It’s 2:47 pm and Pascal Atuma — donning an indigenous white fabric and a red cap indicative of his status as an Igbo chief — had taken a seat with his wife and manager at a table reserved in a hotel bar where we planned to meet for a talk. It was a day after he flew in from Canada to Nigeria for the media push of ‘Clash‘, his movie that had its Netflix debut the day before.
I join in, interrupting the trio’s rather hushed discussion while shaking hands with the movie director as I claimed my own seat, facing a group of men busying themselves at the snooker table some feet away from the bar’s frontage. With pleasantries giving way, Atuma who lived out multiple years in the United States and Canada quickly pointed out that the ‘Clash’ project was already Netflix’s no 1 movie in Nigeria and topping the charts in Africa.
The film shot in Canada and Nigeria enlisted a racially diverse league of actors to unearth a story bordering on the family dynamics of Africans living in the diaspora; the challenges and cultural conflict they grapple with. Produced by Warren Beaty and Ola George, both Canadian filmmakers, ‘Clash’ featured the likes of Omoni Oboli, Brian Hooks, Merlisa Langellier, Stephanie Linus, Vivian Williams, and Pascal Atuma (who also co-authored the script with George Kalu).
“It took us two years from pre-production to advanced post-production. We shot for 28 days but, in Nigeria, we only shot for two days. You can’t target a global market and produce a movie in two or three months. It’s not going to work. Already, the movie is rating number 1 in Africa. I’m more interested in the global rating,” he says.
“The script came from deep culture. Kalu is deeply rooted in culture, born and raised in Nigeria before he moved to America. I tried to use the movie in addressing the difference between the new generation and the old as well as the value system decay. It’s not even something peculiar to Africa but a major concern among the youth globally. There is also the issue of biracial relationships and Africans not allowing certain marriages due to tribe, culture, religion.”
Have you always directed or it’s a case of transitioning into it at some point, having been an actor?
When I finished theatre school in Dallas, Texas, I moved to LA, California. I was a DJ under a training programme. I understudied David DeCrane for years, at which time I had my production debut (2005), which was my first writing a script, ‘Only In America’. He directed it. We got global distribution through Mavericks Entertainment. Then, he was in Blockbuster Videos. After that, I wrote my second script ‘My American Nurse’. I said, ‘David, let’s do it again. You direct; I produce’. He said, ‘no, Pascal. I think you’ve studied enough. You know enough to go on your own’.
So, that was my first time directing, acting, producing, and being a writer. That’s the biggest movie I’ve done before this one. Although I’ve done many more, none of them has beaten ‘My American Nurse’ until now. But I think, this time, ‘Clash’ is going to beat it. I would say I’ve always been a director, really. As you can see, I’m still in the game.
What was film school like? How did you bring the experience into ‘Clash’?
I’m a theatre graduate. So it was a very beautiful experience. I went to the best school in the southwest region of the United States. It’s called KD Acting Conservatory. So they train you for film, TV, and acting. I took theatre, the acting side. So I have a degree in acting and applied performance, also called Applied Arts. My experience in theatre school let me know this is what I was called to do. When I was studying engineering at the University of Port Harcourt (UNIPORT), I wasn’t happy to go to school. I just did that for dad and mum. But during theatre school, I was so happy that I couldn’t wait for the day to come so I could get on it. That was when I knew where I belonged.
My brother and I run a company called The Atuma Brothers International (TABIC), under which we have TABIC Films; TABIC TV; TABIC Sports Management; and TABIC Records. So when we studied in LA, we had the best of professionals. LA is a hub. When you want the best sound, you get it at a good rate. But having moved to Canada, ‘Clash’ was my second film. The first I did was that which won me the Kevin Hart competition. So it was like I was working with new crew members — a new DOP (director of photography), new sound, new makeup, new wardrobe.
Going into it, I was a bit more focused, knowing fully well that I don’t have my [former] team with me. I knew I had to be at my best to get what I want. I had to go back to the basis of knowing that, “you don’t have anyone that you already trust here unlike in LA.” Directing in LA, the same crew I’d been using, I’ve done 11 films with. So I don’t worry about the script supervisor doing it right, the gaffer, makeup, or catering services because we knew ourselves.
Even if you’re new, there was already a shared culture you have to imbibe. Having gone to direct ‘Clash’, I knew it was going to be a new war I must win. Of course, the actors, some of whom are Nigerian faces, were there to drive the story home. But the crew members are there building from behind the scenes. That’s what I’m talking about.
At the pre-production, what are those tough decisions you had to make putting the cast together?
