Biyi Bandele is a Nigerian British, novelist / playwright / director who came to our attention as the director and screenwriter of the 2013 film adaptation of Half a Yellow Sun, the of the popular novel of the same name by Nigerian authoress Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
TBB caught up with Bandele to discuss all things writing, his previous works and his latest movie Fifty which will premiere at London’s BFI film festival next week.
Thank you for giving us this time, could you give us some background into how Fifty came about?
It’s a film about four professional women who live and work in Lagos. I first came across the script around April last year, the producer sent it to me and I liked the idea behind it. The year before I had directed Shuga a TV series about teenagers for MTV. When I read the script for Fifty I immediately felt these women belong to the generation of the parents of the kids in Shuga, why not do something for that generation too? So I said to the producer I’ll direct it if only if you let me rewrite the script, she said go ahead. This past year and a half of my life has been completely taken over by Fifty, it’s great to reach a point now, where it’s no longer mine.
I was going to ask why you thought it was important to showcase that generation’s life… I guess you’ve kind of answered in relation to Shuga.
Absolutely. I think if I hadn’t done Shuga, I’m pretty sure that when I read the script, I would have thought I’m not quite sure that I’m right for this. But because I’d done Shuga, I had a completely different entry into it, and thought it would be interesting to see if I could make a movie about that generation that was as sexy as Shuga, and I actually think Fifty is much sexier than Shuga, much more interesting.
You never see women of this generation portrayed on the big screen. Is this movie trying to say, 50 is the new 25?
Oh no, someone said that line in the movie, it’s not the editorial position of the movie; it might not even be true. It just made me laugh, and consider whether fifty-year-olds are doing better, because now you see younger girls with all the makeup on social media, and it seems older women are imitating them being much more visible on social media.
As a younger person I assume that, once I reach that age everything will be more planned out, but it’s funny that the women in Fifty are experiencing the same struggles as 25 – 30-year-old women, the challenges don’t stop, you just have more stuff to deal with…
So obviously, you’re not a fifty-year-old woman, how were you able to capture the voice of a Nigerian fifty-year-old professional woman?
I come from a point of empathy. I’ve been doing this thing all my life; writing and telling stories and I reached a point long ago where I could write a character who in real life, might be someone that I don’t actually know at all very convincingly. We’re all human and the great thing about films as well as it being one of the things which drew me to cinema, is the fact that making a movie is a collective effort, my job as a writer and a director is like being the conductor of an orchestra. I’ve got a DP, cinematographer, I’ve got a production designer, I’ve got makeup artists, costume designers, the actors, my job is to tease out the best performance.
I also like to tell a story on its own terms. I’m not trying to push my own vision. It’s not about me, it’s about the story, it’s about the characters, and the great thing about the collective thing is that there’s a whole army of people working with you on a film. On Fifty there were days when we had crowd scenes where there were hundreds of extras, and there were days [where] there were characters playing journalists, who were photographers who were also shooting, live footage, so I had like seven cameras going.
So to touch upon your point about you being able to write for others, without knowing them, Lee Daniels has spoken about the lack of black writers on productions teams in regards to keeping stories about black people authentic, how do you feel about writing for others in regard to black television shows?
I live in a world where everyone is meant to be writing straight autobiography, so most writers are trained to write about themselves or write about their own little demographic. One of the reasons I insisted on directing Half of a Yellow Sun by myself, was because, maybe it’s pretty arrogant, but I didn’t actually trust anyone else do to it. But on the other hand, there are directors like Danny Boyle who doesn’t put himself in front of a story, so it doesn’t matter where it’s set, he will let it tell its own story, he won’t impose. When you watch movies set in Africa, directed by white directors, they don’t know how to relate to the African characters, they only know emotion, they know how to express, that’s it.
I agree. How did you get into directing?
I did a degree in drama when I was in university. I knew I wanted to be a writer. I knew I didn’t want to be an actor, but I didn’t for a second think I was going to be a director. But I watched some of my professors direct and then I came to London in 1990 and I started my career as a playwright at the Royal Court Theatre which was like when I was in university, except now I wasn’t dealing with abstract theories. I was reading 20 to 30 scripts a week, I was on the script committee and I was watching some of the best directors in the world. Taking things in, not actually realising that I would want to direct. In 1993 I wrote a script that was produced by the BBC and the director was Danny Boyle. It was the last thing he did for TV. I wasn’t much interested in film or TV at the time, then that collaboration with Danny was very successful, and I started getting lots of commissions to write screenplays. I quickly came to realise that there were very few directors like [him] around and most film and TV directors are scared shitless of actors.
