Mr. Chico John Meziakpono Ejiro enjoys one of the most popular names in Nollywood. Reputed to have directed the highest number of movies in the industry, it was when he started doing that on a weekly basis that he got dubbed Mister Prolific. At his Grandtouch Pictures’ Bank Olemoh, Surulere, Lagos office on Tuesday, March 17, 2015, the Isoko, Delta State born father of four granted YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE, what could rightly pass for an explosive interview. From why most actresses fail in marriage to how they harass film makers with sex, the way out of the woods for Nollywood to the secrets of his success, everything was duly attended to during the encounter– and we are so very happy to share them with you…
What makes a good movie director?
What makes a good movie director? (Laughs). To me, I will say there are some factors. No. 1, your ability to study the script you are going to make into a movie; ability to know your actors in terms of how they will deliver their lines, what you want from them and your ability to tell a story, to interpret it into a very good picture so that when they watch it, it’s educative and it’s informative. A director is like a coach. I will give examples with Arsenal and Chelsea. In Chelsea, you have Abrahamovic, who is the chief executive officer; Mourinho is the director. So, the blame falls on Mourinho, the blame falls on the director. If you make a very bad picture, they will say that useless director, he cannot even direct his characters properly. But if you make a good movie like 30 Days in Atlanta, the producer, the director, the actors, everybody takes the glory. That’s my own interpretation of who a director is.
What makes a good actor?
Ah! What makes a good actor? A lot of factors make a good actor. To me, at times when you say a good actor, a good musician, my own interpretation is different. Some people can act, they can deliver their lines, the audience will go along with them. I will give you an example – some people may see Don Jazzy and say he can’t sing, but to some people, he’s the best. Some people will watch Nkem Owoh and say ah, he cannot just act, but to some people, it’s not so. Most of our mothers, they can die for Mama G, Patience Ozokwor. So, you see…
(Interruption) – But you, as a director, what would you say makes a good actor?
For me, he has to be able to interpret his script, be able to deliver his lines properly and at the end of the day I can feel the actor.
You’ve worked with hundreds of actors and directors in your career as a director. Who is the best actor that you have worked with and why?
I don’t want to say the person, but I will just mention like three names, both boys and girls. One of my best actors, for the ladies; No. 1 is Benita Nzeribe. I won’t lie to you. Then, Florence Onuma, Monalisa Chinda and Uche Jombo. Four of them. And for the guys, my best actor, ah! (Thinks) Okay, one of my best actors for the guys is Emeka Ossai. Another one is I.K Ogbonna. You can see that I’m finding it difficult for the guys…Emeka Enyiocha and Alex Ekubo. I won’t lie to you.
Alright! What makes a good script?
I won’t lie to you, I’m not a script writer, but from my knowledge of movie making, I always look out for a script that has a lot of intrigues. No. 1, I’m not a script writer, but I’m a movie maker, a director. So, most times, I have my own type of stories or scripts that I look out for. I look out for a script that has a lot of entertainment, a thriller and drama, with romance and stuff like that. So, most times, if you are writing a script for me, it must have these elements in it. There must be love, there must be intrigues, there must be suspense and so on. Those are my key factors that I always look out for.
Which of your numerous movies is your best, the one you enjoy most and the one that still excites you?
You won’t believe it, I will start from the bad part. I’ve shot some movies that I cannot even watch…
(Interruption again) – Like which ones?
Haaa! What’s the title of this film? (Thinks) Before we finish, I will get you the title. I can’t watch it, and each time I try to, I will say no, no, no, this can’t be me! But I love my Full Moon, with Regina Askia, Basorge (Tariah), Pete Edochie and KOK. It was shot like in six cities in this country. I love Festival of Fire. I love my older movies than the new ones I shoot now. But my latest movie is fantastic, it’s very good. It’s called Open Marriage, with Monalisa Chinda, I.K Ogbonna, Lisa Omorodion and Alex Ekubo. Fantastic! It’s going to be out in June.
