Plotting the storyline of the third season of Ndani TV’s ‘Rumour Has It’ series, Lani Aisida had to strike a balance between length and tying up on a high note enough to evoke emotion. Not many expected that the season finale would see one of its most cherished characters meet an undesirable fate in a twist that spurred arguments and protestations about the screenwriter’s creative choices.
Through seasons one and two, the show, RHI for short, told the story of Obi Obi, a celebrity vlogger who makes a killing by spreading rumors about the famous. The series goes on to explore how the strife that follows can interact with the personal lives of the subjects involved. Starring actors like Chinonso Arubayi, Elma Mbadiwe, Olumide Oworo, and Ozzy Agu, the RHI season three was written solely by Aisida and directed by Ifeoma Chukwugo.
To start afresh and rebrand herself as a serious journalist after the tumultuous events of the previous seasons, Ranti decides to write a tell-all book about her life. RHI3, whose last episode came in late August, explores such themes as betrayal, love, and duty. In this interview with STEPHEN KENECHUKWU, Aisida, the acclaimed ‘King of Web Series’, talks about screenwriting and forthcoming projects.
You wrote RHI3, not the entire web series. How did you ensure there was no disconnect between your own storytelling and the decisions made by the previous writers pertaining to the plot?
I was the only writer on RHI3. Ndani called saying they needed to shoot the third season for it. I pitched a story; they liked it. Then I went on to write the episodes. That’s how it got to people’s screens and viewers loved it.
I co-wrote RHI2 with Temitope Salu. However, RHI1 was from a different writer. So I felt like we had overcome that hurdle. It helped because the Ndani TV team was well aware of the story. There were a lot of conversations with people at Ndani at the time, Agnes and Bimbo. That was when we were working on season two.
Also, the structure of RHI helped, in that, for every season, there was a new rumour, which brings about a new story. There is the central theme, which is the blog run by Ranti Lawrence. That’s a storyline that goes through the seasons. But in each season, there’s a new story, new rumour, new family, new conflict. That way it was easy to remain true to the structure of the story.
Why the change of writers though, having different people author each season? And what would you say positioned you as the ideal screenwriter for the web series’ third installment?
I’m not sure that’s a question for me because the people at Ndani deemed me fit to be the writer. I had started working with Ndani on RHI season 2. That was the first project I did with them. That was in 2017/2018.
Since then, we’ve written several projects together. There’s ‘Phases’, which I created for them. I co-wrote ‘Skinny Girl In Transit’, ‘Afrocity’. I feel like we were already aligned in our vision of storytelling. Working together, it had become a bit easier to get on subsequent projects over the years. Thankfully, it has worked well so far.
Tell us more about your process of writing RHI3
I had to first figure out the story. After we agreed on that, it was about trying to break it down and finding the perfect structure for it to make it as interesting as possible. I liked the themes we were going to address.
You probably know that a great deal of the writing process is not spent writing. The story was in my head but I spent a lot of time trying to flesh it out. And this is not time spent on a laptop but one where I’m living my normal life and thinking about how best to present the characters, their identity, virtues, and vices. Who is Nnenna? She has a love interest for Toju. What does she want? What are her fears? These keep getting updated with the conversations I have in my regular life.
What difference would you say you made with the series?
I wouldn’t talk about it as differences. Obviously, there was a platform, which is the creation of the series itself.
It was awesome and we just came and added layers to it. We just built on the existing. But what I would say is that, for the first two seasons, the rumours turned out to be true. So one of the things I had to try out is, what if the circulating rumours are not true? How does it affect the characters?
You want to play with reality in the age of social media where claims go about, some of which are untrue and others are half-truths. We touched on the cancel culture thing and how it could easily damage people’s life. That was the one thing we did a bit differently.
What are those tough decisions you had to make, having been given the creative floor in RHI3?
It was Nnenna’s death and Deda’s death. It was a tough one deciding how I was going to tie up the season.
I kept trying to see if there was another way to resolve Deda’s death or whatever it is that Deda did. Should he have gone to prison just like Ranti did in season 2, even though it wasn’t for what she did? It was just those about how to increase the stakes that gave me a tough time. I’ll be honest. When I wrote about Nnenna’s death, I didn’t expect it to have the reaction it got. And I guess that’s a good thing. I just wanted people to love her, then we take her away.
I wanted Toju to love her and then we take her away from Toju. It just so happened that people loved them both and we took them away from the audience. It was really bad for them. As a writer, you want to evoke an emotion from the audience. And they empathized with Toju. They loved Nnenna and a lot of people saw situations in their real lives in the show’s characters.
