At 27, Akay Mason Ilozobhie has beat the odds and directed two movies – Elevator Baby (nominated for 6 AMVCAs) and Day of Destiny a time travel movie that is a first in Nollywood. Jay Agbaje asked him about his career, his new movie and future plans.
Akhigbe Ilozobhie had no idea why he was in that class.
It was his first year in the University of Lagos and the political science lecturer had just asked all first year students to say why they were in that class. As he listened to the others dreams of careers in politics and the diplomatic service, he knew he had nothing to say.
And it was in that moment… that he knew… he was wasting his time in his political science studies. He wanted to make movies.
Fast forward almost a decade and Akhigbe Ilozobhie – or Akay Mason as he is more popularly known – is a celebrated director with two movies under his belt. His debut movie Elevator Baby, remains at number 55 in the top 100 movies in Nigeria by box-office of all time. He would like to come close to that record with his second movie – Day of Destiny, or DoD as it is more commonly known.
Despite his comparative youth in Nollywood, Ilozobhie’s accomplishments have a certain inevitability to them due to his single-mindedness in pursuing his moviemaking passion. His early focus, it seems, was sparked by closely observing the effect of the system on others ahead of himself.
As a first year student in UNILAG, Ilozobhie tended to befriend older students. Observing the academic difficulties of his final year roommates gave him fresh resolve to forge a different path. “I looked at them and I didn’t envy them,” he remembers. “I wanted something different for myself. I didn’t know what I wanted but I knew I wanted something different.”
He decided to put into motion a long held desire to go into filmmaking. Unlike many who aspire to filmmaking, this was more than just a dream for Ilozobhie. It was rational career choice to beat the odds of an extended job-hunt or unemployment. “The Nigerian entertainment industry is the third highest employer of labor,” he stated flatly, “after the federal government and [the billionaire businessman Aliko] Dangote.”
His initial attempts to talk his family into supporting his plans were naturally, and supernaturally, rebuffed. “My mother first of all sent me for [spiritual] deliverance to get rid of any evil thing that had got me thinking about film,” he laughed as he recounted the story. “But when I told her there was no going back, she eventually said okay.”
Even before he went to his family, Ilozobhie had applied to several film schools outside Nigeria. So the next step after getting his mother’s support was financing his dream. But after she sold her cold room to raise money, his parents made it clear that his options were down to the most affordable school that accepted him.
That affordable school was the now closed Reel Edge Film Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa. His time as a film student there kicked off a rich, fun, sometimes difficult process of learning the skills and developing the point of view that shapes his films today. I asked Ilozobhie what that experience was like:
It was a school run by filmmakers. So most of our lecturers were coming from [movie] sets or during their break. So we were always going on the sets. We had almost 100% practical learning. We were always in sets working. And you made so many films in a year that it becomes second nature. So that was thrilling for me especially coming to Nollywood where it’s a back and forth thing.
That’s where you produced a short movie – ‘Savage Pose’. And then you also directed a test commercial – “We Carry The Weight”.
Those were the ones that actually came out.
It seemed like a fun environment, hanging out and I think you all went to a gun range one time. What was that like?
The first year, students are most likely gonna pick up cinematography or so [the lecturers use that] to check your eyesight and the stability of your arm under pressure. Like with a gun, the recoil and everything. So when you’re moving a camera, [they want to know] can you keep a camera steady like when you’re shooting a handgun, you know? They were using certain tests like that for your eyesight and your arms.
So it wasn’t just for fun. It was actually- there was some purpose to this.
We thought it was for fun, then afterwards, they broke it down to us that it was to test our eyesight and our arm strength.
Interesting. I’m never going to see a gun range the same now. The next time I go to a gun range, I’m gonna be thinking; I could be a movie director. Who knows?
(laughs) Or a cinematographer.
So let’s talk about your movies. With Elevator Baby, and now DOD, you clearly are a guy who wants to tell stories about people in very unique situations. What’s the motivation behind that?
For me, it’s based off the kind of movies I like. If it’s a comedy it has to be about a serious character in an unserious situation or an unserious character in an extremely serious situation. Basically a fish out of water scenario and then we see what comes of it.
That’s why I love I love movies. I love Star Wars because Luke Skywalker did not know what being a Jedi was. He did not know what being in the resistance meant. But he got the call, his hero’s journey started and he went for it. He was immediately thrust into an uncomfortable situation and he excelled.
As a filmmaker, it also makes it interesting to watch a character evolve. Because if you take somebody and put them in a situation, they’re never going to come out the same way they went into that situation. They have to come out different. They have to come out refined, or worse.
For much of our conversation, I could not see Ilozobhie’s face – we had turned the video stream off for our zoom call because the internet signal was not great. So I had to imagine his expressions as we talked about filming a Juju-Fi (as he called it) movie in a part of the world that presents its own unique challenges to film makers.
