Chiwetel Ejiofor's Directing Debut Takes Him To Malawi To Capture 'The Wind'

Feb 28, 2019
Originally published on February 28, 2019 3:30 pm

Chiwetel Ejiofor is best known for his starring role in the movie 12 Years a Slave. Now he's making his directorial debut.

A decade ago, the English actor of Nigerian descent picked up a best-selling memoir called The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. It's about William Kamkwamba, a schoolkid in Malawi whose ingenuity helps save his village from famine.

"I started off thinking that I would adapt it," Ejiofor says in an interview. "That was my first, sort of, plan. And then in the process of doing that, it sort of became clear, especially when I started to travel to Malawi to meet William Kamkwamba, to meet his family ... that's when it sort of became clear that I was making very directorial choices in the visual nature of it, and what I kind of wanted the film to feel like and to be expressed as."

Now Ejiofor is the director, screenwriter and a star of the new Netflix film also called The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Ejiofor plays Kamkwamba's father, Trywell.


Interview Highlights

On first going to Malawi to meet William Kamkwamba

I suppose I wrote the first draft of the script just based on the book — purely on the book. And I didn't have a lot of knowledge of Malawi. I'd never been there; I didn't have much exposure to Malawi. And so there were just gaps in my knowledge about the place. And so as part of the kind of researching of the film, the first thing was to kind of go there, meet him, meet him at home in Malawi — in Wimbe, which is the village that he's from. And he was incredibly generous with me, and just taking me around, introducing me obviously to his parents and to his community, and then going to all of the places where the events took place. ...

He took me down to a place that's called the ADMARC grain reserve. And it's actually featured in the film, and it's where he went — you know, at [age] 13 at that time, during this famine, during this food crisis — and he went down there to try and get a bag of grain for his family. And the place sort of broke up into kind of chaos, as there was not enough grain that had been delivered to this place in order to sort of feed the amount of people, the amount of need that was there.

On Kamkwamba's reaction to the film

I was aware then, and through this process, that it's – and as he describes it, it's a very kind of mixed emotion that he has when he watches the film, when he engages with the film. Because of course, he celebrates all the optimism, and the hope, and how things turned out for him and his community in many ways. But also, it does take him back to this very, very challenging part of his life.

On learning to speak the language Chichewa for the role

Once I'd made certain decisions about, you know, shooting in Malawi and trying to create this textured, authentic experience for an audience, it seemed then a kind of natural extension that we would try and do a lot of the film in Chichewa — you know, certainly the moments where it was sort of inconceivable that people would be speaking English, so in the village, and the kind of family dynamics — and sort of introduce the language in that way. And it just involved a lot of learning of Chichewa, you know, and spending a bit of time with other people. ...

Well, somebody did say once, I think it was Admiral [Horatio] Nelson, that the boldest move is the safest. So somehow, I feel like just kind of totally going for it ... one decision sort of led into the next, sort of naturally, you know. So making that decision to try and create an authentic experience then opened up these other avenues where I then, you know, felt: "Well, in that case, I guess this needs to happen, and in that case, that needs to happen," and then it sort of snowballs in that way.

On the processional of costumed figures that opens the film, and the masked character who recurs throughout

They're called the Gule Wamkulu, and they are the kind of spiritual center of Malawian cultural life. They're a secret society of dancers, and they turn up at different cultural events, which can be funerals, which can be weddings, a chief's inauguration, these sorts of things. You know, when I went to Malawi, I was really trying to find the Gule, and it became a sort of thing for me. And there were very difficult to find, to pin down — I mean, they're a secret society after all. And so that became a kind of frustrating process for me, because I did want them to be in the film, but I didn't want to put people in costume, you know, sort of as dancers pretending to be the Gule Wamkulu kind of thing. I wanted the actual Gule to be in the film.

And so that took a while. And it was only kind of late in our pre-production period that we were sort of finally invited to a village to see the Gule perform. And it was one of the most magical afternoons of my life. And so, you know, the Gule agreed to be in the film.

On diversity in Hollywood

I think it's about perspective, you know — I think it always has been. I think that's the charge and the challenge of diversity in film, is that we want to kind of engage with different voices, different perspective, different viewpoints, different ways of seeing the world. And I think that that is what the reward of all of that sort of idea and question of diversity is — is that we understand the world more fully because we understand the voices and the makeup of the people in it.

Kat Lonsdorf and Mallory Yu produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Chiwetel Ejiofor is best known for his starring role in the movie "12 Years A Slave." Now he's making his directorial debut. A decade ago, Ejiofor picked up a best-selling memoir called "The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind." It's about William Kamkwamba, a school kid in Malawi whose ingenuity helped save his village from famine.

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: I started off thinking that I would adapt it. That was my first sort of plan. And then in the process of doing that, it sort of became clear, especially when I started to travel to Malawi to meet William Kamkwamba, to meet his family, to meet his parents, his sisters, to be part of the community, to sort of talk to the community - that's when it sort of became clear that I was making very directorial choices in the sort of the visual nature of it and what I kind of wanted the film to feel like and to be expressed as.

SHAPIRO: Now Ejiofor is director, screenwriter and star of the new film on Netflix. Like the memoir, this movie is called "The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind." Ejiofor plays William Kamkwamba's father, Trywell.

EJIOFOR: Initially I just thought I was - you know, because it was 10 years ago, I thought I was too young to play Trywell, to play his father.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

EJIOFOR: You know, I thought that my playing age was somewhere like 25, you know?

SHAPIRO: Right.

EJIOFOR: But, you know, I didn't know it would take quite as long as it did to make the film. And so through the years, I found myself moving closer and closer to the sort of sweet spot.

