Queen of Katwe Director Mira Nair on Filming in her Second Home
Queen of Katwe Director Mira Nair had been living in Kampala, Uganda for 27 years since 1989 after filming Mississippi Marsala. She started her life, felt in love, gave birth to a son, planted a garden, and even started a film school. Despite living just 15 minutes away from Phiona Mutesi, she did not know her or her story. Tendo Nagenda, Executive Vice-President of Production at Disney, while in Uganda on vacation visited Mira and shared Phiona’s story. After meeting Phiona while she was playing at a competition in New York, Mira knew she wanted to tell her story.
Mira shared with us her experience of meeting Phiona’s mother Harriet, how they bonded over gardening and the connection they still share.
I asked to meet Harriet and spent a lot of time with Harriet who took me just below where I lived, where she was evicted when her husband died. We spent the day just going from one place to another where she had been with her four kids, at an abandoned church the veranda of a little vendor stand, a shop somewhere, and finally a little room.
I saw the struggle and her fierceness to keep her family together against absolutely every odds there was, it just was so deeply moving and, great, because she was full of courage and full of pragmatism. She was not a defeated woman by any means.
She went on to tell us a story about how she had invited Harriet and Phiona to her house for a dinner she held in honor of her school. Harriet saw her garden and fell in love, she wanted one of her own and Mira helped her set up her own garden. The pair remains connected by that garden, because every time a flower blooms Harriet snaps a photo and sends it to Mira.
We asked Mira about the challenges she faced while filming the movie and bringing it to life for audiences all over the world to enjoy.
The most beautiful challenge was to distill the love and familiarity I have with my own home, my adopted home of Uganda, the people, the sassiness, the vibrancy, the style. Kampala is the center of used clothing in the world to give you an example. Clothes come in by weight, and there’s that market called Owino where Lupita goes as Harriet to sell her mother’s clothes. That is the market.
The great challenge was to capture that sense of what we call in slang in Kampala lifist, somebody who embraces life fully and doesn’t complain about what you don’t have. If you have half an inch of water, you will wash your hair, you know, and no one will know that you had a struggle. This the quality of what I live around and this is the quality that I hoped to capture.
The other challenge Mira faced was making chess look visually stunning and captivating. Personally I think she did a great job at this. I’ve been wanting to learn more about chess since watching the movie in June.
The other sweet challenge was filming chess. It’s really a challenge to film chess, because it’s a highly intellectual game. And it’s about strategy and making moves, and how can I as a visual filmmaker, as a visualist, make chess interesting? And what we did, these were really truthful games. They were real games, real moves that Phiona was famous for. It wasn’t a made-up situation. So, Sean Bobbitt, our cinematographer, and myself really looked at every game as a unique visual challenge.
Like we, we filmed every game differently from the other. And that was a challenge, because there’s only so many things you can do with the chess board. But how to create chess so that it can be emotional, dramatic, and propulsive, propel the story forward, and yet not bore you to death and satisfying the chess officiandos.
We wanted to learn about Mira’s connection with chess prior to filming the movie, if she’s played before and did she had to learn. Her son was a competitive chess player, so she was very familiar with the sacrifice and travel aspect of the sport.
I was part of the chess circle, but I didn’t really know chess well. I understood it, but I didn’t really play it. Phiona Mutesi, the real Phiona, taught me chess prior to the shooting. She would just laugh at me, because I was reckless and I would just want to move the piece. And she would say – ‘Ahhh, Mira, you must consider the other side of the board’.
I wrote it down and said that’s a great line, Phiona. It’s like a metaphor for the world. You know,if we all considered the other side of the world it would make life work. So, I used to write down what she would say and she would say are you focusing on the game or on your film? I said the film. [LAUGHS] And I love that she, as a teacher, she was fantastic.
The colors and fashion in the movie is amazing, so we asked about working with the costume designer and what was used as inspiration for costumes.
the vibrancy of the style is something I have loved as long as I’ve lived there because it’s about really having a sense of smartness. I used to have a great nanny. She is like my younger sister, she really helped me raise my son. And every time we would fly when he was a little boy, every time we would go on a plane, she would want him to put him in a three-piece suit.
