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“I Learnt to Let the Story Lead”: Nigerian Filmmaker, Wingonia Ikpi, on Producing the Crime-Comedy, “Bank Alert”

“I Learnt to Let the Story Lead”: Nigerian Filmmaker, Wingonia Ikpi, on Producing the Crime-Comedy, “Bank Alert”

Wingonia Ikpi in an exclusive interview with Afrocritik

“I think sometimes, it’s nice to surprise the audiences just like we did with Kanayo. Casting roles sometimes requires typecasting and at other times, requires you to be daring.” _ Wingonia Ikpi

By Helena Olori 

Film trailers play a pivotal role in building the audience’s anticipation for an upcoming project. This is what the trailer for Bank Alert — driven by its witty narrative — has sparked among film-goers and Nollywood enthusiasts. 

Bank Alert, comedian Okey Bakassi’s filmmaking debut, follows the story of Sammy Okereke, a struggling family man who unexpectedly receives the sum of N500 million in his bank account. Oblivious of who the sender is, he recklessly spends the money, putting his loved ones in danger. The crime-comedy boasts of a blend of veteran Nollywood actors like Kanayo. O. Kanayo, Kate Henshaw, Tina Mba, as well as emerging talents.

Contrary to audience assumptions, creating comedy films is no walk in the park, and Wingonia Ikpi Eyong, the lead producer on Bank Alert understood what this production entailed. Rooted in her artistic background, Ikpi’s flair for storytelling shines through in this trailer, bringing her witty and chatty skills to bear. While her previous work like Otana might not have flaunted this humorous side of her persona, the fast-rising filmmaker, collaborating with director, Akay Mason, weaves this into the production of this crime-comedy.

Ahead of the film’s November 24th premiere date, the scriptwriter-cum-director-cum-producer, and founder of Boxonia Blueprint, in a candid chat with Afrocritik one warm Sunday afternoon, reflects on her journey into filmmaking – one that began with her love for tales by moonlight. She also discusses her career trajectory, stylistic preferences, choice of themes, her role as a content development producer at FilmOne Studios, balancing the art and the commerce of filmmaking, and the delightful comedic undertones in the upcoming title, Bank Alert

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You wrote a piece about the art and business of trailers. In the piece, you mentioned two important elements a trailer should possess – storytelling and sound design. The witty nature of Bank Alert‘s trailer has allowed audiences to anticipate the film’s release. What was the direction you wanted to go with the trailer? 

I and the director, Akay Mason Ilozobhie, had different directions for the trailer and both did not seem to work. I wanted the trailer to be funny, to have a lot of the cast seen in their element, and whatever a cast member says or does to be in tandem with the story. The first cut didn’t achieve that goal. It would have worked if we were cutting a thriller, horror, or even a drama. It was interesting but it wasn’t funny, and I didn’t want to be one of those producers who would sell a film for what it’s not. So, we came together and asked ourselves what kind of story we were trying to tell. We had to meet in the middle and just let the story lead, which was the second direction we went with. We had to put it through the fire about five times to become what it is right now – to give it the storyline and the tone that we really wanted. I learnt on Bank Alert that cutting comedies is a lot dicier than the usual templates we have. I learnt to always let the story lead. 

(Read also: Nneoha Ann Aligwe is Reviving the Horror Film Genre with the Africa International Horror Film Festival (AIHFF): In Conversation with Afrocritik)

After seeing a movie, filmgoers often ask: “Who is the filmmaker/creative behind this work?” How would you describe yourself as a person and filmmaker? And at what point did your filmmaking journey start?

My name is Wingonia Ikpi. I am from Cross River State, Ugep specifically. I’m from a town that has layers upon layers of stories.  I don’t know if I should call myself a millennial, but I was one of those kids who benefited from tales by moonlight, with grandma telling the stories. I was also part of the culture where children came out in front of the class to tell stories. By the time I was in secondary school, I had become one of the storytellers. I tried to tell each story the best I could so that the storytelling session wouldn’t be over if I hadn’t told my story. I was one of those people who were always writing stories and passing them around. I started by writing letters to my father who had to be in the big city to work.

Growing up, I wanted to become a doctor. But while I was good at maths and physics, I struggled with chemistry. So when medicine didn’t work, I had to change to an Arts major. After graduation, I began posting stories on Facebook. Otoobong Epekenyong, a filmmaker resident in Calabar at the time, saw my stories on Facebook and liked one of them, a hybrid documentary about drug abuse and dealing with mental issues titled Eno’s Demons. It was from that project that I learnt script writing. And when that script was produced, it won the 2018 Best African Film Award at the Amazing Shorts Film Festival in Madrid, Spain. And that led me to filmmaking.

