Here’s $1 Million. Now Make Your Movie.
NEW YORK — One evening this month, Faraday Okoro was sitting in a sound studio in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York, putting the final touches on his first feature film. Onscreen, one of the main characters had just picked up a beaded necklace, and Okoro, leaning back into his chair with a can of seltzer in his hand, was questioning whether the rattle of the beads could be heard clearly enough. In front of him, a sound engineer pressed pause, punched a series of commands into a keyboard, and played the scene again. The beads were louder.Posted — Updated
NEW YORK — One evening this month, Faraday Okoro was sitting in a sound studio in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York, putting the final touches on his first feature film. Onscreen, one of the main characters had just picked up a beaded necklace, and Okoro, leaning back into his chair with a can of seltzer in his hand, was questioning whether the rattle of the beads could be heard clearly enough. In front of him, a sound engineer pressed pause, punched a series of commands into a keyboard, and played the scene again. The beads were louder.
“I think it’s good,” he said softly, and sipped from the can.
Okoro, 31, was impressively calm. He had just days before the film needed to be finished, a milestone that would mark the end of a year of life-changing turbulence, one that began in spring 2017, at a luncheon where he learned that he’d won $1 million.
At the time, Okoro had directed only short films. A graduate student at New York University, he was among five finalists for an award being given by AT&T, the Tribeca Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Institute to a promising young filmmaker, with a focus on underrepresented perspectives. After a game-show-like pitch-off that Okoro prepared for, in part, by recording himself delivering a 10-minute presentation and repeatedly playing it back through headphones, he won the transformative grant. His thesis project would have a million-dollar budget. But the money came with pressure.
“It’s much different than winning the lottery,” he said this month, “because I still had to make the movie for it to mean anything. And I could really feel that.”
Besides, there were strings attached. One requirement was that the film, which at that point had been written but not yet fully cast, had to be finished within a year, in time to have its premiere at this year’s festival. And the nature of Okoro’s project posed an additional challenge: He would be shooting in Lagos, Nigeria, far from their New York support systems. It would not be easy.
The film, “Nigerian Prince,” follows a Nigerian-American high schooler, Eze (Antonio J. Bell), whose mother sends him to live with his aunt (played by Nigerian actress Tina Mba) in Lagos. There, Eze befriends his cousin, Pius (Chinaza Uche), a professional scammer who sends phishing emails, among other deceitful business pursuits.
Okoro wrote the story with Andrew Long, a fellow Howard University alumnus. As they developed the script, they were guided by director Spike Lee, who mentored Okoro at NYU. (Lee is also an executive producer of the film.)
The project was long-gestating. “This is classic Faraday,” said Sheldon Chau, the film’s cinematographer. “He comes up to me and he asks me, ‘Sheldon, what are you doing summer 2017?’ This is in 2014. And I was like, ‘I think I’m free.’ And he was like, ‘Well, that’s when I want to do my feature.'” The plot is based in part on Okoro’s own life. A Nigerian-American raised in Maryland, Okoro was sent to live with his extended family in Lagos for his first two years of high school, in the early 2000s.
Like his character, Eze, he reluctantly left his friends and home. “I definitely resented it,” he said.
He eventually learned to appreciate the new culture; one of his hopes is that the film will resonate with other young Nigerian-Americans who have felt disconnected from their roots.
But shooting a movie in the West African city brought a host of unforeseen challenges.
“We shot during the end of the rainy season,” said Okoro, who was familiar with the region’s climate but hadn’t bargained for all the difficulty it would present in filming. “There were some days where we’d go to set at 6 a.m., and it’d rain at 6:30 and flood.”
The week before filming began, the crew arrived to a space meant to double as a police station on-screen, but it, too, was flooded. They didn’t end up using that location, though not because of the flooding; as at several other sites, the owner decided at the last minute that despite a signed contract, filming would no longer be allowed there. With little leverage and less time, Okoro and his team went searching for an alternative.
In addition to the frequent rains and notoriously unreliable power, they ran up against the city’s heavy traffic, which the director described as “like L.A. times five or 10.”
Okoro and his team did have assistance. Several of his collaborators were peers from NYU. To help them navigate, they hired artists from the prosperous Nigerian film industry, known as Nollywood. Most of the crew members were Nigerian, and the American heads of creative departments were paired with Nigerian artists.
“It just became apparent that all the departments needed a partner to show us the proper way to do things,” said Ari Fulton, the costume designer who met Okoro at NYU.
For Fulton, the assistance came from Olaogun Opeyemi, a Nigerian costume designer and the film’s costume supervisor, who helped make nuanced choices. One example is a red hat worn by Pius, the cousin, that’s an adaptation of an Igbo cap. Opeyemi helped fill out the history of the cap, which younger Nigerians have adapted for more casual use.
Another learning experience was realizing that despite the size of the budget, financial decisions still had to be carefully considered.
“The million dollars just flies,” said Chau, the cinematographer. He described the days after winning the grant, when he and Okoro would fantasize about using elaborate film gear. But they quickly realized that they were being unrealistic; after all, their budget, while several times higher than the $150,000 or $200,000 they’d initially hoped to shoot the movie for, was still modest for a feature film.
“We went back to pretty much our initial approach,” Chau said. “It was a humbling experience.” Still, Chau also noted that while Okoro was the ostensible winner, the money had a trickle-down effect, bolstering the professional portfolios of his young collaborators.
“The profiles of all of us came up,” Chau said.
The pressure trickled down, too.
“If someone hands you a million dollars, they expect you to turn out an amazing product,” Fulton observed. “It’s a huge thing to carry on your shoulders.”
Okoro has carried it for a year.
The morning after the film was finished — the sound mixed, the color corrected — less than two weeks before the film’s premiere this coming Tuesday, the director was standing in a Tribeca restaurant where this year’s award finalists were scheduled to pitch their films.
After exchanging greetings with two of the new judges, the actor Griffin Dunne and the comedian Ilana Glazer, Okoro took a seat, waiting for the new finalists to appear.
On the floor at his feet sat a hard plastic carrying case he’d brought with him. Inside it was a computer drive with the copy of “Nigerian Prince” that will be used for the Tribeca screenings. The film was finally ready, and Okoro would not let it out of his sight.
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