I won't lie, it felt a tad on the surreal side to be interviewing someone on behalf of a biopic about a man who had just died days earlier, especially when the man in question was arguably the most famous man in the world, Nelson Mandela. And while the new film MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM takes a rather by-the-numbers approach to the South African leaders life, it is anchored by two extraordinary performances in Idris Elba as Mandela and Naomie Harris and his activist wife Winnie. And for the record, considering Mandela's life story, even a straight-forward telling of it is loaded with emotion, inspiration, anger and an epic scale.
The director of LONG WALK TO FREEDOM (based on Mandela's autobiography of the same name and sanctioned fully the man himself) is 45-year-old Manchester native Justin Chadwick, who, like many in our age group, first became aware of Mandela through musicians linked to Amnesty International, such as U2 and Peter Gabriel. But it was his last film, the quiet moving THE FIRST GRADER, about an 84 year-old Kenyan villager who wanted to take advantage of his nation's declaration that anyone could get an education, so he joined a first-grade class, that caught the attention of the producers of the Mandela film, who noted that Chadwick was a fan of immersing himself in the African culture for about a year before shooting a frame of the film. This dedication made him the ideal candidate for telling Mandela's story from his early childhood to becoming the democratically elected president of South Africa.
An actor through much of the 1990s, Chadwick also kept himself busy directing episodes of many British television series ("EastEnders," "MI-5") and eventually made-for-TV films and miniseries ("Bleak House"). His first feature was the technically stunning THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, which played free and loose with the facts, but gave this story of Marry and Anne Bolyn vying for King Henry VIII's affections some serious emotional weigh. He is presently starting up directing the pilot for "The Money," an HBO series created by "NYPD Blue," "Deadwood," and "Luck" creator David Milch.
Chadwick was in Chicago recently where I had a chance to sit down with him to talk about MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM and his meetings with the subject of his film, as well as coping with the loss of the great diplomat and leader. He's an extremely nice guy, a great interview, and the stories he has about Mandela and other aspects of making this movie are fantastic. Please enjoy my talk with Justin Chadwick…
Capone: I don’t know how much time I have.
Justin Chadwick: Oh, you’ve got plenty of time. As much as you need. When did you see the film?
Capone: It was maybe two or three weeks ago.
JC: Oh, okay. You know, I was cutting it until like 10 days ago. I was still working on it.
Capone: How long is it now then?
JC: 2 hours 19 minutes. You know what it’s like, it’s an independent African movie. The great thing about having somebody like Harvey [Weinstein] behind it now, it’s like you show your movie and you learn about your movie by showing it in an audience. So every time I’ve seen it, I’ve come out of it and gone straight to Harvey and gone, “Harvey, I want to go back in.” My producer was going, “Oh my goodness, we’re done, we’re done.” And Harvey's going, “Are you sure Justin?” And I’m going, “Yeah, listen.” So right up to 10 days ago, I was still working away at it, just honing it.
Capone: I’m trying to remember if we saw it less than 10 days ago. It was right around that time.
JC: Yeah, you might have seen it.
Capone: Have you added anything at the end now that Mandela has passed away? Has there been anything adjusted because of that?
JC: No. Someone else asked me that the other day. Those photographs of him at the end are the best dedication we could have given him. Those all have obviously a huge history, but now he’s passed, they’re even more significant in terms of the film. To not have him there now... He’s been such a part of it and such a reassuring presence, not to have him as part of that, we're still reeling from it.
Capone: I was going to ask you about that. Is it surreal that this week, they’re driving his body though Soweto, and the funeral is not until this weekend, and you're out running around talking about this film. It has got to be a very different experience now talking about it.
JC: Completely. My whole family was there and everybody was there, [Mandela's] two daughters were there at the royal premiere, and then that happened half an hour before the end. The two daughters were together. Thank goodness, that they were together, otherwise one would have been in Argentina on her own and then had to make that journey home on her own.
But they wanted to continue playing the film, and then the next day I went to see Zindziswa and Zenani, and I sat down with them and I said, “What do we do now? Because this changes everything, doesn’t it?” And Zenani said to me, “This film is true to my father. He’d want you to go out and to do what you’re doing. Nothing should change. The film honors his legacy, and his legacy is important. It goes beyond anything, even him." Idris and I were with her when she said that, so we’ve come here and we’ve got some college screenings that we really want to do. We made it for a new generation to understand Mandela. I know he was old, but I think he’d been though so much and he was so ill over Christmas , just as I was getting the director's cut ready. He was so ill over Christmas and he was in the hospital, and we were all so very concerned because he was seriously ill, and then he came home.
