How do you cram the whole of Nelson Mandela’s extraordinary life into one movie? This was the weighty task in front of Justin Chadwick, the director of Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom. His solution – an effective character study of Madiba headlined by Idris Elba – arrives in cinemas overshadowed by its subject’s death, a bitterly sad coincidence that saw Mandela’s death announced at the London premiere.
In the event, Mandela proves to be another worthy addition to the global outpouring and celebrations surrounding the icon’s passing. Officially sanctioned by the Mandela family and given access to the archives and people, Chadwick’s movie follows Mandela’s life as he turns from rising lawyer – and womaniser – in Johannesburg to joining the movement against apartheid, marrying Winnie, to Robben Island, his long walk to freedom and then onto the presidency.
Co-starring with Elba is the sort of magnificent South African scenery that will stick the Eastern Cape and Drakensberg firmly back on your travel to-do list. Wanderlust spoke to Chadwick back in September, just as Mandela started generating awards heat for its fine central performances and rich images.
How much time did you spend filming in South Africa?
The film took three years to develop and shoot, and I spent a lot of time there prepping it, researching, meeting family members and people on both sides of the struggle.
Once we started filming, I was shooting predominantly in Johannesburg and around Johannesburg and Cape Town but I travelled around while I was researching, went up to the Eastern Cape and spent time where Mandela had been raised. I got to see some of the country, which was a wonderful experience.
Any good tips for places to visit?
There is obviously the more touristy kind of version but I was lucky because I think the way to explore it is to simply do it with South Africans and to get off the beaten track a little bit. We went up to Quno where Mandela was brought up, which is a totally different South Africa than I had kind of seen before.
In Quno, as I was walking through where he went to school, where he raised his animals and the fields where he had played as a young man, I saw this huge big rock. And this rock went down the side of this hill, and down the centre of it was this shine of where over many, many years, people had just slid down this rock. And my team and I were like, ‘But Mandela lived just over there…’ He would have slid down this rock. We then spent time with men and women from the same tribe as Madiba, the Xhosa tribe, and just seeing how they were deepens your understanding of a country.
Where there any restrictions over what you could put in the story?
At the beginning of the process, I was like, ‘How can I even begin to tell the story about Mandela?’ You can’t get Mandela’s story into a 25-part mini-series. I’d seen great documentaries on Mandela, about apartheid, and so at first I thought it was too much to reduce in to one film.
But then I went to Africa to meet some of the comrades, the family, the people that Mandela was in prison with, and it was the complete opposite of what I thought it would be. I thought everybody would be very defensive and restrictive on what they wanted to say. The Mandela Foundation is about preserving his legacy but they were the absolute opposite of what I thought.
By meeting these people, I thought we could use what Mandela had given up in terms of his family as a theme to the story. I got to know the children, I got to know Winnie, and after hearing them I was more interested in this film being about not the icon that we all know, but the man himself. And that, just opened everybody up: ‘That’s what we want.’
And there was complete freedom in terms of what we were able to use. We show all sides of Winnie Mandela, we show the flaws as well as all the great, wonderful things that is Mandela, and I think that was important. I had nothing but support for making it as honest and as raw as we could.
So no interference?
No, not at all, and neither was that the case with Winnie Mandela. And Winnie’s story is incredibly complex. Here is a bright 23-year-old woman, married to Nelson Mandela, who’s in his 40s. He is put into prison she has got these two young children, and she is ripped away from them and put into solitary confinement for 17 months. I’ve seen the footage of when she emerged from prison at that time and you can see the ‘before’ and ‘after’ – it’s incredibly powerful.
A lot of these places are the real locations for the events. Was that imposing?
[I felt that] If we’re going to go into these communities, we should use those communities in front of the camera and behind the camera, and I felt that what had happened with apartheid was also as much to do with this movement of people as it was the leaders like Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela, and I encouraged my team to get us into areas.
