Emil Biobelemoye Garuba is a screenwriter and Creative Director of Rated E Productions based in Abuja, Nigeria. he has written numerous scripts for short films, TV shows, TV movies, documentaries and feature films among which are; M-Net Africa’s Tinsel, The Tai Show, Easy Money, A New Dawn, Moving On, Lovestruck, Silent Tears and Road to Yesterday.
In this interview with YeYePikin, He talks about pioneering a new screenwriting guild, how he would love to work with C.J Obasi of Ojuju’s fame, dearth of local contents in Nollywood movies, the lack of professionalism and mediocrity associated with Nollywood and more. Enjoy the interview.
Tell us more about Rated E Productions?
Rated E Productions is a content production company that develops original stories for the African Film and TV market. Rated E also offers training and consultation services for individuals and various high-profile media companies and clients including Nigeria’s Integrity Film Awards (HOMEVIDA), Ideas United, the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), and the Nigerian Women’s Trust Fund to name a few. Since its inception in 2014, Rated E has primarily been about content development especially in the area of screenwriting. However, I plan to expand into full-on independent film-making soon with in-house projects slated for 2017.
Did you always want to be a screenwriter?
As far back as I can remember I always knew I’d make a living as a story-teller. I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I was into comic books. I still am but not as much as I am totally engrossed in movies and film. I was born in Oklahoma, USA and spent the first few years of my life there before my family returned to Nigeria. I remember a few things from my time there, but what I never forgot was the entertainment, most of which I rediscovered back in Nigeria later on – the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, film noir, westerns and sci-fi classics, blaxploitation era films and everything in-between, including the equally entertaining Nigerian programmes like Tales by Moonlight and Magana jari ce – I absorbed them all, hoping that someday I’d be able to tell similar stories and make others feel the same way. I remember someone telling me to go write my own movie. My journey took me back to Oklahoma where I attended college and graduated with a BA in Political Science and an MA in Creative Writing. After a few years spent lost in corporate America I decided to return again to Nigeria, partly because I wasn’t feeling very inspired over there. I’d completed only two screenplays between 1998 and 2001. While I drifted from job to job, it hit me that the Nigerian movie industry was in its nascent stage. One day, I said to myself, “That’s where I need to be right now.” So I came back to Nigeria in 2009 and wrote my first Nigerian screenplay titled Lovestruck, which was finally filmed last year by award winning director Obi Emelonye. Off that I got a gig writing for Tinsel, the popular Nigerian soap opera. Next was the Nigerian Integrity Film Awards (HOMEVIDA) and many others. Along the way I got to meet a young film-maker, Ishaya Bako (Fuelling Poverty) and producer Bem Pever (A New Dawn) who shared my passion for innovative Afro-themed stories and we decided to enter into a creative partnership to bring our crazy ideas to fruition. Our first collaboration was the 2012 short film Easy Money, co-written and directed by Ishaya Bako for the Nigerian Securities and Exchange Commission. We’ve gone on to work on Silent Tears and Road to Yesterday. Next up is Strong Reasons, a faith-based short film directed and produced by Bem Pever. It should be out later in 2016. Along with being the script editor I played a small part in the production. It was fun.
So right now, screenwriting pays the bills but I won’t be opposed to getting a steady nine-five job again. It helps to have some sort of security the older you get.
When writing your scripts, do you take into account market trends or do you just write what should be in the market?
Yes and no. I certainly try to keep up with what’s out there so my stories don’t fall within the cracks of what’s trending. But then again, I’m not really into trends; I just want to write new and exciting and – most important of all – entertaining stuff and not lumped into a group of trendsetters.
You were nominated in the just concluded AMVCA in the best writer’s category, how do you feel not winning the award?
I’m devastated of course! Just kidding. No, I’m just honored to have been nominated. I’m sure a lot of people say that, especially when they end up not winning, but I honestly believe things happen for a reason. I’m not terribly competitive when it comes to my work because I think I still have a lot to learn. In the end I just want the opportunity to be my creative self without restrictions. Accolades would be nice as a validation of all the hard work one puts into being creative but it’s not the end goal. It’s a beginning of sorts to always push myself and not be comfortable. There’s more to do and experience so I believe in continued work. In time, there’ll be other nominations and hopefully awards. As the expression goes, “You’re only as good as your last success.”
Do you feel screenwriters deserve more say in the filmmaking process today or are you okay with how writers are generally treated?
