Chiwetel Ejiofor & Biyi Bandele Interview – Half Of A Yellow Sun
Half Of A Yellow Sun (15) is Biyi Bandele’s big-screen adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s bestselling novel of the same name.
Set in Nigeria during the Biafran war in 1967-1970, the film follows two upper-class sisters and shows how their lives are impacted by their own decisions as well as the increasingly dangerous civil war.
Oscar winner Thandie Newton stars as Olanna, who moves in with her partner, University professor Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his house boy Ugwu (John Boyega) whilst her sister Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) lives on the other side of Nigeria with her English boyfriend, Richard (Joseph Mawle).
Writer-director Bandele’s feature film debut cleverly uses archive footage in scenes so any of the audience not familiar with the Nigerian conflict are kept in the loop with political goings-on. However, as well as being a depiction of the political conflict and unrest in Nigeria at the time, the film focuses on the personal conflicts between the characters.
Flicks And The City sat down with leading man Chiwetel Ejiofor (CE) and writer-director Biyi Bandele (BB) to discuss the experience of filming in Nigeria and why this film is such an important story to tell.
CE: I think there is definitely a part of the film that is about the personal relationships of these people; it is about the mistakes that you can make as an individual and the mistakes that you can make as a nation. That is what makes it so engaging for me – it talks about country as well as people and the moral and ethical compromises and mistakes that we make.
What do you like or dislike about your character, Odenigbo?
CE: Well, there is plenty not to like! He is a very complex guy and obviously he can be quite morally and ethically challenged and that was the fascinating part of playing him; there’s all these layers to him. He is somebody who feels he knows everything and discovers how much he doesn’t know and how much he has to learn about the nature and value of things.
I was fascinated by him and his journey; he is just a person who makes mistakes and is challenged by life. The context of the war really brings out those personality traits and understanding people in crisis in a completely new way. That is what I thought was so extraordinary about the book and Biyi’s direction. These love stories are created in conflict and war. So often we look at films that have war as a context and suddenly the personal lives stop while events overtake them, but this very neatly weaves them in so they run parallel.
People are still learning about each other and existing together and finding out new things and, at times, even falling in love whilst this other wildness and craziness of the civil war is raging. It felt very true of the war – my grandfather spoke of the war in depth and I had about 10 hours of tapes of my grandfather talking about his experiences in the war that I had made six or seven years ago, and they were really informative about the personal journeys people made in that time and how families still grew.
BB: I wouldn’t call this movie Nollywood, but Nollywood is the second biggest employer in Nigeria, after the government. I think that it’s a great thing and in years to come Nigeria will have a film industry that will rival Bollywood.
CE: It would be good for production budgets in Nollywood to grow a little bit. Going out to Nigeria, there was definitely a real interest in filmmaking and there is so much potential to make films there.
Can you tell us about your experience shooting in Nigeria?
CE: All of the film was produced in Nigeria and it was a great experience. Me and Biyi have known each other for years and have spoken for years about filming in Nigeria and making a film of a larger budget out in Nigeria and I think we were both excited to shoot in a country that has so much beauty as well as talent and potential.
We were in pretty remote parts, which we had to access by boat and it was beautiful – but not the most time efficient way of getting to work! Filming in remote parts of Nigeria did have its challenges of course, but it just felt so right to tell the story and to get away from the slightly more industrialised towns and out into the country where so many of the events of the war are really caught in the villagers. The Nigerian forces took the war to the villagers and really tried to break the spirit of the people and it felt right to go to those more remote places, which were punished in the war.
Did going back to Nigeria strengthen your understanding of the war?
CE: My family were right in the midst of it. The whole history and the nature of what happened is always very connected to my family and it is very accurately portrayed in the film. That is what I loved about the book as well, that it always spoke about the heart of what was going on and I think it is done in a way that it allows people who might not be familiar with the war and the conflict to understand it in its historical context and its political context, thereby making it more relevant.
