Remi Adetiba: King From A Distance
By Brett McKenzie on Oct 25, 2021
One Club Member helps produce Nigerian Netflix smash from afar.
Creating a film or television project is never easy. Throw in a global pandemic and it becomes even more difficult. Now imagine trying to manage the many aspects of such a production half a world away.
That's exactly what New York-based creative director, photographer, and One Club Member Remi Adetiba undertook, as he teamed once again with his sister, acclaimed Nigerian director Kemi Adetiba, to produce what has become Netflix's first-ever series in the African continent's most populous country. King of Boys: The Return of the King is a limited series sequel to the Adetiba siblings' 2018 feature film King of Boys, a sprawling political drama that enthralled Nigeria's robust film industry and fans. This time around, however, Remi had to navigate the entire project from the Big Apple, with the uncertainties of COVID, the original's success, and the pressures of a first foray into Netflix-land all in the mix.
We had a chance to chat with Remi about the grueling yet rewarding experience, and learned about Nigeria's creative scene in the process.
Before we get what is King of Boys: Return of the King, first tell us a bit about the 2018 movie King of Boys, of which the limited TV series is sequel...
The first film was about a female Godfather-type figure, seeking to turn her underworld dominance into legitimate political power in Lagos, Nigeria, and all the ways that desire impacts her cronies, her family, and her future.
What was the reaction to the film, especially coming off of your sister’s previous film, a romantic comedy?
The reaction was amazing! Kemi’s feature debut, The Wedding Party, set and held a domestic box-office record for about four years, so on the plus side there was some palpable goodwill going into King of Boys. On the other hand, the expectations were high. Also, considering the fact that actors Sola Sobowale and Adesua Etomi had played a markedly different mother-daughter pair in The Wedding Party, there was the risk that the audience would reject a new story, potentially subverting their feel-good memories of that movie. Plus, King of Boys was our first feature film project as producers, so you can imagine how high the stakes felt.
But we were incredibly lucky to score a runaway hit, despite a series of setbacks, some of which we delve into in an upcoming documentary about the film’s origins. In the end, in addition to a number of award nominations and a few wins, we ended up with what is now the sixth highest-grossing film in Nollywood history. We stayed in theaters from October 2018 till around February 2019, which was nuts. It all boiled down to the incredible support from the fans.
Obviously King of Boys must have generated positive buzz in order to be sequel-worthy, but how exactly did it lead to a limited television series, as opposed to another film? Was there just too much story to tell in a film? And how did Netflix get behind this, the first-ever Nigerian original series on the platform?
The #KOBArmy really did their thing on this one. After doing all it did at the box office, and then being released to multiple streaming/download platforms in July 2019, it finally came to Netflix that September. Yet, folks still held room in their hearts for it — we heard not just from an international audience that didn’t get to see it in theaters, but also folks who had seen it and wanted to relive the experience (this time, with the joy of bathroom breaks). I guess we did pretty well on the platform, because Netflix reached out and expressed an interest in working together on the sequel.
When the writing process began, the hope was definitely for a shorter film than the original’s 148-minute runtime, which, from a pure dollars-and-cents perspective affects how many screenings a film can get in a day. But once Kemi got going with the writing, she ended up with an even fuller story than the first time around. When the script was written, the plan was to split and release it as two volumes, à la Kill Bill. But as we all worked through the post process, we decided a pivot to the limited series format was the best way to deliver the story.
What is that process like, working with Netflix?
It was really great working with Netflix on this. We had already begun shooting when the deal was finalized, so I’d imagine ours wasn’t identical to your average Netflix Original in terms of process. Sure, they had notes here and there, but they were almost always more akin to suggestions and we weren’t strictly bound by them. Plus, Kemi’s used to that process — I send pages of notes after every script write/rewrite, so she’s used to balancing an openness to feedback with a trust in her gut and her understanding of what emotions she wants to spark in the audience.
All in all, they were super supportive, and it was incredibly reassuring having industry experts at such a high level look at the work and say “We think we have something here” with an objectivity that was probably a little elusive to Kemi and I.
"All in all, [Netflix was] super supportive, and it was incredibly reassuring having industry experts at such a high level look at the work and say 'We think we have something here'"
You wore many hats on the production of Return of the King, but first I want to ask about the switch from film to television. What were some of the differences in creating for the two mediums? Did you learn anything unexpected? Perhaps you learned stuff from your history working Africa’s Next Top Model that carried over...
[laughs] Jeez, you just referenced something from a lifetime ago! I don’t think there were many things that carried over from AfNTM, except my general tendency to bring as many skills as I have to the table, regardless of my official job title. That said, I couldn’t give you a proper apples-to-apples comparison because so much was different. On the film, I was there in person for the last four months of pre-production, through shooting, to the end of post. While on ROTK, we were so firmly in the middle of a global pandemic that Nigerian airspace was closed (and of course, we’d just experienced a really traumatic period in New York City), so I had to work on everything remotely from here. So yes, while there were one or two differences on the movie-vs-series side of things, the differences I felt most acutely were more to do with working on Lagos time from New York.
