Meeting Niyi Towolawi was fun. The movie director who left Nigeria at the age of 8 not only has this amazing movie, Turning Point but still maintains his African roots as he said sometime during the interview; “I don’t eat spicy food but I can eat Amala like every single day”.
The group of journalists, including myself had gathered in a room that served as a conference room to quiz and probably find what the “Turning Point” in the movie was. No one got the answer that day – even when a journalist put the question forward, Niyi‘s answer didn’t reveal: “It’s left for you to decide. You know I can’t give that away”, he said.
When we started to put out our recorders on the table, right in front of him he would somewhat jokingly abject; “This is what scares me. Normally I point cameras at people and I just scream ‘action’ and ‘cut’, ‘do again’ and ‘action’. But Niyi gave a detailed talk and answers to our questions on Turning Point. We hope you love the interview.
SHOOTING “TURNING POINT”
Turning Point was a project that started in 2011. It was set in New York and Nigeria. We filmed in 3 states Philadelphia, New York and Delaware and we filmed in America for 5 weeks between October and November of 2011. The plan was to start shooting in Lagos first week of January 2012 but that didn’t quite happen because of the whole fuel subsidy problem. So we came to Nigeria eventually to shoot in March – the last week of March – we shot in Lagos for four days. The Nigerian scenes were actually better than the American scenes. So that was done about nine months ago and a film of this type takes time to basically complete so we spent April and September doing the post production. We had a UK premiere tagged 12/12/12 because it was on the 12th of December, 2012. We had that premiere at a very prestigious venue called the Indigo with about 1,600 people; the place was packed out. All the cast of the film came as well. Yes we had a huge premiere in the UK and thought, why not do something in Nigeria and not just Nigeria, we’re working with other African countries.
BUILDING AN EFFICIENT NIGERIAN CREW
As much as it’s something to actually boast about, it’s unnecessary that I couldn’t find 20 people that work in the industry to shoot a film of this caliber. I had to get the head of department from the states to come down and then have them work with very talented Nigerians who unfortunately don’t have enough exposure to handle a project like this. Again through workshops and training, you get more films of this type of quality and that would happen naturally.
My first film was Twisted. I shot that in 2007 for 21 days (that was done with a Nigerian type of crew) and before doing that, I had to offer to do a 2-day training to all of the crew but they said ‘If you don’t pay us, we’re not doing it’. Now it was good because a lot of them have gone unto big things now. He speaks of one of them who has moved to South Africa and upon meeting him, Niyi told him about a movie he was shooting but he had refused saying, “Guy you can’t afford me anymore’. And he laughed and he was very grateful because I trained him. We do need those people here. It’s cheaper to actually train people than to fly people.
GOING TO THE CINEMAS
We’re planning to premiere in Nigeria in March or April. We are looking at South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana. Zimbabwe might even happen. There will be premieres, workshops, seminars and any other type of event or activity that lends itself.
THE NEW NIGERIAN CINEMA
I did Twisted in 2007 and pre-production was in 2006. People now talk about the new Nigerian cinema and they reference that as being the first one because the film was made before there were cinemas in Nigeria and it was the first film to actually do a UK release. It was a very small, humble film, really. That showed the possibility of a huge market because as of 2007, there were over a million Nigerians living in just London alone so the market was there. Obi Emelonye who made Mirror Boy (2011), obviously saw that – he was running a TV programme and they came to cover the premiere in the UK; that did extremely well and other people just built on top of that platform.
WORKING WITH THE NIGERIAN CAST (DIFFERENCES IN CULTURE)
I would, without a moment’s notice, work with all of them again. I focus so much on the story and the characters as opposed to acting but having worked with all of these people and got that experience, I can actually write characters for them. It was very delightful.
Obviously, the production style of Hollywood and Nollywood are very different. We had Hollywood days and Nollywood days but most of the time, it was a mixture of the people. Fine, you could tell that there was a difference in culture but in terms of professionalism or work ethics, it was good.
GETTING THE CAST FROM NOLLYWOOD
It was much more difficult, yes. It’s ridiculous. I knew very little of Nollywood – I thought I did know a lot. As of 2006, I thought there was a place in Lagos called Nollywood. I was looking for it and ended in Surulere. Making this movie, the first character that I was trying to get was Jackie Appiah’s character. I described the character and people mentioned Mercy Johnson.I did a Google research of Mercy Johnson and saw pictures of Jackie Appiah and thought it was Mercy Johnson. I then met with a lady who works with a lot with Nollywood actors. She put me through and said although, Jackie wasn’t Nigerian, she was very good. Mama Gee (Patience Ozokwor) was the only Nigerian that I knew before so there was no second choice, really for that character. So that was molded around her. It’s much more difficult because the Americans for example have agents and managers and they all belong to very strong unions and you have access to them (not their phone numbers), their machineries that you contact to send them scripts and if they like the script, it goes on to the next level and next level but otherwise here, if you’re looking to contact Mama Gee, you send a broadcast on your blackberry and someone says I know this guy who knows this person who has her number and all of that, which is a bit of a farce, really. So those things need to change.
