July 11, 2020

Film Rats Club

Let's Talk Movies

Screenwriting with Kehinde Joseph

Mr. Kehinde Joseph is a foremost screenwriter and teacher. Some of the films he’s penned include Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Falling, Kiss N Tell, Bling Lagosians and Merry men. Amongst other recognitions and awards, he got nominated for the Achievement in Screenplay category of the African Movie Academy Awards. The film rats club recently got a chance to talk screenwriting with him.

Read below an abridged version of the conversation:

ISAAC: This is the Film Rats club and what we do, majorly, is “talk” about  film. Our intention is to grow film literacy and encourage film criticism.

MR KENNY: Great. Checked out your stuff

ISAAC:  We have had our eyes on you for quite some time. It’s a huge honour to have you here. So let’s start from the very beginning.

(But Mr Kenny would interject and say)

MR KENNY: May I ask the first question?

ISAAC: Sure

MR KENNY: Why ‘Film Rats’?

Isaac gives a witty explanation about the history of the term, read on to find out.

ISAAC: Why screenwriting?  Is this something you have always wanted to do right from time? Or, like most of us, a departure from a very different initial plan happened?

MR KENNY: It started with Richard Donner’s Superman. I came to Nigeria as a 7 year old when my dad was retired.

ISAAC: Oh, I see. You returned early. What informed the decision to come back to Nigeria? Did you consider remaining in Europe to pursue a career?

MR KENNY; As a kid in Europe (my dad was a diplomat), I grew up in a house of film lovers. Every evening, we’d gather round the TV like it was a campfire and watch classics of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s (Ford, Howard Hawks, Sergio Leone, Kubrick, silent movies, Dance musicals, et al). But my older sisters took my twin sis and I to go watch a showing of Superman in the early 80’s and I was hooked. I loved Christopher Reeves as superman and wanted to be him. After that, movies like Raiders of the lost Ark, E.T, The Goonies, Back to the Future and Beverly Hills Cops cemented and somewhat pre-decided my future in film.

Of course, I thought I was going to be a lawyer, and then a journalist, and then a diplomat – even at one point, a novelist (Ben Okri’s The Famished Road made me start to scribble one) but ultimately, it dawned on me in 1995 that I could never be happy being anything but a storyteller for film. And, true story, I wanted to come in as an actor. Somehow, I dodged that lane (read: bullet) and I’m now a writer.

ISAAC: How has screenwriting in Nigeria been for you so far? Can you give a summary of the journey to where you are, right now?

MR KENNY: To be honest, It’s been a great journey. I was a radio presenter for 9 years but throughout that period, I used to consume movie scripts like how Fela did igbo. Chris Ihidero and a few other guys (Tope Oshin, Kunle Dada, including) had a show on the station, & afterwards, Chris and I would talk for hours. He later got a job with Amaka Igwe and invited me for a workshop with her. She was looking for a team of writers and 15 or so of us showed up (most of them now big names in film and other media, including – God rest her soul – Tosin Bucknor). After a week of training, we submitted our screenplays and I was the only writer picked. I wrote for her for a few years and at the same time, my client base gradually swole. I don’t earn what I want but I’m paid a tidy sum. It pays my princess’ fees, keeps the lights on, keeps madam and my sidechick happy.  Of course, this being Naija, it can and must get better.

The Bling Lagosians

ISAAC: Do you still retain that burning fervor for the craft? Or has Nigeria dampened it?

MR KENNY: Not for a freaking second. This year alone (2019), I’ve spent more than a 100k on books and webinars. I’m addicted to learning & have a childlike wonder about my work. I read screenplays, watch movies and discuss with great minds. I belong to online screenwriting fora with great screenwriters and consume so much knowledge. Of course, our industry occassionally gives one cause to be disheartened but by and large, I’m still as stoked today as the kid who saw Superman and wanted to make movies.

