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5 Challenges, a Stumble and a Lot of Pride: How We Made a Biopic About Nelson Mandela

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A global icon, a legend, an inspiration. Even The Onion joked respectfully, "Nelson Mandela Becomes First Politician To Be Missed." How do you make a movie about such a man? The first answer, looking back, is: slowly. We didn't know at the beginning that it would take the rest of Mandela's life, and that within days of the release of the finished film he would be dead.

While still in prison, Nelson Mandela corresponded with South African film producer Anant Singh. On his release, Anant met Mandela, and the two men became friends. When Mandela published his autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom, he gave the film rights to Anant, saying he did not wish to vet the project in any way. Anant turned to me to write the screenplay. I had written the screenplay for an earlier movie he had produced, a musical about the Soweto uprising called Sarafina. I put it to Anant that a South African screenwriter should take on this nationally sensitive task. He replied that he wanted a global movie, and that a local writer would find it much harder to negotiate the complex rivalries of South African politics. In other words, I would be more able to make the necessary brutal simplifications.

So from the start, the first challenge was how to simplify: what to keep in, what to cut. The second challenge was how to approach the man himself. Too much reverence and the movie becomes pious propaganda. Too much fault finding and the movie becomes mean-spirited, and fails to match the audience's love and admiration for the man. The third challenge was how to explain the politics, a part of the story that is central, massively complex, and at this distance in time, potentially dull. The fourth challenge was how to explain the nature of Mandela's achievement. Just what is it this man did that makes him so revered? And the fifth and final challenge was to wrap it all up in a movie that tells a story, that grips and entertains, that is dramatic. After all, the central character spends 27 years in prison -- not on the face of it an action movie.

The structural challenge came first. Should we attempt the whole life, or should we find one moment in that life and use it to represent the whole? In recent years, it's become almost an orthodoxy among moviemakers that the whole-life approach is passé. Lincoln focuses on the passage of one bill. The Iron Lady frames glimpses of her life in scenes of her dementia. In the case of Mandela, it seemed to us that the span of his life itself communicated his achievement: that only when you understood where he came from and what his country was like as he grew to maturity, could you appreciate his greatness. We did experiment with the usual time-fracture techniques, starting with his prison sentence, for example, and flashing back and forward. But it felt that in doing this we were foregrounding the film grammar over the man and his story. So we decided to tell the life straight: no clever games.

This helped us in facing the second challenge, the risk of over-reverence. In his youth, Mandela was a man on the make: a rising lawyer with an eye for pretty girls and smart suits, a man who aimed to be rich. He had no interest in damaging his career by associating with the toothless ANC. His plan was to beat the whites at their own game, by becoming better educated and richer than they were. Here was our chance to present a character most can identify with, not a saint, and not a self-appointed liberator. My early drafts contained scenes of Mandela's womanizing, of his adulteries, and his aggression to his first wife, Evelyn. We were checking my work with members of Mandela's circle, specifically with his long-time prison comrade Ahmed Kathrada, known as Kathy. Kathy did raise questions about possible disrespect over these scenes. We made the case for presenting Mandela as a fallible hero, and he accepted it. Along the way, we understood that here, in Mandela's family life, lay his greatest failure, and his greatest suffering. His chosen path in effect destroyed two families. This became significant as the movie took shape for an essentially dramatic reason: when a story ends in victory for the protagonist, it only satisfies the audience if that victory is seen to be earned. This demands that a price be paid. In Mandela's case, he paid the price of personal happiness.

