Lagos — Actress, scriptwriter and filmmaker, Omoni Oboli, has always been in the vanguard of the fight against nudity in Nigeria's entertainment scene. In this interview with REPORTER Ovwe Medeme, she speaks on the challenges in the industry, the need to combat piracy and her recipe for making a good movie.
What does it take to be a scriptwriter?
It has to come from inside you. It is either you have it or you don't. I have been writing from a very young age. Then, I used to write school plays, which I directed myself. I didn't know that what I was doing was directing. Everyone knew me then as a scriptwriter. I was also the editor of the Press Club in my secondary school. So, I did a lot of writing. Even at home, I wrote stories and those who read them then were always impressed. I later got to realize that it was actually a gift that I had. Sometimes, I just sit down, cook up a story and build characters around it, do the screenplay and make everything come alive.
How do you pick your themes while writing movie scripts?
I pick my themes from happenings around me. I don't believe that there is any new story. Every story in this world had been told before. The thing is to actually look for another angle to tell a story. All the stories in the movies we act actually happened thousands of years ago. There is really nothing new. I pick up themes from things that have happened around me, and from things I have read even from the Bible, turn them around and make them my own.
In your opinion, is there a classroom procedure for writing scripts?
I will not say yes or no, because some people actually went to school to study scriptwriting. So, there must be some sort of classroom way of doing it. First of all I get the story, then break it down into scenes, and treat it scene by scene. I make sure I build my character in such a way that every character is distinct.
How long have you been in acting?
I started in 1996 when I was still a little girl. I enjoyed the whole year, because I had a very good career with couple of lead roles in some movies. But I left the industry because it was my first year in higher institution, and acting was clashing with my academics. I had to leave in order to get my education first. I got married right after school and I left Nigeria, but I have been back for over three years now.
What has the three-year period been like?
It has been great. It wasn't easy getting back into the scene initially, because there were so many new actresses and very few people could remember me, but a couple of producers and directors did. Lancelot Imasuen, who introduced me to Emem Isong did. I wrote a script, which she liked and I got to act in it. She saw that I was good so she starred me in almost all her movies.
As an actress, what has been your greatest challenge?
My greatest challenge would be not having enough time for my family. But it has been great because I still manage to balance my family and my work.
People feel that female celebrities can't run families, how do you manage to strike the balance?
First of all, I don't jump from set to set. I try to chose my roles very well and make sure I only do the best script that comes to me. So, I don't have to work every single week of the month. When I am not around, my kids know I am not around and they accept it like that. When I am around, I make sure they feel my presence. I give them a hundred percent of my time, do little things for them and I cook special food for them. Things that they will remember when mummy is not around, and also get them excited while returning.
At the last AMAA awards, no Nigerian movie won any significant award, what do you think is responsible for that?
I have no idea, because we still produce good movies. I won't deny the fact that there are a lot of really bad movies. We still have a couple of very good, award winning movies. I have no idea why they weren't picked. I personally don't think the ones that were picked for awards were better than ours.
As a producer, what would you say are the ingredients for a good movie?
It all starts with the script. If you don't have a good script, even if you bring all the best directors from all over the world, it will be just another lousy story with a good production. Make sure the script is tight. Make sure there are no long, dragging and unnecessary scenes that will bore the audience. Scriptwriting is all about storytelling, very important. Make sure you put a good crew together then get good actors. You don't have to choose actors based on the fact that they are A-list actors to make your movie sell. If they don't fit the role, then they don't fit the role. So, you make sure you put up a good casting. What is left is the money.
Does the money play an important role?
Of course, it does. The amount of money you spend depends on how big your script is and how well you want your movie to pan out.
Between acting, producing and scriptwriting, which do enjoy doing the most?
Acting has always been my first love. I could do without being a producer and a scriptwriter, but I cannot do without being an actor. Though I love producing and writing. When I write, I see my writing comes alive yet acting is number one. It takes the centre stage of my career.
What picture do you see regarding the future of Nollywood?
The future of Nollywood that I see is good. Everybody knows that right now the industry is going through a down phase. I think this phase is good for us, as it will separate the boys from the men. At the end of the day, only the people who mean business will remain behind. The way it is going now, people will get fed up and leave the industry. Only those who have the passion for it and know what they are doing will stay behind. Those who will remain behind are those who know what they are doing. We will produce good movies. Already, there is a trend because independent producers are producing really good movies now, like the yet to be released Figurine, which I played the lead character. It is an awesome movie that Nigeria and Nigerians will be proud of. There is also Jungle Ride by Lillian Amah. It has not been released yet, but a very good production. The kinds of movies being produced now will take the industry to another level. I am coming out with my own production as well, a thing to watch out for.
Could you give us a hint of what your production is about?
It is a love story. The quality will be awesome. It will be done with very good equipment, something to watch out for.
How do you think the industry can face the technological challenges of movie production?
