Responsible for the spectacular design of the film in authenticity and scope is Production Designer, Johnny Breedt, who Singh recruited on the project some 15 years ago as 'action vehicle coordinator'. Over the years while the project was in various stages of development, Breedt's involvement increased to location scouting and research. This extensive period of 'prep' time enabled him to assemble a staggering body of material. The results of his research via books, films, documentaries and museums were housed in the Art Department where more than 300 books and 5000 photographs served as a dynamic reference tool for actors, the director, the costume people, and the researchers throughout the movie.
The design of the movie was a key component of Chadwick's stance to tell the story in the form of a 'modern' movie. "I told them yes, get it 100% authentic, but get the action sequences, if there's a car chase in the film, we will shoot it suspenseful and fast. We don't want a load of old cars puttering around. You want to have a visceral quality to the film."
Breedt recalls that he was somewhat bemused when the director gave reference to a couple of movies that 'are probably very far from what people would expect, such as City of God and Elite Squad.'
Despite having made a number of biographical pictures such as Dickens for the BBC and The Other Boleyn Girl, Chadwick states that he is not a fan of period movies, "Who wants to watch a historical drama? I wanted our crew to experience the energy and excitement seen in many South American movies." The director adds that behind the scenes he was also watching movies like The Godfather, and David Lean's movies. "We are shooting on 35mm film and have this extensive landscape, but I did not want to shoot it with the traditional wide shot, close up, and mid shot. I wanted the camera right in there with the actors, capturing the emotion of the scene - as you would in a contemporary movie."
Breedt recalls: "Justin wanted to keep it as real as possible and design a world into which the actors could literally step and perform their scene in the genuine environment of their characters, and we would just shoot it."
"You don't want to see the direction, or the art directing, or costumes," says Chadwick. "We just wanted to drop the camera into an absolute real situation."
To obtain this veracity, Breedt shares that "There was no specific plan as to how the shots would be set up, Justin just filmed the world and the sets simply served to energise it." Breedt believes that this approach had an impactful effect. "Idris spent a night in Mandela's actual cell on Robben Island by himself and when he walked onto the set that we designed he told me he was 'totally in that world'."
As the film spans so many decades, Breedt's major task was delivering a vast, yet detailed canvas, highlighting the different impression and mood of each decade. These ranged from Mandela's rural village to the vibrant city of Johannesburg in the early 1940's where white citizens owned vehicles, and 'blacks' travelled in buses and trams.
"In those years of segregation, blacks were mainly migrant workers and domestic servants, and not that 'visible' in the city."
Breedt and the Location Managers, Robert Bentley and Edu Klarenbeeck, scouted some four hundred locations and filming took place in approximately two hundred of them. By the time Chadwick joined the production, many of the buildings that featured in the original script had been torn down.
Breedt discusses their efforts to create the world in and around Mandela's life, starting in his childhood village that was a pristine preserve of nature and beauty, steeped in tribal culture. As there is no documented visual history of the villages of that period, Breedt's challenge also presented him with the opportunity to be inventive.
Since the 1920s, Mandela's village has changed so drastically - now featuring a museum and a hotel for tourists - that the team had to identify a new location that was as visually breathtaking as the Transkei. The magnificent Drakensberg in the KwaZulu-Natal Province provided this environment. In South Africa significant tracts of rural and countryside land is tribal-owned and to procure agreement to film in these locations required direct interaction with the head of the local tribe. Breedt explains: “It is a conventional system in which elders are invited to participate. Before we worked in their locations we had to take offerings; traditionally they would slaughter a goat, and we had a barbecue for the locals and invested in the community by recruiting local labour.”
Most scenes scripted for Cape Town were shot in authentic sites in that city. However, today Robben Island is a major tourist destination and this limited access, together with logistical difficulties, meant that shooting only exterior scenes - such as the spectacular view of Table Mountain - were feasible. The world-class Cape Town Film Studios served as the backbone for the production with a number of set-builds on the backlot. The courtyard of B Section of the Robben Island prison, including interiors of the cells and visiting rooms, as well as rows of streets and homes which established the township of Orlando in the 1940s, were replicated with precision and authenticity.
