whitney, in her youth, was sexually abused by her aunt, Dee Dee Warwick (sister of Dionne). Kevin details, “That was something that came out through the course of the film, but very late in the process, really. I got the last interview about two weeks before I finished editing and it made me have to revise pretty much everything in the movie. I kind of want the audience to have the experience on hearing that where it’s, like, ‘Okay, that makes sense of a lot of things that haven’t made sense before,’ which is the experience I had making it. I also think if this film was made at a different time, no one would have named names. But in a post-Weinstein/post-#MeToo time, it feels like absolutely the right thing to do.”


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When watching Whitney, the audience will take away from the experience whatever they might, but what has the experience of this documentary been like for those who were interviewed for it as they came to grips with aspects of Whitney Houston for perhaps the first time?

“What’s interesting is that so many people are still in denial, and not just Bobby,” says Kevin. “I spoke to 70-something people and only about 30 of them are in the film. So many people just weren’t willing to go there. They were just determined to stay on the surface, determined to give you the puff, and obviously I didn’t want that. I wanted to make something more truthful. And some of the people I had to interview three or four times, like her brothers, to really get in there and really understand the psychology and the situation. The people generally around her feel guilty, whether they admit it or not.


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“Her publicist, Lynn Volkman,” he closes, “who is a lovely woman and was Whitney’s publicist pretty much from the beginning, and even now looks after the estate, said to me, ‘You know, Kevin, for 20 years I just lied to the press about Whitney. Every day, that was my job. To feed them stories even if they didn’t believe it. I had to give them a counter-argument to whatever things she’d been up to, or whatever the gossip or rumors were. And I got so much into the habit of that, that it’s really hard to tell the truth.’ And I think that’s the same with a lot of people. They thought that they were protecting her, but actually, they were enabling her. And now that they realize that, they feel really guilty.”

Whitney opens in theaters on Friday, June 6.