Friday, June 23, 2006

Escape from Lagos

Seriously, that should be the next movie we work on because we've been here for a week and we keep trying to get out of this city, but it won't let us go.

As you might have heard, Lagos is an outrageously crowded and congested city, so it can take all day trying to get from point A to point B. I kinda feel like most of the days that we've spent here have been wasted, production-wise because it takes so long to get anything done. And really, we came here to take care of just 3 things 1) check up on the place we're renting the lights and stuff from 2) sign contracts with 2 of our leads 3) ummmm.... something else I can't remember, but I'm sure we've already done it

Oh yeah, we also had to help Koko move house. That was exhausting, but now we're in the new crib that has these incredible candy-coloured walls, I wish we would shoot there because they look so cool!

We were supposed to have left on... Wednesday, but everytime we're about to get to the airport, some new crisis pops up and drags us back into the bowels of Lagos. Today, the tragedy we managed to avert was the defection of our star who was being courted for other jobs and needed to be reassured that we weren't gonna leave him hanging. We missed our flight again tonight, so we decided to just come chill out in the mall and get online real quick.

I don't have too much to say at the moment (actually, I have much too much to say but I don't even know where to start right now!) so I'll just post up a random photo essay.


Um... On second thought, I'll post the pics later 'cause this network is acting all slow-like right now and your boy is coming dangerously close to flat broke.

Escape from Lagos

Seriously, that should be the next movie we work on because we've been here for a week and we keep trying to get out of this city, but it won't let us go.

As you might have heard, Lagos is an outrageously crowded and congested city, so it can take all day trying to get from point A to point B. I kinda feel like most of the days that we've spent here have been wasted, production-wise because it takes so long to get anything done. And really, we came here to take care of just 3 things 1) check up on the place we're renting the lights and stuff from 2) sign contracts with 2 of our leads 3) ummmm.... something else I can't remember, but I'm sure we've already done it

Oh yeah, we also had to help Koko move house. That was exhausting, but now we're in the new crib that has these incredible candy-coloured walls, I wish we would shoot there because they look so cool!

We were supposed to have left on... Wednesday, but everytime we're about to get to the airport, some new crisis pops up and drags us back into the bowels of Lagos. Today, the tragedy we managed to avert was the defection of our star who was being courted for other jobs and needed to be reassured that we weren't gonna leave him hanging. We missed our flight again tonight, so we decided to just come chill out in the mall and get online real quick.

I don't have too much to say at the moment (actually, I have much too much to say but I don't even know where to start right now!) so I'll just post up a random photo essay.


Um... On second thought, I'll post the pics later 'cause this network is acting all slow-like right now and your boy is coming dangerously close to flat broke.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Casting impressions

First off: As a writer, you sometimes find yourself cringing when you hear your work being read aloud. These are words forged within the private recesses of your mind, and having them dragged out and given life in the material world can be both exhilarating and somewhat embarrassing. All of a sudden, all the imperfections of the work are thrown into stark relief…It’s kinda like finding yourself naked in a roomful of strangers.

So sitting through 3 hours of videotaped auditions of actors reading the same passage of my script over and over and over again…. God, I wanted to dig a hole and climb in. It was particularly painful when they butchered the words, but even more so when they all stumbled over the same areas, illustrating to me that those portions just didn’t work in general.

But I’m glad to say that most of the actors were really, really good. When did everybody in Calabar become a thespian anyway? Back in the day, acting (along with music and other branches of the entertainment field in general) was the province of dropouts, thugs, and other people too stupid or antisocial to get a real job in the mainstream of Nigerian society.

Now the story we keep hearing over and over again is “I just graduated with a degree in Engineering/I’m studying Law/I’m in school for Marine Biology/I’m in Med school but what I really want to do is act, and I can’t see myself doing anything else.” And they really mean it, too… Some of the young ladies have been particularly insistent: “I’ll do anything to be in a movie,” they say. “Anything.” And then they give you that look so you know that they really mean “anything.”

Don’t worry, though… Your boy is way too professional, paranoid and ridden with massive levels of residual Judeo-Christian guilt to ever take advantage of such overtures* and that’s a good thing because (allegedly) the casting couch is such a prevalent feature of the industry that folks have been pretty impressed that we’re not even interested in none of that mess.

All in all, I think a lot of people have been impressed with our general sense of professionalism, precision and… Well, the fact that we’re not dicks because a lot of other producers are (well, we’re not dicks yet, anyway). It’s odd when actors shake us with both hands and bow to us and call us “sir,” though. Stuff like that really embarrasses us all. We’re like “Nah, cut that ‘sir’ shit… This is Denis, this is Koko, this is Nana” (yeah, I’ve reverted back to the name of my youth, mostly to avoid confusion with Koko’s wife Uchenna).

