Justin Chadwick talks to Andreas Wiseman about the pressures of making a biopic of Nelson Mandela, Idris Elba’s acting style and future projects with Harvey Weinstein, Art Linson and David Milch.

The film version of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, adapted by Bill Nicholson, was being tipped for awards recognition even before TWC swooped on US rights and Pathe sold the film extensively at Cannes.

A chronicle of the iconic leader’s journey from a rural village and his political activism through to his 27 years in prison and becoming South Africa’s first democratically elected president, the film’s epic canvas meant the road to production was a challenging one, especially for lead producer Anant Singh, for whom the film was a long-term passion project. 

Director Justin Chadwick was initially wary of taking on the feature, but the director, Singh and producers Origin Pictures developed a comfort level after their collaboration on 2010 Africa-set drama The First Grader.

Ahead of the film’s world premiere in Toronto, Screen spoke to Chadwick about the challenges and excitement behind the shoot.

How would you describe your film’s portrayal of Nelson Mandela?

I was wary in the beginning. Mandela is such an important man that to try and reduce his story to a two hour film was daunting. I’m not a huge fan of biopics, either.

There had been various scripts over the years but the production hadn’t found the right way in or the right point of view.

I started talking to Anant about the film after making The First Grader. He invited a lot of Mandela’s comrades, family and members of the Mandela Foundation to the screening of The First Grader and I spent some time with them after that.

Something about that film clicked with them and they were able to relax with me. I started spending time with the family and going to Robben Island.

I always wanted to scratch beneath the surface of Mandela. I wanted to show the man. His friends and family wanted that as well. The key was to understand the cost of the story for them.

I didn’t want to make a lookey-likey, soundey-likey film. I wanted to capture the spirit of Mandela and the love story between him and Winnie - as much as this film is about forgiveness it’s also about love and his amazing relationship with Winnie.

That made everything possible. It made casting Idris Elba, who is not an obvious choice, possible.

I also wanted to make it a visceral and emotional rollercoaster. I kept hearing what a ball of energy he was. His life outside prison was incredibly fast-paced.

I was fortunate that I could speak to people who knew him as a young man, who knew him as a dynamic, amazingly intelligent, electric lawyer who exuded so much energy.

The Mandela Foundation opened its vaults to me. I had meals with the children, with Winnie, with ANC member such as Ahmed Kathrada and I spoke to Mandela himself.

How involved was Mandela with the project?

He was very aware of it. That meant everything as it’s his book and material.

I was taken to Robben Island by Mandela’s comrade Robbie Daniels who was on B Wing with him and I was taken to Pollsmore Prison with Christo Brand who guarded Mandela on Robben Island and Pollsmore. I was always hearing first hand stories.

Did Mandela make it down to set?

No. But some of the leaders convicted during the Rivonia trial made it down. We had amazing visitors.

Was it possible for Mandela to see footage?

As we were going, Anant would show him bits of footage. One of the greatest moments was when he looked at the film’s last shot of Mandela walking through the fields and he turned to Anant and said: “Is that me or an actor?”

Was there anything you wanted to shoot that you couldn’t?

No. I made it in exactly the way I wanted to.

This was a long-gestating project. What tipped it toward production?

I think it was two things: the first was finding the right angle. A lot of the other scripts were great but the point of view of the last script was right where it needed to be.

The second factor was the casting of Idris. He was the catalyst. I spent three days with him after travelling to meet him while he was making Pacific Rim. I had to be absolutely sure. He is not an obvious choice for the role but he is a brave, exciting, dynamic choice and a fresh take on Mandela. 

How would you describe Idris’ approach to the role?

Idris is physically very different to Mandela. But he is very instinctive, he finds great subtly. Above all, Idris is a star. He has that quality of truth.

Other names were mentioned in the early days. The producers weren’t as aware of Idris as I was. But I wanted to capture the real man rather than cover Idris in prosthetics. Idris was excited by that approach. We both read and saw a lot of material. It is a very well-documented period. The more he understood the character from the inside the more it helped the physicality. He threw himself into the research.

Idris being from London, and me from Manchester, we were both aware that we were outsiders and that we were telling this very important South African story. Instead of imposing, we had to approach from the inside out. We wanted to soak up the world of the film and not to impose.

Did Idris meet Mandela?

I don’t believe he did, sadly.

What was the biggest challenge?

I feel the pressure of capturing Mandela more now. I didn’t so much at the time. The whole experience was so exciting. The atmosphere was electric. On most days I had a minimum of 1,000 extras. I would wake up two hours before I was supposed to because I couldn’t wait to start shooting.

The people of South Africa were very behind what we were doing. I think it was a little bit of a surprise at first. But you could feel the energy from the people. Many of the extras we used had actually been at the rallies when Nelson came out of prison. It was an intoxicating way to make a film.

The film was the most humbling and brilliant experience of my life. I loved every second of it and will never forget it. It was challenging for everyone but I felt so honoured to have been asked to do it. That said, it won’t be what everyone is expecting, I’m sure.

What’s next for you?

I’m doing an HBO pilot written by David Milch, who wrote Deadwood. Art Linson is producing and Brendan Gleeson is starring. It’s called The Money, set in New York.

Then onto feature Tulip Fever with Harvey Weinstein, who has been very inspiring in term of Mandela. Alicia Vikander is on board. She is a terrific, dynamic and honest actress.