It was late last year. Swivelling news on social media about a certain comedy film that had people rushing to the cinemas in droves. Sugar Rush, it was called. The poster won the first war with its sugary colours that had sweet-toothed fans running wild. Then came the cast list studded with our favourite Nollywood stars, the coy immersion into a notoriously difficult Nigerian PC, the aggression of the marketing and the elegance of the entire package.
People fell off their chairs in laughter, had tears in their eyes, as they wrestled comedy in the darkness of our cinema halls. Then came the overwhelming positive reports, the interesting comments about disappearing cars, the explosions, the blonde, Yoruba-speaking villain waving off bullets like gnats and the brilliant word of mouth marketing that ensured millions were piling. Box office records were shattered in no time. And soon, it was clear for all to see that Sugar Rush had defeated the chaotic festive period with its own brand of chaos; organized, aggressive, unyielding and, of course, sugary. The director was Kayode Kasum, and what was simply a burgeoning career, at the time, has since exploded into a torrent of blockbusters.
Filmkaku recently had the chance had a chance to lure the extremely busy director to a chat that spanned his early career, pre and post Sugar Rush success and his Nollywood experience in its entirety:
Filmkaku: Why did you get into filmmaking? What inspired the career choice?
Kayode Kasum: It was the only thing I was good at. I was very introverted as a child; the kind of kid to just stay quiet in a gathering. And while I was keeping to myself, I was imagining and building different scenarios and worlds to entertain myself. When I finally realized film could be a medium to conceptualize these wild ideas in my head, I had no choice but to go for it. The exact moment was in my final year at Yaba School of Technology. There was a disillusionment with my course of study at the time and it provided the additional encouragement to opt for filmmaking.
FK: Is this the same path to your career in advertising?
Kayode Kasum: Yes, definitely. First, I tried to immerse myself in the craft. I used filmmaking books and videos. Then online courses, film school and understudying hardworking professionals in the industry. Then, there was an opportunity to work for an advertising agency. I was scared at first. It was a new turf entirely. But I took it. For some reason, I felt I needed some experience in that world to prepare myself for a career in film.
FK: And has the experience in advertising helped in anyway?
Kayode Kasum: Yes. It has made me think differently in my approach to film. And in retrospect, I have come to realize that I actually needed the experience away. So it was a good thing, overall.
FK: You mentioned understudying a number of filmmakers in the industry. Can you mention one of these many people and the specific influence?
Kayode Kasum: Yes, there was late Mr. Ebenezer. He probably edited 85-90 % of all the productions for Wale Adenuga Productions: Super Story, Papa Ajasco, This life and so on. I understood the real meaning of hardwork when I met this man. He’d work approximately 16-18 hours every day of the week without complaining. It was shocking. Working with this man is definitely why I’m able to work long hours. What I didn’t know at the time was that life was preparing me for now. That man, God bless his soul, played a prominent role in my growth as a filmmaker.
FK: That’s profound. Let’s talk about the transition from indie filmmaker to… Well, to be honest, we are all Indie in Nollywood.
Kayode Kasum: Do you mean transitioning from Indie filmmaking to Mainstream filmmaking/Directing for hire?
FK: Yes, that. How has the transition been?
Kayode Kasum: You know what they say: preparation meets opportunities. I have never been much of a talker. And the way the industry is, you have to be able talk, to be able to build the right connections and expand your network. I had to look for another way to breach that problem. That’s how I decided to talk through my films. I had to show people that I knew a few things about filmmaking. The first attempt was Dognapped. And while it got me some buzz, it was also really flawed. I quickly ran into depression after the release. I sunk into my hole for a couple of months to reeducate myself about Nollywood. I saw a lot of Nollywood movies, studied the turf intimately and slowly realized a number of errors I made with Dognapped.
FK: I’m guessing it was the reeducation that guided the making of your sophomore project, Oga Bolaji.
Kayode Kasum: Yes. And then I moved on to a number of TV films —
FK: Love is yellow—
Kayode Kasum: Yes, and many others. And that is the road that eventually led me to Sugar Rush and others.
