Hollywood Power Couple’s Change of Pace: EXCLUSIVE Walter Parkes and Laurie McDonald/He Named me Malala Interview by Paul Fischer in Los Angeles.

| October 5, 2015

Walter Parkes and Laurie McDonald in many ways typify the old fashioned Hollywood producer. Over the years they’ve produced some of the biggest films from the Men in Black films to Spielberg’s Catch me if you Can and The Terminal to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. So it came as something of a surprise to learn of their latest production, the Davis Guggenheim directed documentary, He Named me Malala. Partially based on the Pakistani teen activist’s book “I am Malala”, the documentary chronicles the events leading up to the Talibans’ attack on the young Pakistani school girl, Malala Yousafzai, for speaking out on girls’ education and the aftermath, including her speech to the United Nations. The film began as a narrative film after Parkes and McDonald optioned the book but then realised it would be difficult to find an actress to play Malala. Parkes says that the “role of the documentary in the entertainment universe has changed and it’s not nearly as marginal as it once was”, he explains from a Los Angeles hotel room.

He sees the documentary as a “legitimate form of mass entertainment more so than it once was.” As producers, however, making a documentary about teenage activist Malala brought with it its own unique challenges, Parkes explains. “The most conventionally dramatic aspects of the story took place before we started filming, meaning her life as an activist in the Swat Valley, leading up to her decision to speak publicly leading to her being targeted, so right away this was a topic of our first conversation. ” Due to the conventions of documentary, the producers and director Guggenheim, had to come up with a way to solve this problem since no footage of Malala’s life prior to her activism existed. Instead of opting for talking heads and reenactments they came up with a novel approach. “it was really Davis who suggested animation which turned out to be really apt”. Indeed the film uses beautifully visual animation to fill in many of the gaps in Malala’s story including the genesis of her name and much of her early life. “It was also in keeping with the subjective tone that we all felt was right for this movie”, Parkes says. “We tend to associate animation with childhood so you tend to see Malala’s subjective memory of these events which tend to fit in with the larger conscript of the film.”

Asked what surprised them the most about Malala when they met and worked with her, McDonald responds unhesitatingly. “Charmed, as well surprised by her sense of humour. She’s very funny, and very formidable. You shake her hand and you realise you’re in the company of some very special spirit and she’s also very honest about herself. I think she has this need to tell the truth about what was happening in the valley,” McDonald adds. Asked what it is that has made Malala the focus of all the attention that has come her way, McDonald pauses. “I think her story just crossed a line that was just so shocking to everyone. Nobody expected the Taliban to hurt a child so it was a dark taboo and the fact that not only did she recover but became stronger for it was compelling.”

Parkes agrees and adds “she’s special because she’s one of these girls who says ‘I am Malala but I am also one of these many girls who deserve an education’. The real story of Malala is not that she was shot, but at the age of 11 or 12 she was publicly and bravely advocating on behalf of girls’ education. The real story is also that at the age of 15 she showed her face and dared call out those who said education was not proper. Then this miracle happened. This is an extraordinary story and she survived, so that put this attention on her.” McDonald says “her ability to articulate the issue was so astounding for a woman her age and I think everyone is just in awe of her accomplishments.” Parkes adds “we live in live in cynical times because there are many ways that people become celebrities so what’s extraordinary is that just because we live in a culture in which enormous fame can be afforded to people doesn’t mean they’re not deserving of that fame. What we discovered when we met Malala and her family is that she’s everything we hoped she’d be which is both inspiring yet beautifully normal.”

The producers will next move on to big budget territory with the fourth Men in Black film. Asked if they’d prefer working on more personal fare such as He Named me Malala, both Parkes and McDonald answer together, “yes”.

He Named me Malala is currently screening in select theatres around the country.

About the Author:

Paul Fischer I've been an entertainment writer going on for three decades. Born in Australia, I began writing for Australian papers and was the first Australian journalist ever to interview both Woody Allen and Mel Gibson. I moved to Los Angeles at the end of 1999, and apart from my teaching career, have written for Film Monthly and Dark Horizons.

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