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To tell Nigeria's true story, Towolawi brings Hollywood to Nollywood

By Nigerian Compas
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Screenwriter, director and producer, Niyi Towolawi, is a Nigerian-British filmmaker and chief executive officer of Multimedia Company, HekCentric Production. He is bringing the cast and crew of his new work, Sole Redemption, into the country for what he described as “a Nigerian Film with a difference.” The Ijebu-Ode, Ogun state born film maker whose earlier works comprise the Hollwood, title, TWisTED is an advocate of using films and the mass media sector to improve Nigeria's international image. REMI KOLEOSO met him in Ekiti where he is in search of ideal location for Sole Redemption and they discoursed his trade and related issues. Excerpts:

What was your inspiration for the film Sole Redemption?
My inspiration came from the time I spent as a child in Nigeria, where my father lived and worked. I was inquisitive and I enjoyed exploring and I found that the more I explored, the more beauty I found. As an adult, I realised from seeing Nigeria in the press and on TV that there was too much focus on negative aspects and not enough on the beauty I experienced whilst there. I felt there was an opportunity to show Nigeria on screen in a much more balanced light. Still within the narrative of a fictional story. I wanted to showcase some of these themes but with a greater emphasis on what isn't shown. Providing a contrasting and balanced view. I wanted to show the prevailing well against the bad. As a director, I'm all about contrast. I think it provides great impact. I felt I could really present some of the beauty of the country that is often missed and show the best qualities of the Nigerian population. I began looking at everything from the culture and the architecture to the villages and the wildlife. The germ of an idea quickly formed. I found myself remembering feelings, sights and sounds from my own experiences in Nigeria and thinking about how to convey them on screen to an average audience. I realised that there was so much potential for an adventure story with perils and resolution, emotion and excitement – the recipe for a Hollywood.

Why did you choose to shoot the film in Nigeria?
My father introduced me to Nigerian cinema at a young age. My grandmother owned a cinema in Port Harcourt (Rivers state) that screened Bollywood and Hollywood films. I cut my teeth early in the movie industry, with an emphasis on big Hollywood blockbusters. My research went from the creative side to the business side and I began to see the potentials of the Nigerian film industry. An industry both huge and thriving but seemingly untouched by Hollywood or indeed, any other foreign film crew. I see an industry that is self sufficient but eager to break out into the global mainstream markets. We could have shot in South Africa – a nation far more established for handling Hollywood films, particularly 35mm but in doing so we would miss out on the massive amount of positive publicity we could generate from shooting successfully in Nigeria. If we didn't do this now, there is every chance that another film maker would seize the opportunity soon. With my heritage I felt if anyone was going to do this, it would have to be me.

Why have you chosen to shoot 35mm and how will it affect your shooting?
First, I felt we still aren't truly in the digital era. Most of the films in cinemas today are still being shot on film. That is not to say that there isn't a place for digital and the trend is to move in that direction. We've been shooting on film for over a hundred years and shooting digitally for only seven, beginning with George Lucas' Attack of the Clones. He had a guaranteed audience and most of it was shot in studios with large parts of almost every scene being digitally replaced or enhanced. The same is true for the recent blockbuster, Avatar. Our best film crews were making films when there wasn't even a digital camera in existence. I believe the look of digital still doesn't quite match film, particularly in a bright outdoor environment such as Africa. The process of capturing images is fundamentally different and even if digital gets closer, it may never match the organic photochemical reaction of celluloid. Nigeria's thriving film industry means that it has many of the grips (camera supports) and lighting equipment that we would require. We may still have to bring in new equipment. Restricting the film to a celluloid release will also help control the illegal distribution of the film, which is something of great importance.

What is your background in the movie industry?
I've worked in the industry for many years, as far back as the mid 1990's. My work has mostly been in film and more recently, I've stepped into broadcast. Coming from a visual effects background, I've always been a part of the cutting edge technologies, most commonly as a supervising technical director. I've been responsible for directing crews to design and deliver major sequences of blockbuster Hollywood pictures including Harry Potter, James Bond, Indiana Jones and many more. In the last few years I have also been working as a producer which is an interesting balance between the creative and the business side of me. Having the strong visual/directing background has made the transition to producing flow very smoothly. The director in me wants to forget the organising and just spark emotions in audiences' world wide. I occasionally sit in cinemas and watch films I've worked on just to hear the reaction of the audience. It's comforting when the reaction is positive which thankfully, it has been every time, so far!