But we’ve got some really, really great players…. And some of the best ones we got almost completely by chance! I’ll talk more about that a little later.

Ummm… I’ll talk about the clashes we had with the union later, too

* Okay, I’ll admit it… On two separate occasions later in the week I ended up calling actresses who had auditioned for us. Calling them socially, I mean.

It was completely innocent, of course: Platonic company for some dinner and/or drinks after a long, hot day of producing in the field, and in both cases it was actresses whom I’d already committed to hiring so it’s not as if them getting the job was going to be influenced by them going out with me either way. Furthermore, neither one of them was even able to accept my invitation due to prior commitments so nothing ended up happening anyway.

Still, it made me feel like a massive sleaze and I don’t think I’ll be doing it again in the near future.

Sunday June 11, 2006

Where ya receipt?

Expect to hear this a million times if you dare to travel by road in Nigeria (particularly in Abia State) with a car full of baggage. The police checkpoint has long been a regular feature of life in Nigeria, but it’s starting to get ri-goddam-diculous © Casey Kasem

There’s machinegun-toting cops at checkpoints literally every few metres down the road and you get stopped at every single one of them if you’re vehicle looks “suspicious” (ie you got a lot of stuff in it, like I do right now) so they can ask you who you are, where you’re coming from, where you’re going and where you got all the stuff in your car.

“Where ya receipt?”

Basically, this is a euphemism for “If we decided to steal all this shit from you, would you be able to prove that you ever had it in the first place?”

I actually got my first taste of this when the Customs guys at the airport were giving me their routine rousting. They asked me to provide a receipt for technically the least valuable of my packages: the big U-Haul box I had gotten to carry some long gels and homemade reflectors and a few other random stuff I had pulled out of the other suitcases to bring their weight down. Of course they targeted that piece over the other suitcases containing thousands of dollars of equipment because they love anything in a cardboard box: DVD players, sound systems, VCRs, stuff like that.

How predictable.

Anyway, I told them that if I wanted to seize a box full of underwear and mouthwash, they could be my guest (and I’m gonna let you believe that I actually had the balls to speak to them that way rather than bowing and scraping and calling them “sir” as I pleaded that there was nothing of value in there).

So I take all my receipts with me when I hit the road. Unfortunately, I don’t have the receipt for the Nikon D70 digital camera hanging on my arm, so I fish in my pocket and pull out a receipt from Shaw’s Supermarket for some bananas, soy milk and shoelaces I bought two days before I left. The fact that the cops just glance at the receipt and let me pass is testament to how much they really don’t give a shit.

Armed robbery is quite a problem in this part of the country these days, so I almost wouldn’t mind all this harassment if I thought that it helped deter crime to any degree. But it really doesn’t… Because I know that even if this car had a trunk strapped to the roof with the crown jewels of Monaco and a dead hooker’s legs sticking out the side, all they’d ask me is “Where ya receipt?” and I’d say “Here…. Here is my receipt”

and they’d let me through and God speed me.

Welcome to Canaan City

Or “Calabar,” as the Portuguese called it. Or "my adopted hometown," as I call it. Whenever I come here it’s like I never left. Every street holds a memory for me… I think this might be my favourite place in the world but it’s vaguely sad for me too, though: to paraphrase The Specials, this town is kinda like a ghost town for me. Because while the city itself remains familiar, the people are not. Everybody I know seems to be gone, replaced by a whole new group of folks who barely even remember my “class.” Still, it’s great being here: it’s clean, cool, progressive… The land of milk and honey.

As we approach Koko’s house (my dad has insisted that I be accompanied by the driver), I spot Denis walking up the street to the store. He seems a bit dazed and out of it and is slow to recognize me. Ah, it’s early yet and he probably hasn’t had his coffee. Koko’s not around, either. I’m sweating like a whore in church and guzzling bottled water like a camel.

Once Koko arrives, we get right down to business watching the audition tapes. They’re actually pretty good.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

FRANKFURT The Germans are really nice people. I mean, really, really, really nice. And not in a phony way, either.

So why does the sound of their language frighten me?

In the past few hours I’ve sat through two in-flight movies: Failure to Launch and The Pink Panther. I want to stick pencils into my own eyes, true story.

Welcome to Nigeria

It’s overcast when the plane touches down in Port Harcourt… Well, actually it just looks overcast from the sky. By the time I hit the ground I realize it is righteously raining buckets. Port Harcourt is one of those airports where the passengers dismount on the tarmac and walk through the open air into the airport, so the heavy rain constitutes something of a problem as the airport officials scramble to assemble a chain of umbrellas to get us off the plane while we are backed up at the plane doors for like 15-20 minutes, impatiently waiting to get off.

