Expat South African writes Invictus and Sherlock
South African Anthony Peckham has penned two of the most talked about movies currently on screen in South Africa: Clint Eastwood’s Golden Globe and Oscar nominated Invictus and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, which won Robert Downey Junior a Best Actor Golden Globe.
Anthony, a Westville Boys High School and UCT alumni, left South Africa to study screenwriting at San Francisco State University “in the deepest, darkest days of Apartheid.”
As he says, “I’m one of those 25-year overnight successes. If you can stay in Hollywood long enough, good things happen.”
After penning the relatively unknown The Assassin (1990), Tony’s break came with Don’t Say a Word, a 2001 psychological thriller starring Michael Douglas and Brittany Murphy (RIP), based on Andrew Klavan’s bestselling novel. He also wrote 5ive Days to Midnight, a 2004 TV miniseries with Timothy Hutton and Randy Quaid.
Tony says Invictus producer Mace Neufeld approached him to adapt John Carlin’s book about the 1995 Rugby World Cup because “I was the only South African screenwriter he knew, who might conceivably have played rugby.”
Despite actually disliking rugby, Tony was gripped by Carlin’s story. “I fell in love immediately. A book proposal is usually pretty dry reading, but I was in tears. I’d spoken to my brothers in South Africa but I didn’t know who Mandela was when I left and I hadn’t watched the World Cup final. I didn’t understand the enormity of what had happened until I became involved in the project. It allowed me to resolve some issues about my country, to deal with my inner South African.”
Tony’s traditionally worked as a thriller/action writer, so the genre elements immediately interested him. “What appealed to me was that we’d be able to talk about Nelson Mandela and South Africa through the prism of a sports film, so whenever I got bored I could have a rugby match. It’s not strictly a sports story, but it definitely unfolded like all the best of Hollywood sporting clichés, with the underdog being inspired and coming through against all odds.”
The political element is equally fascinating though. Tony explains, “Mandela realised he had a perfect opportunity to address the part of the electorate that had not voted for him… that, in truth, feared him. White South Africans followed the Springboks religiously, so to use the forum of the World Cup was brilliant. But it wasn’t just a game; it was the fact that Mandela embraced a team that black South Africans hated and almost by force of will dragged all of the people into following them.”
While Tony believes being a South African was crucial to his role, he adds that his perspective as an expat also helped. His breakthrough moment came after realizing: “I’m not writing this script for my brothers in South Africa; I’m writing it for the rest of the world. That was very liberating because I could always hear this critical voice saying, ‘You’ve left this out’ or ‘It wasn’t like this.’”
Tony certainly didn’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. “I added fictional characters to illustrate certain things. I made much more of the story of the integration and bonding of the bodyguards than Carlin does, and I’ve included Francois Pienaar’s parents as recurring characters, who are actually entirely fictional; I used them as my Greek chorus of the standard South African reaction at the time. I’ve also added in a child who refuses a Springbok jersey in the beginning at a charity handout, even though it’s the last item and he’s freezing; we follow his journey with Ama Bokke Bokke.”
He says the biggest challenge was marshaling the masses of material. “I’m sure everyone in New Zealand will say it’s typical that I didn’t put in something about the All Blacks’ food poisoning, or being poisoned, depending on who you talk to, but there just wasn’t space.”
Another problem was that “a lot of the material was true, but so unbelievable. I was attacked all the time for stuff that I put in, like when the 747 flew 200 feet over the stadium with ‘Go Bokke’ painted on it. In the end, I started putting in brackets: ‘This actually happened.’”
South Africans will all know how Invictus ends. “Everyone knows the ending instinctualy; that’s genre. It doesn’t worry me. Mostly I just hope it’s moving. I’m trying to capture the emotion of being there at that moment in time. Reliving that journey from the inside was moving for me.”
Working with Clint sounds like any writers’ dream. “What you see on screen is a second draft, which was just a deepening of what was in the first draft. Clint doesn’t take on a script if he thinks it needs changing. What I wrote is what he shot, which is absolutely unheard of.”
Originally published in The Callsheet