About a year ago I started working on the film, Up North, one of the biggest films ever made in Nollywood. It’s been the most amazing adventure of my life, so I thought to share some of the stories from the production. Over the last couple of months, I’ve been sharing stories on Twitter, but I think it’s best to blog these stories. So here we are.
For my first Up North Blog, I will be writing about Banky Wellington, our leading man.
When I was creating the lead character in Up North, the image I had in my head was a rich ‘kid’, mid-30s with a lot of swag. Basically, Banky W (also known by his film name, Banky Wellington). I’m going to go ahead and agree with everyone who said one of the reasons we choose Banky was his star power — yes, that is also correct.
But it was more than that. We needed a guy who could pull off the rich persona, and look out of place in our northern adventure. The lead character is named Bassey, and Banky being half Efik was a great bonus.
Getting Banky on the project, however, was another story. Back then, the film wasn’t called Up North. It had Bauchi somewhere in the title. As can be imagined, top artists don’t jump at projects by first time filmmakers, set in the middle of nowhere. This is where I’m grateful for the partnership with Inkblot, who are veterans of Nollywood cinema releases.
So my co-executive producer, Naz Onuzo (Nollywoods highest grossing screenwriter, as we like to tease him) was asked to speak with Banky. They had worked together on The Wedding Party and The Wedding Party 2, so had a great relationship.
Locking an actor for a role depends on three major factors — do they like the project? If yes, then availability and remuneration. If the actor is happy to do the project, then the two other factors can be negotiated.
So Naz spoke to Banky, who went, “hmm, interesting”. We started talking terms. That wasn't too hard, we thought.
The day after I’d announced to our team we got our leading man, Naz called — Banky isn’t sure he wants to do it.
I asked Naz to try again, and this time, Banky was very sure he wasn’t going to do it. As an actor, Banky only wanted strong, defining roles. I was like “But this is a strong, defining role”.
But what do we do? We started thinking about options — speaking to other actors. Let’s just say, the people who we offered the reading didn’t take us too seriously.
With every reading we got, we were more and more convinced Banky was our guy. We tried again. Failed.
Deep inside, we had given up. But our options weren’t good. There we were, with a film to make, pre-production started, but still agonizing about a leading man.
I don’t think I told Naz that I was trying again for Banky when I spoke with our big brother, Segun Demuren. SD liked the film and decided to be a cheerleader and speak with Banky about looking at the role. After his meeting, Banky and I agreed to meet at my office to discuss the project.
In the meantime, Rahama Sadau, our leading woman, had also dropped out due to scheduling conflicts — she couldn’t shoot in May. Her open dates were from June 10. So landing Banky became extra-critical, and it all depended on our meeting.
If you see how I prepared for that pitch, be like exam. We met on a Tuesday morning. 10AM (Banky is always on time!) Nothing wey I no tell this my guy. I explained my tour of Northern Nigeria, how it inspired me to tell a story about the North we don’t see in the news, the resources I was putting into the film, my entire vision for it.
Finally, he said, you know what, I like your passion. Let me read the script and get back to you by the weekend.
It turns out that in all this time, we had not offered this guy the script to read!
The next day, I left for location scouting in Bauchi. It took a lot of faith. Our preferred alternate was posting us. The other readings didn’t excite us.
On Friday, I checked in with Banky about his reading. He replied, “Bros, let me read this script now”. Then went dark. Saturday, no word. No reply.
As every businessman would do, I steeled against disappointment and started looking at the alternate reading which finally came. I was feeling lost at this point — I didn’t have my preferred leading man or woman. God why?
On Sunday, I think I finally told Naz and Zulu that I’m not sure Banky would do it. I was now actively looking at the alternatives. When my phone rang in the evening, Banky, I picked up and said “Its alright, man, I understand.”
Banky’s reply was “so let’s talk about how to make this film.” It was a bit of a gray zone. I wasn’t sure I had heard him right, and was trying to not hope I had heard what I thought I had. But he followed up with that famous film line ‘It’s a story that needs to be told”.
I can’t remember what happened over the next hour. Happiness can do that to a person.
Over the next few days, we met, chatted and solved for schedules. We had to move the shoot from May to late May/June. The plan was to start shooting in Bauchi, then shoot Lagos after that. We had to switch that plan around, start in Lagos, finish in Bauchi.
A consequence of the schedule change meant Rahama became available again. Such awesome.
It’s hard to describe how hard this shoot was. There were a lot of running scenes and after getting our leading man, we realized he hadn’t recovered full fitness after having surgery the year before.
Banky has to work with a therapist to get fit for the role. We also got a body double in case he couldn’t do some of the physical scenes.
After the first day shooting with the body double, Banky told me he wants to do all his physical work. This man put a lot of hard work in, sometimes through the pain barrier.
(I won’t talk about the ride from Jos to Bauchi, which took 4 hours instead of 2 because some people who were in the North for the first time were too chicken to allow the vehicles drive at normal speed. It’s embarrassing 😂)
When you see all those punishment scenes in camp, they were brutal. I was actually afraid, but Banky was like “I signed up for this, let me do it.” The man worked!
Banky’s last day in Bauchi was a frenzy. He needed to head back to Lagos to fly to Russia for the World Cup, but we had a scene to shoot at the Gubi Lake. It was a risk doing that scene because there was only one flight out through Jos, but it really had to be done. We go to the location, set up and shot the scene. It was possibly the fastest scene we’d done since we arrived Bauchi. There was a lot of panic during setup, but when it was time to shoot, our man calmed, smiled and got to work. That scene is one of the high points of the film.
We couldn’t have made Up North without the sheer graft of Banky Wellington. The days were hot, the nights long, including 20 hour days where we were shooting running scenes at 2AM. But we did it.
And there was this moment.
Casting Zainab was hard. We had tried to cast two Hausa speaking actresses for that role, but they stood us up, pretty much. It was becoming a desperate situation a day to when we were supposed to start filming Zainab scenes. Then Adesua Etomi, aka Banky’s wife, who had read the script a few times told us she liked the role and wanted to do it. The photo above was me in disbelief — we had just finished sorting out the deal.
Shortly before Up North was released, Banky announced a run for the Federal House of Representatives. When he met with me privately to discuss his plans to run for office. I was excited — Banky has a really great heart, and I was able to see that up close in Bauchi. But I also worried about the promotional activities for the film. He said it won’t be a problem. I don’t know how he did it, but he found a way to meet his obligations to the film, showing up for shoots, interviews and screenings.
Banky was also out in Los Angeles last week (March), to represent the Up North family at the “Nollywood to Hollywood” screening of our film.
Thank you, Banky W, for Up North, for hard work, for helping make dreams come true. Thank you for being the most professional leading man a first time film maker could ask for. And thank you Adesua. For coming along for the ride, and saving us when we needed the most help.