The immense project required professional construction companies and industrial equipment to excavate an area of some 15 000 square meters on the backlot in order to clear a space to build the sets. The build of the impressive Robben Island set includes authentic roof and drainage and is classified a permanent structure. A professional road construction company constructed tar surfaced streets for the Orlando township - where Breedt’s 200-strong construction crew of skilled, and semi-skilled labourers from the local communities built twenty period homes for exterior shots.
Breedt points out that the Robben Island set was designed for the 1960s, “in the years following, as the world press put pressure on the authorities they became more lenient and facilities on the Island were improved; such as a dedicated room for cinema, study facilities, toilets were fitted with doors and the cells were furnished with beds.”
The magnificent Palace of Justice in Pretoria is the establishment where the most prominent case in South African history, the Rivonia Trial was held, and where Mandela delivered his famous speech. Today it acts as the headquarters for the Gauteng division of the High Court and is off limits to the public. The rigorous rules of access called for another majestic set build at the studios - the interior of the Palace of Justice complete with the first floor gallery and the holding cells below the courtroom. While Mandela’s famous speech was recorded and documented, no film footage of the case exists. “Apart from the people who were there, no one knows what the courtrooms looked like at the trial.” says Breedt. “In addition, one doesn't get a sense of why it is named the Palace of Justice - until you go into the building. In Italian Renaissance-style it is a regal establishment, and all the interior features make a statement; the soaring lobby, towering gold columns, spectacular balustrade, elaborate chandeliers and light filtrating through the glass dome - it’s pretty intimidating. Furthermore, the acoustics in the Palace wouldn’t have worked for the film.”
Co-Producer, Vlokkie Gordon, discusses the value of shooting at the Studios. “Not only did the cost-saving enable us to build phenomenal sets, but it gave us flexibility to transition to the real townships which have changed dramatically since the 1940s and 1950s.”
Most critically, it enabled the production to have control over riot scenes that featured army tanks and petrol bombs in the township streets. “Obviously these actions are central to the story, but re-enacting such violence and taking military hardware into public spaces is not an option, these events are still traumatic for township communities.” stresses Gordon.
It is considered that with its modern houses and satellite dishes, there is no ‘real’ Soweto anymore and the famous Vilakazi Street where Mandela and Winnie resided has a totally different look. However, Kliptown - situated in an older area of Soweto - served as the base to shoot numerous scenes set in Soweto, and the team was able to build 30 sets there. “The “City of God” feel will be evident in those Soweto scenes.” says Breedt.
Sophiatown produced some of South Africa’s most famous writers, poets, musicians and artists, but it was the great Jazz legend, Miriam Makeba, who put the Black ‘suburb’ on the world map. In the 1950s when White South Africans wore Safari suits and inhabited cloistered and privileged lives, Sophiatown, like a mini Soho, was the nerve centre of the country’s entertainment scene.
Unlike other townships in South Africa, Sophiatown was a freehold township, having been established prior to the law preventing black people from owning land being passed. It was the last remaining area occupied by a multi-racial community. Something of an anomaly for its time, this cosmopolitan, hip and happening area became a popular cultural hub where Whites, Coloureds, Indians and Blacks converged to experience a vibrant world of dance and swinging music in nightclubs. The strong influence of American movies was seen in the high fashion of the women, as well as the snappy outfits worn by the gangsters - infamously known as ‘Tsotsis’.
Given its close proximity to central Johannesburg, the apartheid government razed the shantytown to the ground dispossessing this unique community of their homes.
This brutal act of destruction represented the apartheid government’s contempt for people of colour, and thus serves as a vital element of the film, and Chadwick wanted to approach the scene of the demolition in a substantial and gritty manner. Breedt, who located a ruin at an old mine site, says: “We added to the remnants of the mine turning it into (part-ruined) Sophiatown, but we built it for real, with bricks and cement, so when the bulldozers physically slam into it the collapse will look authentic.”
Chadwick’s tough and true-to-life rendering of Mandela’s powerful journey is expressed through the cinematographer Lol Crawley’s work. “Justin’s great achievement in this film has been to create something very vivid, lively, and entertaining which will keep you on the edge of your seat.” says Thompson. “He has infused it with a fantastic amount of energy; Lol’s cameras are very restless, vigorous, and probing, capturing the tension in this story. Even the scenes that might have been potentially dull were brought to life by the quality of the acting, the genius of the camerawork and the rigour of the director.”