Charles Novia: God, why did you create me this way?

by Sola Osofisan
Charles Novia

Charles Novia has been around. Like other Nollywood practitioners like RMD, Niji Akanni, Yemi Solade and Segun Arinze who have a live theatre background, his focus is fiercely professional and focused. The director of runaway hits like Missing Angel, Real Love, I Will Die for You and more recently, Caught in the Middle, Novia has worked with the best of them…from stage to screen. Novia has directed some 27 films to date. SOLA OSOFISAN taped this interview with him a few months ago.

SOLA OSOFISAN: What happened to Charles Novia the Actor? And how did Charles Novia the director steal him away?

CHARLES NOVIA: (Laughing) You make it seem as if I have a dual personality. But that might be true. Artistically, I decided to put the actor in me on recess because I found out that I wanted to do more things on the creative side, more things in terms of directing, writing, producing my own stuff. Doing things the way they come out of my head. That is why the appellation “A Charles Novia Think” is unique to me because I call my movies “A Charles Novia Think” instead of “A Charles Novia Film”, because it’s an individualization of my thought process from script to screen.

The other day somebody was telling me “what happened to you? You used to be a very good actor?” I said I still act, but… mostly in my films. I do one or two cameo roles and all that. I’m still trying to see if I can come back to it one way or the other. But I think the way it is now, I will have to come back to it through my films, not anybody’s… Because somebody was telling me the other day he had a lead role for me. I’m not really crazy about acting anymore. I think I have more recognition now as a director, a writer, than as an actor. I must say I do miss acting.

SOLA OSOFISAN: Charlie, the actor receives so much hoopla and attention., while the audience care very little about the people behind the scenes. Why would you want to leave that fame and attention for the quieter side of things?

CHARLES NOVIA: Well, it wasn’t intentional. Of course, everybody would like to massage his or her ego once in a while and know that I’m the person behind this, I’m the actor, I’m a known person. In a way, fame, the glamour, the glitz, the paparazzi and everything, you know, one would have loved a situation like that where I’m in the limelight. But also, having gotten married and trying to keep my life private as it were, I think – for now – the attention my family deserves would come better if I’m behind the scenes than if I’m in front of the camera where there will be much distractions.

SOLA OSOFISAN: But several actors also have families.

CHARLES NOVIA: Yes, but we’re not all the same.

SOLA OSOFISAN: What makes you different?

CHARLES NOVIA: I’m different because I’m a very creative person.

SOLA OSOFISAN: The other actors are not creative?

CHARLES NOVIA: Well, other actors may not be as naturally endowed the way I am in terms of gifts. I am multi-talented, at the risk of sound egoistic and all that. I’m multi-talented. I’ve been involved in a lot of things. I’ve emceed, I’ve written, I’ve acted, I’ve directed, so I just decided to face what I think is true to me. And I must tell you the truth, within the last couple of years, the financial remunerations from producing and directing is even greater than a million accolades I received as an actor. I must tell you that. (LAUGHING) It’s just now that the industry is getting bigger and paying bigger in terms of artiste fees one way or the other, I also as a producer, was in the forefront of it. When I did a film, “When Love Dies”, and “Real Love”, which really sold, everybody said “okay, it is love movies (that are selling)” and everybody started doing love movies. That is how Ramsey’s fees shot up, because everybody was queuing up for Ramsey, Omotola, Stella… so that’s how fees started going up.

It’s good for the industry as it were. But I don’t think I will want to trade directing now for acting for now. I visualize a situation – maybe in a couple of years – I will be doing a lot of character acting in my movies as I will write roles specifically tailored for myself. That’s what I plan on doing.

SOLA OSOFISAN: Let’s talk about multi-talent. I know you’re multi-talented because I’ve known you forever and I’m aware of all the things you can do. When you have multiple talents, you get pulled all over, unlike when you have one talent that’s focused on one thing. Is it a different sense of responsibility; is it a different set of challenges when you have multiple talents?

CHARLES NOVIA: Oh, it’s huge. It’s huge. It’s so different. In fact, sometimes, I kneel down and ask God, “God, why did you create me this way?” I am – like I tell my wife all the time – I’m hyper creative. I think in the world right now, my wife and her mother, they might just be the only people who understand me. I’m hyper-creative. I get crazy at times. On this trip to America now, all the other members of the delegation, they are shocked that Charles Novia… I’ve been displaying a little bit of …. having fun. In Naija, they see me all stoic and straightjacketted and quiet most of the time. It is just because at this time, Charles Novia the singer wants to come out.

