Meet the woman changing Nollywood screenplays one story at a time
Today is International Women’s Day, and we can’t help but celebrate the women who are making a big difference in the world of film. One of these women is Ololade Okedare, the Founder & Lead Consultant at Emerge Story Lab, a lab where writers develop their stories from scratch till it is ready for the screen. The lab, for its second edition this year, is focused on empowering female storytellers by helping them develop their stories from ideation stage to the screen.
Okedare started out writing screenplays for TV and film, and ventured out into story consulting and development. She was trained as a story development executive by the Netflix-Realness Institute in South Africa in 2019. She was also a Mentor and Story Editor on the first ever Lagos Film Lab organised by the British Council.
In this exclusive interview with Bside, the writer and story consultant talks about her Emerge Story Lab, writing, producing, and her journey so far as a development executive.
You’ve been a story development executive for a while now. Did you always see yourself doing this?
No, even though it’s not surprising that I am. The concept of a ‘story development executive’ was previously foreign. Even now, many still do not understand the full scope of what it means. However, I have always had a nurturing tendency which explains my medical practice background. So when I found this niche, guided by my mentors in the industry and the opportunities that came to acquire competence in the discipline, I followed through. And I am still learning.
Since 2017, You’ve been the CEO of Kinsman Media, a team that provides script writing, and story editorial and script management services. How has your experience there prepared you for your bigger roles such as being trained by Netflix-Realness Institute and Lagos Film Lab?
I am blessed to have found clarity early in my career path; starting as a screenwriter for TV and Film to where I am. My experience so far at Kinsman Media birthed in me a hunger to see better-told stories from Africa, and a better working environment and stimulus for writers, especially Nigerian writers. I saw that there was a gap to be connected between our love for storytelling and the actual skill and science it requires to deliver it. Being a mentor at the Lagos Film Lab exposed me to more challenges writers face. I interfaced with counterparts in the U.K. and realised it was time to take proactive steps to change the narrative. I believe that was one of the factors that positioned me for the role of DET at the Netflix-Realness Episodic Lab in 2021. I truly believe now that our industry needs to open up to interact with our other counterparts across the continent and overseas to change the landscape of storytelling in Africa.
You were one of the writers for Tinsel, and you have also written feature films. How is character development different in the world of TV and film?
Yes. At the core of story development whether for TV or Film is the DNA of the story you are about to tell. It is important to get to the heart of the matter first — what the nucleus of that story is. Know the characters intimately like the lines on the palm of your hands, and be able to feel, taste, perceive, hear and see the world of your story and the three-dimensional layers of your characters. The differences between TV and Film begin to play out in the narrative structure, visual scale, format length, budgeting, and other production elements. In TV, you develop multiple character arcs that must intersect with the spine of the story. Youcan cover more details such as the backstories, and multiple plotlines. These, however, are compressed in Film because it has a shorter run time and a definite beginning, middle and end. Because TV shows or episodic stories do not have immediate resolutions (except a limited series), you have to keep pulling threads in to cover more episodes and seasons of the TV Show.
You are hosting a free writing workshop this month for female writers and storytellers. How important is it that women tell their stories? Also, do you feel Nollywood has been inclusive enough for women?
Yes, I am. There is a complexity to women and experiences that has not been fully explored over the years. It’s no news that women have gone through stereotypical representations in movies from the days of Marilyn Monroe and Halle Berry; the tropes of the femme fatale and so on. Women have been made to play victim enough. It’s beautiful to see more female heroines dominate the screen, and more stories about societies, cultures and sects that repress women brought to light. Who better tells a woman’s story than a woman? Men have had more than enough decades to tell us exactly who they are, what they want, why and how they go about it. Even that, I believe, must change in the face of an enlightened society. Women have done quite well for themselves in Nollywood and are currently smashing box-office receipts in the cinema. There’s room for more.
It is no news that producers are after certain kinds of stories. You have experience as a producer, so how do you combine the knowledge with writing, especially when coaching your students?
My growing experience as a Producer gives me an edge in the way I approach storytelling now. Often, writers get lost in the imagination of the story they’re trying to tell and forget the technical and financial realities of translating from script to screen. It’s a balance that we must understand and that’s where a story development executive with production experience comes in handy: to give a writer the wings to fly while monitoring the fuel gauge. I incorporate this into my coaching.
You were the first Nigerian trained by Netflix-Realness Institute as a Story Development Executive. What was that experience like for you during those 4 months?
It radically changed my perspective on storytelling and increased my appreciation for story development which is a foundational structure many producers in this part of the world overlook. Writing takes a lot of grit and handwork than writers are credited for. As I fondly said at the lab, I also went on a journey of transformation along with the characters we were developing. I also built pan-African relationships with counterparts in and outside of Nigeria that I believe would be lifelong. They have greatly impacted my growth and given me opportunities beyond what’s available in the immediate territory that I was used to. I’ll be eternally grateful for that opportunity and the annual free story conference is my way of paying forward that gift.
You have been able to help many people develop their stories from ideation to the big screen. How long does this process usually take?
The realities of each industry differ but I think enough time is when you have hit the right spots in your story. An architect does not have a blueprint of a building until he\she has covered every dimension possible to ensure an aesthetically and structurally sound project. I have analysed some of the formats for developing stories and come up with a system that I believe works. It’s a 6-week development on-demand curriculum that I now use to train writers online.
There are filmmakers that take up to a year to develop their stories. How long do you think is “too long” to develop a story?
I don’t think there’s any time that is “too long” to develop a story. I’m sure the creator of “Squid Game” would attest to this. I do think it’s important to expose your story to the right midwives so that the birthing process is not a protracted one. If you keep doing the work, taking constructive notes and applying them as fits, I believe the opportunity will meet your preparation. As the climate of your socio-economic environment changes, or sudden events that spark a movement and direct attention to the themes or direction of your story, you could suddenly be in the spotlight because you have a story that’s been cooking and possibly ready to go. You then ride on the wings of the wind propelling your story forward.
Apart from having a community, what advantage does a story development lab have over writing with the help of a script doctor?
I think the community is a huge advantage that cannot be over-emphasised but as a development executive that works both in the lab and with writers individually, I have come to realise that writers are wired differently. Some thrive in one-on-one interactions in short bursts of time while others thrive better in a community.
You were a story editor for the Biola Alabi-British Council’s Lagos Film Lab. What about this was different from the Netflix-Realness Program?
The focus and reach were different. The Lagos Film Lab was focused on feature movies and only Nigerian stories. The Netflix-Realness Episodic Lab was focused on series from three countries: Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. I am grateful to have gained experience in story development from both labs.
In developing writers’ stories for the big screen and a global audience, how do you ensure that these stories are tailored to the Nigerian experience whilst having a global appeal?
I cannot answer this question without giving kudos to my mother who raised me on books (African literature, etc), and enraptured us with folklore under the moonlight every day. I am proudly grounded in the cultures and norms, and well-acquainted with our local experiences which I infuse into story worlds, characters layers, and inter-relational dynamics of these characters. I also appreciate the use of local languages in our stories. Relatability is key, otherwise no matter how nicely crafted your story is for the global audience, you would have lost the local audience’s connection to the story. And the Nigerian audience (not unlike other climes) are so vocal about how much they hate that.