Things I Learnt Directing Nollywood’s Biggest Film Of 2017, “The Wedding Party 2”
I know I promised to blog about my Wedding Party 2 filming experience immediately we wrapped. But I later figured it would be best after its had its cinema run and people have seen it. I am glad it was a huge box office success because for the first time since Kajola, I actually thought I was going to disappoint my producers and the audience again. Even though people felt strongly about the things they liked/not liked with the film, they still enjoyed it, gave it all their support and made it the highest grossing film of 2017.
I feel its important for me (and all filmmakers) to share experiences, good or bad. It helps everyone on the long run and that’s how we evolve. While sharing this story, I would digress from time to time to highlight some lessons.
A few days to the premiere of the first film, the producers had some issues with the film. They were post-production issues and much of it were detected a little too late. They needed to fix some problem with the audio, do some set-extensions and VFX. Some of the VFX work included adding Sponsor images into the movie on billboards. My very good friend and collaborator Naz Onuzo, who owns Inblot studio and had made a film with me “The Arbitration” some months earlier got the ELFIKE collective (ELFIKE is an acronym for EbonyLife,Filmone,Inkblot and Koga Enterprises) to reach out to me. Anthill studios was the only post-production house in the country who could fix the problems in record time. I already knew the guys at Inkblot and Filmone but had never met Mo Abudu. She made quite an impression on our first meet. Her attention to detail kept everyone on their toes. She spent over 4 hours sitting through the movie while we worked out all the issues. Luckily we fixed all the concerns and my working relationship with her started. Anthill went on to work on shows like EbonylifeTV’s ” Dere” doing lots of VFX work. We became their one stop shop for high quality effects work.
Months earlier, she was at TIFF with us in Canada and had seen “The Arbitration”. She had enjoyed it and even told Naz how much she loved it. She didn’t know who I was then or that I was the director. I also found out from my distributors that a smaller film I made with my own money “Meet-The-In-Laws” was about to air on EbonyLifeTV.
The Aribtration was a small film that did big things for me
LESSON 1: MAKE THE BEST OUT OF THE LITTLE YOU ARE GIVEN:
In order to save cost on The Arbitration, I agreed to collect a lesser director fee and opt for a small percentage share. I gave that movie everything I had and it was a huge success. I laugh whenever I remember that We almost didn’t make the film. The second film, Meet the inlaws, I made with some money I had gotten off documentaries. I wanted to see if I could make a good comedy (I love all genres). but wanted it to be a TV film. People’s response to the films gave me so much confidence as a director but more importantly, these two films would be crucial to having me on board the Wedding Party Sequel.
A few months after the first Wedding Party film, I got an email asking if I could come pitch for The Sequel. They already had a story treatment and a script. I actually didn’t know how to react. Yes I knew how to create treatments but how do you make something that’s already the best even better. I thought Kemi Adetiba had done a great job with the first one and wasn’t even sure if it needed a sequel. I called up Naz and he said he wrote the script. He also said the ELFIKE collective had seen all my work and thought I was a good candidate for the next one. But he emphasized that I needed to impress since I wasn’t the only one invited. Up till then I had never had to face a panel to get a directing gig but I figured it would be piece of cake. It wasn’t. I made a 10-page treatment of what I thought the sequel could be, including color schemes, choices of cast and locations. I even got my concept artist to do a cover art for me. You can download the pdf of my treatment hereTWP2 director’s treatment 3 if you care to know what a directors treatment looks like.
cover page of my director’s treatment
It was a calm panel and I gave it my all. I wasn’t sure I was convincing enough because one of the big questions was if I had ever worked abroad or with a foreign crew. Me…ordinary Nollywood director. I could only explain that i would give it my best.
After months of waiting, I found out I didn’t win the pitch but they still wanted to work with me in post. That was fair enough I thought so I went back to my Anthill business.