He had been such a fighter and to have him not there anymore puts a responsibility on us to do what we can to honor that legacy, and the film does honor that legacy, and it celebrates him as a man. And that was our intention with it is that, yes, it shows him as a young man and as a flawed young man and where he came form, but he’s a young man with hopes and ambitions and he’s just like any other young man. What he went though is extraordinary.
Capone: Had he had any chance to see any version of the film?
JC: I met him just before we started shooting, and then Anant [Singh, producer] would go and see him regularly while we were filming and show him scenes. He actually showed him the first day shooting, which was the last shot of the movie. You remember the big shot with him walking there with the children that run past him? He saw that shot and he went, “Is that me?” I’m sure he said it with a twinkle, but he saw that, but that for me and Idris was such a great thing to hear in the early days of the shooting. We showed him photographs of certain scenes, and just before Christmas, I got my director's cut, the first draft of it, and then he became very ill, and the last thing any of us wanted to do was bother him with what we were doing.
It was important for him to be with his family, so sadly he didn’t, but his daughters have obviously just spent four weeks with us just recently, and Winnie saw it. We took it back to South Africa. That was the first place we took it, showed it to Winnie, the children were there, the comrades that had been on Robben Island on the B wing were there. The men and women who had been part of the struggle, on both sides actually, and that was very overwhelmingly emotional experience watching this film with men and women who we were portraying, with things that they had told me. They knew I was making a film about them about them, but I spent a year then coming from Manchester, I felt responsible to actually live and talk to the people and spend as much time as I could and use the fact that I’m from the outside to try and understand it from all sides and to understand it from a prospective of listening to people. So that was incredibly powerful.
And they all talked about the truth of it, and the truth that it was their struggle and the truth that it was to the men and women that they knew. And that, for Winnie to say that, I mean, we don't shy away from the controversy of her character. She’s extraordinary. And the people close to Mandela in this household--his wife and the people close to him in his house--saw it as well, and they all talked about Idris' performance.
Capone: When your making a biography of anyone, especially perhaps the most famous man in the world, what liberties do you allow yourself to take in terms of what is often referred to as "dramatic license"? Or do you try to stick to the facts?
JC: I was given complete freedom. In my own head, that is why I said No to it at first, because how do you do that in one 2-hour 20-minute movie? It was such a huge, full life with so many thousands of people. His life represents Apartheid history of 100 years. One of the most well-documented modern histories ever. It was really about understanding it from these intimate relationships. Anant Singh, the producer, had written to Mandela in prison had formed this bond, and had give us access to--and I then talked to and spent time with--everyone involved with his story, who I got to know as moms and dads. That was the way in.
And then it was about making a film through the prism of the relationship, of the central love relationship. We could actually make a film about love and forgiveness, and that core was the heartbeat of the film--the cost to that man, what it cost his family. Because we can reach for a history book; there are great documentaries made about him, and then the actual mechanics of it was to be true to the people we were representing. Try to involve them as much as we could, so don’t do this on the soundstage, do this in Soweto with people who have lived the struggle. So when Winnie walks into the church, she’s actually walking into a church where atrocities have happened outside. Everybody talked about Mandela’s speed that he led his life and the fast pace, so the film has got a certain energy to it that is fast paced and visceral and emotional, and there are jumps.
We can’t put every history in, and that was a hard process for William Nicholson, the writer, and I--what do we leave out? We were always true. So the detail of it and the detail of the performance. The '76 riots, for example, we show those. There are images in there where if you know you’re history, you’ll go, “Oh, I remember seeing that on the news.” But to try and recreate 360-degree worlds that felt visceral and real, so that the music, the songs, the protest, everything is shot live like a live event, and then we drop the actors in and then record it 5.1 Surround, and make sure you're shooting it and shooting the crowd as well as you’re shooting your main actors. So it feels like you’re in amongst it as an audience, and that was the challenge. That level of detail took enormous amounts of support and dedication from the people I was working with.