Welcome to Nigeria.

In pretty short order, the passengers get into one of the favourite Nigerian pastimes: trading quips about how effed up Nigeria is (by the way, did you notice that I just spelled “favorite” with a “u”?).

One of the passengers even turned to the plane’s pilot (a white guy) and said “A beg o… Make una come colonize us again.”

Now, of course the pilot was German rather than British so it’s not like he or his people could necessarily come and colonize us “again,” but the point was pretty clear: There is a tacit (and sometimes even very vocal) perception that when the Europeans held the reins in Africa they exploited us and siphoned our resources, but at least under their stewardship, Africa worked as a modern society.

This idea has always irritated me a little bit, even when expressed in jest.

Still, it’s good to be home. One of the first things that really impressed me upon hitting Nigerian soil was the surfeit of shapely, sexy women. There’s something about the… carriage of Nigerian women that is so proud and regal… even orange sellers on the side of the street look like princesses. But I think the curves that I was even more happy to see were those of all the Peugeot 504s in the streets.

But before I saw any of that I would have to get through Customs.

As I walked into the airport, I was immediately shunted into the “expatriates” line. The guy behind the desk took one look at the Igbo name on my American passport and scolded me for making things harder for myself by not using my Nigerian passport and allowing myself to be treated as a foreigner in my own country. I tried to offer a perfunctory explanation about the passport issue but he had already started rapping to me a mile a minute in Igbo.

This kinda raised a red flag in my mind because I knew his switch to vernacular communication was his way of indicating to me that he was “my brother,” being of the same ethnic origin, and hence he was going to “take care” of me. But since I was “his brother” he would also expect me to “take care” of him. If you know what I mean.

And yes, he did “take care” of me if your concept of being “taken care of” involves some dude standing behind you barking useless instructions in Igbo while you scrambled back and forth through a mad crowd trying to retrieve your six luggage items.

I don’t know how many of y’all have ever deplaned in a small, “Third world” airport… The experience is pretty much the same whether it’s in Port Harcourt, Nassau or Kingston: The oppressive humidity, the massive press of bodies, the overzealous security paradoxically coupled with an almost complete absence of order, the seeming multitudes of people outside the airport building chattering and yelling, trying to get the attention of their people in the airport, or trying to sell stuff, or steal stuff, or just general hustle jetlagged flyers. Add to all that the pouring rain, and I was pretty damn shell-shocked.

I managed to get all my luggage and two porters to wheel the stuff behind me as I fought my way through the almshouse. “My brother” comes to me and reminds me that he’s going to “take care” of me, and I have to admit that this time he actually delivered. He went to the mean-looking “I-wear-sunglasses-inside-the-building-at-night” cadre of Customs officers and told them to go easy on me because I’m his brother. They let me through with only token harassment after “my brother” told them that I was going to “take care” of them all.

By this time I just wanted to get the hell out of there. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for me to spot my dad in the crowd (though I was a bit taken aback by how much older and smaller he looked). I started to tell him about “my brother” but it turns out that I didn’t have to, since “my brother” had followed me outside anyway and was already regaling my father with accounts of how well he had taken care of me.

Dad pointed me to get to the car with the driver while he discussed with “my brother” how he would be taken care of in gratitude for taking care of me. For some reason, the driver had parked the car directly under one of the water gutters on the roof of the building, so it was a bit like standing under Niagara Falls I as I struggled to jam all my stuff into the vehicle.

The porters were getting soaked too, and they wanted to be paid so they could get out of the rain. It’s often hard for me to gauge how much to pay people for minor services like this because labour is really cheap in this country… I mean, almost inhumanly cheap by American standards. Like, before I left the States, my mom told me to tip the porters at the airport N50 each. Of course, my mom is also notoriously cheap and it just seemed weird to me to pay grown-ass men who bust their asses what amounts to less than 50 cents apiece.

Anyway, I didn’t have any Nigerian currency to pay them with and my dad was still talking with “my brother.” I fished into my pocket to see what I had for American money: a ten and two George Washingtons. I gave each of them one dollar. They looked at me like I had just announced that I had slept with their mom and she was a lousy lay to boot. “ONE DOLLAR?” one of them cried out in shock. The other one almost gave the money back to me and started walking off in disgust.

“Na all I dey hold o” I explained.

“Why don’t you give us that ten dollars to share?”

“Ummm… Because five dollars each is a pretty big tip even in America. Okay, let’s wait for my dad to come back and he’ll pay you.”

So we wait. And wait. And wait.

And get wetter. And wetter. And wetter.

