Chico Ejiro: Agric-Economist turned Movie Director
Chico Ejiro's love for movies seems ingrained from birth. Right from his childhood days when his mother used to take him and his elder brother Zeb Ejiro to the cinemas, he knew that his love for the cinema would be long lasting. Over the years, Chico has emerged as one of the best directors in the Nigerian movie industry, aptly tagged “Nollywood” by movie lovers. With over 80 movies to his credit, he has carried the nickname “Mr. Prolific”.
So, lights, camera, action, Mr. Chico “Prolific” Ejiro is my guest on Vista today. And as I walked into his office situated in Surulere, I couldn't wait to fire on all cannons.
We were both in high spirits; after the effect of Super Eagles victory over Benin Republic in the on-going Nations Cup. The interview was actually delayed because of the match. I later found out during the interview that Chico is a soccer afficionado. Okay, in simple English, a “football fan”. Well, I got down straight to business. How did he get into movies?
“I give thanks to God and my elder brother Zeb Ejiro who gave me the opportunity, right from the days of “Ripples”, as far back as 1988. Then, I was still at Ife. During the holidays, I used to come to assist them to shoot “Ripples”. So, from a production assistant to cameraman, to director. But from time, I have had the interest in movies, my mother used to take my elder brother Zeb and I to go and watch movies way back in Equatorial Guinea. So, from that background of NTA, Ripples and Zeb and other directors, like Fred Amata, Andy Amenechi, to mention a few, over the years, helped out too. It was great working under those directors”.
Did he ever, even in his wildest imagination think he would end up in movies?
So what was it he wanted to be?
“I read Agric-Economics in Ife. Along the line in life, one just discovered that one had interest in other spheres of life or professions. I worked with people who have been very, very encouraging, people like Alex Usifo, Richard Mofe Damijo, Babara Soky, Liz Benson, Victoria Iyama and my wife Joy, has been behind me. She gives me the push. And the audience have been great to appreciate what we do”.
What were the challenges he faced when he started and what are the challenges he is currently facing?
“When I started, the first episode of “Ripples” I directed had Barbara Soky and Alex Usifo, then they were big stars, I was scared and nervous working with people who I've been seeing over the years on screen. They tried a lot to encourage me, not to be too nervous. But now, I am more relaxed because I've made a name through the help of God and people. These days, we are trying our best, but we still have problems, in terms of professionalism in this business; technically, equipment-wise, even finance, so we are praying to God and hoping that with time, we would get better. Hollywood was not built in a day. And Bollywood in India too. With time, our own Nollyhood would get there. In Africa now, Nigeria number one. They should give us time.”
With over 80 movies to his credit, which movie is his most memorable?
I don't have any particular one, but I have a few I can count. “Silent Night” was one movie I loved because it was a very emotional story where a father had to sentence his own son to death by firing squad. There is another one entitled: “Festival of Fire”. I won an award with that one in Geneva, Switzerland. I also like “Full Moon”. To make “Full Moon”, I had to travel to many parts of Nigeria. I went to Jos, I went to Abeokuta, I went to a cave in Onitsha, I went to Oshogbo, I went to Sango Ota, I went to about six states of the federation to shoot just one movie. “Dutcast”, is another good one. There are so many that I can mention now.”
How does one start out as a director in the industry?
“You must be focused. As far back as 1988 when there was no movie industry, I've been there. Then they paid us fifty Naira per episode. From there, I moved to Megafortunes, where I earned two thousand per episode. So, I've been there. If you don't have the spirit to fight, and you give in any time you face an obstacle, you can't succeed in this industry. You must have a dream”.
Viewers complain about the constant repetition of stars, they ask can't we get fresh actors, new stars, why does “Nollywood” face that peculiar problem, and also there is this bandwagon effect when it comes to themes in Nigerian home videos?