Time-travel is typically a plot point for science-fiction storytelling and most people are conditioned to suspend their disbelief when movie science is the basis of a jaunt through time. It’s just one of those established givens that are available to American or European screenwriters and directors.
After Ilozobhie and his co-director Abosi Ogba came up with the idea for a story about “two boys traveling back to the past to make their broke parents rich”, they brainstormed ways to make the story believable to a Nigerian audience. He felt the audience would accept a time-travel story set in the United States or Europe because of technology. But for a story set in Nigeria, they turned to the magical.
“We know our reality. Our Nigerian audience? They don’t like being lied to.” He laughed, “So why not use something that they would buy which is ‘juju’ or ‘jazz’. If Nigerians can watch Chronicles of Narnia and believe that two white kids walk into a cupboard and come out in a forest, then they can believe two boys enter a shrine and get transported to the year 2000.”
Making a time travel story for the sake of time travel was not on the cards for him; he deeply values the importance of family in his own life and wanted to make a movie that celebrated those bonds. It was decided that the characters were to be vessels for the idea of learning to appreciate family.
And what is a family movie without some comedy?
“It was important that we portrayed our kind of magic in a positive and kind of hilarious fashion. “Ilozobhie said, “It’s important to have comic relief in your movies. I believe that, you know, because movies are meant to be enjoyed. Parasite is a deep ass movie, but… it has comedic moments and that’s something that we are really big on – making people laugh. Let them enjoy their time while watching the movie, but we are still serious, because something serious is about to happen. They are actually going to time travel.”
Production Design and Casting for DoD
Being only six years old in the year 2000, Ilozobhie only has vague memories of the time. He remembers an innocent crush and a child’s perception of the Y2K fever that swept the world at the turn of the century. However, he laughs uproariously as he credits the uncertainty and fears of the time with the increased spirituality of his family.
He realized he could not depend on his own memories to get a feel for that time period. To recreate the year 2000, Ilozobhie’s penchant for friendships with slightly older people paid off as he pieced together the elements that would make his movie work from their life experiences.
We had two failed [time travel] device designs and finally ended up with this one you see in the movie.Akay Mason Ilozobhie
What about time travel errors from anachronistic technology like modern cars and cellphones? Audiences have Ilozobhie’s word that the crew got it right there, “We paid attention to detail,” he said when I asked about getting the 2000 look right. “We did this on a smallish budget, but we executed our production design, I think, excellently. We did all of that research and that didn’t even take much of our budget, you know, it was mostly sourcing the cars and how the public taxis looked back then and actually sewing original costumes for over 50 extras to look the part.”
Your team built a time travel device. How?
It is basically a gyroscope that was being rotated by a fan motor.
So that’s a practical device. That’s not a CGI device?
Okay, yes, the orb within it is CGI, but the entire gizmo was built by our production designer. We designed it… we knew we wanted a gyroscope design. But how were we going to make it spin? So we came up with the brilliant idea of putting a fan motor underneath the entire casing. And that got attached to the gyroscope. And just like a fan, it starts spinning and spinning and spinning. We had two failed [time travel] device designs and finally ended up with this one you see in the movie.
But on the subject of technology, Ilozobhie revealed that the majority of the production design budget went into building the time machine device. Not surprising since getting that right was key to the entire movie.
Yes, the makers of Day of Destiny centered the entire plot on a magical time travel device – so not a total departure from technology. Frankly this movie is not just Nigeria’s first time travel movie, it may also be the first Nigerian movie to feature Technological Magic.
This also means Babayaro Callistus is not your regular native doctor (not that D.o.D. even pretends there’s anything regular about him) as he may be the first Nigerian Technomancer character. He was hilariously portrayed by Broda Shaggi and was just one of many characters that were so well cast that I had questions.
You really have a talented cast and you can see it in the trailer. I’ve always seen Denola Grey as a very serious person, but watching them together, you believe that you’re going to have a fun time, right? What informed that casting process for you?
Originally, when we were writing the scripts, we had a different actor in mind to play the role that Denola [Grey] plays.
Care to share who you had in mind?
(laughs) No, No, I wouldn’t. But then… as the day for the audition was approaching, our executive producer, Mr. Niyi Akinmolayan suggested that we give Denola a look and not just have one person read for this role. So we called him and he came in early, did his read first and he set the bar.
When the person we wrote the character for eventually came, it didn’t live up [to Denola’s performance]. It didn’t even come close. So once Olumide (Oworu) arrived, he auditioned and then we let them audition together and immediately, [it was] like they’ve been acting together for like years… the chemistry…
The chemistry was there.
Yeah. And Denola is older and (laughs) he will kill me for saying this. Denola is older than Olumide but he had to play Olumide’s younger brother and get bullied by Olumide and it was very interesting to see him play a 19 year old. That was fun.
Someone was giving us grief for casting Denola as a 19 year old and I was like Tobey Maguire was 27 when he was playing 16 year old Peter Parker and nobody cried.
