From the moment I finished my film directing course at the Royal Arts Academy in Lagos, Nigeria, I have been introducing myself as a filmmaker…along with the other titles I like to describe myself as. Yet, four years since I earned that certificate, I do not have any film — short or feature — to my name.
Oh! It isn’t because I haven’t tried. I have tried, alright! But a series of rookie mistakes have made me a filmmaker in name only.
My first foray into film making started in 2016, just after I finished my directing course. A couple of friends and I wrote a script, recruited some of our actor friends, put some money together, secured a series of locations and…began preparing to shoot our short film.
On the day before we were schedule to shoot, we slept at one of the locations, so we could be up on time and begin shooting. We factored that if we were fast, we would be done before noon and we could go to the next location and continue filming. What we didn’t factor in was that, with one camera, and all the shots we needed to take, there was no way we could be fast.
So, we trudged on. But nerves began to be frayed from going over the scenes again and again. I began to snipe at my friends the more frustrated I became. I could see that everyone started to walk on eggshells around me. The situation got tense, but filming continued.
At around 3pm or so, we were through with location one. We then had to transport ourselves from Ajah to Surulere to shoot the rest of the scenes. Thankfully, Lagos traffic was mild, and we got to Surulere in less than two hours.
Setting up the location became another hassle. This location was an office that had the personal effects of the owner and we needed to make it something different. By around 6pm however, we were ready to start filming. The cast was fantastic, and we didn’t need to do that many takes. And if I am being honest, I didn’t have the energy for many takes. I was tired, stressed the hell out and needed the entire process to just come to an end.
And end it did! When we finally called the wrap on shooting, we gave a collective guffaw of joy and hugged each other. I had been forgiven for being a diva director and we were all back being chummy buddies. Then, we had to reset the location and head home. After all of this, we were so tired, we decided to just head home.
Here is where things got funny.
When we finished recording in the first location, the raw footage was ‘dumped’ on my laptop to ensure we had space for subsequent shooting. Because we had been so tired at the end of the shoot, we didn’t ‘dump’ the new footage on my computer. My friend who served as cameraman/cinematographer took the rest of the footage with him. The sound guy took the entire sound recording with him. We planned to pick a day where we would sit down and edit our project.
A week later, I had an emergency that required I left Lagos sooner than I expected. Turns out I would not return to Lagos again except for very brief meetings.
So, editing the film was shelved. We thought it was best to edit together so we could pick out our favorite scenes. But how could we do that when half the footage with me in Yola, Adamawa State, and then Kaduna State, and then Abuja and the other half was in Lagos?
My life took a hard turn at that point. I was no longer thinking of film making. I just wanted to survive. Then by the end of 2016, I got a job which I was to resume at, at the beginning of January 2017. I would go on to work there for a year and a half. That period was so fast paced that I barely had any time for myself. I didn’t have breaks and I was way too stressed to even write any script or think of filming.
By the middle of 2018 when I left the job, I began to itch for my life behind the camera. I called my friends in Lagos to see if we could meet up and edit our short film, and maybe, finally put it out. That was when I realized we had a bigger problem: all our audio was lost. While we could use the audio from the camera, there was no chance in hell the sound would be clean. I mean, filming in Nigeria means a lot of ambient sound like the noise of the generators you will need because power supply is epileptic. Editing the film was going to be tougher than we planned.
Again, we shelved the movie.
I went into a depression for a couple of months after that. Or more appropriately, I was crashing from being depressed for months, if not years, before that time. This crash had me wondering if I could ever get anything right in my life. And the seeming failure of the short film — in spite of all my efforts — made me feel like I was bound to fail at any project I touched. It is important to note that I was out of a job at this point too and being the over-thinker that I am, I was really spiralling.
Then I got another job. This one was really good and though fast-paced, let me balance my work and life. I was able to compartmentalize work and personal time. And because of that, I again began to think of the films I could make…the stories I could tell. By the end of 2018, I was resolute: I was going to shoot at least four short films in 2019. I planned to have my leave from the office every three months. I would take one week off and go shoot films. The new job and my new stance on saving meant that I began to keep money aside for my films.
2019 came and by March, I was ready to shoot some films! I saved up some money, contacted some actor friends in Kaduna from when I was a drama director in church, linked up with some new filmmakers I had met and generally, got ready to shoot. I wrote two scripts, developed character bibles, drew a story board, and designed a filming schedule. I told my friends I couldn’t pay them, but I was willing to cater to their meals and transportation. If they were willing to make magic, I would be grateful to have them. More than twenty people agreed to be a part of the cast. I only had to worry about paying the crew and securing a location.
Filming day then came.
First mistake I made that day was going to the market in the morning for some of my props. By the time I had traipsed Sabo market in Kaduna, I was tired when I got to the location. I was also meeting my crew — apart from the cinematographer — for the first time. While I had communicated my vision to the cinematographer, I had to run it again with the rest of the crew.
