Foremost production designer, Pat Nebo, talks about mentoring young people, need for specialisation, his short acting career and Nollywood’s trajectory in a brief encounter. Excerpts:
It’s so nice to reconnect after several years, how has work been?
It’s been slow but very progressive. A lot of things are changing within the industry, but we are adapting.
You are a renowned production designer, but where are the upcoming ones? Are you mentoring them?
We have a lot of young people around who are Art Directors, Production Designers, Property Masters or Props as they call it these days. Some very prominent ones have passed through me or had a stint with me, but I think one of the most important things is that when they have the opportunity of working with you on a big set, it makes a 360-degrees turn for them. They come off with a lot of experience and what I do in most cases is that, once I’m working as a Production Designer, I don’t draw the line. Anybody who is within the Art Department, be you from construction, costume, props, set and so on, I would always describe things. Try to explain why I do certain things the way I do; how you should follow certain methods to solve some problems because the Nigerian film industry has not grown to the level where other international film countries are.
We still have what I’ll call film on the go. People who just shoot; they keep shooting, but you can’t ignore them because they are the ones that reach people the most. The only thing we do is that through our work, we keep training people. Most of what I do serves as an eye-opener; I make sure that I’m a vehicle for inspiration.
Eventually, I’ll want to settle down and get into real teaching, classroom work. But in most cases, whenever I go on location, I go to institutions close by with people studying film, and I call them. Allow your students to come because I still believe that experience on location is the most important and what I do is that once I enter any place to work, I make sure I handle the entire Art Department.
My mission in handling the entire Art Department is to make sure that I seize that small opportunity to share what I know with the costumiers, make-up people, construction, property people, the art direction team. Even to some extent, production assistants. If you happen to have met me on set, there’s no way you won’t take away something, and there’s no way I’ll not take away something too.
My encounter with these young people, who are, by the way very enthusiastic and work very hard, allows me to see the areas in which they need to improve. And to be honest, most of them are abreast with happenings in the world. They have the ideas, but you need to back all these up with full knowledge of your environment, by that I mean the history, origin, whys and the why not of your society. Once we have that, then you can be sure that one day, we will be able to do the Lords of the Ring a la Nigeriana or a Harry Potter a la Nigeriana because we have extremely very interesting stories. We have not scratched those stories, by the way; we have not.
Most of the time these years, what I’ve dedicated myself to do is training people on location, not in the classroom because on the location they will interact with actors and see what the director is doing. The work of a production designer is to interpret the dream of a director, and the only place that you can see these things happening really in life is on location.
I’ve seen people who worked with me, starting from the time we shot ‘October 1’, they have become A-class art directors. Whenever I work, I want to produce always the best because the young ones look up to you. When you go below specific standards, we do them a disservice. What I do is ensure that I’m part of people who raise the bar, and I encourage individuals or groups also to do the same.
It was quite a surprise seeing you play a role in ‘76’. In all the years I’ve known you, I’ve never seen you act?
Will I call it an acting accident? No. ‘76’ is such a complicated and historical movie. We were dealing with the killing of Murtala Muhammed, it was quite a delicate story, and I doubt if any other person could have pulled it off except an Izu Ojukwu. I lived through that particular period, I think I was in secondary school or so, but I had a lot of knowledge of what these things were about, and we needed to re-create.
We had an agreement with the Army that for anybody to participate in that film, you have to take one full month of military training; drills, parades. Ramsey Nouah, Chidi Mokeme and all of them. Some people couldn’t survive it. The person who was to play my role couldn’t stand it, so I had to come in to play the Colonel that masterminded the coup.
When we were making ‘76’ with Izu Ojukwu and Yinka Edwards, we intended that 50 years after that film, it would still be relevant. That was what we set out to do. The awards, noise that came when the film was released was quite alien to our initial idea.
Do we expect to see you playing more roles in the future?
You can see that for almost 30 years in this business; I’ve not done any other thing apart from art directing, set designing, production design. All have been within the Art Department, I have not exchanged roles, and the reason is that I want to specialise. I want to know more, and I’ll keep learning more in this particular field. I believe that if we have people in Nigeria who will dedicate themselves to a line and stick to it, the industry will be better off for it because you are looking for a cameraman, you will see someone who has been doing it for years and is experienced.
I’m looking for something you might think is banal; welfare in film, you will get someone who has always done welfare. Not someone who is today a costumier, the day after he’s a director, and later he is acting. He becomes Jack of all trades, master of none. This industry is all about specialisation.
Most people that have carved a niche are those who specialised; who came in and faced a few things. You’ve seen actors who became directors, of course, that’s done.
If you come across a fascinating story and you approach people to produce it but they won’t. Will you take it up yourself?
There will always be someone to produce it. I don’t have the skill to manage finance and all whatnot. I want to concentrate on my art. I’ll instead hire a line producer and tell him what I want to do. They can do it. Like writing, you can see that Tunde Babalola is getting better and he’s almost one of the best, if not the best.
There are also some ladies who are very good at writing. You see the role that Tunde Kelani played with the Yoruba film industry; he single-handedly changed the narrative from what it used to be. With ‘Ti Oluwa Nile’; we saw what he did with ‘ ‘Oleku’, ‘Saworo Ide’ and all his films. You could see someone who believed in using his lingua, Yoruba civilisation to chart a new revolutionary course. He moved the narrative from where Ogunde, Ade Love and others stopped. He was the person that brought it out to the modern generation and said the Yoruba language is a means to a revolution. So, today if you have Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa speaking channels, it’s all thanks to the efforts of people like Tunde Kelani. I don’t think that man has been given any national honour, but he highly deserves one.
Lastly, where do you see Nigeria’s movie industry heading in the next five years?
In the next five years, the Nigerian film industry will be heading for the Oscars. If not winning it, getting nominations. I can tell you that citing music as an example. The revolution that Plantashun Boiz started has boomeranged. You can see where young people, Burna Boy, Davido, Phyno, Yemi Alade, Wizkid and others have taken Nigerian music to. They have almost colonised the whole of Africa, they’ve turned the table. Now, it’s Nigerian music and the others.
I believe that it will soon be Nigerian films and others. In the next five years, Hollywood can’t neglect the Nigerian film industry. It’s getting better by the day. Wait until you see some of the new productions, both the ones from the UK produced by Nigerians and the one from Nigeria produced by Nigerians. That’s my prediction.