Bimbo Manuel is a veteran writer, actor and director with over four decades of experience in Nigeria’s entertainment industry. He said despite the viability of the industry, investment is still low and he shares how artists can up their game in securing necessary funding for their projects.
Looking back at your career, over four decades in the entertainment industry and you’re still getting stronger, what’s the secret?
It’s been partly a deliberate design, personal decisions, very professional decisions. And even if it sounds cliche, the grace of God. I acknowledge personally that there are limits to what you can do, or what you can achieve as a human. And only God fills in the gaps for you. And that’s why I say, the grace of God has been a big part of it. But those deliberate decisions have been carefully selecting the kinds of jobs that I do. And thankfully, that reputation for playing jobs that the audience have considered good quality has further heightened the reputation that one set out to build for quality.
I also acknowledge, in humility, the things that I cannot do that I know that if I attempt them, I am going to fall flat on my face, I carefully avoid them. It is better not to do them and lose something than to do them and lose everything. I carefully choose the jobs that I do, trying constantly to challenge myself. When I’m not working, I read and learn from other people. And it’s not formal learning all the time. I watch other movies; I see other actors’ interpretation of their roles and responsibilities. I see how they manage themselves. I see what happens to them. I am able to decide on what I do.
At what point in your career did you get to make that professional decision considering that when someone is new to the industry, you may be tempted to take several roles to make yourself popular?
It was from the very beginning, from the very beginning, I knew the kind of artist that I wanted to be. Of course, one understood all the benefits of popularity but I also recognized that it could be fickle, it could be very transient, to be known, and recognized for how much I have, for the cars that I ride for whether I live on Banana Island or in Maitama and it’s gone tomorrow. And there is a difference in laying down slow building blocks that helped to build the reputation for kinds of jobs. And that’s the decision that I made. Because I went into this for the long haul, not to just come make some quick money and move on to something else. I am here for the long haul. And it’s paid off.
So, it was from the very beginning that I made the decision. I wanted to be known for this kind of work. When Nollywood started, of course, we were playing before Nollywood, I commend myself that I did not join the bandwagon. I was not in the mix as such, for all movies of Nollywood. It was my choice. I played some; seeing the kind of things that were going on, and they were relatively better. I played in some of them, but not as much as some of my friends, some of my contemporaries.
So, talking about selection, how much of an influence does other actors have in deciding to choose a particular script?
There is a long chain of questions that some of us ask when we are invited to be a part of a job. And I have grown a template over time. The story first, then the script, screenplay, then who is directing it? Because all those things, ultimately have an input on your career, on the reputation. A story may be great, a screenplay may be great, and it’s delivered in the hands of a poor director. All of you become a mess. I ask who the production manager is. Many people don’t ask that. But that’s the person that runs the show with you on location there. Who is the makeup person that will make me look right, who is doing wardrobe, that will have a good sense of not how good I look, but how right the character looks? Then, of course, the actors. There are actors who play with or against you that help to elevate your craft. So, it’s always a joy to play with or against people like that. They do something to your craft as well, your heart is happy, you’re looking forward to playing on the same set with people like that. So yes, who is playing is a very relevant question for me in that chain and it’s not about popularity, but the crafts that the other actor is bringing to that set is key. Because if you’re playing against or with people who will drag you down? You may end up looking like a bad actor. So, it’s a careful choice.
Looking at some of the works you’ve done and the set of actors you worked with, do you think people consider how they are remembered for a role or once they get paid, they’re fine?
I do mentor people in the craft, in entertainment generally. And one of the things I tell them is to get an education. You can’t hold anybody responsible for not watching all the actors. I watch other actors. And it’s not about age, it’s not about their successes. It’s about what they’re doing with the responsibility they have to interpret roles. So, the actor that is not in a hurry to blow as they say will watch those things, observe techniques and little details. If you just like Denzel Washington, you want to do the things that Denzel Washington does. You want to do the things that Richard Mofe Damijo does. You forget very easily that you cannot ever be Richard Mofe Damijo. You cannot ever be Denzel Washington, but you can borrow from them to improve your own. And that’s where your individuality comes in.
It is those who genuinely wish and desire to improve their craft, learn, not necessarily from one source, that will get back and help.
Questions on production quality remain, despite the high turnout of movies. Do you think something has to be done to increase the level and quality of production in the industry?
