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Exclusive: Chiwetel Ejiofor On Writing, Directing The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind

The film is currently playing on Netflix

Currently playing on Netflix is Chiwetel Ejiofor‘s directorial debut, The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind, which he adapted from the bestselling book by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer.

The cast included Maxwell Simba, Academy Award Nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Aïssa Maïga (Anything for Alice), Lily Banda, Lemogang Tsipa (Eye in the Sky), Philbert Falakeza, with Joseph Marcell (“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”) and Noma Dumezweni (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child).

The film highlights the power of education and individual determination to change the trajectory of a life, a village and a nation. By telling the story of one boy’s efforts to overcome the barriers he faces to education, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind inspires audiences to imagine a future where every child, in every village, has access to knowledge and to opportunities to put that knowledge to work.

Adapted from the bestselling book by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind follows 13-year-old William Kamkwamba (newcomer Maxwell Simba) who is thrown out of the school he loves when his family can no longer afford the fees. Sneaking back into the school library, he finds a way, using the bones of the bicycle belonging to his father Trywell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), to build a windmill which then saves his Malawian village from famine. The emotional journey of a father and his exceptional son at its heart, William’s tale captures the incredible determination of a boy whose inquisitive mind overcame every obstacle in his path.

Best known for his Oscar nominated role as Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen’s Oscar Winning Best Picture 12 Years a Slave, Ejiofor has since starred in Half of a Yellow Sun, Z for Zachariah, The Martian, Triple 9 and played Mordo in Marvel’s Doctor Strange.

In speaking exclusively with, Ejiofor talks about helming his first feature film.

When did you know this is the story you wanted to write and direct?

Chiwetel Ejiofor: There was a point in reading the book when Williams starts sneaking into school and I remember thinking as I was reading it, about ten years ago, about how I was like when I was 13 years old and whether it was conceivable for me to sneak into school. Trying to sneak past teachers to get into another math class. I realized that there was no conceivable way that it would be my relationship to school. That sense of difference from this young boy’s life and my life was quite profound. And profound in that detail. A young boy sneaking into school. That just held in my mind. When a young boy so wants to learn and is so pressurized and learning is so difficult, and getting into a space where he can fulfill his potential is so hard, that he is trying to find any way where he can access to education. That’s the moment when I was determined to tell William Kamkwamba’s story. 

How long did it take you to adapt the story?

Chiwetel Ejiofor: From the moment I read the book, I started writing and adapting right then and I was doing little changes when we were shooting, so it took the whole eight years to complete it. The first draft was relatively quick, just a few months and I ready to start bringing in producers and start the process. Obviously, I was working as an actor and I would step away from it. I would travel to Malawi. I wanted to meet William Kamkwamba and meet his family and start to get a real sense of the place for myself; and then come back and get back to writing. Then the BBC came onboard and BFI (British Film Institute) and then Participant Media in the US, and ultimately Netflix.

Was it always set for you to be in the film as well or was that the producer’s choice in order to help sell the film?

Chiwetel Ejiofor: There was always that sort of conversation in the air. I don’t know how quickly it was explicitly stated. There was definitely that sense of, “Do you want to be in the film?” My initial feeling was that I was too young to play his father. He has two teenage kids and his daughter Annie has already finished school and I had just turned 31. But it wasn’t just about my age number, but it was about not having that life experience yet. Over the years of writing, I started to understand the character more and as I was turning 36 and 37, I was feeling more into the spot where I could approach the character. 

Were you shadowing anyone before you got the taste to direct?

Chiwetel Ejiofor: I wasn’t shadowing anyone consciously. There wasn’t a vocational training while I was working as an actor, but there are certain things that are directorial choices that you make as an actor. To make a character feel authentic to you, you might work on a script for a while with the director or screenwriter. To make a scene work, you might play with blocking. You might play with how to come into position organically to reflect the character dynamics in a better way. Those are directorial choices, editorial choices and script choices. Over the course of 20 years of doing films, I’ve done that numerous times. 

Can you talk about working with Maxwell Simba?

Chiwetel Ejiofor: On his first audition tape, I was blown away by him and his ability to do minimum, his ability to communicate a lot during a small amount; which might seem straight forward but it’s really not. It takes a lot of confidence as an actor to do that. You’re communicating a depth of emotion without pushing, without putting too much on there. To allow it to be behind the eyes. Took me a long time to engage in that and I was much older than he was and I was doing this for quite a while. I knew that he has the gift and capacity to do it. It was just a matter of rehearsing with him, and talking and realizing that he also is somebody good at responding really well to direction. He had his own sort of confidence. Very quickly, I felt he was someone special to work with and felt glad that he was carrying the weight of the film.

Will you continue to direct?

Chiwetel Ejiofor: I definitely want to do more, but it’s a question of trying to find the things that really inspire you and you really connect with. This film was the most artistically, fulfilling experience in its totality in my life, so that’s a great starting point to have as your first film. I was able to commit to it for the best part of ten years because I was so moved and engaged by this story. I’m quite spoiled in that way. I don’t want to take long for my next film, but I want to feel the same passion as I had for this film. 

Since you got the Best Actor Oscar nomination, does that change the sort of roles you take?

Chiwetel Ejiofor: I think you want to grow and expand your work in different avenues and different areas. That’s part of the excitement. I was definitely aware during and after 12 Years a Slave that I could go back to writing and directing with a new confidence that people will want to get behind. I could explore other avenues and see where it takes you and what different spaces you can access.

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