About The Production
"William Wilberforce and William Pitt were both very young men, under thirty, when they took on the British establishment to bring about the abolition of the slave trade," says Director Michael Apted. "This is a great moment in British history, and I wanted to portray it as a generational battle—the young men taking on the older generation—like the Kennedys and their Camelot court were to America in the early sixties."
Michael Apted, a British director based in LA, was approached by Bristol Bay Productions to direct a film about William Wilberforce to coincide with the 200th anniversary (in 2007) of the passing of the bill that outlawed the slave trade in Britain and its Empire. "But," says Apted, "I wasn't interested in making a dull biopic. This is a great period in British politics. I wanted to make a film that showed how heroic and relevant politics can be, and that's impossible to do in a contemporary setting now that politics is so discredited. We have to make politics relevant to our lives—we ignore it at our peril. The only way to do this on screen was to make a film about a topic that no-one could argue was anything but a great and wonderful thing—the abolition of slavery. Nowadays we tend to see politics used for self-interest, but Wilberforce and his associates were able to maneuver their way through that self-interest in their opponents and form alliances to help them reach their goal."
William Wilberforce was a man of faith who considered retreating from the world to devote himself to religion. Apted explains, "He had a very strong moral drive, based on his religious beliefs, but Wilberforce moved in the real world and could form alliances with people he didn't totally approve of in order to get closer to his goal. He proved that although he was driven by a divine purpose to rid the world of this iniquitous slave trade, to execute this mission he needed to be strong, worldly, smart and political. A combination of Christian visionary and skilled politician, his overwhelming tenacity eventually let him reach his goal."
By coincidence, Apted had arranged to meet with screenwriter Steven Knight, whose work he admired, the day after he had agreed to direct the film. Knight was a fan of the director's work and had a particular interest in the period of history surrounding Wilberforce's life. They quickly agreed to work together and Knight tackled the screenplay. "When I'm writing an original screenplay I usually think of a scene and see where that leads me, but with a commissioned script based on actual events, the plot is already there; you know what is going to happen. So I decided to find the protagonist, Wilberforce, at his lowest ebb and see how he deals with it. His struggle took place over many years—he devoted twenty years to the Bill, bringing it back to Parliament over and over again. Europe and America were in turmoil, so we had to find a way to get from the beginning of his story to the end without turning it into a history lesson and without using the characters' dialogue to explain it all. Certain events had to be telescoped by finding a key scene and watching how Wilberforce reacts to what is going on." Knight's research into Wilberforce gave him many interesting details with which to furnish the man's everyday life. "He was a single-minded man who kept pursuing his goal and plucked success from the jaws of defeat. To most people at the time, the idea of abolishing the slave trade was ludicrous—like someone today suggesting that we abandon the internal combustion engine right now! At the same time he was an eccentric. He had a house full of sick animals and could never bring himself to fire any of his staff, so that by the time he was fifty, he had a house full of old servants, most of whom did nothing. And he would come home to find his house full of people he didn't know sleeping there."
Apted was determined to cast the film with British actors. "I
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