THE IDEA OF FEATURING NIGERIAN ACTORS IN THE FILM
Film generally is a mirror of reality, if you will. I mean I grew up in London and there are certain experiences that I have that you wouldn’t if you lived in Lagos. I lived as a child so there’s that comparism that I actually have and something that is very much prevalent in Europe and America now is like the plight of the black person in the Diaspora, so to speak. Europe and America have similarities but they are different also and it was nice to actually set this in America and what that gives you is that extra dimension whereby you have Africans and other black people that are African American and even though they might look identical, they are very different human beings with different types of thinking and what generally happens in America especially is that Africans out there, like to get educated and get good jobs from that and what not but a lot of African Americans especially those from a working class background apparently are more likely to end up in prison than college, that kind of thing, so they look down on Africans because they are immigrants and are meant to be dirty but Africans are more educated and they speak better, they live better. So there’s that tension and that conflict. Now you being in America all your life, you’re forty and some JJC (new comer) person comes in six months later and he’s driving a Lexus, he’s got mortgage, he’s a bank manager and you feel the need to loathe that person for that reason – that’s an example. So this gives us that extra dimension because if the film had been set in Europe, that tension would’ve only been on a racial level which is so obvious because if we say where is the Oyinbo (white person) in the film, there’s no second person you’re actually looking at but if you say where’s the American in the film, you start thinking maybe that guy, or that person.
CHOOSING THE ACTORS – ONE BIG GAMBLE
I think every single person including myself believes it was a gamble but obviously, it’s a gamble I hope pays off. We had about five press screenings in the UK before the premiere and people said they thought this or that actor would have played the character so much better and believed they would help us make more money, you know, people know him, he’s a star and that Jackie Appiah, being Ghanaian wasn’t so perfect, why not get a Nigerian person, Nigerians might not watch it. But ultimately it’s about the story and the characters and getting it done the way it needs to be done and these were the actors that seemed to be the most qualified and they were the most visual depiction of the characters I dreamt of.
I wrote it myself, I didn’t stumble on it. To write the script only took three weeks, funny enough. Twisted took about six months and they were done five years apart. I’m constantly writing and I’ve grown a lot as a writer.
INSPIRATION FOR THE SCRIPT
I think what inspired it more than anything else was opportunity, to be honest. There are millions of not just Nigerians but Africans that live in Europe and America and they’re extremely under-represented in the media. If you Google Africans today, chances are you’ll find pictures of an Ethiopian child – all of that stuff and anything else – because that’s what the image of the African is, not people in V.I (Victoria Island, Lagos) or even in London or anywhere else for that matter. So there are loads of people that obviously are not represented and if their story is told, they naturally will be drawn to it. And personally, I last lived in Lagos when I was about 12 so I didn’t really experience all of that stuff but it’s stuff that I’m actually aware of. I know people that have Masters from Unilag and they get to London and people think that they printed it at home or something but these are people that are very educated and they’re very qualified so a lot of that does actually come up in the film and about the two main characters – obviously it’s a romantic thing between an African guy and an American girl – the guy is very successful, the girl’s family, however don’t like the fact that he’s African but respect the fact that he’s making money and they slowly start to accept him and only at that point do the Africans refuse him from marrying the American girl.
THE AMERICAN CREW IN NIGERIA
We filmed in Lagos for 4 days. They (crew) were in Nigeria for six and I was here for about ten days because I had to do some casting and locations and after that, I had to go round and thank people as well because we filmed in people’s homes and things like that.
Watch the Webisode 3 below titled ‘Very Stacey’ which offers an in-depth look at the inner workings of a key character and a number of scenes involving her. Stacey, played by KD Aubert is pivotal to the story as the “what if” – or “if only” – character who may have changed the shape of things to come for the protagonist Ade Afolabi.
