From Taiwo Amodu, Abuja
He is a man of many parts. He is a businessman, a politician and philanthropist. His foray into the movie industry has also been remarkable. With a couple of films to his credit, Tonye Princewill has indeed become a force to reckon with in Nollywood.
The Rivers State governorship candidate of the defunct Action Congress and Labour Party in 2007 and 2015 respectively has immense passion for the downtrodden on whom his Foundation, The Princewill Trust, has impacted enormously. In this interview with TS Weekend, the chairman, Riverdrill Group of Companies, an indigenous operator in the upstream sector of the oil industry, speaks about his journey into Nollywood and why the thematic concern in most of his movies, including the latest, ’76, is based on exploring the industry as an agent of change and reorientation. Excerpts:
From oil to politics and now filmmaking, what’s your perception of Nollywood, and at what point did you develop interest in it?
I must admit, I thought it was just fun and games. But it is hardwork. The Nollywood people are something else. The foundation they have built is with little or no support from government, yet they’ve put Nigeria on the world map and contributed to increasing our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). They are our cultural ambassadors. Three industries work in Nigeria, albeit with lots of room for improvement: banking, religion and Nollywood. You just simply have to hand it to them.
But what are the innovations or changes you have noticed?
In recent years, new kids on the block are knocking on the door. They are bringing in new money, fresh faces, wide international interests and very new techniques. They are asking the tough questions and challenging the status quo. Kunle Afolayan and Izu Ojukwu in film, Chioma Ude of AFRIFF, and Wangi Mba Uzoukwu of Africa Magic in the aggregator platforms; Kene Mkparu and Nnaeto in new cinemas.
Change is inevitable. Let me not forget also, Adonis Productions, of course in production. Those of them who don’t try to think that they are better than Nollywood seem to be making it. I think the trick is to tweak, not to try to take over.
Nollywood is Africa and Africa does not need to be re-invented. What is changing now is that Africa’s voice, courtesy of Nollywood, is getting a lot louder. A few years ago, we had four cinemas in Nigeria. Now we have 24, and by the end of the year, we will have 30. Not to talk of new cinema investment that is on its way. In Rivers State, we have a well-known local saying, ‘I dey there better pass them say’. Something is happening in Nollywood. If you blink, you will miss it.
What’s the toughest part of putting a movie together?
Getting the money. Many of us who can help, don’t. Too many who can lift up the next African Steven Spielberg, the next Spike Lee or the future Oprah Winfrey see them as irrelevant, because they don’t get it. This industry is the next best thing. As politicians become more and more unpopular, less and less news will be watched and more and more movies will give Nigerians the escape they need. Our entertainers are already becoming more influential than our leaders. The brands get this. Nigerians need to get it too. Very few industries afford our youth the freedom that this one does. It speaks to their souls. We all need to understand that.
Politics, business and filmmaking, how do you marry all these?
There is a link. Youth empowerment. So, once you see it from that perspective, it shouldn’t surprise you. I love to create jobs, to get people working, watch them slowly building and feeding their families. Politics for me is what to do, the business has taught me how to do it, because by virtue of listening to and telling the real Nigerian story, I understand why things need to be done. I am driven in all these areas, but at my core, the engagement of the younger generation encompasses all. It’s not work for me.
How do you balance them with family?
Good question. That is the hard part. But I have the most amazing family ever. They are my biggest fans, so my work is theirs. From my wife to my kids, to my siblings, to my parents, we are all in this together. They just loaned me out. It’s not a life choice; it’s just a project. And very soon, my work will be done.
‘Kajola’ is Nigeria’s first science fiction movie. Please tell us the story behind creating it?
I came in as executive producer after the same team who I worked with on ‘Nnenda’ brought this unique project to my attention. Adonis Productions is synonymous with good stuff and so naturally I took a keen interest, but what appealed to me with Kajola, was the tale of two cities, two classes, the rich and the poor. It resonated powerfully with me and I simply had to be part of telling that story. Trying new things is also one of the signatures for the Adonis’ team, so being a part of the crew that brought you the first science fiction full feature film was not an accolade I could reject.
What’s at the back of your mind when you are making a movie?
Good. It is what message am I sending? To me, Nigeria’s, Africa’s biggest challenge is re-orientation. I want to use film to get you to have a rethink. I want you to use film to escape from the stress and I want to use film to keep people busy. Nnenda was about orphans, Kajola was about the poor while ‘76 is about Nigeria. My hope is that as people watch these powerful films; they see what I saw, escape from the day-to-day and then immerse themselves in how life should be. If we succeed, we will get more youths empowered, and that is the ultimate goal. Over 200 cast and crew were used in ‘76. Apprenticeship programmes took place on set. Up and coming actors then, are now winning best actor now. Top directors today were associate directors then. We want to give to the industry, not simply to take away from it.
Since you ventured into the industry, which has been the most challenging of your films?
