Written By January 2014 : Page 42


A Long Walk To Mandela

David Gritten


He comes across as an upbeat character, a glass-half-full type of man. He arrives at my apartment, having cycled across London on his fold-up bike, looking fit, trim, enthusiastic. He would be a breath of fresh air in any room he chooses to enter. He rubs his hands with glee at the prospect of a cup of tea and talks eagerly about his work scripting Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

William Nicholson was 49 when he began that work; he is now 65. The daunting thought occurs to every writer embarking on a new screenplay that a challenging task lies ahead. It might well have occurred to Nicholson when asked to adapt the life of Nelson Mandela into a feature film. Of course, when approached, Nicholson had felt honored to be asked and set about writing it happily. And of course he couldn’t have known in advance that Mandela would go through 34 drafts and take 16 years until everyone concerned, himself included, agreed it felt ready for camera.

His work began in 1997. Not until last September at the Toronto Film Festival did Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (from the South African statesman’s autobiography of the same title) finally have its world premiere. When Nicholson began, Mandela was still president of South Africa and the world-famous leader of his political party, the African National Congress (ANC). By peaceful, democratic means, Mandela had been instrumental in dismantling the white minority regime’s policy of apartheid (racial segregation) and displacing the government that imprisoned him for 27 years. One week before Mandela’s death at 95, the film opened to the public.

“It wasn’t 34 completely different drafts,” he says of the Mandela screenwriting process, “and it’s not as if I didn’t work on other projects through that time. But it was certainly 34 distinct drafts, in which I tried out different ways to tell the story. Some sections survived right through to the end. It took so long because his is a difficult story to structure. It’s immensely complicated, personally and politically. Most of the complications had to be left out. So the structural puzzle was what to put in, and in what order.” But 16 years? Thirty-four drafts?

Well, the small matter of money and talent slowed progress, as Nicholson points out: “It also took a long time putting together the package: money, actors, script, directors. Some actors came close but backed off. One director worked on it for three years [before dropping out]. All these things take time. At one point, I couldn’t deliver what the [then] director wanted, so I bowed out. That didn’t work, so I was invited back and said, ‘Of course, But I’ll pick up where I left off.’ The astonishing thing is it ever got made at all.”

Apartheid’s Witnesses

Nicholson came to the Mandela project through its producer Anant Singh, whom he describes as “an entertainment mogul” in South Africa. The two men knew each other from Sarafina (1992), adapted for film by Nicholson from a South African musical stage play. “Anant was in communication with Mandela even when he was still in prison,” says Nicholson. “When he came out, they met, and Anant said: ‘Were there ever to be a film of your life, would you entrust it to me?’ And Mandela agreed.”

When Long Walk to Freedom was published in 1994, Mandela gave a copy to Singh and said: “I’m not asking for approval. I trust you.”

That’s when Singh asked Nicholson to adapt Mandela’s memoirs: “I said, ‘Surely, this must be written by a South African.’ Anant said: ‘Well, yes, but everyone in South Africa is at loggerheads with each other about the Mandela legacy. Some people think others have taken too much credit. It’s a can of worms. I want to make a global movie, a movie for the world, so I’m better off getting an outsider.’”

Thus did Nicholson become part of what became a strong British presence on the Man Dela film. Another producer, David Thompson (formerly head of BBC Films), who also worked with Singh on Sarafina, was already on board. And the key roles of Nelson Mandela and Winnie, his wife for 38 years, finally went to British actors Idris Elba (who memorably played Stringer Bell on HBO’s The Wire), and Naomie Harris, best known globally for the Miss Moneypenny role in Skyfall.

Nicholson visited South Africa for his first research trip in 1997, scheduled to meet Mandela. But he was badly injured in a car crash; his fellow passengers included Singh and Ahmed Kathrada, a Mandela cohort who had been a political prisoner with him. “It put me out of action,” Nicholson says. “So I didn’t get to meet Mandela.” He never did.

Still, he recovered, did the research, returned to Britain, and began the writing. “I told Anant from the outset: ‘You realise we can’t just use the book—that’s Mandela’s point of view. We’re telling his story, and I’m going to bring into it whatever else I can find.’ That meant learning a lot about Winnie, about the politics, alternative views of what happened, and about what sort of a chap Mandela was.”

