Producer of the award-winning action movie, ‘A Mile From Home’, Eric Aghimien, is a young but very methodical Nollywood producer and director. In this interview with Mary Ekah, he talks about the making of his new movie, ‘Slow Country’, billed to hit the cinemas today, the motivation for making it, and his life as a filmmaker
What is the concept behind your new movie, ‘Slow Country’?
Slow Country is about a woman who made some mistakes in her early days and now she is trying to deal with it. She had a son unexpectedly and in order to take care of him, she took a dive into the dark world of prostitution and drug trafficking. At some point, she wanted to get out of such trades but it became impossible to do so. So ‘Slow Country’ is metaphorical. It is not about Nigeria, so let me clear that. People think it’s about Nigeria because of the things we went through recently. But no it is not about Nigeria, it is just the right name I can come up with to describe the emotions this woman was going through. First of all, a lot happen in our mind, most of the battles we fight in life happen in our mind, trying to make decisions and trying to do stuffs. There is a different world within us that we have to contend with every day – battles we have to fight with ourselves, I consider that the greatest battle human beings fight. So, this is a woman sitting in the dark room, thinking what her life would have been like and what her life is right now, comparing both. So, it was something that is almost indescribable, I had to look for a word to describe how she felt, so ‘Slow Country’ came to my mind. So that was just how the title came up. I actually wrote ‘Slow Country’ in 2011. It was supposed to be my first movie but realistically it wasn’t possible to make the film with the kind of money I had then, so I had to write ‘A Mile From Home’ and made it within the budget I had then. After, ‘A Mile From Home’s’ success, I was able to pull enough funds for this ‘Slow Country’, so I just went to dig out the story and completed it within a short time. Obviously I knew the cast that will work for each role. I just called them. Subconsciously, I was also writing the character for them, I knew what each person can do.
What criteria did you use for characters?
I’m very particular about characterisation in my stories and my scripts, so when I write characters, I write compelling characters, characters that are memorable. So what I do is when I write a story, everything I do is about that character, it must favour the character. You see in the film, I used a couple of the characters in the previous film; I had to bring them back because their convincing abilities. When you write characters, there are some people that their looks just suit your character, the way they look, the way they talk, the way they acts just suits your character. But another thing is I take time to discuss my character with the person. There are some characters that I had to discuss with the actors, this is what I want, this is my vision, this is how the character is going to act, this is the kind of cloth he will wear, this is how he is going to walk, his expression and all that. We discuss everything. Like Tuvi played by Sambasa Nzeribe, it was an outstanding performance but we had a long time to discuss the character. He comes to my house every night then, we sleep over the character, and we wake up on the character. And thankfully, it came out the way I envisioned it to be.
Why action movie again?
I did an action movie again because I like action movies but beyond action, its storytelling, action is just something on the side. Some people like to call me an action movie director, I am not an action movie director, I am just a storyteller and I really don’t agree when people call me an action movie director. I chose action because first of all it was like problem solving; before now, when people talk about action movie in Nigeria, they laugh because they think it’s going to be ridiculous, so I wanted to solve that problem personally, so I started putting things together. I started acquiring the kind of knowledge I needed to be able to solve that problem. So, when it was time, I decided to solve the problem about action movie in Nigeria, convincing the audience that it was possible. But I won’t like to be seen as an action movie director, because if you look at the story, it has every elements, it has drama, it has romance, it has a bit of comedy, but we just leave it as thriller or action. It’s even more challenging to make an action movie.
Do you think you have been able to solve this problem?
Yes, convincingly, because I have heard a lot of testimonies. The first one I heard was that some people were on a movie set trying to do an action movie, another person was like it’s not possible, let’s just do our drama, somebody just opened his phone and played ‘A Mile From Home’ thriller to the guy and the guy looked at it and said ‘this is not Nigeria jor’ but eventually they were able to convince him that it was Nigerian and then he changed his mind afterwards.
What standard did you introduce into this movie that makes it different from the conventional action movies in Nigeria?