I was just about to ask, how did COVID affect production? Surely you have a crazy story or two!
We started pre-production around early February 2020, but right after the pandemic hit, Kemi actually got really ill with an unrelated ailment. She was in and out of the hospital for about five months, which, as you can imagine, would be fraught enough without the fear that every hospital visit came with the risk of COVID. At first, we tried to keep pre-production going while she was down, so she’d focus on her recovery knowing things were still moving, but at some point, we hit a wall because she and I had agreed that some parts of the script needed revisiting, and she was physically incapable of doing much of anything.
We picked up again when she finally began to improve at the end of July, at which point we had just a month to go because we gave ourselves a start date of September 1. And like I said, Nigerian airspace was closed, so I had to deal with everything from my sister being gravely ill to producing and shooting an ambitious, highly-anticipated project while essentially shackled to my desk some 5000 miles away.
Shooting through COVID definitely added layers of complexity to the production. There was a curfew instituted in Lagos, which we had to factor into everything from our start- and wrap times, to our location choices. Everyone had to be tested beforehand, including in the larger setups like the rally, church, and press conference scenes, which had anywhere from 50 to 200 extras each. Sometimes we’d have to swap out a few extras the night before a scene because they came back positive, so the stakes felt pretty high at all times. And from a budget perspective, remember that the virus wasn’t even a thing when production started, so we definitely had to get creative managing all the new cost considerations that came with it.
"...from a budget perspective, remember that the virus wasn’t even a thing when production started, so we definitely had to get creative managing all the new cost considerations that came with it."
What were some of the challenges you faced as a Prop & Key Art Photographer, working remotely?
That I even stayed on as photographer was due to Kemi’s prodding. I’d shot the key art for both the first King of Boys and The Wedding Party, but I just didn’t see any way I could shoot the images for this sequel due to the travel restrictions. She just kept saying “What if we go with Netflix on this, Remi? I can’t believe this is the one you don’t shoot the posters for.” But as producer, you kind of have to be programmed to put the project first, and I really wasn’t a fan of the FaceTime photo shoots the global fashion industry had begun to rely on in the shelter-in-place months.
So while reviewing a few other options for Key Art Photographer, I’d identified multiple photo elements that needed to be captured in-camera — stuff like framed photos, campaign posters, photos on newspaper pages — and decided to schedule a remote Prop-Photo shoot for those. My cousin Bunmi Adetiba had worked with me on basically every photoshoot I’d done in Lagos in the previous five years, so I knew with him physically on set, we stood a chance. I mapped out a Zoom setup with three cellphones — one wide so I could direct lighting, one aimed at the talent so I could direct them, and one roving device over Bunmi’s shoulder so I could direct his positions and angles – as well as a screen-share of Lightroom as the images came in via tethered capture. After the first setup of the day, I remember yelling at Bunmi: “Oh shit, this may actually work!” So with a successful proof of concept in place, I felt confident signing us up for the higher-stakes shoot for the imagery Netflix would use to create the Key Art for this go-round.
I also ended up managing the still image library on ROTK, from the aforementioned framed photos, to newspaper photos, to smartphone wallpapers, to the cityscape backdrops in the news broadcasts. To ensure we didn’t run into any rights issues, I wanted to be sure every photo we used was from my photo archives, or the BTS libraries of either the first KOB, shot by Bunmi, or ROTK, which were sometimes shot only days prior by Stephen Ngene.
That sounds very intense, and I as mentioned earlier, that was just one of the hats you wore.
[laughs] As if the producer and photographer roles weren’t enough work, right? My main objective on most projects I’m on is usually to be as useful as possible with the skills I have. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what being a producer is about? Plus, due to being grounded in New York, which was just emerging from a stay-at-home order, no less, I was the only member of a 70-plus team who could always be at a desk. So yeah, I wanted to use those circumstances as much to the benefit of the production as possible. One of my roles was Post-Production Supervisor, supervising VFX, Color Grade, Sound, and Final Edit — Kemi bled for weeks on the main edit while I mostly hung back. There was a good bit of VFX work that needed to be done, and my responsibility was to not only guide and supervise our VFX team, The Critics Company — an amazing group of artists all still in their late teens — but also ensure that we could still hit our milestones. To me, that meant if I was pushing them to take more time on certain effects, then I should probably take some of the less complex VFX work off their plates so they could focus on the more advanced stuff. Before and during principal photography, I also had fun working as a layout designer and copywriter on the Art Direction team, where I could create the newspaper pages, news outlet branding, logos, and campaign posters for the competing political parties. We had someone already on the Art team for this, but with my level of intimacy with the story and the overall aesthetic we wanted, I felt strongly about steering these elements myself, so I stepped in to join the team. So while as Producer, my role included supervising the Art department, I also got to report to our brilliant Art Director, Tunji Afolayan, while creating these assets for his team.