Capone: When you’re telling his story, you’re not just telling one story. There’s a prison story, a story about revolution, there’s a love story, and there’s a political one.
JC: Yeah, and you can’t cherry pick it. We all decided very early that this is what we would do. To understand the whole story and the man, you had to see his background and cultural roots--where he came from--to understand it. I’ve stood in Qunu where he’s being laid to rest, and that landscape, that tribal background, was so key to understanding Mandela as an older man and what he did, and to understand that he is just like any other young person who’s got hopes and ambitions and dreams. He loves cars, loves clothes, loves women; he boxed and fought and was a fighter, and wanted to be the best lawyer ever and wanted to be a success and had ambition and hopes.
And this drip, drip, drip, of this pernicious evil of racism, which is born out of ignorance and stupidity, had descended. It’s unbelievable, isn’t it? I took my children, when we took it to South Africa, to the Apartheid museum and it’s unbelievable, this history. They were shocked by it. I mean, my son is 13 years old and for him to see that this history is so recent, that those events happened. The fact that I could actually talk to men and women that knew Mandela as a young man who had been out with him. Not in just a political sense, but had gone out with him. For us, it felt important, to understand the whole story, we had to show him from the beginning until him as an older man, and that was important to understanding the man.
Capone: So the first time you met all of these people was in the year leading up to shooting?
JC: I met Mandela just before. But I was there for over a year just researching. I was taken to Robben Island. And I met not just men and women that knew him but his jailers, interrogators, the man that tied his shoelaces before he goes and see [former South Africa President F.W.] de Klerk. So I’d met them all by the point just before I started shooting. Maybe a week or two before we started filming, I went and met and had an afternoon with Mandela.
Capone: Did he have any requests in terms of just how his story would be told?
JC: He knew what we were doing. He gave us complete freedom. He formed a close relationship over the years with Anant Singh, the producer, who had written to him in prison when he was a young activist filmmaker. He actually said something to me on that. We had taken him an iPad with all these images of him, and thank goodness, because you can imagine by this time, I had done all of this research and met all these people. And Nelson Mandela, I mean, he’s Nelson Mandela, the aura. I can still feel the electricity that was coming off of him. Everybody talks about this warmth. B we had this iPad with these images, and we gave him this iPad, and I sat next to him and was holding his hand as I was looking at these images. It was just before his 94th birthday. He knew, he’s so sharp. He told Anant off a couple of times, because Anant got the person wrong or where he was [in the photos], and these photographs go way back. He was completely inspiring. He got to the picture, which I have actually put at the end of the movie of this little boy twisting his nose and pulling a face and holding this little child, and he just turned to me and he went, “He saw me as The Man.”
Capone: You're this white man from Manchester coming into this film that is distinctly African. Did your position as an outsider help in a way tosee the bigger picture?
JC: Well, I'd done the same thing in Kenya [for THE FIRST GRADER]. I had gone and actually lived in the community I was working with, because I am from Manchester. There is no doubt about that, I’m not from South Africa, I haven't lived that struggle. And Idris too, he’s a Londoner. Naomie too. Going into the country is to understand and to use the fact that you’re from outside. I think it really for me was about retracing his steps and just listening as much as I could before I started working with Bill, the writer, and using the fact that I was from the outside to get it. And actually when I was making it, you know, right form the beginning everybody said, “Oh, you can’t shoot in there. It’s too dangerous.” Or “You can’t go in there. You’ll never be able to do it.” And I was like, "You’ve got to. You’ve got to go into the communities and talk to them. If you go in and talk to them and involve their elders or the leaders of that community, they will be in it, and we can get people to work on both sides of the camera." And that’s exactly what we did in the early days.
I laid it out every day. If we had 1,000 extras, I would talk to those men and women. I’d say, “Listen, I’m from Manchester. It’s got to be true, it’s got to be real, and I rely on you to be true and real. When this man comes on this stage, this is 1940, this is where we’re at." I'd prepare them in terms of where we were at in the history of that moment, and they can see that I was very keen for them to be true, but they really respond to that. They really did respond in terms of "Right, it’s got to be absolutely perfect." So when Idris walks on, those aren’t actors. Those are people who are actually in that moment, so that gave us a visceral response, and they enabled the film to happen in a way that was like a live event happening. And that gave it a very emotionally charged atmosphere, sometimes a little bit on the edge, particularly when we did the riot scenes. Some of those cars, some of those tires were not meant to go up, and I would have not wanted to be a white police officer in those scenes, but it gave it a realism that informed all of the performances.
