Justin Chadwick–Going back to First Grade


by Gary Murray


With his long dark flowing locks and English accent, Justin Chadwick does not come across as a major film director.  His interest before doing our interview was in going to a Western-ware store and buying a pair of traditional cowboy boots.  He wanted proof of his visit to the Lone Star State.


He was in town for the premiere of The First Grader, one of the big films for the USAA Film Festival.  Best known for making The Other Boleyn Girl, Justin’s newest film is almost a polar opposite of his usual work.  “It is the best thing I have done professionally,” he said.


Set in Kenya, the true story is of Maruge (Oliver Litondo) an old man with a desire to learn.  When the government announces a free education program, the Mau Mau fighter decides to go the overcrowded school to learn to read and write.   At first the principal Jane (Naomie Harris) does not want the senior citizen to take up valuable classroom space on the illiterate old man.  But Maruge keeps coming back, trying to win a place not only in the school but with the children.  It is his tenacity to learn to read and write mixed with the politics of Kenya and the flashbacks with the Mau Mau rebels that propel the story of The First Grader. 


The story is based on a Los Angeles Times story written by Robyn Dixon.  Screenwriter Ann Peacock turned the idea into the original screenplay and Justin Chadwick shaped it into the final product.  He traveled to Kenya to survey the land and meet with the real Kimani N’gang’ga Maruge, finding out details of his life.


After meeting with Maruge, he decided that he had to make The First Grader in Kenya, a place not known for having film productions.  “I have got to stay here,” said Chadwick.   “I was determined to film in Kenya and half the budget went.  We had very little resources but that helped the honesty of the film.”  In preparing for making The First Grader, he lived in Kenya for a year. 


The process of crafting the ending screenplay was involved.  He said that Jane had written the first draft.  “I had started hearing these other stories and other research,” explained Justin.  “You needed to hear people and talk to the communities.  Her script was the starting point and I kind of kept on developing it.  I knew we had to make an independent film.  I knew that this film had to stand up as a piece of cinema but it had to be emotionally engaging and humorous for an audience.” 


They used a term for the film they didn’t want to make.  That term was ‘spinach’.   “An African film that everyone knew was good for them and they should see, but they didn’t actually like–so burdened with issues and problems.  We were very keen not to make a film like that.  Audiences could sit together and go on an emotional journey.  Ann was brilliant because she was a great collaborator.  She gave me the freedom to make those changes.”




Though there had been films made in Kenya such as Tomb Raider, everything was shipped in from around the world.  “I wanted to use Kenyans in the film, use an African crew.”   About eight members of the crew were out of country, the rest were from Africa.  “The intimacy of working (with a local crew) gave true stories to emerge.  We lived in the plains, right near the school.”


Working with locals presented their own challenges.  “The kids cast had never seen a TV, had never seen a movie,” explained Justin.  “I had to be on my toes in the way I caught the performances of these children.   In the end, we had the children and their families.  It was fantastic that we had that trust from that community.  The elders gave us the freedom to work with the community.”


Instead of using different locations, Justin chose to use a single working school.   “I chose one school and everybody who wanted to would be involved.”  He actually taught the children between takes and as he taught, he observed the children.  “They are shy children but incredibly bright.   I knew with children it was going to be important (to push education).  I knew I was going to be an oddity at this school.  I knew I had to observe the children and not force any characters on the children that were not necessarily there.”


“I went in on my own, sat and observed how they were in the playground and how they were taught.  I had to create these amazing lesson plans because these children had never seen a movie camera or a stills camera.  We had to keep them engaged so they wouldn’t look in the glass film camera.  I had to create lesson plans.  These kids were thirsty for education.  These children had this desire to learn.  They would walk two hours to start their lessons.  They are bright, bright children who were amazing humbling.”


The children were easy to cast but finding Maruge was difficult.  Justin looked all over Africa, Europe and America to find the right person to play the Mau Mau warrior.  Almost right before shooting, one of the crew remembered that there is this guy in the 1970’s who was a newsman and an anchor.  The production contacted him for an audition and he took a bus. Six hours later, Oliver Litondo was on set.  “The minute I met him I knew this was the guy,” said Justin.  “He had the warmth, the humanity about him.  We had found our Oliver.” 


For the teacher Jane, Justin Chadwick had a different challenge.   “I had written an older character in her 50’s.  I saw that a lot of these schools had young female teachers whose modern dilemma was their profession against their family.   I think we should make the teacher younger as to inspire to be a teacher.  Naomi was the first person I thought for the role.”


Justin Chadwick had many praises for his cast.  “As a director I have worked a lot with children and I love working with actors, I know that performance is everything. You are trying to capture truth.  I tried to create an environment where the children felt they could react.  It was about capturing the truth of the performances.”


He learned very early on in his career that “acting goes on we just don’t want to see it.”  He said that he has always tried to get the truth in the performances.  He said that his job as a director is to create and environment where it is conducive to find the natural truth of the moments you are trying to capture.


“We take our education in the West for granted because we are so lucky to have that gift.  When free education was announced, Maruge taking a place was a complex thing. We should have a right to learn but an old man taking the place of a child, that escalates a problem for both.” 


He said that the flashback torture scenes were some of the most difficult to shoot.  Some of those actors were not acting but were actually there when it happened.  “I wanted to be truthful” said Chadwick, “but at the heart of the film, it was a man who lost his wife and children.” 


He was passionate about both film and the filmmaking process.  On what advice he would give to young filmmakers, Justin said, “That anything is possible really, now.  The great thing about where we are now is that young filmmakers can come from anywhere.  As long as you’ve got something to say and as long as you’ve got a story to tell, there are ways of being able to tell stories.  The technology has moved on so quickly that it has become accessible to everybody.  When I was starting out fifteen years ago, you couldn’t do that.  The costs of actually making a film were very expensive, even if you got everything for free.  I think that it is amazing that we’ve got this technology at our fingertips.    There are ways of making films inexpensively and we have to find ways to distributing those stories.  Don’t wait for the studios, just go out and do it.  If you wait for the studios, you will be waiting forever.  As long as you have something to say, you will find a way. “   


Justin Chadwick summed up making The First Grader by saying, “Against all odds, it all clicked.  It was hard work to keep the momentum working but it was something behind it.  I was completely determined to get there.  I could see a way to make it.  The BBC was supportive about the way I wanted to make it.  It was complete and utter freedom.  They were risking a lot.  You never knew each day what would happen.  It is an incredibly hostile environment.  Sometimes with determination and sheer will you get a ball of energy behind it.  I am blessed because this was something that was meant to be.  And I loved every second of it.”





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