Odu… The creative mind behind Mildred Okwo’s La Femme Anjola
Essentially, Kelechi Odu is a designer. An architect who describes his calling as “space and object design,” he plays his game from traditional architecture to fashion and film design every now and then. He was the one Mildred Okwo went after for her upcoming La Femme Anjola (FLA), a movies that stars Rita Dominic, Nonso Bassey, Ego Boyo and Femi Jacobs and others. In this interview with MARIA DIAMOND, he speaks on the opportunity that the film presented him to build a fitting nightclub as location, create rain effect amongst other feats.
At what point did you know you wanted to do this project?
Actually, I decided I would work on any project the director, Mildred Okwo was attached to while we were shooting a series call Bankers NG; this was in 2016/2017. I was impressed with her ability to translate her vision, her work ethic, trust in the creatives she partnered with and the military style management of her sets.
How did you approach creating the world that we see in LFA?
With hindsight, we were fortunate to have a long gestation period for the film. It afforded me opportunity to absorb the vision that Mildred had for telling the story and allowed for deep research and testing, which one does not usually have the opportunity to do.
It was clear she wanted to create a sort of film noir that is authentically Nigerian. We spent a lot of time trying to define what an authentic representation of Nigeria would look, sound and feel like and what if any, were the unique ways in which we respond to and perceive fear, tension, passion and attraction. We then synthesised all this into a visual bible that defined every aspect of the world of LaFemme Anjola, including aspects we knew may never make it to film.
What was the collaborative process like with Mildred Okwo?
One of the things I appreciate most about Mildred Okwo is her clarity of vision; she creates the worlds in her head, but allows space for creative partners to fill in.
Effectively, I manifested her vision and used it to create a framework for the other creatives to plug in. I would then add another ingredient to each item, usually humour. Sometimes in the form of unselfconscious absurdity, sometimes a knowing conceptual wink at the viewer – to reflect the slightly bemused worldview that permeates Mildred’s creative work and life.
Perhaps, because of the time spent on the project, natural alignment or the scientific way in which we approached the process, we often came to the same conclusions separately. One important example of this, was in the way one of the main locations in the film -the Bassment bar – looked. At the beginning of the process, we imagined an opulent jewel box-like space hidden behind a shabby facade. But as things fell into place, it was clear to both of us that the place would be a little more, gritty, awkward and absurd in response to the way the story and characters had developed. The result is a bar that becomes a major character in the movie that enhances the story in a more authentic way than its initial iteration.
What would you want audiences to understand about the production design process?
To understand that if done well, it can enhance the the quality of the experience of film; from production to presentation and ensure the ‘suspension of reality’ that is required to deliver the story in the most potent way. If one must tell a story, it must be told with full respect of the person who has invested time and money to experience it. Director Mildred and I believe that it is necessary to fully immerse the viewer in the world created.
In some ways, moviemaking is like playing a god; creating a world for the viewer to peer into. This requires meticulous attention to detail and clear visual representations. If something rings untrue in the world the viewer is perceiving, it discredits the story for them.
Was budget a factor in this project and how do you navigate it?
I believe the main task of a production designer is to facilitate the delivery of the director’s vision impeccably and efficiently. As an architect and a creative in general, constraints are an important part of the design process. We are in the business of movies, so budget management is a major constraint we have to create with. Once the vision has been developed, it is a fun exercise to think about the most cost effective and expedient ways to make the components that make up the world we are attempting to manifest. Production design also allows me to challenge my architectural desire to create objects that are permanent.
What other projects have you worked on, and do you plan on doing more films?
In Nigeria, I worked on a show called BankersNG and currently working on a show about Mega Churches. I still practice architecture fully, so, I can only work on one film project a year and have to be selective.
How do you create a world from scratch? Do you approach it scene by scene or is there a larger picture that you see?
Much of the work I have to do is downloading the world that is already in a director’s head. The rest of the exercise is essentially, creating reference points and opportunities to create familiarity or inspire a sense of awe. Directors sometimes envision in scenes or tableaux; we must stitch these together to create a world and add information to clarify and enhance the story.
You have a background in fashion and architecture. Do they play a factor in how you design sets?
Absolutely, these professions deal with key elements that affect how we perceive and interact with world. We are always surrounded by spaces and objects; they define who and where we are and so are necessarily the framework for any story.
What are your personal expectations from the film? How do you think it will be received?
The story is compelling; the productionis team solid. The cast, stellar. The directing, sublime. The production was well thought out and delivered. I think it will be well received and I know it will be a reference for Nollywood and genre redefining for film in general. Director Mildred is a brilliant storyteller and an inspiring person, this is reflected in the movie that she has created.
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