While in Los Angeles for the Queen Of Katwe event, I had the privilege to sit down with Mira Nair, the director of the movie and chat about her time spent on Queen Of Katwe. We had such a great time chatting with her and learning about the making and casting for Queen Of Katwe. I am super excited to share this interview with you!
Can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved in the project and how you did a documentary?
Yeah. I’ve been living in Kampala now 27 years, ever since I made Mississippi Masala there in 1989, was the first I went, and started my life there. I fell in love and had a son and planted gardens and created a film school called Maisha. The slogan of Maisha is if we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will.
There are so few images of African on any screen anywhere and when there are, it’s usually, you know, death, despair, dictators, bestiality. We created the school, because we have to make the dignity and the joy of everyday life in our street in Kampala, anywhere. You know, be specific. Be local. Be truthful. And be excellent. It was such irony that despite my being surrounded by local stories for 12 years — we had 680 alumni students now, we have several directors we have created from East Africa — that this story of Phiona Mutesi, who lived 15 minutes from home — I did not know about her. I knew about her, because, a young man from this building, Tendo Nagenda, who’s a Ugandan, EVP of Disney came to see me in my garden in Kampala when he was at a family reunion about four years ago. He showed me this little article about Phiona in the ESPN journal, about this child who sold corn in Katwe, who now was heading to becoming a chess prodigy and going to the Olympics in Russia. I was completely struck by the story! For me that is what I live around so I said I’d love to meet Phiona first. I met her funnily enough in New York City where I lived — I lived half my time in Uganda and half the time in New York! Phiona was playing chess in New York. I met her there and Robert Katende, and we had such a lovely connection instantly, because we are Ugandan and we were joking, slanging, everything. Then, I got to know her really well and also Robert. Then, I asked to meet Harriet and spent a lot of time with Harriet who took me just below where I lived is where she was evicted when her husband died. She took me in this ramshackled ran, we spent the day just going from one place to another where she had been with her four kids, you know, at abandoned church, the veranda of a little vendor stand, you know, a shop somewhere, finally a little room. I mean like when I saw the trajectory of actually the struggle, you know, the homelessness, the struggle and her fierceness to keep her family together against absolutely every odds there was, it just was so deeply moving and, and, and great, because, she was full of courage and full of pragmatism. You know, she was not a defeated woman by any means, you know.
Then there’s another story worth telling, even though you haven’t asked. I have this school. So, I have a dinner, for all the students who come to my school once a year. I invited Harriet and Phiona and everyone that day. So they came into my home and you forget when you live in a home with a garden and whatever, you think people have seen a home with a garden, but not Harriet. She had never been in a place like that, a home and looking at my garden. I’m a real gardener. I have a nursery. I create my own plants. I create my tree nurseries, everything. She looked at the garden very quietly and I said, I would love to come and plant your garden. She just looked very quiet and she looked everywhere and she said it is because I have seen your garden that I will allow you to plant mine. It was great, because she’s so dignified and not like thank you so much. Nothing. The next day, in my pickup truck I put 80 plants and I drove out to her home and planted the garden over the course of a day. Then someone gifted her a smartphone. And every time a flower blooms she sends me a picture! That’s what I get, because she doesn’t speak English. She speaks Ugandan. She clicks the flower and she sends it to me. So, I have this sort of love connection with Harriet, which is without words but just to do with trees, ever since.
What challenges did you face bringing this story to life?
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 of, of even Kampala is the center of used clothing in the world to give you an example. Clothes come in by weight, you know. There’s that market called Owino where Lupita goes as Harriet to sell her mother’s dress. That is the market. Everyone dresses from that. So, you have the most smartness and cleanliness and going to school is massive, regardless of what you have. So you see the style of like a dress with a kitenge wrap on her! That’s how my fish seller gives me fish every second day. So, I wanted to capture that sort of emphasis of like no matter what we don’t have, we will put forward something that is excellent. So 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. Of course, Phiona, in her real remarkably and utterly true story, gives us so much of that, you know, because the other thing I really wanted to capture is that you cannot do it alone. You have to have the fire in you, but it takes a village. It takes a teacher to see your talent. It takes a mother to shepherd you, whether it is a right shepherding or not, whether she has to argue and not understand that it is a gambling game, is it not a gambling — but the eventual — you know, she, she wants to protect her children from disappoint. There is no point, she says, to have dreams, because you will be disappointed. Phiona proves to her mother quietly and steadily, you know, that it is possible with a teacher like this, with a community like this, with a street like this, with a family like this, it is possible to achieve what you could, you know, dream for. That is the beauty of life there. That is what I wanted to achieve. It’s not just one girl’s story, but what I call the prismatic story, the story of the whole street, the story of the family, the story of the mother and the complexity of every character.
So that was the challenge. The other sweet challenge was filming chess. It’s really a challenge to film chess, because it’s a highly intellectual game. I’s about strategizing and making moves and how can I as a visual filmmaker, as a visualist, make chess interesting? 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. We filmed every game differently from the other. That was a challenge, because there’s onlyso many things you can do with the chess board. 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 yet be satisfying the chess officiandos, you know.
Mira shared that she was the mother of a competitive chess player! Her son played competitive chess when he was 8 and they would go to Parsippany and go to Holiday Inn in Atlanta.
So, 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 want to move the piece. Mira, you must consider the other side of the board. Sort of really I would just write down. I said that’s a great line, Phiona. 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, but it comes out of her mouth in the movie if you notice it. She would say are you focusing on the game or on your film? I said the film.