FK: They saw the good job you had done on those films and trusted you enough to handle bigger projects.
Kayode Kasum: Of course. Like I said earlier, I’m not much of a talker. When a producer calls to make a film, I’m not the type to get analytical. I just say yes. Now, I still like to get personally attached to projects. And if I have to work on the script, I do that. The most important thing for me is to put my best in every project and deliver for the producers that have continued to put their trust in me.
FK: Let’s talk about Sugar Rush a bit. What was your approach to story development? How does one come up with a blockbuster like that?
Kayode Kasum: To be honest all the praise must go to Jade Osiberu for putting the elements together. It was totally her. And when I was brought in to work on the existing material, she gave me the room to approach it my way. This ensured my voice was still able to still shine through. I had seen a number of Nigerian films that were similar to Sugar Rush but didn’t have strike the needed connection with the audience. I bothered myself with finding a way to avoid that problem. I went to back Oga Bolaji to see what I did right. I identified certain elements and employed them. For Sugar Rush, I ensured that the first thirty minutes communicated the key elements that would guarantee a connection. I established, very quickly, that it’s a story about three sisters with varied flaws, they love each other, and they have a sick mother that they need money to take care of. I knew if we got these things relayed, we were going to have a good movie and it worked. I was in cinemas both in Nigeria and Ghana and I witnessed the crowd reaction. That was the exact moment I knew we’d done it right. The reception has been positive, overwhelmingly so. I have gotten mails from Brazil, India and different places all over the world. It’s been great.
FK: What was your approach to directing actors and the camera? You have said repeatedly that you’re not a talker. So how did you do it?
Kayode Kasum: Everyone has to face their fears eventually. I had no choice but to talk. Thankfully, I had worked with Bisola Aiyeola and Bimbo Ademoye before so communication was easier. Adesua Etomi was the one I was meeting for the first time, but she was fantastic all through. Another thing that helped was the actors believing in my vision. That’s the thing about directing. When the conviction is obvious in how you communicate your vision, it’s easier for actors and everyone else to buy into it. It doesn’t matter how long you have been in the craft. You give your crew a reason to trust you and half the job is done.
FK: The Director of Photography was Femi Awojide. What was the experience working with him like?
Kayode Kasum: Femi is one of the best in the business. It was rocky at first, to be honest, as the pressure to beat a steep deadline was telling on us. But we got past that and quickly formed a brotherhood. I really can’t wait to work with him again.
FK: How would you describe his approach to work in artistic terms?
Kayode Kasum: Femi has that uncanny ability to elevate any image. I’m also very good with pictures; I walk on a set and I’m thinking images, angles and shots. So when you have two visual junkies working together on the project, it’s only right for good things to come out of it. I’m aware that there are Nigerian directors that hand over visual details to the DP but I like to be involved in everything: Writing, Production designing, sound, everything. The only departments I’m not as influential is make-up and trust me, I’m working on figuring it all out.
FK: There are some specific scenes in Sugar Rush that piqued my interest: Tobi Bakare breaking into glass, the explosion scene… How did all that happen?
Kayode Kasum: For the explosion scene, producer Jade Osiberu contacted Hakeem Effects. He came on set and did a good job. The explosion was real.
FK: And what was the reaction on set like?
Kayode Kasum: Everyone was scared. The actors were running for their lives, trying to avoid injuries and all that.
FK: Wow, that’s interesting. Let’s talk a bit about Nollywood. Where we are, where we are going?
Kayode Kasum: I think we are starting to be honest about our limitations and that, for me, is a good thing. There’s an audience that loves Nollywood; they will accommodate and pay for our films regardless of the flaws. There’s also the audience that regards the industry as trash regardless of what is released. The job for us filmmakers is to grow our audience by finding ways to transcend that divide and fill the halls. We should also learn to take the critics seriously. Success in Nollywood is largely dependent on buzz and word of mouth advertising; the more people talking good things about your films, the better. So, having the critics on your side to help spread the word is never a bad idea.
