"...the film is not really about the tragic death of an American and an English person. It is about how tragic every unnecessary death from malaria is, everywhere."
What were some of the challenges in telling this story?
Every film has its own challenges. A big one on this film was the battle between my desire to educate and inform, and my desire to entertain. Various drafts had a lot more facts and figures about malaria, which we slowly whittled away. Phillip Noyce was especially keen that we should land the emotional truths, rather than trying to load people up with statistics they would never remember. It was also important to try to keep focus – to remember that the film is not really about the tragic death of an American and an English person. It is about how tragic every unnecessary death from malaria is, everywhere.
What was your favorite part of this project, and why?
My favorite bit of the project has been having to adjust the statistic of how many children die a year of malaria every time I rewrote it, because the figures have gone down from a million in 2006 to 650,000 now. It is still a horrific number, but I feel the film is on the right side of history, and much of its purpose is to encourage continued vigor and commitment to a fight against malaria, which is actually working. It was also nice to work with the creative giant that is Phillip and two actresses I have admired a very long time. And my daughter is excited about Sam Claflin because he’s in the next “Hunger Games.” Actually, I’m pretty excited about that too!
How did you decide on the structure of the story?
In my first draft, it was actually called “Mary Morgan.” It was a great day when I decided to add another story, so there was somewhere else to go, a second tale to cut in and out of. In some ways, though, the story is an autobiography. I began my interest in Africa and malaria just trying to raise money for nets, but now I am equally interested in supporting the fight to get governments and politicians to take up this brilliant challenge and knock out the disease in our lifetime. Mary’s journey from sorrow to politics is one that I hugely identify with and provided the key structure to the film.
How important was the casting of the title characters?
The casting is always key, at every level of a movie. That’s what Mike Newell, who worked with me on “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” most taught me. “Cast it right and the film is three-quarters made,” he used to say. In getting the two correct women for Mary and Martha, both passionate in their own ways, immensely different, reacting to the problem in different ways, but both with a real emotional honesty and integrity, we got very lucky with Hilary and Brenda.
How important was it to shoot on location in Africa?
It was of course absolutely key to shoot in Africa. One of Phillip’s great strengths was his knowledge of and passion for Africa – he made a film there I hugely admire called “Catch a Fire” – and he has spent a lot of time there. The whole team was well equipped and passionate about this. My producer from the UK, Hilary Bevan Jones, has spent long stretches of time filming in South Africa and her co-producer, Genevieve Hofmeyr, works and lives in South Africa.
Does this project carry special meaning for you because of your connection to the subject?
Exactly half of my professional life has been dedicated to raising money for people living the toughest lives in Africa and the UK. It’s a huge part of the makeup of my mind, certainly taking a lot longer than finding someone to marry, a subject I’ve dealt with quite a few times in films! So yes, this film represents a subject I am hugely passionate about. It tested my writing skills to the limit and I hope will actually achieve more than any of my other films have done.
Who do you hope the film connects with, and what message do you hope it brings?
I hope the film will be exciting and emotionally engaging for everyone who watches it. I hope some of the people who watch it really believe that they can make a difference in the fight against malaria, which I believe they can, and will work with Malaria No More in their determination to raise money, awareness and government commitment in the fight against malaria. My big dream is that this generation of world leaders will decide that malaria is a priority, a disease they can beat – and I just hope this film will be a little step on that journey. So that when malaria is mentioned, people know it’s not just some strange distant disease that doesn’t affect us.
Mothers, fathers, children, people just as important as you or me, or Mary or Martha, or David Cameron or Barack Obama, are dying in massive numbers, in a huge emergency, unnecessarily, every day of our lives. I hope the film can alert some people with power – and all of us who have power in numbers – to end this terrible tragedy once and for all.