The Griot is a tragic romance drama that follows the journeys of two friends, Sanmi and Lakunle. Lakunle is a smart yet timid weaver who feeds his audacious and assuming friend, Sanmi with stories that helps him gain popularity in the village as a gifted storyteller. The story then takes a swivel when Lakunle falls helplessly in love with the village belle, Tiwa and employs Sanmi to help him express his longings but Sanmi grows jealous and starts to desire Tiwa for himself.
On the need to engage the fresh and emerging voices in the burgeoning Nollywood industry, Cheesemonger catches up with co-writer and co-star, Temilolu Fosudo (an actor, screenwriter and playwright based in Ibadan, Oyo state) in an interview where he discusses the creation of the original story for The Griot, his growing sensibilities as a writer and the benefits of creative collaborations.
This conversation has been edited for length & clarity.
Mr Temi, you are welcome to the Cheesemonger.
Thank you very much.
Congratulations again on the recent success of your new film, The Griot.
Thank you very much.
So, let us get right into it.
Do you remember the first script you wrote?
Ever in my life?
Ever. Either for stage or for screen.
Yes, the first play I wrote is titled Beyond the Oracle. It was just before I got into the university. What was peculiar about it was the poor research that went to it. It was set in a Yoruba village, in the past. I was writing about the gods and at that time, I didn’t know much about the Yoruba cosmology so I was just assigning different attributes to different gods. The most important thing for me at that time was telling a story. So I gave it to my dad and he gave me notes. He printed it out, wrote my name on it and made it look like I had achieved something great. I held that manuscript for the first time and it felt good. “Beyond the Oracle written by Temiloluwa Fosudo” sounded just about right.
When I got into the University of Ibadan, I made some of my friends read the play – Chris Ikechi Anyanya, ‘Chukwu Martin, Nike Bennet, who was a 300 Level playwriting student at the time, were the first to have contact with the play. The play would later be performed and that is how I became a playwright.
What year was this?
That was 2010. It was directed by Nike Bennett.
Wow, interesting. So it has been an upward spiral ever since, right?
Yes, absolutely. A year later, I wrote my second play, Another Episode of Trauma. And then I won my first award as a writer in the department of Theatre Arts, University of Ibadan. Since then, it has been upward mobility and I thank God.
Great, great. Let’s go into The Griot.
You were attributed as the creator of the original story, the writer of the script, and you also co-starred in the film. I remember in an interview where you talked about your interest in social issues. But here in The Griot, you tackled more intimate themes like love, friendship and betrayal. How well did your personal experience influence this choice to tell a story like The Griot?
My inclination to tell stories that revolve around social issues is a training you get when you study theatre as a playwright. You are conditioned and directed to always want to tell stories that speak about the society, especially in a country like Nigeria.
When you look at our predecessors in the playwriting craft, most of them wrote plays that tackled the ills in society. Growing under their wings, you are inclined to write that way too. However, when you begin to grow individually and begin to find your voice as a writer, you find yourself becoming interested in other things as a result of your personality. I started to grow more interested in personal & interpersonal issues, especially ones that revolve around the family. I believe that to change a society, it is better to start from the individual. So, about writing personal stories versus social issues. I try to keep a balance. It’s usually one influencing the other.
One of the things that I find peculiar about myself as a writer is that something about my life is always embedded in my stories somehow. And I have noticed that most of my stories usually have two male characters representing two aspects of myself.
I am a shy person, you see. I usually just want to be in my confined space and enjoy my creativity, not really concerned about being popular. Then, there is the other part that, you know, wants to let people in, let them into your boisterous mind, into your world of creativity.
You’d find these two personalities in Sanmi and Lakunle and it spots the light on a sharp contrast between the two characters that represent an internal dilemma of mine. Not a lot people know this about the writing of the film.
Interesting! Well they know now.
Haha. Yes. Yes. And of course, the love triangle in The Griot. I don’t think I have ever been in that situation… Oh wait, actually I have been. I was in this love triangle where the other guy was a bit crazy, weird and very obsessed about the girl and you can find traces of that in Sanmi. Sometimes your life just subconsciously fits into your stories, so that’s there.
