Tunde Babalola is a writer and nollywood actor, known for Last Flight to Abuja (2012), Critical Assignment (2004) and October 1 (2014).
With such great movies as Last Flight to Abuja, Maami, Aleros Symphony, Critical Assignment, The Meeting and October1, among other critically acclaimed international TV series, there is no gain saying that Tunde Babalola is blessed with exceptional creative ability.
In this 2014 interview, the award-winning scriptwriter, who is regarded as the unseen hand behind many engaging cinematic works, shares some memorable moments of his career with BABATUNDE SULAIMAN
COULD you briefly recall some fond memories of your childhood and growing up?
I was born and grew up initially in England before relocating to Nigeria with my parents and siblings. I was always involved in some forms of entertainment; be it church plays, school productions, dance groups and anything that involved active participation in artistic creativity.
Who had the most profound influence on you while growing up: your father or mother?
Both of them did, but in different ways. My mother said she noticed my flair for entertainment quite early in life, even as a toddler because I was always stuck in front of the television, keenly observing and copying what was going on. Although my father saw it as a passing fad initially, once he realised that was where my direction would be heading later in life, he encouraged me. But he always emphasised that I had better be the best at it, so that I could make money from it.
Are you from an art-inclined background and what were (are) your parents into?
No, I am not from an art-inclined family at all. My father was an accountant and my mother worked in the banking industry, Central Bank, specifically. Both of them are currently enjoying retirement. So, to be candid, I have no idea whatsoever where my passion for the arts originated from, other than to say it was Heaven-sent.
Did you study Dramatic Arts at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, as a last resort or was it actually your preferred choice of course?
My first and only choice was to study Dramatic Arts at the Obafemi Awolowo University. In fact, because of my build, an uncle of mine, who was a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Nigerian Army, was always trying to encourage me to join the Army. He went to the extent of getting me to apply to the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA).
My mother raised a storm about it. It was the military regime back then and I was quite an outspoken teenager. She, was, therefore, convinced that if I became an Army officer, I would eventually be involved in or roped into a coup plot. So, everyone exhaled with a sigh of relief when I gained admission to read Dramatic Arts at OAU, thus ending any grand ideas about me ever becoming a Major-General. But Dramatic Arts was always my first and only choice. And my folk supported my passion.
At what point did your passion for writing develop?
My passion for writing developed during my senior secondary school days. In fact, I wrote my first film script when I was 14 years old. Although I liked all the facets of entertainment such as acting, dance and music, it was script-writing that really got me excited. The ability to start with a blank page and create a whole world from there still gives me a huge thrill today. So, when applying to the university, I knew I had to do a course that would somehow be relevant to that field. I considered Literature and Mass Communication, but Dramatic Arts seemed a more befitting option, and it was because it dealt with all aspects of performance.Jennifer with course Instructor, Tunde Babalola.
Why did you relocate to the United Kingdom, where you started your writing career?
Career-wise, it seemed like a light-bulb idea. I wanted to work in an industry that was structured. The UK does not have a great film industry, but their TV industry is simply a thriving environment for a scriptwriter. It was a good place for me to hone my skills and test myself to see if I was good enough to make it. And the pay is good too. It took me three years of constantly writing and receiving rejections from various TV stations and production companies. I had four shoe boxes full of rejection letters.
I was competing with the best out there – other white British struggling writers – who had attended top colleges and universities. It was devastating, but I just kept going because I knew I could do it, I knew I was good enough and I knew I could get better. Eventually, my breakthrough came when UK Channel-4 accepted an idea for a sit-com series of mine called In Exile. That was my very first commission. I stared at the cheque for hours! It was a huge amount at the time. My mindset was, ‘So, someone in the UK industry actually thinks I’m a good enough writer to pay me for my work?’ I gave up my day job at a library and never looked back since that day. I worked right across the UK board, BBC, Carlton TV, Channel 4 and Chrysalis Television.
What will you describe as the highpoints of your career while you were in the UK?
There were many highpoints: being head-hunted by TV stations and production companies to work for them and winning or being nominated for a number of awards for scriptwriting. But the day I will never forget is when I saw my name as a screen credit for the first time on the television screen, for an episode I had written for a police drama series titled The Bill. Back then in the UK in the 90s, there were hardly any Black writers working on television. In fact, I didn’t even know any.
Anytime I went to staff writing workshops, I would be the only Black writer there. And there were definitely no Nigerians either. It is a difficult field for even British writers to break into. So, seeing my name on the opening credits of that TV show that day was an ecstatic, yet humbling experience. I knew I had made it, but I also knew it wasn’t my doing.
Certainly, you must have also experienced some low moments there. Would you mind sharing some of these experiences with me?
Well, as I said previously, I arrived in the UK as a graduate, with my chest puffed out, thinking I was the only writer in the world with a degree (laugh). Three years of rejection letters brought me crashing back down to earth. That was a low period because I considered quitting. It would have meant giving up a dream I had long desired. It was a depressing time for me. I persevered though and eventually found my way.
Could you recall the first script you wrote and its thematic preoccupation? Did it see the light of day?
I was in secondary school when I wrote my first film script called In The Raw. It was a boy-meet-girl-on-campus romantic drama. I was 14 at the time. It never saw the light of day because I wrote it during the summer holidays to keep me occupied. It was just a personal project to see if I could actually write a feature film script.
How have you been able to perfect your art over the years?
