Obi Emelonye talks lessons from making Nollywood classics [Pulse Interview]
Almost ten years after the release of 'Last Flight to Abuja', its recent reception on Netflix is a reminder of its maker's greatness.
Despite owning credits to some of Nollywood's cinema classics, Obi Emelonye describes his filmmaking journey as arduous and filled with daunting challenges. His first foray into Nollywood was in 1999 with his first feature film 'Good Friends'.
Following the success of his debut film, the ace filmmaker continued to trudge through the industry, learning, unlearning and developing his craft. In 2011, he wrote and directed the acclaimed 'The Mirror Boy' (currently streaming on Netflix), a fantasy adventure drama starring Genevieve Nnaji, Osita Iheme and Edward Kagutuzi.
Months after 'The Mirror Boy', Emelonye embarked on the journey to making one of Nollywood's foremost cinema classics. From the development of 'Last Flight To Abuja', it was evident that the project would prove to be an industry game-changer.
Amid the countless challenges of making a film so daring, Emelonye reveals he felt saddled with the responsibility of telling the story.
"I felt my hand was emboldened as a storyteller to tackle technically-tasking themes that most African filmmakers have run away from in the past. I almost felt I could do no wrong", Emelonye said.
"How else can I describe having the temerity to take on crashing a plane in a Nigerian film, with our budgets and our level of technical expertise? However, I did not only stare the bold, ambitious project in the face, I also got some of the best players in Nollywood to believe with me".
In 2012, the box-office king was made with a budget of N40m. Undoubtedly, things have taken varying forms since 2012 but one aspect is certain, Investors were not as easy to find as they are now.
Filmmakers depended on their meagre savings to produce films and in Emelonye's case, his older brother, Amasike Emelonye, who is credited as producer, funded the herculean movie.
Productions of this magnitude are not without challenges. For principal photography, the original plan was to shoot using the carcass of a plane. The plane was supposed to be transported from Abuja to Tinapa in Cross River state which was the director's first choice location.
"When that deal fell through, I was forced to source a real aircraft. It would have been tough to get away with a make-believe plane set because most of the actions in the film happened on the plane.
"Through the help of the then airport manager of Murtala Mohammed airport domestic terminal 1, we were allowed to use a plane that was functioning but not in service at the time".
With a plane already in the mix, the production team had to get over 100 casts and crew security authorisation to allow for the shoot on the airport's Apron. Getting daily renewal of security checks for the massive production crew and casts for almost one week was exhausting but not as nearly catastrophic as shooting in uncontrolled environment.
"This led to the bleeding of our green screen onto the skin of the actors resulting in major difficulties in post-production. Another challenge was achieving visual realism in crashing a plane on a shoestring budget as well as mastering CGI, visual FX, original music and narrative grade.
Ultimately, 'Last Flight to Abuja' provided the challenge of managing the promotion of a delicate film when every sensible advice will be to the contrary. These challenges presented opportunities to learn and become the wiser and more experienced filmmaker that I am today".
On June 15, 2020, 'Last Flight To Abuja' began streaming on Netflix eight years after it first premiered in London. Unsurprisingly, the flick shot to top spot in its first week.
Reminiscing on the laborious distribution journey, Emelonye shares how the tragic Dana Air plane crash of June 3, 2012, forced the postponement of the Nigerian premiere and the downsizing of PR activities for its London release.
"'Last Flight to Abuja' was scheduled for a UK theatrical release two weeks after the premiere. However, I was racked by guilt, trying to promote a film about a plane crash when one had just happened. It is impossible to release a film without promotion and the result was that the cinema release of 'Last Flight to Abuja' in London did not work. After 2 weeks of listless performance at the UK box office, it was yanked.
"With the Nigeria premiere and release planned for August (2 months away), I was at crossroads on how to proceed with the project. Diamond Bank, my partners for the premiere advised that we should postpone the premiere and cinema release because the nerve of the Nigerian public was still raw.
"While agreeing that it was not the most opportune moment, I argued that 'Last Flight to Abuja' may be the longest-lasting legacy to those killed in the recent crash and the many that had happened in the past. Without the film serving as a constant reminder of the many catastrophic lapses that were allowed every day in the sector, Nigerians will easily move on with their lives and the past and its lessons will be forgotten. My partners bought my argument and the release was planned with gusto and a revised strategy that dedicated the film to the lives so needlessly lost".
The PR campaign of the film was rigorous this time with features on TV, radio, print and online platforms. Its premiere was covered by CNN as part of Emelonye's African Voices interview.
Recently, the seasoned filmmaker announced another gargantuan production- a biopic of the revered former head of state, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida.
'BADAMASI: Portrait of a General' was shot in Lagos, Minna, Abuja and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where Emelonye graduated some 30 years ago.
The biopic's production has since been trailed by media attention and after the push back of its 2019 release, a wave of Chinese whispers emerged.
"It took me nearly 4 years to convince General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (Rtd) to give me the rights to make this first of its kind biopic. But in the end, he did wholeheartedly grant that right.
"One of the lessons from 'Last Flight to Abuja' was that the timing of the release of a film could be one of the most important considerations in its journey to success. With that experience behind me, I have not worried too much when circumstances beyond our control meant that the release of BADAMASI was cancelled last year. This is because I know that we have not just made a film about one of the most controversial and iconic Nigerian’s alive, we have made history. And someday soon, that film will see the light of day and whenever that is, it would be more than a film release. It will be a cultural, political and historical signpost of Nigerian state".
Stories and productions in the works will continue to cost Obi Emelonye sleep. It is his creator's plague! At the moment, the director is putting together an inspiring film based on the Salesians of Don Bosco Roman Catholic order. The film titled 'The Oratory' may make its way to Netflix upon release.
Also in the works is an Igbo film and another production which has been in development hell since 2012. Emelonye terms it the "most ambitious film" of his filmmaking career.
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