South African-born writer Anthony Peckham tackles history with his adaptation of Invictus, the story of Nelson Mandela’s attempt to unify South Africa by winning the Rugby World Cup.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
(December 11, 2009)
As much as he is now in the thick of Hollywood, penning the script for the new historical biopic Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman, Anthony Peckham’s strength seems to come from being just outside, where he can keenly observe.
The South African-born writer grew up witnessing much of the history upon which the film centers. Based on journalist John Carlin’s book and directed by Clint Eastwood, Playing the Enemy, it tackles how Nelson Mandela, freed after nearly three decades in prison and in his first term as the first truly democratic, post-apartheid leader of South Africa, tries to rally his nation through a bid for the World Cup in rugby.
Stop reading if you don’t like spoilers: South Africa actually wins the cup in the end. It’s the kind of stuff you can’t make up and, according to Peckham, is the kind of stuff that, because if it’s very realness and historical gravity, a writer has to approach with a unique combination of restrained respect and unabashed love for its emotional power. It’s something he’s uniquely equipped for having triple-majored in political science, English literature, and classical history as an undergrad in South Africa.
“History has by far been the most useful [of the three] for screenwriting,” he explains, “because it’s all stories.”
From his home on the central California coast, the engagingly smart and authentic Peckham spoke to the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the task of turning such recent, stirring world history into a screenplay.
This story could be approached as historical drama, biopic, or sports movie just to start off. How did you see it?
I saw it as all those things. I come from a thriller background [Don’t Say a Word, Sherlock Holmes] and even though I’ve matured into drama a little bit, I like drama where there’s plenty of movement and action. I knew right away that I had something that would allow me to get movement and action on-screen, but also allow me to explore a historical figure and one of my heroes. So it was a great vehicle for both.
And with your interest in history this must have scratched an itch.
Photo: © 2009 Warner Bros. Pictures
Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon in Invictus.
Yes it did. And in general I’ve found that reality is much more creative and wild than anything I can think of myself. So I love working from history.
The book upon which this is based, Playing for the Enemy, is nearly 300 pages long, written by an accomplished journalist. Were you working from the finished book or the proposal?
A little of both. I went from the proposal first. From the screenwriter’s perspective, a proposal is a very useful document. But I also spent time in Spain with John Carlin. I got a lot of his notes, articles he’d written and background materials. I didn’t get the finished book, but I got the work in progress, if you like. I did an adaptation of the entire body – from proposal to book.
Do you think getting the book at a somewhat inchoate stage made for a better adaptation?
In this case the story itself was what it was. It gave both John and I our structure. It has a climax, it has a beginning. It may sound simple in retrospect, but it took me forever to figure out where to start the story. I always knew where it was going to finish – with the World Cup final win.
But in this case because the story and history itself isn’t chaotic and is a very clear chronology, I didn’t need that freedom. Once I discovered how much incredible real material there was, I didn’t need to make anything up really.
So, in a way, was it a matter of managing the enormity of stuff available?
Yeah, but managing makes it sound mechanical and it wasn’t. It was more realizing that out of respect for the history and because there was so much rich material, I didn’t have to go off and invent much. Obviously I did, but less than you’d think.
How much did you have to leave by the wayside?
Was that the hardest aspect of having such rich material?
Yes. And already the shooting script was 142-pages long. It’s long. So I had to be pretty rigorous with all the material. If something was cool, but didn’t advance the story, no matter how cool it was, it didn’t get in.
How much did you have to enlarge the character of Francois Pienaar from the book for Matt Damon to counter Mandela’s character?
It was enlarged some. I had no idea Matt Damon was going to play it. I was writing it as sort of a breakthrough role for a South African, which is why I’m a writer and not a producer. But, you know, I’ve folded stuff from other characters into him. Some of the things he does in the script, other people did and I gave them to him.
So he’s an amalgamation in a way?
In a way. I’ve stayed pretty true to the way he was, I’ve just given him some actions he didn’t do. So, for instance, I didn’t really focus on the coaches and management of the team at all. I made him the composite of all of them, in that respect.
Which is a really useful tool.
Yeah, because… It’s interesting; not only was I dealing with real characters, I was dealing with characters I’d grown up reading about in the paper every day. They had meaning to me. So it’s never a light decision to say that, even though character A did this, it’s all going to Francois. But you have to do it for dramatic reasons. You can’t disperse all of your good dramatic moves amongst lots and lots of characters. That tends to water down the effect of what they do.
With a real story like this, so charged with history, it seems like one of the potential perils of the screenplay would be over dramatizing such significant true events?
How did you grapple with that?
That was one of the things that we knew was an issue from day one. I worked very hard to not make Nelson Mandela into a saint, which would have been very easy to do and almost legitimate, at that time. I had to work hard to humanize him and to make sure that we knew this was a political calculation for him, this isn’t just a feel-good thing. A lot of his actions are very calculated, if for very good reasons. We were very careful with that.
And you feel good about the final balance between veracity and the inherent triumph and drama of it?
Yeah, I do. I’ll tell you what. When I read the book proposal, which is an awkward document, it brought me to tears. So if a book proposal can bring you to tears, I wanted to make sure what I wrote would bring you to tears. It’s unapologetically emotional. But I hope it’s not saccharine. I do feel good about showing an extraordinary man at an extraordinary moment. This is not an everyman movie. It’s a story about leadership.