Someone said, because of the show, she had the guts to go hit on her boss who she has had a crush on for a while. Another tough shot was discussing with the producer about making the third season 10 episodes. I didn’t want it to drag for too long. The last season was 12 episodes. We made the third 10 episodes to keep the story tight.
You’ve handled screenwriting for multiple film projects in the past. Can you give a quick rundown on some of these and the unique challenges you’ve had to surmount in delivering on the job?
I’ve worked on several projects, written films for both cinema and TV. I’ve written for Africa Magic and Iroko TV. You have ‘Battle Ground’, ‘Unbroken’, and the likes. One thing I can say is that every project is unique.
Each has its own challenges. In some like RHI3, you work alone. In another, you work with a team of two to three writers, which comes with dynamics quite different from when you work with a team of twelve for instance. In all the projects I’ve worked on, there are unique challenges. We just had to find ways to tackle them, one at a time.
You’re a chartered accountant turned screenwriter and it’s only natural for one to assume there’s a war story so to speak tucked in between that transition. I want you to speak about it.
I studied Mathematics & Statistics at the University of Lagos (UNILAG) and did ACCA. I did mine in the UK and then got a BSc from Oxford Brookes University as well. I then went on to become a Chartered Accountant.
Sometime in 2013/2014, I was a financial analyst with Dangote Salt. Around that time as well, I had just discovered screenwriting and wrote a TV series called ‘Plus 234’. I also co-founded a company with a friend Soji at the time.
I found screenwriting fascinating. I experienced difficulty excelling at my job as a financial analyst because it was tough combining that with what I had to do to excel as a screenwriter. I made the choice to quit my 9-to-5 job. My mum was a bit scared. She thought it didn’t make sense, understandably. I drank garri for a couple of months.
When I was still in my 9-to-5 job sending emails, a lot of invites I got to screenwriting rooms were clashing with my work hours as an analyst. That led me to quit one for focus. There are people who did screenwriting full-time and I wanted to be as good as them, even better. How do I get better when they do it full-time while I do part-time?
This was even as I considered myself as having some catching up to do. I did an analysis of the industry for screenwriting and these things informed my decisions. It’s been a good ride so far and I feel it’s going to get better.
How lucrative would you say screenwriting has been thus far?
Very decent for me, I would say. I’ve been fortunate, blessed, and lucky. But to be honest, I’ve worked hard to get here. I’ve worked with Africa Magic, Ndani TV, several good producers, and independents as well. It has been great and the future is even brighter with international companies having their eyes set for Africa and Nigeria. Obviously, you want to ensure you’re well-positioned to squeeze out maximum financial value while giving value as well.
Ownership is a thing in the creative industry. How much of this came with the gigs you’ve taken up?
I believe Nollywood is evolving and maturing, although there have been a lot of successes. Certain conversations that weren’t the norm before have come forward, including ownership of content and IP.
From a personal point of view, I haven’t had conversations about ownership for the longest time but that’s one of the things I started doing this year. I’m still in the middle of certain negotiations.
Things are great and I believe it’s beneficial to both parties, the creators and the producers. I’d like to believe that the screenwriters’ guild is working to protect writers and the producers as well. We can only wait and see where the conversation goes.
Tell us about the project you have at hand now. Do you also produce?
I actually started out as a screenwriter and producer before I decided that my actual passion was screenwriting.
There was so much to learn so I decided to drop the producing cap. Seven years later, I’m going back to production because I’ve made a name in screenwriting. Every other thing, I can learn while multitasking as a producer. Last year, I set up a company, African Stories Untold. For now, we’re focusing on telling true stories about you and me.
We produced a docuseries called ‘My Birthing Experience’ on YouTube. We had about 30 plus episodes. It’s about women and men sharing their unfiltered birthing journey to create a place for others to learn as they get to that reproductive stage. I felt it was important for others to know the risks and beautiful things around the experience.
We have other shows lined up for production. For now, we’re focusing on true stories. Next, we will explore fiction.
So what’s next for Lani Aisida?
I’m working on a movie I’m excited about. I’ve had this story for three/four years. I found the perfect producer and I feel now is the best time to kick off. I’m a story editor on a new Africa Magic project to start in a month or two. We have African stories untold. We’re developing a lot of content for the channel; we’re in the development phase. Next year, we have the rollout phase when we will start producing and shooting. In all, I’m always creating TV shows.
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