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How Ramsey Nouah’s film shaped path to First Features Project– Dotun Olakunri

How Ramsey Nouah’s film shaped path to First Feature Project– Dotun Olakunrin

“Living in Bondage: Breaking Free,” a Nollywood film released in 2019 and produced by Dotun Olakunri, marked a significant turning point, not just for its cinematic achievements but also for the behind-the-scenes collaboration that birthed ‘First Feature Project’, an initiative to spur emerging movie directors to make their first film.

Olakunri, a businessman-turned-film producer, played a crucial role in steering the movie to success, notably by tipping Nollywood veteran Ramsey Nouah to step into the director’s chair for the first time.

The triumph of this collaboration fueled Olakunri’s passion for empowering emerging talents, leading him and Steve Gukas to co-establish the First Feature Project. In this interview, we sit down with Olakunri to unravel the untold stories and motivations that sparked the inception of this groundbreaking initiative.

The film producer has produced award-winning films, including 93 Days (2016) and Living in Bondage. During the interview, Olakunri delves into the First Features Project, which is creating the next generation of young filmmakers by helping them explore their talents and sponsoring their first feature releases as directors, and how that is helping to shape the Nollywood industry as a whole.

How did you start working with Steve Gukas and what inspired the creation of the First Features Project?

Some time ago, I was chilling at home when I got this cool idea to write something. My friend, who’s a super-talented playwright, thought it was so good that she wanted to turn it into a series. She gathered a team of awesome people to work on it, and then she said we needed a director. So I asked her who the best director was, and she introduced me to Steve Gukas. Ever since then, we’ve been like best buds.

We were working hard on the series, but in the middle of it, Steve got busy with another play called ‘A Place in the Stars’. It was all about swimming or something with stars, I don’t know. Anyway, I decided to invest in that play because I was so pumped about the whole project. It turns out I discovered a passion I didn’t even know I had!

Then, in 2016, when the Ebola epidemic was going crazy, Steve read this story by Dr. Adadevo, who was a big hero in fighting the virus. He got super inspired and thought it would be an awesome idea to turn it into a movie. And guess what? He asked me to help make it happen!

I reached out to some of Dr. Adadevo’s family members and asked if they would be cool with us making a video about her. They were totally on board and even agreed to give us interviews and support. So, we started talking to everyone who was involved in the fight against Ebola. We interviewed doctors, people from the hospital, the isolation centre, and even government officials. We wanted to get the whole story!

By January 2016, we had already done a bunch of interviews and met so many incredible people. We had all the information we needed to create a fantastic script. We were so pumped that we decided we had to make the movie as soon as possible. And you know what? We even got to talk to Danny Glover about it! He’s a total legend.

Bolanle Austen Peters, who is a friend of mine from when we were kids, helped us with the marketing of this movie called ‘A Place in the Stars’ and we thought she could also help with our next project.

Danny Glover decided to take a big pay cut for this movie called ’93 Days’ because he believed it was a story that needed to be told. I was impressed by his dedication.

The movie was directed by Steve, and let me tell you, he worked really hard. In my opinion, he’s the best film director on this whole continent! And that’s how our journey began.

Then, along came Charles Play with this project called ‘Living in Bondage’. Steve was supposed to direct it, but when we saw how talented Ramsey Nouah was as a director, we let him take the lead. It was his first time directing a full-length movie, and it took over a year to get the script just right. A lot of people were excited to see this movie because they loved the original one from the 90s. We didn’t want to disappoint anyone.

After working on ‘Living in Bondage’, we realised that if Ramsey could do such a great job on his first movie, then we could give other people the chance to make their films too. We wanted to help them learn the process and create something amazing that the whole world could see. And that’s how the First Feature Project started.

What is the casting process like and how has it affected the creative process of making films with these young directors?

I’m the person in charge of the casting process and making sure everything fits together. It’s like putting together a puzzle and making sure all the pieces work. We only work with people we trust because casting is super important.

Swanky JKA was the main character in Living in Bondage. He is an amazing actor, and when we saw his talent, we knew we had to have him in the film. We took a chance on him because we believed in his skills.

Usually, we get a list of people in the industry who are good at acting. They come and perform for us. But it’s not just about being good at acting. We also look at how well the actors work together and if they have good chemistry.

We want them to look great on screen. So, first, the actor has to be good at acting. Second, they have to have chemistry with the other actors. And third, we prefer actors who are professional and take their work seriously. We’ve had a few experiences with actors who weren’t very professional, but luckily, we were able to find out before we started filming. It’s a really interesting process.

Talking about ‘Love and Life.’ The whole story revolves around the chemistry between the three ladies. So, it was really important for us to find three ladies who already had good chemistry with each other. We found out that Michelle (Dede) and Rita (Dominic) were best friends in real life, and they also had a great relationship with Nse (Ikpe-Etim). So, we chose them for the film. When we cast the male actors alongside them, we could see that they had great chemistry together. And that’s how we knew we had found professional actors who would be perfect for the movie.

But the most important thing was making sure that the young director of the movie could handle working with famous actors and step up to the challenge. Luckily, Rueben Reng, the young director of Love and Life, did an amazing job. The actors were nice and understanding towards him, even though they had more experience in the industry. They guided him and let him express himself in the movie.

In some other projects, the cast didn’t have as much fame or experience, but they all gave their best performance. They all came and showed their talent.

We were really worried about a movie called Kill Boro because the main actor is just 11 years old. We wondered how we would find young actors who could carry a whole movie. But the result was incredible, and you’ll see it for yourself.

How is the marketing process going, and what are the challenges?

Regarding marketing, you need to know what you can take to the cinema. I think the people who distribute the movies should do more to promote them. Producers have to take that risk themselves and so it’s expensive for producers to take their film to the cinema.

And that adds to the risk for the producer and that makes it a little more complicated as to what you did to cinema and what you didn’t. It’s easier to deal with the streamers because they will agree with you on the deal upfront.

What are the upcoming releases slated for 2024 for the First Features Project?

So we have these films. We already know that Cake comes to Amazon Prime on the 25th of January in about two weeks. So that’s the next of the first feature films coming to Prime to stream. Another film called ‘It Blooms in June’ comes out on February 16 on the same platform.

We have two other shows that are already ready. We’re contemplating taking two or one of them to the cinema in March and April. So we will have an idea of what we do with those, in short, the short space of time. So it is likely that at least one or possibly two may go to the cinema in the next three or four months.

What are your aspirations for this project and the future of Nollywood?

I hope this project brings in some fresh new film directors for the industry to use. These directors are super knowledgeable and professional, and they work hard. I hope the industry realises that there are these awesome new directors who can come in and make cool new movies.

Usually, we always hear the same five to ten names of people directing movies. They have lots of experience and connections in the industry, which helps them get projects. But now we have twelve new directors who are creative and modern. They are good at what they do and they are bringing something new to the world.

As more international companies come to Nigeria, they see so many talented people they can work with. Hopefully, these twelve amazing young directors are part of the next phase to change the Nigerian film industry, Nollywood.