But how does one begin to tell the story of such a remarkable, influential man? In recounting a life such as this, where do you start? Where do you end?

“Over all the drafts, we tried everything,” Nicholson recalls. “One draft started in Versailles in 1918, at the peace conference. A delegation from the African Native Peoples’ Congress, five black guys, came to say: ‘We’re now told the world is safe for democracy. Can we too determine our own future?’ They were simply laughed at. They weren’t taken seriously. Yet that was the beginning of the ANC.

“Another version began during Mandela’s prison years, and I played the story through several flashbacks. Many drafts ended with him coming out of prison. Others went much more deeply into the [ANC’s] shift from nonviolence to violence.”

Among the initial drafts, Nicholson decided on a “soupto- nuts” approach in recounting Mandela’s life, including his childhood, his adolescence, charting his growing political Awareness as a dashing young lawyer, taking in the prison years and the negotiations between the ANC and the government that finally led to black majority rule.

Nicholson also traces the arc of the relationship between Nelson and Winnie Mandela. She’s portrayed as forthright, cheerful, and loyal to her husband in her younger years; but having suffered violent attacks by the authorities while he was in prison and kept in solitary confinement for more than a year, Winnie emerged radicalized and embraced violent resistance, just as he was gravitating toward more peaceful solutions. This caused a personal rift between them; they finally ended their marriage in 1996.

Hunting Mandela

Yet while Mandela’s story, a tangled blend of the personal and political, is hard to tell, Nicholson admits his marriage was a useful plot device: “A great breakthrough for me in finding a structure was to realize I could contain a lot of political complexity in the marriage to Winnie. I could tell a story of a man and a woman and through their different paths could track the two main ways you can respond to oppression: Winnie hating and fighting, Nelson learning to negotiate and coexist. That was wonderful because it meant you could tell it humanly rather than in lecture form.”

I put it to Nicholson that this “soup-to-nuts” approach to recounting the lives of great people seems faintly dated; it recalls biopics of the past like Lawrence of Arabia and Gandhi. Had he considered framing his screenplay within a brief, pivotal period of Mandela’s life and extrapolating the whole story from it?

“I agree,” he says. “That would be another way to approach this. But my own belief is, that’s plain cowardly. You have to try to create one movie that carries his achievement in its hand. You can’t do that without telling the whole life, because that is the achievement. Yes, it’s unfashionable these days. But I continue to think it was the right approach. It means leaving out an enormous amount, it means galloping through some sections. But the payoff comes, I hope, as the film builds toward its climax. What you experience in the earlier part, rushed though it may have been, is all part of your realization of what Mandela achieved.

“So when people say, ‘Why did you choose this very traditional, old-fashioned soup-to-nuts structure?,’ the answer is we chose it knowingly. We tried all the other versions, and all the other versions either looked tricksy or they diminished the impact. And I didn’t want to play games with this project.”

Nicholson makes it clear the primary goal was to celebrate the man and his achievements. In general, he prefers that his stories maintain a positive tone: “I just want to ask for room to celebrate the power of human beings to be their best rather than their worst.”

A Writer’s Discovery

The tone of his contribution to the Mandela film fits neatly with much of his other work. (He has also written half a dozen novels and two trilogies of fantasy novels.) At the time Nicholson embarked upon it, he was best known as the Creator of Shadowlands, about the grief-tinged love affair between the famed Oxford academic and author C.S. Lewis and his American wife, author Joy Gresham, who succumbed to cancer. Nicholson wrote it as a BBC-TV drama in 1985 and later adapted it for stage: The play went to the West End and then to Broadway, where it became a Tony nominee.

In 1993, Shadowlands was made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. Nicholson’s script earned him an Academy Award nomination and the reputation as a first-rate screenwriter. Soon in demand, his other movie credits include Nell (1994), First Knight (1995), Gladiator (2000), Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), and the adaptation of the stage musical Les Misérables (2012), which he calls “a craft job.”

He sees consistent threads in his screenplays, which connect with his broadly optimistic view of humanity: “If you’re going to write dramas that are positive, that have good things to say about the human condition, you’re up against the problem of falsity, sentimentality, and wishful thinking—because for most people, life is grim and the bad people win. There’s no justice.

“So the best form for me,” he counters, “and I’ve done it many times, is the double ending, the victory undercut by defeat. It’s a powerful kind of ending because it rings true: We know there’s no such thing as an unsullied glory.”