The third challenge, the politics, proved to be intractable. There was just no way we could follow each phase of the ANC's evolution, let alone Mandela's, as they passed from non-violence to armed struggle, from negotiation to pragmatic compromise. In its place, we substituted a human equivalent, which enabled us to tell the story of the political divide in emotional terms. This was the marriage of Nelson and Winnie. We only realized we could do this quite late in the day, when we were searching for ways to carry the long passive years in prison without letting the movie grind to a halt. Our answer then was to cut away to show what was happening to Winnie. In doing so we discovered that we could encapsulate the two political paths -- armed struggle versus negotiated peace -- in these two individuals. The drama then becomes both political and personal. As Winnie is driven by her tormentors down the path of extreme violence, Nelson is quietly moving toward a strategy of compromise. This insight led to a further structural development. For many drafts, we had taken the story only as far as Mandela's release from prison. Now we saw that the story of his marriage needed to reach its sad conclusion, with his public separation from her after his release. This framework made it possible to maintain dramatic drive through the four years from his release to his election as president. So in this ever-evolving way, we stumbled forward to our final shape.

The challenge of explaining Mandela's core achievement was more intellectual. It involved identifying his key insight, its moment of delivery, and then dramatizing it. Everyone knows Mandela forgave his enemies. But how did forgiveness translate into power? Our answer was to focus on his key perception about fear. Mandela was the victim of powerful oppressors. He and the oppressed races had good reason to fear the white regime. But he understood that they did what they did out of fear of their victims. It's counterintuitive, but it's powerfully true. Their fear drove their repression. So if Mandela could take away the fear, there was hope of reconciliation. This analysis gave us the means of essentialising the years of negotiations, and it informed our choice of the speeches Mandela gives in the film. One other quality we added, a personal favorite of mine: we showed him as a leader who was prepared to tell his people -- his voters -- when they were wrong. I long for such a leader in our Western democracies today.

The last and greatest challenge came, of course, with the actual making of the movie. Ours was an independent production, it needed finance, and for that we needed a bankable director and stars. Over the years, several directors came and went, and we met just about every black movie star. The elements never quite came together. Finally our producer tired of chasing big names, and with Mandela himself now retired and aging, decided to go for a younger, fresher generation of talent. Justin Chadwick came on board to direct. He it was who now faced the giant task of creating a compelling drama. He decided from the first that our movie had a unique opportunity to be shot among and with the very people who had lived through its events. Not since Pontecorvo shot The Battle of Algiers in the same streets and with the same people as its characters, has a movie been so embedded in the reality of its setting. The crowds Justin deployed were the same people who cheered Mandela on his release. The generals who salute him as president are real generals, in their own uniforms, choosing to honor the man who united the nation. Justin adopted a style he calls "360-degree filmmaking," where he throws his cast into a fully populated world, and shoots with multiple cameras as if covering a live event. His cameras are always alive, always on the move, as if only discovering what's going to happen as it happens. The result is a film style as contemporary as a Bourne movie, as immediate as news footage, welded to a classic story structure. This is highly innovative filmmaking, expensive, too, but you get more for your dollar in South Africa.

Finally, most strikingly, Justin cast Idris Elba and Naomi Harris for his leads. All the work we put in over the years would have come to nothing without great actors. It doesn't always happen. I've been on movies that were killed by bad casting. This movie is crowned by two astonishing performances. See for yourself.

But the story of the making of the movie doesn't end here. After it was shot, the first cut inevitably proved too long. Slowly, a leaner version emerged, and began to be tested. The results lived up to all our hopes. Excited, we took the film to the Toronto film Festival, only to be hit by several damp reviews. There seemed to be a disconnect between audiences and critics. The film was too traditional in form, said some critics, too earnest. We took the film back into the cutting room and did more work, tightening, sharpening, clarifying. We then conducted exhaustive tests with recruited audiences. We found ourselves getting unheard-of scores, in the high 90s, with people emerging from screenings deeply moved. We showed it to critics again, and at last the movie started to win official praise.

In the end, this is a moral movie, and I believe we're not accustomed to that any more. It's not cynical about human nature. It's not a glorification of violence as the road to respect and power. It's not a sentimental proposal that love can put right all wrongs. It tells of a man who dared to believe that his enemies wanted peace, and to use that insight to change his world. And it shows that such achievements come at a very high price. "Their only victory over me," he says in our film, "is what they have done to my wife."

That wife, Winnie, and all Mandela's circle, have embraced the film, for all its simplifications. We take pride and comfort in that. Mandela the man has now left us. The legend lives on.