Growth generally, not just in our business, is continual. There will always be room for improvement. And it’s constantly happening. We can improve. But we can also not equate what we are doing now with what we were doing in the past. And that’s not just patting ourselves on the back. There’s been a big improvement and we can still improve on it, with better equipment, better sound managers, but we are not doing badly either. In our storytelling, we have improved, to be fair, some can do with some improvement in storytelling. But we’re not as bad as we were. And what is the heart of all of that? Education. People who are making the biggest waves, making those movies that everybody’s talking about now on Netflix or Amazon are the younger people. People who have gone to film school and are now impacting the industry. People like to say that we can’t make great movies because we don’t have money. I have always argued that. Money affects everything but it is intellect that writes a great story in the first place.
So, let us write a great story and then decide that this story is so good. I am not going to compromise on it. Whether on the level of the producer, or the executive producer, or the production manager, or the director, or the assistant director, or the props master, or the wardrobe person, or the makeup people, or the special effects people or in editing or in music, sound collection, and so on. That is what will make the difference. So, if you have the people in the first place, the money may not be enough, but the intellect must be present first. The intellect writes the story, the intellect interprets it. So, we need to get an education, when we can prove to the world that intellect drives our processes, followed by integrity and honesty, more people will trust us with their money, because there’s money in the system and people are looking for where to put that money.
However, nobody that does business puts money in something you’re not sure about to some degree. So, people are cautious, because you have not proven to them that you will drive this with competence and integrity. If we are able to do that, I think we will make even better films than we are making now. And that’s the reason why people like Netflix came here; they saw what we have potential to be. So, they bought the potential, and they are driving it with their standard template.
See what we are doing on Netflix now, watched globally and more are coming. Amazon is here. Disney will probably come, you know, and many others like that, if we can prove those things.
You said something about the younger people in the industry, is there something about what they do that worries you?
I have not given it some thought because I recognize that even with the composition, demographics of the country, the youths are over 60 per cent and these people will naturally pander to their kind. Not just that, that bracket also happens to be one with the biggest disposable income, the larger number that goes to the cinemas, the ones that are keen on Netflix, the one that sits in front of African magic and so on.
People of my generation watch less of those things, so why would anyone produce a movie for people like that. Even the language is different because language itself is constantly evolving. People have migrated from physical life to social media. That’s where everybody lives now. They are doing things that will catch the attention of their target audience. They are all commercial movie makers, so if we the rest of the society want them to tell a particular story, let us invest our money in them. Most of the stories that are written now are for young people, you see people like me in many movies now as somebody’s father, uncle and so on. Stories are hardly, totally built around people like me. It affects us but again, it’s the reality of the moment. Instead of getting angry, let us in that generation up our crafts and make ourselves more indispensable, compel them to look in our direction with the kind of work we are capable of doing.
Your views about stage plays. Are you concerned about how it’s been received nowadays?
The story of stage plays being dead is an old one. Stage plays are back. Since some people took up the challenge to revive the theatre, it has become a culture in some places now, Lagos especially. Port Harcourt, one of the homes of theatre in Nigeria is also coming back, same thing for Abuja. In fact, there was an innovation in Abuja – drive in theatre, and people came, sat in their cars and watched. Theatre is not dead but it’s expensive to produce. Theatre pays back little without sponsorship. Back in my days, in secondary school, we were made to read at least one African, one Nigerian, one foreign drama. Now, I don’t know what is happening to literature. The curriculum, especially for secondary schools, has to be revisited because that is where the culture of theatre grows. Even if you don’t physically get involved, you buy books, plays to read.
There is always a price to pay for fame, what has being famous taken from you?
I still try to live my life as normally and reasonably as I can. I’m honestly not affected by fame, so I don’t think I have lost anything. My family could have been a major concern to me, but we have carefully kept them out of my public life and its deliberate except for not being able to stop and buy roasted plantain and other street foods.
What new projects should fans expect from you?
Three of my stage plays that I wrote are coming out this year. It should have been last year, but for COVID-19. Philomena that was presented in Port Harcourt will be brought to Abuja in July at the NAF Conference Centre.
What brings you fulfillment?
Reading, writing, and travelling. I can be in the room all by myself for a whole week, just get food, eat, read, and write. It’s a lovely world, trouble free.
What do you have to say to Nigerians?
Let us love Nigeria. It’s the only country we have. There will be bad people, I mean they are everywhere. The danger is allowing them to affect us. If they do, they change who we truly are and we become bad people as well. We can’t say because leadership is bad, we too will be. We must be able to leave something for our children who did not contribute anything to what we have now because when the country is good, everybody prospers, and it starts from those small things that we do. Let everybody watch out for us, we are coming to live in Abuja.