At my level, there’s a lot that goes into the casting — the business side of it. You ensure that you define your target market before you go looking for talents that can deliver. For ‘Clash’, you’d see we have Omoni Oboli and Stephanie Linus. Brian Hooks from the ‘Eve’ show covered the African-American market. Merlisa Langellier from the US, who is a UN ambassador covered the Caribbean. Then I come into Canada and I have Canadians, including Italian-Canadians, Jewish Canadians, and Spanish-Canadians. So we have more than ten countries represented.
When I do casting, the business part is to be taken care of. For the rest of the roles, we fill it with talented actors.
Now, you wrote the script, right?
But, you took part in the writing process.
I rewrote it. The original script is by George Kalu. He wrote the script and sent it to me. I rewrote it so we shared the writing credit.
So what percentage of the script represents your creative input?
Perhaps all of them, from A to Z.
On the storyline, to what extent did the script reflect your own experience as a Nigerian-Canadian?
You have to understand that the original writer is also Nigerian-American. So it’s kind of like a combination of the Nigerian-American experience and the Nigerian-Canadian experience. I lived in the US for 21 years; I’ve also lived in Canada for five years now. So the experience is not keenly personal to me. So when you watch the movie and live in London, Belgium, the US, Australia, you will find something in it that will look like a personal experience to you.
The narrative behind the script, however, comes from deep culture. George Kalu is deeply rooted, born and raised in Nigeria before he moved to America. So he wrote the script from a deeply rooted African culture experience.
The main message I set out to push is the idea of being truthful with parenting. Nobody should be raised and left to be confused as to who their biological parents are. I also tried to use the movie in addressing the difference between the new generation and the old as well as the decay in the value system. It’s not even peculiar to African culture but a major concern among the youth across the world. I addressed the issue of biracial relationships and Africans not allowing their people to marry their preferred partners because of the issue of tribe, culture, religion, or whatever excuse they have to stop it. I mean, in the end, the only thing that can keep a marriage is if there is genuine love.
From the title of the movie, for those who haven’t watched it, there is this tendency for the viewers to assume it’s going to be another drama-comedy kind of narrative —a dramedy. What is that thing ‘Clash’ brings to the fore such as to distinguish the movie from others within the same genre?
One, it’s not predictable. You can’t determine what’s going to happen in the next scene. Secondly, is that it’s not just a dramedy. It has multiple societal messages. Every scene has a message. And, with my style, once I deliver, I’m out. The script itself was written to drive a message and make an impact. Already, the movie is rating number 1 in Africa right now (May 19) on Netflix. But I’m more interested in the global rating and being the number 1 film worldwide.
Of course, there is the script, what financial partnerships did you run to bring the project alive?
Even for the script, I had to find the right story to tell, which was why I reached out to George. Canada is preaching multiculturalism, trying to bring all cultures together. So, it presented a veritable opportunity to pull funds. If you want the Canadian government to fund you, your film has to go in that direction. I was when I realized I didn’t have that type of script I reached out to Kalu. ‘Do you have something?’ He sent me this, I read it, and I liked the story.
I had to get it to a level where the script would be production-ready. After that, we reached out to Feva TV Canada. They had an envelope issued to them by the Canada Media Funds (CMF) through Telefilm. The envelope was meant for their usage in production. They gave it to Diamond Pictures, a company I run with one of our partners in Canada. Diamond Pictures then had to raise money to fill up the gap and do the movie. I reached out to one of my classmates from Government College in Umuahia, Abia state back in Nigeria. We’re a class of 83. One came in.
So, between my classmates and the CMF, the movie was financed. That’s for the production side in Canada. For the Nigerian side, TABIC has a production team. My brother ran the Nigerian side of the production. By the time I flew in, my brother Oscar had everything set up. We shot for two days. So basically, ‘Clash’ was shot in both Nigeria and Canada while the partnership involved four companies. And, obviously, CMF is not a production company, though.
Having involved four partners/financiers, how much was spent producing the movie in total?
Do you mean the total budget?
Yes, how much?
Now, I’ll have to get permission from the executive producers to reveal that. You know it’s a business, not really about the numbers.
Well then, tell us about you. What was your growing up like and how did it play into your decision to pursue acting as a career despite the preference of parents?
Uhm… my father is a talented guy. My mother is a gospel singer, a choir mistress for the Apostolic Church. We grew up doing recitations and plays in church. My dad acted but mainly in traditional performances. Since my mum was a choir mistress, whether I could sing or not, we grew up singing in the choir. The acting thing, for me, was revealed when I attended Government College, Umuahia. The person who inspired it was Mr. Nwariaku, my English teacher.
I was a science student but I had joined the debating club. So there was Mr. Nwariaku; Mr. Obi, our Igbo teacher; and our singing teacher we nicknamed Makpuru. Those three teachers actually formed me, the man you see today. But, with African parents, you can only be a medical doctor, an engineer, a lawyer, or an accountant. Anything else is useless. I was forced into engineering. They actually wanted me to be a doctor. So they sent me to Afikpo Poly.