It’s really really much of a strain. I have tried to suppress other facets of my talents for what I’m doing now. And it’s so much of a strain, but it’s also so much of an easy thing to curtail because I understand myself, I know myself. So at every point in time, I’m aware of myself.

This afternoon, I was driving around Washington and … I’ve been working on an album for some years now. many people do not know that. The reason why I’ve not really gone out of my way to say I’m going to push an album into the market is because I’ve wanted to have an artistic slant to it. I’m not doing it for commercial appeal –

SOLA OSOFISAN: What is artistic for you in music and what is commercial?

CHARLES NOVIA: Let me put it this way: Bob Marley was a true artist, because his music will live beyond his name.

SOLA OSOFISAN: But it was also commercial.

CHARLES NOVIA: He was quite commercial. He had that blend. People I consider true artists in terms of music – they might not really be popular as such – but people like …Let me take it back to Nigeria. Somebody like Majek Fashek. People I’ve admired, people like… If we go to the old school, people like Victor Uwaifor, people like Rex Jim Lawson… You hear the music and it touches the core of your inner existence. That is what I’m planning to do. I’m not doing it so it becomes a hit. If it becomes a hit, okay, but let it be that in 20 years, 30 years, even when I’m dead, people say “Ah, this guy, he had something.” Because it’s a gift. I’ve been singing right from when I was a kid. I’ve done a lot of singing, done a lot backup. So it’s just that I decided to let all those things go just to face writing and directing because I found out at a very early age that I write. I wrote my first small novella at the age of six. In fact, I will put it that I was a child prodigy, a child wonder in Benin in those days. I didn’t want to lose the essence of that. I felt that first and foremost, that’s my talent. Writing. I still want to do an album, artistic album. I want to do it with analog. I’m so much in love with analog. I don’t believe in computer music. I believe the computer is just… It has come to take away the essence of the human being. Because when you play music, you know that somebody is playing the bass guitar, somebody is playing the drum, the keyboard, the rhythm guitar… Everybody playing is putting the soul into what he’s doing, so you get the feel of that music. But when you use computer music, it’s just one person playing a lot of (instruments). It doesn’t make any sense. So, I believe in the essence, a creative fusion, you know, of all the forces in their different departments making a whole from the total vision. That’s what I also do in my movies, you know? Of course I write and direct my movies. I also can edit if I want to, but I allow other people… On set I even say “give me ideas. Let everything flow so that we all share this vision together”, because I believe in the communal spirit.

SOLA OSOFISAN: Collective creativity?

CHARLES NOVIA: Yes, collective creativity.

SOLA OSOFISAN: Charlie, you said something in passing now about letting some talents go. Is that what people have to do – or what you have had to do – one of the prices you have had to pay for multiple talents?

CHARLES NOVIA: It’s my own personal decision, because I don’t want to be a Jack of all Trades… And a Master of all Trades, because they say you’re Jack of all Trades and a Master of none. It is very agonizing. But I think the only way I can achieve what I want to do in terms of bringing back those talents is to take it one day at a time. For now, the vision is to propagate the talent of directing. I was at the Berlin Film Festival. One of my movies took me there – “I Will Die For You”. I gave a lecture on Nigerian movies… There’s a lot of international recognition coming my way, which makes me very very fulfilled, satisfied, makes me want to work harder… That is in terms of what I’m doing and in terms of movie production.

Many people know me, but many people will also not know me. I’ve been in a lot of stand-up comedy. I was the resident MC and stand-up comedian for Jazzville between 1998 to early 2000, for a year and half. After Mohammed Danjuma left, I was there. I sang. I did a lot of singing at Jazzville. Professional singing, not just “play-play” singing. And so, I just took that decision okay, maybe I have to let these things go for now. Maybe this is where I want to go. I don’t think it was a decision taken on the carnal side, because I’m also somebody who tries to go into the essence of my spirituality. I think it was divine. God really said okay, this is where I want you to go. And it came in a very funny way. I was discussing with my wife immediately after we got married… About three months into our marriage – I said… she asked me, because she knows. She knows I’m quite talented – “What do you want to do? What is it that you really want to do?” I said “well, I’m an actor, I’m a singer…” She said “do you want to sing?” I said “singing is not really in my itinerary right now”. She said “do you want to act?” I said – I’d been on national television for some years and I’d presented on national television. I’d created and acted the lead in a sitcom. “One Big Family” – so, I said I’m not really into acting right now. I want to direct.

