Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom - William Nicholson interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
WILLIAM Nicholson talks about some of the many challenges of bringing Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom to the big screen and its many incarnations and re-writes.
He also talks about the extraordinary talents of leading man Idris Elba, why he hopes the film will find an audience among younger viewers as well as older ones, and how the film has been received in South Africa. The interview was conducted before Nelson Mandela passed away.
Q. You have two and a half hours to cram the life of one of the most influential men on the planet. How do you start?
William Nicholson: It’s very simple. You start in 1997 and now we’ve got a film. It’s taken a very long time. I think I counted 33 drafts. It is extremely difficult and I tried every single way to tell this story. We had an amazing scene in one of the early drafts that was set in the Palace of Versailles in 1918, which is when a delegation came from the African National People’s Congress… basically, five black guys came to the Palace of Mirrors in Versailles to say “now the war is over we too want our voice to be heard” and they were told: “What are you talking about?” And they were, like children, told to go away. So, that was the beginning o the ANC and I wanted to start with that. But of course that bit the dust around 1999. So, I worked and I tried a version that starts in prison and flashes back, I tried versions that just tell the second half… it’s been every which way. It’s been an absolute nightmare to do. Little by little we’ve kind of got it down. I know and you know what isn’t there. There’s an amazing mass of characters and stuff that are not there. But at the end of the day, we’re making a drama, and we’re making a story that works in one film, and that’s been our goal all along – to make a story that works emotionally and that remains true to the actual events.
Q. At which point did you think I’ve got it?
William Nicholson: To make a film happen, you have to have a script, you have to have a director, you have to have bankable stars and you have to have finance. To get those four elements to come together is very difficult… when it happens, suddenly the whole thing becomes real and when it becomes real then suddenly your mind goes through a conversion experience and you think: “Oh, it’s actually going to happen! I’d better get to work!” And suddenly certain things become clear. Until the last two years before it was made, we didn’t have the last act. I’d ended it when he came out of prison. It seemed to me there was just too much to try and explain what happened after he came out. But I then realised that this was the Nelson and Winnie story and that story demands going through to its sad and, in some ways, tragic ending. And that means taking him through to President, so we actually added that two years before we started shooting.
Q. How was it when you finally first saw Idris Elba as Mandela?
William Nicholson: Well, it was amazing. But you have to understand that I’d met every famous black actor you could think of. We had had a session with Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, all of them. They hadn’t been rejected by us. They had become unavailable to us. So, part of the duration of this process has been frought with having to go with certain big directors and certain big stars and it hasn’t been to their schedule or they’ve changed their minds. So, I’ve constantly had to re-imagine how to do this. If you make a film with Morgan Freeman as Mandela, for example, it would be very different because Morgan Freeman obviously can’t act 25. When Justin Chadwick, the director, came on board, who I think has done a work of genius on this, he had to begin the process yet again of which actor to have. But by then we had decided that we weren’t going to wait any longer for a big star. The big star was Mandela, so he started looking at the level below. And there were a couple of names in the frame and Idris was one of them. I didn’t get how Idris could do this. Justin went out to New York before we started shooting and came back and said: “The guy is amazing. He can absolutely do this.” Now, I don’t know if you know but the real Mandela was 6ft 3ins, he was a boxer, and a big, strong, charismatic guy. We think of him as this little shrunken old man – but not at all. So, Idris actually fits him physically even though he doesn’t look like him.
When I saw Idris start work I was completely bowled over… completely. I was incredibly happy that we had Idris. I think he’s an astonishing actor and I think he’s delivered something amazing. He’s under 3ft of make-up for most of the movie as he’s aged. And yet still the humanity is there. I mean just that last shot in the movie, looking into his eyes, you’re not thinking about Idris Elba, you’re thinking about what that man [Mandela] has gone through. It’s an astonishing performance, as is Naomie Harris’s. I’ve written films that have been completely crucified by bad casting. You can ruin a movie with casting. But I think this one has been made by its casting.
Q. How much did you go and walk on the ground to Robben Island and where Mandela lived? And have you had any feedback from the family?
William Nicholson: Well, to the first part of that question… yes, I went everywhere, absolutely everywhere and I met as many people as possible. Research is a two-edged sword. You need to know it and you need to let it go, otherwise it crushes you under its weight. There’s a lot of dialogue in this film but as you can imagine nobody was there with a tape recorder, so I’ve made it all up. That is what you have to do. But I made it up after an immense immersion. The question of the family, we did not know how they were going to react until recently. What we did was, there’s a guy called Ahmed Kathrada, who was the Indian guy who was on Robben Island, who has been our sort of associate. I’d check draft after draft with him. He’s been very understanding. He hasn’t wanted to interfere at all but at least I’ve known it’s not been completely off-key. Finally, Winnie got to see it and Zindzi got to see it… Mandela himself hasn’t seen it because he’s too ill but all of them have embraced it completely. Zindzi is on tour in America promoting it. It amazed me that Winnie embraced it. But I think the reason is that a lot of the films about Winnie have all been terrible. And I think she saw this film and thought: “Thank God, somebody is attempting to understand why I became what I became.” So, the whole clan is backing it in South Africa, which is of course a great relief.
