How Editi Effiong delivered a global hit with 'The Black Book' [Exclusive]
What does it take to make a movie loved across the globe? The writer, director, and on-set producer tells us.
His love for words stuck with him as he grew up and got into university, where he picked up coding and design. After a brief foray into the oil and product manager world, he returned to his first love by launching a digital marketing agency, Anakle, which eventually took him back to where it all started: writing for the big screen.
A feature and short film later, Effiong set out to make his directorial feature-length debut with his ambitious project yet, The Black Book, with a $1 million+ budget, making the movie Nollywood's biggest production so far. Despite the COVID outbreak that affected him personally and other setbacks, the movie got made with a talented cast and crew from six different countries.
After getting acquired by Netflix, the world finally got to see Effiong's mystery and crime thriller on September 22, 2023. One week later, The Black Book is currently a global hit and the biggest film out of Nigeria on the streaming platform ever.
Co-written by Bukunmi Ajakiye, produced by Lala Akindoju, and shot by Yinka Edward with sets designed by the recently deceased Pat Nebo, the million-dollar film follows the story of a father who takes the law into his hands after his son is framed and murdered for kidnapping. The movie, which also explores Nigeria's history of drug trafficking, stars a blend of old and new Nollywood, including Richard Mofe-Damijo, Ade Laoye, Sam Dede, Alex Usifo Omiagbo, Shaffy Bello, Ikechukwu Onunaku, Denola Grey, and Boki Ofodile.
In this exclusive interview with Pulse, Effiong shares his formula for making a believable Nigerian action film, the joys and challenges that come with making that the 'most logistically advanced adventure' the industry has ever seen, and more.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
From writing novels to famous ads
What I do remember growing up is that my dad had a master's degree in English and had a shitload of books. My house looked like a library. I would just disappear and just read. I read the entire African Writers Series before I was 12 years old. By the time I turned 10, I had started writing; the more I read, the more I wrote. I would write simple essays. It's why I scored As in English the entire time. When I was 14 going on 15, I wrote myself a 300-page novel as my birthday present. It was called 'A Mile From Life'. My siblings read it, and the thing that was obvious to them was that I wrote this thing for the screen, not to be read, because it was very vivid; they could see everything they were reading. I wrote the 'Perfect Scar' next. I wrote a lot.
Time went by, I picked up computers along the way and taught myself to use computers, write code, and design. I started a design company when I was 17 and did that until I was 23. I spent time at Exon Mobil for a bit because I had written oil spill response software at the university. Then one day, I decided this was not what I wanted to do because oil was boring. I picked up a job as a product manager, which I did for two years before I left to start Anakle. Advertising was fun. I combined my technology and marketing background to help brands tell stories in a way that they didn't. We locked in on notoriety as the agency that was infamous for building the most viral campaigns in the country. I have done a lot, and everything brings you here.
Diving into Nollywood
In 2015, I started travelling the country because Nigeria was so divided post-election. I travelled the north, and the experience that stuck with me was in Zamfara, where we ran out of water and went to an old woman’s house to ask for water, and she gave us not just water but food too. She was very poor; it could have been the only food she had, and I came away from that experience thinking people are just people, people are good and bad, and they want the same thing you want. What I didn’t expect to see was how beautiful it was. It was gorgeous, and I felt like I had to show this to the world. We from the south don't get to see the north, and vice versa.
So, I started writing the draft of Up North. It became the biggest film Nollywood had done in terms of scale at the time. The biggest set ever shot in Nollywood was the Durbar. There were a bunch of things I would liked to do but I didn't direct the movie so it wasn't my vision. It was my dream but not my vision. I invited Inkblot to help make Up North and they invited me to come in other productions. Then I got a call from the US Justice Department to tell a story about counterfeiting. I had a story sitting in my head — Fishbone, I just sat down and wrote it. It took me about 30 minutes. I sent it to them, they loved it and that was it. That was my first directing a film. Shortly after Fishbone was done, I thought I wanted to do a feature.
Daring to dream big
I remember speaking to my friend about the feature I wanted to do called The Black Book. It was always called that. I suck at titles and naming things, but that was the name that came to me—a man searching for justice after his son is killed. I developed the story and then called Bukunmi Ajakiye to work with me on the script. The further we went with the script, the more I realised that there was a certain level of scale and quality that I wanted in the story, and it kept evolving. We got to the second act and then decided that the third act that we had wasn’t good enough; it wasn’t big enough for the story we had built in the first and second acts. We said, 'Let's take a step back from this story, give it a week or two, and come up with new ideas'. We were going downstairs when it occurred to me. So, I was like, 'Bunmi, we have the story'. She asked, 'What do you mean?' I replied, 'What is the title of the movie? Right there, that's your third act. The Black Book, we create a literal Black Book'. That's how we created the story. I worked with Bunmi through the first draft. I wrote the second, third, fourth and fifth drafts. I did two script editing workshops. I remember the first editor saw a market scene we planned to do in Balogun and asked how we planned to execute it. I said, 'I am going to build the market'. The editor said, 'No, you can not. You are going to need like 100 extras. Did you even think about the production while writing?' I answered, 'Yeah, I thought about it and I know exactly how I am going to do it'. She was so upset about that that she quit. But I knew I was going to do it. The second script editor was Jade Osiberu. It was my first time working with her on anything and it was good.