Wingonia Ikpi in conversation with Afrocritik
Wingonia Ikpi

You started as a screenwriter, then as an indie filmmaker, and now as a producer for FilmOne, a major production house in Nollywood. How gruelling has that transition been? And looking back, is there anything you have done differently on this journey?

I wouldn’t say it was a gruelling transition, and maybe it’s because of the kind of person that I am. I have a rule on set: don’t tell me it is impossible, tell me the problems. For me, it was really just a lot of change, because as an indie filmmaker, you’re doing everything yourself. The sausage for fun is being yourself. One of the things that I learnt on this journey is basically doing things with people and trusting people to do their part, and that they will be able to step in when there is a problem. What I have learnt and still learning is the commercial part of art, and working with Akay – who is very commercial and understands film language – on Bank Alert really helped me because this genre is way off what I would normally do as a filmmaker, not because I look down on comedies, but because they are more difficult to make. I fear making a comedy that is slapstick, and because I am a writer, director, and producer, I could see things from a 360 perspective, and now, even from the commercial angle. So, for me, the gruelling part is having to learn, re-learn, and unlearn, and also balance what I know from the art world with what I know in the cinema and commercial world. 

(Read also: The Ingenuity of Mr Eazi: An Exclusive Interview with a New Era Connoisseur for Art and Talent)

Otana, your directorial debut, revolves around sexual harassment and it uses the horror genre to tell the story. What can you share about the intersection of film and addressing societal issues?

First of all, I’m learning the language of being human and I think that I learned it even more with producing this film. I grew up in a very large family, and I’m more like a community child who is also an outlaw. So I cannot do a project without looking at it from a human perspective. I wanted to tell a horror story of sexual abuse, but I wanted to do it differently. In Nigeria, we have a human problem – that there are no consequences for actions.

In Otana, I want to assume that being the writer, director, and producer of your film gives a sense of creative control. But it can also be a physically draining and overwhelming process.  Can you share how having such control over your production helps in keeping the vision? 

I really don’t believe that the vision is all yours. You may have more control over the project but having more collaborators can improve it and more stress taken off your shoulder. If a project requires collaboration, I go that route and if it is a project I believe I can push alone, I do it. I’m not a one-size-fits-all person, I’m a what-does-this-thing-need-at-this-time kinda person.  

Seeing the legendary Kanayo. O Kanayo in a comedic role in Bank Alert is not quite the cast an ardent Nollywood enthusiast would expect. As a producer, what do you look out for when figuring out casting choices? 

On this one, I have to give credit to the Executive Producer, Okey Bakassi. He was very particular about him. I had reservations at first because I didn’t know Kanayo as a funny actor until I did my background work. But for me, before I cast my actors, I look out for what the role needs, the creativity of the actor being considered, and his ability to own the role in relation to previous roles he has played. There’s also the personality of the person in question: his time management, ability to collaborate with others on set, and how responsive the actor is in promoting the film, too. I found out that Kanayo is a very funny character, especially in his body language and facial gestures. But I also trusted his capacity and his professionalism. There’s hardly any role he has played that he didn’t nail well. Moreover, we didn’t want to typecast in this film, and I am so glad it worked out. 

Bank Alert Behind the Scene with Kanayo O. Kanayo - Afrocritik
Veteran actor, Kanayo O. Kanayo, on the set of Bank Alert

(Read also: “Versatility Helps, but Perseverance is Key”: Nigerian Actor, Eso Dike, on Breaking into Nollywood)

Staying on the issue of typecasting, what is your take on it as a producer?

Personally, I don’t like the idea of typecasting but if I were to typecast, it has to be that the actor is one of the very few who can portray that character in the industry. I think sometimes, it’s nice to surprise the audience, just like we did with Kanayo. Casting roles sometimes requires typecasting, and at other times, requires you to be daring. But on the first level, there are cast actors who are good at what they do. 

Producers are known for harmonising all the distinct filmmaking departments during the production and post-production stages. What was it like producing Bank Alert, and it being your biggest project in terms of scale?

I wouldn’t say it’s the biggest. My first major project was as a screenwriter working with the N-Power Creative programme. I was a line producer for Flawsome which had over 400 cast members, and Ijakumo: The Born Again Stripper with more than 200 cast.  I also worked on Tinsel and Halita as a writer. But this is the first major blockbuster I am leading as a producer. 

