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Disney’s Queen of Katwe Interview with Director Mira Nair

A special Interview with Director Mira Nair of Disney’s Queen of Katwe. Find out what inspired her to bring this true story of an unlikely chess master to life.

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Photo Credit: Carol Jones /AllMommyWants.com

Disney’s Queen of Katwe Interview with Director Mira Nair

If you were ever to meet a beautiful soul like the Director of Queen of Katwe Ms. Mira Nair, I would consider yourself lucky. Mira Nair’s beautiful soul radiated throughout the room starting from her presence walking in, to the following minutes after she had already left.

A woman with so much passion and talent as a director for this movie can only mean that it was without a doubt going to be moving and inspiring in every scene. I’m so happy to have been able to meet her and hear her story behind this beautiful movie.

I loved learning that she lived only a few minutes from Phiona and that she couldn’t wait to complete the cast to get the camera rolling. I can’t wait to see more movies directed by Ms. Mira Nair, her eye and ability to capture such beautiful and vibrant colors were perfect in every way.

Queen of Katwe Event

Don’t miss all of the amazing things I did during The Queen of Katwe Event in LA! Including all of the interviews from the cast of Queen of Katwe and some ABC TV shows you won’t want to miss!

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Photo Credit: Carol Jones /AllMommyWants.com

The Origins of This Inspiring Movie

As do all movies, this movie was brought to the attention of Mira by one of Disney’s employees. It all started with an article in the ESPN paper. Read below who originally brought this story to Mira’s attention and how close it hit home with the director.

Question: How did you get involved in this project?

Mira Nair: I’ve been living in Kampala now 27 years, ever since I made Mississippi Masala there in 1989 was the first I went and started my life there like with the — fell in love and had a son and, and, and planted gardens and created a film school called Maisha.  And Maisha the slogan of Maisha is if we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will.

Because there are so few images of African on any screen anywhere and when there are, it’s usually death, despair, dictators, bestiality.  So we created the school because we have to make the dignity and the joy of everyday life in our street in Kampala, anywhere.  

Be specific. Be local. Be truthful. And be excellent. It was such irony that despite my being surrounded by local stories for 12 years we had 680 alumni students now, we have several directors we have created from East Africa that this story of Phiona Mutesi, who lived 15 minutes from home I did not know about her.

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Photo Credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez

I knew about her because a young man from this building (Disney Building), Tendo Nagenda, who’s a Ugandan, VP of  Disney came to see me in my garden in Kampala when he was at a family reunion about four years ago.  And he showed me this little article about Phiona in the ESPN journal.

About this child who sold corn in Katwe who now was heading to becoming a chess prodigy and going to the Olympics in Russia. And I was completely struck by the story. For me, that is what I live around and I had not known this was such a way to do that. I said I’d love to meet Phiona first.

An inspiring interview with Phiona Mutesi and Robert Katende from Disney's Queen of Katwe. View the inspiration and true-life story of an unlikely chess master in Disney's newest film Queen of Katwe.

Meeting The Real Phiona

I met her funnily enough in New York City where I lived half my time in Uganda and half the time in New York, and Phiona was playing in New York.  And I met her there and with Robert Katende, and we had such a lovely connection instantly because we are Ugandan and we were joking, slanging, everything.

I got to know her really well and also Robert. I asked to meet Harriet and spent a lot of time with Harriet who took me just below where I lived where she was evicted when her husband died.

She took me on this ramshackle ran, we spent the day just going from one place to another where she had been with her four kids. The abandoned church (which was shown in the movie), the veranda of a little vendor stand, a shop somewhere, finally a little room.

Director Mira Nair on the set of Disney's QUEEN OF KATWE iwith David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o. The vibrant true story of a young girl from the streets of rural Uganda whose world changes when she is introduced to the game of chess, the film also stars newcomer Madina Nalwanga.
Director Mira Nair on the set of Disney’s QUEEN OF KATWE iwith David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o

Behind the Scenes of Queen of Katwe

I mean like when I saw the trajectory of actually the struggle, the homelessness, the struggle and her fierceness to keep her family together against absolutely every odds there was, it just was so deeply moving and great, because, she was full of courage and full of pragmatism.

She was not a defeated woman by any means and, of course, to have a house at the end of it made by her daughter’s earnings (insert goosebumps and tears of joy at this moment).

Disney’s QUEEN OF KATWE directed by Mira Nair.