You’ve been into movie making now since 1991 or so. What would you say has kept you going?
The passion! Just the passion. There are times you don’t make money at all. Of recent, I’ve not been making money from the business, but the passion, the belief that one day you are going to hit it big. Gone are the days of Festival of Fire and Full Moon; I made a lot of money then. But in the last six years, I’ve not.
What distinguishes Chico Ejiro as a movie maker? What stands you out from the other directors?
No. 1, Chico Ejiro is a businessman. I tell people that in entertainment, you don’t just entertain people. It’s called showbusiness. You see, the show is four words while the business is eight. So, I’m interested in the business (General laughter) than the show. People will say ah, you keep using Uche Jombo, Monalisa Chinda, Rita Dominic, why? I say I’m a businessman. I promoted them too when they were young, I have contributed immensely to their careers. I work so hard to make sure I make money. So, I’m a businessman; No. 1. Two, because of my passion for what I do; I love it so much. There are times I make these movies to tell a particular vision I have or dreams that I want to share. So, at times, I just say I love this and I want to do it. Another thing that makes me different; in this business, I had been in it when there was nothing till now and I keep flying (Stresses it). So, those are some of the things. And I work very hard and I have time that I relax too to make sure that I think better.
But people complain about the quality of some of your movies…
(Jumps in) – No, no, no…People have the right to complain (Laughter). Because we have to entertain them and make them happy. I’ve said it that there are some bad movies I’ve made. It’s like the World Cup, 32 teams will quality for World Cup, some will fail, some will win the cup. Ehen! It’s like your journalism too. You read some papers, you say God! This is not it, please. No matter how great Steven Speilberg is, there are some of his movies that are very bad; people criticize him for shooting them. So, it’s like that all over the world. Nobody is perfect. Perfection belongs to God.
Some people attain success in your line of business, but they are not able to sustain it. But you’ve been doing this for decades now and you’ve been able to sustain it. Where do you think the others missed it?
This is a tough question, but em…No. 1 is consistency. No. 2 is that you must be very creative, you must be thinking; thinking all the time. Oh boy, there’s a big problem in Nollywood now. There’s a new generation coming up in Nollywood that is working so hard. When you see their works, Azuh, they’ve changed Nollywood. I see some pictures and some movies, I say chaaii! So, you mean these small, small boys are doing this (Laughing). We are scared, but we are working hard also. From this year, you will see big things, big pictures. That’s why we are very grateful, we are very happy for Mr. President (Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan) for giving Nollywood a grant to shoot the movies they want to shoot. Before now, there were times a marketer will give you money to shoot a movie and they will say you must use this artiste and you don’t want to work with that artiste. But for the fact that they are the ones bringing the money, you will be forced to work with the artiste.
As one of Nollywood’s biggest practitioners, what would say is the biggest challenge facing Nollywood?
Distribution! Distribution! I will give an example – until lately, we, the independent producers, we never made money. Maybe you will make money from DSTV and some other shows, but from the market, piracy will come in; then marketers don’t have enough outlets to distribute these movies. But now we have Silverbird (cinemas) and all of them. So, when you make a movie now, you will pass through a process. Like you heard the other day, AY has done a hundred and something million. It’s encouraging. If you are a banker, if this is Jim Ovia or Tony Elumelu and I walk up to him to say look at AY’s statistics, look at Ije’s statistics, I want N30 million, you know they will give me? Because they’ve seen that. All they need to see, in short, is can Ben Bruce, Silverbird or some people guarantee that this your film is good, it can match 30 Days in Atlanta, Ije. If they have that guarantee that it can match it, you will have it. So, those are some of the things we were lacking before now. So, now, you have figures to attach to Nollywood film making, which we didn’t have before. Before you only assumed. Aki and Pawpaw, they said it sold over a hundred million, but there were no figures. But this one, there are figures, there’s a statement of account, the amount they’ve paid to AY. So, there are figures, there are structures for us now. And so, it’s good.