You mentioned that the internal dilemma was extrapolated from your experiences into these two distinct characters and I assume that also influenced the character design. You played the co-lead. Did it affect your writing routine? Did you know you were going to play the lead?
Oh no, I didn’t know.
Oh, really, you didn’t know?
I had no idea, absolutely no idea.
How did that happen?
I was in close communication with the production throughout the whole pre-production process. They brought me in, as much as they could. It’s always important to be on that journey with the creator of the idea, especially through the pre-production stage.
So the script was ready, and the producers were casting. They had done auditions but they weren’t satisfied with the options they had. So, the producer, Goodness Emmanuel, who has been my friend since University, spoke to me about the challenge. And while we were brainstorming, trying to look for solutions, I blurted out “Come, shey I no go just act the role like this? This one wey we dey find actor. I sabi act, make I act abeg.” And she was like yes! Why not?
I am not a “known face” but she was ready to take that chance which I really appreciate. Then she spoke to her partner and I had to send in some samples of what I had done to also convince him.
Wow, that’s amazing. Now, let’s go to your co-writer because you shared the screenplay credit with Dapo Badmus. I enjoyed the tonal consistency in the film, something so lacking in mainstream Nollywood. I understand how laborious it can be when there are multiple writers, bouncing ideas and different perspectives. So what was the experience with the co-writer, how did you both merge your ideas to write this film?
We didn’t have the opportunity to bounce ideas off each other. We never spoke, we never met, nothing like that. There is a story to it as well. So, Goodness and Captain Degzy (her partner) wanted to produce a film but they weren’t satisfied with the stories they had gotten, so she called me. I already had a script so I sent it and she said it’s good but not what they were looking for. They wanted a traditional story that was set in the village so that they could explore music, costumes and all that. So, I had to create a new story. That’s when I had to put on my “Lakunle” cap and I came up with The Griot. She thought it was perfect and asked how long it would take to write. I didn’t know how serious they were about producing it so out of respect I asked them to give someone else to write it. They hired Dapo to write it. He sent his first draft but they weren’t satisfied and I can understand why. Sometimes, it can be very difficult to really capture someone else’s story. So Goodness called me and said, “Temi, you need to write it. The screenplay is not like what you gave us in the story.” So I took the draft and rewrote the work.
Yes. There were certain ideas that Dapo brought into it that were brilliant but there was a lot of surgery done to it. Degzy, Goodness & myself continued to work on it and immediately I sent in the final draft, they liked it. Kudos to Dapo, however, because normally, as a writer, your first draft is not going to be your best. So it doesn’t mean that his first draft not being what they wanted makes him a bad writer. It is very difficult for the first draft to live up to the idea, building it makes it only better.
How do you create complex characters? Let’s take Sanmi’s character as an example. Sanmi experiences the most significant change in the story. He moved from prominence to condemnation and the eventual catharsis that we saw at the end. How do you create complex characters like that as a writer?
Yes, generally, when I write – stories, characters- I like to steep them in reality. It doesn’t matter what I get to work on, research is important. Research helps me create these complex, three-dimensional characters. One thing I always try to ensure is that my character changes through the journey of the story. I know there are stories with characters that don’t change but I like mine to change. I like my character to go through an arc and change at the end and we see that in Sanmi’s journey and even Lakunle too.
Research also helps with believability. A believable character is one people can identify with. Strengths, flaws and fears are universal and that’s how you can get the audience to buy into the story. The task for me as I approach every story is to create characters that are interesting and yet very believable. Sometimes, writers sacrifice believability for interest and I get it but real characters and real situations are ready portals into whatever world you have created as a writer.
After seeing the film, did you think Lakunle’s character was too loosely developed? I have friends who are under the impression that the character is too passive for one that suffers the greatest loss. What was your impression of him after seeing the film?
I liked it. Yes, he is a passive character, in a way. There are moments where he does things that are out of character so I don’t think he’s completely passive. There was a moment where he went to fight his friend, which was out of character for him. I like to make my characters spontaneous. Yes, they have their archetypes and profiles but they must have the room to act out of character because that’s how people are in real life. It’s also part of my belief in characters changing and growing across a story. I don’t have an issue with passive characters. In fact, I like them.
I suppose there’s an affinity because of my personality trait that just wants to hide and not want people to bother me. Those kinds of characters fascinate me, which is why one of my favourite films is Manchester by the Sea.