First of all, we need the know-how. A lot of directors think they are too good, but they really need to attend film academies to study and know what directing is all about. Directing is not like acting that people are born with. There is so much going on in the world right now that directors need to up their game to come to the level where other countries of the world are operating. If our directors can do that, then we will know that we have people who know what they are doing. We also need equipment. If we can get the kinds of equipment they have at Hollywood, we can go far. I don't blame directors for the stuff they make, because we don't have good funding. We don't have corporate bodies falling over themselves to help finance the industry. We cannot keep doing it with our money only. There is a limit to which people can spend when the money is coming from their pocket. So we need backing from the corporate world, the government in terms of stopping piracy and putting laws in place to make sure that we actually make our money back when we shoot movies. If I am sure of not just making my money, but also making profits, then I would do better movies. I will spend more money, get better equipment and get a good cast and crew in place.
Should making movies be about the profit?
First and foremost, it is about passion. Secondly, you have to eat. I do not subscribe to people spending their money to make movies only for them to return back to their villages because they did not make any profit. That is not fair. You don't go to work in a bank without your payment at the end of the month. At the end of the day, it is still a business that requires producers to make their money back.
What advice would you give to those who want to go into acting?
A lot of people think acting is easy, but the truth is that it is not. I think actors are born and not made, though it is important to study to improve your skills as an actor. If you don't have it in you and you go to all the film schools in the world, you would still be a bad actor. First of all, they need to know if they are really cut out for it. It could be frustrating at the beginning, but if that is what they really want then with perseverance, they will get there.
How can piracy be tackled in Nigeria?
I think that there is no problem without a solution. There is piracy everywhere in the world. I don't know if it can be stopped totally but at least, it can be brought to a level where it is almost insignificant. It is not something we can do on our own. I think we need the backing of the government. We need them to put laws that would stop pirated Hollywood movies from coming into Nigeria. If someone can buy a fourteen-in-one Hollywood DVD for the same price as one Nollywood movie, there will be no need to buy the home videos. If we don't have those pirated foreign movies in the market, people will be forced to buy ours. This is our story told in our way, so we should be proud of it.
As a producer, have you had any first hand experience with the activities of pirates?
I have only done one movie, The Rival, taken to the New York International Film Festival in the year 2007 and won best international drama. I was really proud of the movie. Though I cannot say the movie was openly pirated, we tried replicating the movie and the company handling it made a mistake in the process. Some of them carried our design, but had a Yoruba movie inside them. We had to take them out of the market, because it was causing a problem. We are re-launching it now. So, maybe after some months, we will get to know if it was actually pirated.
How do you handle your fans?
I have a fan book, www.omoniobolifanbook.com, a lot of my fans sign up there. So, they get to interact with me, have discussions online. I don't have negative fans yet. Most of the people I have as fans like me and they think I am a good role model. It has been great so far. I was in New York some months ago and my fans there had a party for me.
As a married actress, do your male fans make advances towards you?
Of course, they do. It happens to every woman. I don't think you have to be an actress to experience such a thing. I get a lot of advances from men, but for me, it is either one thing or the other. It is either you want to do it or you don't. If you don't want to do it, you say no and it ends right there.
Have you had any experience where directors make demands before casting you for a role?
I haven't had such and I hope I never have such an experience. I think, it depends on the way one places herself. I don't think any director will see a responsible lady and will want to make advances at her before giving her a role. I don't beg for roles, so there is no reason for anybody to make demands from me. It probably does happen, but it is in every industry, not only in Nollywood. It happens in banks, hospitals, schools and anywhere you can think of. Sexual harassment is not peculiar to Nollywood. I haven't experienced it personally.
Who is Omoni?
I am an actress, a scriptwriter and a producer in the movie industry. I also do event planning and weight loss management on the side.
What was growing up like for you?
Growing up was fun. I grew up with my mother and my sister. We always did things together. We were one small happy family. I attended one of the best schools in Nigeria then in Delta Steel Company. I believe that my early foundation shaped who I am today. We were told to stand for what we believed in, we were taught to be leaders of our society. I attended University of Benin where I studied Foreign Languages. Generally, I had a good time growing up.
Why did you veer into acting?
Like I said, I have always loved acting. It has always been something that has been inside me, something I cannot turn my back on, no matter how hard I try. I left the industry after 1996, but I couldn't stay away. When I came back to Nigeria, it was one thing I needed to do. I had job offers, which I turned down because I had a passion I wanted to pursue.
If you loved acting that much, why didn't you study it in the higher institution?
I didn't think that I needed to study Theatre Arts to be an actress I already had it in me.
Do you think there will be a time when you will leave acting for your field of study?
I don't think such a time will come. I can't see it happening in the near future.
What are we to expect next from you?
There are so many movies I have starred in that will be released in the next couple of months. I played lead roles in all of them. Expect The Figurine, Jungle Ride and Entanglement.