My Life in Nollywood: Dare Olaitan

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Every week, The Culture Custodian grants you an all-access backstage pass into the lives of Nollywood rockstars. You get to learn about their fascinating backgrounds, the behind-the-scenes stories, and more. This episode is graced by fast-rising scriptwriter, producer and director, Dare Olaitan, who has spent at least seven years making films in Nigeria.

A filmmaker bustling with ideas, Dare Olaitan already has five feature-length films under his belt: Ojukokoro (2016), Knockout Blessing (2018), Dwindle (2021), Ile Owo (2022) and Ègún which was released in November, 2023.

Dare Olaitan’s formative years are tied to Lagos where he was born and trained during Abacha’s regime before moving to the United States of America. There, he first acquired a degree in Economics and Business Management at Illinois Wesleyan College, after which he took a Film Directing/ Screenwriting course at the Colorado Film School. On his return to Nigeria, he eyed a place in Nollywood but seemed unsure how to go about it.

Dare Olaitan’s filmmaking odyssey is incomplete without reference to the moment he witnessed the explosion of Third Mainland Bridge in Niyi Akinmolayan’s Kajola, which made him shelve his fears to take a shot at the Nigerian film industry. Yet, his journey has been made smoother in the company of a worthy, career-long collaborator and filmmaker, Kayode Kasum.

While idealism is often the bane of youth, Dare Olaitan tries to be realistic in his assessment of the relatively nascent domestic cinema. In our conversation, which takes place in his study, the filmmaker fails to sugarcoat his experience,  as he moves between talking about his craft and highlighting setbacks to the expansion and longevity of what is today considered Nollywood. This conversation has been revised for precision.

You marked your official entry into Nollywood with the production of the feature-length film Ojukokoro (2016) which you wrote, co-produced and directed. What was the vision for the film?

I have always wanted to do film. When I was in secondary school, the Nigerian film industry wasn’t really in existence. There were some films, but they didn’t speak to me. I studied Economics first and I decided to make my first film after I completed my degree. I felt the film would be a good thing to focus on. I came back to Nigeria at that time and the state of the country inspired Ojukokoro. Back then, there was fuel scarcity every time and there weren’t enough businesses around. I wondered how the economy was working and thought people were doing drugs. That was how the idea came up. 

How would you describe the filmmaking/production process of your first film?

I was doing something for the very first time in a place I had not done it before. What I tried to do was to prepare myself for the journey. I went to film school for two years in America. I knew that was a vastly completely different environment from shooting in Nigeria. I came back and did my NYSC for a year in a film production company in Ikeja where I shot several productions. I was able to start to leverage my ideas and make connections with people. Before I got into film, I read a book by Robert Rodriguez where he talked about how he became a filmmaker. He mentioned in the book that he wanted to make a film but couldn’t break into Hollywood, so he relocated to Mexico where it was cheaper to make a film. In Mexico, he made use of the little resources he had and used them to make his first film that was authentic enough. He was lucky enough to take the film to Hollywood and it was released there. My idea for Ojukokoro was to use the Rodriguez style.  My dad had a petrol station, I had a briefcase and I also had some resources from film school. So, I decided to write about what I had. I wrote the major part of Ojukokoro in two days, but it took about a year to polish it.

Every filmmaker is special in his way. What do you consider unique about you that sets you apart from other filmmakers?

I feel everyone is different just by existing. At the end of the day, I think I just want to shoot a production that takes the time and care the way I was taught that things should be done. Every day I am working in Nigeria, it’s with a sense of realization of the corners that we’re cutting and I know that we’re cutting these corners because of the situation that the industry is in. You can not compare a nascent industry like ours to an established industry abroad. Sadly,  however, we compete in the same market. I will never forget that the first film that I shot with less than 20,000 dollars opened up against Logan and Cinderella. When you think about this in economic terms, I feel that any sale that a Nigerian filmmaker records is a miracle. 

Your comparison of Nigerian films to her global counterparts seems interesting. As a filmmaker who has been exposed to both worlds of Hollywood and Nollywood, in what areas do you think the  Nigerian film industry needs to catch up?

Budget. I know it sounds like an oversimplification, but that’s just the reality. The capacity of any sector is determined by its economic realities. We can be ambitious as Nigerian filmmakers, but our ambitions are usually limited by our ability to produce, of which budget is a concern. For instance, no matter how ambitious I am, I can’t make a Nigerian space film that will be good. It’s not because I don’t want to. The infrastructure and budget aren’t available. People always say Nigerian films are undercooked and poorly written, but that’s because a Nigerian film script can be written in about three to six months, or sometimes shorter. The Nigerian filmmaker is faced with economic realities and has to create something fast to pay his bills which may include his children’s school fees and rent. That compromises the quality of the script. On the contrary, someone writing a Hollywood script could be paid $400,000 to write a script which he could do for five years. A Hollywood filmmaker may decide to produce a film in twenty years, but in Nigeria, the producer might have four projects to work on for the month so as to foot his bills. Hollywood has a distribution system and economic model that funds film production and ensures its profit. I remember while in film school, we were asked to recreate a two-minute scene from Gladiator. It took us some hours to set up the lighting and block the movements even before bringing in the actors. I can’t do that here in Nigeria no matter how much I want to because that time isn’t just there. I’ve shot five films in Nigeria so far and I’ve never done that.

What other challenges are noticeable in Nollywood? 

The audience is a concern. For instance, in Hollywood, there are thousands of cinemas across the country, so you can have plans to make enough money with your budget and kind of film. In Nigeria, there is a limited number of cinemas, which makes it difficult to take risks with your budget or story. Your film has to serve everybody or else you will not make profit. Unlike in America, we do not have studios or corporations to fund filmmaking. I am my studio, so I have to be careful about whatever film or creative decisions I take so that I can make money. People often complain about Nollywood having similar storylines, but they forget that the audience determines what is produced.

