My Life in Nollywood: Debo Johnson

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My Life in Nollywood - Debo Johnson

Every week, Culture Custodian grants you an all-access backstage pass into the lives of Nollywood rockstars. You get to hear their fascinating background, behind the scenes stories and more. We start with Nigerian film producer and location scout Debo Johnson as he takes us into his life in Nollywood:

You went to Film School in the States, what school did you attend?

I went to the New York Film Academy, the LA (Los Angeles) Campus. I did my Master’s in Film and Media Production. The LA Campus houses the Master’s degree program while the New York campus has the short-term and Bachelor’s degree program.

What was Film School like?

Film school was hectic. It gave me the primary knowledge that I know. You don’t need to go to Film School to be a filmmaker but it gives you that basic knowledge of all parts of production.

What was your Film School experience like? What impact did that process have on you? 

My network. Going to film school, especially in LA, I got to meet studio heads, the CEO of Netflix, people working behind the scenes. It was basically expanding my network and meeting other filmmakers from around the world to discuss the content coming out of Africa and making bigger movies.

Were you always passionate about film and media?

Yes, I was always passionate about it. For me, I would have done that from my undergraduate years but you know how African parents can be. You need to do something that makes sense to them first but for my Master’s degree, they allowed me to do what I wanted. I wasn’t going to do my Master’s if it wasn’t something I really liked. And the rest is history.

How did you know that making movies was for you? 

It wasn’t an instant thing. I always had a passion for it but with time I started knowing what part of filmmaking I wanted to focus on. At first, I knew I was passionate about visual content but with time I realized that there were different layers to this visual thing. You have some who focus on the music video aspect, the commercials, movies, and documentaries. But with time, I realized what niche I needed to carve out.

Earlier you spoke about getting into specific niches, what niche did you pick for yourself?

Documentaries. I’m focusing more on documentaries; I feel like there are so many stories that haven’t been told in Nigeria, not to talk of Africa. So, I feel like documentaries are vital because if African filmmakers don’t tell our story, others will.

How did you get into Nollywood? 

I moved back in October 2017 and still didn’t know what aspect of filmmaking I wanted to focus on. I was for a bit interested in making music videos – because I had friends that were artists – and the normal thing would be to make them but I knew in my heart that music videos were not my thing and that space was saturated. So, the next thing was movies or documentaries, and I got into Nollywood through a company that I founded in January 2018. It is called Fluid Locations. What we do is provide film locations and props for the movie industry. Prior to making my own content, and after thinking of the best way to gain entry into the industry, that was my way to get in.

Did you do any music videos?

I did one for DJ Bristar but it never came out. He wasn’t satisfied with the video, he wanted the whole alternative thing, which is fine but wasn’t me; so, I didn’t execute it properly.

So how did you get your big Nollywood break?

Leading up to January 2018, I thought of what I had that the industry needed. So, I realized that as a filmmaker, if I needed locations or props who do I go to? Do I start knocking on doors? In Hollywood, there are agencies online that after being informed of what you need, they get it for you. So, I set up Fluid Locations, and our first major deal was in April. EbonyLife for Chief Daddy, April was my first entry point into the industry after EbonyLife called me. I got to meet all the guys, the producers, and the actors; considering that EbonyLife is the biggest (movie production studio) in Nigeria, that was a good start for me.

Do you still run Fluid Locations?

Yes, I run it, with two friends.

Your credits on IMDB include some Hollywood productions, how different is Hollywood from Nollywood?

First off, Hollywood is much older than Nollywood. I don’t even like the name Nollywood because it doesn’t sound original. Nollywood is a name that needs to be changed so that we can be original and authentic to ourselves. There’s Bollywood, Nollywood, and even Gollywood which I feel is unoriginal and would forever make us try and copy the Hollywood standard. And I feel that as Africans, we need our own identity. It can be African something, but something different. The difference apart from the age of Hollywood is the budget; and production time and costs. The average Hollywood movie cost between $6-7 million. The time of production can probably take from 9 months to 1 year. Nollywood movies cost roughly $13,000, those are the really expensive ones, which compared to Hollywood standards is the budget for an independent filmmaker. So, I feel like our budget cost and production timeline can’t be compared to Hollywood. Another major difference is that Hollywood has a lot of entrepreneurs in the industry, more players that set up structures, they have more executive producers ready to put in their money, to invest and get returns. While in Nollywood, there are so many artists and filmmakers but we need more business people, more juggernauts to come in and set up like this location thing I’m trying to do.

As someone with the best of both worlds, what do you think the greatest challenge facing Nollywood right now, and how can it be resolved?

As I said, we need more investors; but also, piracy is a big issue. Filmmakers need to get their money back because, at the end of the day it is show business, we are in it to make money; there’s the entertainment aspect and there’s the business aspect which I feel is a very important part, if not the most important part. We need to get to a place where a filmmaker can make 2 or 3 movies in the space of five years and is able to build a house in Parkview. Another thing is that we need more screens across Nigeria, not even Africa but the 36 states in Nigeria. Imagine if we had ten cinemas in each state, the potential for box office sales. I think there are barely any cinemas in the North, so we need more cinema scenes, to view more genres, and to set that structure.

What one person, event, or film has had the greatest influence on you as a filmmaker?

I happened to be on the set of this Hollywood movie, Hurricane Heist, and it was directed by Rob Cohen. I was the personal assistant to the production assistant but what they did there opened my eyes to how real movie-making should be like, how they do it in Hollywood, there was no corner being cut, everything was being done to standard. It was like being a villager who had never seen street light and suddenly being in Japan with all its technology, your mind can never be the same. Just being on that set, seeing how actors treated other actors, their welfare, it was mind-blowing.

What year was this?

Early in 2017, I was still in LA.