Thankfully, the cast had not shown up at call time, so we had some minutes to talk. Then I began to worry. Call time was 8am. The cast began to stroll in at around 10am. I was mad! Properly mad. But I remembered how my friends walked on eggshells around me the first time I shot a film. I didn’t want to be a diva director at another scene, so I constantly had to tell myself to calm down, especially since I wasn’t paying anyone. When the full cast finally arrived, it was around 12pm. Rehearsals had to be rushed. And we began filming at a little past 1pm.
Again, we were working with one camera so…each scene had to be taken over and again until we got all the shots we wanted. Because of the time lost, we had to film way past 7pm. The plan had been to shoot two short films. By 5pm, we knew that was impossible. So, we decided we would have to pick another day to continue.
We were tired by the end of the day, but super pumped!
Since we shot on the second to the last day of my leave and the next day was Sunday, I knew I would not get anyone to return the next day for filming. I also knew I would be returning to work on the Monday of the next week, which meant I had to set out for Abuja on Sunday evening at the latest. I asked the team if they would be willing to return the next Saturday. They seemed excited to.
The following week, I made another mistake that would affect my strength as the day wore on. I didn’t close from the office on time on Friday so early Saturday morning, I left Abuja for Kaduna for the shoot. It is a two-hour journey — on a good day — and I left my house at around 6am. Unfortunately, the transport companies didn’t understand my need for speed. Vehicles didn’t get filled quickly and by the time I finally got a vehicle willing to go to Kaduna, I had to offer to pay for the entire seats before they were willing to go. By this time, I had lost about two hours.
When I go to Kaduna at around 10am, I heard that many of the cast were again, late. This time, I told myself I wouldn’t even sweat it. Anyone who was around on time would begin shooting their scenes. But again…that turned out to be nearly impossible.
If I talk about the entire ball of craziness that was this second phase of shooting, I would be here the whole day. What I can say was everyone brought their game when we finally got into the thick of it. However, by the time I was to switch from director to actor, I was too tired to properly emote as powerfully as I would have loved to.
And then…it was a wrap!
By the time we finished cleaning the house and setting it back to default mode, it was almost 9pm. We were all bone tired and everyone just went home.
By the time I got back to work in Abuja, I was battling with the side effects of the stress from the two days of shooting. My health wasn’t great, and since I couldn’t take another leave soon after I returned from one, I had to steel myself and do my work. Thoughts of editing my films were pushed to the side for a bit.
Then I got a call from my cinematographer. The worst thing I could imagine had happened: the hard drive with the raw footage of the films we had shot had crashed. For the second time in my life, I had a panic attack. I couldn’t breathe. My chest felt like it was going to explode, and my ears were ringing. When I finally could draw in some air, I held my head in my arms for a long (long) time as I wondered what I had just heard.
My mind went back to the day when we shot the films. Usually, I would ask for the footage, so I can have a backup on my computer. But…I had been so tired that the thought had not even crossed my mind. Plus, I think I had been complacent because I was working with an amazing cinematographer who filmed for a living.
But, your gadgets can be the death of you. In my case, everything that could go wrong on my set went wrong. But they were within my control and I solved them as they came. The hard drive going bad? This was completely out of my hands.
I then went into a state of denial and asked my cinematographer to send me the hard drive, so I could see what could be done about it in Abuja. Maybe the movies could be retrieved; since, when he tried to retrieve them, he was able to get some of the footage; about 20–30%.
When I got the hard drive, I shopped it around until I finally accepted what the situation was.
All the work we had put into the film was gone.
All the money I had spent was gone.
I can’t remember if I cried about it but… I swore I was done doing films. These strings of bad luck were just too much for my heart. And true to word, I haven’t done any thing film since then.
One year later however, my desire to create films is back. I mean, filming is a huge part of my life and self-expression. It is one of the ways I like to tell stories and connect with people. It is something I want to get really good at. Yes, I have been dealt some hard knocks, but it is nothing unusual. Film makers far greater than me have also experienced bad luck. Also, a lot of my bad luck was because I was a rookie. There are many things I would have learned from constant practice. These mistakes are just learning curves; albeit expensive ones. But…they are not enough to stop me from wanting to make films.
So… I am going to make films again. However, I won’t be going in as a rookie anymore. There are mistakes I will not make again. One big lesson for me is, always back up your footage! It pays to have at least three people with the footage in case your devices go mad on you. Another major lesson learned is around paying talent. When you don’t pay talent, they can act however they want on set. By paying them, at least you can make some demands.
The biggest lesson for me however is, there will be more mistakes to be made on my journey to being a filmmaker. Each set, crew, cast, film will come with its challenges. Working around those challenges, giving my best to each film, and being open to learning from the cast and crew as much as I am willing to learn from the process becomes key to my growth and development.
I am excited to reshoot my films. Hopefully, you will get to see them soon. And more as time goes!
PS: I actually have two films that were completed. One was my class project whilst in Royal Arts Academy — a movie called Blurred — and the other was a short skit with my friend, Hilary “Zinhil” Gabriel, titled How She Did It. So, it is not like I don’t have movies out there. I just don’t have one that is exclusively mine.