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Joshua Ojo Shares Insights on Upcoming Wole Soyinka Biopic

The Nigerian filmmaker opens up about the challenges, creative process behind depicting literary icon’s life on screen.
May 6, 2024
7:57 am
Wole Soyinka
Wole Soyinka

Nigerian filmmaker Joshua Ojo is gearing up to bring the life story of Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka to the big screen in an upcoming biopic.


In an exclusive interview with The Nollywood Reporter, Ojo discussed the driving forces behind this ambitious project and the obstacles he faced in capturing the iconic writer’s multifaceted journey.


While casting details and a release date for the biopic remain under wraps, Ojo shed light on the extensive research and preparation that went into authentically depicting Soyinka’s life, from recreating settings like Kirikiri prison to guiding actors in embodying the literary giant’s persona.


Ojo also revealed the personal challenges he overcame during filming, including a near-tragic accident that left him wheelchair-bound for months but didn’t deter his determination to complete the project.


In the candid interview with the TNR team, the filmmaker opened up about the significance of bringing Soyinka’s story to global audiences, especially for younger generations unfamiliar with the depth of the Nobel laureate’s legacy.


Joshua Ojo
Joshua Ojo

TNR: What was the driving force behind your decision to bring Wole Soyinka’s life story to the big screen?

Joshua Ojo: I realized that we often don’t give our heroes their due recognition and celebration, which was the driving force behind the idea of creating a biopic on Wole Soyinka. The whole idea is to celebrate him.


With such a rich and multifaceted life, how did you determine which aspects of Soyinka’s journey to prioritize in the biopic?

I tried as much as possible to touch on everything, starting from his childhood. I really tried to cover every part of his story, so you should expect both the few things you know about him and the things you don’t know in the film.


Can you share some insights into the casting process and how you guided the actors in embodying the various facets of Soyinka’s personality and life?

Casting the actors was pretty difficult. I wasn’t particularly concerned about actors who would make the film sell; I was particular about actors who looked 70-80% like the real characters. It took me a while to find actors who resembled them, and when I eventually did, I had to provide videos and real footage, which I shared with the actors to watch each of the real-life personas. They had to digest the way they moved, talked, and carried themselves. We did that for weeks before we started filming.


Soyinka - Courtesy TIME Life
Soyinka – Courtesy TIME Life

Given Soyinka’s status as a living legend, did you feel a sense of added responsibility or pressure in bringing his story to the screen?

That’s a very good question, and I’ll be sincere. Yes, it all started when I received a call that I could meet with him. I thought I would just have a conversation with him and bounce out, but the moment I stepped into his office and sat right in front of him, I was extremely nervous. When I eventually got the go-ahead to make the film, it was a huge task. I wrote the script myself, and I tried as much as possible to read it over and over again to be sure it was worth telling. I was pretty nervous but, at the end, I can boldly say that we did a good job despite the nervousness and anxiety.


What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during the filming process, and how did you overcome them?

Two days before the shoot, I’m asthmatic, so I went to a pharmacy just a few buildings away from the hotel where the actors and crew were already prepping for the shoot the next day. I bought my inhaler and drugs and, on my way back to the hotel, a guy came from nowhere and said he had issues with his brakes. I didn’t see his car coming, so he hit me from behind. For some seconds, the car was still dragging me on the road, and when it eventually stopped, I was already under the car. I guess people told him he had hit someone, so he reversed to check, and that’s when he crushed my leg again.


At that moment, I didn’t even remember about the talents I had lodged in about 20 rooms in the hotel, and I couldn’t even pick up my phone to call them. The guy zoomed off, and I was just there, crippled and unable to move. I think I passed out at some point, and I woke up when someone was trying to steal my phone, and the stuff I had bought, including the inhaler and drugs, was already stolen.


I was just there, and I saw people recording me and taking pictures, but they didn’t help. So, I ordered a ride, and the first Uber guy came, saw my condition – my leg was five times bigger than its original size – so he zoomed off and ended the ride. I ordered another one, and somehow, out of pity, he helped me, and we rushed to UCH in Ibadan. I was examined, and they told me that I had to move to the emergency ward. I thought they would just give me injections and drugs that would straighten my leg; I didn’t know it was that bad.


Soyinka - Courtesy City Press
Soyinka – Courtesy City Press

I had this machine connected to my body just to ensure I didn’t have any internal bleeding or damage. Meanwhile, it still didn’t occur to me to call anyone at the hotel; I just wanted to be fine. When the X-ray came out, I was told that if I didn’t go for emergency surgery, they would cut off the leg. That’s when I knew it was that bad, and I had to pay millions for the surgery, which was actually part of the budget for the film.


