As Yalies prepare to watch their favorite stars take the stage at the Academy Awards this coming Sunday, fellow Yalie Mace Neufeld ’48 will walk the red carpet.
Neufeld is the producer of “Invictus,” which is nominated for two Oscars for the performances of lead and supporting actors Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, respectively. “Invictus,” directed by Clint Eastwood, tells the story of Nelson Mandela’s first term as president of post-apartheid South Africa and how he unified the nation through the triumphs of the nation’s underdog Springboks Rugby team. Neufeld talked to the News on Saturday about producing the film, rugby and poetry, and his time at Yale.
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Q. What was your inspiration for making “Invictus”?
A. I knew a lot about Nelson Mandela, but I knew very little about the 1995 Rugby World Cup. I read the proposal. It was really interesting, so I called a writer who I had worked with several times before — Tony Peckham [who is] South African. I said “Tony, are you aware of the 1995 Rugby World Cup?” and he said, “Oh, that was one of the biggest events in South African history. I think it’s a fantastic story and I could really write a great screenplay.”
Q. Why look at the story of Nelson Mandela from the rugby angle?
A. I thought it was a great way to make an entertaining and at the same time an enlightening movie. You’ve got to first think of entertainment.
Q. Did you think an American audience would find the rugby angle a bit a difficult to connect with?
A. Well, I was concerned about that. But I thought that if the picture was entertaining enough and well publicized, and we had a great director and a great star and a great script and a proper marketing campaign, that people would go to see it. I also knew that rugby was big sport outside of the United States — in Europe, Australia, New Zealand — so I thought the game would be a big help in those countries, and that has actually proved to be right.
Q. How did you decide to make the movie center around the William Ernest Henley poem, “Invictus”?
A. Well, it’s a poem I happened to have memorized in public school. It turned out that Morgan knew the poem as well, and our director, Clint [Eastwood] also knew the poem, so that title was suggested by Tony Peckham early in the game. While we were shooting, we had a title contest. We probably got 300 titles from our crew. But Clint liked “Invictus” and Warners liked it, and so that’s what it became. It’s the basis of one of the wonderful scenes of the film when Matt Damon stands in the actual cell that Mandela had been in for 25 years, and in the voice over we hear that great Morgan Freeman voice reciting the poem.
Q. How would you describe your time at Yale?
A. I came to Yale in a very transitional period. I was in the class of ’48, just when the war ended. That first summer when I was up at Yale they dropped the [atomic] bomb, which I watched on television in the Silliman dining hall, which was my college, and then the veterans began to come back. George H.W. Bush [’48] came back. There were classmates of mine who were in their early 20s who came back as veterans in the GI bill.
I was an English major, which is very general, and my specialty — which was of no help at all in my career — was metaphysical poetry. I was on the swimming team. Along with another two friends, we started the film society. We ran films on a weekly basis. I was on … the campus radio station. I was a member of the Dramat, and one of the great things about being in New Haven at that time was the Shubert Theatre because we got to see most plays and musicals that went into New York before they went there. I wrote some music for a couple of Dramat productions. I took classes at the Drama School.
Q. How has Yale changed since you were a student?
A. I think Yale, based on my experiences since my daughter went, is a far better school as a co-ed school then it was as a boys’ club. I think the school got much more energized, and it became much more interesting and exciting as soon the women came in and started to change things.