Hello Lala, we’d like to begin this interview by congratulating you on the successful run of the Wives, which you produced, directed and starred in. Multi-potentates are plentiful in Nollywood but few are able to combine this with excellent execution.
Many people are also unaware that your production company ‘Make It Happen Productions’ has expanded into film, partnering with YNaija to release your debut short film, ‘FINE’. Why did you choose to transition now?
I don’t know if it is a transition. Make It Happen Productions was always created to tell all kinds of stories. We only chose to do this now, because the time was right, and we had the right partners and a cause we cared about. ‘Fine’ was the perfect experiment to start for us and we are glad with how the project has come out.
Women in film often highlight institutional barriers that prevent them from finding roles they would prefer to work on, sees them paid much lower than their male colleagues and having to navigate unsafe workplaces. Did these barriers inspire your decision to start your own production company?
I mean not really, I started the company because I am passionate about telling the African story on all platforms; television, film and stage. I have personally experienced the limitations of working in an industry like ours, and of course there are some roles I would like to play and there are some things I’d like to explore, and having our own production company makes that significantly easier.
Contrary to popular belief, women are actually doing very well in Nollywood, there are more female leads than male and because Nollywood doesn’t have a standardized payment structure, most actors have to personally negotiate their pay for a particular project so things are not as cut and dried as we think.
Financing is a huge concern when indie production companies choose to work on projects. How did your partnership with YNaija come about?
Well, we had made the film and after we made the film, we approached by YNaija and Joy. Inc. ‘Fine’ is a short film but it has a strong theme and a story that I think people should see, and YNaija is positioning itself as a platform that promotes and support the work of creatives in Nigeria. Joy Inc. has professional experience in mental health and they were the perfect partners to connect us to the professional community who spend their time promoting and educating mental illness. It’s a merger of goals on this project and mutually beneficial for all of us.
Why a short film?
Like I said, our goal is film, television and stage. But we started with a short film, it was my first time where I was executive producing a film alone, so choosing this length and medium allowed me learn on the job and experiment. Immediate gratification for me was not to smile to the bank, but affirm to myself that I can carry an idea from conceptualization to finished product. But don’t worry, we are working on our first proper film.
As a person in the film industry, whenever you finish a project there seems to be a sense of ‘surprise’ that you were able to pull through with your individual projects. Often genuine, that kind of consistent feedback must be annoying at the very least. How do you deal with it?
To be honest to them, I have honestly been growing and improving over the last few years, so their surprise comes from an honest place and is always couched in pride at the achievements I have made in 2019 especially. I don’t allow myself succumb to pressure from naysayers and focus only on the work I have ahead of me. That is the only way to truly cancel the naysayers.
‘FINE’ explores non-traditional expressions of depression. Why did you choose this theme for your debut?
When you are creating a story yourself, then you are in control of how the story is told. Having the freedom to make all the choices on how the story is told is important to me. I wanted to show another side of myself as an actor, and we are always reminded as actors that less is more, and that emotion is best expressed through stillness. Nollywood has not really explored stillness as a marker of depth and emotion. A short film allowed me stick to the theme at hand and not worry with subplots and keeping the audience entertained. I didn’t worry that the story we are telling would not be enough.
Nollywood has a terrible reputation for how it has represented mental health struggles, what precautions did you take to ensure that ‘FINE’ does more than contribute to the misinformation out there?
We were deliberate about not projecting mental health as a curse or punishment for doing bad as it often portrayed in Nollywood. But I would also ask that we offer some leniency to our fellow Nollywood industry practitioners, our industry was started by people who only had an interest in film and a willingness to get things done. They never had all the research or experience to influence their portrayals of mental health.
This is why I am putting ‘Fine’ out there, so that there is an example for how to handle mental health.
Did you worry that a short film wouldn’t quite do the topic justice?
No I didn’t. I wanted to make a film that spoke for itself and gave me the opportunity to truly express the themes of the film without the distraction of a subplot that would be necessary in a feature film. I am glad with how it turned out.
The current wave of Nollywood producers are established actresses leveraging their personal brands to release full length projects that allow them to show the range of their talent. You chose instead to centre Odenike, a relative newcomer to create your story, why?
‘Collaborations make dreams come true quicker’ is a mantra I have always believed in, and I want to actually implement this in my life. Odenike is a mentee of mine, I have watched her grow and her interest in film making expand. There is always the conversation of ‘How is she going to take a chance on a new comer, especially one who is a writer and director’. I felt I had to stand in the gap for Odenike, so I encouraged her to write the film and insisted that she direct and get all the necessary credits for the film.
If you watch ‘Fine’ on a proper cinematic screen, you’ll see that no expense was spared to ensure that Odenike was surrounded by the best and most experienced in the industry. Our film is a product of women helping women and I intentionally project the image of Odenike and I because our film is ultimately a collaboration of creativity between myself and her and the D.O.P. I am proud of her and the work that we were able to create.
‘FINE’ already debuted at Nollywood Week Paris, did you worry that our home crowd would feel slighted for choosing to introduce the film to the world in this way?
I didn’t worry about this. Our industry is still growing and we don’t really have space for films that are experimental and issue based. I have found that films of this nature, do much better on the film festival circuit. Nollywood Week Paris is a festival I personally love, and a festival that is very particular about how it promotes and supports independent film. We also showed it at the Mosaic festival in August. I want ‘Fine’ to reach as many people as possible and we are going to do a number of other film festivals before finally debuting it on YouTube.
Now that you are finally bringing it home, what are your hopes for how ‘FINE’ will be received?
I don’t know how the film is going to be received in Nigeria, but I hope that we will embrace the film with love and deliberateness. When the film was shown in Paris, there were quite a few teary eyes in the room. I really hope we are able to replicate that here in Nigeria.
What are your future plans for Make It Happen Productions? Do you intend to work on more film projects, or keep your focus on the stage?
We intend to do it all, really. We already have a structural functional model for our stage productions so that is the current anchor for our production company. But as I said earlier were are working on feature film projects, that will tentatively be released in 2020. There is a lot ahead of us at Make It Happen Productions.