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AN AFRICAN QUEEN - Two Producers Strive To Spark The Young Dreams Of A Global Audience with 'Queen Of Katwe'

Posted By Brandon Wagner, Thursday, October 27, 2016

Lydia Dean Pilcher and John B. Carls’ collaboration on Queen of Katwe—in keeping with their careers to this point—starts with the idea that they’re not the last generation to be living with media or the last generation to be living on this planet. Queen of Katwe was conceived from the first as a film for the future, for a rising generation to see themselves in and understand that they have the power to change the world.

Queen of Katwe, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and was released by Disney in September, is the story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young Ugandan girl raised in the slums of Katwe by her mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o). Phiona fatefully crosses paths with Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), an engineer by training and a church youth counselor by profession. Katende is teaching the children of Katwe to play chess, in the hopes of expanding their horizons. Phiona quickly proves to be a natural and begins to rocket toward international attention, which forces her to confront her own perceptions of the limits of her world.

Carls got his start in a producing partnership with Maurice Sendak, ultimately leading to a collaboration on Where The Wild Things Are. About five years ago, he was looking to do the kind of sports story that would “restore your faith in humanity.” The story of Phiona and her chess skills came his way from North Carolina businessman Trey Budder, who like Robert Katende, was a supporter of sports outreach ministry. As Carls started the process of securing the rights, ESPN discovered the story, ultimately publishing The Queen of Katwe first as an article and then a full-length book by Tim Crothers. “I didn’t even have to do my “producing thing,” beams Carls; Disney reached out and joined forces in a case of fortunate parallel thinking.

Queen of Katwe is a film about understanding and unlocking unrealized potential. “As a producer,” Carls says, “I’ve often wondered if [not understanding our potential] is holding us back.” He’s intrigued by people like Robert Katende, with whom he worked extensively throughout the production. Carls doesn’t skimp in his admiration for the people who “are going out to these hostile environments ... and transforming lives.” Phiona is a “great success story that comes out of that kind of environment.” If all kids were given a chance, he muses, “It would be remarkable to see how much difference could be made.” Working in his favor is the openness of the young minds among the film’s viewers.

Telling this story in the family space gives them, Carls believes, an audience more likely to “actually go out afterwards and make a difference in the world.”

Mira Nair was always a leading choice to direct, but when Carls initially reached out, she was in the process of making The Reluctant Fundamentalist. But given some time and another draft of the script, Nair was able to come on board, along with her longtime producing partner, Lydia Dean Pilcher.

 Director Mira Nair (seated) on the set of Queen of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda

The collaboration goes back 25 years, to 1991’s Mississippi Masala; Queen of Katwe marks their 11th picture together. Pilcher feels like she and Nair agree on “every level of sensibility and aesthetic.” Queen of Katwe has a special significance given that it allows them to return to Uganda, a country in which they’ve done a great deal of work, particularly with Naisha, the film school they helped to found. For Pilcher, Queen of Katwe also represented a break from the endless hustle of pulling together independent films, a project that allows her and Nair to make “the kind of film that we always make, but with the support of a studio.”

Katwe’s Africa-based story might be a tricky sell domestically, but Pilcher’s production company Cine Mosaic has always had a firm commitment to producing films for the global marketplace. After all, we’re now in an age where, as she observes, the international box office is substantially larger than the domestic. Pilcher believes in the story’s appeal to groups who don’t normally see themselves represented in films, even as she appreciates its importance for “Disney to keep their brand relevant” in the global age. The opportunity to “see more stories about other cultures in very authentic, relatable ways” is one of the most fundamental means we have of building inter-cultural understanding. Studios are gradually coming to see the value of these stories and the necessity of telling them authentically.

For a major studio film, Queen of Katwe relies to an unusual degree on unfamiliar talent and production values, taking place entirely in Africa (save for a brief sojourn to Russia) and featuring a cast composed almost entirely of actors of color. Phiona was the key casting, as the filmmakers searched all over Africa and the U.K., seeing hundreds of girls and eventually choosing Madina Nalwanga. Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo fell into place shortly thereafter, with the rest of the players cast in Uganda and quickly run through a workshop to bring them up to speed for the challenge of working on a major studio film.

 Producers Lydia Dean Pilcher (left) and John Carls (right) discuss the shoot 
production executive Tendo Nagenda.

Pilcher hopes the film provides a transformative experience for young girls, who don’t often see themselves in these pictures, to lead the way. She told me about a screening she’d arranged for the crew of her current project, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for HBO, to which many of them brought their young children. One girl, of elementary- school age, particularly stood out to her. “She was just glued to the screen,” she recalls. When Pilcher approached the girl’s mother afterwards and asked about her daughter’s enraptured response, her mother replied, “These girls are not used to seeing themselves on the big screen.”

Even beyond the faces that are represented, it’s the voices the film allows us to hear. Queen of Katwe enables Pilcher to continue to champion “female storytelling” as she has for all of her career. She sees the female audience as underserved, and a story of female discovery and empowerment that could be animated by a filmmaking voice like Mira Nair’s made the decision an easy one.

Pilcher’s passion for making films for the next generation extends to her commitment to sustainability, a priority she traces to becoming a mother and thinking in very personal terms about the next generation. That sense of urgency led to collaboration with other PGA members and a collective effort to promote baseline best practices for productions to reduce waste and carbon emissions; the result was the formation of PGA Green, of which Pilcher was a founding Chair. It’s remarkably simple for any production to “go green,” she declares, taking measures as easy as calculating your production’s carbon footprint, keeping travel costs low and utilizing reusable water bottles. The PGA’s is the website she’s worked with that provides best practices and a carbon footprint calculator. We live now in the “first generation to feel the effects of climate change,” she reminds us and remains deeply concerned “that we’re the last to be able to do anything about it.”

 Producer Lydia Dean Pilcher and production executive Tendo Nagenda 
coordinate production logistics on the streets of Kampala.

But the good intentions would count for nothing without Pilcher and Carls’ devotion to crafting their stories hands-on. Both producers came up through the production ranks. Today Carls’ favorite part is the development process and the never-ending quest to find the best material. After all, that’s what attracts the best artists and craftspeople to work with, and “the team approach to moviemaking” is for Carls the essence of the job’s appeal. And he indeed relished the work, participating in every aspect of the production, including working closely with the real Phiona and Robert Katende.

Pilcher is a storyteller, interested first and foremost in films emerging from a powerful creative vision, “that make you think and feel deeply, that might make you change the way you view the world … It’s a great privilege to craft stories and to know that you might have some impact or forge a greater connection.” And coming through independent cinema has given her a sixth sense for how each element of a production—financial, creative, or logistical—impacts the whole.

In discussing their ultimate hopes for Queen of Katwe’s reception, they observe that it’s rare to find a live-action film these days that offers what Carls calls, “a shared experience of filmgoing for the families.” Through direct, accessible drama, it demonstrates how when life knocks you down, “you can reset the pieces and play again,” one of the film’s most clever metaphors. For the adults, it offers a broader truth: “Everyone matters, and every life has an effect on all of us.” For Pilcher, Katwe is above all a movie for “young girls who don’t get to see themselves on screen,” even if the message that “opportunities exist for everyone if you focus and believe in yourself” is applicable to every audience member.

Whatever projects come next, expect Pilcher and Carls to bring their same belief in the importance of telling stories for the next generation, and their conviction that producers and their productions should leave the world just a little better than they found it. 

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