A common flaw in films attempting to communicate social ills is the struggle to stay compelling. To compel doesn’t necessarily mean to entertain. These objectives may belong in the same spectrum but there are acute differences. To compel is to suck your audience into a dramatic construct that appeals regardless of its social message. Sucking in your audience is usually achieved with the conveyor belt of drama, comedy, thrill, satire, tragedy, horror, and so on. This is not an easy task for any filmmaker; the clear delineations between bad, good, and great filmmaking are enough evidence. Coming from Insanity by Akinyemi Sebastian Akinropo is an admirable effort that shines the torch on child trafficking but refuses the contemplative hue expected of socially conscious cinema. Rather, it balances muted, topical introspection with the boisterous dynamism of genre work.
Perhaps it helps that Coming from Insanity is a true-life story. That the director was bound by the preoccupations of the source material to stay faithful. But it would be unfair to take away from Akinyemi’s efforts. To adapt any form into cinema is to assume authorial duties, as cinema is best served as an art form independent of others. In Coming from Insanity, we meet Kossi, a genius boy illegally transplanted from Togo to slave away in a rich Lagos home in the mid-nineties. Kossi is maltreated but his spirit is not broken. Many years later, the young Kossi we adored is now an ambitious genius heading an illegal money-making franchise. Gabriel Afolayan (Kossi) is assured as always, Sharon Ooja is pushed beyond stereotypical Nollywood limits, Udoka Oyeka channels his inner Vincent Hanna, and Daniel Ehimen’s controlled photography ensures the picture is fresh and purposeful per frame.
Coming from Insanity didn’t get the praise it deserved when it screened in theaters. Some attention only came when it landed on Netflix. Akinyemi Sebastian Akinropo is a filmmaker to look out for and he had a chat with Filmkaku.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
To be honest, I hadn’t seen a lot of Nollywood at the time I decided to see Coming from Insanity. The title was surprising so I went in unsure of what to expect. When I was done with the film I knew I had just finished with the handiwork of a serious filmmaker, despite a couple of niggles. Amazingly, it was your first effort.
Thank you, I appreciate it. The title was more about the process of making the film because the film itself has no real ties to insanity. You have made films in Nigeria yourself and you know how crazy it can be. For me, it was a long journey because I moved back to Nigeria in 2005 and didn’t get to make my first film till 2019. So that should give you an idea of the craziness I encountered. We ended up filming just 60% of the script.
Really? Did you have to rework the story when you were shooting?
Oh, every day! We were convinced we would be able to shoot everything, that’s what we planned for, but reality soon hit. It helped that I wrote the script. I knew the entire thing like the back of my hand so I was able to tweak things on the fly without compromising too much.
Let’s go back a little bit. How did you get into filmmaking? Your background? And why did you choose this dangerous career?
(Laughs) I have always been an artist in different ways even though I studied software engineering. I had interests in music, fashion, and other things but writing was a passion. I loved telling stories and I wasn’t beholden to any particular format. I did prose, poetry, music, and rhymes. But it all changed when I saw Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino. I was fascinated with the genius behind it: the dialogue, the photography and the director’s mastery. It had a big effect on me and I immediately started looking into screenwriting. I told my parents in my third year in college that I wanted to go to film school. You can imagine the reaction of my parents.
Yeah (laughs). They thought I was crazy. I had to run away from home to try to get into film school but I couldn’t afford it. I eventually met some people, got into a production company in Los Angeles (LA), went on errands, and did whatever they needed me to do. Being around movie sets increased my passion immensely. However, I quickly realized that the hierarchy in LA would never let me make a movie in another 30 years so I had to move. To be fair, it’s a lot easier now. But in 2005, not so much.
You didn’t release anything from 2005 up till 2019. What were you doing all through that time? Were you writing?
Amongst other things but yes, I was writing. I didn’t just wait; I was always putting something down. I also shot 3 pilots for a TV show titled The Boyz – which was the project I actually wanted to do. There’s a crazy story behind it that we might get into later. We shot three pilots but the response was all negative. All the people we met were saying there was no money. I went into almost every office in Lagos, Abuja, Ibadan, everywhere! Just trying to get them to know that I could do really impressive work, but nothing happened.
So where did the idea for ‘Coming from Insanity’ come from? Can you lead us through the development phase of the idea?
It was really the series, “The Boyz”, we wanted to do. Through some friends, my business partner and producer Ibidolapo Ajayi and I heard about the Nollyfund at the Bank of Industry. We went to apply but were told they couldn’t finance a TV show, but if we had a film project that ticked all the boxes, we may have a shot. Although I had been writing at the time, I didn’t have a script that aligned with the requirements and we only had a month to submit our application. So basically the research, development and writing all happened within that month.
Can you talk more about your desire to make sure the script was about Nigerian society?
Well, at the time, I’d been back to Nigeria for a few years so I felt compelled to paint a picture of the Nigeria that I knew through the film. One of the scripts that I had on the back burner actually inspired what became Coming from Insanity. It was about the drugs business. The synopsis was about someone trafficking drugs into the United States from Nigeria and their experiences on the streets. The main character was going to be a genius Nigerian kid or a house boy (like Kossi in Coming From Insanity).
While watching the film, I couldn’t help but feel you were inspired by films like Brian De Palma’s Scarface. What were your references?
A lot of the structure for the third act of the film came from Argo by Ben Affleck. Scarface was also a reference in terms of the singularity of purpose. But references must fit your narrative too. You shouldn’t lose your vision to inputs from your references. Be open to everything but always stay connected to your vision.
I have a strange relationship with cinema which sometimes affects my choice of references.