She said face that. And that was how I said okay, that’s what I’m doing. And I think since then I’ve never really looked back. So, I think the singer, the stand up comic, the Master of Ceremony, the actor… I think they also are different components of a whole. It makes Charles Novia seem complex, yet so simple to decipher. It makes me seem complicated to people who see me from afar as somebody who’s maybe… They call me an “efiko” or bookworm because I wear glasses and all that. But also, they get pleasantly surprised when I let down my hair and I become the down to earth person I want to be at that point in time. I think the hyper-creativity, the hyper-talent that I’ve got is maybe because I come from a talented family background. My mother is nee Uwaifor. She’s the senior sister to Sir Victor Uwaifor. My mother sings. My father is also a very good writer. He wrote a lot of things that never got published, but after his death, I saw a lof of things. He was very very talented. So, I think I got a mixture of everything in me. It’s just the gift of God. If I were to relate that to the Bible, there’s a phrase I always use to describe myself. I see it as a visual motif behind the person Charles Novia. It says “And to each person He gave different talents.” I’m talking about the parable of the master giving somebody ten talents, hundred talents, saying I’m traveling, make use of it. I see the “talents” – not the money now – I see it as God giving me multiple talents and he said okay, what have you done with all these multiple talents I gave you? Me, I’m only facing one right now, but at least I’m using one to reach out to a lot of people.

SOLA OSOFISAN: Charlie, the same Bible also says “a man’s gift will take him to many places. It will take him before kings and Princess.” Can you tell me some of the places your talents have taken you?

CHARLES NOVIA: I’ve been to Amsterdam. There was a film festival in Amsterdam which I attended. Nigerian Film Festival also in Amsterdam, where my film “For Your Love” was showcased. Also, a script I wrote, “Battle of Love”, which won five awards at THEMA 2000, was also showcased. The European Press was there and I had to answer a lot of questions. That was the first time I was traveling abroad for a festival like that. I was so so so fulfilled that day that oh, this is a culmination of different phases in my life wherein when I graduated from school I said I’m not going to work for anybody. I’m going to be a true artist. I want to live by this profession. Some people appreciate what I’ve done so for that I’m here (in the US) answering questions. After that, I became an observer at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in Rotterdam. I’ve been to the Berlin International Film Festival where there was a 3-day symposium on Nigerian movies, Nollywood in Nigeria, where I was one of the speakers (and) I talked about the business, the art business of filmmaking. From there I attended the Manchester Commonwealth Film Festival, etc… I think just from a little humble background where what I was just doing was just let me do films and let me push on, see what I can do, its taken me to frontiers I never imagined existed.

SOLA OSOFISAN: On one of my websites, I call you the cerebral filmmaker, the thinking man’s filmmaker, largely because of your work on “Husband & wife”. Although it is a love story, the dialogues are intelligent and they make you want to listen. It is stimulating and different.

CHARLES NOVIA: That is very refreshing to me. I’m exhilarated, if there is such a word. I think its quiet exhilarating. You know, sometimes, I just write. I think my greatest critic is my wife, though we fight a lot in terms of what I write. When she says “don’t do this”, I will stubbornly say “I’m doing this”. At the end of the day, I might do it and get away with it, but sometimes (when I don’t get away with it, she says) “I told you so”. So I’ve learnt to listen to my wife over the years. Husband and Wife, she never wanted me to do it. she said “this film get as e be”. I said I wanted to do it, not for commercial reasons. It was a script I wrote in 1996. And when it came out, I was shocked. It wasn’t so much from the commercial appeal, but from the artistic community. In Nigeria, my email box was full. “That is your best movie”. So I started asking people why do you say that is my best movie? “Because you were able to keep three people in one room for close to one hour in the movie and nobody was bored”. But I remember when I was doing the story… It was just something that I wanted to do. That film earned me the respect of Mahmoud Ali-Balogun who is a big critic of Nigerian movies. From somebody like Mahmoud telling me “Man, that’s a beautiful movie,” I mean I felt exhilarated. It earned me the praises of Tade Ogidan, Kingsley Ogoro, praise from people I met in the industry.

SOLA OSOFISAN: So there must be something we’re seeing, so stop arguing with us.

CHARLES NOVIA: I’m not arguing. It has challenged me. I call this kind of scripts my film noir, you know, just my own style. I tried to do something similar to that. “Deep secret”, my first movie, was something like that where I used the stream of consciousness – that is characters talking to the camera – getting the viewers to transcend the living room or wherever you’re watching the television, into the screen. And it worked in “Deep Secret”. I tried it in one or two movies. But “Husband and Wife”, I wanted to make it hyper commercial and hyper intellectual.

SOLA OSOFISAN: How did that movie do in the market?

CHARLES NOVIA: I marketed it myself.

SOLA OSOFISAN: Was that a mistake?