Another thing we need to understand is that we can’t all make the same kinds of films. There are different filmmakers informed by varied ideals and visions and there are audiences for us all. The moment when all these varied filmmakers identify their respective audience and attend to them and we have more Nigerians as a whole watching Nigerian films (because the 10% or so we are currently servicing isn’t enough), then we will watch Nollywood grow into the Behemoth it’s always been destined to be.
FK: I agree with all this. I share a similar belief that more can be done to attract that teeming population of Nigerians that continue to ignore our films. If we can do that, box office earnings will rise. One of the ways to do this is to consistently churn out quality films. This takes me back to the year 2016—
Kayode Kasum: — Look, the industry is still growing. Filmmakers have tried new genres but they have largely tanked in the cinemas. People flood cinemas because of the buzz. If the film fails to generate the needed buzz, nothing will happen. The struggle to successfully generate buzzes for these new genres has led to shoddy box office showings and has, in turn, discouraged filmmakers.
FK: I agree with that. I understand the delicate situation. But I still feel our films in the so called popular genres can be better written and treated. And this is not a function of increased budgets but just better application at the basal level of craft. Sugar Rush is a good example. It belongs to the “popular” genre, but has done better than most in recent times because it paid better attention to story. The same can be said about Isoken, also directed by Jade Osiberu. I think the moment these good films stop being exceptions and actually become the norm, Nollywood will endear herself to more people. That’s what I think. And this is me playing devil’s advocate for Nigerian Critics. I don’t think Critics want everybody to make the same kind of films.
Kayode Kasum: Interesting thoughts, but I won’t say I agree. What I do know is that the future remains bright for Nollywood. The audience will continue to grow, our storytelling will continue to evolve, players will get better at their craft. So, I think there’s enough, right now, to be optimistic next about the five years. We are a baby. We shouldn’t be compared to a Hollywood that’s been around since forever.
FK: That’s true.
Kayode Kasum: Let’s not forget the context for Nollywood here—Nigeria; a country that continues to struggle to provide basic amenities. Yet, filmmakers continue to fight against the tide to make stuff happen. I think more kudos should be directed at Nigerian filmmakers.
FK: Certainly. Let’s talk about the future. Are you working on anything new?
Kayode Kasum: I’m working on a lot of things o.
FK: Let’s limit it to your next dream project then.
Kayode Kasum: I have a number of projects that are backlogged because cinemas are shut. There’s This Lady Called Life, a passion project very similar in feel and tone to Oga Bolaji. It stars Bisola Aiyeola, Efa Iwara from The Men’s Club, Wale Ojo, Jemima Osunde, Tina Mba, Lota Chukwu and many others. There’s Kambili: the whole 30 yards, a romantic drama starring Nancy Isime. There are good promotional materials for this all over social media. I also shot Fate of Alakada: the party planner, a comedy film starring Toyin Abraham and a host of stars. For this, I went back to earlier Alakada movies to attract the core audience of the franchise. There are also other projects I’m working on that that I can’t talk about just yet.
FK: What advise do you have for the young (and broke) filmmaker looking to break into the mainstream?
Kayode Kasum: Tell your story. Embrace your uniqueness. Don’t be scared of your dreams. If you’re animator, don’t be influenced by the apparent dearth of animators and switch focus. Stick to it and get better at it. Write down those dreams and work hard at them. Also, be a good person. People are going to think these are mere words detached from reality but it is what it. Have big dreams. Don’t be scared. Work hard at striking them off your list. Your voice is valid. We need you in the industry. The Nollywood mission is not the job for one or hundred. We will always need people.
FK: Any learning resources you have used that you think young filmmakers should check out?
Kayode Kasum. There are masterclass videos filmmakers should check out. It’s a series and they are very helpful. Also, try to read any book on filmmaking you can lay your hand on.
FK: Are there specific books?
Kayode Kasum: Directing actors by Judith Weston and Making movies by Sidney Lumet. I read more than I watch tutorials. I have found reading to be more effective.
FK: Thank you very much Kayode Kasum for the time. We are really looking forward to your next project. Well done and good luck.
Kayode Kasum: Thank you very much too