True stories provide fertile breeding ground for awards-season contenders, but few biographies are as rich and strange as that of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, who spent 14 years in Guantanamo Bay on flimsy terrorism charges as the U.S. fought an often-directionless war on terror. The story of how he came to be tracked and renditioned is extraordinary enough, but Kevin Macdonald’s drama The Mauritanian focuses instead on Salahi’s fight for release, starring Tahar Rahim as Salahi, Jodie Foster as his defense attorney Nancy Hollander, and Shailene Woodley as her aide Teri Duncan.
Macdonald explains during the STX Entertainment movie’s panel at Deadline’s Contenders Film awards-season event that he was approached to adapt the book by Benedict Cumberbatch’s production company Sunnymarch and was immediately impressed.
“The book was a bit of a bestseller about four or five years,” he says. “I was aware of it—I’d read some extracts—but I hadn’t read [the whole thing]. So, I read it and I thought it was a fascinating piece of writing, because it’s an insider’s view of Guantanamo—a really very, very personal view of what it’s like on the ground. But also you could tell that Mohamedou was a real writer from it.”
However, Macdonald, who was joined on the panel by Oscar winner Jodie Foster and Rahim, says it took a conversation with Salahi to convince him to go ahead with the project.
“I thought, ‘I don’t know enough about this subject matter. I’m not American, there’s been a lot made about the war on terror, and I’m not sure if we need another movie on this.’ And then I spoke to him—I had a Skype call with him, and he was so fascinating and appealing and warm and very, very funny. And I was like, ‘Oh, this man is amazing.’ And actually, that’s what drew me to want to make the film—he’s such an extraordinary person and not just a survivor of this experience.”
Check out the panel video above.