The Garden

Then there’s another story. So, I have a dinner for all the students who come to my shop once a year.  And I invited Harriet and Phiona and everyone that year. They came to my home and you forget when you live in a home with a garden and whatever, you think people have seen a home with a garden, but not Harriet.

She had never been in a place like that, home and looking at my garden. I’m a real gardener, I have a nursery and I create my own plants.  I create my tree nurseries, everything.  She looked at the garden very quiet and I said I would love to come and she had got the new house by then. 

I said I would love to come and see the plant’s in you plant your garden. She just looked very quiet and she looked everywhere and she said it is because I have seen your garden that I will allow you to plant mine.

It was great because she’s so dignified and not like thank you so much.  Nothing.  She was like because she has seen my garden I will allow you to plant mine. The next day I got my pickup truck I put 80 plants and I drove out to her home and planted the garden in over the course of a day.  

Then someone gifted her a smartphone so every time a flower blooms that’s what I get because she doesn’t speak English. She speaks Ugandan. She clicks the flower and she sends it to me. So, I have this sort of love connection with Harriet, which is without words but just to do with trees ever since.

Director Mira Nair on the set of Disney's QUEEN OF KATWE with Madina Nalwanga. The film is based on a true story of a young girl from the streets of rural Uganda whose world changes when she is introduced to the game of chess, the film also star Oscar (TM) winner Lupita Nyong'o.
Director Mira Nair on the set of Disney’s QUEEN OF KATWE with Madina Nalwanga.

Challenges of bringing this story to life

With any story there is always a challenge of how to bring it to life, since many real-life stories originate through past experiences there is always that small gap between as true as can be and as close as it can be. I believe Mira hit the nail on the head with this movie as it seems to be as realistic yet dreamy as you can get.

Not many of us are able to follow our dreams, but for those who are able to it seems as if it came out of a fairy tale book. This right here is certainly NOT a fairy tale in any way shape or form.

Question: What challenges did you face bringing this story to life?

Mira Nair: The most beautiful challenge was to distill the love and familiarity I have with my own home, my adopted home of Uganda, the people, the sassiness, the vibrancy, the style of Kampala which is the center of used clothing in the world to give you an example. 

Clothes come in by weight. There’s that market called Owino where Lupita goes as Harriet to sell her mother’s clothing fabric. That is the market. Everyone dresses from that. So, you have the most emphasis on smartness and cleanliness, and going to school is massive, regardless of what you have.

And so you see the style of like a polka dot dress with a kitenge wrap on her that’s how my fish seller gives me fish every second day. So, I wanted to capture that sort of emphasis of like no matter what we don’t have, we will put forward something that is excellent. 

The great challenge was to capture that sense of what we call slang in Kampala lifist, somebody who embraces life fully and doesn’t complain about what you don’t have.  If you have half an inch of water, you will wash your hair and no one will know that you had a struggle.

This the quality of what I live around and this is the quality that I hoped to capture.  Of course, Phiona, in her real remarkable and utterly true story, gives us so much of that, the other thing I really wanted to capture is that you cannot do it alone. You have to have the fire in you, but it takes a village.

It takes a teacher to see your talent.  It takes a mother to shepherd you, whether it is a right shepherding or not, whether she has to argue and not understand that, she just wants to protect her children from disappointment.

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Photo Credit: Carol Jones /AllMommyWants.com

Director Mira Nair on Filming Chess Games

There is no point, she says, to have dreams, because you will be disappointed. But Phiona proves to her mother quietly and steadily, you know, that it is possible to with a teacher like this, with a community like this, with a street like this, with a family like this, it is possible to achieve what you dream for. That is the beauty of life there, that is what I wanted to achieve. 

It’s not just one girl’s story, but what I call the prismatic story, the story of the whole street, the story of the family, the story of the mother, and the complexity of every character. So that was the challenge. The sweet challenge was filming chess.  

It’s really a challenge to film chess, because it’s a highly intellectual game, and it’s about strategizing and making moves. How can I as a visual filmmaker, as a visualist, make chess interesting? Can I? These were really truthful games.  They were real games, real moves that Phiona was famous for.  It wasn’t a made-up situation. Sean Bobbitt, our cinematographer, and I really looked at every game as a unique visual challenge.

We filmed every game differently from the other, and that was a challenge because there are only so many things you can do with the chessboard, you know.  But how to create chess so that it can be emotional, dramatic, and propulsive, you know, propel the story forward and yet not bore you to death and yet be satisfying the chess officials.