One of the things that some actresses complain about is that producers and directors harass them for sex. Is it true?
(Laughs) – Since 1988 or so that I entered Nollywood, I still keep hearing this. Azuh Arinze, I have to tell you something, it’s not just in Nollywood. Maybe it happens or it doesn’t happen, but I’ve heard about it before. But in the life we live today; in your journalism even; even in Nigeria Police, in Nigeria Army, in politics, even, banking is more difficult. When you send those girls to go and pursue people to open accounts. So, what are you talking about? They should leave Nollywood alone. It’s part of life, and again let me tell you this – if you are good as an artiste, if it happens to you, say no! You will still make it. Why? Because you are good. Maybe it’s those ones who are not good that complain. Some people, maybe, want to bribe their way to the top. So, I don’t think it’s an issue. It happens. It’s in banking, it’s in…all aspects of business life.
As a director cum producer, have you ever harassed anybody before or begged any actress for sex?
I haven’t! Me ke? I’m a married man, dedicated to my wife (Laughter).
Okay, have they harassed you before?
So, how did you wriggle out of it?
Em…There are times I will audition, they will walk up to me to say oga, please help us. I will say no, you cannot act. They will say whatever you want, we will give it to you. I will say like what? Some will buy gifts, maybe champagne and all those kind of stuff, while some will say can I just book a place that we will go and talk? And I will tell them nooo! I’m a religious man, I go to church (General laughter) and I don’t encourage things like that. People should work very hard to make sure that they achieve their dreams. I will also not encourage producers and directors that are doing things like that.
Directing (movies) has done a lot for you, what has it not done for you?
Hmmm! At times I will say I believe I’ve done so much for my profession and I give God the glory for where I am today. When you call ten film makers in this part of the world, you must call me and my elder brother (Zeb Ejiro). But in Nollywood, if it’s this big, if you call ten big bankers, ten big generals, ten big doctors, ten big that, you cannot compare them to the ten big Nollywood film makers. You cannot compare the biggest ten in terms of finance or stuff like money, to any big ten in other professions. That’s the truth. But we are grateful to God. We will get there, we are working hard. But I thank God for the grace that I’ve made the name. It’s not by my power. At times I fly okada and I can do that because they don’t know me. Imagine that I am Ramsey Nouah, I can’t fly okada. But when I mention my name that I’m Chico Ejiro, they will scream, ah! I’ve been watching you since 1915 (Laughter).
What do you like best about being a movie director?
I just enjoy what I do. I like the fact that with people you can tell a story, you can become god, you can decide that I will kill this character today and it’s off. There’s a movie I shot with Steph Nora (Okere). I’m sorry to say this. 24 hours to the end of shoot, she just walked out. So, I and Obi Osotule just killed the character (Laughing) and people did not miss her.
What don’t you like about being a movie director?
I don’t know what I don’t like. Okay, what I don’t like is that there are films you shoot, you have to be in the bush all through the night and there are some movies I’ve shot that I didn’t like the scripts, but the pay was good. So, you just had to close your eyes and do it…
Does that mean you can direct a bad movie just because of money?
Em…It depends on the movie. But I cannot direct a nude movie. There are some films I can direct despite that I don’t like them. I will know that ah, this guy is not telling the right story and I’m trying to correct you and you are saying no and if the pay is very good, why not? I will give you an example. There’s a movie I shot like 15 years ago in Onitsha, I won’t call the film, I won’t call the name of the marketer also because he’s my very good friend. I told him that this film is not good, it will not make it. He said Chico, no even go there. Then, they were paying directors like 50k (Fifty thousand naira). I wanted to walk away so I said okay, give me N500,000! I’m talking like year 2000, I’m talking like 15 years ago. Even the lead actors then, they will take like N150,000. The guy said I will pay you. I was shocked, I nearly passed out. It’s like asking someone to pay you like N10 million now to direct a film for a week and the guy paid! And I shot it for him.