Late April, 2017, Anthill had started work on “The Adventures of Lola and Chuchu”, an animated series for kids when I got a call, first from Naz asking if I could come direct TWP2, I laughed and almost cut the call. I didn’t need that kind of joke that day. He said it was serious and the shoot needed to start 5 days later. Ha! He asked if I was going to do it. Which kain wahala be this…I told him to let me consult my ancestors, he said there was no time. I said he should give me some. Almost immediately he dropped the call, Mo Abudu called and said, Niyi we need you to come direct this film. Infact, she needed me to come see her immediately so we could talk. How do I make Nigeria’s next biggest film with 5 days of prep. There was no postponing. Everything was locked down and a schedule was ready. I definitely can’t say no to Naz, we’ve made great films together. And this was also an opportunity to work with the ELFIKE collective. I decided to throw everything in. That’s a once in a lifetime opportunity as far as I was concerned. The only demand I made was to be in a fancy hotel immediately so I can think. Luckily I had read the treatment so I knew what the film was about. They gave me Protea hotel and of-course, work began.
I read the script twice that night and started shots breakdown till like 5am in the morning. The next day, I did what I always do on every film, try to understand the vision of the producers. Naz had written the story so we spoke on phone but having seen Mo’s involvement with the first one, I asked that we meet and talk.
TWP2 had amazing producers
LESSON 2: A FILM IS FIRST A WRITER/PRODUCER’S FILM:
Most hired directors make this mistake. They get excited about the nature of film authorship and forget that before they get called into a project, a writer had first conceived the idea most likely with a producer and they both have a picture of what the film can be in their heads. A director’s first job is to complement that vision. I learnt this doing corporate videos and documentaries. Most times, with corporate clients, you are working with non-film people but because they have all seen videos and documentaries on TV, they assume the know what they want…or what they think is good for them. I learnt that it was important to be clear with a client on what they wanted and then add layers of your creativity to theirs or help them see a much better picture. The process must always be collaborative.
The first question I always ask producers is, “what do you want to achieve with this movie?”. You might be thinking a producer wants to make a movie for a certain reason and be all wrong. Always ask and be clear. For TWP2, Mo echoed the general thoughts of the collective. It needed to be an international movie. It needed to retain the glamour and fun of the first one but be equally appealing to an international audience. They wanted a film to open up more screens for Nollywood in the UK. She also highlighted her personal preferences in a film, from costume details to even camera movements. It was also important to her that a strong romantic story was not clouded by too much slapstick. It was a lot to take in but I figured I would try. What gave me goosebumps was when she started talking about bits in “The Arbitration” and even my small movie, Meet the in-laws that she liked and how she wanted some of that directing in TWP2. She was very detailed about them and ended up saying, I’m very confident you are the right person to make TWP2. Imagine if I hadn’t made those films.
Then the emails started flying in. I needed to go see all the locations. Check all the costumes. All these while prepping my shot list and all. I also needed to meet crew within a short time. I was informed the DOP was Malcolm Peters, who had worked on Ebonylife’s first feature, Fifty. I was given a list of gear to be used and because Anthill studios was also handling post, I was asked critical questions about the camera. It was a Sony PMW f55. I had never used it before and no one had it in Nigeria but I knew it was the camera of choice for most Netflix features so I did what I knew to do best, research. This was roughly 3 days to shoot.
LESSON 3: AS A DIRECTOR, TRY TO BE THE SMARTEST PERSON IN THE ROOM:
Have you noticed how some of the biggest directors in Hollywood got their names out there by working on very technically challenging films. Hollywood directors are very sound technically and a lot of them had backgrounds in cinematography, editing and regular behind camera work. I had to research the camera. It was a 50 paged manual but I read the important parts. They were also bringing gear I had never used before so I read it all. This was important because if I was working with an international crew, I needed to know exactly what we were working with and speak their language. If you don’t know what you are doing, oyinbos will run circles around you. They can be a bit condescending so know exactly what you are doing. I also researched the DOP and found all his work online. I saw some of his work that had similarities to what TWP2 can be.
