By Scott Foundas
On a late March morning, the sun sits high in the Cape Town sky, illuminating the trapezoidal monolith of Table Mountain in the distance, while down by the city’s busy waterfront, the players of South Africa’s national rugby union team — the Springboks — go for a training run. Only the careful observer might notice that, on this particular morning, the team’s signature green-and-gold uniforms aren’t of the most recent design, and none of the cars passing by on the waterfront thoroughfare bears a model year newer than 1995. Upon closer inspection, he might also notice a familiar if incongruous figure standing off to one side, tall and slender in a golf shirt and chinos, watching the scene transpire on a small, handheld video monitor. After a moment, the figure looks up and almost imperceptibly signals his approval, not with the traditional “Cut! Print!” but rather a small nod of his head and a whispered “that was good. Let’s move on.”
It’s the 24th day of filming on Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, the 30th film he has directed in a career that now spans more than a half-century — and, as usual on an Eastwood set, if you didn’t know they were shooting a major Hollywood movie here, you’d be none the wiser. No trailers and equipment trucks line the streets — they’re parked at a “base camp” a few miles away — and by the time a small crowd of onlookers begins to form, Eastwood has gotten what he needs and is on his way to the next location. Of his storied speed and efficiency — the discipline of a veteran actor who knows that long stretches of waiting around can wear out a performer — Eastwood says it’s simply a matter of trusting his instincts. “If you have five answers to choose from on a multiple-choice test, usually your first choice is the right answer,” he tells me during a break between shots. Later in the day, Matt Damon, who sports a prosthetic nose, heavily muscled-up physique and a spot-on Afrikaner accent to play the Springboks’ captain, François Pienaar, says that working with Eastwood is “the top of the mountain for every department.” Then he jokes that he’s having such a good time he feels guilty about cashing his paychecks.
“I’ll be waiting for my kickback,” Eastwood grumbles good-naturedly from his director’s chair.
The pace at which Eastwood moves through a movie is the same one with which he greets life itself, as if mindful of the old adage that an idle mind is the devil’s playground. In January of this year, on the eve of his 79th birthday and less than two months before starting the Invictus shoot, he was busy promoting Gran Torino, which became the highest-grossing film of his career as actor or director. When I showed up in South Africa this spring, Eastwood was several days ahead of the planned Invictus shooting schedule. Before postproduction on Invictus wrapped earlier this fall, he was already shooting a new film on location in Paris and London. Keeping up with Clint Eastwood, I discover, can be an exhausting task for all but Eastwood himself.
Based on journalist John Carlin’s superb nonfiction book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, Eastwood’s film returns us to a moment in South Africa’s recent past, when the country was taking its first steps as a free nation after 46 years of segregationist apartheid rule. It was a moment, symbolized by the 1994 election of Mandela (who is played in Invictus by Morgan Freeman) as the country’s first freely elected president, celebrated the world over. At home, however, there was much work to be done. As Carlin explains in his dense and deeply reported account, Mandela’s election was the culmination of a decadelong series of secret negotiations between the future president, the reigning National Party government of F.W. de Klerk, and the leaders of the pro-black African National Congress, designed to bring an end to apartheid while forestalling the civil war that threatened to erupt between extremist groups on both ends of the political spectrum. Still, as Mandela took office, there were those members of the former ruling class who suspected him of being a “terrorist” who wanted to “drive the white man into the sea.” Similarly, certain Mandela supporters wished he would do exactly that.
“Don’t address their brains, address their hearts” had long been Mandela’s personal credo when it came to dealing with his jailers and political opponents. While incarcerated at Pollsmoor Prison in the 1980s, Mandela had boned up on the predominately Afrikaner pastime of rugby in order to work his patented charm offensive on one of the prison’s senior officers — a strategy that resulted in Mandela getting a much-desired hot plate for his cell. Now, in a display of the uncanny prescience and insight into human nature that defined his political career, Mandela would again turn to the secular religion of sports as a way of unifying his nascent “Rainbow Nation.” With the Rugby World Cup scheduled to be hosted by South Africa in little more than a year’s time, he became convinced that the Springboks — who had been banned from international tournament play during the apartheid era — could win the World Cup and, with it, the hearts and minds of the country. The result was an intersection of athletics and politics as dramatic as Jesse Owens’ performance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, or the U.S. hockey team’s defeat of the U.S.S.R. in 1980’s so-called “Miracle on Ice.”