What is the costliest mistake that any director can make?
No. 1, if you don’t understand what you are doing. Understanding in the sense that you’ve not studied your script properly, you don’t understand what the movie is all about in terms of your shots, your actors, how to manage them and issues like that. You can make a lot of mistakes at the end of the day if you don’t do that and you will not like it.
Which is the highest amount you have collected for directing a movie before?
Which is your highest selling movie?
Ah! Which is my highest selling film? Festival of Fire and Full Moon.
Like how many copies did each of them sell?
Then, they made close to a hundred thousand copies.
You love sports so much. Other than sports, what are the other things that you love to do?
Okay, I love sports so much because most times when I want to relax, like I’m speaking to you, in the next few minutes, I have to rush home because my darling team, the Gunners, Arsenal Football Club, are playing – and to me, I have to eat before the end of the match. Each time Arsenal lose a match, I don’t eat! So, I have that strong passion for the club. For me, Arsenal is life. I won’t lie to you, the only thing that gives me joy, minus my God, my work and my family and my friends, is Arsenal! Even there are times I ask myself – if Arsenal should play Super Eagles, who will I support? It will be very difficult, I won’t lie to you. Until that day sha! So, I love football and once in a while, I like to go out with my friends. And I love watching movies too. I watch a lot of movies. Once you shoot a movie and I hear about it… Like all those Emen Isong, Lekki Wives, 30 Days in Atlanta, Charles Novia, Zeb Ejiro, Amaka Igwe and the rest, I must go and watch it. Because I believe I will learn a lot from watching them. You cannot be in a business where you don’t know what the other people are doing. You must know what your colleagues are doing.
How does it feel to also have your elder brother (Zeb) in the same business with you?
No. 1, he brought me into the business. You know I read Agriculture in school? And while I was in school, I kept coming to NTA (Nigeria Television Authority) to work with them in Ripples – and with others like Tade Ogidan, Ralph Nwadike, Tunji Bamishigbin and Charles Owoyemi. They were my bosses. Even Fred Amata was my boss, and Matthias Obahiagbon. That was how I came in. So, they taught me the business…
It was like at some point you became bigger than Zeb?
I tried to be bigger, but he’s bigger than me (General laughter). I don’t know what happened then. All the Onitsha boys were rushing me. And that was how the Publisher of YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine, then a movie reporter with Encomium, Chief Azuh Arinze, called me Mister Prolific and that became my name. Because I was shooting movies weekly, weekly, weekly…Even when I did an operation, I was lying down when I did Odum and Evil Men with Amaco, then Obstacles with Sunny Collins. They took me to Onitsha via Enugu with my operation. I was on my operation bed directing the movies! So, my friend, Mr. Azuh Arinze now said this man must be Mister Prolific! How can he be shooting everyday for 365 days?
Thanks for remembering that. Let’s talk about your family. Can you tell us about them?
Okay, I met my wife, Joy, in UNILAG in 1994, at Two Can Play, which I directed for Opa Williams. Then, we got married in 98 in Sapele. We have four kids…
What are their names?
The eldest one is called Kome, he’s in King’s College; Ruke – Holy Child College; Maro and Viano. I decided to give my kids my local names from Isoko in Delta State because I want them to know their background and their identity. When you hear Kome, you know it’s from Delta State. You get to a point in your life that you want to live for your kids and your family. I also have some great friends, I won’t lie to you, who have been supporting me. Starting from my elder brother, Zeb; my eldest brother, Peter Red; I have Obi Osotule, he’s my good friend; Fidelis Duker, Fred Amata, Emeka Ossai, Segun Arinze. They’ve been key friends to me, who have been with me. Frank Dallas. We’ve been together for years. Sunny MCdon. I shot a film called Slave in Abakaliki (Ebonyi State), a boy died on my set and I had to be going to Abakaliki for a court case. This was like 15 years ago. Each time I went to Abakaliki, my friends followed me – Sunny MCdon, Obi Osotule, they followed me. Imagine that kind of friendship! Yes! There are times in life that you have to appreciate people for what they have done for you.
