93 DAYS: AN INTERVIEW WITH DOTUN OLAKUNRI
Otunba Oludotun Olakunri is a businessman with interests in telecommunications, property development and entertainment. After studying French at Royal Holloway and Bedford College, University of London, he worked at Bata S.A. in Vernon, France. From there he moved back to Nigeria to establish Speakeezee Cellular and Paging Ltd. later venturing into property development and entertainment. He is a director of several companies including DPL Properties, Michelangelo Property Development Company, Speakeezee Connect Ltd and Michelangelo Productions, which is responsible for the popular event Butterscotch Evenings, as well as an executive producer of award-winning movie, A Place in the Stars. Besides the forthcoming 93 Days, a Michelangelo production, Olakunri also has several events, film and TV shows in the pipeline.
There are several technical aspects in filmmaking, which or break productions. Why did you choose to work as a movie executive producer and what role do you play?
I am essentially a businessman, who suddenly discovered his suppressed creative tendencies. So, venturing into the world of entertainment including filmmaking meant I had to stick to my strengths. In this instance, it is production, I discovered very late that I had a yearning to create things and so looked at the world of entertainment. I quickly realized that there is so much talent and creativity in this industry, but many products are presented in an adequate manner that doesn’t justify the work. I decided that I would make my own productions and from a position that can best protect the integrity of the project. As an executive producer, I provide or source the funds and garner external support for the project. I also effectively decide on the quality of the film and that is very important to me. As a producer, I ensure the project comes to fruition by ensuring that cost effectiveness without undermining its integrity. We had to be creative in making 93 Days and lean on many supporters. We used our contacts to manage the support and ensuing hazards of trying to shoot a fresh, true-life story amidst many interests that had to be managed without offending people. We also had to co-ordinate a set made up of many different artisans, who were mostly overworked but very passionate.
For the 93 Days-ebola themed movie you worked with Steve Gukas and other producers like Bolanle Austen-Peters and Pemon Rami. How did you all come together for this project?
Bolanle is the queen of the creative arts world in Nigeria. She is a childhood friend and a passionate arts and entertainment guru. I said to her a couple of years ago that we must work on something together. Pemon is an arts guru too, who visited Nigeria for the first time last year and happened to be at Terra Kulture on his final day, as he was staying in a hotel just up the road. He visited the day after Bolanle came on board the project and so in the ensuing conversation, we realized that besides being the curator of the DuSable Museum in Chicago, he was an experienced film producer over the last fifty years. A few years ago when I decided to write a TV series, Steve was the first person in the industry I was introduced to. Ironically we had met at Terra Kulture before I instantly knew he was someone I would be happy to work with and who could deliver the quality I wanted for the series. It is called Blood Ties, but is yet to be produced. I ended up supporting him a bit on his movie project A Place in the Stars. To answer the question about how we came together for 93 Days—at the premiere of A Place in the Stars, Steve and I asked each other what our next movie would be. At that time, everything on the news was about ebola. The survivors of the disease had been discharged from the hospital/isolation and we had reached the stage of good news, where we had overcome the virus and were winning the battle. Steve said to me, why don’t we do a movie about the ebola outbreak and I immediately agreed. We then started looking for contacts to get information about what had happened. Then we decided to look for the right scriptwriter. Fast-forward to a few months later, the script was great and I decided that this was the project that I would love to work on with Bolanle, so I gave her a call and said ‘you have to be on this project, let’s do this together.’ I remember emailing her the script at 1am and getting a call from her at 6.30 am saying ‘I am definitely on board. I can’t put the script down!’ I knew that once Bolanle was on board we would have the right balance between the three of us, to get this film where it needed to be. The next day, Pemon and his wife were visiting Terra Kulture and asked to meet Bolanle. She instantly called me and Steve and said “we should get this man on the project. We can learn and benefit from his experience!” Pemon left Nigeria the next day, but when we were ready to begin shooting, we called and asked him to come join us as a producer. He flew out and stayed the whole time for the shoot.
The movie is a story about tragedy and triumph, what was the inspiration behind telling this particular story to the world from a Nigerian?
We delved into the story because it is such a rich and deep one of real heroism. People came together against all the odds to overcome this infection and protect us all from it. We never get to celebrate our heroes and this was an opportunity to celebrate these people who had risked their lives for every one of us. Too often people take the easy way out and rather than risking their business or life, like the First Consultants Hospital did. Others might have just let the infected patient leave the hospital, as he requested, but the story would have been different. I remember the very first interview we did was with Dr Fadipe. As soon as we had finished, I knew we would have an awesome story. Then we met and also interviewed Bankole Cardoso, Dr Adadevoh’s son, the then Commissioner of Health Dr Jide Idris, the people within the Lagos State Health Ministry and the Federal Government people. We realized that it was an epic story about how these people all came together and shut the virus out. I can tell you that during some of those interviews, we were all crying in the room, sometimes tears of sorrow, other times tears of pride in our own people. We then visited the site of the ebola isolation unit and saw the facility they were in. When we were told of the incredible work the Lagos State government did in converting within days wards from wards that had been run down from lack of use into wards that wards that effectively shut out ebola with only eight casualties, we knew it was important to also tell the tale of how they had sprung into action. We were generously allowed to film the movie in the actual ebola wards, as well as in First Consultants hospital. We had the actual ambulance drivers playing themselves in the movie and the surviving doctors were on set to help us out and advise on scenes. We were truly inspired; it is such an inspiring story that it isn’t possible to know the real events and not be inspired to tell it. We had so much of a story that we had to leave parts of it on the cutting room floor because of the length of the film. It was also important that we film our own story and tell the world in our own way, as opposed to all the negative stories the world always likes to hear about us.