In my first email exchange with the DOP, it was very clear to him that I knew exactly how I wanted to use the camera and gear he had selected and he was happy I had gone through his work. Everyone likes that.
We had a cast and crew meeting. I had worked with a few of the cast before and “The Arbitration” reviews had made me look like I knew what I was doing so we had a great time discussing the movie. I also ensured I asked each of them what they thought the sequel could be and took notes. During the meeting however, I could sense some tension particularly with Sola Sobowale. She was the star of the first one and was a little worried if she could top her previous performance. We all didn’t exactly know how the audience would react to this one and the actors particularly needed to be sure I would guide that process. This was tough…really tough…we would either make a great sequel or crash badly.
talk to your actors privately
LESSON 4: TALK TO YOUR ACTORS PRIVATELY AS WELL:
This has been my common practice but I was glad it worked on a big movie. Most times in cast meetings, actors don’t exactly say how they feel about the story or even co-actors. I noticed its best to reach out to them individually. It also helps them trust you and it makes the filming process easier. I spoke to some on phone and visited some in their rooms. Sola at a point almost had a melt down when I was with her. I spent over 2 hours assuring her people will love her as much as they did in the first one. Trust me, it is not easy making a sequel of a film people already love and own. Actors, even the strongest and oldest of them always approach new projects with some anxiety. In a film where there are so many stars, its important to be re-assuring and let everyone know that they will have moments to shine in the film.
The shoot started quite smoothly, I had never worked with that size of crew before. One of the things I did that helped was to always have an early meeting with the DOP. We would meet at breakfast in protea and I will share my notes and doodles with him. This allowed me focus on the actors mostly while filming. Malcolm did a great job managing the crew while working with our crazy schedules. The shoot also went smoothly because I never for once pretended as if I knew what the next film should be. I preferred to let the stars who made the first magic recreate it. I was mostly helping them stay on course with the story rather than giving precise directions on what to do. I figured it was the best approach and sometimes I made them go overboard knowing I could always cut down in post.
Trust your actors and they will trust you
LESSON 5: WHEN FILMING COMEDY, ITS IMPORTANT NOT TO CUT THE FLOW OF ACTORS.
Comedy is largely character driven. Because I am an editor, most times I already know what will make it to the edit so I can allow for some adlibs. Most times the funny bits in a comedy are the ones not scripted. You can’t stick to the book on comedies. Still on editing, The Dubai shoot reinforced what I have always believed and preached. Every director must learn editing.
Ebonylife has a great crew. They were very professional and made my life very easy. The producers Temi Abudu, Priz Zim and Tope Oshin (consulting producer) were always available to solve problems. We also had Heidi Uys, the AD and Programmes director at EbonylifeTV who kept everyone on their toes so we could meet deadline. They all made the process easy for me. Because I had only worked on small budget films before then, I would micromanage a lot. It was very liberating working with professionals and the Lagos shoot went without hitches. I even got a free goat as gift. The real challenge was Dubai.
First, Visa wahala. I was only given 14 days and we had 12 days scheduled to shoot in Dubai. They weren’t going to extend it. This meant I only had one day to recce the location and meet the crew. There was a great partnership with Dubai tourism and they put us in really fancy hotels. One of the smart things the producers did was put me in the hotel that had the most scenes, the Atlantis. I can do an entire post on that experience lol. Work began immediately. I ensured I had enough space on my phone to take videos as we visited the key locations in the film. Later that night, I met with the dubai crew from AKA media. I noticed something there that day. They had a huge board on the wall with TWP2 written on it. They broke down everything everyone had to do. They made sure everyone was aligned and could clearly see it when they resumed work. I thought that was really cool and it’s a process I adopted for Anthill. We hardly have production offices for our Nollywood films. I think that for a production, its important to have one even if its to rent for a short while.
LESSON 6: ALWAYS WORK ON SMALL NOLLYWOOD PROJECTS. THEY HELP YOU PLAN FAST.
