This is a great article which appeared in the Sunday Times on January 17th 2010
Nelson Mandela's victory: Behind the scenes of Invictus
At the 1995 World Cup, Nelson Mandela put on a Springbok rugby jersey and won over white South Africa. As Clint Eastwood brings this historic event to the big screen, the writer on whose book the film is based, is given exclusive, behind-the-scenes access to the director and stars
Approaching his 80th birthday, Clint Eastwood is a man in a hurry, churning out films at a pace that some of his regular collaborators — people half his age — find exhausting. “One day I may get tired of it and say that’s enough of that,” he says, “but as a director, I’m enjoying myself; and with acting, I keep retiring. It’s like Frank Sinatra — I’ll return next month.” After acclaimed roles in Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino, Eastwood has remained behind the camera for his latest film, Invictus. It tells the inspiring story of how Nelson Mandela, as the newly elected South African president, joined forces with Francois Pienaar, captain of the South African rugby team, in the run-up to the 1995 Rugby Union World Cup, transforming a sport that had been a symbol of racial division into an instrument of national unity.
The final, South Africa’s Springboks against New Zealand’s All Blacks, was an epic political encounter masquerading as a rugby game. It was the first time since the imposition of apartheid half a century earlier — the first time, indeed, since the arrival of the first European settlers in 1652 — that the entire country found itself united in a common cause: a Springbok victory. That day, the master-slave relationship between whites and blacks dissolved. The whites shed their fears, their guilt and their disdain; the blacks shed their shackles, their suspicions and their resentment. The whole country celebrated — hugged and sang and danced — as one. The guiding spirit behind this most improbably euphoric of reconciliations was the master politician Mandela; Pienaar and his team, big white sons of apartheid, were his valiant co-conspirators.
In the film, Morgan Freeman plays Mandela; Matt Damon, Pienaar. Eastwood is pleased with the result. He made his name portraying laconic gunslingers and hard-bitten cops and does not come across, after more than 50 years in films, as a man who is easily impressed, yet he confesses to being “amazed” by Mandela. “I thought this was a perfect story for the world today. We need the creativity of this man spread out there. I wish our president, every president, could be as creative in thinking outside the envelope.”
In South Africa last March, I watched the shooting of a scene that obliged Eastwood to engage in some creative thinking of his own. It was a recreation of the moment when Mandela was released from prison on February 11, 1990. Mandela walks down a road smiling, right fist high in the air, surrounded by singing, dancing supporters. Then he steps into a car, which swiftly drives off. Or, in this particular re-enactment, not so swiftly. That was the problem.
I was sitting next to Eastwood as he watched the first take. Freeman beamed; the extras playing his supporters were appropriately lusty. But the driver, a small, rotund fellow whose first, and probably last, moment of cinematic glory this would be, missed his beat, and stepped on the accelerator a moment too late. As he did the second time; and the third. Eastwood is famous in Hollywood for bashing out scenes quickly. When Matt Damon asked to reshoot a piece of dialogue because he thought a detail had not been quite right, Eastwood shut him up with a brisk: “Why do you want to waste everybody’s time?” But this driver was, well, just a driver. So Eastwood shrewdly chose to see the funny side of it. A mock rueful smile on his face, he strolled towards the car and asked: “What’s this guy’s name?” “James,” a voice said. “James!” cried Eastwood, raising his voice in a manner so comically out of character it drew a burst of laughter from the crew.
Eastwood chuckled when I reminded him of the story eight months later, in November, during a meeting at a hotel in Paris. “I was laughing about that,” he said, in his famous half-whisper. “But I kept thinking, ‘This f***ing guy’s gonna kill me.’ So I got up there and said, ‘James, listen to me.’ (He’d done no movies, this poor guy.) And I said, ‘James, when I say “James!” you step on the gas. I don’t care if Morgan’s not in the car yet.’ So I waited until I saw the door was just closing and shouted, ‘JAAAAMES!’ and he goes ‘Yeuuurrhh’ [Eastwood imitates the screeching of a car] and he finally gets it right.”
The first thing Eastwood said when we met in Paris was how much he had enjoyed spending two months in South Africa making the film with a crew that was 90% local. He seemed content the two times I went down to Cape Town to watch the shoot. In a film as epic as it is intimate, Eastwood exercised the same serene, good-humoured control over the indoor scenes in which Freeman conveys the giant solitude of Mandela — a man who made the choice of becoming father of his nation at the painful cost of not being a father to his family — as he did over the cast of thousands in the outdoor rugby stadium scenes. If he has managed to be as successful a director as he has been an actor, much of it must have to do with his attention to detail, and his respectful handling of the vast staffs at his command. With the inevitably awed South African actors, who play practically all the roles except the two leads, Eastwood never lost his on-screen cool.
