Six years after his Oscar-nominated performance in “12 Years a Slave,” Chiwetel Ejiofor makes his directorial debut with “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.”
Based on the memoir by William Kamkwamba, it is the story of 12-year-old William’s (Maxwell Simba) quest to save his village from famine. In rural Malawi, William sets out to construct a windmill that will allow the local farmers to irrigate their crops year around, doubling their harvests and protecting them from a government that is working to destroy their economy. He faces opposition along the way, but none stronger than his own father, Trywell, who is set on maintaining the old ways.
The film premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival. You can read our review here. With the film’s global release now on Netflix, I had the opportunity this week to talk with director and star Chiwetel Ejiofor about the project, his dual roles as actor and director, and why Netflix was the right home for his debut. Please enjoy this conversation.
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: It’s your first time directing a feature film, and you also star. Was that always the plan? Were you looking for something to direct that you could also perform in?
Chiwetel Ejiofor: No, I wasn’t! When I first read the book, I didn’t really think about being Trywell. Actually it was about ten years ago and I felt like I hadn’t really lived in that sort of space in my life to take on Trywell. He just felt older than I was. I was in my early thirties at that point. I was very intrigued to write the character, but not necessarily to play the character. I was deeply invested in the themes of the film, but I didn’t know at that stage how long it would take to actually get the film up and running.
And every year I thought and it moved further and further in toward the sweet spot until at a certain spot where I thought, “Well, actually, this is something that I could probably try to get my head around at this point, and probably should as opposed to trying to put another actor in there knowing that I had written this. Obviously my thought process would be so imprinted on the character it seemed unfair to put that kind of pressure on another actor. So I decided to go with it.
KP: You did a lovely job in the performance, but also as a director.
CE: Thank you.
KP: What was it about Trywell that you really felt drawn to?
CE: Trywell is a very complex guy. And in this transition, one of the things that I was always interested in was this idea of how much it takes really for somebody to change. To change in a really fundamental way. To not give lip service to change, but to really change. And it felt that all of the circumstances and this intensity actually moved the needle for Trywell. And it’s not much, but it’s enough to make a lot of difference in his family and his community. This idea of shifting his own ideas of his patriarchal dominance and that understanding that he’s not the head of his family but a member of his family, is something that William really helps him to get to. That William Kamkwamba in the story helps his father to get to this other space. As well as his wife, Agnes (Aïssa Maïga), and obviously the circumstances they go through. So it felt like a very interesting arc and journey for this character.
KP: All of the actors are so great, too. It is such a lovely cast. What was your relationship like with them, being both a star and the director?
CE: What was really great was it allowed for us to have purity of the dynamic, especially with Maxwell. Because Maxwell hadn’t really done a lot of acting before. He’d never done any film acting before. He’d done a couple of plays in high school in Nairobi, and he has this extraordinary quality on camera and he has this wonderful emotional intelligence. He’s very intellectually intelligent, but he also has this wonderful emotional intelligence that feels very confident, very rooted.
It was also good to have that kind of very pure channel so I could play his father, but also his director. It’s great not to have somebody else in the mix of that, so we could keep a kind of very pure dynamic going through the whole shoot, seeing as that relationship forms such a central part of the story. I didn’t really think about that beforehand in a way. It was only during the process I thought, Well, if only for this, it’s a very good reason to be both the director and play Trywell…
And then I suppose there was an echo of all of those things within the family dynamics as well. It was great to be able to talk as a family. Playing those kind of parts, but also to talk about the scenes in a certain way and to just spend a lot of time together. We did a lot of preparation on Skype for a long time before we started shooting because we were all in different countries. Aïssa Maïga’s in Paris, I was in London, Maxwell in Kenya and Lily Banda in Malawi. So we were all on Skype rehearsing and talking and thinking about the scenes and how we play the scenes and discussing how I would shoot the scenes and my plans. So it was really great to be able to have that sort of overall dynamic with those core members of the cast.
KP: Maxwell in particular. Having someone who is making his film debut with you, did you feel any added pressure because of the fact that you’re guiding him through his first film role?
CE: Yes, in the sense that I just wanted to make sure that he felt comfortable and he felt confident and he was aware of what a great performance he was giving, and the way in which he was doing that. And just keeping in that zone and excited about what he was doing and excited about playing this part.