Marriages in your sector hardly last, but yours is still going strong. Why?
Why my own has been strong is because there are some principles about life. If you see any marriage, you will think there is no problem, but it is not so. I will tell you just one small story – when I got married, 3 years after I got married, I got so pissed off about marriage that I said I wanted to walk away. And I went to meet the Registrar and the woman sat me and my wife down and gave us education. So, since that day, we now understood that in marriage you must be patient, you must solve your own problem yourself, a third party must not come in. There’s a key word in marriage, it’s called communication. You must learn how to talk to your wife. Once you come back, don’t just sleep, don’t think you are king kong, don’t think you are too much, you have so much money, who is she? No, no, no…Don’t do that. I go to market 90 percent of the time in my house, I cook, because I like to cook. Don’t allow your friends to deceive you. So, there’s a factor you should understand – in our marriage, nobody should come between us; we settle our problems. There are times we don’t talk, but the following day we just say do you know you are a very useless man, stupid woman, ehen! Don’t allow your friends to say I saw your husband, I saw your wife, no, no, no…So, we understand that and it’s been keeping us. But in Nollywood, why marriages don’t work; one day I will go and give them a small lecture. I’m sorry to say this – the girls feel they are too big, above the men, while the guys, those ones that cannot manage their marriages, believe in what we call king kong. King kong believes I’m too much, who is this woman? So, until they can come together, you the lady, you are submissive…you cannot have a husband and 24 hours you are on locations, everyday you travel round the world, next tomorrow you are in one party in London and you say you are a married woman. How will it work? Or because you are richer than the boy, you cannot cook for him, you employ a house girl or your younger sister to be talking care of your husband. E be like Fela song – she go say I be lady! Your husband smokes, you smoke, your husband clubs, you club, you wan talk say I am a star. Why? Because one big billionaire is investing money on you. When you go out, all the people are shouting super star, super star, super star. So, they should separate their lives and marriages from acting and become humble. But there are some good examples in Nollywood o! All of them are not just bad. We have people like Chioma Chukwuka – Apotha, she has been keeping her marriage; Omotola Jalade has been keeping her marriage, Sister Joke Silva. A lot of them have been keeping their marriages. So, those who cannot keep theirs should go and learn from those who keep their marriages.
People see most actresses as sleeping around and being loose, is that correct?
I don’t know, I don’t know…I don’t know about that one, but I just told you some of the reasons why their marriages crash. I ask some of the guys why they don’t marry these girls and they say they are scared. They don’t want to marry a girl today, next tomorrow the marriage will scatter. But some of them are very, very good while some of them are not. At times it’s not only the women o! The guys too are bad. I won’t lie to you, some of these guys, when they marry these girls, they want to treat them like shit. So, it’s both ways.
God has been nice to you, what more do you want from God?
To God be the glory! I want the favour of God, I want to know God more, I want to see the eyes of God, I want to get closer to God. You get to a point in your life when God has done everything that…I grew up in Ajegunle. So, I want to worship God more and more. I want everything, but No. 1, I want God in my life. I want to go to God and kneel down and say Baba, forgive me, I want to worship you more, I want to work for you, I want to honour you.
You were born in Equitorial Guinea, you grew up in Ajegunle and now you live in Lekki, what did you do to change your fortune?
Hard work; hard work…From Ajegunle to Lekki. Not just Lekki, please. When you call Lekki, you insult us. We are in Phase 1 (General laughter). Because some of these pirated areas, they also call them Lekki, Lekki…But when rain falls, for 3 days, they are in their houses. No, no, no…you have to apologise to us (But that’s on a lighter note). You should always put Lekki Phase 1 (More laughter).
What singular thing did you do that turned around your life?