I honestly believe screenwriters, especially those working in Nollywood, deserve more than they currently get. One of the things I’ve wanted to achieve is to be a pioneer of a new screenwriting guild or association that actually works for the Nigerian screenwriter. Right now, the current guild does absolutely nothing for the screenwriters and this has held back writer representation in the industry all these years. I’ve been working for the past 6 years in Nollywood as a freelancer with no guild association. Why, because the current screenwriters guild does absolutely nothing for me or others like me. There isn’t even a chapter in Abuja I’m aware of and I checked. Point is: people expect us to perform magic and give us peanuts as compensation. That shouldn’t be the case. There should be training, representation and more done for the people who lay the foundation of all our stories and it’s high time they got their due. Via Rated E Productions, my role as Creative Director is primarily to champion creative content, which starts with the script. Thus, Rated E collaborates with writers to develop our concepts for transmedia outlets. I’ve spent the past few years, researching the industry to find the most talented Nigerian screenwriters and mentoring those who want a chance at proving themselves. It’s been a process, but I’m getting there. Currently, I’m developing a platform for Nigerian screenwriters to get the much needed exposure and representation. I can’t decide on what form it’ll take as of yet but it will either be via radio, print or online. It hasn’t been easy, but I’m determined to make it work.
Any awards to your credit?
For the films I’ve written, yes: the documentary Silent Tears won the Audience Choice Award at the 5th African International Film Festival (AFRIFF 2015) and the feature film Road to Yesterday won Best Overall Film – West Africa at the Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards (AMVCA 2016) so I’m proud about that.
What limitations does a screenwriter has, can he also work as a producer or director?
I believe in specialization. If you can, pick one thing and do it to the best of your ability. I was trained primarily as a screenwriter but I can and have explored other formats of creative writing. Nevertheless, I believe creativity cannot be limited so if given the chance to explore other aspects of filmmaking then I welcome the chance. In an industry as unregulated as Nollywood, I’ve noticed quite a bit of diversification of talent, mostly borne out of necessity, which can and has led to the lack of professionalism and mediocrity associated with Nollywood. Someone can write, star, direct, produce, edit, and score their movie. Yes, it’s done elsewhere but to higher degrees of success whereas the lack of specialization in Nollywood leads to less than stellar results. I tried my hand at directing a short film once but quickly decided it wasn’t for me. At least not yet. I have a lot to learn. But as I mentioned earlier, I’m planning to produce my own projects.
What are some of the things writers can do to keep productive and challenged?
I love movies, so I watch a lot of movies, local, international, obscure, banned, whatever. Also a lot of TV. It really keeps me going. And just watching the better made ones is a challenge to hone my skills continuously. I believe every writer learns something new with each new project and the only downside is creative exhaustion, which leads to the infamous writer’s block. Take some time off, clear your mind, figure out the angles, and your creativity will resurface. For those who haven’t yet reached the levels they aspire to, I recommend more training in the form of workshops, forums and such programmes. There are even online resources that help keep you focused and writing. Every bit helps.
What inspires your writings?
My creative process usually starts with a “What if?” idea. I do a lot of brainstorming to come up with the most logical extrapolation of the idea, until it starts playing over and over in my head. I usually see the whole movie in my head beforehand then pick it apart to plug holes and whatnot until it becomes something entertaining and sensible. I’ve also been known to delve into what I refer to as ‘method writing’ where I live in the world I’m writing about. I don’t recommend it for so many reasons. Other times, I’m inspired by external events; something I’ve seen or read that I consider interesting. Or something I’ve experienced. Then I let my mind work on it.
You are a collaborator. How have you discovered members of your team and how do you keep the relationship with them strong?
Although I tend to work best alone, I consider myself a team player. I completely understand filmmaking is a collaborative activity and I’m just one part of a greater whole. I’ve been blessed to work with some really talented individuals like Bem Pever, Ishaya Bako, Brenda Ogbuka and others so I’m confident whatever we do will turn out great. We’ve been through a lot together so I consider them family rather than just colleagues.
10. Who is that filmmaker you will love to work with?
There are many but right now, I’d love to work with CJ Obasi of Ojuju and O-Town fame. He’s definitely a visionary auteur and it helps that we’re friends and share a love of movies. We’ve discussed working together in the past but I guess the stars just didn’t align at the time. Thankfully, we’ve kept in touch and ideas have been flowing lately so let’s see what happens. Rest assured anything we come up with will be – as CJ likes to put it – “fiery!”
