Living In Bondage: Breaking Free’: How this Nollywood big-budget sequel became the year’s most anticipated film-Wilfred Okiche

This year, box office returns for Nigerian films have been far from remarkable. But come 8, November 2019, Play Entertainment Network and Natives Filmworks, producers of the multi-million Naira sequel, Living in Bondage: Breaking Free are hoping that this trend is reversed. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic but the most important one is that the producers have on their hands, perhaps the most influential intellectual property in all of Nollywood. One that goes back at least 27 years, and goosed up an industry that would go on to be named the second largest film industry- in terms of volume of output- in the world. 

As far as brand recognition goes, it doesn’t get better than this. The original Living in Bondage, produced by businessman Kenneth Nnebue and directed by Okey Ogunjiofor was shot circa 1991 and released in 1992. It wasn’t the first film to be produced in Nigeria, a matter of fact, film production in the country dates back to the 1920s. But after the crippling recession of the ‘80s and structural adjustment had wiped out the booming cinema culture, Nigerians turned to television and celluloid for their entertainment.

The legend of Living in Bondage has been told countless times by now, but a quick recap is necessary. Kenneth Nnebue, a local businessman had imported rolls of tapes from Asia. He needed to get them off his hands as soon as possible to recover his profits and while considering his options, hit upon a brainwave. Would the tapes not be more valuable if they had content dubbed on? Nnebue followed through and hired a cast and crew of mostly unknowns. For many of them, including a then 24-year old Kenneth Okonkwo who played the lead role of Andy Okeke, filming was a labor of love as the project had a total reported budget of less than 150,000 Naira (less than 500,000 Naira when adjusted for inflation.)

Upon release, Living in Bondage, a film about a struggling young man who desperate for wealth betrays his supportive wife and has her killed in exchange for wealth and status hit a nerve and was widely accepted by an audience hungry for locally brewed content that reflected local values. It didn’t matter that the film was shot in Igbo, Living in Bondage became the first Nollywood blockbuster, reportedly selling over a million copies. 

More importantly, the film is credited with midwifing the contemporary Nollywood film industry as Living in Bondage not only made stars out of its young cast (Bob Manuel Udokwu, Kanayo O. Kanayo, Ngozi Nwosu) but inspired the new wave of straight-to-video content that followed. Speaking with YNaija.com, Charles Okpaleke, founder of Play Entertainment Network and (executive) producer of Living in Bondage: Breaking Free considers the film’s legacy, “I don’t think any film has had the impact that Living in Bondage had. I remember I was nine when I first saw it and it had such a profound effect on me. When I thought of doing a remake of Nollywood films of old, it made sense to go back to the beginning, and start with the one film that started it all.” 

On repeat viewing, Living in Bondage does not exactly hold up even if it retains a certain charm. It takes a while for the story to kick off, the picture is choppy and terribly dated, sound, pacing and editing issues abound and Nnebue’s screenplay does not know how not to preach to the audience. But he tells a fascinating, relatable story of greed, crime and the law of karma. The film held particular impetus as it drew parallels with real-life events, arriving at a time when the media was rife with reports of newly minted millionaires involved in blood rituals and swimming in wealth that couldn’t be traced to any tangible sources. 

Dreaming big, breaking free

The story of the making of Living in Bondage: Breaking Free is the story of ambition, determination and the new school melding smoothly with the old school. Circa 2015, Charles Okpaleke had been considering investing more substantially in the film business. Shortly after coming up with the idea of a Living in Bondage reboot, Okpaleke reached out to superstar Ramsey Nouah, a friend whom he felt had the bonafide to go forward with the idea. After listening to Okpaleke’s pitch, Nouah who had been looking for something challenging to sink his teeth into, signed on as director, co-producer and actor.

For a big sprawling production as envisaged by Okpaleke who had little experience in Nollywood, it was imperative that he get the backing of a star as huge as Ramsey Nouah to get the project off the ground. Even though Nouah has one of the most famous names- and faces- in all of Nollywood, his most recent output, consisting of financially successful but inert comedies with AY has been less than inspiring. Living in Bondage: Breaking Free presented an opportunity for Nouah to stretch his creative chops. Nouah shared with YNaija, “Charles came to me and pitched the idea to me and if you know Charles, once he is on about something, he goes all the way. So, I bought in and we moved ahead immediately.”

The duo went about securing the rights to the film. They visited Kenneth Nnebue at his base in Owerri. Nnebue who is now a pastor, was excited to hand over the rights and according to Nouah and Okpaleke, not only did he receive them warmly, he prayed for them and gave his full blessings. 

The screenplay was commissioned to Ndani TV alum, Nicole Asinugo and the plot picks up decades later, following Nnamdi Okeke, Andy’s grown-up son who has apparently, inherited his father’s love for money and the finer things of life. Not satisfied with the initial draft, several back and forths ensued between Nouah and Okpaleke and to resolve the impasse which had set in- Nouah particularly wasn’t convinced the screenplay was ready- Okpaleke suggested that the team bring on Steve Gukas, director of 93 Days and A Place in the Stars

At this point in the pre-production process, it was pretty clear that this was going to be an intensive, sprawling production and Okpaleke was having doubts as to whether Nouah who despite his veteran status as a performer, had the capacity to shoulder the responsibility. Prior to Living in Bondage, Nouah had only directed shorts and forgettable video fare. 