Director Mira Nair on the set of Disney's QUEEN OF KATWE with Madina Nalwanga. The film is based on a true story of a young girl from the streets of rural Uganda whose world changes when she is introduced to the game of chess, the film also star Oscar (TM) winner Lupita Nyong'o.
Director Mira Nair on the set of Disney’s QUEEN OF KATWE with Madina Nalwanga.

To Play Chess or Not To Play Chess

Having learned how to play chess myself at the age of 9 years old I feel as though I have a connection with this movie. Not many people can say they are masters at chess, but I feel like all of us who have played the game can see how beautiful this movie is through our own experiences of playing the game.

Question: Have you played chess before or did you have to learn before filming this movie?

Mira Nair: I was the mother of a competitive chess player. My son played competitive chess when he was eight, and we would go to Parsippany and go Holiday Inn in Atlanta.  I was at all kinds of places. I was part of the chess circle, but I didn’t really know chess well. 

I understood it, but I didn’t really play it. Phiona Mutesi, the real Phiona, taught me chess prior to the shooting. She would just laugh at me because I was reckless and I would just want to move, you know, move the piece. She would say, ah, Mira, you must consider the other side of the board, and sort of reality I would just write down. I said that’s a great line, Phiona.

It’s like a metaphor for the world. If we all considered the other side of the world it would make life work, you know.  So, I used to write down what she would say, but it comes out of her mouth in the movie if you notice it. You know, and she would say are you focusing on the game or on your film?  I said the film.  And I love that she, as a teacher, was fantastic.

Director Mira Nair on the set of Disney's QUEEN OF KATWE with David Oyelowo The film is based on a true story of a young girl from the streets of rural Uganda whose world changes when she is introduced to the game of chess, the film also star Oscar (TM) winner Lupita Nyong'o.
Director Mira Nair on the set of Disney’s QUEEN OF KATWE with David Oyelowo

The Costumes in the Movie

Did any of you notice how beautiful and vibrant the costumes were in the movie? They were breathtaking and gorgeously perfect for every scene. I loved the way Mira incorporated the traditional clothing into the movie without making it seem overly done. It was a perfect blend of the traditional yet modern in the sense that it is still worn throughout Uganda.

Question: What was it like working with the costume designer, did you have to change outfits a lot?

Mira Nair: That is how people are, you know, as I said before, the vibrancy of the style is something I have loved as I lived there because it’s about really having a sense of smartness.  I used to have a great nanny. She is like my younger sister, she really helped me raise my son.

When he was a little boy, every time we would go on a plane, she would want to put him in a three-piece suit. And I would say, please, you know, let the track pants stay on.  Let him be comfortable. No, no, l know, because again the smartness is a big thing.  

We worked with a great costume designer, Mobolaji Dawodu.  He’s, uh, Nigerian-American. He’s, he’s a guy and he made this ravishing film called Mother of George. I had seen his work and it was a Nigerian family in Brooklyn.  And the way he shot and styled our African clothing like kitenge is what it’s called.

Very widely vividly patterned fabric. I was saying to Mobolaji Dawodu, it’s this just a position, you know.  Really my fish seller was wearing a genuine [pucci] dress, with the kitenge wrap on it. Lupita’s clothing is not like made ’cause she’s a movie star or anything. 

This is how it is there, because all our clothing, the costumes in our film, all came from Owino, the actual second-hand market. We really did not need a big budget for this. Even though everyone is dressed very vividly, it is actually how people are. And we went into the second-hand markets for all of it.

Director Mira Nair on the set of Disney's QUEEN OF KATWE iwith David Oyelowo,Madina Nalwanga and Esther Lutaaya. The vibrant true story of a young girl from the streets of rural Uganda whose world changes when she is introduced to the game of chess, the film also stars Oscar (TM) winner Lupita Nyong'o.
Director Mira Nair on the set of Disney’s QUEEN OF KATWE iwith David Oyelowo,Madina Nalwanga and Esther Lutaaya.

Queen of Katwe Casting

As many of you want to know where did these amazing actors come from? We have never seen them before but they are so natural at acting you would think they had years beyond their own ages of experience. I was so excited to see where the beautiful Madina had come from through casting, as well as the handsome BRain with his infectious snap.

Question: The cast is amazing, how did you come upon bringing those into the film?