It is by continually writing. One never stops learning. The more one does it, the better one gets at it. Of course, there are books one can read on the subject and further degrees that one can study to enhance one’s craft, but I’ve always believed practice makes perfect.
Could you recall a particularly interesting experience while you were writing October 1, which was originally titled Dust?
It took me four weeks to write the first draft of the screenplay for October 1. I always start the day with a cup of tea. There was a particular day I started writing at 6a.m., and on that day, I was flowing. The script was literally writing itself. Everything was falling into place. At a point, I recalled feeling hungry and glanced in the bottom right-hand corner of my laptop screen for the time. It was 11.55pm! I was stunned. I had literally written for 18 hours non-stop that day without even realising it (laugh)!
Why did you initially title it Dust?
Sometimes, when commencing work on a script, I don’t always have a title at hand, so I just call it whatever comes to mind. I know that in the course of writing the script, a befitting title will emerge. The very first scene is set in a town that is dusty and it is a death scene. So, I called it Dust. I was halfway through the script when it occurred to me that the backdrop of the film being the Nigerian Independence was a huge factor. So, upon finishing the first draft and submitting it to the director, Kunle Afolayan, we threw ideas back and forth before finally settling on October 1. That title truly defines and encompasses the spirit and theme of the film.
How long did the writing of the script last?
The first draft took four weeks. Due to the fact that the first draft was quite strong, the subsequent three drafts only took about a week to complete, as there were not many alterations.
You have written a number of award-winning scripts in your professional career, which of them have been most mentally challenging?
All of them, in one way or another! In order to write a script, I have to totally delve myself into the world I am writing. I become those characters. I breathe, eat, drink, sleep and live those characters and situations. That is my writing process.
Would you say script-writing is profitable, particularly in this part of the world?
Yes, it can be profitable. I only know of three scriptwriters in Nigeria (including myself) who are what I can call full-time writers. That is people who totally live, and live well, solely off their earnings from scriptwriting. Hence, it’s not an easy gig, but the industry is growing and things are getting better. There’s more work out there. I turn down a lot of work and refer it to other up- and-coming writers. Perseverance and dedication is the key. Even though scriptwriters in the UK and the United States get paid a whole lot better, only a small fraction of them are actually working at any one time. Most scriptwriters in those countries are out of work. It’s a highly competitive field. The weak, the untalented can never survive in it.
Some scriptwriters have, at different times, had issues with producers because of distortion allegedly done to their stories. Have you ever been dissatisfied with the final production of any of your original script?
It’s an occupational hazard. A script is like a baby. So, imagine handing your baby over to someone else and walking away. It’s heart-wrenching. But there is a standard process and it involves a script being made into a film. At that point, it becomes the producer’s production and the director’s film. I can’t say I have ever been dissatisfied with the final production of any of my scripts. Fortunately, I’ve worked with highly professional directors and producers who value my contributions without me over-stepping my boundary; hence I have, for the most part, been involved in many productions of my films. But I’m very aware and respectful of the status quo. A good scriptwriter has to step back and let others carry forth the vision. It’s like a relay race, where you pass the baton and get the heck out of the way.
What is the greatest criticism you ever received about your work?
How long is a piece of string? You can’t please everyone. What some love, others detest. You’ve just got to stay true to yourself. But I’ve been regularly told that I’m prolific, in that I can write all genres, be it dramas, comedies, thrillers etc. But I’ve also been criticised for overwriting my action sequences. I’m probably guilty of that purely because I want the director to be in no doubt about the intention behind that particular scene.
Which of your job has given you the greatest fulfilment so far?
As I previously said, scripts are like babies. How does one choose who one loves the most? My numerous UK television drama and comedy series, my films like Critical Assignment, Maami, Alero’s Symphony, The Meeting or October 1? Each script I have written has served a purpose and given me great satisfaction at that point in time. But just like some parents have a fondness for their first or last born, I will always fondly remember the first script I actually got paid to write.
What is life like as a scriptwriter?
Rewarding and challenging. But the greatest thing I like about it is that I can work from home. I wake when I want to; I sleep when I want to and I don’t have to face the daily grind of traffic to get to an office. I choose which hours I work. There are weeks when I don’t step my foot outside my house. I wake, write, eat and sleep.
Except for Deep Freeze, which other movies have you acted in?
I don’t act. I was living in Los Angeles where I was head-hunted as a staff writer for a production company and an American director friend of mine asked me to act as a helicopter pilot in his horror movie, Deep Freeze. I did it as a favour to him and it was fun. But it’s not a career path I intend pursuing.
Aren’t you so passionate about acting?
Actually, at OAU, I studied Acting as well as Scriptwriting. I never considered myself a good actor. I studied the art-form simply to make me a better scriptwriter because I wanted to know what actors desire from a script. Even if it’s just one line of dialogue they have, they want it to be a great line; hence, in my scripts, even extras or so-called waka-pass, actors can shine.
How do you describe your state of mind when you are at work?
I’m very absorbed into the world I am writing. When writing October 1, I immersed myself in the year 1960. I would start each morning online by reading a diary of daily events that occurred in 1960. I wanted to feel what my characters were feeling.
Would I be correct to describe you as a bohemian, as most writers are known to be?
To a degree, I believe I am a part-bohemian, especially when in writing mode. But once I’m in-between writing assignments, I’m just regular Tunde again, the same as everyone else. I can take off the bohemian hat when it is surplus to requirements.
What project are you currently working on?
Well, I’ve just finished a romantic-comedy and I’m currently working on a new thriller. I can’t say much about it for now other than I always up the ante.