I was also, as an actor, just thrilled to be working with somebody who has a great capacity, a great skill set. He’s a very young actor but he makes these very nuanced choices. Very subtle and not obvious and he understands how to hold things back and to allow minimal expression to really translate and transmit the wealth of emotion. And that’s great to play off somebody who does that and is aware of that and isn’t pushing. And is able to stick in that very neat zone of performance. I thought he was great to work with as much as anything else, as well as to direct.
KP: He is so compelling to watch, and when he has so much screen time you need that in a leading actor.
CE: He absolutely carries the film. It rests on his shoulders, really.
KP: And in a few years you’ll be saying, “Yep, that was me!”
CE: (laughs) Well…
KP: You’ve done a lot of films over the years. What is some of the best preparation you’ve had or advice you’ve gotten along the way that made you feel like you were ready to step into the director’s role?
CE: I think it’s all been sort of in its own way, not consciously I suppose, but subconsciously vocational. It’s very interesting working with – I’ve been very lucky to work with so many terrific directors – that you can really have a sense of how certain scenes have been organized and how they have been achieved. Sort of from inside the experience of it, which allowed me in some ways to think about certain things we were trying to do, especially in the kind of larger sequences which might have been quite intimidating in terms of a first film had it not been for the fact that I had experienced those kinds of dynamics before with large amounts of background artists and big sequences and so on. I was able to draw on a knowledge that I never consciously thought about, if you know what I mean. And just sort of know how long things would take, to know within some specific direction how I would organize that kind of sequence of scenes. Playing in that kind of way was very helpful for my own sense of confidence, essentially. To really tackle those bigger moments.
KP: Was there a moment or a day where you really felt the weight of, “Wow, this entire production falls on me?”
CE: Every day!
KP: What was the first time that happened?
CE: That’s the thing. The first day you wake up and and it’s that sense that it’s today, not tomorrow. That do or die feeling where it’s the morning of the Olympic finals and you think, “All right, how do I feel? Do I feel fine or do I feel panicked? Where I am sitting? Where is my head sitting?” And that kind of sense of excitement, but a kind of calm as well is really nice to wake up and feel activated.
But I think a lot of that was to do with having a very strong and committed preparation period so that with all the heads of department, very experienced heads of department, with Tulé Peake as the Production Designer and Dick Pope as the cinematographer and Valerio Bonelli as the editor are all obviously there and we’re able to go through everything in exhaustive detail. Especially with Dick Pope, I would be sometimes in character or sometimes playing a scene and we wanted to have everything thought through, shot listed and worked out beforehand so that we could actually be quite fluid on the day and on the floor. But all that kind of style of preparation just meant that when we came to it, I had a sense of being quite prepared to shoot the film.
KP: What is something you learned from this journey?
CE: The learning curve is so steep. There are so many things… Something I guess a lot of people say and they talk about is, we had a fantastic casting director in Alexa Fogel. Getting that team together, getting that cast together, getting these very strong performances together, but then wanting to really let go of that minute preparation and allow people to play the scenes and allow actors to have the freedom to interpret the moments in the scenes to their fullness and to their own extraordinary capacity and really providing an environment where people feel able to do that and comfortable to do that. That was something that I really wanted to encourage and it’s something that I really like in directors that allow me to do that when I’m acting. So I think that is something that I was very grateful for was an idea that I had and I’ve always responded to and was able to implement as much as I could into the working environment.
KP: “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” explores a lot of themes: faith, perseverance, family. What is something you hope audiences will take from watching it?
CE: I think it’s all of those things. It’s all that kind of structural reality, the way that people live all over the world. Here, there, the west, our structured realities are exactly the same in many ways. We’re under less pressure than these communities, but the dynamics are often the same. In that space, what William Kamkwamba did that I think is so hopeful and so optimistic is to find that way of living in the solution and being very focused on that and having the kind of confidence and the optimism to really sit in the solution. To really work from that point and that sort of tenacity and courage. That’s really what inspired me about his story when I read the book ten years ago, and what compelled me to go on this journey with him.
KP: There’s been a lot of talk lately about Netflix as a disruptor in the industry. Now that you’re a director who has worked with Netflix, how has the experience been?
CE: It’s been an extraordinary opportunity. This film that I made I feel is very much a global film and it sits within a kind of storytelling tradition which previously would have had a very complicated way out into the world, if you like. When I started writing the film and I was in the early process of making the film, Netflix didn’t exist in this form. So that’s been an exciting addition. Finding the balance for people who want to see films in the theater and films of this nature in the theater in that kind of limited scale. But also having that opportunity to reach people on a global audience is extraordinarily exciting for this project.