Q. How did Idris manage to get the voice?
William Nicholson: I’ll tell you exactly. He saw in make-up for many hours and all he did was run video tapes of Mandela. If you watch how he walks and how he holds his body, it’s that as well. He just got it. And he got it by immersing himself in it. I mean the guy is an extraordinary actor. If you’ve seen him in The Wire, nobody in America thinks he’s British from Hackney. He can do it. I don’t know how. He doesn’t think about it. He’s not an intellectual. He just internalises it. I watched him doing that and being Mandela and then the shot would end and suddenly he’s a Hackney boy again. He’s not like one of these people like Daniel Day-Lewis, who goes into character for the whole film… not a bit of it! He’s straight out and then straight back in again. It’s extraordinary.
Q. How did the first screening in South Africa go?
William Nicholson: We had a premiere and the reaction was astounding. They just went crazy for it. And that’s not as obvious a result as it may sound. I was kind of dreading the response. I thought we would have endless people asking why we didn’t have that person in the film, or this person, or that incident? Again, I think the reason is that they’re kind of weary of films about Mandela because there have been a lot and a lot of them have been quite poor quality or quite limited. I mean, a film like Invictus, which is of course a very good film, is very limited and it doesn’t really give you any notion of what made Mandela into what he is. This film does. And I think they just all breathed an enormous sigh of relief that someone had taken the trouble to go right back into the past to show how he had grown into the man we know today, but also the price he’s had to pay. So, it’s been fantastic in South Africa. I don’t know how it will be in the rest of the world. But from Thanksgiving, when it opens in the States, we’ll see how it goes.
Q. Haven’t you had it screened for President Obama?
William Nicholson: Obama has seen it and so has Hilary [Clinton] and so has John McCain and Colin Powell. Harvey Weinstein has organised all of those things because they’re all his mates [laughs]. And of course we have Prince William and Kate coming to see it. So, let’s hope they enjoy it!
Q. Are we seeing an approved version of Mandela’s life? Were there things you knew you couldn’t put on film?
William Nicholson: There’s nothing that I was told not to put in. Nobody at any point said “don’t put that in”. The Stompie story, if you remember in the film there’s a scene in which an informer is necklaced and burned to death at Winnie’s insistence… she’s telling people to do it and they do it. So, I wanted very much to show that that did happen. The Stompie story is so complicated and takes up so much time that to get into that is just a storytelling problem. So, that’s why it’s not there. There’s nothing that I’ve left out in order to give an authorised version. No film before has shown Mandela as a womaniser, for example. A lot of people are astounded to hear that he liked women, and liked cars and suits and things like that. So, from the beginning, the intention has been to tell the truth. But it’s a drama. It’s not a 20-part documentary. There’s so much that isn’t there. The stuff that I regret having to leave out most of all are the complicated politics of the gradual shift towards violence. All of this was argued at enormous length by an enormous amount of people and I just had to cut straight through all of that. I mean the negotiations come down to two scenes and I had to find a way to convey in about three speeches what it was that made him get those white guys to trust him – and that, in a way, is a story version of the truth. The truth is massively more complicated than that – but what can I do?
Q. How much input did you have during shooting?
William Nicholson: Well, I’ve been 14 years longer on the film than the director, so myself and the producer are the kind of heart of this project. I was deeply involved in every single stage. I was not physically present in South Africa for most of the shooting but I was being emailed and phoned almost daily to be told about adjustments, and I was feeding back slightly changed lines or mostly cuts. My original script was 138 pages, which honestly is 30 pages too much for a two and a half hour movie. So, they started cutting while they were shooting because they began to see ways of doing it. But nothing was cut without them coming back to me and asking, so I would say: “If you’re going to lose this, you’re going to have to do that.” And then right through the editing process, I was in that cutting room – not all the time but I’ve seen each change of it. This isn’t a studio picture, you understand. This is the first film since Shadowlands where I’ve been as involved all the way through as anyone else.
Q. How important is it to you that the kids and those who want to go and see films like The Hobbit give Mandela a chance?
William Nicholson: Obviously, it’s very important but at the same time I don’t kid myself that we’re going to be able to do that. I don’t think your average guy hat wants to see a superhero movie is going to want to see this, unless they’re being dragged along by their parents. I guess there will be a certain amount, over time, of screenings in schools as a sort of basic educational tool. God help me, I don’t want to be doing educational movies but it’s a fun movie and this encapsulates the key idea that Mandela came up with, which is that if people are oppressing maybe the problem is, counter-intuitively, that they are afraid of you. And that is such a radical idea; it has applications everywhere ad I want as many people to see that as possible – in kids’ gangs, anywhere… get that idea into their heads! So, how can we do that? I don’t know. It’s not been made by Baz Luhrmann, it’s not got a pop track, it’s not that sort of a thing, so maybe we won’t get them initially; maybe we’ll get them slowly.
But regarding the notion that this could be a film more for an older generation that don’t go to the movies – they do. They’re just waiting for some movies that they actually want to go and see. They go in their millions if there’s something there that they want. And the industry thinks that it exists to entertain teenagers but to hell with that. There are a lot of grown-ups out there and a lot of mature people out there and I’m hoping they will mob the cinemas. Whether we’ll get to the kids, I don’t know. I want to and will do anything possible, I know Harvey in America is organising screenings in black schools all over the country in order to get the message across. I’ve yet to hear how that’s doing. We’re doing our best, though.