Pascal Atuma (R), Lyyn Whitfield (C) and Billy Dee Williams (L) on the set of the upcoming movie "The Trace" produced by African Entertainment Group.
Going by the ideal of "there is no substitute for hard work," filmmaker and actor Pascal Atuma seems to have reached that ideology based on how much work he has committed into his career. Hooking up with him over the weekend and on a series of talks on a whole lot of issues while he took care of his assignments in Lagos, Nigeria, we rolled out this interview where he talked about him and his colleagues' production company, Africa Entertainment Group (AEG), on the set in an upcoming thriller "The Trace" with Billy Dee Williams and Lynn Whitfield, Nollywood engagements and his new love.
In series of our relative discussions over the years, especially during the exclusive interview in May of 2007, there was this talk by you that in ten years Nollywood would meet up to the challenges of Hollywood. This was what you said:
"I know Nollywood is gonna change. There is no where in the world I'm gonna be born in Nigeria and I'm playing Hollywood and am gonna see Nollywood die. It's not gonna happen. If they don't want to accept it, they will be forced because if you can't beat them, you join them. You see what I'm saying?"
How far is that quest as we speak now and how has your influence effected that?
My brother, “actions speaks louder than words.” I just directed and produced a Nollywood movie with my producing partners Oscar Atuma and the Ojimba’s, under the umbrella of African Entertainment Group, featuring Hollywood stars such as Billy Dee Williams, Lynn Whitfield, Chico Benymon (Half and Half), Brian Hooks (Eve’s Show), Tangi Miller (Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion) and Doug Williams (BET Comic View) just to mention a few. Also, I released two Nollywood movies in the mainstream market, namely “Only in America” and “Hurricane in the Rose Garden.” Currently in pre-production of another film titled “No More Bloodshed” that will be featuring an Oscar nominated actress, Taraji P. Henson and other Nollywood stars. This film will be directed by Hollywood veteran director Michael Schultz (Car Wash, Dirty Sexy Money, etc.). By God’s grace I am working it with the team that I am able to assemble, bridging the gap little by little, slow and steady.
African Entertainment Group is doing well as obviously can be seen from a haul of its stable -" My American Nurse," "Hurricane In The Rose Garden," "Only In America," Okoto The Messenger," and as the list goes on, how did you come up with the idea and what had convinced you it would work?
I didn’t come up with the idea, my producing partner and brother Oscar Atuma did, and when Walter Ojimba and Chika Alakwe of Craig Wal Entertainment (Nigeria) came along with a proposal to do joint productions, we thought it would be best to merge the 3 companies. That’s how we got here – African Entertainment Group is a collection of 3 companies – Craig Wal (Nigeria), Pascal Atuma Productions, Canada and African Entertainment Group, USA. Beautiful idea but I had nothing to do with it, my brother came up with the idea.
Nollywood is not yet complete, and not yet victory to start pumping fists in almost two decades it popped up to face the challenges of a global cinema by way of its audience and quality of production. What explains that?
We are still growing Oga Ambrose. We are not there yet but trust me, by God’s grace when the new generation of Nollywood gets fully established and acquires more experience, the sound will be loud and the taste will be right. It is still a work in progress as victory is assured, the city of Rome was not built in a day.
What area of filmmaking is lacking in Nollywood and what would be your suggestions in bringing it up to standard?
Action, Horror, Sci-Fi in terms of genre, and picture, story telling and sound in terms of quality. Actors playing one level of either shouting or crying, no transitions, and sometimes they are not connected. They just walk through it and get it over with. Training is the only remedy! Becoming professionals in all aspects of filmmaking and specialization will help. Also, distribution as we don’t have a good workable distribution structure in place yet to guarantee that producers and investors come out safe when a movie is released.
It has been said Nollywood ranks 3rd in the movie industry but yet when one takes a close look, little or none of its movies plays on the big screen. How come?
My brother, quantity is different from quality and right now we are still at the quantity level. Once we take our time and infuse quality into that quantity, our movies will be on big screens around the world.
When in your own opinion do you expect Nollywood to be measuring up meeting up to the challenges and competition on parallel grounds and represented in the major film festivals the world over?
Very soon, very soon, we are not too far away. The current generation of Nollywood filmmakers scattered around the world knows the challenges that we are facing, have to face and where we need to go. I know a couple that are trained and ready to take the game to the next level. I am talking about the real professional filmmakers that are very talented and well trained.
Let's talk about your successes in Nollywood . How do you find fame compared to the initial stage of your career when you found yourself on crossroads and time of uncertainties?
(Laughs) My Chief, fame is not the name of the game for me. I just want to do my best, do what God called me to do on earth so all when all is said and done I can look back and say to myself, my fans, my family and to God “I did my best.” Not about fame at all. All I can say is that it has been a very beautiful journey so far, the good, the bad and the ugly of the career/business of it all makes it what it is. God is great my brother, God is great!