No doubt it’s ‘76. It’s the first movie we did on celluloid. First movie to be shot in an army barracks, first blockbuster in our pack, first movie to do a private screening within post-production. First this, first that. But as it was challenging, it has also been very rewarding. To see the child grow into a man leaves a smile on the face. All in all it took us seven years to get here. I am my own worst constructive critic, but I can look back on ‘76 and say ‘Wow, we tried!’
Do you intend to commercialise your movies and when?
We will. Content, as one media executive here told me, is key. It always has value. Just like time. Nobody is in possession of any of our rights – yet. We will choose very carefully before we decide, but very soon, our films will be available for your viewing pleasure. You can count on that. Having said that, it is not all about the money. Alliances need to be built and we are almost there.
How are you able to fund other projects without commercialising them?
By taking small bites and not biting more than we can chew. Also by taking our time to get it right when we can. The search for cash is a skill by His grace. It is not by sheer strength nor by might. You can easily run into bad debts while searching for good money, especially if you talk to the wrong people. We handle long-term money. So, we have minimum pressure. As we build the right teams, funding for other projects will emerge, while revenue from existing ones will come back. Movie making is a business.
At what point did you decide to do ‘76 and what was the motivation?
‘76 is a game changer. It’s a new chapter in storytelling and the fact that it is based on real events is even more fascinating. So, as a story, we already knew we had something there. I had worked with Izu Ojukwu on ‘Nnenda’ before and so I knew his pedigree. He is meticulous, prudent and world class. So, I knew that with Adonis
Productions in the lead, nothing could go wrong. That was why I got involved. The movie went over-budget but that was due to changing locations twice and the need to satisfy military protocols. Let’s just say, getting the permission to shoot in a barracks was not as easy as we thought.
What was your experience getting the cast to fit into the 1976 setting?
That was the job for others. Mine was to give it a final nod and wink.
Seeing the movie now, they put round pegs in round holes. Rita Dominic performed out of her skin, in her role as the officer’s wife. Chidi Mokeme, I am sure will make many new fans with what was an excellent portrayal of the life of a soldier in 1976. Of course, it is now no secret what Daniel K. Daniel is made of. He and Ramsey Nouah struck a bond on set that showed up in the final product. And the list goes on.
I couldn’t be happier than with the cast and crew of this film. I love them.
But we learnt it took seven years to do it. Why?
For a variety of reasons. First, it was an idea in Izu’s head that required support. Adonai, the CEO of Adonis Productions, provided it. They then began to build on that until they felt they knew something that Princewill’s Trust could add, which is where I came in. That process took a few years. Then you had a green light from us for pre-production, which required the crew to now recreate 1976. First location was Adamawa, then Ibadan, before the Mokola barracks became our home. Refurbishing the cars, repainting the houses, putting the props in place and shooting without viewing all meant that time and lighting was critical to outcome. Months were exhausted. We spent a relatively short time shooting compared to pre-production and post-production. Due to the fact that we shot on celluloid, post-production was in Munich, Germany.
Nigerians have a way of imputing funny motives to creative works. Are you prepared for insinuations and political motives that they could attribute to ‘76 once it is premiered?
Of course, I am. But ‘76 is not only my baby. It belongs to too many people, including the Nigerian army, the director, Izu Ojukwu and a host of other creative geniuses. The only key political motive here is authenticity to one and authenticity to all. That is not easy. Even the late General Murtala Muhammed’s family has given the film a nod.
Besides funding film projects, do you intend to act in the near future?
No such intention. There are plenty of good actors out there looking for good jobs. And I intend to contribute my quota to them. Most people who look inside me will know that I do not like the limelight. I came out because of the state of our politics. Now I am slowly retreating back again. It is not easy to take on a system while others watch. Besides, acting is not easy. The dedication to their art is unbelievable. Not everyone can act.
Let’s do a critique of the industry. Are you comfortable with the role of the regulatory body like Censors Board?
I am not sure of your motive for the question. But the simple answer is, yes I am. It is an essential tool in the chain of filmmaking and the eyes and ears of the government. They have to be involved. Self-regulation has its limits. As they are doing now and I pray they continue, it should be in partnership with the industry. The billions we invest need to feel wanted. So more can come and join us.
When you are not making movies, doing politics, business or philanthropy, what occupies your time?
I watch movies, play video games and listen to music. Running away from the girls is also a full time job. So many very pretty women, but I only have eyes for one,
In all you have done, what is the biggest thrill for you?
Running for governor. Politics. It has the biggest impact. The largest reach. They say it’s dangerous, but not for me. I want to make things happen, not watch things not happening. And politics is what gives you the opportunity. If you can’t stand the real heat, stay out of the kitchen. Unfortunately, we have allowed the lunatics take over the asylum, so principled performers like me who are not mad enough to loot and kill are at a disadvantage. I’d rather lose than kill and steal, and people with money don’t have the guts to fight the system because the system can break them. The people are helpless. Remove the lunacy from politics and Nigeria will explode into the next level. But that will require the resolve of civilized Nigerians, an uncompromising international community and institutions devoid of interests. A long shot, yes, but a choice we must make. Sooner or later.