Mira Nair: The cast for me if you know my work from Salaam Bombay!, which is the first film on street kids in Bombay to Monsoon Wedding to Namesake and  I always work a lot with non-actors, people who have never faced the camera before, opposite legends like Denzel Washington, in this case, Lupita and David. 

That kind of, what I think is the alchemy between the sort of purity and lack of artifice of a child actor, of a child really, not even an actor.

Opposite of a legend who has a lot of tricks to their trade and all those tricks kinda have to drop off when you’re faced with the purity and kinda freshness of a kid, especially a kid who comes from the same streets as the story that you’re filming.  

So for me, it was always critical that we don’t go too far afield to find our children.  All our kids came from Katwe or Chibuli, which is the neighboring community right across the street from Katwe. All our kids have come from there and do live there.

For Phiona I saw 700 girls, from July, about six months prior to the shooting, mostly in Uganda but also in Kampala, in Kenya, and in England, but I was sure that we would find her in Uganda, but it was tough because this is the role that carries the whole film, you know.  

I had a couple of girls, one girl who plays the Kenya champion.  She was the finalist of Phiona.  But, you know, to be honest, I was not in love, you know.  I was not in love. And I only trust love. I trust my instinct, you know. I have to love you because I have to live with you for years.

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Photo Credit: Carol Jones /AllMommyWants.com

More on Casting in Queen of Katwe

And I would have to want to be with you.  You cannot have hesitation on casting, you know.  And it’s the core really in several ways. In January, six months after seeing so many girls. My very close friend, Dinaz Stafford, who’s the casting director, and my son who was her associate.

He led her on the streets on the Chibuli, like Katwe to a little dance company called Sosolya Dance Company where young kids learn traditionally dancing and perform in hotels on Sunday nights. As for tourists, they went into this rehearsal and they filmed Madina in rehearsal, sweating and smiling.  

They came to dinner and I said Mama I have somebody another possible Phiona. I just kinda rolled my eyes and thought, oh, my God, seven hundred and first Aghhh. And then they showed me the film, and she was magnetic, but I still put her through the wringer for like three weeks of testing and playing, learning to play chess.

Did you know English is spoken in Uganda, Luganda is the mother tongue, the language? Can she think in English?  Can she emote in English?  The thing is she was a dancer and she was a great dancer, a great dancer.  So, since the age of four, she has an extremely similar life to Phiona where chess was Phiona’s way out.

Dance is Madina’s way. But dance has given her this great balletic grace over her body and control over her body, which is a very beautiful thing to have as a film actor, because you have to go for a kind of stillness sometimes, and I found the physicality very beautiful.

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Photo Credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez

But then she just owned it, you know. She owned it. And she’s extraordinary. The other children were cast similarly.  A lot of kids actually four kids came from that dance company.  A lot of the boys came from there, too.  Brian, who plays her brother was in a football club. He lives literally outside the gates where I live.

There was a football local club and his coach brought Brian in and I just loved his performance, his sense of comedy. All the kids were either open casting calls on the streets and in the national theater. All the kids are from that area.  And, and then it was two months of workshops with dance, debate and all kinds of ways. I kept seeing who does what interestingly. 

Like, all this comes from the kids.  You know, like Benjamin, who has the lollipop and I just loved it. It’s a big thing in Ugandan life. You know, they make a lot of great sounds, like ah eeeeeh iiiish.  It’s like this.  You know, we talk like this. Beautiful. So, Benjamin was constantly ahhhhh ahh.  And I used it all the time.  Or that snap.

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Photo Credit: Carol Jones /AllMommyWants.com

The Snap

Honestly, I have been trying for weeks to master this infectious snap the kids and Lupita did in the movie. I want to so badly master this so I can use it in my real life situations. I can just see me now trying to use it in real life situations and having my kids break out into a bunch of snaps as they try to copy me.

Mira Nair: The snap is such a lifist example. One of the producers when I was filming ’cause I would say snap now, Benjamin, now snap now.  I liked it.  It was like a checkmate, you know.  I don’t feel sorry for myself. Here you go, you know. One time somebody even tapped me and said, Mira, I think you’re going for too many snaps. I said, no, you know, you wait.  And it’d be the catchiest thing.

‘Cause I’m a shameless populist. I like to put, you know, bombs on seats, you know.  I like to entertain you, this is the spirit of our people.  This is about that don’t feel sorry for me, you know.  Here you go, you know. Touché. I’ve seen now these screenings. People are just like can you do it? I can’t do it. But I can show you.