I understand that. Sometimes making a film doesn’t mean one has to take references from the same genre. It’s okay to pull from the emotional world of a different kind of story, characterization, or even technical references.
Let’s talk about your casting. Why did you cast Gabriel Afolayan for the role of Kossi? I think he’s brilliant and I don’t know many actors around that would have delivered as he did.
I love the entire cast! Every single one of them. Nigerian actors -in the right hands- will stand toe to toe with anyone at any level. Obviously, Gabriel is amazing. You could get star-struck at his level of talent and at the same time awed by his humility. But I had to get him to trust me and I think our relationship also made that possible. I met him in 2012 when we were casting for the final pilot of The Boyz. The casting was already set but one of the guys was suddenly unavailable and Gabriel came around. That was how I met him for the first time. I’d missed all his appearances on Super Story and basically knew nothing about him but immediately we met, I knew there was something about him. He didn’t fit into that particular role but he made such an emphatic impression that I knew I had to work with him somehow.
The guy was a better actor than everybody else in the room so it was difficult to tell him he wasn’t a fit. I’m sure he felt some type of way about the outcome but I told him to trust me and that we were going to do something really good together very soon. When Coming from Insanity came about, I gave him a call and work started.
What was your approach to directing the actors on the project? Gabriel and the other actors.
I’m all about the team, really. Every actor is different and you must be able to identify how they’re different if you want to get the best out of them. Actors are artists and I am an artist whose job is to bring other artists together and build as one team. It was my job to guide Gabriel or Damilola to understanding and embodying their characters. Whenever they strayed from the vision, it was my job to bring them back. And also that’s where the trust comes in. Because sometimes you’re asking an actor to do things that may not make sense until another artist (at a different stage of production) adds something else a few months down the line. So, yes, the actor can do a great job by bringing the characters to life but it’s really never an actor’s film. Actors are on set for a few weeks but they soon leave and the director remains with the film for a year or more with all sorts of other post-production artists, trying to mold the bits and pieces into something coherent.
I had an interesting conversation with your DOP Daniel Ehimen sometime last year and he’s so good at articulating what he does. What was your working relationship like? I noticed that the film had this grainy feel which wasn’t the usual Nollywood style. What was the artistic rationale behind that and how did you work it out with Daniel?
I met Daniel through Seyi Babatope (Director of When Love Happens). I talked with Seyi about the ideas I had and my need for someone who was young, vibrant, and hadn’t assimilated the industry’s bad habits. Seyi introduced Daniel Ehimen to me. When I met him, I knew he was the one I’d been looking for. He was a student of cameras and I completely loved that. We talked more about the energy that we wanted the film to have. We talked about the slower parts of the story and thought about how to make them interesting enough for the audience. We also talked about visual representation and how Naija can be very sexy if you capture it right.
People say that the audience can forgive a bad picture but not a bad sound.
Absolutely. Sadly, we had to make some difficult choices in post-production due to budget constraints. Between color, sound design and score, we could only afford one premium. We ended up going for a premium score with the amazing Rè Olunuga who’s gone on to score the Giannis Antetokounmpo film with Disney so I’m very proud of that decision. I’ve watched Coming from Insanity many times just for the score alone. It’s mesmerizing.
On the business side, how did the film do at the cinemas before it went to Netflix? And how have you been able to gauge audience responses?
The audience reaction at the cinemas is one of the highlights of my career, so far. No one knew me, really, so it was incredible watching it with audiences all over Nigeria and hearing real-time takes, which were mostly positive.
Did it screen at any film festival?
Yes, about 15 or so, globally. We won Best First Feature Film at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles. And if I’m not mistaken, I think it’s the first Nollywood film on the Showtime Network in North America. Even though we didn’t do well at Nigerian cinemas (which was surprising to me, at the time), I have made peace with our distribution.
What do you think went wrong with your performance in Nigerian cinemas?
P&A, maybe. I was a first-time filmmaker and the budget wasn’t big enough for the type of marketing the film deserved. I thought the distributor was going to catch on with what was brewing at the time because the reception at the cinema was amazing. But you know how it is. If you don’t have money to spread the news, people won’t know about your film. I still think a lot of people haven’t seen Coming From Insanity but it’s okay, we will get it right the next time.
Is there anything you are currently working on? When we spoke earlier you said something about distribution. Have you started working on it or you’ve got another film in mind?
We have a slate of films at the funding stage right now. I’d like to think most filmmakers want to make money off their films or, at least, get back the value they are giving to people in some way. So as nice as Coming from Insanity was, it still broke my heart that we didn’t do very well commercially. So that’s my focus for now— fixing that gap. It doesn’t really matter if you make good films if your marketing is not top tier or you don’t have the right distribution. So, it’s not enough to make good films. We need better structures and a track record of business growth. So yes, our team’s focus is currently on having a robust and sustainable film ecosystem. A couple of months ago, we had Sean Flanagan join the team as our global sales and distribution director. He distributed the first nine Pokémon films.
You are now an executive guy. You’ve left us artists behind.
(Laughs) Nah. We all have goals as filmmakers. I analyzed where I was and where I wanted to be and knew distribution and funding had to be sorted first. I’m already tired of making a film, selling it, and then start looking for money to start another project. Francis Coppola, the director of The God Father trilogy, said 95% of his life was chasing money and 5% was making films. I can’t do that; it would drive me crazy. We are just trying to change the narrative. If you are serious as a filmmaker, that’s what you should aim for. Filmmaking has to be a commercially viable business for me so it has to be done properly. That’s what we are doing. The time is now and nothing is stopping us.
I wish you all the very best and hope to see you at the top.
Definitely. Thank you.