Finally, I just relented and gave the guys the ten… Whatever, I just wanted to get out into the car out of the rain. I know I probably had a few more singles in my wallet, but frankly I didn’t feel too comfortable pulling out my wallet in the middle of that mayhem.

When my dad finally came back, he asked me where the porters went. I told him I paid them and they left.

“How much did you pay them?” he asked.

I told him.

“ARE YOU CRAZY? I just gave those Customs officers 2000 naira to share!” (That’s less than 20 dollars, yo)

“Oh well. Whatever. I just want to get out here. Can we leave, please?”

Welcome to Nigeria.

Hurry up and Wait

It took like 3 hours to get to the house because of the traffic. Usually this trip would be 25 minutes tops, but the rain has caused the already messed-up road to become completely un-navigable in anything short of a rowboat. Good thing I didn’t try to go straight to Calabar, but what this means is that we won’t be able to go to Aba tonight. Which means that we have to go tomorrow morning. Which means that I’ll get to Calabar even later than I thought I would. I call the guys to tell them and they’re pretty cool about it. They say they’re reviewing the tapes from the day’s casting call and they’re looking pretty good. Great… I can’t wait to see them.

I fall asleep in the midst of mud and heavy petrol fumes and I have a weird dream about Europeans re-colonizing Africa and fixing this damn road.

When we finally get to the crib, I have some dinner and watch (half of) a Nigerian movie called Free Giver starring Zack Orji and Genevive Nnaji and directed by Tchidi Chikere. Only reason I’m mentioning this is because this film had probably the best cinematography I’ve ever seen in a Nigerian movie. I’m not saying it was Gordon Willis or anything but there was a degree of “modeling” in this use of light and shade that is rare in Nollywood and it was clear that a good deal of attention was paid to the placement of colour on the screen, the careful application of depth of field and creative camera angles. Props to director of photography John Osemeka… I was quite impressed and inspired.

The reason I only watched half the movie? You guessed it: NEPA (the Nigerian Electric Power Authority, or as they are more popularly known “Never Expect Power Always”) did what NEPA do.

Welcome to Nigeria.

I repacked in the dark and tried (in vain) to get some sleep in preparation for the 6 am trip to Aba the next morning.

Y'see.... This whole thing is kinda like hills and valleys

On some days we are SO high that we could reach up and give a pound to God because we KNOW we are gonna be mega-successful with this project because everything is SO in sync and all these serendipitous miracles present themselves and show us that the Universe itself has decreed that TOO MUCH BEAUTIFUL WOMAN is totally gonna be The Schitt

...and then there are days when it seems like the gods themselves have conspired against us and have marshaled their vast powers to ensure that we fail on every level.

Guess what kinda day today has been? (Not to mention yesterday and the day before?)

Right now, I'm sitting in a mall sipping pineapple juice and listening to a string version of "Light My Fire"... One of the security guards who searched our bags as we came in cordially greeted Denis as "nigger" and that made me chuckle for a second, but that might have been the only jollity in my day so far... Man, John Wayne forgive me, but I almost wanted to sit down and cry this afternoon on account of all the hiccups and humiliations we've sufferred lately.

But on the real, reading you guys' encouraging comments on this blog made me feel a LOT better in a matter of seconds... I really appreciate all the support.

I probably won't have enough time to make that super-post I promised right now, but I'll drop a few entries chronicling my first couple of days (there's much more to come... believe me: I haven't even got to the GOOD part yet!)

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

*rears ugly head*

What's up, family!

Sorry I haven't checked in the past few days, but I have been hella busy! I really had to hit the ground running... No sooner than I had landed, we were on the road working from sunup to... well, almost sunup dealing with endless auditions, location scouting, costumes, all kinds of stuff. Right now me and Denis are just stealing an hour in a nearby cybercafe to see how much the world is passing us by!

I have, however, been composing blog entries every single day... JUst haven't had the chance to post them. I'll probably just make a super-entry in a day or two delivering a blow-by-blow of the past 5 days (with photos included).

One thing I'll tell you for now, though: This filmmaking stuff is an emotional rollercoaster... But I LOVE it.

Friday, June 09, 2006

En route to Frankfurt...

I'm typing this from the air... I've never been online on a plane before; to be honest, I never completely knew that you could even do this (the wonders of the white man's magic will never cease!)

I'm much more at ease now that I'm actually on my way. This morning I thought that my head was going to explode... The check-in process was pretty hellish, but I was able to re-distribute the weight of my baggage so that I ended up checking in 4 pieces with a total weight of around 280 lbs (I had to pay $420 in excess baggage charges) and carrying on 2. I got held up at security for a bit of a long time because I guess some of the stuff in my equipment bag (lenses, microphone mixer, boom mic, etc.) looked kinda suspicious. I guess it didn't help that I had bundled them up in bubble wrap and duct tape for safety's sake!