I think that producing is basically just knowing how to massage everybody’s ego, and this is generally speaking, not just on Bank Alert. As a producer, you must know how to manage the different stars and celebrities you have on set as well as your crew members. I learnt that crew members must also feel seen as they perform a lot of the hard work on set as well. But most importantly, you have to know how to control yourself from distributing the pressure to people around you. You have to be kind, too. Producing Bank Alert was quite tough. The film is Okey Bakassi’s story that has been in development for about eight years. Making this film required some changes and updates and it wasn’t all rosy. But we are all happy with the outcome now. 

Behind the Scene of Bank Alert - Afrocritik
Behind the scenes of Bank Alert: Okey Bakassi makes his filmmaking debut as lead actor and executive producer

Behind the Scene of Bank Alert - Afrocritik

As an observer of Nollywood, I discovered that the attention a film attracts often reduces after its cinema run or weeks after its release on streaming platforms. Does the lifespan of a film end after it has hit cinemas? And do you think Nollywood actors do enough to promote the films that they are in?

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I don’t think the life span of a film ends in cinema and I would hate for that to happen to any film because it’s not good for the business.  Beyond the commercial benefits, your film should be able to go places. And because of the digital era we are in now, a producer can decide to send the film to YouTube or streaming platforms after its theatrical run or even cut it in bits as shareable clips on social media. There’s so much you can do with your film after it hits the cinema. 

On actors promoting films, I’d like to reiterate that ownership is key. As an actor, the project is first yours. However, there are different reasons actors can withdraw from the film’s promotion, such as the story, the promotional materials, or flat-out low remuneration. But we need to understand that promotion plays an important to the film’s marketing.

You currently work in FilmOne Studios, one of the leading film distribution companies in Nollywood. What are some of the challenges that come with distributing films in Nigeria? Do we need more distribution outlets and/or production houses?

Filmmakers need to understand distribution in relation to the lifespan of their films, and if they understand this, they’ll be able to make better films that sell. We can agree that there’s a shortage of distribution outlets because the industry is not getting the support it should be getting from the government. The industry needs lots of infrastructure and channels, both in production and distribution levels. But at present, we need more collaboration to thrive.

The pandemic created a change in the cinema-going culture in Nigeria, giving room for streaming platforms to blossom. From a producer’s point of view, do you think Nigerian cinema has recovered from the pandemic blow? Are streaming platforms inimical to the growth of cinema culture in Nollywood?

Nigeria’s cinema-going culture was barely thriving before the pandemic and after the pandemic, it became worse. And because the cost of living is very expensive now, it’s affecting box office returns. We are now seeing fewer admissions in cinemas and it will require a lot of persuasion to win back these cinema-goers. 

(Read also: “Music is One of My Filmmaking Signatures”: Nigerian Filmmaker, Kayode Kasum, in Conversation with Afrocritik)

In recent years, the Nigerian film industry has been attracting investment from venture capitalists and other investors in the corporate world. How impactful have these various investments been to the industry? And how do you as a filmmaker establish creative control and independence

The best part of these investments is that they pay better – both for the actors and for the crew. And these monies pour back into the economy, which is a good thing. It allows talents to sharpen their skills. Another way they’re improving the industry is that they make dreams happen. On the other hand, once there’s a lot of money invested in your project, the pressure to deliver comes in, and sometimes this can affect how pure your art is. But once you are tested and trusted, it becomes easier.

Nollywood has been courting the world’s attention recently. What’s one thing you wish that outsiders and audiences should understand about filmmaking in Nollywood?

It is not as simple as it seems. For instance, I tried using P-Square’s Bank Alert and two other popular songs as soundtracks for this film but our budget was limited. So, we need to understand that the industry is grossly underfunded and we need money.

Okey Bakassi’s Filmmaking Debut, "Bank Alert" to Hit Cinemas on November 24 - Afrocritik

Bank Alert will start showing this Friday. What should cinema-goers expect? 

Expect to see a genuinely funny film. You’ll enjoy yourself watching this film. While shooting the film, the entire camera village was rolling in laughter because of how funny the scenes between Okay Bakassi and Kanayo were. Myself and the director really tried to bring that laughter that we had on set to life. So, expect a sense of warmth, expect a blend of old Nollywood and new Nollywood. In addition to that, Bank Alert has a lot of Easter eggs in it and there’s a metaphor the director and I are hoping filmgoers will figure out when they come out of the cinema. 

Helena Olori is a talented multimedia journalist, she enjoys staying abreast with the latest happenings in the film industry and what makes the movie business tick. Connect with her on Instagram @heleena_olori or helena.olori@afrocritik.com.

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