When Johnny Breedt, production designer of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, was growing up in South Africa, he knew very little about the great political activist and international symbol of South Africa’s struggle for equality under Apartheid. “We had no idea what Mandela even looked like because he was a banned person,” Breedt said by phone in the days after Nelson Mandela‘s death. “I knew he was incarcerated for what we were led to believe was high treason and terrorism, but everything else about his story was censored and kept out of the local press.” Although he was from a liberal white English/Afrikaner family and “not brought up like a large majority of the white population was,” Breedt said he’d only become aware a positive change was coming once Mandela was released from prison.
Working closely with Mandela’s family and using Mandela’s memoir of the same name upon which the film is based, Breedt said he knew he must first walk those many miles in the great man’s shoes.
“I decided to completely retrace Mandela’s footsteps on my own, without a location scout,” he said, “beginning where he was born and where he went to school, to where he became politically involved.” Partly a fact-finding mission for himself, as well as director Justin Chadwick and the film’s producers, this early trip — done three years prior to pre-production — became an instructive map for Breedt and his location scouts once pre-production officially began. “I took Justin and then the scouts back to some of the places that I knew had potential and also looked for new possibilities.”
The passage of time and redevelopment of a nation once deeply divided by Apartheid, however, had drastically altered the original places where Mandela once lived, loved, fought, struggled and eventually triumphed. Two of the few original locations featured in the film are Pretoria’s Palace of Justice, the court where Mandela and 10 other African National Congress co-defendants stood trial in 1963-64 for sabotage and conspiracy, and Robben Island prison, now a museum with upwards of 3,000 visitors per day. In both places, only establishing exterior shots of each location were used. Breedt and his team built the interior of the courtroom and Robben Island’s entire B-Section Prison, where top-level political prisoners were once held, in Cape Town. “I had a good chuckle when articles in the press said, ‘they must have shot on Robben Island for weeks.’ That would have been a logistical nightmare. The cells, the courtyard and even the quarry were all created on the mainland.”
Other sets built from the ground up included the Orlando Township in Soweto, where Mandela lived, shown in the film across a span of 40 years. “We tried to shoot it in Soweto,” said Breedt, “but very few of the original houses remain.” Instead, some 40 constructed houses and CGI set extensions replicated a thousand-home township. Meticulously rendered set details throughout the film included changing vegetation, cars, some 3,000 signs, many hand painted, and artist-rendered facsimiles of original documents like Winnie Mandela‘s heavily censored letters to her husband in prison.
Breedt said he is most proud of the sets he built for the Palace of Justice’s interior courtroom, seen to full effect in the film as a Steadicam shot moves from the basement cells to the upper gallery, and Mandela’s ancestral home in the grasslands featuring huts created and thatched by local artisans as they had been for centuries. “Those details helped all of us, from the filmmakers to the actors, forge a deep, close-to-home connection to the story.”
As South Africa mourned Mandela’s passing, Breedt said he was humbled by the way his country honored his legacy from small town to sprawling city. Like the film, he added, it was a true celebration of his life.