Lani Aisida has been a part of prominent shows like Unbroken, Battleground, Skinny Girl in Transit, Phases and Rumour Has It. He also behind the African Stories Untold platform on YouTube and the goal is to break the culture of silence prominent in this part of the world.
This is the concluding part of an hour long conversation with him on screenwriting within the Nigerian context. The first part of the interview which focused primarily on his experiences writing on the hit show Skinny Girl in Transit can be read here.
Filmkaku: What makes a good story? I know there’s the regular response of great dialogue, character, tone and so on. But is there a particularity to your definition?
Lani Aisida: First, I’d say that at the heart of any good story is conflict. Without conflict, there’s no story at all. But taking into consideration the Nigerian context, the definition becomes a bit tricky. The reality of our production sees filmmakers work with limited budgets, casts and locations. These limitations are the major reasons why a lot of our productions are tagged “room and parlour films”. That is, stories told are mostly family-based and situated in the interiors of a house. This, for many, naturally lends itself to the use of dialogue to progress the story. And this is where my distinction of a good story within the Nigerian context is: the ability to elevate such constricted dramas with rhythmic dialogue. I have discovered, in my experience, that the audience will readily forgive these glaring limitations if the dialogue is solid.
This isn’t to diminish the importance of other bits like structure, character and so on. I have just chosen to define what a good story can be within the Nigerian context.
FK: Let’s talk about Characters. What your approach to character building in your scripts?
LA: Again, I’m going to talk about this within the Nigerian context. I could easily provide something regular that can be found in readily available screenwriting books but I don’t want to do that. Character development is everything, obviously. The ideal is to have three dimensional characters with flaws, quirks, idiosyncrasies and so on. Every good writer wants the emotional journey of their characters to be intact. But over here, it’s tricky to stick to those tenets. I teach writing and I like to remind my students to take into consideration the state of industry they work in. In Nigeria, where output must remain at a premium for sustenance, our actors don’t have the luxury of time to work their way into embodying characters. They get scripts within days of shooting and, somehow, have to perform solidly. So when I hear complaints that our actors remain the same in all their films, I see it as unfair. So, for the writer, build your characters as well you can but don’t get mad when actors don’t give you what you visualized while writing.
FK: About film reviews, what’s the usual reaction to a bad review of any film you’ve written? And who’s to blame for a bad review? Is it the director or the writer?
LA: You know what they say, it takes a village. A film is the fruit of a collaboration between several departments, so it would be unfair to apportion to blame to a particular department. When all is great, everybody gets to show off. Why should it be different when things are bad? We should all take the L and move on to the next project.
FK: What are the common mistakes you feel Nigerian screenwriters make while writing for TV and film?
LA: I can only speak for myself. One thing I know I struggle with has to do with structure: that tendency to delay the second act and extend the first act for too long. It might go unnoticed by the producer and the director but when you finally get to watch it on screen, the error stands out clearly.
FK: And for TV?
LA: I would say the tendency to force in cliff hangers at the end of the episodes as opposed to staying true to a character’s journey. It’s become a thing now to leave the audience shocked and thirsting for the next episode and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it can, sometimes, be overdone.
FK: About pitching TV shows. How does that happen? What’s the fireproof approach to this?
LA: I like to look at this from a strictly marketing POV. The show is a product. It’s useless without a consumer. So the relevant questions are: Why should anybody buy my product/show? Why should anybody need my product/show? To answer these questions and guide the pitching process, the unique selling point (USP) of the show must be identified. Of course, before trying to answer these, the basics of a pitch document must be intact: The premise, the character bible, the structure of the show, references to similar successful shows, an extensive synopsis of at least the first episode of the first season and then shorter summaries for subsequent episodes. If possible, you could highlight possibilities in latter seasons too. All these have to be tight and catchy to the eye of whoever you’re pitching to.
About the USP, it could be anything. It could be the character, the era, the world of the show, the structure, anything at all. It’s what makes your show stand out from many others because let’s be honest, there’s no new story anywhere. For example, a show like The Good Doctor has the USP of an autistic doctor as its central character. That’s why nobody is going to wonder why the show is airing at all since there are tons of other medical shows. It’s different and unique. In your pitch document, highlight this USP, milk as much as you can and you are on your way to answering lingering questions about your show’s relevance and viability.
FK: Let’s go practical now. I have my pitch document ready, the USP well highlighted, what do I do with it? Who do I show it to? Who is going to be willing to listen to what I have to say?
LA: Networking, it’s that simple. Keep building relationships, keep talking to people and you never know, anything could happen. And a little note about networking; I have found out, in my experience, that horizontal networking works better, as opposed to the much heralded higher-up networking. Because you never know the rooms that unremarkable equal might have access to someday. Don’t underestimate anybody. Make friends with all kinds of people in the industry. Give yourself a chance.
FK: Your five favourite shows?
LA: This is a tough one. Actually, first place is set in stone. It’s the others I struggle with. Number one is Newsroom. I try to watch it at least once a year. And then there’s Episodes. I also love Big Little Lies, Black Mirror and 24.
FK: Your five favourite directors?
LA: I don’t have favourites, sadly. I just study as much as I can.
FK: Five screenplays every Nigerian screenwriter must study.
LA: Big Little lies by David E. Kelly, Social Network by Aaron Sorkin, Argo by Chris Terrio, Room by Emma Donoghue and Queen and Slim by Lena Waithe.
FK: Thank you very much Lani Aisida. This has been quite the ride. Any last words?
LA: Well, yes. Like you guys, I also run a platform of my own. It’s a storytelling channel on YouTube called African Stories Untold and we are looking to break the culture of silence by telling African stories. Currently, we have a show called My Birthing Experience, where parents share personal experiences pre, peri and post birth. The reviews so far have been great as the feelings shared have resonated with many parents out there. I’d love to get more attention to what we are trying to do and I’d appreciate views, comments and subscriptions.
FK: Great Job, Lani. Thank you again for the time.
LA: You’re welcome.