'The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind' Director Chiwetel Ejiofor On Bringing His Debut To Netflix [Interview]

In a time when science is considered opinion and a political game piece, it's heartwarming to find a film that celebrates ingenuity inspired by a love of science and learning. Marking the directorial debut from actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, Children of Men, Doctor Strange), The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is the true life story of 13-year-old William Kamkwamba (newcomer Maxwell Simba), who lives with his family in the African nation of Malawi. He's a good student in his village's private school, but when land issues and no rain lead to a poor harvest and eventually famine, William is forced to drop out of school because his family can no longer afford to send him.

After doing the necessary research using book "borrowed" from the school library, William approaches his father (played by the director, who also adapted Kamkwamba's book) with the idea of building the windmill in order to power and irrigation system that the village could use to kick start growing again. His father is initially resistant, but after watching many villagers starving to death (with many others opting to leave or selling their land to the corrupt government), he agrees to let the boy try his experiment with the help of many of the locals.

With its honest portrayal of human suffering, the film is often difficult to watch, but that makes its high points pay off all the more and turns the movie into one of the most inspirational tales I've seen years. More than anything, Ejiofor's hand as a director is so assured and his ability to capture the depths of human emotion is so stirring that I can't wait to see what he brings to the screen next as a filmmaker, as well as an actor (including voicing the villainous Scar in director Jon Favreau's upcoming remake of The Lion King). Just before the Sundance premiere of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, it was announced the Ejifor would write and director an adaptation of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace., based on the tragic nonfiction book by Jeff Hobbs.

/Film spoke to Ejiofor recently to discuss the epic importance of this story of science saving the day, his search to find just the right actor to play William, and his need to find a personal connection to everything he writes and directs in the future. The film is now playing in select markets and is available to stream on Netflix.

Obviously when you read this story, it's a great story. But at what point did you see it as a great cinematic experience? Or was it immediately?

Chiwetel: I think of was during the process of reading the book. There was a moment in the book where he's sneaking into school, and I started to think of what my relationship to school was at that age and whether it was conceivable that I would be sneaking into school and realizing it wasn't conceivable. It was so interesting just relaying that kind of experience to a different audience and get underneath those different decisions and different worlds and points of view. That started to feel very dramatic to me. And then there was the environment of it all was so richly and deeply cinematic, and those combinations started to feel like a strong cinematic experience.

We live in a world where science in considered opinion and it's under attack constantly. It's nice to see a film that puts it in the hands of young people and it's being celebrated. How important was that to you?

Chiwetel: Yeah, that was hugely important—the ideas of education, science and technology. And here's William Kamkwamba at 13 deciding that he's going to live in the solution to his problems, to identify problems accurately and live in the solution. It's such an empowering choice for a young boy in Malawi, but it's also an empowering choice for everybody and everywhere, to look at the problems we face—some of the same problems in terms of the environment—and actually making positive, solution-based choices. We should all be living more like William.

If I'm not mistaken, a lot of what we're seeing in the film was shot in the places where they happened. Why was it important to you to shoot on location?

Chiwetel: After I finished the first draft, I then flew out to Malawi for the first time to meet people—to meet William especially—and to meet his family and the community. And as we were doing that, as he was taking me around all of these places where the events happened, I thought "This would be great to shoot it here, not just in Malawi but actually in the specific locations where things happened. It added an extra layer of a kind of authentic dynamic to the film. I really wanted people to experience this place the way that I was experiencing it—a rich, cultural, detailed place to be. To try and get that sense of it, that authenticity across would be a wonderful teleportation experience for an audience.

Speaking of being authentic, the design of the windmill itself, which was originally made of scraps of whatever William could find around his village, is that what it really looked like? It looks so thrown together but fully functional.

Chiwetel: We built that very much on the basis of William's original windmill. It was a truly sobering moment too, because there were a lot of us—at some point a whole design team—trying to figure it out and have carpenters get a sense of the whole thing. We're wrestling with this and trying to the windmill constructed and working, and there's that moment when you realize a 13-year-old boy with one textbook that he found did this the first time. It really clarified what an achievement that was and the nature of that kind of determination, endurance and optimism. It was really powerful. Even getting the construction up was so complex.

When you make a film like this, you have to change and condense things. In the writing, were you hesitant to change too much about this truly unbelievable story? How much did you hold the truth sacred?