The movie trailer is poignant and shows great professionalism in technical details. How did you assemble technicians including the screenwriter, production designer, director of photography, film composer and makeup and special effects artists?
We were committed to very high production values and wanted as much as possible to employ the best Nigerians. It was a bit tough because the The CEO movie was being filmed at the same time and we knew we would not be able to get some of the crew we wanted. However, we had some awesome professionals working with us. The scriptwriter, Paul Rowlston is British/South African and a 90-piece Budapest Film Orchestra wrote and recorded the original score. Everyone else is Nigerian; Tunde Jegede produced the soundtrack with songs by Banky W, Brymo, and Omawumi. The director of photography is the hugely talented Yinka Edward. In fact, we even recruited the first assistant director from the United States though he is Nigerian. The quality of the movie is awesome and has been described as truly world class by some international filmmakers though 98% of the crew is Nigerian and all of the film was shot in Nigeria. It shows what we can do, if we can get funding and support. I hope the top organizations will take heed and support this industry much more.
Danny Glover who is a seasoned American actor, director and activist plays a lead role in this project. How did you get him involved?
Steve had worked with Danny Glover on another film in the past and so once the script was done, we asked Paul to involve Dr Adeniyi Jones in the script, in the hope that Danny would consider it and we could shoot him from America. We sent him the script and ten days later he called and began to discuss it, which he described as very good and a very important story. After discussing each character and how important it was to have strong actors for the roles, he mentioned that he would be happy to play Dr Benjamin Ohiaeri. We were over the moon! He came over to Nigeria and is the most pleasant man you can meet, with no airs and graces and a total commitment to his work. He is a true professional, a great actor and such a wonderful person. Our hours were grueling, but he never complained.
93 days seems to have had a lot of financial support from organizations like Ford Foundation and the Lagos State government. Was your job as a producer then very easy since you had ample funds to work with?
That is not exactly true. We are very passionate, positive, optimistic and faithful people. Knowing we didn’t have nearly enough money, the truth is that we self funded to begin as we did not want to borrow. We realized that we would have to find funding to finish and make the movie what it has become. Even now, we are still short of funds. We started the project and then went hunting for sponsors to support it. The Ford Foundation first came on board and then TY Danjuma Foundation. Fieldco, Fahrenheit Hotel and Eko Hotel gave us huge accommodation support, as did NBL. Koga Studios and Tunji Ladoja helped with the cameras. UBA, WAPIC, the Lagos State Governor and Dangote Foundation also helped. We basically went asking for support and these organizations gave us the assistance we needed to get this project done. Without them, the film would not have been completed. There were times when we thought we would have to shut down production the next day, only to get a call from WAPIC or T.Y. Danjuma Foundation they had approved the sponsorship and payment had been processed. It was a great experience and we are very grateful to these sponsors, as it was a very expensive project.
The production boasts of a stellar cast with Bimbo Akintola playing Dr. Adadevoh, American actor Tim Reid and Scottish actor Alistair Mackenzie. How did you cast your characters?
We basically cast Danny first and then decided we would audition for most of the other parts. We agreed that not only must we have very strong actors as the movie would be carried by their acting, but also that these actors must bear strong similarity in looks, to their real-life characters. Bimbo was the next person cast because of her awesome acting talent, and her resemblance to Dr Adadevoh. We also held auditions and there we discovered some absolute gems like Somkele and Zara who are amazingly talented actresses. We had a great casting panel with the three executive producers, Segun Arinze, Ade Martins, and Dudun Peterside, as well as one of my friends Kayode Ogunbusola who even spent a day with us helping with the screening.
With an international cast and crew put together for this production, what plans are in place for its distribution?
We have put the film in at some international film festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival, which is the second largest. We are also waiting to hear from some festivals in Chicago and London on whether or not the work will be selected. This will expose it to the international film industry and help us to find distribution partners. We are presently working with FilmOne Distribution as our main distributor.
What should we expect from the movie and when is the premiere and theatrical release?
Information about the international release dates will be out shortly, but the Nigerian premiere will be on September 13. From September 16, it will be released in cinemas nationwide and in cinemas across the rest of Africa, as well as in the UK.
Initially, there was news about the production being stalled because Dr Adadevoh’s family had not consented to the production. How true is this?
I would not say too much, except that we were accused of not carrying the family along and not portraying Dr Adadevoh in a good light. She is one of the heroes of the movie and the few people who have seen it can tell you that she was portrayed in the most positive light. We believe we did justice to her legacy; Nigerians who watch the movie will see her bravery and understand why she is such a hero. We also carried the family along.
Could you tell us other productions you have worked on, as well as forthcoming ones?
I already mentioned A Place in the Stars. We are also working on some TV projects, including reality show called Kara’s Diary and the blockbuster-to-be TV Series Blood Ties, which I already mentioned too. In addition, we are thinking of the next film and looking at ideas.
Adebimpe Adebambo is the Business Development Officer at Revilo, an art and culture publishing company. She studied Painting at the Yaba College of Technology, Lagos. Adebambo is also a fashion and accessories designer, and her work is concerned with environmental sustainability and recycling. She debuted as a costume designer on Tunde Kelani's award-winning film Dazzling Mirage, garnering for her efforts, 2 nominations in 2015 for an Africa Magic Viewers' Choice Award and an African Movie Academy Award for Best Costume Designer and Achievement in Costume Design, respectively. Adebimpe Adebambo loves to write and is presently working on a storybook.
March 25, 2021