It all started with an article in ESPN Magazine by Tim Crothers. The article, which later became a book, detailed the story of an illiterate Uganda girl named Phiona Mutesi and how she survived the slums of Katwe through playing chess. It was a story of triumph and hope, where an underdog succeeded against all odds – perfect fodder for a Hollywood film.
After director Mira Nair shared the article with Ray Donovan writer William Wheeler, he flew to Kampala to meet Mutesi and figure out the right way to tell her story of abject poverty, peddling corn on the streets, losing her father to AIDS and living in a ramshackle shack with no running water or sanitation. In addition, he also had to figure out how turn this tale of hardship into a family-friendly movie for Disney.
Wheeler, himself competent in chess, knew he needed a winning strategy.
There are different ways you can approach telling a true story, especially one with living subjects. The writer’s job is to show both the good and the ugly parts of a person, which can be difficult if the writer gets too close.
“Sometimes the right thing to do is keep a little bit of distance and not necessarily become best pals with the person. You might need to create an aspect of the story that wouldn’t be that person’s favorite thing to focus on and I think it’s important to stay open to where the story is going to take you.”
But in this situation, Wheeler thought his best move would be to immerse himself in Mutesi and her chess coach, Robert Katende’s world .
“I wanted to get to know them as much as possible and trust that the story would come out of that, which it ultimately did. It was very different from other experiences I’ve been through before.”
Everyone who’s written about Mutesi agrees that she’s a very reserved person. Wheller calls her a, “Still waters run deep kind of a person,” which provides its own challenges when trying to get to know someone, but he says that Robert, in many ways is the opposite. “He’s an unbelievably friendly, garrulous guy who you instantly feel totally connect to.”
In addition to spending time with Mutesi and Katende, Wheeler was able to meet Phiona’s family and her mom, Harriet, who took him to several of the shelters that her family had lived in.
Though Wheeler admits the challenges facing the people of Katwe are certainly much more vast and varied than the filmmakers were able to show on screen, he said it was important not to shy away from the darker things.
“There was never a temptation to Disney-fy it. Even though it’s a PG film, it would have been unrealistic to not touch on teen pregnancy or prostitution. There are things you get glimpses at in our film that you don’t get even close to in other Disney films. Part of our challenge was wanting to show an accurate picture of Katwe. We shot almost completely in the slums of Katwe. There were non-actor kids in the film that grew up in the area. In every one of these decisions, a real effort was made to incorporate the authenticity of the place as much as possible into the story.”
But Wheeler knew he wasn’t tasked with making a dark, little indie film. This was an aspirational movie for a major studio. “Trying to find how our film could both be as authentic as possible and yet still tell an uplifting tale that wouldn’t be out of place in relationship to other Disney films like Miracle – that was the line we were trying to walk.”
And then there’s the game of chess that is a major character in the movie.
Fortuitously, Wheeler has a strong affinity for the game. “Chess was one of my favorite recreational activities my friends and I did in college. I went to NYU and about a hundred yards from my dorm was Washington Square Park, where you see really great chess players and hustlers who charge two or three dollars a game to play them. I spent a lot of time watching these characters. I was never really good, but that part of the story certainly felt like slipping on an old pair of shoes.”
I couldn’t resist asking Wheeler how being a professional screenwriter in Hollywood is like a chess game.
“Often times, in trying to navigate a career that for me, has gone in and out of the studio system, I’ve been involved in extremely independent films that never went near Hollywood, and I’ve also been very squarely in studio situations, it’s very tempting to just go wherever you’re wanted. But you need to be strategic in your career, the same way you think strategically in chess. It’s important to think about where you want to be in five years and the legacy you want to leave behind, which is hard to do sometimes.”
When asked what checkmate means as a writer, Wheeler laughs and says, “Checkmate doesn’t really apply to writers because you can always open up the computer and start writing again.”
Queen of Katwe opens wide in theaters on Friday September 30.