No. 1, it’s me and my wife. Not me alone. Left to me, I would have loved to go back to Ajegunle, but I think it’s just God. But, the higher you go, the more challenges you face, the more breaks you make. Azuh Arinze, I hardly sleep. I sleep around 9/10pm, by 1am, I’m up, watching CNN, watching everything, thinking of what to do. As you see me so, I dey work hard, I dey think. Like now, I’m thinking of the next things to do and when I see some people do something, I will say chai, dis one don beat me to dis concept. How de person take beat me to it? So, I’m working hard. There are times I look at the year, I will say this year, how can I make a hundred million? Can I make N200 million? If I’m going to make the N100m, N200m, how will I achieve it? So, I will start dreaming, thinking, that from now till June, can I achieve this? To achieve it, what other things can I do? And I like to listen to people. There’s one thing I enjoyed when I came to your lecture; the one Leo-Stan Ekeh delivered. I learnt a lot from him. There are a lot of us who are into this business without proper planning and that’s a big problem. You must plan from the beginning to the end. You just assume buying this and selling this will work. And a lot of us allow people to do things for us. You must learn how to do some of those things yourself. So, that lecture (YES INTERNATIONAL! ANNUAL LECTURE/COCKTAIL PARTY), I learnt a lot about life. So, since that day, I became very, very careful about how I spend money, what I do, what is my plan, this thing I wanna do, in 6 months, is it gonna bring money? Like now; Azuh, for the past 5 years, I refused to travel abroad. To travel abroad will cost me like N1 million, I won’t lie to you. I like enjoyment. So, I prefer to go to Silverbird, go to one small bar or hotel, spend like one hundred thousand naira, just sit down, read a book, watch ball and sleep. After 2 days, come back with your family instead of me spending N1m. Do I have that luxury of making N1m in 6 months? I’m sorry to say this, I don’t live that type of life. I’ve been to London, I’ve been to America, I’ve been to half of the world. If you sponsor me, fine! But now, with this my hard earned money, I cannot spend N1m on holiday abroad.
Your romance with Nollywood, how did it start, what prompted it?
Okay, it started from my mother. When we were in Equitorial Guinea, we used to watch movies a lot. So, that’s how this love for movies kicked off. I love watching movies. When I was in Ajegunle, I watched a lot of Indian movies. All those God Dey Cinema, Orege Cinema, I went to Rainbow, I went to Luxury, I went to Sheila. Those who understand cinema will understand where I’m coming from. All those Chinese Man in the Monkey Shadow, One-Hand Man, Dalmedra…I watched all of them. So, I have that passion. In my school days, when Zeb now started working with NTA, doing Ripples and stuff, I now joined from there. I started as a PA; from a PA to a cameraman, to a set designer, to a director. That’s how it started. When Fred Amata and Andy (Amenechi) quit directing Ripples, it fell on me. So, I started from there. After that, we entered Mega Fortunes. When Zeb stopped directing Mega Fortunes, they gave it to Tunji Bamishigbin; when Tunji Bamishigbin started working in the bank, they gave it to me. After Mega Fortunes, which was so big then, I started working with my friend, Opa Williams. We did Two Can Play, from Two Can Play, we did Onome, Deadly Affair and the rest is history. Some people say I’ve directed the highest number of work, but I believe Emem Isong has defeated me now. I have like 12 cards from her this weekend alone. So, maybe I will be like No. 3 now (Laughter). And again, I must say this – the name Nollywood, they must give me my credit. Please! In year 2000 or 99, a journalist with TIME Magazine came from New York or so to interview me. That’s when I gave it that name…
(Interruption) – You gave the name Nollywood? So, you are the originator of that word, Nollywood?
Yes! When he interviewed me, he said since the American version is called Hollywood, the other one is called Bollywood, Chico, what do you think? Should I call it Nollywood? I said yes, call it Nollywood. Maybe I will look for the publication. I think I still have it. So, I need my copyright (Laughing).
NB: First published February 2015
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