Bringing The Team Together
Tuesday, September 7, 2010 at 6:37AM
The First Grader

With the production underway, the big question was who should direct THE FIRST GRADER? For the producers, there was only one choice, Justin Chadwick, who Thompson had recently collaborated with on the 2008 feature THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL. “He was the perfect partner - a real collaborator,” says Thompson, who had even worked with Chadwick, during the director’s brief time as an actor, on the 1993 BBC Films production THE HOUR OF THE PIG. “He’s a wonderful person to work with. Very much knowing his own mind, very firm, but also very approachable and accessible and a real creative partner.”

Chadwick was immediately sold when he received Peacock’s script. “I really responded to the material. I thought it was a really challenging movie to do. Education and children, that really struck a chord with me,” he says. “I went into the meeting with David and Joe and the way we three responded in that room, I knew we’d all make the same film. They knew it was a difficult subject matter - an old man goes back to school - and we were squirreling in hard-hitting issues while having essentially an uplifting story about the power of education. But, from the very, very off, I knew we all wanted to make the same thing.”

Part of Chadwick’s initial fascination with the story stemmed from his own upbringing in the northwest of England, “I know that if I hadn’t have come across one teacher, I would never have gone to the local theatre at 11 years old and then joined Manchester Youth Theatre. That changed my life. Education is the most important thing for me. I know it’s an obvious thing to say. But, all you need as a child is one good teacher to come across. And, Jane Obinchu is clearly a brilliant teacher.”

With Chadwick on board, he began to work with Peacock to refine the script. “She’s a very collaborative, open-minded person,” the director notes. “I had certain things I wanted to do with the script. Immediately, I wanted to focus on this relationship between Jane and Maruge. The flashbacks were quite complicated in the original script. Also, Jane was a lot older in the original script, and had children of her own. It felt more like from an outside point-of-view. In the early days of the script, you go with your sensibility about what you want to do with the arc. And, I wanted the children at the school to come through, to enrich the story.”

If this suggests Chadwick immediately had a grasp of the narrative direction he wanted to take, he admits things really began to change as he started to research his subject. “I came to this not knowing about Kenya and its colonial history,” he says. “I hadn’t been to Kenya before. I’d been to Africa but I’d only been as a tourist. I’d been to the Gambia when I was a student and been around and travelled.  So, I made a very conscious decision to really immerse myself and talk and listen to as many people from that period - from the period of the Fifties. But, also with people that really knew their subject. And, that’s what really informed the script and changed it.”

Yet what really affected Chadwick was meeting Maruge, who would sadly die of cancer just a few months later. “He was a real fighter,” says Chadwick, recalling their encounter in a hospice where Maruge would spend his last days. “He refused to be old.  You’d be sitting with him and he’d go ‘I’m not old! He wanted to go for a walk. So, we helped him up - he was as light as a feather but you could feel the strength inside him. He had this real power and he walked a few steps, and he went to the front gate, and he said, ‘Open the gate’ and he took off down this road! We were in the middle of Nairobi, and there were goats and trucks everywhere! All the nurses started chasing him with a wheelchair, and he was hacking it down the street!”

Harding, who had kept in regular touch with Maruge via his granddaughter since their first encounter, concurs. “He was a wonderful, gentle old man. Even up until the day he was dying, he wanted to learn.  We went back to visit him when he was in the hospice and his desire to learn was just greater than anybody I’d seen. Every single time we went to visit him, he tried to convince us to bring a teacher to come over and teach him. Unfortunately, the nuns at the nursing home would not allow it, because the other residents there would’ve opposed him getting preferential treatment. But, he would constantly ask for a teacher because he missed learning. He was a very lovely, spirited man.”

It was this spirit that Chadwick wanted to invest in the script. While this meant rewriting the story across a number of drafts, Peacock felt the project was in very safe hands. “It’s wonderful when you can hand your script over to someone almost like you’re handing your child over to them - and you entrust them to do the very, very best and make it even better than you did. And, that’s how I felt with Justin. He had such a clear vision of what he wanted to do. And he inspired me tremendously and brought the best out of me - and we really got the script to an even better place than it was.”

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