FEARS OF COMING TO NIGERIA
Lagos for me personally has always been a safe place maybe because I was a child here but I came to Nigeria in 2006 with 30 thousand pounds and I didn’t know a single person, I changed it at the airport and took a taxi to Surulere with a Ghana-must-go full of money and nothing happened to me. I’ve always felt very safe in Lagos. I’ve gone to a lot of countries and Lagos actually is a very safe place. I don’t know if people get kidnapped in Lagos. Sinem (his publicist for Turning Point) takes Okada (bike) in Lagos and she comes here more than I do. So I don’t quite know that (about being unsafe) but it’s funny because after the fuel strike in January, I would lose the crew by April because that was when the Hollywood blockbuster season was starting. Literally every single American person that was involved in this project did it because they liked the whole novelty. It’s a different thing. They were all underpaid but the storyline was something that they liked and this whole Nollywood thing just sounded exciting for them.
When my crew members were trying to get their visas, they were advised not to come to Nigeria. The CIA has a very comprehensive website that talks about the risks in Nigeria and said they were 70% more likely to be kidnapped the first week they were in Nigeria and that there are tons of diseases and all that. Things like if you don’t catch AIDS at the airport, a car will run you over as soon as you come out of the airport. It took me two months convincing these guys that Nigeria is a safe place to come to and one of the crew
came to shoot a commercial but he knew someone that had come to shoot a commercial here and he was like it was the best place he had ever been to, he was treated like a god and that kind of convinced him a bit but again if the CIA tells you that if you go to this country, you’ll die…you take their word for it. Besides that as well, the equipment that was brought into the country was worth over $200, 000 and they couldn’t get insurance to actually bring that into Nigeria and I could not get that equipment in Nigeria as well – at the time – so again I had to convince them to bring them here that it’s definitely safe. They don’t think that I’m Nigerian, anyway. I’ve got a passport. They insist, “But you’re British; you’re from London” but I say yeah, but I’ve got a passport. I’m Nigerian; I’m called Niyi Towolawi. Eventually, they started the film, they had to finish it. So they came and they loved it. They were eating Suya (peppered meat) like every day and Indomie noodles and fries egg at Kuramo beach. They’ve got pictures of all of that. When we went to Obalende market, tons of area boys came and the key grip – he’s black; he’s from New York – he shot videos for people like Biggie and Tupac back in the days, he was showing them the videos on his iPhone and these were area boys and one of them was rapping to him. Literally we had hundreds of area boys that had participated in the film without paying them. They were taking pictures with Jackie but we had to leave. Jackie was still taking pictures with them when the car was moving and wound down and area boys were throwing their phones into the car and it was mad. Actually I have that on the end of the film; I’ve got that on the end credits as well.
THE AMERICAN AND NIGERIAN SCENES – THE LATTER OF MORE QUALITY
It took a while to actually understand that myself but the sure answer is lighting. When shooting outdoors, the sun out here is very bright; very consistent and you know it’s sunny from sunrise to sunset, it stays sunny so when you’re outdoors your lighting stays consistent. One of the only benefits of having a dodgy Nepa (PHCN) situation is this. People have massive generators in Nigeria and that means you can plug in really big lights and you’ve got generators that can handle that and that was where the Nigerian crew actually took charge because every Nigerian is a gen expert. Everyone knows how much KVA can power whatever you want to. So instead of spending half an hour calculating, the guys here will say bring that one, use the big gen so by having really big, massive generators mean you have more options with lighting and it does reflect really.
MOST PERSONAL ISSUES REFLECTED IN THE MOVIE
I don’t have one but there’s a lot of ethnic prejudice in there. I can be Nigerian when I want to be and I can be British when I want to be so I don’t suffer from that. Also, the whole arranged marriage thing has become very prevalent now in the West especially with parents who have moved abroad with their kids there; they still want their kids to have some sort of identity of back home and the easiest way to kind of retain that is to make sure they marry someone that is from there.
At the end of the interview, Niyi let us see few minutes of Turning Point and were so engrossed that he practically had to stop the movie at some point. “You’ll get to see the rest of it at the screening“, Sinem put in. One other fun aspect at the end of the press junket was sitting beside a lady journalist when we saw part of the movie. She would exclaim almost out loud; “Ah!” or “Yeh” at the turn of an unexpected part.
As we rose to go, we all said how much we were looking forward to the screening and premiere.
At the screening which was a few days later, I had told Niyi and Sinem just before we saw the film that I was looking forward to sitting beside that journalist again – just for the fun of it.
Turning Point exceeded my expectations and l loved it.
Turning Point follows the lives of people who try to overcome the challenges that come their way, live up to the expectations they’ve set for themselves, compete with demands and keep their head above water (the main character especially).
The film is a great cultural connect between the African world and the west, identifying with their struggles.
Watch the teaser
See more behind the scenes photos below:
Turning Point is one amazing movie that should be seen by all. Please watch this space for the release date of the movie. Until then, enjoy the trailer. Hope to see you at the cinemas!
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