[I like an actor to know] you’re not just a glorified prop talking.Akay Mason Ilozobhie
No, you’re absolutely right.
Casting the younger sister was a gift from the gods. Because we were struggling with finding the right actor. And then some somebody shared this web series with us. This young actress Gbemi Akinlade was in it. She came in to audition, and she was perfect, you know and the character that she plays in the movie has a strong relationship with her mother and we explore that relationship across multiple timelines.
The cast really made your job easier?
As a director I always like having stuff to work with through an actor. I like an actor bringing some things to the table as well. [I like an actor to know] you’re not just a glorified prop talking. You are an embodiment of nights of keyboard bashing, of character development and once you get the character bible, it’s up to you to develop something and then come back to me with something more. Every single one of [the DoD cast] took that task to heart. For me, it was a joy working with them.
[For example] with Brother Shaggi, we were writing his character and we felt we needed the babalawo character to be played by someone [who could be] ridiculous. So that’s how we thought of Brother Shaggi, and the more we wrote, the more it became Brother Shaggi. [Once we had those characters] casting the other actors like Jide Kosoko, Ini Dima-Okojie, Blossom Chukwujekwu, Norbert Young and Ireti Doyle was easy. We wrote this for them to play and they didn’t disappoint.
Ilozobhie is part of a more adventurous group of filmmakers who are willing to avoid the usual tropes of Nollywood movies and break new ground. But would he ever cover old ground and do a sequel to DoD? I wanted to know if we would see Chidi and Rotimi travel to the future.
(laughs) “I’m gonna be honest with you, the way we ended the movie…” he paused thoughtfully, “We don’t know yet, it’s possible. Or it may just be the end. You know, that could be the end, or that could you know leave room for more.”
While he was noncommittal about whether the story would lead to a sequel, Ilozobhie was under no illusions about what the movie really needed to stand a chance of getting a sequel – huge numbers of people going to see it. No easy feat for any movie hitting theaters during a pandemic; like many movies around the world, DoD also had to overcome COVID related challenges and delays.
In addition to dealing with a modest marketing push, their release date was pushed back from October 2020 to New Year 2021, where it found itself up against a packed release lineup that included Omo Ghetto a juggernaut that broke the Nigerian box-office record for a domestic movie. With its N511,977,000 box office take, Omo Ghetto has a chance of passing Avengers: Endgame (N528,396,437) to become the highest grossing movie of all time at the Nigerian box office.
Ilozobhie isn’t mad though. He takes a big picture view of being beaten by another movie.
“I’m really happy for [Omo Ghetto] because that’s… you know, it means good things for the industry,” he said earnestly. “It means that our movies make money.” and while DoD isn’t exactly setting records, Ilozobhie and the producers always knew while making the movie that it was always more likely to do better outside the shores of Nigeria.
“It’s very difficult selling a new genre in Nigeria,” Ilozobhie explained. “That’s why we used a lot of [movie] stars in it but still it’s been quite difficult in this dicey period.” He expressed the desire to see how well the movie did on Netflix or whatever other streaming platform wanted Nigeria’s first time travel movie.
From the Past to the Future
Every person who dreams of becoming an actor or director was inspired by someone else. I could not help wondering aloud what movies I would find on the younger Ilozobhie’s computer if we time traveled back to his college dorm.
“August Rush,” he replied after some thought. “That was one of the movies that allowed me to start dreaming. ‘August Rush’, ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ and ‘The Green Hornet’. That one was just hilarious.”
Fascinated, I complimented Ilozobhie on his love for August Rush, one of my personal favorites, and we laughed at his eclectic taste in film. We agreed that Seth Rogen, the star of The Green Hornet, would probably love his time travel movie considering its zany premise and meaningful themes, he agreed.
“Yeah I think he would actually, I think he would,” he said wistfully. “You know, funny enough, speaking of people like Seth and Ashton Kutcher… I was working on a story recently similar to ‘Dude, where’s my car?'”
Yeah, but then I realized I’m never gonna make that movie because of the bad Nigerian roads, so I was like so sad.
But then you can make the Nigerian roads a character as well. Just include the nonsense that happens when you know that the car will break down sooner or later because of all the road is doing to it, hahaha.
(Sounding very thoughtful) Well I really have to figure out the technicalities of shooting it.
Ilozobhie has a plan to return to the classroom every five years to, as he puts it “reacquire skills”. He will grace the walls of academia regularly and with clear purpose – once the least prepared student in class, he now has a method to his madness and a plan to shape his future and bend it to his will.
His tendency to frame life lessons in highly improbable scenarios is probably Ilozobhie’s most definitive filmmaking characteristic. And while it is not quite Nollywood’s way, it may be Nollywood’s future.
Day of Destiny (DoD) is playing in Nigerian theaters now and coming to your favorite streaming service soon.