The other challenge was the shooting hours. This was Dubai. We could only finish shoot at a certain time. If we added more hours, we would have to pay the crew extra (when will Nigeria be like this). This made planning very essential and I was forever grateful to my learnings as an editor. There was no time to dilly dally. If a location gave you 2 hours, they would kick you out once you exceeded it. Some of the crew also didn’t know exactly what I was doing and why I was doing them but I had scenes edited in my head. It was the only way we could meet the schedule. One funny example was the airport scene in Dubai. They put us in a waiting area while we were waiting for the allocated shooting area. Then the process took forever and we had a later shoot. After two hours of waiting, the Nollywood director in me took over. I had to convert the space we were given to wait as shooting area. Abeg oyinbo airport is fine everywhere. The Dubai crew didn’t like the idea but we are Nigerians plixx. Allow us do our work. If I hadn’t done all the small Nollywood productions and learnt a lot on the field, the dubai shoot would have been hell. Another fun one was the man in the fish tank in the accidental proposal scene. The script wrote a banjo player but I had visited the restaurant the night I arrived, drank juice (the food cost die). And I saw they had scuba divers at certain points come to clean the tank. I had to get the precise time and told them whoever plays it gets to be in africa’s biggest movie. I changed how the script wrote the scene just to shoot this. That’s what you learn when you work on small Nollywood projects
LESSON 7: WE NEED TO DO BETTER WITH SETUP TIMES:
One particular thing I got from the Dubai experience was the quality of the Dubai crew. I still can’t place it but the setup times were really fast. I noticed this was likely due to the fact that everyone got their hands on the job. The Steadicam operator carries his Steadicam. The DOP carried his camera. There was no oga.
This is one thing we don’t do well here. Too many ogas on set believing its not their duty to move stuff. It was hard to know who the heads of departments were on the TWP2 dubai crew. Everyone was just working. That’s good practice. In minutes, a dolly and track was set up and moments after you say cut, everywhere is clear. There was no wasting of time and people weren’t using their phones while working. We are all guilty of that here. This was also where I saw a lot of the stuff I put in my recent post about alternative money making in Nollywood.
LESSON 8: PUBLICITY AND MARKETING IS A PRE-PRODUCTION ACTIVITY
Guy’s I’m just going to give it to you straight, no one else understands film marketing like the guys at Ebonylife films. Most people do theirs after the film is done. Wrong move. Also they didn’t just put a random photographer on set to do BTS. They had an entire crew. Every single photo and video taken was deliberate and scripted. Even the cast and key crew were put in the loop from the beginning. You will notice we were all part of the marketing. If you don’t sell your film big, no one will ever think of it as a big film. Most times we complain about comedies selling in cinemas. We fail to realize only the big ones are doing well and they take their marketing seriously. Even the announcement that I was replacing the original director made news to get people interested in the project. Nothing was accidental. Every SM post, blog, press whatever you saw was deliberate and scripted. I can’t produce movies or anything the way I do before. Regardless of the size of your film. Plan out your intentions to make people see it ahead of time.
Dubai went smoothly eventually and we made the film. While filming in Dubai, the Lagos edit was already complete. The next part was working on the final edit. We made a 2hr 40minutes film and had to trim down to 90mins. Its one of the hardest phase of the process. It was even harder because you had three active executive producers on the work and all their opinions mattered . When we saw the final film, we all knew we had made something quite remarkable but we anticipated that the audience will not forgive us for some bits. You can’t please everyone but at least make it worth their time and money. More importantly, we knew we had achieved some of our set goals about making it enjoyable also for Nigerians in diaspora. The movie surpassed all expectations at the box office and finally I could add Director of Nigeria’s biggest movie to my name. I have also been privileged to work on EbonylifeTV’s big upcoming legal series, “Castle and Castle” thanks to the TWP2 relationship, I’ll blog about directing for TV soon.
Whenever I think about the journey that had led me to that point, I become grateful for every experience working on the small films that led to this. I am very excited about some of the projects I’m working on this year. Some will be very big and some very small. Some will be comedies, some will be gritty dramas. I can’t wait to share them with you all.