Chiwetel Ejiofor proved he was up for the challenge when he chose to write, direct and star in “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.”
Based on a 2009 bestseller, the film tells the true story of William Kamkwamba, a clever 14-year-old from Malawi who masterminds a scheme to create a windmill and generator from scrap metal and save his town from poverty and drought. Opening in select theaters and streaming on Netflix on March 1, it marks several firsts, both for Ejiofor (who plays William’s father, and makes his feature screenwriting and directorial debut) and Maxwell Simba, who stars in the title role (an expressive Kenyan newcomer who has never acted in a film before).
A London native, Ejiofor, 41, is best known for “12 Years a Slave” (which earned him an Academy Award nomination). He’ll soon be heard voicing Scar in the upcoming remake of “The Lion King,” and is adapting and directing the Newark-set drama “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace.” He spoke to Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio by phone from London.
So this may not be the most obvious comparison but in some ways your film reminded me of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
In “Fiddler,” you don’t have to know the specific Jewish traditions, or the Russian history, just like you don’t need to know about Malawi’s droughts or political unrest. You pick up on that, but ultimately each is a story of family — the push and pull of parents and children. We can all relate to that.
That was definitely the concept — anchoring the film within this family, like in “Cinema Paradiso.” You hook into the relationships, then you start to absorb the cultural and political life going on outside.
After you read the book, you thought, “This would make a great movie.” So what gets you to the next thought? “And I should make that movie.”
The book spoke to me on so many levels. I didn’t know if I could just (enjoy) that … and then have somebody else do it.
So you started working on it, and in 2011 went to Malawi and met the real William and his family. What was that like?
Amazing. I’d been living with this book for a while. So suddenly being in Malawi, introduced to the family by William. And seeing his property. You’re coming along in this very rural area, and you suddenly see from a distance — the windmill. It’s a very emotional moment. It was one of the things that made me determined to shoot there. We shot in his cousin’s house, next door to William’s house, because William’s childhood home has (been renovated), so it doesn’t look like it did back then.
Your young star had never acted before.
Yeah. It still shocks me.
Were you apprehensive about that?
The casting of William IS the film. It’s such a crucial thing to get right. But from his first audition tape I could see he was doing something (special). But I couldn’t work out whether that was accidental. I couldn’t figure out … how he knew to do what he was doing. He had a pretty sophisticated way of approaching text that I don’t think I learned till I was well into my acting life. So I flew to Nairobi to meet him and do workshops with him, and I realized, yes, Maxwell is not only smart, but has these depths of emotional intelligence. Which was absolutely wonderful — realizing I’d found somebody who could really carry the central part of the film.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Long Island, but there’s a large boating population here. I understand you have a boat.
Yes. I just love the water and being on the water. The peace of that is amazing.
There’s something about it that draws you in — and makes you put up with all the hassles of maintaining a boat.
Exactly, yeah. (He laughs.) I didn’t grow up with boats. I was in Vancouver several years ago … and there was sailing everywhere, and I immediately realized this was the thing I’d wanted to do for ages. So I started taking out those little laser dinghies, and that moment — if the wind catches the sail, and you’re hiked out to the full extent, and your head is basically on the crest of the water and you’re flying out, it’s at that moment that you either love it …. (He chuckles.) Or you can’t wait to get back on land. I just loved it. I began racing boats in L.A. and sailing wherever I could. Then I bought a Dutch barge so I could be on the water here in London, on the Thames. So it’s been a great passion of mine.