Anyway, I get to Port Harcourt, Nigeria at 3:55 pm tomorrow (or is that today? shit... I already got my time zones mixed up). Denis wants me to come to Calabar directly from the airport: since I'm already missing the morning casting call, he thinks it's best that I watch the tapes of the auditions tonight (tomorrow night?) so we can do callbacks tomorrow (or is that the day after.... ah, whatever!)

I can't do it, though. Apart from the fact that Port Harcourt is like 4 hours away from Calabar and it's not a road you wanna be driving at night (especially carrying the amount of booty I am), I have to go see my family first. I mean, it's already bad enough that I'm barely resting my head at home before I'm zipping off to be Mr. Movie Man... if I went straight to Calabar without going home first, I don't think my grandmother would forgive me.

See, now that I'm head ing back to Africa I need to remember how important respect and decorum are in our culture. I got a pretty hardcore reminder of that when I went to the Nigerian consulate the other day (ha! like how I tied it back into that story?) and the guy at the front desk was giving me grief because I didn't pay him what he felt was adequate (ie grovelling and calling him "sir"). Dude, you're a fucking receptionist. But alas, he was a receptionist who had the power to make me wait and wait and wait at his discretion before he let me in to see the lady who was going to hook my visa up.

When I finally got in to see said lady, I pissed her off almost immediately when she asked me for my passport and visa application form and I handed them to her with my left hand.


"err.... I don't really use it much, because I dislocated it in the army and it has the tendency to...."

"So if your arm is dislocated, why do you have that big backpack hanging from it?"

"Well, uh... It's not affected by downward pressure. But if I extend it..."

"I am an Igbo woman! It's extremely disrespectful to give me something with the left hand!"

*she tosses the passport back at me; grovelling ensues*

Eventually, she got over it and decided to help me even though I'm an uncouth scallywag. Then I made the mistake of answering "Yeah" to one of her questions rather than "Yes, madam" or "Yes, Auntie."

Hooooo-boy, if looks could kill, the one she shot me would have me looking like al-Zarqawi.

"You didn't grow up at home, did you?" she asked.

"Yes, auntie... I did. But I've been away for a while." (this is me hoping she'll overlook my bad manners on account of my sojourn amongst American savages)

"You grew up in London?" she asks.

"No, auntie. I've visited England but I've never lived there."

"So why do you have a British accent?"

"I do?"


(Actually, I've been getting that a lot lately... Most recently from the Danish dude sitting next to me on the plane right now. Dunno what that's about... Maybe it's because I talk real "proper"-like)

"No, auntie... I didn't grow up in England."

"Yes, you did! You must have! Why do you talk like that?"

(By this point she's getting agitated, believing that in addition to having horrible manners I'm also a liar. I decided to defuse the situation and do what I gotta do to make her stamp my passport.)

"Well... Yes, I did spend a little time in London. A few years."

She smiles broadly. "Eh-henh! I thought so! You think I don't know what I'm talking about."

*passport gets stamped*

Anyway, it's good to have all of that trouble out of the way... The extra two days I got from missing my flight on Wednesday gave me the chance to take care of some business I didn't get around to before - opening a "business" account, getting to the comic store and picking up my pulls from the past two weeks... Plus, Thursday's payday so I got a nice cash injection that allowed me to cop a few extra things we need, including makeup (my girl Sha gave me some great tips... I just noticed that she commented on my last post, so if you're reading this, Sha, thanks a mil!)

Oh yeah... Speaking of which. To my fellas who mess with attractive, well-groomed women and who want to continue messing with attractive, well-groomed women: don't be complaining about how much she spends on makeup and getting her hair did. Because brother, that shit ain't cheap! I mean, I always knew that, but I musta spent $100 and walked out with only a handful of items! (And I have mighty small hands too!)

I just realized that I forgot my favorite cowboy hat behind! Damn.... I guess the spirit of John Wayne isn't gonna be following me to Africa. It's all for the best, I suppose: he hated negroes.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Blogging live from Nigeria!!!


(Actually, I might as well be blogging from 1990, saying "not!" like that. Shit wasn't even funny in the first Bill and Ted.)

As you may already be aware if you read the Bongo blog, I missed my flight. And taking a cue from good ol' Mr. Pilatus and Mr. Morvan, I blame it on the rain.

Most of Massachusetts was on a heavy flood warning yesterday, and when I went out in the morning to run a few errands I almost drowned just walking up the street. Of course this horrid weather had a significant effect on the traffic situation... I actually got to the airport really early, but my luggage didn't (I had like SEVEN huge bags - even with the airline charging a $160 excess luggage tax per each extra bag over two, it still works out cheaper than it would have cost me to send the same amount through a shipping company). With my stuff stuck in traffic, I had to abort my check-in and try to reschedule.