Artistically, I’ve had zero satisfaction. Due respects to everyone I’ve worked with (and considering their own limitations too) but no one has interpreted what I wrote the way I imagined it. None. Again though, I’ve never written a great screenplay. I’ve written the best I can given the limitations I have – little time, barely any research, etc. All said, I’m grateful for the journey thus far. It gets better every day and I never stop dreaming. Nollywood has never been closer to co-production opportunities with Hollywood. I’ve been in interesting meetings in the last few weeks. Things are happening.

ISAAC: This is amazing. Questions about the fora to come later. By the way, with that side-chic joke, you deserve to be in the next Alakada movie.

MR KENNY gives a hearty “lol”

ISAAC: I appreciate the honesty about the nil artistic satisfaction. Why this guff between what you pen and what eventually gets displayed on screen? Can you propound any reasons? Are your ideas too advanced for Nigerian directors/producers/actors? Are they flat out antithetical? Care to explain this dissonance?

MR KENNY: Your script can never find its potentials in the hands of a director (and her team) who are artistically/creatively beneath the material. Since film is an assembly line of sorts, the final product is only as good as each sum that ultimately makes the whole. If one stage is low – Costume Design, Wardrobe, Lights – the overall quality drops. So, here I am listening to podcasts, absorbing video tutorials and watching films. Is everyone else in the team stacking up knowledge (and therefore power) in their individual departments?

Are my ideas too advanced? Nah. I write what clients give me. I will produce my original material next year (2020) but so far, I work with clients’ stories.

ISAAC: I agree totally. You can’t always count on other members of the team stacking up knowledge.  Sometimes people with very different ideologies about what cinema is are forced to work together, and they must. It’s the reality.

MR KENNY:  There’s a knowledge gap in Nollywood. A huge one.

Robert McKee, Story

ISAAC:  What is your writing process? A lot of screenwriting books and manuals reiterate the importance of expending the most mental effort in the ideation phase of writing. Robert McKee comes to mind here. He believes most bad stories are what they are because ideation and the early stages of creation (non-typing phases, he calls it) were flawed. Also we have heard talk about the importance of outlining, developing treatments, working on log lines, creating beat sheets and so on. What is your approach to writing? Do you have a ritual? Like, say, hanging upside down from a ramp for twenty minutes every fifteen minutes? Please share.

MR KENNY: Hanging upside down the ramp works. Blood from your rectum flows to the brain and triggers the imagination cortex. In fact, I’m chatting upside down.

At this point, we get a few laughs from the excited Rats, all eager to engage the guest but can’t for now. Our eloquent guest continues.

MR KENNY: Why does Hollywood spend months on DEVELOPMENT? To feel out the Concept for all its cinematic worth. Themes, Plot lines, Character journeys or/and Arcs. That’s what we don’t do here because it takes time and lots of money.

My process is to outline first. I throw in everything and the kitchen sink: snippets of dialogue, character descriptions, POV’s, etc. I can end up with anything from 9 to 15 pages and afterwards, streamline and write. I research on the go. When I can’t think, I read scripts, watch films or disturb my wife. Sadly, 90% of my filmed materials are first drafts. Lately, I’ve begun to conference my ideas. I love conferences. People of differing world views, life stances, genders and perspectives shape the material. I have a conference dream-team that I love to work with.

ISAAC: You are right.  Development (hell) takes time and money. First drafts getting shot is risky but it is what it is over here.

MR KENNY: Sometimes, I have to go write. Interestingly, most of what I’ve done last and this year are rewrites. For those, I try to get the client’s vision and go straight to script.

ISAAC: Moving on, have you had problems with credits, IP wars and so on?

MR KENNY: IP Wars/Credit issues? Funny, no. One of my Yankee friends in the WGA is presently in a Credit Arbitration battle. It’s not funny at all.

ISAAC: I can imagine. I actually wrote a short film for a fellow rat about this credit/IP warring issue this year. Got released months ago to favourable acclaim. Could send you a link.