The first scene that I watched took place on a giant set: an area six times the size of a rugby field in a wine valley behind the awe-inspiring monolith of Table Mountain. There were a dozen or so white trailers, around 30 vehicles of different sizes, two helicopters and a couple of hundred people. At the centre of it all, quietly getting on with his job, was Eastwood. Had you not known who he was, you’d have thought he was an assistant sound mechanic. He was dressed in a short-sleeved brown shirt, loose grey slacks and, in garish contrast, a cap in the exuberant colours of the South African flag.
When I was introduced to him, he almost apologised for “presuming” to take on a project of which he said he was ignorant compared with me — the author of the book on which the film is based. He said he just hoped he might be able to do justice to the story. Dumbfounded, I mumbled something about the book being the one that had to do justice to the film and, with a nod and a thin smile, he strode into the middle of the field to direct a scene involving Mandela/Freeman arriving in a helicopter to visit the South African rugby players at a training session just before the start of the 1995 World Cup.
Eastwood and Freeman have a chemistry, a jokey but respectful way of communicating, which probably has to do with their shared experience making big successful films (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby), with their shared stature in the film business, with their shared age, both in their seventies — as Mandela was in his glory days — and with their common pride in what each likes to describe as a “no bullshit” approach to everything. (“I abhor political correctness. It’s the most boring thing on the planet,” Eastwood told me in Paris.) They take their work seriously, but not themselves. At the end of a scene where Mandela wakes up and makes his bed, Eastwood said: “Good, but I see there are doubters.” He meant some crew members who thought the scene could be improved. Eastwood suggested another way of waking up — a light groan, a rub of the nose, a certain look — and Freeman said: “Don’t know if I can do it, but I know what you mean.” “You’ll do it,” Eastwood teased him. “That’s what you get the big bucks for.”
Eastwood says it would not have occurred to him to ask anyone other than Freeman to play Mandela. Though, in fact, it happened the other way around. In the summer of 2007, Freeman came to Eastwood with the idea for the film. “Morgan called me up and said, ‘I’ve got a really great script for you,’” recalls Eastwood, who tells his stories as he does in films, putting lines into his own mouth as if they were dialogue, in quotes. “And he said, ‘I’d love you to direct it.’ I said, ‘Okay, send it over.’ I read it and thought, ‘God, I love this story!’ I said, ‘I didn’t know this.’ I’d read many articles about Mandela, but I didn’t know about this great story at the centre of his life. So I called him back and said, ‘This is great. I’ll do it!’”
Eastwood contacted Warner Bros, who happened to be trying to come up with a Mandela film of their own. Warner Bros responded enthusiastically. “This one woman who’d been working on the Mandela thing said, ‘It’s marvellous. It’s exactly what we dreamt of.’ So everybody was on.” Eastwood called Matt Damon, who signed up right away, and they were off. Twenty months later, on May 5 last year, the last scene of Invictus was shot at Cape Town’s Waterfront Studios. Cheers, hugs, whistles, handshakes among cast and crew. Freeman came up to me and smiled. “Guess that’s the last time I pretend to be Nelson Mandela.”
Dressed like Mandela, self-deprecating like Mandela — I’d heard him say a number of times that there was nothing especially impressive about what he did for a living, that it was just “pretending” — Freeman was in good spirits. This, he told me, had been one of the great film experiences of his life. “How could it not be,” he said, “with Clint Eastwood directing?” “Would you have imagined that Eastwood would end up directing you as Mandela that first time we met in Mississippi?” I replied. “Ah, yes,” said Freeman, with a trace of the Mandela voice — part African chief, part English Victorian gent. “We have come a long way since then…”
We had met by chance two years and 11 months earlier in Freeman’s home state of Mississippi. It was then that the idea first began to form in my mind that a book I was working on about Mandela might end up being made into a Hollywood film. Neither Freeman nor I will cease to marvel at how serendipitous our Mississippi encounter turned out to be.
As South Africa correspondent for The Independent between 1989 and 1995, I covered Mandela’s release from prison, his rise to the presidency, and interviewed him and chatted to him more times than I can remember. Mandela is by far the most generous, and canny, political figure I have encountered in nearly three decades as an international journalist. As for the rugby World Cup final, I have never come across an event more joyous or more influential in the life of a nation. It was a day of big-hearted reconciliation in what had been, until recently, the most racially divided nation on Earth, and one of the most violent.
In my book I try to explain how Mandela got there, how 30 years earlier in jail he had taken the deliberate decision to get to know his enemy — learn his language, his history and, through the jailers on Robben Island prison, his vanities and his strengths — and how after his release in 1990 he won over one by one every white person he met, culminating in the giant embrace of that rugby game, where practically the entire white population (programmed for decades to see him as a terrorist) succumbed to his integrity and charm, and crowned him king. Among those who fell for him was Francois Pienaar, whom Mandela invited to tea in June 1994, a month after becoming president. Mandela enlisted Pienaar to the cause of national unity, as he did the rest of the Springbok rugby players. Instant disciples all, they went out of their way to reach out to black people — coaching children in the townships, making mighty efforts to learn the new national anthem, previously the hymn of black resistance, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God Bless Africa) — before the World Cup tournament had even begun.