Basically, it is just about paying attention to details every step of the way – in performance, in choreography, in visual effect, in special effect, everything maters a lot. Another thing is that people are not willing to sacrifice for what they want; I think I have done that. I have paid the price for whatever is happening right now. I worked and worked, I learnt, I read a lot, in fact I read to make my first film, I didn’t have money to go to film school, so I read books, and articles online, I was practically online every day. I think I have paid the price because I researched and read for over three years before I was ready to make my first film. That’s like going to film school, anyways. People are not willing to learn, but they just want to be, and you just have to go through that process of learning before you can be.
You started writing ‘Slow Country’ before ‘A Mile From Home’ but couldn’t produce it for financial issue, so how exactly did you manage conquer that? ‘
Before I made ‘A Mile From Home’, I had not done anything and you can’t just meet someone and say give me N10 million or N15 million to make a movie because they haven’t seen anything you have done before that is successful. I had to fund ‘A Mile From Home’ myself, because the budget was a bit lower than that of ‘Slow Country’. And before doing ‘A Mile From Home’, I was doing graphic designs professionally and also I used to record events here and here. Then I did a couple of graphic designs for some big companies, made some good money used it for the production of ‘A Mile From Home’. Though the money was not enough, but sometimes it is not about money, it is about charisma, and skills, leadership skills as well; how to bring people together, those are the things I learnt while reading about film – as in how to bring people together for a cause, how to motivate people to do the things you want them to do, as if were their ideas. So, I didn’t just read film, I read leadership books as well. I made reading a part of my life even though now I hardly read because of everything that is happening. I read wide so it was easier to make ‘A Mile Form Home’ and after that I became a little bit bankable, so I could meet people and say I want some money to do a project and they could say ‘we have seen what you did before’. So that was how I made ‘Slow Country’.
Why did you focus on drug trafficking and prostitution in ‘Slow Country?
The truth is drug is not very common, I mean like cocaine is not commonly seen around Nigeria, probably because of the poverty level, people are struggling to find what to eat, instead of taking cocaine which will not quench their hunger. But the truth is, it’s there, there are a lot of people who are addicted to drugs, it’s there on the street, but because people don’t find it often, they find it difficult to relate to it. Prostitution, of course is there. A lot of our youths go through this same situation my character goes through. So there was no particular reason, but sometimes when I drive pass some areas, I see some ladies standing by the roadside. Some of them were compelled to be there; maybe a relative forced them into the situation, some of them, just do it in order to survive. Apart from that, there are also women on the street, hawking with their children under the sun. That motivated the story and even the characters. I think prostitution was what came to my head when I wanted to write that character, it could have been hawking in traffic. I think prostitution and drug trafficking are more emotionally devastating for a lot of people, imagine someone who thought she wanted to be a lawyer or anything, now forced into prostitution because of situation, its dehumanising.
How did you feel when ‘Slow Country’ won an award, seeing that it hasn’t even gotten to the cinemas yet?
I felt great. You know like I said, I read widely and when I write, I write like an audience too, I judge like an audience, critic and filmmaker. So, I know what to put in the movie. I feel good when the movie won awards. It won Audience Choice awards in AFRIFF and Best Actor in Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards and I expect to win more by the grace of God. It’s more of an achievement for me than money, money is good, I like to spend money but it has to also be recognised and be celebrated.
How was growing up?
Growing up was challenging for me because I’m from a broken home, in fact I never saw my parents together, and that used to hurt me a lot as a child. I think I was two when they broke up and my younger brother was one. We are five; I have three older sisters, then I’m the fourth and then my younger brother. We were children when they broke up and we really didn’t know why, we just realised that we started living with my mother and we realised that other people had fathers and that was heart breaking for us. I lived with my mother till I was seven and then moved to live with my father. Whenever I used to visit friends and I see both their parents together, it used to break my heart; I used to cry, as a matter of fact. So, because of that, it made growing up tougher than it should have been because my father couldn’t do so much in terms of care because he was always travelling; sometimes he will tell us ‘I will come and take you guys to school’, he will not show up, we will have to trek to school. Sometimes he will promise to come take us home from school, he will not show up, we will have to trek home. It was not his fault, it was tough for him. Growing up was also fun but challenging because we were exposed to a lot of stuffs, we had to grow up ourselves. I think two of my siblings – my elder sisters were with my mother, while three of us were with my father, so we had to grow up on our own because my dad was always travelling. Things were not just perfect.