“He just had some instinct — almost like somebody touched him on the shoulder and said, ‘This will work,’ ” says Eastwood with the awe that seems to creep into people’s voices whenever Mandela is mentioned. “How the hell he figured that, I don’t know.”
Seen from the Cape Town shore, Robben Island might be mistaken for a nature preserve (indeed, it is home to several thousand indigenous penguins, rabbits and feral cats) or a rustic tourist retreat. As you draw near, however, there is something forbidding about the former leper colony and the jagged limestone rocks that form a natural barricade around it.
The day after my initial visit to the Invictus set, the tourist ferry transporting Eastwood and the crew from the mainland is painted with brightly colored human figures raising their hands in gestures of freedom, but the two dozen extras seated nearby, costumed in Robben Island’s apartheid-era prison khakis, offer a vivid reminder of the enemies of the state who made this very journey in the hold of the ship, blacked-out portholes obscuring their view. Decommissioned now and preserved as a historical museum staffed mostly by former inmates, a small primary school offering the only evidence of the dwindling local population, Robben Island exudes the haunted air of a Civil War battlefield or a Nazi concentration camp — a monument to inhumanity. It is here, in one of the long, barrackslike buildings dotting the arid landscape, that prisoner number 46664, a.k.a. Nelson Mandela, spent two-thirds of his 27-year incarceration.
The first of the day’s scenes to be shot dramatizes an actual visit to the prison made by the Springboks in May 1995, the day after they had vanquished defending champions Australia in the first match of the World Cup. As the actors file in — most, except for Damon and Eastwood’s 23-year-old son, Scott (who is playing the fly half Joel Stransky), actual rugby players cast locally — no acting is needed to express their astonishment at what they see. The spartan cells where Mandela and his fellow prisoners were held measure about 50 square feet — barely large enough for a man of Mandela’s size (more than 6 feet tall) to extend fully his arms. Mandela’s cell, which has been kept in its original condition, contains only a small table, some metallic bowls, a bucket toilet and a folded blanket. (Beds were not introduced until 1974, a decade into his stay.)
Outside in the prison yard, Eastwood, his cinematographer Tom Stern (an Oscar nominee for his work on 2007’s Changeling) and visual effects supervisor Michael Owens stand in a semicircle discussing several approaches to filming a scene in which Pienaar sees a transparent, ghostly image of Mandela, sitting alone in his cell, reading the William Ernest Henley poem that will eventually give the movie (at this point known only as Untitled Mandela Project) its title. Meanwhile, the production designer James J. Murakami (also a Changeling Oscar nominee) is dressing the prison yard in sand and limestone for a flashback scene in which Mandela and other prisoners sit chiseling the large rocks into smaller ones — the bane of many a Robben Islander’s existence. Helping to set the scene is Derrick Grootboom, an ANC activist and former Robben Island inmate who was arrested in 1986 on charges of sabotage, after lobbing a petrol bomb through the window of a government eviction office in the town of Dysselsdorp. Sentenced to seven years, he remained on Robben Island until the last political prisoners were freed, in 1991.
“There are always good people amongst us,” the cheerful Grootboom tells me as we sit on one of the large limestone slabs, recalling one birthday he celebrated behind bars. Although he received no gifts, one of the guards sang him a song, “Jesus Is Love” by the Commodores. “He lifted me up,” Grootboom says, staring off into the distance. Now 42 and recently elected as a judge to the Cape High Court, Grootboom was working as a private prosecutor when the Springboks played their 1995 World Cup Final against New Zealand’s undefeated All Blacks and remembers watching the game on television together with his colleagues. “We weren’t White, Black, Indian and Coloured,” he says, rattling off apartheid’s four racial designations. “We were just South Africans.” Then came the iconic moment, depicted in Eastwood’s film, when Mandela stepped onto the field to greet both teams, wearing a Springbok cap and a replica of Pienaar’s No. 6 jersey. “When he went onto the field, wearing that jersey,” Grootboom recalls, “he was the epicenter of where the country was going.” At that point, it could be argued, the Springboks had won something much more valuable than a gilded trophy.
As morning gives way to afternoon, Freeman arrives on set already in costume, his resemblance to Mandela striking. It was, after all, the president himself who, when asked at a press conference whom he thought should play him in a movie, suggested Freeman. Shooting begins, with Freeman and the extras dutifully chiseling away. When Eastwood asks for a second take, Freeman feigns indignation. “Have you ever broken stones?” he asks his director. “This is the last time I work for Eastwood!”