With the help of a great team, including fellow creator Xavier Ighorodje and director Dimeji Ajibola, these two ladies produced what is still the top TV show on the international streaming platform, two weeks after its release.
Featuring an impressive cast, the six part series tells a story of the harsh realities of the women, children and men living in a slum called Shanty Town who answer to men in power who live elsewhere.
With the formalities out of the way, we settle in for an enlightening conversation that begins with the genesis of the project and covers the journey to execution.
As the showrunner, Chi Chi takes the lead saying, “The idea came when I was speaking with a friend, she’s also on the story team, Shelly Ann. We were talking in my office and she spoke about something that was happening somewhere and I was like, 'Shelly, this can be a very good idea.' We talked and we left then I went home. This was about four or five years ago. I started to think about it so I brought in a writer, Xavier Ighorodje. Then, he started to work on the story with the story team to flesh out the idea that I had. Xavier is very good with storytelling. I give it to him. Basically, he is the creator of Shanty Town. He put life into it then sent me the first draft. I tweaked it and changed the name. It was originally called ‘Shark Town.’ Xavier did amazing job with Donald Tombia. That’s how we fleshed it out. It took almost six years from idea to execution.”
As executive producer, Ini got to see the script early on. Describing her reaction to the script, she tells me, “We had talked about doing a project together. So, she sent the script to me. When I saw it, I was like, 'Where we wan start from?' It was a brilliant but humongous. It looked almost impossible to achieve. I felt like it was too much so we kept it aside. We even went to another story. Eventually, we came back to this. We started by looking at the budget. Then, she assembled the most amazing, creative team that made this come true.”
Next, I ask both ladies about choosing to tell this particular story. For Chi Chi, its about freedom.
“We said we want women to be free. You said you have seen the first two episodes. You can see that the women were the people and the children were most affected. The hood rats started to carry guns at a young age. The women were being messed up with. We wanted to show that these negative things happening are affecting women and children majorly. We wanted people to know that this needs to stop,” she says.
Ini also weighs in, breaking down the importance and the need to tell this particular story.
“Also, I think that if you want to have a violence free society, you need to start with the children,” she states passionately. “We live in a society whereby kids are empowered to become armed robbers, political thugs, and assassins for the benefit of a few people who are sitting at the helm of affairs. These people literally create these communities for their own selfish purposes. It’s almost like nobody knows about these communities. They might be in secluded places, but that is somebody’s investment. These people in authority are all living in highbrow areas, training others to become animals while sending their own kids abroad. We felt like it was a story that was so timely, that nobody was talking about it for some reason. So the idea was just to bring it to light, and sort of find a way to get the attention to see if something can be done about it, at least, if not for anything self awareness. Its so sad because most of the people there, who are used for sex trade are not there out of their own volition. So, at the end of the day, where is this money trickling to?”
Longtime fans of the Nollywood industry know Ini as she has been around for a while, setting herself up as one of the best in the game. Now, the accomplished actress is adding a new feather in her hat by taking up producing. While ‘Shanty Town’ isn't her first attempt at producing, it is certainly the biggest project she has worked on yet as a producer.
On taking on both acting and producing, Ini says, “Well, when you work with the best team, it makes the job easier. When I go on set, I try to focus on the acting. That’s why I’m working with her because she made it possible. She made sure that I wasn’t bothered by anything and that I was focusing on what I had to do. So it wasn’t a challenge. Chi Chi and the rest of the team did an excellent job in making sure that I was not distracted.”
As a fellow Akwa Ibomite, it is only right that I ask about the decision to use our local language in her scenes with Nse Ekpe Etim.
To which she replies, “It was intentional. Come to think of it, we are never heard of. We are not the minority. I come from the most beautiful parts of this country. If I must say, our language is the sexiest language in this country. Then there is the food is everything. I just feel like we are not loud enough. Filmmaking, for me, is a platform, especially as a producer, where I have a voice, where I can decide what I do in the story and what not. I am determined to ensuring that the beautiful culture and the beauty that is Akwa Ibom takes its rightful place in this country. So if I’m going to make a film, my state must be represented in a positive way. Initially, the two characters were not AkwaIbomites; they were from Benin, as Xavier is from Benin. The writer is writing for his people, and I was like, 'No, it's not going to work.' So we literally just changed the two characters on set, gave them new names. Nse was most excited about the language part. In fact, at some point, I was like, 'Nse, e be like say e don too much.'"
At this point, Chi chimes in, “It just gave me hard work in post production.”
Smiling, Ini replies, “She kept calling me saying, 'Oh God, it’s so hard,' and I’m like, 'That’s how they do in Yoruba films.'
With this out of the way, we go back to the storytelling, Ini’s choices as an actor and as a producer to be specific. She tells me her movie inspiration and what informed her character.
In her words, “I did watch a film, Spanish film. That gave me a little idea of what I want it to look like. However, I’m a creative person. I had put Inem in my mind. Nobody asked me to cut my hair. That was something that I did because I needed to be Inem. I needed to be in that slum and I had to embody that character. I needed to leave Ini Edo aside and I wanted to be different. I knew that Inem’s character wasn’t about how she looked or her sex appeal. It everything to do with her strength, her zeal and her energy. She had the driving force to break free from there. So I saw her as somebody who was seeing herself more like a guy as opposed to seeing her as a girl.”
As an undercover cop moonlighting as Inem, the recently released sex worker, Ini has certain physically challenging scenes where she has to defend others or herself in the show. Chi Chi tells me that she had to train for six weeks daily from boxing to stunts.
Shedding more light on her preparation, Ini says, “We had hired two sets of martial art professionals, who did all kinds of trainings. Amazing people. For me, it was the believability for me. It was my high. I had found something that was that would take me out of my comfort zone. At first, I was scared. Then I got into it, I set my mind to it and I just did that. I didn’t want to have a lot of doubles. I did 90% of my stunts.”
With a few minutes left on the clock, we discuss the challenges that come with making a project of this scale.
Ini says, “There were financial challenges because the budget just wouldn’t stop growing and we were not willing to back down or compromise on the quality.”
Here, Chi Chi zooms in on one particular scene in episode two, the Danfo flipping scene.
“The danfo scene, for instance, was a lot," she says. "People were inside. So, we needed to do it once, only one take. Shout to our cinematographers.”
'Shanty Town' stands out for its memorable lines so its only fair that we wrap up with both ladies sharing their most best lines.
Laughing as she reminisces, Ini immediately answers, “That Nancy line where she says, 'Where I wan see 50 million? Where I wan take fuck the fuck wey go give me 50 million?' There is another line from RMD where he says, 'Dey no tell you say I no dey sleep with woman wey no wear to match.' Its the way he says it.”
For Chi Chi, it is a no-brainer. “Na you be Scar,” she says. Her attempt to say it just like Chidi Mokeme earns some laughter from the crew in the room as the producer yells, “Cut.”
I make my out of the room as the ladies prepare for the next journalist to walk in.
'Shanty Town' is currently streaming in 190 countries exclusively on Netflix.
*The interview has been edited for length and clarity.