He is not Stephen Spielberg. His name is not the buzzword in Hollywood. With confident steps, he steps out in confidence. His countenance signposts an intellectual mind, a creative heart and a dramatic personality. He understands the film industry like the back of his hand. Unassuming, he appears in a simple attire. You cannot miss the slight grey hair on his chin. He is a Nollywood giant who comes across like a dwarf. Meet filmmaker and film director, Steve Gukas. In his recent award-winning flicks – 93 Days, A Place in the Stars – Gukas demonstrates a talent not common in the industry. There is more about him as he attempts to tell the Nollywood story, writes Vanessa Obioha
Steve Gukas was not part of the original plan. For all creative entrepreneur, Charles Okpaleke, and actor Ramsey Nouah knew, they were in control of everything. Their plan to do a sequel to the critically acclaimed 1992 film ‘Living in Bondage’ that birthed Nollywood was moving in the right direction. They had acquired the rights of the film from its creator Kenneth Nnebue; Nouah will sample his directing skills, while Okpaleke will serve as executive producer. All seemed to go as planned except the script.
Nouah didn’t like the direction of the script. Okpaleke had no reservations. It was a tough call. Notes were made, handed over, deliberated on, and yet, there seemed not to be a meeting point for the two men.
Being his first directorial debut, Nouah had no intention to leave any stone unturned. His flinty determination to make the project a top-notch was evident in his argument that the script should reflect the current trend. When it seemed no solution was forthcoming, it was evident that an expert was needed. Okpaleke suggested that Gukas be brought in.
“We had problem with the script which resulted in fallout,” narrated Nouah, “Charles hasn’t seen any of my works, and because of the magnitude of the film, he felt he needed a stronger hand so he brought in Steve who has a reputation of doing big projects.”
All it took was a lengthy meeting with Nouah for Gukas to step aside and decide to be a producer instead. It was his first time working with Nouah.
“I think we do need to allow for fresh talent to direct as well,” explained Gukas. “Sometimes if you have the opportunity to guide, it is helpful. Ramsey as an actor brings the wealth of experience and stature to the role he is playing and I think very few actors possess that. As a director, his years of experience serve him in good stead as it is showing how he is working with other actors and how he is telling the story. It is showing how he is prepared for the role of directing. So I think his role as an actor served him quite well.”
Nonetheless, the two had developed such an amicable relationship. Nouah who is also starring in the movie found a helping hand in Gukas. When he is in front of the camera, Gukas gladly goes behind the camera. Take, for instance, this Sunday afternoon in Lekki, Gukas was shooting a scene that featured Nouah. The set was a bar. There was no interference of any sort as they focused on achieving the best. It was like an unspoken trust. Even while behind the camera, Gukas exhibited such admirable shrewdness. He is conscious of the angles shot, the lines read, the emotions displayed. His eyes hardly missed a thing.
The 1992 ‘Living in Bondage’ film follows the story of an ambitious young man Andy Okeke (played by Kenneth Okonkwo) who sacrificed his wife to become wealthy. The consequences of his actions would later haunt him as the spirit of his dead wife sought justice. The film delved into burning issues such as ‘blood money’.
In the upcoming sequel, the focus shifted to Andy’s son, Nnamdi, who like his father is toeing the path of greed and flamboyance.
The producers aim to create a balance with the sequel that will evoke nostalgia for the older generation while gripping the attention of the younger generation. The movie will see the return of some of its original cast including Kenneth Okonkwo, Kanayo O. Kanayo and Bob-Manuel Udokwu and new stars such as Enyinna Nwigwe and Kalu Ikeagwu.
A typical Gukas film is advocative in nature.
For instance, his 2014 film, ‘A Place in the Stars’, highlighted the dangers of trafficking adulterated drugs while paying tribute to the late Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration Control (NAFDAC), Dora Akunyili.
In the 2016 ‘93 Days’, Gukas led a stellar cast to celebrate the life of the heroic Dr. Ameyo Adadevoh and her colleagues who contained the spread of the deadly Ebola disease outbreak in Nigeria five years ago.
For ‘Living in Bondage’ however, Gukas sees a story about Nollywood. He puts it this way: “It’s all about Nollywood going 360. It started with ‘Living in Bondage’. We are showing how far it has come with the sequel. The industry has gone through a lot so this sequel is partly telling that story of Nnamdi Okeke and also how far Nollywood has come. I believe that in scales, the morals and the themes that ‘Living in Bondage’ sought to treat at that era is still with us today and we are addressing it now to a younger generation as dipped in the Yahoo plots.