MR KENNY: Great. Love to check it out.

ISAAC: For your original ideas, where do they come from? Stephen King famously said in a book (On Writing, I think) that most of his ideas come from the newspaper (the odd news column to be precise). Kevin Bork (a more recent thought leader in the screenwriting field) talks about taking walks and becoming one with nature. Where is Anthony Kehinde Joseph’s secret portal of ideas located? And what do you do with the ideas immediately they come?

MR KENNY: Stephen (On Writing is a gem) and Bork’s (The Idea is a must have) sources are my sources too. And life generally – personal and shared experiences, crime and society section of news, bizzare stories, other films and novels, overheard conversations and many times, a client with good money saying “We need a story fast”. I hunker down with the time-tested ‘What if’ exercise to generate loglines that can create stories with legs

ISAAC:  Bork’s ‘The Idea” is a gem. My book of the year, to be honest. The ‘What if’ approach works every time. You are spot on. Let’s talk about character.  What is a great character to you? What is the most important aspect, to you, in the building of a great character?  Do we have enough memorable characters in Nollywood? What can screen writers (and other filmmakers in general) improve when it comes to character development and interpretation?

MR KENNY: How long is a piece of string? To be honest, I don’t really know the answer to that question anymore. When I started out, I had the rote laundry list of properties a Character’s supposed to have. But with increased learning and exposure (very important), I’m less rigid about it. What I strive for is to create Characters that are memorable. Once, I was at Ramsey Noah’s house about a script I wrote for him, and he was on his feet half the time, quoting the Character he was playing and acting out moments. Hollywood advises that we write Actor Bait – Characters Actors would give an arm to play. I try to do that.

Also, the genre requires different types. You don’t write an extensive backstory for the Merry Men. The story is about ‘what they do’ (plot), not ‘who they are’ (Character). Generally though, a Character with interesting dimensions and a complex POV is my favourite. I loved The Joker. His backstory and motivations were root-deep in clinical psychology. Do we have great Characters here? To a degree, yes. Baba Sala, Zebrudaya, Fadeyi Oloro, Aki and Paw and even Mr. Ibu – hate or like them – have become iconic here. 2015, in SA, I was astonished by how an SA crowd mobbed our Asaba greats when we poured out of the plane. Where we have failed is that these Characters are rarely in good stories.

ISAAC: I suppose the new LIB movie was filled with actor baits.  Ramsey is said to have killed his role.

MR KENNY: Funny, it was the Swanky J guy I liked. But we’re not here for my review. I’m not liable for what I’ve said here. The Vodka I’m sipping got the better of my senses. Next question.

Once again the house explodes in excitement.

ISAAC: What should Nollywood be doing right now to improve screenwriting as a craft? Are the existing guilds working? What do you think?

MR KENNY: I have read the scripts of Nollywood’s greatest (in dubious air quotes) screenwriters. I have also read those of the emerging generation – yours. We have a problem. Big one. Our problem isn’t absence of talent, we have that here in spades. It’s the absence of a ‘burning passion to learn’. Writers here – that I know – rarely evolve.

So, the first task of the Nigerian screenwriter (and creative) is to ‘build himself’ and ‘evolve herself’ from level now to next. Aaron Sorkin wrote A Few Good Men in 1990 & won an Oscar in 2011. He got and gets better. Spielberg did Jaws in 1976 & is still one of the sharpest movie minds till today as well as the biggest producer in the world. Need I mention Scorcese?

Dear Screenwriter, build yourself daily. Read scripts, know everything about your genre, tell us stories we’ve never seen (or at least how we’ve never seen them). Clients largely loved my scripts, that’s why I have a career.

