Director's Chair: Justin Chadwick — 'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom'
Issue: March 1. 2014

Director's Chair: Justin Chadwick — 'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom'

HOLLYWOOD — Based on his 1994 autobiography of the same name, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom chronicles the inspirational life of the late Nelson Mandela, from freedom fighter to Nobel Peace Prize-winning statesman and international icon. 

Directed by Justin Chadwick (The First Grader, The Other Boleyn Girl) and adapted by Academy Award-nominated screenwriter William Nicholson (Shadowlands, Gladiator, Les Miserables), the film spans Mandela’s exceptional 95-year life journey from his early years as a herd boy in South Africa’s rural Cape region to his days as a lawyer and Apartheid resistance leader, and on to his 27 years spent in Robben Island prison before becoming the nation’s first democratically-elected President. 

Starring Idris Elba (The Wire, Luther, Prometheus, Pacific Rim, Thor) as Mandela, with Naomie Harris (The First Grader, Skyfall) as his wife Winnie, the film was shot by Sundance Film Festival Best Cinematography winner, Lol Crawley (Hyde Park on Hudson), and edited by Rick Russell.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Chadwick talks about making the Oscar-nominated, Golden Globe-winning film, the challenges involved and his love of post.

POST: What do you look for in a project and what sort of film did you set out to make?
JUSTIN CHADWICK: “It’s always about a good story with great characters, whether I was making shorts or doing TV, and when [producer] Anant Singh first talked to me about this, I’d just done The First Grader, which I’d shot in Africa with non-actors, but I felt it was really impossible to do this and to do justice to it. He’d been trying to make it for years, and Mandela’s book is very inspiring but also very dense and sprawling, so I was resistant. But he invited me to South Africa to meet the family and people involved with Mandela in both sides of the struggle, and after I met them and visited Robben Island and talked to people who’d also been in prison with Mandela, I realized that the way to tackle it was to keep it very personal. Yes, the backdrop is the 100-year political struggle against Apartheid that his life represents, but essentially it’s a story of terrible loss and sacrifice, love and forgiveness, and the huge personal price he paid, and the cost to his family. So then Bill Nicholson came on, and he loved that approach, and then I spent a year in South Africa retracing Mandela’s steps, talking to everyone who knew him, researching it all, and really immersing myself in the story.”

POST: Did you feel any trepidation about taking on the movie, given that you come from Manchester in the north of England, about as far as you can get from Mandela’s background?
CHADWICK: “I was very aware of being this complete outsider, even though everyone was so warm and welcoming, and I didn’t want to impose my agenda, so I listened a lot. My main aim was to make this film in a way that drops the audience into this world that feels visceral and real — a 360-feel. So I didn’t want to use CGI and ship extras in from other places. I wanted to go to the local communities and talk to them and get them involved as the crowds, the people reacting and pushing the story forward in terms of the energy. So the faces you see in the film are people who’re still living the struggle, who’ve known Mandela and heard him speak. I spent a lot of time forming relationships, but there was some resistance from the local crew that we shouldn’t go into some of the communities, that it was too dangerous. But I felt if we went in with the local leaders, it’d be fine and far more authentic, which of course it was.”

POST: Biopics can also turn out like stuffed animals if they’re too reverential — pretty but lifeless.
CHADWICK: “Exactly, and I wanted to get away from all that. You’re dealing with a period piece and a biopic and his book, and I wanted to be respectful, but I didn’t want to sugar-coat it all. I wanted to capture the man’s energy.”

POST: Did you get to meet Mandela and did he give you any advice about the movie?
CHADWICK: “I did, right before we started shooting. I spent an afternoon with him and it’s one of the great moments of my life. He’s still so charismatic, and we looked at tons of research images for the film on my iPad, and he was razor-sharp. He knew every name and date. And I also spent a lot of time with Winnie and her daughters.” 

POST: This is an epic story, so what were the biggest challenges in making it?
CHADWICK: “We shot it all in South Africa with a largely local crew, and some of the locations were very tough. We had to build a bridge just to reach Winnie’s village, we moved around a lot and the conditions were very difficult. It was their winter, and the sunlight’s very harsh. So we went 35mm instead of digital, because you can’t get anything digital fixed when you’re in the middle of nowhere, and shooting in Africa you never know what might happen next. So some of the sequences with crowds and locals would sometimes just explode into different directions, because of the people’s energy. It was all very raw.”