And I would say, please let the track pants stay on. Let him be comfortable. We worked with a great costume designer, Mobolaji Dawodu. He’s Nigerian-American, he made this ravishing film called Mother of George. I had seen his work and it was about this Nigerian family in Brooklyn. And the way he shot and styled our African clothing, like kitenge is what it’s called. Our very vividly patterned fabric.
Really my fish seller was wearing a genuine Busuuti dress with the kitenge wrap on it. So, Lupita’s clothing is not like made ’cause she’s a movie star or anything. This is how it is there, because all our clothing, the costumes in our film, all came from Owino, the actual second-hand market. We really did not have or need a big budget for this.
We asked about the casting since, Mira did such an amazing job with casting the actors for this film. She stated that she likes working with non-actors. It’s something she’s done since her first film Salaam Bombay!
I always work a lot with non-actors, people who have never faced the camera before, opposite legends like Denzel Washington or in this case Lupita and David. That kind of alchemy between the sort of purity and lack of artifice of a child actor, not even an actor opposite you know, a legend who has a lot of tricks to their trade and all those tricks kinda have to drop off when you’re faced with the purity and kinda freshness of a kid, especially a kid who comes from the same streets as the story that you’re filming.
So, for me it was always critical that we don’t go too far afield to find our children. All our kids came from Katwe or Chibuli, which is the neighboring community right cross the street from Katwe. All our kids have come from there.
And we started of course, for Phiona. I saw 700 girls from July, like six months prior to the shooting, mostly in Uganda but also in Kampala, in Kenya and in England, but I was sure that we would find her in Uganda, but it was tough, because this is the role that carries the whole film. I had a couple options, one girl the girl who plays the Kenya champion. She was the finalist of Phiona. But, you know, to be honest, I was not in love.
So, in January, six months after seeing so many girls, my very close friend, Dinaz Stafford, who’s the casting director and my son who was her associate, he led her on the streets on the Chibuli, like Katwe, to a little dance company where young kids learn traditional African dancing and perform in hotels on Sunday nights.
They went into this rehearsal and they filmed Madina in rehearsal sweating and smiling. And they came to dinner, they came home and she said, Mama, I have somebody another possible Phiona. And I just kinda rolled my eyes and thought, oh, my God. Aghhh. And then they showed me the film, and she was magnetic. But I still put her through the ringer for like three weeks of testing and learning to play chess.
Lastly we asked about the impact filming in Uganda had on the people in Kampala and Katwe. She was quick to share about the work she has done and continues to do in Kampala.
One is because it is my home. That is where I live. I’m not gonna run away. We have been doing several things. One is we ran a green set, an ecological set, which is unheard of there, because plastic is so awful. So we turned everything into a recycled sort of heaven. We also worked with the community of Katwe. We called it the Legacy Project while we were shooting, which is all shot in Katwe and the real places anyway to ask what the community needed.
And it was decided with the elders of the community that toilets, public toilets were the big thing. So, we have a project with Disney to build a whole series of public toilets in Katwe, just a small example. But then recently they had just purchased land and a building in Katwe to house permanently the Chess Academy. And then we have a educational fund for all the pioneers in the film to attend university.
After the interview we had the opportunity to take a photo with Mira, after we had the photo taken I told her how much I love the film and how beautiful it was. She held my hand and thanked me for the compliment and for helping spread the word about the movie. She reminded me how important it was for us to tell our story and praised us for being women pioneers. It was such a touching and heart warming experience. Once that I’ll never forget. After photos she walked out the room, telling us to slay the red carpet and gave a final chant saying – Woman Power!
The Queen of Katwe is now playing in limited theaters, and opens everywhere tomorrow, September 30th.
“Queen of Katwe” is based on the vibrant true story of a young girl from the streets of rural Uganda whose world rapidly changes when she is introduced to the game of chess, and, as a result of the support she receives from her family and community, is instilled with the confidence and determination she needs to pursue her dream of becoming an international chess champion.