Magazine article Screen International

Justin Chadwick, Long Walk to Freedom

Magazine article Screen International

Justin Chadwick, Long Walk to Freedom

Article excerpt

Justin Chadwick talks to Andreas Wiseman about the pressures of making a biopic of Nelson Mandela, Idris Elba's acting style and future projects with Harvey Weinstein, Art Linson and David Milch.

The film version of Nelson Mandela's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, adapted by Bill Nicholson, was being tipped for awards recognition even before TWC swooped on US rights and Pathe sold the film extensively at Cannes.

A chronicle of the iconic leader's journey from a rural village and his political activism through to his 27 years in prison and becoming South Africa's first democratically elected president, the film's epic canvas meant the road to production was a challenging one, especially for lead producer Anant Singh, for whom the film was a long-term passion project.

Director Justin Chadwick was initially wary of taking on the feature, but the director, Singh and producers Origin Pictures developed a comfort level after their collaboration on 2010 Africa-set drama The First Grader.

Ahead of the film's world premiere in Toronto, Screen spoke to Chadwick about the challenges and excitement behind the shoot.

How would you describe your film's portrayal of Nelson Mandela?

I was wary in the beginning. Mandela is such an important man that to try and reduce his story to a two hour film was daunting. I'm not a huge fan of biopics, either.

There had been various scripts over the years but the production hadn't found the right way in or the right point of view.

I started talking to Anant about the film after making The First Grader. He invited a lot of Mandela's comrades, family and members of the Mandela Foundation to the screening of The First Grader and I spent some time with them after that.

Something about that film clicked with them and they were able to relax with me. I started spending time with the family and going to Robben Island.

I always wanted to scratch beneath the surface of Mandela. I wanted to show the man. His friends and family wanted that as well. The key was to understand the cost of the story for them.

I didn't want to make a lookey-likey, soundey-likey film. I wanted to capture the spirit of Mandela and the love story between him and Winnie - as much as this film is about forgiveness it's also about love and his amazing relationship with Winnie.

That made everything possible. It made casting Idris Elba, who is not an obvious choice, possible.

I also wanted to make it a visceral and emotional rollercoaster. I kept hearing what a ball of energy he was. His life outside prison was incredibly fast-paced.

I was fortunate that I could speak to people who knew him as a young man, who knew him as a dynamic, amazingly intelligent, electric lawyer who exuded so much energy.

The Mandela Foundation opened its vaults to me. I had meals with the children, with Winnie, with ANC member such as Ahmed Kathrada and I spoke to Mandela himself.

How involved was Mandela with the project?

He was very aware of it. That meant everything as it's his book and material.

I was taken to Robben Island by Mandela's comrade Robbie Daniels who was on B Wing with him and I was taken to Pollsmore Prison with Christo Brand who guarded Mandela on Robben Island and Pollsmore. I was always hearing first hand stories.

Did Mandela make it down to set?

No. …

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