I would be working with the director, directing my work, directing actors thinking, that’s wrong, that’s not how you do it to get the performance; and sure enough they wouldn’t get the performance because they don’t know how to communicate with actors. That’s where it started, well actually, there was a play of mine; I won’t say which theatre it was at. Two weeks into rehearsal, the actors kept calling, panicking that they were not getting directed and I said look, talk to your director, I’m not your director, I’m the writer.
Finally, I went in one morning and sat through rehearsals. I sat there, the director sat there, legs crossed, arms folded and just watched them. They would ask him questions and he was saying to them ‘you’re the actor, you’re the actor’. I had lunch with him and I said, I’m going to take over directing this thing, but your name is going to be on it as the director, I was a bit of a thug, I just kind of threatened him. So I took over directing, I was completely terrified; I took over and we got incredible reviews and I thought, OK so I can direct. I’ve been directing ever since.
Well, that answers my next question for me because I was going to ask you if it’s a natural progression for playwrights to become directors?
Young writers come to me and complain about how some director had butchered their work. I’ll say to them, well go direct your own stuff yourself, and the truth is most writers are completely terrified of directing.
Really, I think they need to grow up in Nigeria then!
(hard laughter) I really think I was lucky, I did a degree in drama, it was very practical, and then I got to the Royal Court and there was someone like Max Stafford Clarke, who was a director at the time, who had a tradition of nurturing writers. I don’t think it’s necessarily a next step, but I love directing, I really, really, absolutely love directing.
Any more advice for young people that want to get into the industry?
Well you know like everything else, life is difficult, just believe in yourself. I went to watch a movie two days ago with my daughter, it was called, The Walk. The movie was in 3D and it terrified the shit out of me, it’s about a French guy called Philipe Petite, who in 1984 went to New York and he tied a wire between the south tower and the north tower of the world trade centre at the top, 110 storeys high up in the air, just a piece of wire, 110 yards. He walked across it and this is something which no sane human being should even think they can do, but he believed in himself; and everyone around him was saying ‘don’t do it, don’t do it’, if he’d listened to them he wouldn’t have. Same for being a writer. Writing is a very lonely thing and anyone who goes into writing doing it for money, I’d say no no, stop, go become a lawyer or an accountant. If writing is a vocation, that you have to do, then do it.
Fifty is the second film you’ve premiered at the BFI, Half of A Yellow Sun, being the first, is there a relationship that you have with the BFI?
I don’t actually. I don’t have social friends at the BFI, I’ve just been lucky twice with the movies I’ve made. Not that it just fit into what they were doing, but they actually liked the aesthetics of them, I don’t have any connections, I wish I did! (laughs)
So where do you place yourself within the mix of African cinema and Hollywood?
Well I’m not Hollywood. I’m not the opposite of Hollywood because I actually love Hollywood movies, it’s not cool to say that! I actually do, and I watch a lot of them. I’m a Nigerian, I’m a Brit, I’m an African, any of those labels, the only label that I actually don’t like being tagged with is Nollywood. I don’t dislike Nollywood, it’s simply that my work isn’t Nollywood. In the way that not every American movie is Hollywood, not every Indian movie is Bollywood.
That’s true, there was a discussion saying that Nollywood is a separate genre within African cinema, it isn’t all that is, so that’s interesting.
I want to ask a few questions about, Half of a Yellow Sun. What do you think of the success of John Boyega, who has gone on to do, Star Wars?
I’m thrilled for him. It was really clear to me when I was working with him that he was going to go far, he is an incredibly gifted actor. He’s the only actor who I’ve ever worked with, throughout the shoot he would come to me and say ‘Biyi, do I really need to say this line?’, I say what do you mean? He said, ‘well, I can show you, my face’. So I cut the line. Most actors punch you if you cut their lines, they want more lines. I’m really happy for him.
…and obviously Chiwetel…
I saw Chiwetel in a movie the other week, The Martian, the new Ridley Scott, which has Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on Mars. Chiwetel is brilliant in it, the movie it’s one of Ridley Scott’s best in a long time.