Plus, it was a natural extension from what Kemi and I started on the first film. She did a rough mockup of a KOB logo on some mobile app as a placeholder for Instagram, which I later used as a foundation for the eventual logo. Then after shooting the promo images, I created all the posters. So for ROTK, the exercise was to take the previous brand and rework it for the new iteration. Something a lot of folks don’t realize due to the ambition of our projects is how scrappy and collaborative our team of underdogs is. So a lot of the time, it’s just Kemi and I kicking things back and forth. As a former ad-man, I try to treat her as my client and conceive a few directions for her to choose from, which is also useful for keeping things professional when working with family. With things that represent the project to the world, like branding and key art, she’s very plugged in. But for a lot of the other stuff, she mostly just trusts me to work, and I really have to hound her for feedback[laughs].
"As a former ad-man, I try to treat [my sister] as my client and conceive a few directions for her to choose from, which is also useful for keeping things professional when working with family."
I'm gonna be honest, that all sounds crazy!
Yeah, it was a ton of work, considering that producing alone was a full-time job. But it definitely acted as a sort of release valve, doing creative work as a break from putting out fires and dealing with the other dramas that fell under producing. This is not to say producing itself isn’t creative — working with creative departments like Wardrobe, Art Direction, etc obviously is — but your role there is more enabling their creativity to work within the story the director’s trying to tell, rather than being a hands-on creative yourself. As a guy who started out in advertising, can you imagine the fun of basically getting to play the journalists and editors of three or four newspapers, the creative agency representing competing gubernatorial campaigns, and the head of a TV network? I got zero sleep for almost a year. It got really rough sometimes, but overall, I loved it. Also, in a period where I think the only unmasked face I got to see with any regularity was my dog’s, dropping in little Easter-egg tributes to friends and family in the TV/newspaper headlines was a way to feel just a little less isolated.
I wasn’t the only one with that mindset, though. It was a very collaborative set. Feyzo, our Key Makeup Artist, also stepped in to join the SFX team in some key scenes. And even cooler, Ekene Emueze, who played one of Odogwu’s henchmen, ended up joining the Hair team, and now he’s the only cast member who’s also in our crew group chat, which is still going strong, almost a year after wrap.
When everything wrapped up, how close was the final project to your sister’s vision?
I don’t want to speak for Kemi, but I think it came out pretty much the way we hoped. Besides the story we wanted to tell, we wanted to level up this time around in terms of scale, polish, and production value. I’d like to think we succeeded.
And what has the response to the series been like, both in Nigeria and to the global diaspora?
Absolutely staggering! Besides the rankings we’ve seen – #1 in Nigeria for almost three full weeks, some days beating even global hits like Money Heist; hitting Top 10 in Ukraine and Top 3 in Jamaica, trending in the U.S. and U.K. — we also felt it in the online activity on Twitter and Instagram. In Nigeria, not only did “King of Boys” trend for days, but so did the names of individual actors and characters. The audience even launched a couple of really popular memes using moments from the series. Hell, we even got a spontaneous mention on the floor of the British Parliament! Tom Tugendhat, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Commons, joked that he and the whole committee would love to be extras on the show. It was especially amazing because neither KOB nor Nollywood was being discussed in the hearing until that point. It made our whole week.
Part of Netflix’s power is its mighty algorithm recommending shows for you to watch. What would a person be watching in order to get “if you liked XXXXX, you may also like King of Boys: Return of the King”? If this is someone’s first foray into Nollywood, what sorts of American shows would lead them here?
That’s a great question. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you one specific show. We’re a crime drama with a political tilt and a focus on the internal lives of a lot of our characters, so maybe an amalgam of sorts? Like Power, with a side of House of Cards, but all cooked in a proper Nigerian kitchen, so chances are it’s pretty spicy!
Nigeria tends to fly under the radar of our industry's Western tastes. What would you want people to know about the creative industry in Nigeria, from film to fashion to advertising and design?
The warmth and exuberance, the resilience, the refusal to quit in the face of obstacles that would sink so many… All that stuff that makes Nigerians so special is represented in our creative industry. It’s amazing to see Nigeria start to have a real moment on the world stage in film, music, and fashion, all at once. Everything we create is, at its core, celebratory in nature. So it’s great to see our creatives being celebrated for finally getting to tell our own stories.
"It’s amazing to see Nigeria start to have a real moment on the world stage in film, music, and fashion, all at once. Everything we create is, at its core, celebratory in nature."
What’s next for you? Will we see another TV show, or do you have other projects on the horizon that we should be keeping our eyes open for?
Kemi and I are currently nailing down our next project. First, there’s a documentary about the creation of the KOB projects called The Making of A King, which will be out soon. After that, there are a couple things in the pipeline, but it’s looking like a drama series called Den of Snakes will likely be the one. That said, the KOB universe may call us back sooner than we think.
I mean, when Eniola Salami calls, you answer.
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