I think people sometimes see the struggles in African countries as slightly abstract and not part of the way they view conflict in European countries and I think that is because of a slight disconnect in understanding African countries. I think that with films like this, especially in times like now, they really have the opportunity to understand the history in a different way and in slightly more relevant ways.
BB: It is different; the only similarity between the two was that I loved Things Fall Apart and I wanted to share that with people and I loved Half Of A Yellow Sun. When I read it, I loved all of these African characters that I hadn’t seen on the big screen before and it just provided a great opportunity to put those people on screen.
Usually when I go to the cinema to watch films about Africa, I get there and there is a white character around whom everything pivots and the African characters are just in the background, I just found that there was something fundamentally wrong with that and Chimamanda’s book provided the opportunity to remedy it.
The book is from the point of view of the houseboy, Ugwu. What made you change this for the film?
BB: The houseboy is more or less the narrator of the book. He is still a very important character in the film, but that is usually the only character we are allowed to play in movies, the houseboy, and I was really not interested in making that movie. For me, the two characters who were the most dynamic were the sisters – I have never encountered African women like that in movies before, but I have seen the houseboy many, many times.
If I had been making a TV series, I probably would have stayed with the structure of the book, but with the film you have to distil a book that is almost 500 pages into something that was under two hours, and I had to make a decision. Chimamanda has seen the film maybe 10 times and she agrees that the film is quite faithful to the book.
How did the cast come on board?
BB: Chiwetel and I both read the book around the same time and he was playing Odenigbo from day one. I sent Thandie the script to play Kainene, I knew her work really well, but I hadn’t met her before then and I went to have a meeting with her and we spent two hours talking, and it was during that conversation where she was really feisty and I thought, actually, she should come on board as Olanna.
Kainene I had originally offered to Naomie Harris and she wanted to play her but then she got Bond. I looked at lots of people and then I remember seeing Anika in Dream Girls, but I actually offered her the part on the basis of an interview with her that I saw; there was just something pretty scary about her!
John Boyega I had seen in Attack The Block and really liked him, but was actually thinking of him for a different project. I was originally going to cast two actors for Ugwu, a young boy and an older boy, I saw hundreds of people in London and Nigeria and then John came in and he just completely transformed from this kid to a grown-up in seconds and he got the part.
As for Onyeka Onwenu, who plays Mama, again I auditioned hundreds; every single actor of that age in Nollywood I auditioned and they weren’t right. Then I remembered a conversation I had with Chamamanda years earlier when we were talking about who might be right for which part and she had mentioned this singer and I wasn’t convinced but then I got hold of her, she came in the next day completely in character and that’s how she got the part.
I just felt really lucky because I had the most incredible team of actors all at the top of their game, it was great. For me the scene is only as good as the worst actor in it.
Chiwetel, what have you learned from your international fame following your Oscar nomination?
CE: You learn an awful lot – it is an incredible time to go with the film on a journey like that, through all the festivals and then into awards season and then be lucky enough to be with a film that you are deeply proud of and recognising that it is having a real impact. It’s an extraordinary time. One of the things about the whole season last year was that there was just so much diversity in the films and a lot of the films reached really wide audiences, so you really feel like it is possible to create that narrative-lead story that people are engaged with.
Your increased profile means that you are able to get stories made that you might not have been able to beforehand; are there any particular stories you want to tell?
CE: There are lots of stories that I would like to tell and it is funny that this film happened before all of that because this is something that had already been on the list and we are just so excited about being able to tell it. I want to continue in that vein – you want to make films that connect people and you want to get stories out there that are interesting, relevant and have an ability to connect, that is what excites me and I would like to continue doing that.
Half Of A Yellow Sun is in UK cinemas from 11 April.
Check out Flicks And The City’s video interview with Chiwetel Ejiofor on Half Of A Yellow Sun, 12 Years A Slave, and Star Wars Episode 7 at the London Film Festival: