A Psychological Detective Story: Kevin Macdonald on “High & Low – John Galliano”

The Scottish filmmaker discusses his documentary on the fashion designer’s rise and fall.
Josh Slater-Williams

Kevin Macdonald's High & Low – John Galliano is now showing exclusively on MUBI in many countries.

High & Low – John Galliano (Kevin Macdonald, 2023).

What are the limits of forgiveness? Is making a documentary about a disgraced public figure, in which that remorseful person is allowed to try to explain their actions, inherently an act of damage-control propaganda? Or can it be a way of letting them tighten their own noose? Since its premiere at Telluride last September, Kevin Macdonald’s High & Low – John Galliano (2023) has fueled such heated conversations. Leaving many of its inquiries open-ended, this documentary is about neither complete condemnation nor exoneration. Instead, Macdonald tries to make sense of the enigma at his film’s center: a man who does not deny committing a hate crime over a decade ago, but who still claims to have no memory of the events or how he got there.

Widely admired for his audacious style and designs, Gibraltar-born John Galliano was a towering figure of fashion throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Soaking up references wherever he could, he took notable inspiration from cinema, including Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927), which loomed large over his French Revolution–themed debut show in 1984. Clips from Gance’s film feature throughout Macdonald’s documentary, which charts Galliano’s tough childhood in East London through his ascension of the haute couture ranks to become the head of Dior. Along the way were struggles with drugs and alcohol that can be expected of an enfant terrible, but in the early 2010s came a twist that no one saw coming. Videos emerged of a heavily intoxicated Galliano in a Paris café launching into an antisemitic and racist tirade, including an expression of admiration for Adolf Hitler. Criminally charged in France, he was also fired from his role as creative director at Dior. Now sober, Galliano has worked to understand why he did what he did, though a full set of clear answers may still be elusive.

Given his filmography, Macdonald would seem an ideal person to tackle Galliano’s turbulent story. An Oscar-winning documentarian (One Day in September, 1999) and a director of Oscar-winning performances (The Last King of Scotland, 2006), the Scottish filmmaker deftly switches between fiction and nonfiction storytelling on both big and small canvases. Many of Macdonald’s films are rooted in shocking real events; his most recent narrative feature, The Mauritanian (2021), stars Tahar Rahim as Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was tortured and detained without charge for fourteen years in Guantánamo. And Macdonald has made many documentaries about artists, dating back to The Making of an Englishman (1995), which follows his own journey to get to know his grandfather, the screenwriter and director Emeric Pressburger. Musician portraits Marley (2012) and Whitney (2018)—about Bob Marley and Whitney Houston, respectively—are among Macdonald’s other commercial and critical successes in the documentary form.

I spoke to Macdonald about High & Low – John Galliano in November 2023, a few months before the film’s theatrical release but after it had already bowed at Telluride and the London Film Festival.

Photograph by David Harriman.

NOTEBOOK: I was intrigued to hear you describe this film as a “psychological detective story.” Could you expand on that idea?

KEVIN MACDONALD: The more I make documentaries, the more I begin to realize that what I'm actually really interested in is using documentaries as a way to explore characters and the mysteries of characters. With almost everybody I've made a film with or about, it’s the opportunity to ask any question: to delve into them and really wonder about what drives them. And realizing that a lot of people don't even know themselves as well as you, as the filmmaker, end up knowing them. That people deceive themselves and fool themselves. And certainly, John is one of them. There's a lot of self-deception going on in him.

I find that whole process of the psychological mystery always fascinating. There's a famous film noir called D.O.A. [1949], which is about a guy turning up at the police station and saying, “I want to report a murder.” “Whose murder, sir?” “My own.” And it's a bit like that with John in a way. He’s got video evidence that there was a crime committed by him. But how can it have been him, because he doesn't remember it and he doesn't think that it’s something that he would've done. So, there's this weird psychological dislocation. You get to the end of the film, and in the last interview I did with him, I say, “After all the conversations we've had over two years, why do you think you did it?” And he just says, “I still don't know.” Which is amazing, to think that something that you yourself did can be that mysterious, still, to you.

NOTEBOOK: Had the incidents happened ten years later, I wonder whether he might claim that the video was doctored with AI, with all these current concerns about manipulation of footage.

MACDONALD: Some people in the fashion world will tell you off camera, “Oh, I think it was all set up. I think somebody was sent to provoke him until he said something, because he would never.” And I think that with John, part of him would probably like to believe that. I don't think he really believes it, but that is a much simpler explanation. And we're always looking for a villain. But the idea that the villain is in our own psychology, in our own childhood, is somewhere inside our own head that we can't gain access to, that's more frightening. And there's also something innately terrifying about blackouts. I know people who have blackouts when they get too drunk, and I've had a couple myself in my life. It is frightening to end up somewhere and you don't know how you got there. So I can believe that he's having blackouts and that, with the cocktail of drugs and alcohol he's taking, he just doesn't know.

Photograph by Barry Marsden.

NOTEBOOK: Did you have any prior interest in the fashion world John comes from?