“I don't agree with the public. Even in America, you still watch Sean Connery, Sylvester Stallone, Julia Roberts, you still watch Eddie Murphy, etc. So, you still have those old stars. Let's come back to Nigeria, we have new stars, Jim Iyke is a new star, Rita Domnic is a new star, Stephanie Okere that just won an award started last year. There are lots of them like that. But again, this is business. The marketer or producer is a businessman. In Hollywood, you have big corporations like Banks, when you want to shoot a film, you send in your proposal and they finance it. Do you know how we shoot films in Nigeria? If you are my uncle and you have money, I would walk up to you and say, borrow me 2 or 3 million. Let's be sincere with ourselves, how many banks would loan you that kind of money. Like Ameze, she sold her mother's land to shoot “Flesh and Blood”. So, if your dream in life is to be a movie producer and your mother gives you your father's land and you sell it, use the proceed to produce a movie and you bring back the money, what would you do? Would you go and use greenhorns? No. You will go for Ramsey Noah or RMD or Genevieve, because you're sure the people would first buy movies featuring those stars, so that you can recover your money. So, what I'm trying to say is that, we are businessmen as well, despite the fact that I want to make a new star, I would look for people too that would make me recover my investment at the end of the day. We don't have big corporations that would finance us. Sometimes, when you use new actors, viewers may not patronize the film.
Again, when you complain that we keep repeating the same stories, there is a bandwagon effect, which stories? We mirror our society. There was a time in America when people were shooting movies like “Independence”, “Armageddon”, “Asteriods”. They were all the same kind of movies, during the era of “Titanic”, they were shooting that kind of movies. So, it's like that all over the world. When it is love stories,70% of the movies that would come out would have love as its theme. When it was rituals, it's the same. Please Hollywood has existed for about a hundred years, we just started. I know we have problems, like professionalism, no manpower, no finance, no government support, piracy, no structures. So, the viewers should give us time. There was a time it was so difficult for Nigeria to qualify for the World Cup until people like Keshi went abroad and developed their skills and knowledge. So, it is like that all over the professions. We are not perfect. We are trying our best”.
What attracted him to his wife, Joy, whom he described as his pillar?
“Her drive in life. For instance, there were moments when I felt like giving up. Like when I shot my most expensive movie “Full Moon”, I spent N6 million to shoot the film. It was a big budget movie. When I released the movie into the market, it didn't sell the first week. So, I was scared. But my wife assured me to take things easy, that it would succeed. So, you need someone who would encourage you in such moments. Life is all about understanding. She has been very understanding and encouraging me”.
Is it true that movie directors ask young girls to sleep with them to get roles?
“It is not true. Let me take you to sports. If you run 100 meters under 10 seconds, you will be chosen. If you are good at acting, you would get a role. Again, I said it is business, you have to be extremely good, because if I put an audition here, you'd have more than a thousand people who would come for it.
If you want to sleep with
them, how many will
you sleep with? It is people who are not sure of themselves who would do that. So, if you are really good and you come for an audition, you will be selected. It is the truth”.
What's his typical day like?
“I drop my kids at school before coming to work. But at weekends, I watch football. I am a die-hard Arsenal fan”.
Being a successful director, does he face pressure from female admirers?
“I do. Sometimes they come and tell you give me a role, I will give you anything. But that is not what life is about. When a man mixes business and pleasure, he will fail. Business always comes first for me.”
Has he ever gotten to a situation in his career when he felt like giving up?
“Yes. During the shooting of the movie “Slave”. In “Slave”, a lot of things happened. It was a big budget movie I shot in Abakaliki. I spent three million Naira to shoot it with Infinity Merchants. At the end of the day, one actor died on set. After shooting, the actor jumped into the river and couldn't come out again. From day one, I had problems with the family of the deceased. And also the film did not do well. I lost my total investment. But that is life for you”.
So, how can people get into acting?
“Submit your pictures, come to auditions, or you join the Actors Guild of Nigeria (AGN).”
What would he not want to be caught dead in?
“Pyjamas in public”.
Is he a fashion freak?
“I just wear anything that comes my way, but I try to dress good”,.
What puts him off in people?
“Arrogance. And also people who talk too much and are not God fearing. I admire humility and I like to listen to people a lot”.
Years from now, where would he want to be?
“I pray that some day, I would shoot a movie that would have international recognition, a movie that would get me Oscar nomination, or Cannes nomination. That's my dream. Where my work would be recognised all over the world.