What was your perception of Nollywood before you became a film maker?
I must admit, I thought it was just fun and games. But it is hard work. These Nollywood people are something else. The foundation they have built is with little or no support from government, yet they’ve put Nigeria on the world map and contributed to increasing our GDP. They are our cultural ambassadors, our escape, and our lives. Three industries – banking, religion and Nollywood – work in Nigeria, albeit with lots of room for improvement. You just simply have to hand it to them.
How much has this view changed?
In recent years, new kids on the block are knocking on the door. They are bringing in new money, fresh faces, wide international interest and very new techniques. They are asking the tough questions and challenging the status quo. Kunle Afolayan and Izu Ojukwu in film, Chioma Ude of AFRIFF and Wangi Mba Uzoukwu of Africa Magic in the aggregator platforms, Kene Mkparu and Nnaeto in new cinemas. Change is inevitable. Let me not forget Adonis Production, of course in production. Those of them who don’t try to think that they are better than Nollywood seem to be making it. I think the trick is to tweak, not to try to take over. Nollywood is Africa and Africa does not need to be re-invented. What is changing now is that Africa’s voice, courtesy of Nollywood, is getting a lot louder. A few years ago, we had four cinemas in Nigeria. Now, we have 24 and by the end of the year, we will have 30. Not to talk of new cinema investment that is on its way. In Rivers State, we have a well-known local saying, “I dey there better pass them say.” Something is happening in Nollywood. If you blink, you will miss it.
What’s the toughest part of putting a movie together?
Getting the money. Too many of us who can help don’t. Too many who can lift up the next African Steven Spielberg, the next Spike Lee or the future Oprah Winfrey, see them as irrelevant, because they don’t get it. This industry is the next best thing. As politicians become more and more unpopular, less and less news will be watched and more and more movies will give Nigerians the escape they need. Our entertainers are already becoming more influential than our leaders. The brands get this. Nigerians need to get it too. Very few industries afford our youth the freedom that this one does. It speaks to their souls. We all need to understand that.
Politics, business and film making, how do you marry all these?
There is a link – youth empowerment. So, once you see it from that perspective, it shouldn’t surprise you. I love to create jobs, to get people working, watch them slowly building and feeding their families. Politics for me is what to do, the business has taught me how to do it because by virtue of listening to and telling the real Nigerian story, I understand why things need to be done. I am driven in all these areas. But at my core, the engagement of the younger generation encompasses all. It’s not work for me.
How do you balance them with family?
Good question. That is the hard part. But I have the most amazing family ever. They are my biggest fans, so my work is theirs. From my wife to my kids, to my siblings, to my parents, we are all in this together. They just loaned me out. It’s not a life choice, it’s just a project. And very soon, my work will be done.
‘Kajola’ is Nigeria’s first science fiction movie. What was the story behind it?
I came in as executive producer after the same team I worked with on ‘Nnenda’ brought this unique project to my attention. Adonis Production is synonymous with good stuff and so I naturally took a keen interest. But what appealed to me with ‘Kajola,’ was the tale of two cities, two classes, the rich and the poor. It resonated powerfully and I simply had to be part of telling that story. Trying new things is also one of the signatures of the Adonis team, so being a part of the crew that brought you the first full science fiction feature film was not an accolade I could reject.
What’s on your mind when you are making a movie?
It is, what message am I sending? To me, Nigeria’s, Africa’s biggest challenge is re-orientation. I want to use film to get you to have a rethink. I want you to use film to escape from the stress and I want to use film to keep people busy. ‘Nnenda’ was about orphans, ‘Kajola’ was about the poor while ‘76’ is about Nigeria. My hope is that as people watch these powerful films, they see what I saw, escape from the day to day hassles and then immerse them in how life should be. If we succeed, we will get more youths empowered and that is the ultimate goal. Over 200 cast and crew were used in ‘76.’ Apprenticeship programs that took place on set. Up and coming actors then, are now winning best actor awards now. Top directors today were associate directors then. We want to give to the industry. Not simply to take away from it.
Which has been the most challenging of your works to realize?
No doubt, ‘76’ by far. It’s the first movie we did on celluloid, first movie to be shot in an army barracks, first blockbuster in our pack, first movie to do a private screening within post production. First this, first that. But as it was challenging, it has also been very rewarding. To see the child grow into a man leaves a smile on the face. All in all it took us seven years to get here. I am my own worst constructive critic, but I can look back on ‘76’ and say, wow, we tried!
Why don’t you commercialise your movies?
We will. Content, as one media executive here told me, is king. It always has value, just like time. Nobody is in possession of any of our rights – yet. We will choose very carefully before we decide, but very soon, our films will be available for your viewing pleasure. You can count on that. Having said this, it is not all about the money. Alliances need to be built and we are almost there.
How are you able to fund other projects without commercialising them?