Capone: What was the most number of extras that you had in one scene?
JC: I had 1,000. I’m even shocked even saying this for a movie. For the BBC, you get 100 or 200 extras across the whole film. [laughs] For example, we had on the celebrations of the win for Mandela’s party, we had 1,000 extras. We knew it was going to be a celebratory scene, so we put up these speakers in Soweto on the street. Everybody was ready. And 1,000 extras is a lot of people, as you know, but we started playing this music, and me and the cameraman started shooting, and the whole place just went up. Within minutes, there were like 2,000 and then 3,000 people. And then me and the cameraman got lost, and I was passing him these rolls of film, and he was shooting, and they found me, and the line producer said, “You’ve got to have a release form from every single person.” There must have been about 10,000 people out there. It was just wild, it was brilliant. And the energy there is just inspiring, it really is.
Capone: I was thinking about different segments that had information that I was not aware of. The negotiations as they were trying to get him free in a way that would help the white government at the time, I hadn't really heard much about that. That’s an interesting period, and it caused him a lot of grief as the county was on the verge of exploding, the other prisoners were thinking that he was some how selling them out or selling out the cause. The political shuffling to me is one of the most interesting things about this.
JC: I have to agree with you. That was the real revelation for me. I remember those images of him coming out. But then somehow those four years, I thought they were his transition to him being president. That was a shock to see the country teetering on the brink of a blood bath, and there’s this man who comes out of prison in his 70s who, against his own comrades, the men who have been with him for 27 years, who are all like "Alright, we seize this now." Against his wife, against the people who all wanted to fight. They all wanted a revolution.
I hadn’t quite realize that he faced the biggest challenge at that particular moment. That’s what he had been training in his cell for, not just mentally but physically as well, so when he came out this man had the biggest challenge to be able to pave a way through for peace through negotiation and talk when everyone else was saying, “We seize it. We fight till the last drop of our blood.” He paved the way. It must be the only example in history where that’s happened. And how he did that and with such forgiveness, that was a massive revelation for me going in, and that he was able to do that with such conviction against everybody else--astonishingAnd that’s why the South African history is an important history for today.
Capone: I wanted to ask about the U2 song, because it seems like that would be an easy get for this movie. Was it as easy as it seems? I know growing up in the '80s, it was listening and paying attention to bands like them who were constantly talking about Mandela.
JC: That's right, me too. That’s the thing. That is such a dream. I’d grown up listening to "War" and "Boy" and "October" and those albums; I wore them out those vinyls because they, exactly what you say, were that band coming from a struggling Ireland, saying stuff about what was going on in South Africa. I named my son Joshua after "The Joshua Tree." These albums were important in growing up for all of us.
Capone: Is that true?
JC: Yeah, me and my wife met in college and listened to that album over and over. So I wrote to Bono, and I’d been listening to Bob Marley and U2 while we were making the film. And not just music from outside, but inside South Africa, and watching how this consciousness spread--artists like Gil Scott-Heron and U2 and Bob Marley. We were listening to that music, and I wrote to Bono and I said how he really inspired me sitting there in Manchester when I was a kid. And he came and watched it. And I told my bother, and my brother was really laughing--he can remember my mom banging on the ceiling to turn the music down. So there I am sitting with him--he and Larry saw it first--and he said right form the beginning, “It’s a story about love. I wanna write something about love.”
And he said, “If you don’t wanna use it...” And I was like [rolls eyes]. And he wrote this most wonderful true song about love, and it harks right back to those albums, to the raw sound of them and his voice is beautiful and poetic, and the fact that he has a history with Mandela and the family and with Harvey. Harvey was very instrumental in being able to enable that to happen, and I’m so honored to have that on there, because it’s the last track of the movie, and it takes you out of the cinema, and that track gives you hope. Yes, you’re fired up and emotional, and you’re fired up about this man, but Mandela gives you hope. Where there’s anger and where there’s injustice, Mandela does give you hope and he gives you a way though it.
Capone: I actual bought the vinyl on Record Store Day. Well, thank you.