Then, an hour before the surgery, that’s when I remembered that I had managers, P.A., and talents at the hotel. That’s when I started making calls and messages, and they came around. I told them to go, which they did, and some stayed back. I did the surgery, and it was successful. I had over 20 metals pierced into my right leg, and I was told that for a whole year, I wouldn’t be able to walk.


So, I was supposed to stay at the hospital for eight months and, a few days after the surgery, someone informed me that there’s another film about Wole Soyinka coming out. I thought if I stayed back at the hospital and the movie came out before mine, people would probably assume that I copied the other person’s idea. So, I did something unthinkable. I was still taking several injections every day, and I couldn’t walk. I was on the bed for weeks, and that’s when I bought my wheelchair and called my production manager. I told him that we needed to start shooting the film, and he said I was out of my mind because I couldn’t do that with my present condition. But I said I wanted to shoot and, of course, I gave him reasons we had to get back on set just to make sure we shot it first because I wanted to believe we came up with the idea first.


That’s how we started filming; so, it was a bit sad that I went back to the location to shoot a story I loved so much, and I was on a wheelchair. They would carry me; put me in the ambulance on standby, and when we got to the set, a few guys would lift me and put me on the wheelchair as I couldn’t walk. That’s how I filmed for about three months. I would shoot, go back to the hospital, spend three to four days, get injections, get my treatment, go back to the location, shoot for about two days, go back to the hospital again for treatment. So that was my routine for three months. Thankfully, I’m okay now.


How do you hope this biopic will contribute to preserving and honoring Soyinka’s enduring legacy, especially for younger generations?

There are a lot of people, especially the Gen Zs, who might only know that he is a writer and probably just go online and Google stuff about him. So, I feel that telling his untold story is going to enlighten not only the old generation but also the new one, and it’s going to educate them to know more about him, the things he has done, the sacrifices he has made. Aside from celebrating him, it’s going to unravel a whole lot, and I feel it’s going to educate people basically.


As a filmmaker, what does it mean to you personally to bring the story of such an iconic Nigerian figure to the global stage?

I haven’t been active for a while; I’ve been doing other stuff aside from filmmaking for the past four years. My last production was “Efunsetan Aniwura,” and Wole Soyinka is like a huge comeback for me. It means everything to me. Aside from making a huge statement with my comeback, I’m excited that I chose this, and he also gave me the go-ahead. It’s really huge for me.


Wole Soyinka - Courtesy NYT
Wole Soyinka – Courtesy NYT

Can you walk us through the process of gaining Professor Soyinka’s trust and cooperation for this ambitious project?

It took me about six months to track him down, as we all know, Soyinka is a busy person. When I eventually got a yes to see him, I was pretty excited. To be honest, we did our research by reading books that he suggested and advised that I read. I did my own personal research and more background checks. When I did, I discovered that to enact those locations to depict the era, I decided to build about 70% of the locations.


So, we got a space where we built the Kirikiri prison, and I didn’t just build the prison with my imagination. I went there, I took a few pictures just to be sure of how and what it looks like, and I was also able to convince one of my friends who is a police officer there to put me in one of the cells that I would like to feel what prisoners feel, what they talk about, how they react to one another, how they sleep and all that, mainly to capture everything. So I was taken to one of the cells, and I was there for a day, and this helped me build my own Kirikiri prison set. It also helped me direct the actors on how they should react, how to drag food, basically how prisoners behave. I literally told them the way I saw it.


After making the set, I had the accident I mentioned earlier, and by the time I came back, it rained heavily, so the Kirikiri prison and some of the major sets I built got crushed. So I had to rebuild another set. It was quite challenging but, nonetheless, I’m excited because once the movie comes out, the audience will see something different. We built Soyinka’s house; I heard how the living room was, so I decided to reenact it, including the bedroom and some other locations.


Wole Soyinka and Joshua Ojo
Wole Soyinka and Joshua Ojo

Biopics often take creative liberties for dramatic effect. Were there any artistic liberties you had to take, and how did you strike a balance between storytelling and factual accuracy?

For me, when it comes to biopics, it’s part of filmmaking. Sometimes filmmakers run away from it because of accuracy concerns around costumes, set designs, locations, and everything needing to be accurate. For me, it’s a part of filmmaking that needs to be guarded.


Talking about creativity and all that, yes, I did take some creative liberties, but I didn’t spice it up with unactual things, especially due to the fact that it had to do with Wole Soyinka. I tried as much as possible to shoot the story the way it is told. I didn’t add or remove; I just played around with the material we had. If it had to do with different types of films, one can be artistic but, for a biopic of an African giant, you have to be careful. You can be artistic and do it wrongly, and that might disappoint the subject. Yes, I was creative, but I also tried to stay along the line.


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