Mandela fascinates Eastwood, probably because he has spent so much of his working life addressing the theme of vengeance. “It’s still amazing to me. It doesn’t seem like you could be slammed in the slammer for 27 years and not come out and say, ‘Hey, f*** everybody! I’m going to do it now. I’m going to wipe everybody out. We’re going to kick ass.’ It doesn’t seem like it’s within human nature.” Eastwood sees that it was not a question of generosity for generosity’s sake. “It was pragmatism. It would have been such an easy route to just go in there, mow ’em down, kill ’em all. But he saw a big picture of people living in some kind of harmony, and it is amazing!”
Before embarking on the story myself I went to see Mandela at his home in Johannesburg. We sat down over a cup of tea and I made my pitch. This was in 2001. I told him I wanted to write a book about him, not a biography but a real-life tale that shed light on the genius he displayed in stopping a war, liberating his people and laying the foundations for what remained a stable — if at times troubled — democracy. The climax of the narrative, I said, would be the day when Martin Luther King’s dream of racial unity actually came true in, of all places, South Africa; that the day I referred to was the rugby… Mandela interrupted me mid-sentence with a smile that lit up the room: “The Rugby World Cup final!” Exactly, I smiled back. “Yes. Yes. Absolutely! I understand exactly the book you have in mind.” In full voice, as if he were not 82 but 40 years younger, he said: “John, you have my blessing. You have it wholeheartedly.”
I wrote up a proposal, I found a publisher in New York, my agent sent the proposal to Hollywood, and then fate stepped in. In June 2006 I was working on a newspaper story about poverty in the Deep South of the United States. I decided I should find one town to focus on, and I set my sights, at random, on a place called Clarksdale, in Mississippi.
On the morning of June 20, 2006, I drove into Clarksdale from Memphis along Highway 61 at exactly the same time as Morgan Freeman was landing the private plane he pilots on a nearby airstrip. This was the purest coincidence. As was the fact that the one contact I had been given in town was a lawyer called Bill Luckett, who was a friend of Freeman’s. Luckett introduced us. At first, I made no connections in my head. But then, sitting in the lounge of Luckett’s home with Freeman, it came to me.
“Mr Freeman,” I said, with outrageous (and uncharacteristic) chutzpah, “this is your lucky day. I have a movie for you.” Freeman raised an eyebrow. “Oh, really. What’s it about?” I had established by now that Freeman was a terse kind of chap — wary, at least at first, with strangers. So, with all the pith I could muster, I replied: “It’s based on a book I am writing about an event that distills the essence of Mandela’s genius, and the essence of the South African miracle.” “Oh,” he replied, “you mean the rugby game?”
I was thunderstruck. Freeman, suddenly loquacious, explained that he had been wanting to play the role of Mandela for several years. He knew Mandela personally and admired him more than anyone else alive. Mandela, for his part, clearly felt admiration for him. After the two men met for the first time, in the mid-1990s, Mandela, then president of South Africa, said publicly that he would like Freeman to play him in a film. Freeman, instantly captivated by the idea, returned to South Africa a number of times, and spent time in Mandela’s company, studying him closely. What he decided to do, as the obvious first route to make his dream come true, was buy the film rights to Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. A number of screenwriters were hired to try and craft a film narrative out of the book, but the raw material proved too vast and unwieldy.
But how had Freeman made the connection between what I’d said and the rugby game? “Ah, he smiled, “there are no secrets in Hollywood. I have read your book proposal.”
Talking later over dinner, I was impressed not only by Freeman’s knowledge of South Africa, but by his feel for it. Freeman is a dry southerner with an instinct for finding the irony in things, but once he began warming to his subject, he let go with feeling on the example that he felt Mandela and South Africa offered the world. He understood well enough that Mandela had not delivered heaven everlasting, that South Africa today had many problems, but he felt strongly that there was a story to be told about Mandela, in the medium of film, that would inspire people.
Five months later, in November, I sold the film rights of my book to Freeman’s production company, Revelations, and the screenwriter Tony Peckham flew from California to see me at my home in Barcelona. Peckham had left South Africa in the mid-1980s to avoid the military draft, which in those days meant shooting at black people in Soweto. We spent a week in each other’s company, exploring every possible narrative angle, and then back home he headed, armed with transcripts of the interviews I had done with rugby players and Mandela’s bodyguards, as well as with Mandela himself, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and some aspirant terrorists of the racist far right who, by the time I got to them, Mandela had won over with his integrity and charm.
