Matt Damon and Francois Pienaar, the real life captain of the 1995 South African rugby team © Warner Bros & Spyglass

The film tells the inspiring story of how the nation of South Africa came together, through the efforts of its new President Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), to support their underdog rugby team, led by Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) all the way to the 1995 World Cup Championship match.

I spoke with the movie’s screenwriter, Anthony Peckham, and the producers, Mace Neufeld, Lori McCreary and Rob Lorenz about their movie which brings a historic story to the screen that many people are unaware of.

This movie is about rugby which is unfamiliar to most Americans, how did you decide to put in information on how the game was played?

Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) with his rugby chums © Warner Bros & Spyglass

Anthony Peckham: Actually it was a question we considered very carefully and decided not to try to explain rugby or we would lose (the audience) right away. So we just decided to let the people learn as much or as little as they wanted to through osmosis, gradually building the length of the games and the complexity of what was going on in the games. But basically it’s about really big men hitting each other really hard. We thought everyone would relate to that.

Can you talk about casting Matt Damon?

Nerine (Marguerite Wheatley) and Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) © Warner Bros & Spyglass

Lori McCreary: We all thought Matt Damon was a brilliant idea, and I would never have thought that we could get the likes of Matt Damon for this film, although with Mr Eastwood and Mr Freeman it was a little easier. We had three icons, so I was very excited about it.

Mace Nuefeld: The power of the story won him over, and for us he’s got such a natural athletic physique and way about him that I thought he was a natural for the part.

Lori McCreary: And his accent was genius

Did you shoot at the real prison and in Nelson Mandela’s cell?

Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) in the prison cell © Warner Bros & Spyglass

Rob Lorenz: We did shoot in the actual cell. We actually thought the cell was a little small to shoot in so we built one on stage, and when Clint got there he walked in and said, ‘No, I’ll shoot the real thing.’ So we shot the whole thing in Nelson Mandela’s cell.

Lori McCreary: I think that was one of the most powerful days for the cast and crew. I remember just walking up above the quarry when they’re looking down and they showed them with the pick axes, and there was just a feeling of cohesion, we all came together, it was a very joyous boat ride out and after a full day of shooting we were a much more cohesive team and a little somber on the way back.

When the commercial aircraft swoops down on the stadium, was that real?

Rob Lorenz: It was CGI, but the event was real.

Anthony Peckham: I put that story in the first draft, and Mr Freeman read it and said, ‘I’m a pilot, this is impossible, you’re going to have to take this out.’ And I brought a book in with the photograph of the plane and said, ‘It’s South Africa, they did it.’

Lori McCreary: And the pilot’s offered to take Morgan up when we’re there in South Africa, I’m not sure he’s going to take him up on it.

Mace Nuefeld: The pilot told us he was 200 feet above the stadium.

Lori McCreary: And he’d gotten the approval of our FAA to do it, and I think what he said was they gave him no official lower limit, and he recorded it and locked it up just in case something went wrong so he would have the proof.

Why this story, why now, and why is it an important story to tell?

Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) and Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) © Warner Bros & Spyglass

Mace Nuefeld: I think particularly with conditions in the world today, the message is articulated in Tony’s script of being locked up for almost 30 years and then coming out and not trying to seek revenge, but to seek reconciliation.

We have trouble spots all over the world, I think this film is very important for younger people to see and we were dealing with an iconic figure, we were working with an iconic actor and an iconic director and it was just a great way to tell the story of Nelson Mandela around a sporting event, even if the event was not familiar to Americans, as it wasn’t to us when we first heard the story.

Anthony Peckham: As you write something you think you know what it’s about, it’s about a rugby match, it’s about a moment in a nation’s history, it’s about a man, but the further in you write you deepen your understanding of what this event is about, and it relates to now and here because I think this is a film about leadership and not just the leadership of Nelson Mandela.

He asks and inspires the leadership from ordinary people, people like you and I, and to me the most important message in this film, if there is one, lead, exceed your own expectation, that’s how you lead, and as I wrote it I thought that was what I was writing about, outside the specific moment of the story and I felt that was inspiring and I hope other people do.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.