You were the fourth AD on Chief Daddy. Could you give us an insight into how this came to be?

The fourth AD role came as a result of negotiation with EbonyLife. At that time, I’d set up Fluid locations, the house used to film Chief Daddy was one I provided and they shot there for fourteen days; and I was charging per day. As a smart businesswoman, Mo Abudu was trying to cut her cost, so we got an agreement that if I come in as a fourth AD, I could reduce my price.

So, it was basically negotiated for you to get credits?

Exactly! And that’s what a lot of people do not know, they just think I was called and became the fourth AD. A fourth AD doesn’t do much on set once you have your first, second AD, the third and fourth AD are just there to shadow the production.

What was it like working on a Nollywood big-budget production?

It was very impressive. I was not expecting that standard, the way everybody worked and the actors were professional, everybody was on time. The director was willing to hear from everyone – even as low as the production manager. His name is Niyi Akinmolayan, he’s a very good director, he’d ask other crew members what they think about the scene, how they can set up the lighting of scenes better, and I felt like they worked like a team which was extremely important. It was my first major Nollywood production and I found it very interesting.

What are your favourite vintage Nollywood films?

I really enjoyed watching Dangerous Twins, Osuofia in London – I thought that was amazing, even up till today. Last month or two months ago, I was watching Osuofia in London and it was still funny, hilarious. So, yeah, those Osuofia movies, the catalogue. And the Aki and PawPaw movies. Funny enough stories back then had better storylines although the production was not up to par, it was catchy. There was part one to four and the characters were very tricky and that something the new Nollywood lacks, they don’t really have memorable characters.

What are your favourite contemporary Nollywood films?

Living in Bondage: Breaking Free with Ramsey Nouah, I thought that was very impressive. Kemi Adetiba with King of Boys was amazing and I was glued to my screen. I feel like those two movies are one where you can see that the production value was top-notch. The acting, cast, amazing.

As someone with an insight into the technical aspects of filmmaking, what’s your opinion on the state of directing from the contemporary era and now? 

People are taking care of the production value, all the little details in movie-making. Obviously, on the equipment side, camera quality has improved; and our budgets have become bigger. It’s still not as big as it should be, but there are bigger budgets.

One of the key issues facing Nollywood and the creative sector generally is the struggle for access to funding. How do you think this can be remedied?

I feel we need to be more transparent with our box office sales, that way prospective investors can know how much is being made. Once there’s transparency, investors can verify for themselves that production houses have made successful films and hopefully put their money in it (movies). The older generation is not fully educated on how much the entertainment industry can bring into the economy. If you ask someone to put in N500 million, they’ll look at you and ask “how can you make my money back?” but if you show them a breakdown of using N50 million to do a movie that gained over N200 million, there’ll be increased confidence. The first thing is transparency. Here, a lot of people in a bid to sell or market their figures, there are a lot of figures being thrown out that are lies. The general public may not know but when I hear them, I know.

Do you feel the government does enough for the creative sector?

I feel like the government doesn’t do anything at all. We always hear about talks and forums on how the government plans on helping the creative sector with funding but there isn’t any result. Despite Nollywood’s standing in the world, there’s no film village in Nigeria. Also, piracy. In America, the F.B.I will hunt you down if you pirate movies. So, it’s just things like that, where we need proper supervision. To get to the next level, the government needs to be involved. Even if you are shooting in Lagos Island, the omo oniles and area boys will disturb; in Hollywood, the police are involved, obviously, you pay but they are there. In Nigeria, if you call the police, they cannot protect you from the area boys. It’s not possible, I’ve tried it and it hasn’t worked.

Last year you produced and directed the Makoko: The Floating Sum documentary. What inspired the project, considering documentaries are not very popular here? 

Growing up, I went to secondary school on the mainland. I lived in Ikoyi and I would have to drive past Third Mainland Bridge every day. I would always see those shanty houses every time; moving back in 2017, I was sure I wanted to do a documentary but I needed to tell an intriguing story. Makoko was the first thing that came to my mind, I was like I need to know what’s under that bridge. So, Reggie and I went there and spoke to the baale. We told the baale what our intentions were and he told us it was cool, we came with donations and gift, and it went pretty well. I was very surprised they were all friendly.

How do you think the documentary culture in Nigeria can be improved? 

I feel like we have more stories like this Makoko story that have not been touched. As I said, we need more African filmmakers telling our stories. More Nigerian production houses should fund documentaries, like the BBC for example, they came in and did the sex-for-grades thing and there’s no reason why RedTV or AccelerateTV cannot do the same thing.

The doc also received a lot of criticism. What did you make of the criticism?

It was criticized by Culture Custodian if I remember correctly. It’s just like anything you do in life, everyone has their opinion. One major thing that Makoko got criticized for was that some felt we were just showing negative aspects of Nigeria. Using their exact words, it was poverty porn. I understood their point of view but our intentions were very pure. We set out on a mission to see how they live and show people that there are actually human beings who live down there, no matter how many times you cross the bridge.

How did you rationalize the criticism and what has it taught you?

It didn’t really teach me that much. It was more of focusing on the story side of it and making sure we touched all aspects of it. Because I’m in this business, I know that not everybody is going to like the work especially when it comes to documentaries, and that’s the truth.

What were the positives that came out of the project for you?

We’ve been able to raise funding for the hospital. We got someone who wants to renovate the hospital. We’ll most likely be doing part two to show the renovations in the community. It was not just a one-time thing, we are going to come back there.

What’s the next Debo Johnson project?

I want to focus on the prison system, that’s the next story I want to tell. At the end of the day, I’m always looking for that human angle to the story. We are told that prisoners are meant to be the worst people in society but they are still humans, a lot of prisoners are awaiting trial and have been there for years but there’s no one to help them out.