Are you married?
No, I am not. I have someone that I am going out with but it’s a little bit complicated, I think I focus too much on my job. I hardly pay attention to girls. It is complicated because I remember my friends said ‘one day, we will bring a girl from Benin for you and just dump her in your house, so you get married’. But the thing is that my mum never disturbed me, she understands me better, my dad sometimes says jokingly ‘you have not brought someone’ but they never disturb me. I think I focus on my work a lot, so I hardly worry about women. I live a very simple life. I fear breakup a lot, I think that’s one of the reasons I’m still not married. I went through hard times because my parents had to break up at a certain point. Divorce is scary for me, very scary, it is not something I want to experience. So, when I want to get married, I want to marry the right person because I want my children to grow up with us, I want my children to be taken care of us, I don’t want my children to grow up by themselves or grow up in a foster home, I want them be able to grow up with me and my wife.
Tell us about your educational background.
I’m an artistic person; I have always loved art. My dad wasn’t an artist but he had those abilities too, he could draw and be creative, I guess I picked that up from him. As a child, I could draw, I could mould, I had strong imagination, strong vision. When I was eight, I used to draw comics, take to school and sell. That was a form of storytelling, so it has always been there. I also used to do assignments for my big cousins and elder sisters, whenever they had art assignment, to mould or draw, they bring it to me, I did it and charged them money. But because of the environment I grew up in, they made us believe that you have to be a doctor or lawyer before you can make it in life, there was nothing like film or music, so I decided that I wanted to be a doctor. So I started reading sciences even though I was good at art, so I studied Laboratory Technology in Auchi Polytechnic, I did my National Diploma, and when I was to do my IT, I came to Lagos where I met my uncle, who is late now and he saw something I did with the clay I saw in his house and he told me ‘you should be in art, not science’. So, I started considering it that really I should be in art, I know but I ignored him because I felt it was too late. I continued my sciences but instead of going back for my HND, I decided to put the two years into a career in entertainment, it wasn’t just film, but entertainment, maybe music, because I can sing. So, I came to Lagos in 2006 to pursue career in entertainment and I did a couple of things; I went for Star Quest audition and a couple of other auditions. There was one that I went for, maybe rising star or so, I can’t remember, Sony Ericson powered it, I went there and I saw this Sound City crew using camera, crane, wearing T-shirt, I said cool, and I said wow, this is what I should be doing, that was when I said I will be making film. Right there, something happened to me that I couldn’t cure, so I had no choice, I had to go into filmmaking. I started researching about filmmaking crazily, so after everything, I didn’t have computer knowledge then, so I decided to go after computer knowledge, I went to a computer school, where luckily for me, they had an editing suite where we were trained on how to edit film. I didn’t stop there, I started looking for books, and online articles that could help me become a filmmaker. So, that was how I metamorphosed from a Laboratory Scientist to a filmmaker.
Are you still going back to school?
The truth is I have a career plan. ‘Slow Country’ just happen to be an element in my plan. I still want to have a degree, I still want to probably have a Masters, or even become a Professor. People call me Prof because of the knowledge I have acquired over the years, not school, but because of sniffing around, but I want to bear that name for real.
Now, seeing the progress you are making in this industry, how does your dad feel?
My dad has never really paid attention to certain things. For example, he only came to my school once; primary school, once, secondary school, once, and Polytechnic, once and that was even because he was in the area for work. He only just gives you money, he never really paid attention or asked us what we wanted to study, just be good and do the right things. He is proud now; I hardly go home though but when I do, he is proud. We go out together, he likes Bob Marley, and so we listen to him together in his car. He makes noise about Bob Marley in his work place, his nickname is Bob Marley, and so if you ask for Mr. Rowland, they all shout Bob Marley. Everybody loves him.