They tried to put me on another flight, but that one was going to Lagos rather than Port Harcourt. No good. Then they came up with another one going to Abuja. Even more no good. The next best thing was a flight to Port Harcourt on Friday. Which means I would arrive on Saturday afternoon.

Did I mention that we have a big casting call in Calabar on Saturday morning?

Actually, by this time I wasn't even sweating it at all... I felt strangely calm, in fact. The only thing that worried me a bit was the fact that I knew Bongo and Koko (and especially Koko) would probably curse my anus to be infested with the flies of a thousand camels. (They were pretty cool about it, though.)

When I got home, I just crashed into a sleep that was deeper and sounder than I had had in a week (and for a whole THREE HOURS too!). The past couple of days had been particularly hectic.

Monday was a bad day... Trying to pack all the shit I need to carry was really getting me down and I found myself wanting to rend my garments, tear my skin and flesh open and let my soul fly free across the countryside. "Why the fuck am I DOING this?" I asked myself over and over again.

Later, I chatted with Bongo. (It's always a pick-me-up when me and the Congoman talk about film and he goes on about Claude Lelouch's approach to framing shots and how he prefers the term montage to "editing" and why he likes to sit in the first three rows at the movies and I talk about my love of deep focus and my dislike of Le plan américain how the introduction of sound forever ruined the potential development of a unique cinematic language and we manage to find common ground in our mutual love of contemporary Korean and Thai films. It's at times like that that I remember why the fuck we're doing this - because we love this shit; we live this shit.)

We were talking about getting Bongo's applying early for Bongo's US visa so we can work on post-production together when it suddenly hit me: I hadn't applied for a visa myself. I hadn't applied for a Nigerian visa.

Y'see... I'm Nigerian, yeah. I grew up there and everything. But I was born in the States and I have a US passport. I've never had a Nigerian passport (I tried to get one twice over the past five years - once through my dad and once through Koko. I sent my passport pics and everything. But it seems like both times the process broke down at some point.) So while I'm busy getting all excited about "going home," the fact is that technically I am a foreigner at "home" and thus, I need a visa.*

It takes 3-5 days for the Nigerian Consulate to approve a visa application.

This was on Monday night.

I was getting on the plane Wednesday afternoon.

In short, i was screwed. Visions of me not being able to get into the country danced through my head... All this work we've put into this thing... All for nothing, because once again I got so caught up in trying to make this thing happen that I forgot about a few basic administrative tasks.

To be fair, I think I subconsciously minimized the importance of the visa in my head because last time I went "home" in 2001 I called the consulate for a visa and they asked me "Are you a Nigerian?"

"Umm... Yes," I replied. "I mean, I am a US citizen but I'm a Nigerian. I don't have a Nigerian pass..."


"I'm an American citizen."

"Okay, you need to get a visa. Send us $100 and your passport to be stamped. What's your name?"

"Uchenna Chi..."

"Oh, so you ARE a Nigerian? Why didn't you just say so? Are you sure you want to bother getting a visa?"

They kinda acted like it was no big deal... As long as you look and sound Nigerian, it was all gravy. Plus, if I got harassed by customs once I got into Nigeria, it's pretty easy to "make nice" with them, if you know what I mean. But what if I got quizzed about my visa by the sticklers in Frankfurt (Germans!)?

I was screwed.

But, Allah wakbar, my mom knows someone who knows someone who's married to someone at the consulate, and they said they could approve my visa on the spot so long as I got my ass to the consulate.

Like I said: this was Monday night.

My flight was Wednesday afternoon.

The passport & visa section of the consulate is only open from 9 am - 1 pm.

6:05 a.m. Tuesday morning, I was on the first Amtrak to the Big Apple.

I don't like too-long blog entries so I'll stop here, get some dinner and finish the story later.

*I'm gonna ruin the suspense here by noting straight up that this little yarn does end with me getting all my papers squared away, including my passport. So if you're a hater and you're planning to snitch me out to the authorities, nyah nyah nyah, you're too late, beeyotch!

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Ugh, I am so damn slow sometimes

As I've told you guys before, I spend a lot of time working on what I call "creative solutions to tactical problems." One of the most persistent of these problems up to this point has been gunfire.

