Last week, FilmKaku began an interview with Africa Ukoh, talking about his journey as a writer and the screenwriting craft as a whole. We waded past 54 silhouettes to Green White Green to Masquerades to Lost Okoroshi before pulling up at his complete indifference to labels easily branded on filmmakers these days. You can read that here.
This week, we dive deeper into the craft. Enjoy.
FilmKaku: You have worked with Abba Makama twice? Does that suggest a chemistry, shared sensibilities? Do you have to share sensibilities with a collaborator to create something good?
Africa Ukoh: Once the scenario is boxed into the ideal then yes, shared sensibilities is just perfect. The more interesting scenario is outside the ideal.
FK: What’s your stance outside the ideal? Let’s say you have to work with a director or producer who isn’t as invested in the holistic storytelling process, how do you handle that?
AU: It all depends on the present circumstances both the writer and other collaborating party are in. Because the truth is, some people will only work for and with others under certain circumstances. A good example is Boon Joon-Ho who revealed in a recent interview that if he doesn’t have creative control on projects, he can’t create. The main thing for me is the process and structure. Is there a good working structure? If there’s one, and it is functional, I believe collaborators with different sensibilities and interests can definitely work together. You are never going to see a lot of filmmaking collaborations filled with individuals thinking the same way. What keeps everything in balance is structure.
There’s also the place of professionalism. You won’t always be in the mood or at your creative best but considering yourself a professional means you do work regardless. Personally, I don’t think you have to be totally in love with projects before agreeing to work on them. Otherwise, I’d probably be releasing a single work every five years. I’m very okay having different levels of investments for different projects. But as long as the structure is present, we don’t necessarily have to be in the same creative room. Being in the same building is all I need.
However, the seeming presence of a structure shouldn’t prevent the writer from being honest about prognosis. If it’s looking pretty obvious that the final work will not be of the required quality, then I’d suggest a rethink. But hey, all I have said are not rules for all, but just my approach to work. I’m blessed to be a stage director/writer alongside screenwriting. Working on my own stuff for stage provides that safe space where I can indulge myself as a storyteller. That’s how 54 silhouettes came to being actually. Just being in my own bubble, doing stuff I enjoy. Not a lot of writers have that separate outlet that allows them express themselves.
FK: Let’s talk about playwriting and screenwriting. Do you have any preference for either of the two mediums?
AU: There are no preferences at all. It depends on the story. There are stories that cut across mediums: Stage, script, prose, whatever. And there are others that are best served in particular forms. But personally, I consider playwriting the more difficult endeavor. But I have no preferences.
FK: Any reason why you consider playwriting more difficult than screenwriting?
AU: For one, in playwriting you are working on a material that has to stand on its own as a piece of literature alongside being a production manual. As opposed to a screenplay that is just a production manual. A play must be consumable as a piece of literature and later on, as a performance. There are things you can get away with on screenplays but you see, a play has to be damn near complete and perfect. And I use the word ‘near’ because it still has to be performed to be completely realized.
Also, writing for stage comes with more inherent limitations than film. With film, there’s the valuable escape a cut away provides but in plays, you are restricted in space and time. This limitation tasks the writing more. You have to dig deeper into structure, character, dialogue and so on across several pages. Take for example, dialogue: the sheer bulk of conversations characters in a play have and then the realization that, somehow, the writer has to work subtext into the whole thing. For the first act of 54 silhouettes, I had to do this for over 40 to 50 pages: writing conversations, infusing subtext, ensuring structural coherence, monitoring pacing, rhythm, musicality and so on. It is madness.
FK: And has this repeated exposure to the limitations in playwriting influenced your approach to writing for screen?
AU: Hmmm, influence is a strong word. But I always tell people that you learn better the mechanics of dramatic storytelling (scripted) from plays. And this is simply because they test you more. It’s not just the writing or reading of them, but also the watching and involvement in the performances of them, if possible. So back to question, I would say yes, if you are referring to the understanding of the mechanics of structure, character development and dialogue. They have indeed been very influential.
Exposure to plays in the various forms teaches you to zone in on character regardless of the medium of storytelling you approach. Why? It’s because there are no cuts or escape routes in plays; you are forced to sit up close to your characters and probe them for actions and reactions and still remain aware that the complete work must be vibrant to appeal to readers and your audience. This is working at the very basic level of storytelling, strengthening your creative muscles. That’s what plays teach you.
But again, while working across mediums, you have to learn how to drop one for the other. While knowledge in one aids performance in others, the demands differ. You can’t have the demands of one medium leaking into the other. That’s just going to muddle everything up.
FK: One thing that’s obvious from your posts on social media is your strong advocacy for structured training for not just writers, but every player in the filmmaking craft. You are strongly opposed to shortcuts and gambling past barriers. Are these views coming from a place of dissatisfaction with the quality of writing in the industry or it’s just you trying to teach?
AU: I think demanding training is just speaking to the reality regardless of any emotional reaction to the state of things. I try to detach myself emotionally from the state of things. Our reality is known to all and it’s up to us to adjust to it and try to make the best out of it. But the fact is this: training is important. The industry has to continually churn out talents to meet demands and the only way this can happen is if training is in place. We can see this in other professions: law, medicine, engineering and so on. Training exists to ensure the talent pool is refreshed constantly.
Africa Ukoh talks more about the need for training for writers in the third and final installment of this interview series next week.