People called me after the release of Mokalik to trash Tunde Babalola (here, it gives us joy to pull down greats to make us feel better about ourselves) for the screenplay. Here’s the thing though, Tunde – on the page – is better than all his detractors I know. I’ve read him enough to know that his screenplay work is one of Nollywood’s best. Of course, that doesn’t make him a genius. No one here is. None of us in Nollywood, in my informed (not humble), opinion makes great films. We’re all trying. A great film will be great in India, Los Angeles, Siberia and Wakanda. For now, the best of us are local champions. We won’t stop striving to cross the bridge

At this point our interviewer heaves a “Sigh!” while our guest strikes on.  

MR KENNY: Do you want me to be honest?

ISAAC: (he’s up to the task) Brutally sir. We’d pummel you if you do otherwise.

MR KENNY: The guilds need members so all the writers here should try join SWGN. But Isaac, you’re in the guild and have seen some of the discussion topics – Questions ln formatting, story, structure!!! Those are starter questions, so back to my first point: let’s build ourselves continually. Your generation is blessed. The internet, more work opportunities, more access to knowledge and learning, social media networking. What is lacking is passion. Without it, you can’t have a career. I taught at Royal Arts Academy for 9 years and I’m no stranger to a lack of passion to learn, even – oddly – with learners who paid for an education.

ISAAC: I must admit most of us young writers aren’t very passionate about learning. Or maybe we are but we just can’t exercise that passion.  I think the fact that the craft has become some sort of hustle (where the more you write, the money you make, kinda like gathering nuts like chipmunks ) has made learning secondary. Writers would rather chase clients, pen down flawed specs than go to IMDB scripts and read or download the great movies to watch. I once told a friend that our generation of writers are not as good as we think we are. The friend flipped out, claiming the statement was condescending and ageist.  I asked him when last he read a script. He went mum. I asked if he has seen any Hitchcock movie, he called it boring, old stuff.

MR KENNY: Hitchcock? Old, boring.

(Let us please observe a moment silence for our dear misguided friend.)

MR KENNY:  If Scorcese and Tarantino have taught us anything, it’s that having a broad knowledge of film is crucial. Films from the past and films from across the world.

ISAAC: Very correct

MR KENNY: About young writers and money though…Money is irresistible seduction for artists. Many times, it ruins us. Other times, it enhances our craft. The masters, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Giotto, what made them flourish? Vatican money, the treasury of the Medici Brothers and patronage by Florentine aristocrats.

ISAAC: You have a point. Money is simply a tool. How it turns out is up to the vessel. Let’s talk a bit of dialogue. After this, I have just three snappy questions left and then we move on to general questions from other members. What’s your approach to writing dialogue. Are you of Noah Baumbach’s school of thought (where his characters speak very naturally like real life human beings with a lot of fragmentations, dawdling and so on) or you are a Sorkin man (dialogue like music)? Or you are an amalgam? Or like David Mamet, you have conceived your own novel technique.

MR KENNY: At the beginning, I loved staccato dialogue inspired by quips from the early films I watched (Howard Hawks film – specially His Girl Friday – Westerns, High School) but the people who had the most influence on my dialogue are David E Kelley, Aaron Sorkin, Joss Whedon (for repartees, ripostes and quick wit), Whity Stillman (the undisputed champ of interesting conversations), Tarantino (for references), Charlie Kaufman and the Coen Brothers (for odd-ball and off-the-wall humor) and Nora Ephron (just because of When Harry met Sally). I have only seen Frances Ha from Baumbach and loved it. On your recommendation, I’ll dive into he and his wife’s work (Ladybird afterall had his sameness).

Dialogue, really, depends on the story. If you’re writing fast-paced action, you want quick talk with witty oners, if you’re writing a drama, you want mumble core stuff like Baumbach’s material.

ISAAC: McKee actually suggested in his book, Dialogue, that screenwriters should consume plays voraciously to improve dialogue. No one, according to him, writes dialogue like writers of plays.