POST: Tell us about the shoot. How long was it and how tough?
CHADWICK: “It was 81 days on a very small budget — just $25 million, which for the scope of this story, wasn’t much. We built a lot of sets when the originals weren’t available or had long since disappeared, and we had a record amount of period cars, which is very costly. And it was physically very taxing because of all the remote locations and as there seemed to be no small scenes. Even a street scene would have over 500 extras from the local community, so every day was different and vibrant and very exciting. In some of the riot scenes, cars would be thrown around that weren’t meant to be, because of the passion of the people. And as it was a South African indie, we had to move very fast all the time.”

POST: Talk about the look of the film and working with DP Lol Crawley.
CHADWICK: “I had a big fear of it looking visually staid, and I was determined to give it more of an immediate, documentary feel, where everything is real. So if you open a drawer, there’s stuff inside. Everything was detailed and populated with real people. The generals who line the corridor and salute him at the end were real generals, and they came with their own uniforms. They’ve lived the story and the history, and to connect all that to a modern audience, it had to be 360-degrees and visceral. So we used a lot of hand-held and Steadicam, and I brought my own camera operator, who I’ve worked with a lot, and the three of us strove all the time for that reality and immediacy. But you’re also competing against all these big budget Hollywood movies, so it was also important that the car chases and action scenes looked really dynamic and on a big enough scale. Mandela lived a very fast life before prison, and we had to capture all that.”

POST: Your editor was Rick Russell. Tell us about the editing process. Was he on-set?
CHADWICK: “He cut all my early shorts and I’ve wanted to work with him again for years, but he went into commercials and had his own company. But I wanted his sensibility, so I really fought for him to do this and he came to South Africa for the shoot and assembled the film as we shot. So as we were so on top of it, the first cut came pretty quickly. And because of our tight budget and wanting all the money to go on the screen, I plotted it all out visually with all these photos I’d taken that we then put up in the offices. And those were our blueprint for both the script and the film, so whatever was going on, someone could just look at it and see instantly what was needed.”

POST: Do you like the post production process?
CHADWICK: “Love it. I particularly love the actual shoot and then post, where you start to screen it and fine-tune it. Some directors hate screening, but I think you learn so much from the audience reaction. Does it make sense? Is it going too fast? Then you go back and change stuff, tweak it, and it’s a great way to really mold the film.”

POST: Where did you do the post?  
CHADWICK: “We tried to do it in South Africa, but they just don’t have the facilities, so we did it all in London, at BlueBolt Post, Technicolor, and Halo. The sound was done at a combination of places — Abbey Road studios and Halo.”

POST: BlueBolt did all the visual effects shots. How many were there and what was involved? 
CHADWICK: “They did some of the clean-up work, make-up fixes in the ageing scenes, and there were several hundred in the end.”

POST: Tell us about audio and music. How important is it in your films?
CHADWICK: “It’s always huge, but it was even more vital in this film, and culturally so important. We recorded the music live [in] 5.1 and all the protest songs and club scenes, and I got musicians and activists working with the communities before we shot, so on the day those songs sounded amazing and really give the audience that sense of being right in there. Then in post, we started working with the composer, Alex Heffes, and his score at Abbey Road, and then we mixed at Halo.”

POST: Did you do a DI? Are you a big DI fan?
CHADWICK: “Huge. I worked with this great DI grader Jean-Clement Soret at Technicolor, who I’ve worked with before on The Other Boleyn Girl, and he works regularly with Danny Boyle and is such an artist. I love the DI as you get this whole other layer of detail you capture on 35mm, and I’ve always been a big champion of HD and shot all my recent projects that way.”

POST: Did the film turn out the way you first envisioned?
CHADWICK: “I wanted the film to be true to the man and his story, and to have a visceral quality. His life was a real roller coaster before he went to prison, and then when he was released, he was a relatively old man and had to face a very violent time in South African history. We deal with all that, and there’s all the action and drama, but to me it’s really this love story and about love and forgiveness as much as the political struggle.”

POST: What’s next?
CHADWICK: “I’m working on Tulip Fever, based on the book, and looking for locations. It’s the complete opposite of Mandela.”