'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom' Director on Adapting the Life of the South African Icon (Q&A)

"Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom"

Justin Chadwick speaks with THR about awards buzz, Idris Elba's transformative performance and why he first said no to an offer to tell Mandela's story.

Editor's note: The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Justin Chadwick before Nelson Mandela's death.

A former actor who has cut his teeth on high-end U.K. television shows such as Bleak House, starring Gillian Anderson and Carey Mulligan, and acclaimed spy thriller Spooks, Justin Chadwick made his feature debut in 2008 with The Other Boleyn Girl, a costume drama boasting Natalie Portman, Eric Bana and Scarlett Johansson among its stars. Just over a year later, Chadwick shot The First Grader in Kenya, a film that proved the filmmaker's mettle for making movies in Africa.

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Chadwick spoke to The Hollywood Reporter on making a film about global icon Nelson Mandela, saying no initially, the challenges of shooting riot scenes using South African locals and casting Idris Elba as the charismatic leader.

How did you feel about taking on such an iconic figure as Nelson Mandela?

I said no. When [producer] Anant [Singh] started taking about it, I said, no. I said, "Anant, I'm from Manchester [England]. How can you even begin?"

What persuaded you to do it?

I'd made this little film in Africa in Kenya called The First Grader, and Anant said to come to South Africa for its opening. And what he had done was he had gotten all the comrades, the [Mandela] family to be there that night, and that film somehow resonated with the Mandela foundation and the family -- Winnie [Mandela] and the children and some of the comrades that were on [prison] Robben Island with Mandela, and I met them afterward.

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I was with Winnie. I went to Soweta to her house and had tea. I spent six hours there for the first meeting, and we didn't really talk about the film but just spent time with her and her family -- and the same with the daughters and Madiba [Mandela's Xhosa clan name] himself and got to meet him.

And just because of that, my reservations about being an outsider and going into another country and making such an iconic story, there was a way in because of the personal relationships that I had access to.

What did you aim to bring to this story as the director?

The film, as much as it charts apartheid history, more central to me was the effect on the man and the family and the cost to the family. But centrally it was a story about love, and love not just for Winnie and his children, and the cost to him, and the love of his comrades, and the love of his country and the love of freedom, but also the forgiveness.

How did you go about bringing that to the screen?

It was hard work, and it's tough making a movie in Africa. But I use the fact that I was from outside to go in there, really, and watch and listen and to soak up and to make sure I used the fact that I was from the outside to tell it as honestly as I could and make it as personal as I could.

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How did you make it?

I'd go to places South Africans had said, "Hey listen, you can't shoot there; it's too violent, and it's too dangerous." I would go to the communities, I would talk to the leaders, I would get all those people involved in the filming in front of and behind the camera. So when Idris [Elba] walked onto a stage, that crowd is not CGI -- it's real people who have seen Madiba, who have lived through the struggle. And they are the crowd and the people the film catches in the DNA of the film.

Idris Elba was asked to deliver much more than an impersonation of Mandela?

The very first conversations I had with the producers were to not make it an impersonation. There is only one Madiba. To impose on top of this rather than come from inside, catching him as a man, catching the spirit of him is something I wanted.

What did Idris Elba's involvement mean to you?

I was a huge fan of The Wire. There is a casting director [Shaheen Baig] I've worked with in London a lot, and she was like, "You really should meet Idris. You and he would really get on. You know, he's very instinctive, he's raw and he's not afraid of going from the inside out, and he's so soft." It takes a brave actor to step into Mandela's shoes to portray him, particularly the way I was setting it up.

What was the biggest challenge?

It is a challenge making a film wherever you are in the world, but for some reason there was a kind of spirit and energy that comes from being in Africa. Those riot scenes, they were a challenge, because you've got 2,000 people who are in the moment as it kicks off. I mean, some of those cars were not meant to blow up in those riot scenes. If you ramp people up who are not actors, who are people who have lived through the struggle and they see a load of white policemen in there, there's going to be a situation that's created, and the struggle is still very present in South Africa. I wouldn't like to say it was a challenge, it might have been a challenge for the AD department, who had to make sure no one was hurt. But for me it was just a completely exhilarating experience making it.

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Is it the biggest budget you've worked with?

Yes. We had a relatively small budget for that kind of ambition. It's an independent movie, it's financed out of Africa, it doesn't have a studio behind it. We went in there knowing we had one chance to make this story -- to make it visceral, to make it immediate, to make it truthful, to make it like eating spinach, you know, where it's good for you to see this kind of movie. We wanted it to stand up against the Hollywood blockbusters in scope.

The project is being touted for awards' season. Do you feel the pressure building?

The fact that Harvey [Weinstein] has come on and wants to promote it and distribute it in America is great. That's the big thing when you are making an independent movie -- you want people to see it.

How did you achieve the scale?

Keep a lean crew with you, and try and work as much as you can when you go into a foreign country with the actual people from the country themselves. Keep it as much as you can on location and go to the places to shoot. Keep it out of the studio.