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Q&A: ‘A United Kingdom’ Director Amma Asante on Her Epic True Tale

Variety logo Variety 2/14/2017 Jenelle Riley
© Provided by Variety

It was a postcard of a painting that inspired director Amma Asante’s 2013 movie “Belle,” the little-known true story of a mixed race woman raised among aristocracy. For her new film, “A United Kingdom,” Asante delves in a true-life tale of epic romance and political intrigue in the 1940s that is all the more shocking because it’s so unknown. The film details the marriage of Ruth Williams (played by Rosamund Pike), a white woman from London, and Seretse Khama (portrayed by David Oyelowo, who also produces), the Prince of Bechuanaland (now known as Botswana). Their relationship faced not only disapproval from their families, but from both their governments.

How did “A United Kingdom” come to you?

It was David Oyelowo. David and I go back at least two decades — he was in the first thing I ever wrote for television, (“Brothers and Sisters.”) He rang me up one evening, he was calling from Africa on “Queen of Katwe.” He said, “I’ve got this project about Ruth and Seretse Khama, have you ever heard of them?” To my great shame, I had not. He sent me an amazing photo essay of the couple and the script. And most importantly was the incredible book “Colour Bar” by Susan Williams, which was a remarkable resource for me.

When you learned the story were you shocked to not have known about it before?

I was. I’m also the child of African parents who were raised in a colony that they saw become independent. I thought I was raised knowing many of the stories of independence when it came to Africa. And this story prominently featured life in Britain as well. And yet I didn’t know any of it.

It’s almost too fantastical to be believed.

If it had come to me as a piece of fiction, I wouldn’t have gone near it because it’s too incredible in many ways. But it was real. And so fascinating. I kept wondering, “When are they going to give up and accept how things are?” And they never did, and that’s what makes them heroes. They took the road less traveled and not only stood up to the empire, three governments, two continents, but triumphed.

And you shot on two continents. Is it safe to say this film is the biggest you’ve ever worked on?

By far. Rick McCallum is one of our producers, he did “Star Wars” and lots of other big movies. He said, “You can have two cranes every day!” That is such a joy for a filmmaker. I’m like, “You mean I don’t have to pick the day? Like, not just four days out of a shoot when I can have one crane and it’s not even a crane, it only goes up like 10 feet?” When people talk about filmmakers they talk about “boys and their toys.” I can tell you, girls like their toys, too!

What were some of the challenges of making the film?

A practical difficulty was heat. Just physically getting through the day and being able to think in such heat. And there was a drought, so we were having to wash our hair with bottled water. Another issue was the time period. With “Belle,” we were so far away in history, you knew you were in a different period. But the 1940s are not that far away. And we’re in Africa. So how do you create a period that feels historical but still recent?

Because it is recent history, was there added pressure knowing Ruth and Seretse’s family are still alive and will see this movie?

It’s especially tough when their son is the now-president of the country. Most of their family in Botswana came to visit us, children and grandchildren. There’s a certain amount of pressure but I made a pledge to myself to do my best to honor the truth of the story, the people of the country, and the country itself. It’s tough because you don’t want the family to have any control over the film, and they didn’t. But yes, the President flew himself to the set – in his own chopper – and it was intimidating. He sat down next to us and it was a scene where Rosamund came outside dressed as Ruth. He turned to David and I and said, “It’s not every day you see your mother come back to life.”

What do you find to be the biggest challenge facing filmmakers today?

I would say it’s still funding and financing, which probably sounds ridiculous having just made three movies in four years. But it was 10 years between my first and second movies, so I was trying to make up for lost time. When you look at the figures for women directors, you realize men are able to make so many more films over that period of time because of opportunity. And they’re honing their skills all that time. So I had hoped getting funding would get easier, but it actually gets harder. People think, “Someone else will fund that film, she’s made movies now.” When you’re a first-time director, there’s something exciting about that. When you’re already discovered, it’s actually tougher sometimes. It all comes down to tenacity. There were so many times between my first two films that I thought about doing something else. I wanted to open a bakery, but I can’t bake. I thought about opening a dry cleaners, but I don’t like the smell. So I stuck with filmmaking.

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