Marketing is another issue. While I was in New York, I remember visiting the theater to see Avengers: Infinity Wars. On my way there, I counted 171 different commercials for the film: stickers, fliers, and drawings everywhere. In Nigeria, most of the marketing happens on social media via Instagram. That’s why films that make the most money in Nigeria are made by people with lots of Instagram followers and can repost to create awareness without having to pay. An example of such a filmmaker in Nigeria is Funke Akindele. 

Understanding the setbacks to the development of Nigerian cinema, what do you think is the way forward?

A filmmaker needs to be aware that despite our challenges in Nollywood, the audience will continue to judge us by global film standards. Films are homogeneous products, so it is expected that the audience demands the best from us without caring about underlying issues. Look at what an impressive thing Editi Effiong did with just $1 million. Imagine that another filmmaker is given $5 million and told to come up with a film in 2 or 3 years, and see what he would do. I am working so hard that I can imbue Nollywood with similar production quality and values as Hollywood someday. 

In your career, you have worked closely with Kayode Kasum, especially on projects like Dwindle (2021), Ile Owo (2022) and Obara’M (2022), as well your forthcoming project Ègún. Could you let us in on the driving force of this collaboration?

The driving force of a collaboration is aligned goals. My goals with films are concrete and I know where I think I can reach in my lifetime. I am aware of the constraints on ground, and I think Kayode is someone who has a similar understanding. 

As a scriptwriter, what process goes into creating a story and how long does it take for you to do this? 

It depends. When writing a script, I begin with the themes and then I move on to the structure. At this point in time, I look at this period of my career as my practice years. 

When on set as a director, how do you handle creative differences? Could you cite any instance in your filmmaking journey?

I would rather consider that as differences in viewpoints. No matter your attempts as a filmmaker, if everyone is not on the same page with you, you can’t make a good film. For me, I try to find out why someone has a different viewpoint and if they convince me enough, I go for it. I’m a very collaborative person and I don’t know everything. So I get as many ideas from other people on set. That’s why I surround myself with people that are smarter than me. Most of these actors have a lot of experience and I have never acted. When I initially wrote Ojukokoro, it was completely in English and Yoruba. Shawn Faqua suggested having his role delivered in Edo Pidgin, and I just told him to go ahead with the flow even though I didn’t understand the language. 

The importance of actors in creating authentic characters cannot be overemphasized. How do you decide on the appropriate talents to create wonderful production moments?

Whenever I write, I have in my head ideas of how I want my characters to look. Then, I ask people I trust to recommend actors and talents. 

In telling a story, camera angles and shots are essential. How do you decide the appropriate shots and angles for particular scenes?

Technically,  certain shots are meant to convey particular emotions, and it’s non-negotiable. 

One of your recent projects Ile Owo (House of Money), a psychological thriller, has an enigmatic ending that generated mixed reactions. What was the idea behind the concept?

I wrote Ile Owo in 2020 during the Covid-19 lockdown. I saw and fell in love with Ari Aster’s Hereditary at that time, and I  decided to make a film of that kind. I told Kayode that I wanted to do a romantic horror film. I noticed that most Nigerian stories were based on a woman falling in love and getting married, so I decided to flip it and create the story of a woman who, in her attempts to get married, marries the worst person on earth. After bringing the film to life,  I realized that the Nigerian audience’s idea of horror films is mainstream. My initial plan was to do films based on the seven deadly sins, of which Ojukokoro was one. I wrote the second one, Igberaga, an alté horror script, four or five years ago. I felt it was quite advanced and I didn’t have the capacity for the project. So, I decided to test the waters with a quick alté-horror film, which was Ile Owo. I made Ile Owo so that I could learn from the experience and know the things not to do in other projects. 

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what would you have become?

If I wasn’t an economist or a filmmaker, I would probably have tried to be an astrologist. When you are young, your life is the perspective that you’re given. However, you will hardly find a Nigerian child who wants to become an astrologist because he doesn’t even know what that is. 

Who do you consider your filmmaking idols?

I don’t do idols. If I had any, it would be Stanley Kubrick. I enjoy Martin Scorsese too. Also, I am eternally grateful to Niyi Akinmolayan for inspiring me through his work. I didn’t think being a Nigerian filmmaker was possible because I knew no one in the Nigerian film industry at first. I thought of Kunle Afolayan as someone lucky due to his acting background and father’s influence. But the first time I saw the Third Mainland bridge explode in Akinmolayan’s  Kajola, I was impressed. That gave me the courage to go ahead and make films.

How do you handle criticism of your work?

I take criticism from people I care about. For instance, if someone like Afolayan said something to me about my work and it was a valid criticism, I would take it and work on improving my craft. But then for a random person, I ask myself if the person is aware of the factors I mentioned earlier. 

What would be your biggest achievement as a filmmaker that you would love to be remembered for?

I hope that I would have inspired some people in the same way I was also inspired to venture into filmmaking. I believe it would take a while for the Nigerian film industry to level up to global production standards. I don’t think I will ever witness in my lifetime the kinds of Nigerian films I want to see. I believe that privilege would be enjoyed by the next one or two generations. Notwithstanding what happens, I hope to have lived a good life and passed the mantle to some young, hungry men. 

What’s your final advice for aspiring and budding filmmakers?

In a modern world where everyone is trying to have a homogeneous voice or share similar viewpoints, my advice for the up-and-coming filmmaker is to cultivate his voice. One thing I’ve realized in my filmmaking career is that two films can be made with the same technical ability yet the filmmaker with a distinct voice gets a huge career boost.