Amaka Igwe encouraged me to go into directing —Nollywood star Tope Oshin Ogun
By all standards, Tope Oshin Ogun is a bundle of talents. She is at home with acting, directing, producing, casting and so much more. Her ingenuity can be found in such soar-away works like Tinsel, A Journey to Self, The Young Smoker and several others. The CEO of Sunbow Productions Ltd. tells BABATUNDE SULAIMAN her inspiring story in the nation’s movie industry, among other riveting issues.
I understand your parents are pastors; so, how has your background impacted on your lifestyle today?
Basically, I grew up in a Christian home and I was raised as a Christian girl with proper morals and ethics. By and large, anyone raised from a religious home, whether his or her parents are Christians or not, will naturally grow up with the proper morals, ethics, decency and the fear of God, which I have today. As the Bible says, “Train up your child in the way he should go and when he grows up, he will not depart from it.” So, I have been trained well and my life, to a large extent even as a professional, follows the ethics and my upbringing.
While growing up, what did you see yourself doing later in life?
As a child, I did a lot of drawing, singing and dancing. Sometimes, I designed clothes on papers. So, basically, I engaged in artistic things. But if at that point in time, there was something that I wanted to be and someone had asked me, I would have said I wanted to be an artist or a painter because that was what I spent most of my free time doing. If I had my way or if life was automatic, I probably would have ended up as a painter.
What was the attraction in painting then?
It is just that every human being is born with a gift and a talent. So, it is a talent I had growing up. I just found that I loved to draw and play with paint. I tried to paint pictures and I tried to paint what was within my imagination or what was in my environment. So, I felt that I would love to do more of it as an adult.
But you eventually studied Theatre Arts at the Lagos State University (LASU), Ojo. But was that what you really wanted to study?
No! My initial course of study was Economics at the University of Ilorin, Kwara State. But I left the University after a while to return to Lagos. When I got to Lagos, I wanted to study Public Administration at the Lagos State University. But then, I thought of Theatre Arts and I felt that it sounds interesting and is probably about Literature. So, I got in for it and discovered a whole bigger world than Literature. I found that there was performance and other things into it. Somehow, I got into it and got interested, and the rest is history now.
Why did you abandon your course of study at the University of Ilorin?
I had to return to Lagos because, at a time, my parents wanted us to come back to Lagos.
But, as you said, you still wanted to do Public Administration. So, do you see fate at work in all of this?
Well, I see God’s hand at work and where He has destined for me to be. As I tell a lot of people, every human being is born with a gift and a skill. Above all things you learnt or studied, it is that gift that God has given to you that will most easily get you the fastest success or get you to be a star, so to speak. So, one way or the other, my life found its way back to the artistic talent that God gave me. In secondary school, I wanted to be an art student. But somehow, I had to compromise and became a commercial student; hence, I felt that whatever I was going to study had to be commercial like Economics, Accounting etc. But one way or the other, by the stroke of fate as you called it, I found my way back in the arts and that is why I am here today.
You were the best graduating student in your class at LASU. How were you able to achieve that feat?
By studying hard, striving to be the best at whatever I do and by being diligent. I like to challenge myself in whatever I set my heart to do and make sure that I achieve some sort of excellence in whatever it is I am doing. I seek to know it to whatever extent it is. So, maybe that was the reason because it was a shock to me as well. But for my own personal satisfaction, I just like to fully explore whatever I lay my hand upon to do.
So, did you have any social life while you were on the campus?
Well, theatre is all about entertainment. So, all of my social life was probably made up of the plays we had within the Department or any musical stuff we did. I have never been much into clubbing or things like that. So, my focus basically then was on my academics and now on my job.
Could it be because of your background that you were never interested in partying or clubbing?
I wasn’t raised to over-socialise, attend parties or be all about town. We were pretty much given training to be focused and be serious with whatever we are doing and to know that life is not all a big party and that there are serious things going on in the world, which you should be part of. People are making marks in the world, while some people are partying. So, I have chosen to make a mark in the world than to socialise.
Are you an introvert?