“That is a strong thing that we can draw to the fact that you can tell a story and hope to bring conversations in the focus of those themes. But also to show that we are telling a story that Nollywood starts with and in telling it, how far we have come,” he said in between shoots. They had been up all night shooting and could only catch little sleep. He was working on several takes for a particular scene before jetting off with the crew to South Africa for another shoot.
He continued: “What we have tried to do is to contemporize it, bringing a telling that will appeal to today’s audience who are cinema enthusiasts. Whilst in the first ‘Living in Bondage’ you talked about how rich they are, this sequel will also show how fabulously rich they are. They are flying in private jets, sailing in yachts, partying in Monaco. You see them living life, visually stunning in all the places that we have shot the film. We really brought those things that are attractive to the younger generation.”
The movie basically is shot in locations across Nigeria and South Africa. The choice of these locations according to Nouah is to give the film its authenticity.
Making a sequel to such an iconic film is not a small feat. Gukas described it as a huge challenge.
“We are not just making the sequel of any kind of film but the film that started Nollywood so it is a huge challenge. You do know that you have taken up something that will make people most critical of what you do. Therefore, you know the bar is already set way high. To up that, you will need a lot of focus on different elements that actually elevate the telling of what you are doing to the sequel, rather than take away from it. It’s a legacy project loved by a lot of people for a lot of reasons and so when you touch it, you better be prepared.”
Gukas whose film career rode on the academic honours gathered at NTA TV College in Jos, University of Jos and London Film School where he studied Television Production, Theatre Arts and Film Production respectively, spoke about Nollywood’s journey in glowing terms. For him, the film industry has done exceptionally well from the days of yore.
“I am very much impressed with Nollywood. If you look at where we started and where we are today, I think we have come a long way in terms of technology; it is a huge leap from where we started. There were no cinemas but we have them springing up everywhere today. Cinemas are an added revenue stream. So every stream that can add to any kobo in your investment is something to be celebrated, so you have the ambition of the kind of film that you can meet, increasing exponentially. Without the cinemas, you wouldn’t have been able to do a film like ‘93 Days’, ‘Wedding Party’, ‘Chief Daddy’, ‘King of Boys’. The fact that the trench of revenue stream exists, it is allowing filmmakers to imagine bigger projects. When we also started there was no Netflix.
“Because these are happening now, the levels of projects that one can imagine are also increasing. I think the kind of players we have in the industry today has also increased. We have lots of young people practising filmmaking; even those in Europe or the US are coming back. That deepened the pool in terms of craft and talent base. That is really interesting,” he stated.
In a way, the timing of the big budget sequel to ‘Living in Bondage’ is peerless, particularly with the rising cases of cyber fraud which is at the pith of the plot. Gukas believes that filmmakers cannot turn a blind eye to the ills in society. Using the Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti as an example, he underscored the importance of films carrying reformative messages.
‘I think Fela said it best during his time when he said that for an African musician, music shouldn’t be just about enjoyment. You should use it to speak about things that are important to your society. And I believe that it is a very strong statement. Because what that says is that when you have a voice, you have a platform, you have a responsibility,” he added.
“Yes, entertainment is important but I think you can mix entertainment with a degree of commentary and tackling of issues that are relevant, especially in our clime where there is the need for that. In more advanced climes, they face fewer problems than we face and therefore can dedicate a lot of their talent to entertainment and creating likeness for the consumer of their products. But while we do have that need, issues like these should be addressed, it should be put in the front burner so that conversations can foster.”
A no stranger to such storylines including his iconic film ‘Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation’ which stars Danny Glover, Gukas reeled out a list of Nollywood movies that are tackling relevant storylines. They include ‘Up North’, ‘Power of One’, ‘Fourth Republic’, and ‘Dry’.
“These films are actually talking about different issues. Sometimes not as directly, but I think that the beauty of storytelling is to leave something capsuled in a statement that doesn’t appear quite didactic when you consume it and that it is only in retrospect that some of the things hit you.”
For a long while, Gukas nurtured a desire to make a film about Jos, the capital of Plateau state. The city is a shadow of what it used to be during his childhood days. One of the things that have kept him back is the raw sensibility that comes with making a film on a religious torn area. But he seemed to have found a way around it. The only obstacle in his way now is if he is to make it a documentary or dramatic feature. It’s a decision the filmmaker is yet to make – at least, until he wraps up his legacy project.