MACDONALD: I had no interest in the fashion world at all. I had the same feeling towards it that a lot of snobbish, semi-intellectual people have, which is: What a waste of time. Why are they making all this fuss about clothes? And they're so pretentious and superficial. But I was also intrigued, as I always am in making a documentary, that there's a great opportunity to enter into a world you know nothing about. And to be educated and enlightened. With fashion, I was attracted to the idea that there's a world which I'm actually quite dismissive of, but millions of people around the world are passionate about it and get a lot out of it and feel it's an art form. I don't understand that, so I'm going to now have an opportunity to meet some of the most talented, knowledgeable people in that world, and to be able to ask them questions and try and understand it.

I enjoyed that, but at the same time, I feel like one of the things the film does is it allows you to really appreciate John's genius. Almost everybody comes out of the film saying, “Wow, what a talent. How beautiful were a lot of the things he created.” He is a sort of genius, which is what I felt as soon as I met him, actually. I'm in the presence of some strange genius. I don't understand fashion, I don't understand him, but I understand that there's some genius here. There's some obsessive quality, some dedication to the art form. The film doesn't shy away from his brilliance. But at the same time, I think the wider fashion industry, as opposed to the individual creator in fashion, seemed to me to be a remarkably un-self-reflexive, un-self-analytical kind of world.

Nobody is asking the questions about this pursuit of beauty for beauty’s sake. What does it mean? What does it say about us as people, as a society? I think that some of the things in the subtext of this film are not necessarily very positive about what fashion means to us and the place that it has in society. I suppose what I'm saying is that there's an inherent paradox in the film. Even to people who have no interest or understanding of fashion, it does show you somebody who's a genius, and you understand his genius, and you revel in that in a way. But at the same time, I think it's a critique of the wider fashion industry.

NOTEBOOK: Considering your own lack of familiarity with the fashion industry, were certain interviewees who have worked in film the easiest for you to speak to about this world? Charlize Theron being one example.

MACDONALD: I think so. Often, it's easier when you come from ignorance and people recognize that you have ignorance. Therefore, that makes people have to actually not fall back on the clichés of thought and language that they would normally have, in talking about the industry that they're very familiar with. They actually have to say it in simple terms, in a direct way. Charlize is, no surprise, incredibly bright and astute. And really honest. John is a divisive figure, and there are many people who are still trying to avoid him and association with him. And yet, pretty much all the big-name people that we really wanted to appear in this did appear. I think that spoke to their affection for John and their belief in him personally and in his talent. People like Naomi Campbell or Charlize or Penélope Cruz feel like they have a personal loyalty to him, deep enough that it goes beyond whatever potential for risk to their own reputations there is, but also that they want to try and persuade you that this man is not guilty of what he's charged with—or certainly not [guilty] in a simplistic way.

Charlize is particularly thoughtful about that. I was really moved by how open she was about her own experiences of alcoholism within her family. Her father was an alcoholic who tried to shoot her, and [he] ended up [being] killed by her mother. It's a big traumatic event in her life. And that she related that to John's situation and to the disease of alcoholism…. She had a really firsthand experience of what that can do to a person. As we know, to hear stars—public figures—like that be so honest is not that common. It says something about the bond that they had with John.

Photograph courtesy of BestImage.

NOTEBOOK: Do you know why John wanted to participate in the film?

MACDONALD: I think there's stated reasons and then there's subliminal reasons. To begin with, you have to acknowledge that anyone who takes part in a film has their own agenda. You have an agenda as a filmmaker, they have an agenda, and you’ve got to hope that the agendas are ultimately going to line up. John and I spoke a lot on Zoom. We started the process and we met a few times. He wanted to make a film; that was obvious very early on. It was something he wanted to do, but he was very nervous about doing it. He felt he wanted to be understood. He always [deferred] to me, saying, “It's not about people forgiving me. It's not for me to control whether people forgive me, it's about people understanding.”

He also, I think sincerely, had this desire to be able to be an exemplar, a mentor—I'm not sure what the right word is—to, as he called it, younger creatives. Younger people in the creative industries who traditionally might have thought that getting stoned or drinking too much is a necessary part of the creative process. And he was there to say, “You know what? I thought that too. I thought that you needed to be bacchanalian, wild, and whatever in order to create. And actually, it's not really true. I feel my creativity is greater now than it was.” And also saying, “You can come back from this. You can find yourself again and reopen your creativity.”

He recognizes, which I did very early on, that his story is a story that's been told many times before, about Amy Winehouse or whoever. And it usually ends in the same way, which is death. It ends with the great rockstar burnout and whatever happens: suicide or some violent action or whatever. That's a familiar trope in celebrity-adjacent filmmaking. But what makes his story so different is that it doesn't end like that. That's the end of act two. There’s this whole other act to come, which is what happens the next day when you wake up having had that and having done these things. How do you live with yourself? How do you try to find forgiveness? How do you move on?

