The biopic of Winnie Mandela, starring Jennifer Hudson and Terence Howard, is due to start shooting in South Africa on May 31, despite the threat of legal action. Sarah Cooper reports.

Winnie, a film based on the life of Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife, has already attracted its fair share of headlines, although not necessarily for the right reasons.

“We received a letter from Winnie Mandela’s lawyers, which was benign, but saying that she reserved her right [to take legal action].  She is unhappy with the fact that she wasn’t consulted in constructing the project.” explains South African producer Andre Pieterse, who is in Cannes to launch the project along with his two leads, and fellow producer Michael Mosca.

Pieterse optioned the film rights to Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob biography, Winnie Mandela: A Life, five years ago and has co-written the screenplay with the film’s South African director Darren Roolt.

The film will cover Winnie’s childhood, her romance with the future South African president, and the prison sentence which kept the couple apart, although the producers will not reveal the film’s exact timeline.

Pieterse says the decision not to consult with Mrs Mandela was deliberate: “We don’t need Winnie Mandela’s blessing from the legal side and we elected not to consult with her, because we didn’t want to run the risk of having the integrity of the film questioned and we preferred to produce the film based on the book.”

Despite these issues, the producers are determined to go ahead with the 10 week shoot staring May 31 on location in the Transkei region (where Winnie grew up), Capetown, Soweto and Robben Island, where the South African president spent much of his prison sentence.

Jennifer Hudson was always first choice for the lead role. “When I saw Dreamgirls, I said to Michael what do you think, and he said go for it,” says Pieterse. “In fact, we decided three years ago, at that corner table over there,” says Pieterse, who likes to work out of the Carlton Beach restaurant while in Cannes. “It’s like my office,” he laughs.

However, the project was halted after Hudson’s mother and brother were murdered in 2008. “She was really in hibernation for such a long time. But we never considered anyone else, we just decided we would wait,” says Pieterse.

In contrast, Howard only signed his contract three weeks ago. “It was Michael who said that Terence Howard was our man. We pursued him and pursued him until we got him,” says the producer. And the duo are more than happy with their decision. “We knew from the moment he walked in to the room in Cannes that we had made the right choice. He is already acting in character, in a statesman-like way” says Mosca.

Howard follows in the footsteps of Morgan Freeman, who played the African leader in the Oscar-nominated Invictus. “Terence has seen the performance, and he is up for the challenge, he respects and loves Morgan. Mandela as a younger man is a little different from Mr Mandela as an older man.”

The former executive VP at MGM studios, Pieterse was clear that he wanted to make the film independently. “I know how studios work, they have to get involved in the creative process otherwise they can’t take the bow at the end. We couldn’t afford for them to get involved, because it is such a delicate and challenging story; just as we don’t want, with all respect to Mr and Mrs Mandela, their involvement and their advice. We don’t want the studio involvement until it is finished and then we will welcome their support.”

The film is an official South African-Canadian co-production, between Pieterse’s company Ma Afrika and Mosca’s Montreal-based Equinoxe Films, the second collaboration between the companies following A Million Dollars, which is currently in post production.

Financing for the $15m film has come from the Industrial Development Bank of South Africa and the South African tax credit as well as equity from Pieterse’s production company, whilst the film has received government funding, tax credit and equity from Mosca’s company on the Canadian side.

Post production will take place in Canada, whilst the film’s DoP and some cast members are also Canadian.

Mosca says that the biggest challenge going forward is to “contain our enthusiasm and stay true to the spirit of the independent film and the budget, rather than getting carried away due to the grand awe of the whole thing.”

And what about the challenge posed by Winnie Mandela?  “We know that when she walks out on the red carpet and she looks at the camera, she will be wet down her cheeks. And if someone asks her what do you think of the film, she will turn around and see it,” says Pieterse. 

“At least that’s what we’re hoping,” adds Mosca.