In August 2007, Freeman, screenplay in hand, called up his friend Eastwood. “I love the fact that the story is concise, that you don’t have to go back to see him as a young man, the thing with Winnie, and all that stuff,” Eastwood told me. He calls Mandela “probably the most charismatic political figure ever... To take rugby, the sport that blacks didn’t want any part of because it was a white sport… to wear a Springbok cap in front of a whole band of all-black people… Jesus! That would be like Obama wearing a Republican hat. Or waving a Confederate flag. All he had to do was buy some arms and get everybody with automatic rifles and there would have been chaos.”
Eastwood says he was keen to portray Mandela not just as a hero, but as a flesh-and-blood man of many facets and some flaws. “The fact that he is a big ladies’ man, well, we just give a little tinge of that. And a tinge that he is having problems with his family, where he was unsuccessful too, but still sticking to the big picture of him being a great president. The temptation might have been to come up with a historical document that would have taken hours to do, but this, well, this is a great yarn.”
A great yarn at the centre of which he placed Morgan Freeman. “I worked with him successfully on Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby and so, superstitious-wise, I’d have to sort of go along with Morgan Freeman. But besides that he just always performed for me very well and he embodies his roles nicely and it just seems that if anybody was born to play Nelson Mandela, it was him. He has the same aura when he walks into a room. People like him on the same level. And Nelson Mandela, that’s a hard one to live up to. You can’t just take a normal, everyday actor and say, ‘Okay, you’re going to play this guy.’ There are very few people that could do it, in fact there’s only one, at this stage, to play him as an older man.”
Eastwood highlighted the economy in Freeman’s acting; his ability to convey a lot seemingly expressing very little. “He does know how to tell the truth. The old Jimmy Cagney thing, ‘How do you act? You plant your feet and tell the truth.’ It’s simplistic, but that’s kind of the way he is. He knows how to tell the truth. He’s got a magnificent voice and a magnificent presence.”
As for Matt Damon, seeing him on the set in South Africa, you quickly understood why he was Eastwood’s automatic choice for the Francois Pienaar role. It was a question of temperament, as much as talent. Like Freeman and Eastwood, he is as unpretentious a professional as he is a big Hollywood star. Dressed in Pienaar’s rugby uniform, you would have had no idea, had you not known, that he was any different from the 14 extras kitted out like him, in the green and gold of the Springboks. He comes across as a fresh, bright all-American, amiable and unforced, who happens to be rich and world-famous, but seems to feel no need to draw attention to the fact. When I asked him why he had accepted this supporting role, when invariably in his films he played the lead, he said it was because he had loved the story and the script. “I really felt there was a message of lasting value for the world here, and that’s not something you can say about every movie that’s made.”
Damon also had to learn the South African accent. In the opinion of several South Africans who have seen the film, he nailed it. This mattered to Eastwood, who told me he was relieved to hear the South African verdict on Damon, in the same way that it mattered to him that the South African public should give Invictus the stamp of legitimacy. “It means a lot to me, South Africa’s reaction. There’s a whole world out there that you’d love to convey this message to, but it is important to me that the country where the story is set should say it’s a faithful reflection of the spirit of those amazing times.”
In Paris, the month before the film’s first public release, Eastwood talked with enthusiasm of the experience of making the movie, yet he was cautious and, once again, self-effacing, as to what its reception might be. “A friend of mine who has only read your book — didn’t know about the movie — said, ‘You’re doing this story? I just read this book.’ He says, ‘God, it’s amazing! I was so moved at the end.’ And I said, ‘Well, we’re staying true to that philosophy, we’re hoping. It’s an inspirational thing and, well, if it isn’t then that’s my fault. I’ll have to take the blame for that. It’s on the paper there, it has to be translated. And if it’s not translated, then I am a failure.’”
The test came at the red-carpet gala in Los Angeles. Sitting next to me was Zindzi Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s 49-year-old daughter, who was not even two years old when he went to jail. Not long into the movie, she started tugging at the sleeve of my jacket, in urgent appreciation of the uncanny manner in which Morgan Freeman was capturing her father’s facial expressions and tone of voice. Five minutes before the end of the film, she clutched my hand and held onto it tightly until the credits rolled. The lights came on and her eyes were red. So were Francois Pienaar’s. His wife, who had been sitting next to him, told me that never in her life had she seen her big blond rugby forward of a husband more emotional as during the two hours and 14 minutes of Invictus. A South African film critic confessed that he had “bawled” from beginning to end.
I immediately reported on these findings to Eastwood, who was being mobbed in the cinema foyer. “Thank you. Thank you,” he said, in that understated half-whisper of his. “That’s real good to know.”
Once more, and yet again, he had not failed.