How did you find the transition from making visual effects to directing and producing?
I'm happy to say that it's been a very smooth and natural transition. I've gained so much experience over the years in the industry and worked on films with some of the great directors – the guys that inspired me as a kid – most notable Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. I've always been a part of the creative side of the business and over the years have been responsible for the entire design of a sequence right through to the cinema screen. You learn so much about what it takes to make an image look good on screen and how easy it is to get it wrong from your experiences. I come from a lineage of mainstream directors who also came from Lucas film. These include such visionaries as Michael Bay (Transformers), Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park 3), David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and many more. They all made that transition from VFX because they were people who thought visually and wanted to express that on screen. Directing and producing is about having the ability to keep your cast and crew in line with your vision. Self belief is also vital. You are the captain of the ship and if you don't believe in your vision, nobody else will!

What do you wish to bring to the film industry? What is your vision?
This is a film for mainstream audiences and the subject matter has global interest. It will be engaging and exciting, thought provoking and intense yet delicate and emotive. With foundations in classical cinema coupled with my own unique style. I want to give Nigeria exposure in a new light. I would like to encourage talented film makers from Hollywood and around the world to feel comfortable filming in Nigeria. My goal is that this film will provide a great backbone for a new generation of Nigerian film makers. We hope to be able to advice on strategy for encouraging the growth of the industry. The local talent can learn from our established Hollywood cast and crew and the bar can be raise. This should help the distribution of Nigerian films to the rest of the world. We have so much to offer.

Nigeria often gets portrayed negatively in the press, how will this affect the production?
It is true that Nigeria is often shown in a poor light. The press focuses on the negative side but I have lived in Nigeria and I have seen the other side. Some of my best memories as a child came from my time there. It was my desire shoot in Nigeria and I have made the necessary connections with my liaisons, HekCentrik. We must not be afraid to show Nigeria in a familiar light and then introduce the positive aspects through the course of the film. An audience will be more comfortable if they are presented with the familiar and gently introduced to new ideas.

Without revealing too much of the plot, I can say that all of the characters solve. Some even begin with stereotypical views of Nigeria which changes positively throughout their journey of discovery. Every film must have antagonists and protagonists. To avoid this would be naïve and leave the film flat and dull. What is important is to show that the negatives are in the minority and the positives are in the majority. Theater scenes and interactions depicting Nigerians as educated, thoughtful, courageous and caring people. The lead character, played by Nigerian actor, Oris Erhuero, is looked up to and respected as the head of the group. Other characters seek answers from him. He is a positive role model. We also need to be conscious of how movies project characters on screen. The press wants to accuse and blame. Movies allow stereotypes to remain on screen. And when we leave the cinema we do not carry that judgment. It remains in its fictional context.

How did you assemble your cast and crew?
We are currently in pre-production and looking at the availabilities of the cast crew and locking them down. I have been blessed to have worked in this industry for many years and on many major films with some talented and experienced actors and crews. I have created a network of contacts at the top of the industry. Having worked at major studios around the world I am able to choose the best places to do my post-production, which is essential to keeping production value high and helps to give confidence to cast and crew.

Do you foresee any risk in filming in Nigeria?
Every film is a risk, especially when shooting on location as so many things can go wrong. Shooting 35mm film in a hot country means special care needs to be taken of the film stock. Purchasing Insurance for the film will involve consideration of the safety of transportation of crews and equipment, and will be expensive for Nigeria. A successful shoot could lead to great publicity in foreign press. The cast and crew need to feel confident of the environment and able to concentrate on their work. We will need to ensure that we can send film stock on an almost daily basis back to London and internet networks set up to receive digital rushes. We are currently assessing the scenes and facilities available in Nigeria to ensure that we are able to capture the shots we want. The right equipment is vital to the production value. However we are confident that whatever we don't have access to, we will be able to bring in. Other than this, the standard risks apply to any location shoot and pose no more of a risk in Nigeria.

Where do you see the future of the Nigerian film industry?
I would love to see the industry expand outside Africa and to see more and more experienced film crews wanting to work in Nigeria. I would like to see the standard of story telling and production value really move forward and increase the accessibility to wider audiences. There are great stories to be told in settings that will be fresh to non-African audiences. This is exciting and a necessary route to tapping into the foreign markets. Movie making brings communities together, generates a local buzz and brings significant revenue with it. It can allow other local businesses to flourish even after production wraps. Continuing to expand Nigeria's film industry would encourage growth in what is already the second biggest film industry in the world and would help discover new, emerging talents. It would be interesting to investigate the practicality of a tax-rebate/tax-break scheme to encourage foreign film makers as is prevalent in many other countries.

Work piracy needs to be addressed. Above all, I think that affirming the security and safety of foreign crews is most essential to seeing the industry progress and once practices are standardised, I see the industry really expanding.