12 Years a Slave Ruined My Mandela Biopic, Says Screenwriter
Anita Singh, Telegraph (London), May 31, 2014
The British screenwriter of last year’s Nelson Mandela biopic has complained that Oscar voters ignored his film because “12 Years a Slave sucked up all the guilt about black people”.
William Nicholson said he was devastated by the critical and commercial disappointment of Nelson Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, which starred Idris Elba as the South African leader.
Nicholson, 66, has been Oscar-nominated twice before, for Gladiator and Shadowlands, and said he had been certain that the Mandela biopic would be similarly successful.
He had spent 15 years working on it, producing 33 drafts before the final version was approved.
“I think it worked superbly. I’m incredibly proud of this film. Unfortunately it didn’t get the kind of acclaim that I wanted. It didn’t get Oscars.
“12 Years a Slave came out in America and that sucked up all the guilt about black people that was available.
“They were so exhausted feeling guilty about slavery that I don’t think there was much left over to be nice about our film. So our film didn’t do as well as we’d hoped, which was a bit heartbreaking,” Nicholson told an audience at the Hay Festival.
“We showed it to test audiences very extensively and it got astounding responses. These things are measured in percentages and it was in the high 90s every time. So, honestly, we thought we had a winner. And when it didn’t become a winner it was devastating, actually, it was very distressing.
“I really thought it was going to win lots of awards, partly because it’s a good story but also because I thought I’d done a really good job and the director had done a really good job. So it has been very tough for me. Some things work and some things don’t. You just have to soldier on.”
Mandela died in December last year–on the night that the film had its royal premiere in London, attended by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Nicholson said the death also affected the film’s reception.
He explained: “Mandela died as I was in the royal premiere with Will and Kate. Suddenly the word came through that he died. We were deluged with Mandela stuff and after a week we all thought, please, take it away, we’ve heard enough about Mandela.
When the Hay interviewer joked that the festival should give out film awards, Nicholson replied: “They’d only give it to 12 Years a Slave.”
He discussed the process of writing the biopic, disclosing that he had invented most of Mandela’s speeches in the film because the real thing was too dull.
“All but one of the speeches were made up by me because his own speeches are so boring. I know it sounds outrageous to say a thing like that, but when he came out of prison he made a speech and, God, you fell asleep.
“It’s a sadness. In all the speeches there’s always a good line, but they’re not very good.”
Nicholson is also a novelist, and said writing books would always be his first love.
He explained: “I write movies, which I love, but I do it for the money. My real passion is for books.
“But long-form television is like the novel now–Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, something like that. So for the first time I’m embarking on a TV series.
“I’ve written the first episode. I don’t know if it will happen, but if it happens it will be a great excitement for me.
“People view things differently now, they tend to view in box set and soon it’ll be streaming on demand so that you can watch at your own pace. I can write a 26-part TV series like a novel and that is intensely exciting.
“It may be that in a few years’ time my enormously successful TV series will be dominating the airwaves.”