Director Mira Nair on the set of Disney's QUEEN OF KATWE with Lupita Nyong'o The film is based on a true story of a young girl from the streets of rural Uganda whose world changes when she is introduced to the game of chess, the film also star Oscar (TM) winner Lupita Nyong'o.
Director Mira Nair on the set of Disney’s QUEEN OF KATWE with Lupita Nyong’o

The Impact of  this Movie with the Community

Last but not least I must know how this movie has had an impact on the community. I found out how this movie impacted the community during the filming and even after the filming had ended. It’s beautiful to see how Disney has worked with the community to make sure it was able to grow as much as this story has grown with Disney and now the world.

Question: How has the shooting of the film impact the people of Queen of Katwe and Kampala?

Especially since most people when they hear about Uganda they know Yemen and all of the negative they don’t see the positive.  So how has this whole filming, uh, impacted them?

Mira Nair: Well, you know, we were waiting with our eyes for sure.  One is because it is my home.  That is where I live.  I’m not gonna run away, so we have been doing several things.  One is we ran a green set, an ecological set, which is unheard of there because plastic is so awful.  

So, through the shooting of it, we turned everything into a recycled sort of heaven.  We also worked with the community of Katwe.  We called it the Legacy Project while we were shooting, which is all shot in Katwe and the real places anyway to ask what the community needed, you know.

And it was decided with the elders of the community that toilets, public toilets were the big thing.  So, we have a project with Disney to build a whole series of public toilets in Katwe, just a small example. 

But then recently they had just purchased land and a building in Katwe to house permanently the Chess Academy which has just gone through.  And then we have an educational fund for all the pioneers in the film to university is the idea.

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Photo Credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez

That’s a very complicated and very excellent endeavor, because, like in the film, like in life, education is the cornerstone. In Kampala, it’s a big emphasis.  People knock on your door every day for school fees because whatever it is you must go to school.  So, the education of our kids is vital. 

Lastly in our film school, Maisha, which is now become a community interdisciplinary school for the community, we are putting a physical school and we are building the last phase of the physical school, hopefully with Disney’s help, which creates an open-air community theater and audiovisual library, because that is what is not there.

I mean there are no libraries. There are no books. There’s certainly no visual situation. So that is what I’m appealing for., because it is impossible for us to have done this thing and made this film. Not care about what happens in the future because the whole film is as much as it is about the present, it is about the future of our kids.

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Photo Credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez

Queen of Katwe Interview with Mira Nair

This concludes the amazing interview with the Director of Disney’s Queen of Katwe. Were you able to find out the answers to your own questions through this interview? Have you seen the movie yet? Queen of Katwe is playing everywhere on September 29th, 2016

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A Quick Recap of the Movie

“Queen of Katwe” is the colorful true story of a young girl selling corn on the streets of rural Uganda whose world rapidly changes when she is introduced to the game of chess, and, as a result of the support she receives from her family and community, is instilled with the confidence and determination she needs to pursue her dream of becoming an international chess champion.

Recognizing Phiona’s natural aptitude for chess and the fighting spirit she’s inherited from her mother, Katende begins to mentor her, but Harriet is reluctant to provide any encouragement, not wanting to see her daughter disappointed. As Phiona begins to succeed in local chess competitions, Katende teaches her to read and write in order to pursue schooling.

She quickly advances through the ranks in tournaments but breaks away from her family to focus on her own life. Her mother eventually realizes that Phiona has a chance to excel and teams up with Katende to help her fulfill her extraordinary potential, escape a life of poverty and save her family. Disney’s “Queen of Katwe” will open in U.S. theaters on September 23, 2016.

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Directed by Mira Nair (“Monsoon Wedding”) from a screenplay by William Wheeler (“The Hoax”) based on the book by Tim Crothers, “Queen of Katwe” is produced by Lydia Dean Pilcher (“The Darjeeling Limited”) and John Carls (“Where the Wild Things Are”) with Will Weiske and Troy Buder serving as executive producers.

The film stars Golden Globe® nominee David Oyelowo (“Selma”), Oscar® winner and Tony Award® nominee Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”) and newcomer Madina Nalwanga.

Also don’t forget to listen to the #1 Spice Music Video which I’m sure you won’t be disappointed with. My kid’s and I love this song! You can’t help but dance when you hear it.

Like QUEEN OF KATWE on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/QueenOfKatwe/  

Follow QUEEN OF KATWE on Twitter: https://twitter.com/queenofkatwe 

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