By taking small bites and not biting more than we can chew. Also by taking our time to get it right, when we can. The search for cash is a skill by His grace. It is neither by sheer strength nor by might. You can easily run into bad debts whilst searching for good money, especially if you talk to the wrong people. We handle long term money. So we have minimum pressure. As we build the right teams, funding for other projects will emerge, while revenue from existing ones will come back. Film making is a business.
At what point did you decide to do ‘76’ and what motivated you?
‘76’ is a game changer. It’s a new chapter in storytelling and the fact that it is based around real events is even more fascinating. So as a story, we already knew we had something there. I had worked with Izu Ojukwu on ‘Nnenda’ before and so I knew his pedigree. He is meticulous, prudent and world class. So I knew that with Adonis production in the lead, nothing could go wrong. That was why I got involved. The movie went over budget but that was due to changing locations twice and the need to satisfy military protocols. Let’s just say, getting the permission to shoot in a barracks was not as easy as we thought.
What was your experience getting the cast to fit into the 1976 setting?
That was the job for others. Mine was to give it a final nod and wink. Seeing the movie now, they put round pegs in round holes. Rita Dominic performed out of her skin, in her role as the officer’s wife. Chidi Mokeme, I am sure will make many new fans with what was an excellent portrayal of the life of a soldier in 1976. Of course it is now no secret what Daniel K Daniel is made of. He and Ramsey Nouah struck a bond on set that showed up in the final product. Ramsey killed it. He was out of this world. And the list goes on. I couldn’t be happier than with the cast and crew of this film. I love them.
The actors changed physically and all that over the seven-year period. How did you manage that?
Don’t let the makeup fool you. The cast were only there for six months of filming. One month prior to that was military drill exercises for the male cast. They wanted them, not acting like soldiers but actually being soldiers. That put them in very, very sound physical shape. This was critical for the authenticity of the movie. I know six months is an eternity in Nollywood but we wanted to build a family. And I think we did that. We had weddings, birthdays, child dedications and funerals on set. We had it all.
Why did it take seven years to do it?
For a variety of reasons. First, it was an idea in Izu’s head that required support. Adonai, the CEO of Adonis Production provided it. They then began to build on that until they felt they knew something that Princewill’s trust could add, which is where I came in. That process took a few years. Then you had a green light from us for pre-production which required the crew to now recreate 1976. First location was Adamawa, then Ibadan, before the Mokola barracks became our home. Refurbishing the cars, repainting the houses, putting the props in place and shooting without viewing all meant that time and lighting was critical to outcome. Months were exhausted. We spent a relatively short time shooting compared to pre-production and post-production. Due to the fact that we shot on celluloid, post production is in Munich, Germany. Good soup, na money kill am. [sic] [Laughter]
When you are not making movies, doing politics, business or being a philanthropist, how do you occupy your time?
I watch movies, play video games and listen to music. Running away from the girls is also a full time job. So many very pretty women, but I only have eyes for one, Rosemary.
In all you have done, what is the biggest thrill for you?
Running for governor, politics. It has the biggest impact, the largest reach. They say it’s dangerous, but not for me. I want to make things happen. Not watch things not happen. And politics is what gives you the opportunity. If you can’t stand the real heat, stay out of the kitchen. Unfortunately, we have allowed the lunatics take over the asylum so principled performers like me who are not mad enough to loot and kill are at a disadvantage. I’d rather lose than kill and steal, and people with money don’t have the guts to fight the system because the system can and does break them. The people are helpless. Remove the lunacy from politics and Nigeria will explode into the next level. But that will require the resolve of civilized Nigerians, an uncompromising international community and institutions devoid of interests. A long shot yes, but a choice we must make sooner or later.
When you ran for governor, what were your chances?
If we had an electoral body that meant what it said, people with resources who cared enough about their country to keep their promises and politicians who realize that their actions have equal and opposite reactions, I would have won. Without a card reader, we don’t stand a chance. With a card reader, we do. The three major parties had a debate, the first of its kind in Rivers State and I practically wiped the floor with Wike and Dakuku, without breaking a sweat. As the Labour Party candidate, I was being called by PDP and APC members to say, it was a landslide. I would make the best governor amongst us. But that is not what wins – because the people don’t vote. So I guess, my portion is to be the best governor Rivers State never had. Life goes on.
Are you likely to contest again?
No. Even if the people want me, the system either does not want me, or refuses to put in place basic fundamentals for people like me to emerge. Twice now I have put everything on the line for my state with little or no support from people who will benefit most from my emergence. How many times will I run for the same position at such a high price? There is a very fine line between determination and desperation and I will not cross it. If youth empowerment is truly my passion, I will find other ways to execute it and other people to support to be governor of Rivers State. Let me make it clear though, I will not quit politics or my supporters, but I am not desperate to be governor. Let us all make the bed we will lie in.