That is something that he really is grappling with still. He wanted to achieve various conscious things, but I think also this is part of his therapy, I suppose. It's part of his trying to figure things out for himself. That was really apparent to me when I went to the Margiela show that we filmed, that begins and ends the film. I realized as we were watching it: my God, this show is about having a documentary made about your life. It's about his life filtered through film, because he made a fashion show that is a film at the same time. All the themes of redemption, of childhood violence, of sin, everything is there through some strange fashion filter. But he is dealing with his deepest, most secret emotions and obsessions through the work that he is doing. And that made me understand that the making of the film was just part of him coming to terms with what happened.

So many people have said to me, “Oh, this is part of a rehabilitation process for John. How do you feel to be used in this way?” In what way am I being used? If you look at any bloody Netflix documentary about a celebrity, it's basically made by the subjects; by David Beckham's production company, or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s son is doing it, or whatever it is. There is a contract that happens between the celebrity and the filmmakers in which the celebrity has an awful lot of power. In this, John had no power. John gave me final cut and said, “Do what you want.”

When he saw the film, he made very few comments, and his comments were all about factual things: “You've labeled that a prêt-à-porter dress when it's actually a couture.” The only thing he said to me of thematic note was, “Do you think people will take away that there's hope in my life?” And I said, “I hope so.” I see that there is, that there's a sense of hope and a new beginning. But what I'm trying to express is that he was actually very brave in doing this. He's not controlling it. He's using it as a process for his own psychological journey that he's on. And he recognizes that I'm the filmmaker, I'm the artist, in the same way as he wouldn't want someone to be interfering in his fashion. He wouldn't dream of telling a filmmaker, “Don't do that. That’s unfair to me.” It is about as independent as any film like this can ever be.

High & Low – John Galliano (Kevin Macdonald, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: How early on did you decide to incorporate clips of The Red Shoes [1948]?

MACDONALD: Very early on when I did the first interview, which was in the south of France when he was on holiday there in 2021, John talked about how he loved Abel Gance’s Napoléon. I know that film quite well and absolutely love it. It’s full of the most incredible effects and cinematic devices. After the interview, we went down to the sea below where his house was, and there were these rocks. And I remembered the sequence with Napoleon standing on the rocks, looking out to sea, which is a big thematic piece in Abel Gance’s film. And I thought, “Oh, let's just reconstruct that in a way with John.”

So that then became, okay, we're going to use Napoléon, and there’s some way in which John’s life parallels [that of] Napoleon. He is the small, dark-skinned outsider with an accent who comes to the metropolis and is treated badly, who has to fight his way to the top and who's disgraced and exiled. There isn't an exact parallel, obviously, but because John himself was so obsessed with Napoleon and used imagery of Napoleon repeatedly through his work—from beginning to end, even to today he's referencing this without consciously understanding why he is, I might add—it just seemed to be so essential. Film actually is so important because this is, in some ways, a story about the power of images and cinema on an imagination: a vulnerable imagination of a boy growing up gay who doesn't have much understanding around him and loses himself in cinema.

At that time, particularly in the ’50s and ’60s when being gay was so socially unacceptable, gay men found refuge in the great female stars of the Golden Age of cinema, whether that be Marlene Dietrich, or Barbara Stanwyck, or whoever. And John loves that stuff. That’s where he still pulls so much of his inspiration. Or from Jane Campion’s The Piano [1993]. A lot of his inspiration comes from the experience of seeing a film. I then began to think, oh, this is a story about the potency, the power on the psyche of cinema, but also an artist who's destroying himself. And I thought, well, that's the theme of The Red Shoes. Obviously, a film I know well, although I did think twice about using it since it's a film made by my grandfather.

It's a film about obsession with art above all else and how the artist can sometimes get so lost in their obsession that it leads to self-destruction. Later on, somebody said to me, “I'm surprised John let you make a film about him, but it's probably because of who your grandfather was because that's one of his favorite films.” And of course, when I was with him, he never said to me that he liked it.

High & Low – John Galliano (Kevin Macdonald, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: Did John ever express an admiration for Dario Argento? The use of Goblin’s Suspiria [1977] score in the documentary is quite striking.

MACDONALD: We use the Suspiria music because it was used by him in a show. And I can see that it fits with his taste in the visually flamboyant, outré, over-the-top element of it. I didn't actually ask him about that, but I suspect that he saw Suspiria and it probably influenced a whole collection.

NOTEBOOK: Has determining what a documentary is about become any easier for you over the years?

MACDONALD: I’ve recently given up the fight to try and figure out what it's about until I finish it. You’ll always go in with an expectation, thinking, This is what this film's about. In this case, I went in thinking I wanted to make a film about cancel culture and forgiveness in society, effectively. How do we forgive in a kind of post-religious age? How do we find forgiveness for people who've done things that are wrong? But actually, that's not what the film's about, I don't think. 

That’s part of what's wonderful about the filmmaking process in general, not just in documentary, though maybe more so in documentary. But in fiction filmmaking, you get obsessed thinking it is this, but actually, often the actors then bring something else to the theme. And so other big themes come out that were in your subconscious, obviously, but you never articulated them. It’s a trick that the mind plays on you. But particularly in documentaries, you can't control it. That's part of what you have to embrace as the pleasure of making documentaries: you have to relinquish control and the film will be about what the film is about.

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