SHAPIRO: So you were raised in London. Your roots are Nigerian. And William Kamkwamba is in Malawi, a country that you did not have deep experience with. Tell me about the first time you went there and met him.

EJIOFOR: Yeah. I suppose I wrote the first draft of the script just based on the book, purely on the book. And I didn't have a lot of knowledge of Malawi. I'd never been there. I didn't have much exposure to Malawi. And so there were, you know, just sort of gaps in my knowledge about the place. And so - and as part of the kind of researching of the film, the first thing was to kind of go there, meet him - meet him at home in Malawi, in Wimbe, which is the village that he's from. And he was incredibly generous with me and just taking me around, introducing me obviously to his parents and to his community and then going to all of the places where the events took place.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell me a story from that first meeting with him all those years ago, a moment that stands out in your mind?

EJIOFOR: He took me down to a place that's called the ADMARC grain reserve. And it's actually featured in the film, and it's where he went, you know, at 13 at that time during this famine, during this food crisis. And he went down there to try and get a bag of grain for his family. And the place sort of broke up into kind of chaos as there was, you know, not enough grain that had been delivered to this place in order to sort of feed the amount of people, the amount of need that was there.

SHAPIRO: You recreated that scene with the grain shortage and the distribution site that turned into a near riot in the actual place where this had happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Chichewa).

(CROSSTALK)

EJIOFOR: I was aware then and through this process that it's - and as he describes it, it's a very kind of mixed emotion that he has when he watches the film, when he engages with the film because of course he celebrates all the optimism and the hope and how things turned out, you know, for him and his community in many ways. But also, it does take him back to this very, very challenging part of his life.

SHAPIRO: This is a bilingual film. There is dialogue in English and also in the local language. I believe it's called Chichewa - is that right...

EJIOFOR: Yes, Chichewa, yep.

SHAPIRO: ...Which you didn't speak before you (laughter) started working on this film.

EJIOFOR: That's right (laughter).

SHAPIRO: But you speak a lot of it in the movie.

EJIOFOR: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Tell me about that.

EJIOFOR: Well, that, again, was the decision - you know, once I'd made certain decisions about, you know, shooting in Malawi and trying to create this textured, authentic experience for an audience, it seemed then the kind of natural extension that we would try and do a lot of the film in Chichewa, you know, certainly the moments where it was sort of inconceivable that people would be speaking English - so in the village, in the kind of family dynamics - and sort of introduce the language in that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Chichewa).

EJIOFOR: And it just involved a lot of learning of Chichewa, you know, and, you know, spending a bit of time with other people.

SHAPIRO: And so as a screenwriter, were you writing a screenplay in English and then handing it off to a translator who translated it into Chichewa and then learning the lines that that translator had written?

EJIOFOR: That's exactly what we were (laughter)...

SHAPIRO: Wow.

EJIOFOR: That's exactly the process, yeah.

SHAPIRO: I'm just thinking, like, directing your first feature film is a real challenge. To direct, write and star in it is exponentially more difficult. And by the way, let's also do it in a language that you don't speak (laughter).

EJIOFOR: Yeah, yeah, well, somebody did say once - I think it was Admiral Nelson - that the boldest moves are the safest.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

EJIOFOR: So somehow I feel like one decision sort of led into the next sort of naturally, you know? So making that decision to try and create an authentic experience then opened up these other avenues where I then, you know, felt, well, in that case, I guess this needs to happen. And in that case, that needs to happen. And then it sort of snowballs in that way, but...

SHAPIRO: And was there ever a moment that you thought, oh, my God, what have I done?

EJIOFOR: Yeah, but I think that's when you really start to look at the people that you are collaborating with. And, you know, so you're really looking at all those people in the way that you look at a sort of - you know, a steward or stewardess on a plane through turbulence, you know, that if they're OK, you're OK.

SHAPIRO: This film is incredibly specific and realistic and naturalistic with one exception, which is this kind of thread of surrealism where the film opens with a processional of costumed figures.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing in Chichewa).

SHAPIRO: And one of the masked characters in that processional returns several times throughout the film without explanation. Can you tell us about this directorial choice you made?

EJIOFOR: They're called the Gule Wamkulu, and they are the kind of spiritual center of Malawian cultural life. They're a secret society of dancers, and they turn up at different cultural events, which can be funerals, which can be weddings, a chief's inauguration - these sorts of things.

You know, when I went to Malawi, I was really trying to find the Gule. It became a sort of thing for me. And they were very difficult to find, to pin down. I mean, they're a secret society after all. And so that became a kind of frustrating process for me 'cause I did want them to be in the film, but I didn't want to put people in costume, you know, sort of as dancers pretending to be the Gule Wamkulu kind of thing. I wanted the actual Gule to be in the film. And so that took a while. And it was only kind of late in our pre-production period that we were sort of finally invited to a village to see the Gule perform. And it was one of the most magical, you know, afternoons of my life. And so, you know, the Gule agreed to be in the film.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing in Chichewa).

SHAPIRO: You've talked generally about the need for diversity and different viewpoints in Hollywood. As you now expand further into directing and filmmaking on your own, this is clearly one example of that. But what does that look like for you going forward?

EJIOFOR: I think it's about perspective, you know? I think it always has been. I think that's the charge and the challenge of diversity in film - is that we want to kind of engage with different voices, different perspective, different viewpoints, different ways of seeing the world. And I think that that is what the reward of all of that sort of idea and question of diversity is - is that we understand the world more fully because we understand the voices and the makeup of the people in it.

SHAPIRO: Chiwetel Ejiofor, thank you so much for talking with us today.

EJIOFOR: Thank you, such a pleasure. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: He wrote, directed and stars in the new Netflix film "The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.