There, I studied Science Laboratory Technology. When I was working in a hospital, doing my IT, I didn’t like it. They then forced me to go into engineering. But luckily, my brother sent me to the US and I found my freedom.
What was auditioning for your first role like? Lots of actors often have a spectacular story on this.
That was either ‘In His Kiss’ (2004) or ‘Accidental Life’ (2004). If you check IMDb, whichever is first, it should be clarified. I auditioned for one of them and got a role. The girl that played my wife auditioned somewhere and told them she had an African guy who acts well. She recommended me and I got my second role. The theatre school I attended is the best in the southwest region of the US. I wasn’t scared or anything; I was a little militant. If I could survive Government College Umuahia from class one to five at the time, I wouldn’t be afraid to audition. Quote me.
At this point in your acting-directing, it’s only expected that you observed Nigeria’s movie industry grow. What is your assessment of the place of Nollywood, considering what is obtainable globally?
There certainly is a positive shift, without which we wouldn’t see global players like Netflix come. The FilmOne, the Silverbird, the Genesis (cinemas) have helped to grow the industry. Most importantly, they controlled the quality of movies that come in. People now realize they have to be trained unlike before when people will just wake up and claim the title of director, sound engineer, or DOP. The influx of external players brings funding. The more money you have, the better your production quality. So there has been a positive shift, even in the music scene. You can see what Burna Boy and Davido are now doing. The industry has really grown and I see a very beautiful future ahead.
Concerns were raised about the influence of distribution monopoly in cases where cinema owners make films and have a tendency to push their own content more to detriment of those of others. What’s your say about regulating this while considering the need for diversity across the cinema?
My brother, I think it’s just show business, pure business, and with no sentiments attached. Sentiments don’t work in business. You don’t worry about sentiments when people are just doing business. If you’re worried about them doing it, where were you? Go and do the same thing. You can form your own distribution company and build your own cinema. It’s that simple. Then, you can run it the way you want it. These guys are in business to make money. It’s simple numbers. And I’m almost a hundred percent sure that, if your movie is that good and would make money for them, they will take it. Leave sentiments alone; define business and understand why it is called showbiz.
Beyond movies, you’ve been running this record label you created for the underprivileged, TABIC Records, for some years now. How is it coming along for the young talents you earlier signed?
We’ve changed two lives; brought two village boys from Otukpo to Lagos, showed them a new life, and gave them a shot at a quality education. One has been in attending a private school for three years, about to take the JAMB exam. The other missed his JAMB earlier and I was upset. I put him up for another one and he took it. He didn’t make it. I had to put him on suspension because, from day one, I had told them, ‘no education; no TABIC Records’.
He’s been on suspension and I’m not taking him back until he passes. These are vital lessons one must take in to thrive in the future. My brother and I didn’t set out to raise touts but people who can make music to influence the world. Despite being a social enterprise, the label was not built for profit. Still, if we’re going to invest money in you, you have to be willing to be what we want, a responsible gentleman using music to message society. We’re going to be recruiting even more people but they have to play by the rules. We want people who will be marketable globally.
You run a label; produce and direct films, and you act. Observing your trajectory, you come across as a very versatile creative. What’s the strategy for you? What projects do you have in the works?
I’m a FIFA agent too (laughs). I studied Entrepreneurship at the University of Pennsylvania so you’ll understand it when we talk about serial entrepreneurship. In one phase of the game, I’m into sports and entertainment. As long as the business falls within these two, I can run it. Considering how far we’ve come, we’ve done well. But we haven’t even started yet. In the next 10 years? Anything below Simon Cowell, Tyler Perry, or even Steve Harvey is a failure.
We have many projects. In 2020, we were supposed to kick off our talent show focusing on singers, comedians, and dancers. We are almost ready to go. We even had sponsorship backing but we couldn’t take off. We had to put it on hold. So I moved back to Canada where I got back to the film business. That gave me chance to also focus on our sports business, TABIC Management. We buy and sell players. We’re at that point in filmmaking where it’s either we make movies at the level of ‘Hotel Rwanda’, ‘The Last King of Scotland’, ‘Blood Diamond’ or we don’t make at all. We have three projects cooking, all of which have the ability to hit that benchmark.
Any title to it just yet?
I’m not willing to give it out just yet (laughs). The three projects are in preproduction. One will come between this year and 2022, you know we don’t do movies every year. We do one in two or three years to make sure we do it right, especially considering that we only target global markets. You can’t target a global market and produce a movie in two or three months. It’s not going to work.
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