If you would call it so, but I like my company. I am a focused person. Even within my life as a filmmaker, I do not like to follow the norms. My films, I mean the ones that are my personal projects, have serious themes and deal with the situations and problems in our society today. I am not all for entertainment for entertainment sake. But I like to speak a message and say something to someone out there. And if I can inspire or change someone’s life, I believe that is what the world is about and that is primarily what my career is about as a filmmaker.
Professionally, how long have you been in the industry?
About 17 years.
Since you started out as an actor, how did the transition occur from acting to directing and producing?
My early years were spent as an actor. In the course of my career, I got to meet older colleagues who, after discussing with them, made me understand what directing is all about and they actually made me to understand that I had some of the traits which would be useful as a director and things like that. So, things like that got me thinking.
And then, I got to a particular point, where I wanted to do a whole lot more than I was doing. I wanted to make decisions and carry my own message rather than interpret other people’s messages. This also got me to be really interested in directing. So, I started doing personal study on my own. Of course, we took courses in directing in school, but I didn’t particularly pay a lot of attention at that point in time.
So, at this point, I did some personal research on my own, read books, took online courses, studied movies and all of that. I did a whole lot to basically understand what it was all about and to know if it was something I would be interested in. So, it got me sufficiently interested. Therefore, I sought to make my intention known within the industry and I started speaking with directors I had worked with while I was acting. I asked to intern and to watch them when they were working and they allowed me to come unto their sets. So, I learnt from watching and being their assistant director. Then, I got to start working on a couple of commercials. Eventually, I worked on a lot of commercials as Assistant Director. I also got into casting, reality shows and things like that. By and by, I started directing on my own. Then, I got to work on Tinsel and other projects followed.
Who were the directors you spoke with at that time?
I spoke with Amaechi Obi, Farouk Lasaki, Ruke Amata, Austin Awolonu, Amaka Igwe, Femi Odugbemi and a host of others like that. Those are the ones who played a prominent part in helping me, teaching me, showing me the ropes, encouraging me, giving me tips as well as a launch pad in which to practise.
Could you recall your meeting with Amaka Agwe?
She was actually the one I spoke of who told me that I should become a director. She was the first person that sold the seed of directing in me. There was a movie she was producing at the time, which she was to direct and I was cast for the lead role. We had a script conference to discuss the story of the movie.
At the end of the discussion, she asked me to wait. She then said, “I have been watching you through the discussion” and I said, ‘Ma.’ She also said, “Have you ever thought of directing?” and I said, ‘directing?’ She said, “Yes” and I said ‘No’. She then said, “You should be a director” and I said, ‘Why will you think I should be a director?’ She said, ‘Well, I have listened to how you discussed. You seem to be interested in all that is happening in the whole movie and not just your role. You have sufficient interest in all the departments and everything that makes up a movie, which is a trait that every director should have.” She said she knew a lot of directors who did not even care about these things that I cared about. She said she was very confident of the fact that I would make a good director and that I should think about it. She said I could come to her for assistance, training or whatever when I was ready.
So, I said I would think about it. And at a point, I didn’t think much of it. But the seed would come to grow a few years later when I started to give it a serious thought. After that, we got to become really close. She would call me up and I would turn up; and then, we would talk back and forth and all of that. She was one of the most excited people when she discovered that I was actually picking up on her suggestion. So, she played a very important role in what I am doing today.
What does it take to be a good director?
I will basically say that, to be a good director, you need to know a lot about every other person’s job. Just as the name entails, you are a director, so you direct everything that is going on, on the set. Whatever production it is you are executing has to come from your brain. It is a vision. Beyond what is written in the script, you are the one who gives it the interpretation; you are the one who will instruct each department based on what you are seeing in your head- like the location you want and the kind of clothes you want them to wear, among others. You need to be able to communicate to each department what is in your head.
So, you have to be able to direct all these departments together to create a movie or production, according to what you are seeing in your head. For instance, that is why you will find, either at the end of the production or in the beginning, the title of the movie and a film by Tope Oshin Ogun or a Tope Oshin Ogun film.This is because it is borne out of your imagination and then you put it together into a physical product that everybody can see.
What was the first job you did as a director?