The ultimate challenge was updating the screenplay to attract contemporary audience tastes while keeping the essence of the original so that day one fan can still recognize what made them fall in love in the first place. Gukas told Premium Times, “What we have tried to do is to contemporize it, bringing a telling that will appeal to today’s audience who are cinema enthusiasts. Whilst in the first ‘Living in Bondage’ you talked about how rich they are, this version will also show how fabulously rich they are. They are flying in private jets, sailing in yachts… You see them living the life, visually stunning in all the places that we have shot the film.”

Steve Gukas’ experience working on big-budget productions was the most important factor considered while bringing him on board and at some point, he was scheduled to take over directing responsibilities. The trio met and following a lengthy discussion, decided that Nouah stay on as director while Gukas take on a producing role. To make the screenplay more authentic and locally flavored, Gukas suggested they bring on CJ Obasi (OjujuOTown) who also worked on the screenplay of Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart, and a final draft was arrived at. 

The cast was assembled, a potent mix of younger actors (Enyinna Nwigwe, Nancy Isime, Munachi Abii) with beloved characters from the first film. According to both Nouah and Okpaleke’s accounts, the veteran actors were happy with the script and were quite excited to be part of the sequel. Set in glamorous locations in Lagos, Owerri, South Africa, including an extra scene in Monaco that isn’t likely to make the final cut, the team went into production in November last year. The cast was recalled twice for additional shoots, first in February and finally in May this year.

So what does it cost to make a sequel of Living in Bondage in 2019? 

Ramsey Nouah is reluctant to talk money. He insists that he kept his focus on the creative end of things and deferred to Okpaleke on such production details. He explains, “It was a big production and I was directing, producing and acting at the same time so it took quite a toll and that was more than enough for me to handle. I did not envisage the amount of work I was taking on. We started and I was like wow! but I could not go back.” Okpaleke says spending is still ongoing but puts the figure at a conservative 200 million Naira. “I didn’t want to take any chances because this is a film that means so much to a lot of people. We hope to make it a better story.” 

To compare the sequel’s much-improved production process with the original, star Kenneth Okonkwo at the press conference in Lagos, described his experiences working on both sets. Hear him “When we did the first Bondage, we slept on hard floors because then there was no industry, nobody gave us a chance. Today, just to bring me here, I had to come from Eko Hotel, staying at the 10th floor and watching the beautiful view of Lagos, and my ego being massaged. So you can understand the difference.”

But can the local box office support a 200 million Naira film? As a businessman, Okpaleke thinks so but he insists that making Living in Bondage: Breaking Free, goes for him, beyond local box office takings. “It isn’t all about money for me. I want to make an impact in the industry, build a brand, position it properly and show what can be done. If it goes well, there will be other chances in the future.”

Balancing act

Nouah who is influenced by the hard-hitting, fast action directorial style of Guy Ritchie, says that Breaking Free will feature a mash-up of elements to appeal to as broad a base as possible. Details of the plot are sketchy, the trailer doesn’t say much beyond establishing a mysterious world involving luxurious cars and private jets but a glimpse of Kenneth Okonkwo wearing a neck collar hints at a sign that Andy Okeke is now a man of the cloth even while his son is pursuing the luxury life. Nouah explains his choices, “The original had a lot of blood and gore to reflect the blood money craze of the time but we have downplayed that element so the film is more modern and has a sexier, illuminati vibe.” In keeping up with the times, the film also alludes tangentially to contemporary trends in the ill-gotten wealth industrial complex like advance fee fraud otherwise known as Yahoo Yahoo. 

Alternating between Igbo and English with a smattering of Pidgin English, Breaking Free might run the risk of playing into stereotypes perpetuated by the original, that Igbo folks are willing to do anything, no matter how despicable to amass wealth. Nouah does not quite agree with this charge. He responds, “I honestly don’t think that Igbos should be worried about being portrayed negatively. Were they worried about the original? The story was a reflection of what was going on at the time, same as our film.”

The entire team is banking on name recognition being enough to pull audiences into theatres to kick off what could possibly mark the start of a major franchise. 

Breaking Free could be a test for the entire industry, one that if successful could set up a Disney-like template for remaking or updating beloved franchises. While there is an increasing number of Nollywood films being distributed in theatres, only a handful of them make any money. This year, for instance, only Bolanle Austen Peters’ The Bling Lagosians has crossed the 100 million Naira mark. 

Perhaps a familiar IP might be compelling enough to draw out new audiences who still find it hard to put their trust in Nigerian films. The Breaking Free team is very much banking on that. Nouah makes a final case for his balancing act, “There is a generation that goes to the cinema now that do not know about Living in Bondage and what it meant to the culture. The people that loved Living in Bondage and understand the impact, many of them do not necessarily go to the cinemas. The key for us is finding the right balance to accommodate both parties.”

Ynaija.com 5 October 2019

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