How was it working with the costume designer, and did you have to change outfits a lot to go with this? How was it if all the colors popped on camera, and did you say oh, no, I don’t like this color or ’cause it was so pretty. All their outfits were amazing.
Kitenge, yeah. You have to Uganda. That is how people are, you know. As I said before, the vibrancy of the style is something I have loved as I lived there because it’s about really having a sense of smartness. I used to have a great nanny. She really helped me raise my son. 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, let the track pants stay on. Let him be comfortable. Again the smartness is a big thing. We worked with a great costume designer, Mobolaji Dawodu. He’s, uh, Nigerian-American. He’s a guy. He’s a guy and he made this ravishing film called Mother of George. I had seen his work and it was a Nigerian family in Brooklyn. The way he shot and styled our African clothing, like kitenge is what it’s called. Our very widely vividly patterned fabric. I was saying to Mobolaji Dawodu, it’s this juxtaposition, you know. Really my fish seller was wearing a genuine [pucci] dress, uh, with the kitenge wrap on it. 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 and did not need a big budget for this. Even though everyone is dressed very vividly, it is actually how people are. And we went into the second-hand markets for all of it.
Can you talk about casting a little bit?
I always work a lot with non-actors, people who have never faced the camera before, opposite legends like Denzel Washington, on this case Lupita and David. What I think is alchemy between the, between the sort of purity and lack of artifice of a child actor, not even an actor or a natural. Opposite as 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 across the street from Katwe. All our kids have come from there, do live there, you know. We started for Phiona — I saw 700 girls, 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, you know. I had a couple of them, one girl plays the Kenya champion. She was the finalist of Phiona. I trust my instinct, you know. I have to love you, because I have to live with you for a number of years. I would have to want to be with you. You cannot have hesitation on casting, it’s the core really in several ways. 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 traditionally dancing and perform in hotels on Sunday nights. They went into this rehearsal and they filmed Madina, in rehearsal sweating and smiling. They came to dinner, they came home and she said, Mama, I have somebody, another possible Phiona. I just kinda rolled my eyes and thought, seven hundred and first, aghhh. Then they showed me the film, and she was magnetic, you know. I still put her through the ringer for like three weeks of testing and learning to play chess. You know, even though English is spoken in Uganda, Luganda is the mother tongue, the language. Since the age of four, she has a extremely similar life to Phiona. Where the chess is Phiona’s way out, dancing is Madina’s way. Dance has given her this great balletic grace over hair body and a control over her body, which is a very beautiful thing to have as a film actor, because you have to go for a kind of stillness sometimes, and I found the physicality very beautiful. She just owned it! She’s extraordinary. So, the other children were cast similarly. A lot of kids — actually four kids came from that dance company. A lot of the boys came from there, too. Brian, who plays her brother was in a football club. Lives outside the gates where I live. There was a football local club and his coach brought Brian in, and I just loved his performance, his sense of comedy. All of the kids were either open casting calls on the streets and in the national theater. All of the kids are from that area. Then it was two months of workshops and dance and debate and all kinds of ways. I kept seeing who does what interestingly. You know, they make a lot of great sound, like ahhh eeeeeh iiiish. It’s like this. We talk like this. Beautiful. So, Benjamin was constantly ahhhhh ahh. And I used it all the time. Or that snap.
The snap is like, you know, it’s such a lifist example. One of the produce would tell me that I was doing the snap too much! Cause I would say snap now, Benjamin, now snap now. Like an exclamation point. One time somebody even tapped me and said, Mira, I think you’re going for too many snaps. No, you wait. It’d be the catchiest thing. ‘Cause I’m a shameless populist. I like to put bombs on seats, I like to entertain you. This is the spirit of our people! Don’t feel sorry for me, you know. Here you go, you know. Touché, you know. I’ve seen now these screenings. People are just like can you do it?
How has the shooting of the film impact the people of Queen of Katwe and Kampala? When people think of Uganda, they don’t see the positive. So how has this whole filming impacted them?
Well, you know, we were waiting with our eyes for sure. One is because it is my home. That is where I live. I’m not gonna run away, you know. 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 threw the shooting of it, 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. It was decided with the elders of the community that toilets, public toilets were the big thing. We have a project with Disney to build a whole series of public toilets in Katwe, just a small example. Then recently they had just purchased land and a building in Katwe to house permanently the Chess Academy which has just gone through happened. And then we have a educational fund for all the pioneers in the film to university is the idea. That’s a very complicated and very excellent endeavor, because, like in the film, like in life, education is the cornerstone. In Kampala, it’s a big emphasis. People knock on your door every day for school fees, you know, because whatever it is you must go to school. So, the education of our kids is vital. Lastly, in our film school, Maisha, which is now become a community interdisciplinary school for the community we are building the last phase of the physical school, hopefully with Disney’s help, which creates a open-air community theater and audio visual library, because that is what is not there. I mean there are no libraries. There are no books. There’s no — certainly no visual situation. So that is what I’m appealing for. Because it is impossible for us to have done this thing and made this film and not care about what happens in the future, because the whole film is as much as it is about the present, it is about the future of our kids.
Before we concluded our interview, we were told that there was a special guest with Mira here. Her son, Zohran Mamdani, who was an integral part in the song for Queen of Katwe with Young Cardamom, #1 Spice. Some of us got a quick picture with him:
You need to check out the music video for Queen Of Katwe – it is such a fun and catchy song!! #1 Spice by Young Cardamom and HAB!
Don’t forget….. Queen Of Katwe will be in theaters everywhere on 30 September!! Check out my movie review and my interview with Madina, Martin and Lupita too! Stay tuned for an interview with the real life Phiona and Robert, too!