What were your biggest challenges in bringing half a Yellow Sun to life?
I read it the year it was published and I immediately thought of filming it. It was actually in development for a long time, it took us six years to raise the money. The reason it took that long was mainly because I insisted on directing. Although I’ve been directing theatre a long time and I directed quite a few short films, I was still a first time director for a feature and no one was willing to take the risk. Eventually we did raise the money. When I started working on the film, the book hadn’t become the phenomenal success that it became later, so I wasn’t intimidated at all. I’ve adapted quite a lot of books in the past, I just approached it the way I approach any book adaptation. If I was making the movie of the book today, I’m sure I would probably make different decisions as I’m not the same person now.
The character, in the book Olana is dark skinned and I understand there was a bit of controversy with Thandie Newton being cast as her, as she is lighter-skinned; you also have the whole thing with Zoe Zaldana and the Nina Simone movie, what are you views on that?
OK there are two things, in the book you have twin sisters who are non-identical and it’s a kind of metaphor Chimamanda is using for different ethnicities in Nigeria. If you’re making a movie and try to use literary metaphors, you’re dead in the water. So I wasn’t interested in any kind of literal stuff, I wanted to tell a story, I wanted to immerse the audience in it. Then the other thing is in the real world, there are just so many people who look exactly like a character dreamed up by a writer and put into a book. What I was looking for when I was casting, was the best actors around. There are some characters in the book that are very fat and I started out auditioning for very big actors; I found that the best actor was someone who looked like they needed to be fed. This thing happens all the time when you read a book, essentially what you are doing is actually directing a movie in your head. Everyone expects to see an adaption of what they’ve already got in their head.
Yes, and then they’re ready to criticise quickly if their personal expectations aren’t met…
Actually, the thing to do with complexion, during the course of making the movie I got to know Chimamanda quite well and I went to her parent’s home in Onitsha with her and her younger brother, and in her family, same mother, same father, [she has] siblings who are lighter than Thandie Newton…
My older sister, same mother and same father, is lighter than Thandie Newton, Thandie, for me, she was great in the movie, I mean there were some, actors, Nollywood actors that people actually wanted me to direct, they felt I should have cast as her character I knew my limitations and I know my strengths and I just knew I didn’t have the skills to actually get a good performance out of those people.
Fair enough, and you know your limits, are you excited about any upcoming young African writers, here or continental?
The Fisherman, which has just been shortlisted for The Booker Man Prize, I haven’t had time to read the whole entire book, but the bits that I’ve read is really, really exciting, his name is Chigozie Obiama.
People like Lola Shoneyine… to be completely honest with you, I’ve got to a point; I don’t know if it’s good or bad, where I’m only reading to see if there’s a potential film, that’s with fiction. I read a hell of a lot of non-fiction, I have no idea why.
Where do you find the time?
I read on the tube!
Nigerian independence, what are your views on how relevant is it now?
You know what, I woke up on October 1st and it didn’t occur to me until I went online. It’s nice, it doesn’t honestly have any particular significance for me, for me. I’m much more interested in what the current president actually does with the four years of the power we’ve given him. Most African countries actually haven’t had much to show for it, I’m much more interested in the present and the future. I mean it’s important to know your past, but to kind of wallow in this false nostalgia, it just doesn’t interest me at all.
What is the future for you and will there be a Fifty part 2?
I don’t know about a Fifty part two, it’s not something that I’ve thought about, if there is, I don’t know if I’d be involved in it. I don’t trust anything I say about things like that because a few years ago I went around saying to my friends I’m not writing novels anymore, and then I wrote Burma Boy.
Yes, I read about that, it also has a war theme, what is the connection?
My dad was soldier and I was born during the Biafra War. That’s the thing, you might wake up one day and suddenly I have an idea and think OK this is the play. But I don’t know, right now, I have no plans.
Fifty the movie is featured at the BFI London film festival and tickets have already sold out. But there is a possibility of purchasing return tickets on the day.
For Saturday 17 October 2015 18:00 screening go to – Vue West End
For Sunday 18 October 2015 18:30 screening go to – Ritzy Cinema (Brixton):
For further information about the BFI London Film Festival schedule go to the BFI website.
For further information about Fifty go to Website | Facebook