The Night Nelson Mandela Died: Biopic Writer on Royal Screening (Guest Column)

Nelson Mandela

William Nicholson shares with The Hollywood Reporter how he penned "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" and what happened inside the theater when Prince William, Kate Middleton and the legend's own daughters learned of his passing.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

On Dec. 5, I was sitting in the Royal Circle of the Odeon Leicester Square, one row behind the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, as the film I'd written, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, was heading toward its end. There was some sort of quiet commotion going on, people leaving their seats, scuttling up the aisles. Prince William was handed a phone. Then Kate was crying. As the credits rolled, the royal couple was led away. The audience was on its feet, giving a standing ovation. The film's producer, Anant Singh, appeared onstage with Idris Elba, our Mandela. The applause redoubled. The producer signed for silence. "We've just learned that Madiba has died."

A surreal evening. And somehow a fitting climax to a filmmaking journey that has been unpredictable all the way.

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I was invited to write the screenplay of Nelson Mandela's autobiography in 1996. My first draft was delivered in July 1997. Since then, I find I have 33 drafts in my computer file, not all of them radical revisions, but along the way I experimented with every form, with flashbacks, with narrations, with different beginnings and different endings. The challenges were structural -- how to convey such a long and dramatic life in one movie -- and, harder still, what I can only call "moral." I had to do justice to a man who had become an icon. How do you create a central character who engages a movie audience by being like us but who also is greater than us?

Along the way, the solutions to the problems slowly emerged. The great mass of material -- not just the autobiography, of course -- slowly was whittled down to its essentials. The structural false starts, the attempts to play clever games with timelines, fell away to leave a simple chronology that allowed the audience to track Mandela's growth and to see how his solutions emerged. Research revealed a man who was ambitious for success, who loved smart suits, who was sexually promiscuous -- all of which we wrote into the story. There remained the enigma of his moral stature.

Everyone knows that Mandela forgave his enemies. In our default picture of revolutions, the hero overcomes an oppressive regime at the head of an army. Mandela conquered from within a prison. How did he do it? How does forgiveness translate into power? The negotiations that led to liberation went on for years. We had to locate the breakthrough strategy and present it in condensed form. I came to see that fear was the key: Mandela's transformative understanding was that, although he was the victim, his oppressors were afraid of him. A counterintuitive and extraordinary insight, and one that made reconciliation possible. If he could remove that fear by rejecting the option of revenge, there was a chance of peace.

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Then, later in the day than I care to admit, I found the way to track the politics of these tormented years. I could tell the story in emotional terms, as encapsulated in the marriage of Mandela and Winnie. Here were lovers whose lives drove them to take different directions, one toward forgiveness and peace, the other toward hatred and violence. At last it became possible to fashion a human drama, which all movies must be, that also honored Mandela's achievement. He won his victory in the end, and he lost the love of his life.

As I worked on the screenplay, the project was subject to all the usual filmmaking delays: stars who showed interest for a while but never quite committed; directors who came onboard, demanded new drafts and then slipped away. For many years, I didn't believe the film would ever be made. But this is not a studio picture, it's independently financed; and the day came when our producer wearied of waiting for superstars and resolved to go ahead with relative unknowns. He turned to Justin Chadwick to direct, and Justin cast Elba and Naomie Harris as our leads. These three took my long-gestating screenplay and exploded it into life. I looked on, awestruck. We had a movie.

Mandela himself was too humble to ask to read scripts or see rough cuts. I never did meet him. A meeting was arranged on my first research trip, but I was in a car crash and injured so it was canceled. By the time I was back in South Africa, I was so far down the line inventing my own Mandela that I didn't press for a meeting. Everyone was forever pestering him for photos with him, and I guess I was too proud.

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By the time we were nearing completion, he was too ill to see the film. And now he's gone. We filmmakers are left with the daunting responsibility of having created what may well become the defining picture of the man. On the night of the royal premiere, the news of Mandela's death came first to Mandela's daughters Zenani and Zindzi, who were present. They asked that the screening not be interrupted. They, and their mother, Winnie, and all of Mandela's circle want our movie to be seen so that Nelson Mandela's achievement can live on.

We take pride and comfort in that.

Nicholson is an Oscar-nominated writer whose credits include Gladiator and Les Miserables.