Is there anything different from your normal life then and now that success catapulted you to the top, for instance, the means from around which you make decisions and influence others?
A lot, but I am not at the top yet, still a work in progress. You see, when you are a boy, you think and act like a boy, your decisions are boyish too…(laughs), and when you become a man, you think and act like a man, you no longer react on impulse, you sleep over your decisions and you have a team of advisers - members of your family, your close friends and your professional friends (the ones that are not jealous of your success, your spirit will let you know them(Laughs), you make better decisions, and consider how they will affect the people that you love and cherish, and also your fans. I also know that a lot of my young fans are looking up to me, so I definitely consider them in my decisions and how I live my everyday life. I try my best to be a role model.
There are promising young cats out there aspiring to take lead roles one day in their career, what would you tell them about the challenges and the endurance to dedicate and commit themselves with regards to long-term goals and how it eventually would pay off?
It did not happen for Steven Spielberg, Tyler Perry, Spike Lee, John Singleton, Denzel Washington, Nkem Owoh (Osuofia), Halle Berry, Genevieve, Stephanie Okereke, Omotola Jade Ekeinde, my little self - Pascal Atuma, Jim Iyke, Ramsey Nouah, etc. overnight. No, it didn’t. It took some time, work, focus, discipline, commitment and dedication. Also, they have to believe in themselves. You have to believe in yourself before other people will believe you. They should always remember “if you can dream it, you can achieve it” by God’s grace and mercy.
How do you locate unheard and unexposed talents who are out there and do not have access? By what means could they be found?
Auditions. We always have auditions before we do our films, and we are not biased at all. We don’t only work with established stars, we also work with new talent and are always looking for new talent. AEG will be conducting a huge talent search all over Africa soon.
Let's talk about the movie "Hawa." How were you talked into joining the cast of the movie and what was it all about?
The script and the director. When I read the script, I fell in love with it and the role I was asked to play. I believed in the director from the very first day I met him and we had a conversation at the Black Harvest International Film Festival of Arts and Culture in Chicago a couple of years ago.
How was working with the director Aime Kampaore like?
Beautiful, it was beautiful. He is actually more talented and grounded than I thought he is, even though I believed in him from day one. He reminded me of another young African director from Sierra Leone, A B Saliu, whom I worked with in Houston and directed the movie “Secret Past.” Working with both of them gave me strong hope that the future of African Cinema is very bright, very promising. Don’t forget they are both very well trained professionally, talented and trained.
In Hollywood you have worked with quite a bit in the industry – Billy Dee Williams, Lynn Whitfield, Tangi Miller, Hakeem Kae Kazim, Aloma Wright, etc.- how was working with Hollywood actors compared to their Nollywood counterparts you have also worked with?
I don’t think it is fair to the Nollywood actors to compare them with their Hollywood counterparts. Both were not given the same tools to work with. We will start comparing when they are all given the same tools to work with and the field is level all across.
People like me would like to hang out with Billy Dee Williams and I know it would be fun. Your latest outings and engagements in the industry included Billy Dee Williams. How was your company with the classic Billy Dee like?
Memorable, inspiring and uplifting! Gave me more hope and more confidence. He is a class act! The first day we had him and Lynn Whitfield on set together, that was a day, a defining moment. I will never forget that Sunday morning when they both walked onto our set, it was a dream come true. I was very nervous initially but when Billy started telling jokes and asking me about Africa I relaxed a bit. When I called the first action and he didn’t walk off the set I said “thank you Jesus, this is working” (Laughs). When we finished that day and my brother Oscar was driving us home, he said “Eji, we have really come a long way and Hollywood finally accepted and endorsed us today.” I will never forget that day. Oga Ambrose, don’t start calling me “Eji,” that’s for my three brothers Oscar, Nick, and Stanley and, my three sisters Carol, Ruth and Blessing only (Laughs).
Let's talk some politics, the political and religious turmoil in Nigeria. What do you think about the country from the way things are going? Any hope?
Oga Ambrose, I am not a politician and I don’t discuss politics. The only thing I know from visiting home this past week is that “there is hope,” especially in Lagos State, the governor is doing a wonderful job.
What would you have done differently if Hollywood-Nollywood career did not surface?
I would have pursued a career in law or soccer management and coaching.
Last and not the least, this is for the ladies, is there a special someone in Pascal Atuma’s life?
Oga Ambrose, na who send you? They don send you ehh?
Nobody sent me; just asking.
Yes, I have a very beautiful, nice and wonderful girlfriend from Akwa Ibom State, former “Miss Africa, USA” and “2012 Miss Black Florida.” She is a medical student and can cook very well; afang soup, okra soup, pounded yam etc. Just name it, she will cook it.
Does she have a name?
(Laughs) Yes, Oga Ambrose, her name is Mfonobong Essiet. Are we done now? (Laughs). Thanks a lot….(Laughs)