By David A. Ellis.
Peter MacDonald was born in London in 1939 and first worked with film for the advertising company Pearl and Dean as a clapper loader. After six months he became a clapper loader for TV, working on a number of productions including Robin Hood, a series for children’s television.
He went on to focus pulling and then camera operating. He operated on numerous films including A Bridge Too Far (1977). It was after operating that he got his first second unit job, directing and photographing Zulu Dawn (1979), shot in South Africa. This was followed by some work as a director of photography (DP), in between directing. He was a DP on five films including Hamburger Hill (1987). His last film as DP was Shag (1989).
He was doing second unit work on Rambo III (1988), having worked on Rambo II (1985), when he was asked if he would take over the main unit.
David A. Ellis: Why were you asked to direct the main unit of Rambo III?
Peter MacDonald: There was a lot of sacking taking place, which included cameramen, editors and assistant directors. Eventually Australian director Russell Mulcahy was fired. They asked me to take over and I was intrigued by the challenge. I tried very hard to change the Rambo character a bit and make him a vulnerable and humorous person, I failed totally.
Rambo III was your first film as main unit director – did you feel nervous?
I knew instinctively what was a good and bad shot. Stallone knew his character because it was his third outing as Rambo. I wasn’t shooting Shakespeare and at times it was hard to take it seriously.
Were several cameras used on the stick fighting sequence?
No, I did it all myself using a hand held camera. The scene, which was shot in Bangkok, was done in short pieces because the moves were very difficult. Stallone would remember three or four moves, and then we would cut. It was shot fairly quickly.
Was that the only part where you operated the camera?
When a sacking took place I would fill in for a day or two until another operator was hired. They were a tough bunch and if they didn’t like you it was best to leave the picture because you would be got rid of anyway.
How did you achieve the great special effects on the tank and fighting the Soviets sequences?
For real. Rambo III was long before digital effects. We shot the final battle in Arizona. The film was shot in Israel, Thailand and Arizona, USA. There were so many restrictions in Israel, where you could and couldn’t shoot. The producers and Stallone decided they would go back to Arizona where they had looked long before I was on the film. There was a group there called the re-enactors. We had around two hundred and fifty of these guys who re-enact the [American] civil war. They were called on to do fight sequences, which they loved.
What was Stallone like to work with?
When he was playing Rambo he became Rambo, throwing himself into the part. We got on quite well. I never had a drink or meal with him because I don’t think we had too much in common.
Was it always your goal to be a director?
Yes, I always liked it. Sometimes I couldn’t understand why some directors were so bad tempered until I started directing myself. Then I realised it is not only what happens during the day, it’s the phone calls you get at night from the studio and people promising you one thing but not actually coming up with it, and I could see the frustration.
How did you get to become second unit director on Zulu Dawn?
I’d worked a lot with David Tomlin, who I think was the best first assistant director we have ever had. David and I were approached to work on the second unit and would share the responsibility of directing. I would also photograph and do some operating. When we arrived in South Africa David said: “We can’t have two people creatively directing, so you do the directing and I’ll make sure you are ok.”
Would you tell me about working on The Neverending Story III.
The Neverending Story III  was shot at the beginning of the digital era. We were torn between the old fashioned way of working. We had special effects men Derek Meddings and Paul Wilson on board. I didn’t really have enough help in my opinion to know what you could do digitally. In those days you were charged by the frame. After we had edited the film I went away for a break and when I came back the producer had re-edited it and anything he felt was scary was cut out. With that a lot of the effects were taken out, which I had been given for free. I felt the film had been watered down compared to the first The Neverending Story. It was a disappointment for me. I talked to my agent about taking my name off the film. I was talked out of it – he said if you do that you are going to have that reputation. I tried all I could to persuade them to put some material back but not enough to make it what it should have been.
What was it like working on Legionnaire (1998)?
The film was shot in Morocco and I felt we made a very honest film. I went to Paris and met two proper Legionnaires. One was in his eighties, he was a wonderful man, one of the most interesting I have ever met in my life. I learned what the Legion was. It was nothing like I’d ever seen before. Everyone was equal. Everyone walked through the desert with the same amount of food and drink. There was no preferential treatment. There was a great comradeship between them all. I tried to get all that into the film and I think we succeeded. We had a very good cast and we finished on schedule. The performances were very good – it is a film I am proud of.
Do you find more can be achieved in a day with modern equipment?
No, just the opposite. When I was an operator working for example with Sidney Lumet, you would do an eight-hour day. I don’t remember even on things like A Bridge Too Far going over schedule or budget. Now we have to do a ten-hour continuous day, which means you don’t stop for lunch and usually there is an hour or two tagged on the end of it. So we are doing a twelve-hour day without a break. I don’t think modern technology has in any way made filmmaking speedier.
David A. Ellis has written for a number of magazines and newspapers. He regularly writes for The British Cinematographer magazine and is the author of the book Conversations with Cinematographers, published by Scarecrow Press.