The Apprentice Africa was my first job as a director, even though my official title on the show was Assistant Director. Due to the workload on the show as at that time, you found that the assistant directors had to also get into directing because we had just two directors and about four assistant directors who eventually had to start directing because we had, I think, 24 contestants and we had to follow each one of them about with the cameras and all of that. So, that kind of thrust me into hand-on directing, so to say, at a point in time. So, it was my first direct contact with directing a camera or directing people or lighting or whatever it is. Later, I shot an experimental short film. Afterwards, I got unto Mnet’s Tinsel as a director, underwent a couple of training, including multi-cam training, single-cam training and professional workshops; and then, I got unto the show as a full director. And from then, I did other jobs as well.
What have you learnt to do better now as a director?
Over time, I have learnt not to compromise on details because you find that, especially with creative works, you need to do a lot of preparations; and if you don’t give it as much preparation before you get into shoot, you will always suffer for it at the end. This is because whatever work you shoot leaves with you forever; it is there and people can see it forever. So, when you have the time to prepare, take your time, do the pre-production and make sure everything is in place before you start shooting; otherwise, you will always suffer for it. So, I have learnt that pre-production is key and attention to fine details is key as well.
You work in a male-dominated environment, so how do you fare?
For me, as with everything in the world, you demand what you want, you decide what you want and then you seek what you want. I basically identify what it is I want at every point in time and I just go and get it; so, I don’t wait for anyone to hand me down respect, hand me a space or work etc.; so, I operate within this male-dominated industry just as one of the boys. I am just a director and I am just doing my work just as you are doing your work. Invariably, I don’t strive to be a good female director, but I strive to be a good director or one of the best directors, irrespective of gender, within the industry.
Have you had any experience whereby any of the A-list actors gave you a problem on set as some of them are said to be sometimes impossible?
Personally, I haven’t experienced such misbehavior by an A-list actor on my set. I have worked with a couple of them. On New Horrisons, I worked with four A-list actresses (Rita Dominic, Funke Akindele, Uche Jombo and Kate Kenshaw) and I didn’t have such behavior directed at me. What I have experienced is mutual respect and that is what I expect. I respect you as a professional and respect is reciprocal.
But if it happens that someone proves to be difficult on set, how will you handle such a situation?
I wouldn’t have cast such a person. That is why, to a very large extent, I cast the actors of most of the things I work on myself. So, I would have had a first contact with them. Then, it is a relatively small industry; so, to a very large extent, you will know the problematic ones and the ones who are disciplined.
Could that be one of the reasons you set up a casting agency?
It wasn’t one of the reasons. Casting is also what I found that I was very interested in. Growing up as a professional in the film industry, I found that I had an eye for knowing good talents and being able to identify good talents, which I found is a rare skill. Not everybody is able to tell, from an audition room, if someone has what it takes to be in a role. So, I felt it was something that I needed to pursue and then set up an agency; and till date, we have been able to act as a casting agency for a couple of big productions that we have in the country so far.
Can you mention some of them?
Shuga Season 3 by MTV Base and I work on Tinsel for a lot of years also because I was a director; so, I was able to contribute to the casting decisions a lot of time. We have acted as casting agency for EbonyLife TV- we have cast most of their shows, including the one that ran recently, Ojoos in the House, and for two other ones that have not yet been produced. We also generated the cast for Taste of Love, a telenovela.
Which of your jobs has given you the greatest joy so far?
That will be Tinsel
Tinsel has come to be the mark for high quality TV production in all of Africa; it has attained the kind of production quality that most of our TV contents have not been able to attain or are just attaining right now; so, it is definitely a production for anyone who has worked on it to be proud of because it has set its own mark. It is distinct and I am proud to have worked on it and contributed my creativity and quota to it for the period I worked on it.
Did your husband write your movies, The Young smoker and Till Death Do us Part?
Yes, he did.
Do you engage him to write your script for you?
Sometimes, yes. Then, there are some that he has written that I found and I asked to produce and direct them.
So, it is a blessing of sorts being married to a scriptwriter?
Definitely, it is a blessing.
Did you consider that before you got married?
I wasn’t a director before I got married, so it wouldn’t have been a consideration.
But you were already an actress when you got married in 2002?
So, which other work has he written for you?
Several! You mentioned The Young Smoker and Till Death Do Us Part. There are two other films that we wrote for clients. As you know, he created Tinsel and there are other feature projects that are coming up.
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