TOO MUCH BEAUTIFUL WOMAN does have some gunplay (to be honest, a little bit more of it than I had originally intended) and I've been cranking my brains for weeks trying to figure out how to shoot it. You see, there are three items that are almost essential to shooting a gunplay scene that is compelling and convincing by early 21st century standards:

1. blank bullets
2. the special guns used to fire blanks (you could use real guns if you wanted, but they often jam when loaded with blanks)
3. squibs (the small explosive devices that are attached to actors' bodies and blow up to simulate bullet hits)

We don't have access to any of these things. They're hard to get ahold of in Nigeria... If you've seen Nollywood flicks, you'll notice that the guns obviously never really fire during action scenes. Someone points a gun and the only thing indication you get that it's been fired is the small, tinny crack sound effect that sounds like a cap gun and then cut to the shot person falling down with ketchup on the front of his shirt. And even in the States it's not exactly as if you can just walk into Wal-Mart and buy boxes full of squibs and blanks (You can. of course, buy a high-powered crossbow there). And even if I could buy them, how the hell do I transport them? It's not like I can carry a load of low-impact explosives onto the plane... Not in today's America. Also, you can get seriously hurt messing around with these things, so you never want to employ them without a certified professional on set monitoring the proceedings.

We ain't got access to no certified professional. So what do we do?

The first part of the solution was to create non-explosive squibs that are powered by compressed air rather than by volatile chemical substances.

The second part of the solution was to design a series of shots that - when combined with persuasive sound effects - effectively create the illusion of guns being fired without ever directly showing it (I haven't been able to shoot any test footage to gauge exactly how effective these shots will be on screen, but they sure do work on the storyboards).

The remaining problem was the fact that there's only so many times you can cut away from the gunshot without it starting to look cheesy. Sooner or later you are going to have to at least show a muzzle flash and direct shots (if not the actual bullet paths, as has become common post-Matrix).

I've toyed with so many ideas... From rigging gun blasts using consumer fireworks to simulating muzzle flash with a camera flash(!) but it just hit me this afternoon: Why not just animate them in post-production with After Effects?

DUH! It's so friggin' obvious I'm embarrassed I never thought about it... Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure that most Hollywood and even HK films do it that way these days anyway.

Yeah, I feel really stupid now. What can I say? I'm not a self-taught filmmaker... I'm a self-teaching filmmaker, and everyday is a school day.

(Again, I wonder whether it's right for me to be making posts like this because it draws attention to the limitations of our production. I would prefer for you all to watch the film for yourselves without having to think about how these effects and illusions were achieved, but these are the processes that go into making a film like this.)

Otherwise, today was fairly productive. I had an interesting chat with my assistant Robbie (yeah, I do kinda have an assistant) about costumes and she gave me some notes on how to tighten up a certain aspect of the script. I liked her ideas, but I'm a bit scared to implement them because Denis is likely to manually eviscerate me if I even try to rewrite the script again. In any case, Robbie's idea doesn't require actual rewriting... Just re-ordering of a few scenes.

I bought a bunch of supplies today, including two big suitcases, so I can finally start packing. I realized that I have almost no clothes, especially clothes suited to a tropical climate. I very well might travel without any clothes because all the other shit I need to carry is taking up all the space. I'm supposed to ship some of it separately and I'm trying to get that done on Monday, but frankly, shipping ain't cheap and my money is running low. I'm thinking I might be better off just loading it into my checked baggage and paying the excess baggage charges. The issue now is how to pack this stuff without it all breaking into pieces... Especially the bulbs I need to carry.

(Remind me later to talk about how never to use 500W photo floods in light fixtures that were not designed to support them... I learned the hard way that they catch fire)

Mostly, I found myself making decisions about which areas to which I should channel the little available funds I have left: Do I invest in more lights? Should I use the money to ship the stuff I've already got? Do I get a new hard drive for my laptop so I can upload footage faster? Maybe I should upgrade my eyeglasses prescription (which I haven't done in, like, two years) so that I can be sure that I'm actually seeing the picture on the screen properly?

Ultimately, I'm kinda satisfied with most of the decisions I made today, but I'm still a bit frustrated because I feel like my opinions and concerns are not being taken seriously and my attempts to find solutions to these challenges by, you know, talking about them are being dismissed as whining.

But hey, that's life.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Cleaning out my desk this morning...

Funny feeling, kinda.

I've worked here six and a half years, which I suppose is an eternity in today's highly mobile economy. (Man! More than half a decade!)

Ha, I just remembered that the day I first came here I thought “Alright… This is a good place to work for maybe two years while I get my head together.”

Six and a half years later…

I guess it really is for the best that I move on, regardless of how things turn out with TOO MUCH BEAUTIFUL WOMAN because if I don’t, I’m gonna just sit here and rot.

I just found an old newspaper article at the bottom of one of my desk drawers… It’s an article my mother sent me about two weeks before I started working here, about how the new technology of digital video was going to revolutionize independent filmmaking.