CHARLES NOVIA: No, it was not a mistake. I marketed it from FCON, the film market. It did well for me, considering that it was the first time I was trying to market my film myself. I never lost my money. In fact, there’s a sort of fascination for that film, because everybody watches it and say “Husband and Wife” – so word of mouth even made the film sell more. “Husband and Wife” was a very good film, though its short. I don’t care about length or time when I’m doing my movies. It can be 30 minutes, it can be 20 minutes, but let the message get across. It did quite well. I’m working on something like that again. I’m working on a script right now. It’s a festival kind of script. I don’ think it’s commercial. It’s just about 15 members of the Armed Forces Ruling Council in one room for 2 hours. The title of the script is “The Hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa”. The script is just about the 2 hours AFRC meeting or whatever they had to decide whether Ken Saro-Wiwa should be hanged or not. Its going to ruffle a lot of feathers, so I’m not releasing that for a Nigerian market as such. I’ll just take it round (the film festival circuit).

Charles Novia & Simi Opeoluwa

Charles Novia & Simi Opeoluwa (pix by Sola Osofisan)

SOLA OSOFISAN: That sounds explosive.

CHARLES NOVIA: Very, very explosive. When Ken Saro-Wiwa died, something in me sort of died that day in 1995 and I’ve always wanted to do something. I think my film, “I Will Die For You”, is more or less a faction, what I call fact and fiction, of the like of Ken Saro-Wiwa, Kudirat Abiola. If you watch that movie, one would see what I was trying to do in a very fictional world, but I was putting things within the political environment of Nigeria at that time. It was like a tribute to Ken Saro-Wiwa because at the end of movie, you see Matthew Ukate died on the 17th of November 1995, which was just about the same time Ken Saro-Wiwa was killed. But now, I want to go direct. Put an Abacha in the script, but Armed Forces Ruling Council holding a meeting – should we kill this man? It’s tailored after something like “12 Angry Men”, but now in a Nigerian (context), in a situation as explosive as that. It’s a very touchy subject.

SOLA OSOFISAN: What’s your fascination for love themes?

CHARLES NOVIA: Norbert Young called me a misguided romantic. (LAUGHING) I don’t know why he called me that. I don’t really know… Let me put it this way. I said this thing in Berlin. All the women in the hall, the white women, I became the toast of all the women in the hall. I grew up with my mother. Coming from a polygamous home, my father had so many wives. In fact, I just reunited with my brother whom I have not seen for about 15 or 16 years. It was a very emotional experience for me.

SOLA OSOFISAN: A half brother?

CHARLES NOVIA: A half brother from another wife. I grew up with my mother and junior brother and all that, so when growing up, I could feel her loneliness sometimes… I just feel when I write love stories that there’s a lady out there, there’s a man out there who is lonely, who is living an existentialist life in the Naija society, and does not know how to get by. So, I try to just pass a message through my love stories. I try to just couch even the more serious themes in my stories within a romantic motif. It is not a fascination. It’s just as the idea hits me … I’ve found out that I’ve built a fan base generally among the women and young people, especially among the youth. Everybody comes to me… “Oh, we love you, you’re the best person, you’re the best romance director…” It puts me in a dicey situation. If I’m going to leave this category, many people are going to get angry with me. I said okay, what I’m going to do is that majority of my stories are going to be romance. I triggered the influx of romance movies… because when I did “Love of My Life” successfully, I did “When Love Dies”. When “Real Love” came out, which was what launched Stella’s (Damasus-Aboderin) career, everybody said love stories are selling and everybody started doing (love stories). Of course, I do my own love stories my own way. I will keep on doing love stories, yes. But I will keep on doing other stories that will also reflect what I want to do at this point in time. The love stories I have done, I won’t lie to you, Sola, made me very rich in Nigeria today. (GENERAL LAUGHTER)

What I want to do this year is more of love adventure stories, not romance per se. Adventure. But every story must have a romantic theme at the end of the day. That’s my style. The director becomes the movie. The artist becomes the vision. Your style becomes your cliché. I think that’s what I’m doing. That’s what I’ve realized. You call me a cerebral director. Thank you, God bless you. I think I’m above the pack within my peers, within my generation. I went to school, I graduated. I read drama. I read theatre. You know theatre is the essence. When you read drama, you study. You’re a psychologist, you’re a doctor, a lawyer, everything, so you’re very powerful in what you create, and that is the edge I think I have over the rest of my director colleagues.

When people say “ah, you’re lucky o” – I hate these words “na you dey reign”. I hate it terribly. When people say “na you dey reign”, I say come on, take a flying leap into the nearest river. I don’t reign. It’s just what I do. People must recognize talent. Its there, you don’t hide it under a bushel. So it’s not “na you dey reign” because I’ll be there forever. I’ll live forever.

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