If there’s one thing about the industry today that you wish you could change, what would that be?
One thing? There are too many to choose from… lack of distribution, better cinemas, piracy, lack of governmental funding and structure, lack of proper representation, and so forth. But if I were to choose one it would be the dearth of local content. We need to start putting our own stories out there; stories borne out of the Nigerian experience. Enough of the copy and paste mentality we’ve grown fond of. In the past we had great entertainment like Cockcrow at Dawn, Behind the Clouds, New Masquerade, Village Headmaster, Ripples, Checkmate, and many others that defined a generation. Enough of the foreign soaps and telenovelas that populate most of our local channels. I’m sure the Western programmes are fine, but how will be challenge ourselves creatively if we continue to follow a model that isn’t ours?
What do audiences want? And is it the writer’s role to worry about that?
Audiences want to be entertained, pure and simple. Now the hard part is that there’s no formula to make a movie that is both entertaining AND successful. It’s a gamble on the filmmaker’s part and as a writer and storyteller I definitely worry about the end result. Thankfully I know that I can’t please everybody and people are going to walk away from the movie with whatever they feel worked for them or what didn’t. My job is to listen, learn, and try to deliver on the next go around.
What film(s) have been the most inspiring and influential to you and why?
There are too many to mention. I have my favorites but I wouldn’t call them inspiring; just entertaining. However, I would say that watching Conan the Barbarian (1982) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger left me in awe and introduced me to the world of epic filmmaking. I loved the story from start to finish and the way it was written. Kudos to writer/director John Milius and co-writer Oliver Stone. Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was a welcomed inspiration in 1994 because it showed you didn’t need any formal training to tell an entertaining story. Sadly I didn’t watch a lot of Nigerian or African films so none on my list… yet.
What are some of your current and future projects that you can share with us?
I have quite a few projects on my writing slate actually. They’re mostly personal projects and not commissioned. As I mentioned I’m developing something I’d like CJ Obasi to consider directing. Then I’m developing an indigenous language movie that I hope will be shot before end of the year. That’s one of the Rated E in-house projects I mentioned earlier. I’m also working on rewriting one of my earlier scripts that was shot a TV movie in 2013 titled Moving On. I had to cut the script down from its original 90 minutes to 60 minutes and I’ve always felt the audience didn’t get the full narrative. Now, I’m adding those 30 minutes back and the original story has transformed into something new and exciting so hopefully it’ll be the other Rated E in-house project of 2016. I also have ideas for a movie about soldiers fighting Boko Haram, the land crisis in Benue, two historical adventure features and an international video game project I’m attached to. But my most challenging project would be the one I’m planning – a pre-colonial action adventure story with little or no dialogue!!! Safe to say, I’m plenty busy in 2016.
Name two writers who have inspired you and why?
Aaron Sorkin and Walter Hill… they are both American screenwriters and masters of dialogue. Aaron Sorkin because he’s shown me that you can have smart characters with smart dialogue. He won an Academy Award for writing The Social Network. Walter Hill because he’s the best at “less is more” writing. It’s sparse and to the point. His scripts are real visual page turners and he writes exactly how real people speak. I can only wish to be that good.
Do you nurse the dream of becoming a director?
Not really because in a way I kind of direct through my writing. Yeah, my name isn’t on the screen as “An Emil B. Garuba film” but somehow I’d like to think it is. I’ve been told that reading my scripts is like watching the movie already. I take that as a huge compliment. Maybe one day I’ll direct but it’s a headache I don’t want to bring upon myself. I don’t envy directors one bit. It’s a huge responsibility to take on.
People talk all the time about pitch meetings. How you have to sell yourself even more than the material. What’s the experience of pitching like, and does it hold true that you need to display personality and be able to sell yourself?
I think it’s half and half. You have to sell yourself as much as your story during your pitch because potential investors and stakeholders want to see your passion come alive. If you don’t believe in what you’re pitching, why should they? I think I have a good track record of selling my stories and I tell other writers the same.
Tell us one surprising fact about Emil Garuba
For a creative writer I’m really not into literature. I can’t even remember the last fiction book I read. Probably back in college for a class. I mean I had to if I wanted to pass the course right? But for fun, you wouldn’t catch me with a book. No, I’m more of an audio-visual person with no patience for books. Comics and graphic novels, sure. But not books. I’d rather watch the movie adaptation. It’s a bit of a contradiction I know, but it is what it is.