Thus he describes Shadowlands as “a story about a character [C.S. Lewis] who is afraid to love, because in the end you always lose the beloved. But of course what happens is he really loves Joy and experiences real pain in losing her. The conclusion of the film was not that he ends up happy, but that it was worth it.”

A similar dichotomy ends Gladiator [story by David Franzoni; screenplay by Franzoni and John Logan and Nicholson]. He remembers the script he’d inherited: “When I took it over, it was about a guy [Maximus, the general turned gladiator-slave, played by Russell Crowe] who wanted to kill the emperor as an act of revenge. In my version, because I write people who love things, he wants to return to his wife. But his wife’s dead and he can only return to her via the afterlife. So you could simultaneously have his death in the arena and his victory.”

In Mandela, Nicholson’s double ending comes into play with the relationship between Nelson and Winnie. “He’s finally released from jail, but the person he’s been holding on to all through his prison years is gone, in the sense that she’s changed. She’s no longer the person he loved. I’d always known Nelson Mandela would end up alone in the screenplay. But there came a moment when I realized that if we could carry his relationship with Winnie right the way through, we could rejoice in his extraordinary triumph while aching for everything he’s lost.”

People in and outside South Africa have strong opinions about Nelson Mandela and fixed ideas of him that the film might challenge. Some scenes show him behaving less than credibly. “But that was essential,” Nicholson insists. “First, that was what happened. As a young man, he was sexually promiscuous; he abandoned children; he ruined marriages. So what do you do—pretend it didn’t happen? It’s not in his book, but it’s in his life. When you tell a story, you have your eye on the cumulative effect of what you’re doing. To watch a character grow and age and change is extremely moving. If you get it right, it’s that accumulation of knowing all these things were part of his life. Mandela knew that. He’s never pretended otherwise.”

Nicholson also stresses that it was he who wrote most of the words that come from Idris Elba’s lips, including most of Mandela’s speeches. Mandela, who in truth was not a great public orator, never said them. An exception in the film is his famous Rivonia courtroom speech, in which he outlines his desire for a free, democratic society in which people can live in harmony and ends with the words: “It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” All the words are Mandela’s, though it has been heavily edited for the story.

“I’ve seen other Mandela films that I don’t think were successful,” Nicholson says. “They were too careful, too reverent, or just not good enough. They created characters that I didn’t believe, in terms of how people would talk to each other privately.”

In a televised speech in the film, Mandela addresses his nation and says: “I’m your leader. For as long as I’m your leader, I will tell you when you are wrong. And I tell you now, you are wrong.” He’s explaining that war is not the answer and continues: “If I can forgive them [the white regime] after all I’ve been through, you can forgive them.”

“Now, Mandela never actually said any of that,” Nicholson points out. “But it’s exactly what he thought. That speech is written by me. That’s what screenwriters do. We’ve created a version of Mandela that’s the true spirit of the man. There’s dialogue in the film that took place in private—but there’s no record of it.” He throws his arms wide: “I made it up!”

But there’s nothing cavalier in his attitude: Nicholson felt genuine pride in being involved in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and observes: “It was a very happy experience, shooting the film and making it. It’s hard not to sound pompous saying this, but we all felt we were doing something more important than us.”

What is his hope for the film? “I want it to become a global success because I want people all over the world to understand what Mandela achieved and how he did it. To my knowledge, what Mandela and the ANC did is the only time a powerful, oppressive regime has been overthrown without a war. He did it by removing the fear that existed between the oppressors and the oppressed. So what personal qualities in one man did that take? That’s what I feel it’s been my duty to communicate.”

William Nicholson sees consistent threads in his screenplays, which connect with his broadly optimistic view of humanity: “If you’re going to write dramas that are positive, that have good things to say about the human condition, you’re up against the problem of falsity, sentimentality, and wishful thinking— because for most people life is grim and the bad people win. There’s no justice.”

What is Nicholson’s hope for the film? “I want it to become a global success because I want people all over the world to understand what Mandela achieved and how he did it. What Mandela and the ANC did is the only time a powerful, oppressive regime has been overthrown without a war.”

Read the full article at http://www.mydigitalpublication.com/article/A+Long+Walk+To+Mandela+/1589935/189401/article.html.

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