(Remind me later to talk a little bit about how fucking awesome my mom is and how aggressively supportive my parents have been of my artistic path – something that is almost unheard of among Nigerians. Even back in Nigeria when I was studying Law because I thought that would make them happy, my mom stayed pestering me about this Cinematography program at USC and how there’s this new young Black filmmaker named John Singleton that I need to check out before she basically threw me on the plane and forced me to come to America and pursue my dreams. Sometimes I almost feel like I let my folks down by becoming just another drone in the corporate America machine, really.)

By that time I had kinda put away my cinematic ambitions and was writing a novel and was in the advanced stages of planning a Black men’s magazine that was a cross between GQ and Playboy (This was years before KING and SMOOTH and even before Maxim and FHM and the other British “lad mags” invaded America… Believe me, I’m still kicking myself for not following through on that!) I felt that getting a regular 9-to-5 would help out and keep me focused.

Six and a half years later….

Oh well… It’s been an interesting time. I learned a lot of cool things, met a lot of cool people, and it’s an interesting conversation starter when you tell people that you spent six and a half years editing dictionaries.

Time to move on.

(So move, homie!)

That reminds me: I haven't even started packing. I mean, I don't even have a suitcase.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

So I spent last night slathering my body in vegetable oil

"But Uchenna," I hear you ask. "Don't you do that maybe three to four nights a week anyway?"

Yeah, but this time it was for artistic purposes. I was trying to get my Thierry Le Gouès on.

I certainly didn't achieve the effect I was reaching for, but I think I'm getting closer to it. Properly lighting black skin is a challenge that even the best photographers have grappled with for ages, and it's even more formidable when you're dealing with the harsh glare of video. What I'm working on doing is embracing the shortcomings of video rather than fighting them, trying to utilize them for artistic effect.

(I should categorically state at this point that I am not attempting to replicate M. Le Gouès’s stunning work – as if I had either the budget or the expertise to do so even if I wanted to! – I’m just borrowing some of his ideas about how to approach areas of light and dark when photographing black skin. So don’t regard me as a loser when you see the finished product and it looks nothing like Soul; regard me as a loser because I spend hours anointing my flabby flesh with cooking oil and photographing myself.)

Actually, I question the wisdom of making “behind the process” posts like this because

a) I think it would be better for you all to make your own impressions when you finally see the finished work

b) I might end up showing my ass if the finished work falls short of my ambitions

c) I don’t think anybody really fucking cares about this shit

But this is the stuff I do, this is the stuff I think about, and I figured that it was somewhat important to document it in some way. Robert Rodriguez always says one of the keys to low/no-budget filmmaking is pre-visualization. You don't have the time or the money to monkey about on set trying to decide what you want to shoot so you have to have the image clearly envisioned in your head, get to the set and force that image into reality.

(This is why I'm so attached to the idea of storyboarding. Denis, being European-trained in contrast to my mostly American sensibility, thinks storyboards are kinda silly and prefers the shot list. Either way, you've got to know beforehand what shots you need to get in order to tell your story. This doesn't rule out openness to the wonderful developments that often present themselves on set spontaneously, of course. Take advantage of them. But for the love of Astra, prepare your important shots in advance!)

The need for pre-visualization increases tenfold, I think, when you are shooting in the so-called "Third World" where a lot of the materials you might need are not always available. Not easily accessible, anyway. You've got to try to predict what you are going to need, what could go wrong, and find a way to fix the problem before it happens.

So when I'm not shopping for equipment, my nights are mostly occupied with engineering these creative solutions, whether they involve lighting, special effects, costumes, makeup or what have you.

But I kinda worry that my concentration on creative logistics is detracting a bit from some of the time I should be spending on basic administrative issues. Formally, I'm the writer/director in this partnership and Denis and Koko are the producers. But in fact we're all producing, we're all directing, we're all... Well, I wrote the script by myself, though they both gave me some pretty insightful guidance.

I’ve slacked a little on my production tip... I mean, taking care of piddly little matters like properly filing my articles of corporation and even on shipping some of the equipment I don’t want to carry on the plane with me, and I feel a bit guilty about that. But to be honest, part of it is because I’m so cheap I’m constantly looking for low-cost means of getting stuff done, and that doesn’t always translate to the fastest or most efficient means.

Actually, it’s not just that I’m cheap for cheap’s sake. My preproduction fund has been running low and I haven’t even finished acquiring all the stuff on my list, so I had to stall a little bit until I got another paycheck and called in a few debts. But yeah, I’m back on track now… I aborted my low-budget incorporation scheme and just shelled out for the deluxe treatment. Comb & Razor is now officially an “Inc.” (tax benefits, boyeeee!) (now I just need to get a logo).

Alright… This is my second to last day at work. I better get some done!