After that workshop, I tried to get a producer, but they dropped out so that's how I got to work with Lala Akindoju, she came on board seven months ahead of the project. She came in May, we shot in January. I had already started speaking with RMD and other actors that I wanted in March. I had a nice wish list and we got 90% of the people we wanted. It was unbelievable. The people I knew, I reached out to, the ones I didn't know, I asked friends for contact or Lala would know. I wanted a nice mix of veterans and young stars. I don't know how we did it. We had a wishlist and God gave us all the toys. It took about two years from story to set, it took four months to shoot and then it took about a year and a half in post-production.
Building the world of 'The Black Book'
The Balogun market scene ended up being one of the easiest. Tarkwa Bay was the hardest. It was a logistics nightmare, we transported over 100 crew and cast. We locked every hotel and accommodation on Tarkwa Bay. We had to bring our equipment trucks on the water. The army gave us approval to come but the Navy and army were fighting. So because the army was bringing us, the navy didn't let us dock. I had to make friends with the guys from the navy and then everything was good. We landed and set up because we had to set up the light exterior scene, the interior of that scene had already been shot in the studio. But we had a COVID outbreak so we had to shut down the set for 10 days, which messed up the schedule that had been set for the actors. The ADs hadn’t informed them of the new date so they weren't available. We had done all the hardcore logistics, and then I turned around and my actors were nowhere to be found. Apapa was crazy because to shoot at the seaport we had to have levels and levels of approval. Then, they had a covid outbreak so we had to wait a month to be able to shoot. So, we had to shoot in Lagos, go to Kaduna then come back to Lagos.
One of the easiest was Lekki, where we shot the traffic scene. We built our own so we could control all of that. That was a really good day. The worst day was easily day 48 in Kaduna, we were supposed to have a very expensively assembled set-up. The props for that day were at least ₦3 million, 100 guns, trucks and stuff. We were supposed to do live explosions. All the explosions were done on set, they were practical. That day, the explosion failed. And I felt like a failure that day. It was my worst day, I couldn't even go home that day. I sat quietly by a lake. The next day we assembled it and it worked. Actually, the next day was our best day on set. Usually, we would shoot two or three pages, this day, we had 13 sets to shoot and we shot all of them. It felt really good. I remember finishing that scene and running around like a banshee. That was a really good day.
I surrounded myself with people who knew exactly what they were doing. They were professionals, which is why I had Yinka Edward, who is the best that there is. I had my ideas but I wanted to be sure that those were the right ideas. We had a crew from six different countries. Of course, 90% are from Nigeria and we are very proud of that. We can't talk about The Black Book without talking about Pat Nebo. Everything that you see in the film that is not human is production design. We built 38 sets throughout the film and every single one of them looks amazing. He built everything from scratch.
Creating the look and feel of the movie
We had a colour palate. For Lagos, we established darkness with the colour scheme. As the film progresses, the colour changes. I also wanted the costume to look a certain way; the bad guys needed to wear dark colours, while the good guys wore happier colours. For the skin treatment, I didn’t want us to have a situation where we have excessive makeup. We got cameras and lenses from Panavision in the UK. The quality of equipment that we had was right up there.
For the characters, Paul Edima always had to wear outfits that were two sizes up, and they had to be grey because we had to take power from him and reduce him to an ordinary person. Remember, he has lost weight and done all this work, so if he wore short sleeves, you would not have been able to convince someone that he is an ordinary pastor or deacon in a small village. He was always tucked in with shirts two sizes up, and instead of boots, he wore sandals. Almost everywhere Paul exists has grey walls, so he would be painted into those walls and doesn't appear powerful. His clothes start shrinking, and he starts wearing short sleeves as he reverts to the past.
With Vic, her hair was flaming red in the first scene, but as the story progresses, the colour of the red becomes more muted, her outfits are no longer as bright, her jewellery is no longer big and shouting, and her character becomes muted as she becomes less naive.
The secret to an authentic Nigerian action movie
We had to defer at all times to authenticity and simplicity. It needed to be a very simple story that anyone could identify with. We had to create a world that was believable yet fantastical. So, it is that authenticity that makes you believe that a Nigerian film is an action film. We have chase scenes that are not high-octane. It is literally a Volkswagen truck followed by a police truck and then a pickup truck with armed men sitting in it. It's not like flying off a bridge. Not that kind of action.
Our action had to be grounded and rooted in the environments that we shoot them. It's a story that is deeply rooted in humanity in Nigeria. It's not a story about heroes, in Nigeria, we don't have big heroes, every silver lining has a dark cloud, every nice person out there doing things has a secret, and every star was formed out of darkness. I wanted to write a story without heroes, where everyone comes out wondering who was good or bad. It's a story where some people are worse than others. The line I want everyone to leave with is that 'silence is the enemy.'
I am shooting that in January. I can't tell you the title. If you think you are excited about this, just know it's an amazing story.
The Black Book is currently streaming on Netflix.
Watch the trailer
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