Clearly, the greatest challenge the filmmakers faced was to encapsulate almost 80 years of an overwhelming life into a film that is less than three hours. Having previously collaborated with William Nicholson 23 years ago when he wrote the Sarafina! screenplay, Singh first offered the adaptation to the two time Academy Award® nominee. “William doesn’t often do adaptations, so it was wonderful when he agreed.”
Nicholson picks up: “I said, ‘I’m a Brit, why don’t you go to a South African, as you know there are some wonderful South African screenwriters, even some who’s heritage has been to live through these very difficult times’, and Anant said to me: ‘we need this to be an international movie, this is for the world, it is not just for South Africa.’
Singh had thought carefully about the potential risks of a writer - whether White or Black - getting lost in the complexities of the struggle. “I wanted somebody who could stand back from it and see a big story for the world. I didn’t realize it would take William 16 years and 34 drafts!” he muses.
The global film community is well versed with the fact that a movie can typically spend years “in development”, but Singh stayed with the project and countless incarnations of the screenplay.
Speaking of Thompson and Singh, Nicholson says ‘they’re both old friends of mine - we were all together on Sarafina! - and so we hung on in there, and kept coming back to it. Anant, crucially kept on saying, ‘it’s not over, we’re going to make this film. I have promised Madiba, and I’m going to do it. But we’re not going to do it until we’ve got all the elements in place.’
Singh rejoins: "I wanted to portray Madiba’s journey in a way that would be a fitting tribute to that amazing life, so every screenplay draft over the years was important.”
“The film is more than a book,” says Nicholson. “It’s a shelf full of direct personal experiences, by Mandela, by Winnie, and by all the other players in this series of events. An average screenplay is 120 pages long, so it’s insane to think you can incorporate all that. It’s not a compression of a book at all.”
“In some ways, it was very intimidating. I felt an enormous sense of responsibility. It’s a very important story, and it’s a true story - that I had to tell right. On the other hand, if one worries too much about the responsibility, one could end up not telling the story in the best way possible. You get lost. One becomes so terrified of offending, or leaving something out, or misrepresenting any or all of the people who lived through this period, some of whom gave their lives, or at the least a large portion of it. But, one can’t let that weigh on you too much because then one is unable to create the drama. One ends up creating something else, which is like a documentary.
My job, in a way, was to forget about the sense of historic responsibility and fashion the material into the most powerful story that I could, which captures the essence and the spirit of what Mandela achieved. That was my task. And I knew from the beginning I would have to leave out an enormous amount and tell the story through the relationship between him and Winnie. At the heart of this narrative there are two stories: Mandela’s and Winnie’s. He is a man who didn’t originally want to be politically engaged, he just wanted to make a success of his life, but found himself drawn into a political struggle. The further he was drawn in the more he realized he had a lot to lose. We watch him going through so many changes; first of all, absolutely abiding by the ANC commitment to non-violence, then realizing that that isn’t going to work and that violence is the only way forward.”
Singh continues: “I think everybody believes they know something about Madiba, and that’s probably reasonably accurate, but what they know just scratches the surface. Madiba’s life as a child growing up in the village, being groomed to become the leader of the Madiba clan, was the foundation that made him the leader that he became. Nobody knows anything about his life with his first wife Evelyn. His life with Winnie is more documented, and we have highlighted that they had a very traumatic life in those early years, and we’ve tried to give the world a very introspective look in the film but equally to put the film on a canvas that’s fitting of Mandela's epic journey. Mandela is a myth in many ways, and I think transformed the myth to reality.”
“It’s a very difficult story to give a dramatic shape to,” adds David Thompson. “The earlier drafts of the script were a bit too respectful in tone, and we were in awe of the subject which is so huge and Mandela is such an icon. But, Anant was tenacious, and just cut what had to be cut.”
Mandela famously wrote of himself that he didn't wish to be treated like a saint, that he was a human being, with a beating heart, and flesh and blood, who had all the foibles of human beings.
“The love story is possibly the most powerfully moving part of Nelson Mandela’s story” says McCracken.”In so much of what he achieved he appears almost super human. But that is why he was absolutely right to press Anant not to forget that he is just a man, that even extraordinary human beings have feet of clay. Even so, when you have done something so momentous with your life, it’s inspirational and that’s why this script, like the film, is triumphant. It’s a joyful film. It’s not dull politics. It’s totally lived.”