MR KENNY:  I learn dialogue from loads of books. Shakespeare does wordplay like no one. Hope you guys are voracious readers. There’s a new guy you should check out. Ayad Akhtar.  Read Chekov, Tenessee, Wilde, Becket and even modern masters like Martin McDonaugh (whose plays, In Bruges and Billboards On Ebbing were made into films). Aaron Sorkin and David Mamet (a high lord of great dialogue) came from theater. Even here, Ola Rotimi & Osofisan are gurus of witty exchange

Merry men

ISAAC: So, last, question, you recently wrote Bling Lagosians and Merry men. Can you compare and contrast the working experience of both projects?

MR KENNY: AY and BAP (Bolanle Austen Peters) are one and the safe where passion and ambition are concerned. They’re easily excited and give you the onus to write without dumbing down for budget reasons. AY though is all about selling. Watching him talk about marketing is a masterclass in salesmanship. He’s deceptively brilliant. He jokes and jokes but gets things done.

First meeting for Merry Men, he said “Dem dey always talk say my films na skit. Now, I wan try do story”. He is highly self-aware of his deficiencies as a filmmaker but his ambition is boundless, & covers his knowledge gap. BAP is more introspective and theme-driven: she wants to affect hearts and provoke conversation. They both pay really well.

ISAAC: We shall request a tithe, sir, to celebrate the workings of the lord. Are you working on new stuff currently? How is it going?

MR KENNY: (gives a tongue out, which we won’t accept as tithe) I’ve written new scripts for both AY and BAP. I’m writing for a top Nigerian musician at the moment and I’m in various stages of development on other people’s work.

Having waited this long, Rats come out their holes as our moderator opens the session for questions. But as time beats us, we can’t get to read all.

RAT 1: How do you handle negative comments or criticism from producers or directors on a screenplay you have been commissioned to write? Especially when their comments come from a place of ignorance?

MR KENNY: Producers know me. I used to be argumentative but later I listen. To be fair, and I only speak the truth here, I have received very little negative criticism for my work (from producers. But from critics of films I’ve written, different story). What irks me are suggestions that go against time-tested story conventions or genre. Usually, what I do, is I’ll make reference to film after film to prove that I stand on high ground. Sometimes, they give in. Many times, they don’t.  Your response stems from your personality, & me, I’m a bit chill. One day, I’ll stop writing for anyone. For now, I’m building a network and relationships. Dealing with story-illiteracy from producers is part of the price we pay. What can we do? Bear with them till we can make our movies with our own cash.

ISAAC: Can you quickly drop a list of “must read” screenplays.? Ten, if possible, thanks.

MR KENNY: In no particular order. West Wing Pilot, 12 Angry Men, When Harry Met Sally (For dialogue-centric stories), Lethal Weapon by Shane Black, Aliens by Walter Hill. For *STYLE*, the former has a fun way of breaking the 4th wall between screenplay and reader, the latter is world famous for his haiku style. You must (there are no musts o) master it for Word Economy in your storytelling. State of Play by Matthew Michael Carnahan (for great plotting and complex characters.) Carnahan, and his brother, Joe, also do great dialogue. The Dark Knight by the Nolans and David Goyer (for Tension, Reversals, High Suspense, Surprises (basically, all the guns in the Plotting arsenal). Silence of the Lambs (many drafts are out there, read ’em all. And in fact, everything by Hitchcock you can lay your hands on) for mastery of Suspense and Mystery. You have to master the deployment of story information in a way that keeps readers turning the next page, eager to know what’s next. That’s what these guys teach you. A Quiet Place by Scott Beck, La-La-Land by Damien Chazelle (For great visual storytelling. The first has super-minimal dialogue, helping writers focus on Action and Description.) Both screenplays are also rich in World-Building and Atmosphere.

ISAAC: I believe we have come to the end of the session. Looking forward to your productions.

MR KENNY: Thank you very much Isaac and the rest of your cinematic rodents. Kudos to you all and hope to see your great films on the small, big and mobile screens.