Chiwetel: Holding the key elements of the story is always essential, but I thought it was very important to condense events and streamline the thematic beats of the events. That was always going to be crucial, to draw out of the memoir these thematic strands and construct them in a way that they land. So you have those family dynamics—the father and son relationship, the mother/daughter—and then you build around that the community and the geopolitical and environmental worlds. Making that clear was an important part of the condensing and narrowing and pulling and pushing with the memoir.

Usually a first-time filmmaker will want to make the process as easy on themselves as possible, but the second you cast yourself in the film, it seems you've gone against that grain. Was there ever the consideration of you not being the film?

Chiwetel: Initially when I was writing it, I wasn't thinking of putting myself in it. I actually thought I was too young to play the father at that stage, but of course that was 10 years ago, and I had that opinion that I wasn't in that space in my life to understand that centered generational change that he was going through. I was interested in exploring it in the writing, but I was in my early 30s and I didn't think I was quite there yet. But I didn't know it was going to take quite as long to make the film, so every year I moved closer and closer to the sweet spot. Then at a certain point, I realized I was the right age and experience group to start to think about things in this way. That was a process that just took a little bit of time. Once I made that decision, I didn't want to bring in an actor who would be aware that I had written it for a certain age and then gotten there myself while still directing them; it felt like that would be a weird thing to do to another actor. It seemed to be clear at that point that I would take that on as well.

Did you have someone on set that you turned to at times to judge whether you performance was what it needed to be, or are you just that good that you didn't need that?

Chiwetel: [laughs] I considered doing that, but I thought that that might be even more confusing, because all of the other decisions I would be making concerning performance, and then when it came to mine, somebody else would be making them. It seemed like it would split the focus in a weird way. What I really relied on was what the temperature of the scene was, what the scene felt like from inside of it, as opposed to what it looked like from outside. I obviously looked at playback, but it was a judgement call in terms of how things felt in the scene, and if the scene felt like it was working and if everybody else felt like it was working, then I was confident about it. That was how I found my way into doing it, by gauging it from the inside.

the boy who harnessed the wind trailer

Tell me about showing the film to William for the first time. What was his reaction? What was going through your head while he was watching it?

Chiwetel: It was before Sundance. I showed it to him in New York beforehand. I was very nervous and excited to show him the film. And his reaction was interesting. He loved the film, but it also takes him back to these very complicated moments.

He went through an actual trauma in those months.

Chiwetel: Yeah, and he's reminded of those times, and he didn't know how things were going to work out [at the time], and he's taken back to that time of uncertainty and that desperation to build this windmill and the reasons why he built it. So reliving that is obviously complex for him, but then also he celebrates all of it—what was achieved and the optimism and hopefulness. So it's a kind of mixture for him, and it was wonderful to gauge that and be with him and get his reaction in that very honest way.

I'm curious about the search for your William and finding Maxwell, who is first-time actor. How extensive was the search, and why was Maxwell the right young man for the job?

Chiwetel: Loads of young people. Alexa Fogel, the casting director, had contacts on the continent, as well as Europe and the states, so we were going into schools in Malawi and South Africa and Kenya, trying to find someone who captured the quality—a young person's vulnerability but a certain strength and determination—all of the elements that make up William. Maxwell rose out of that process in a really extraordinary way. The first time I saw him, I couldn't quite believe he was doing what he was doing. He had that capacity to play those deep emotions but with a minimalism. It takes a lot of confidence to to that; it took me years to figure out how to have that kind of emotional intelligence to play scenes in a minimal way but knowing that you can convey very rich emotions through that. He had that understanding of what the camera could convey. So I went to workshop with in Nairobi and through his second and third auditions, and play scenes, improvise and see if there were any limits to that, but there weren't. He is a gifted and intelligent young man, who reminded me very much of the real William. It became clear that he was our guy.

I love that both with Maxwell and the real William at that age, you compare them to you and realize you weren't like that.

Chiwetel: That is exactly true [laughs].

The shorts you made and this film, you wrote. I'm wondering if, down the road, you'd ever consider directing a film that you didn't self-generate. Could you be as passionate about something that you weren't a part of from the ground up?

Chiwetel: I'm not sure. I'm open to that, definitely. There's something about this film and the [short films], because they're so specific to me in their own way, they capture my imagination, so I feel like that I could generate the energy necessary to start the process. And because they match my sensibilities very closely, that feels very exciting, and I can take that energy into all aspects of production.

Do you have that kind of connection as well with the next film you've already started writing?

Chiwetel: One hundred percent. I think that's a necessary part of the process for me.

Will you find a role for yourself in that one as well?

Chiwetel: Who knows? [laughs]