There are certain areas of South Africa that are perceived as a no go for a tourist or as a filmmaker, and it is the complete opposite of that. I went in with the community leaders and we worked with those communities. This is not a CGI movie, I wanted to drop the audience into these worlds, and for it to feel absolutely real. If there are 10,000 South African people in a crowd, I wanted 10,000 people, in there, and I wanted to hear them and I wanted that to be part of the DNA of the film.
Amazingly, many, many of those people had actually been there on the release of Mandela, or when he was speaking in Soweto or the townships, or when Winnie was rallying support throughout those long years. The extras were from those real communities, and I think that gave a kind of it gave an electricity to the performances and gave a visceral kind of quality to the scenes because that’s not acting, that is them responding to the actors for real.
How did you find going to more infamous places like Robben Island?
I was really very, very fortunate that I went to Robben Island with Eddie Daniels who was a prisoner just down the corridor from Mandela. He was on B-wing, he was close to Mandela. You can see Cape Town – it’s so present from the island.
It’s not what you expect, because you’ve got the weather and the climate but it’s very, very extreme, you’ve got these great shifts in temperature. We stayed the night when we were filming because we only had a couple of days to shoot there, because it’s a national monument. So we had to work very quickly throughout the two days that we were there, and we stayed on the island for one night. There are these huge plunges in temperature, and then you look at where Mandela was sleeping with just a concrete floor and a very thin mat, you see just how hard it was.
Being there and walking through those spaces was really something and Idris went back there to feel it for the night – he went back there on his own and slept in the cell, there’s no-one on that island so it has a very strange, weird atmosphere. He spent the night there on his own with nobody around, except the caretaker who lives on the other side of the island.
It’s a pretty muscular central performance from Idris – having to convey a huge period of time.
We have a perception about Mandela now as the old man, but once I started looking at the very few photographs there are of [a younger] Mandela, there are some boxing shots of him on top of a Johannesburg rooftop. The guards and the prisoners on Robben Island were talking about how Mandela always kept himself physically together. I think that’s why when he came out he came out of prison in his 70s, and you look at the footage of him, he had this energy about him.
Idris was my first choice but I don’t think any of the producers had been thinking about him because Idris is physically nothing like Mandela. Although they are exactly the same height – unbelievably Idris fitted exactly, toe to head, in that cell exactly like Mandela did, which is amazing.
And when I stated to talk to Idris about doing this I was saying, it’s more important we find the spirit of Mandela and for you to understand where he comes from culturally and what he’s about as a man. This physicality seemed to connect these two characters in a way that was completely unexpected.
Where should people visit in South Africa?
[The best thing] is to get out of the tourist hot spots and be with South Africans, to really spend time with South Africans. There is such a negative, ‘Oooh, you can’t go anywhere, you’ve got to be careful’ but you have to be careful in any city anywhere in the world, and I think that makes a lot of people fearful in terms of actually going into a country and really exploring it and really getting into the communities. South African people are warm, generous, open-hearted people and to experience that is so rewarding. It is a beautiful, beautiful country.
It certainly looks beautiful in the movie.
There’s nothing fancy going on, we just turned the camera on! Everywhere you look is a stunning, vibrant world. But it’s the people – the people are amazing – and to experience that with South Africans and to actually get into some of the territories, and just off the beaten track a little bit is where you really see the beauty and energy of that country.
Cape Town is not representative of South Africa, it’s just not. There are so many other places. Johannesburg is one of the most exciting places to be – it’s got that energy of New York, that pulsing energy of all forms of life, everybody there in this jostling great metropolis. I would encourage people to really explore, and spend time there if you can.
Has Nelson Mandela seen the movie himself?
He was involved, my producer had written to Mandela when he was in prison so this is why, when I went over to South Africa, I was able to talk to a lot of family and the comrades. Winnie saw it last week with her daughters. I think Mandela has seen certain scenes and I think we’ve kept him up to speed – he saw photographs when we were making it. In terms of actually watching the whole film, I think that that household is meant to be seeing it this week, I believe.
Are you nervous about that?
He’s seen scenes and the great thing was watching the last shot of the film and turned to the producer with a real twinkle and said, ‘Is that me?’ It was great for Idris to hear that.
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is out 3 January 2014.
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