A beautiful film.
Beautiful film where the character is very passive. Sometimes it feels like he’s not even alive. He floats throughout the whole film yet he carries so much power. That is a passive character that works so, yes, it is possible to lead with a passive character.
Good argument. Is there a particular routine you have when you write?
I am a “routine-less” person. I can wake up at 2am and start writing after not writing all day. I also like to write in odd places. I like to write on my phone. Or at a party which is why, sometimes, I just withdraw into myself. It’s funny how you just get inspired. When I’m writing, I’m always keyed into that story so much that I’m very conscious about everything I’m doing and experiencing throughout the process of writing because they all add to the story. I am always present in my story.
In a podcast I listened to, they said there are two broad types of writers. It said, there are the gardeners and the architects. The Gardeners take time to develop the story. To develop the world, the character before they sit down in front of their laptop or their paper and just start to outline, but the Architects on the other hand they know structure from the get go. Like this is how I want the story to be, everything has been mapped out already. They know the opening scene, they know the closing scene, they know the scenes in the middle. So, writers fall on either side of the spectrum.
Yeah. That’s a fantastic way to group writers.
So now, the last question and I saved this for last because it caused an uproar. The ending of the film has been described as anticlimactic by some people. Some say it feels like an afterthought. That the writer was too eager to avoid a happy ending. So, let’s hear it from you. What happened? Is this what you planned?
I am going to “cast” my Producer. That was not what I planned as the writer. However, Producers think very differently from writers. One thing I know is that producers want conversations and a splash of controversy to trail their production. Talking points are great for films. Whether you like it or not, that ending has inspired a lot of conversations. There are some people that liked it. I have seen comments where they appreciated it because life can be like that sometimes. As a writer, as you work the story from beginning to end and you try to ensure a consistent tone. Endings are powerful parts of films and it’s right that they are consistent in tone with what had been established. But sometimes things change. Naturally, the story is supposed to end where Sanmi was banished. That’s the natural ending that went with the tone that has been set. However, the ogas at the top didn’t want a happy ending, so I was asked to add a tragic end. So I gave them what they wanted.
I watched the film and I understood the sentiments everyone was having about the film being anticlimactic and everything. So, I looked deeper to make an excuse for the writer, that even if this was an afterthought or something that was imposed, I asked myself, does it serve the story? Is it consistent with the character? And fair enough, it was. This guy has always presented himself as a sore loser and that moment was cathartic, I mean he had experienced the greatest shame, he was banished just to get back at this guy who was his friend, so I understand the sentiments. Watching this film reminded me of Cyrano, a 2021 musical. A very brilliant film. There was a slight similarity in the love structures between The Griot and Cyrano. What made Cyrano more endearing at the end was that the tone had been introduced already from the beginning. The love interest lost both guys at the end. That changing tone at the end of The Griot was very drastic, aside from the conversations, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I have seen it twice now. And I don’t watch things twice. Thank you very much Mr Temi.
Thank you very much.
Thank you for the beautiful work and we hope to get more from you moving forward.
Yes, I have a feature film in the post-production phase called Memories that Never Existed, an art-house film that tells a story that is quite personal to me in certain ways. It was shot in black and white with some techniques and principles of slow cinema. I conceived of the idea and I am still directing it. It was shot by my good friends and collegaues Taiwo Egunjobi and Fadamana Okwong. My sister also features in the film. So let’s look forward to the finished product.
Bonus question. How did the Netflix thing make you feel as a writer? Did it make you feel accomplished?
At the risk of sounding boastful, I feel accomplished every day I wake up in the morning. I’m not trying to be clever; it is just the fact. I wake up in the morning and I have an idea I’m working on. I’m either writing a play, working on a film or sharing ideas with my friends. I always feel accomplished everyday. My job as a storyteller is special and I’m proud of that. You know I spoke about my first play, how it was performed in my second year in the University and a lot of my senior colleagues were in that play, and I have always felt gratitude. I have always been well received to be honest, by my friends and colleagues. I have performed a lot of plays in Ibadan. Every time I start a story and finish it, I feel accomplished.
And I wish you more success in the future. Thank you so much for doing this, it was a great time.
Thank you very much.