Chicks Chat with…..
Ernest Napoleon actor, writer and producer of the film Going Bongo set in Hollywood and Tanzania. It is the first ever East African film to be accepted by iTunes. Former TV presenter for the largest TV station in East Africa at the time (EATV). Ex DJ, later becoming a recording Artist (MC Napo) of East African music genre ‘Bongo Flava’. Now, a gifted film maker producing, writing and staring in the soon to be released in the UK Going Bongo. We at Those London Chicks are so pleased to catch up with Ernest to talk about the film and his career which is going from strength to strength.
You were clearly meant to be making films, especially after seeing the brilliant Going Bongo, your first feature film. At what point did you recognise writing, acting and producing was what you had to pursue?
Thank you. I hope you are right. Acting came first from a very early age. I only did one play when I was a child, and didn’t really pursue it professionally where I was living (Russia and Tanzania). However, I continued acting in my own imaginary movies. At some points, I would hit a “writer’s block” had to scrap the whole film in my head and start another. This is very cheap way for a kid to experiment with filmmaking. Later in life, I realised that was called script writing. I would also try to play all the imaginary characters in “my film” which was quite fun. Later in life I realised its called mild Schizophrenia!
In regards to producing, that came out of necessity really. When I decided to do my own films, I realised that I had to make them come together whether it is by raising finances, organising talents, negotiating deals etc.
Whose work do admire and why?
I admire a lot of people for very different reasons. Currently for example, I really like Louis CK’s work. He writes, directs, stars and even edits his own show “Louie”. The simplicity, authenticity and honesty that he brings to his work is just impeccable. Adding to the fact that he works 3 days a week, that is incredible. Very inspirational individual…
What can we expect from Going Bongo, tell us about the film?
The film is about an American doctor who mistakenly volunteers to work in Africa for one month. It’s a classic fish out water story about a guy who has never left his home (America), being all of a sudden dropped in the middle of Dar-es-salaam. The film is a Drama-Comedy with a lot of funny moments but also serious moving stuff as well. The audience should expect a feel good movie that they can be inspired and moved by. A heart warming film for sure.
It certainly is a beautiful heartwarming film. What inspired you to write it?
I had grown up in Africa and saw the phenomenal of many Westerners coming to Africa and staying there for good, leaving their “1st world countries” behind. I was always curious to what makes one do that in the first place. My French dentist came for a vacation to Tanzania for a Safari, and ended up staying there for 25 years and counting.
Some of the locations in Tanzania were incredible. I was amazed to discover the hospital scenes were actually filmed in a working hospital. How did that impact the shoot?
Yes, in the truly independent film spirit we did have to shoot in the working hospital. Most of the extras in the film were recruited at the hospital while waiting to visit their loved ones, while other were actual patients. We were also shooting in the real X-Ray room, surgery rooms and hospital wards so most times we only had a chance for one or two takes to get it right. Mainly it was because those rooms where operational 24 hours a day. For example the hospital only had two surgery rooms. So while we were shooting in one, the other had a real surgery going on. If there were to be any emergency surgery at that point of time, we would have to move everything out. And that would have been the right and only thing to do. Even though I was dressed as a surgeon, I didn’t have the necessary skills to perform real surgeries!
Going Bongo has an incredible cast. Tell us a bit about the casting process?
The casting process was very interesting. As an independent film with not much financial backing, we didn’t have bags of money to attract any name talent. Though Kim Kardashian would have probably been nice for the role of Marina ;). But we still wanted a great cast of ‘up and coming’ talent. Knowing our financial constraint, we started a casting process many months doing many sessions in US, Africa (Kenya and Tanzania) and Italy (mostly through Skype) just to get the talent right. Skype casting didn’t really work so well because of the bandwidth delays. But it was quite fun to say “I love you” and hear the person acknowledge that 50 seconds later.
Going Bongo is such an unusual title, it leaves me feeling there is some significance. What does it mean?
Bongo is a nickname given to the city of Dar-es-salaam in Tanzania where most of the story takes place. But it also short for brain in Swahili language (Ubongo). So there is an actual double meaning in the title. As in the doctor is going to the Bongo (the city) and he is going crazy (going bongo) at the same time.
Making a film is a real labour of love. How long did it take from idea to finished film?
Too long. The biggest issue was finances and shooting in multiple countries (US and Tanzania). This meant a lot of flight tickets and hotels expenses and hiring a whole new crew. We had to do that because simply it wasn’t feasible to fly everyone out. But in short, it took about a year of writing and casting, and another year to finish it. So 2 years+ I would say.
We all know making an Independent film is such a difficult thing to do especially funding. How did you manage to get the money to make Going Bongo?
We got a little bit of money to get the project going. My plan was to shoot a much smaller film but the script just kept getting more interesting so I had to go back and try to raise some more money. As we finished the Africa shoot, we ran out of money completely. So we had to edit those bits into a “40 minute film” and show it to potential investors. Luckily a few people came onboard and helped us pay for the US part. After that was done, we didn’t have any money for postproduction. So we repeated the formula but now with American parts as well. Looking back, I can see what a huge struggle it was.
What was your most memorable moment on set whilst filming?
There are many. But if I had to pick one, I would say the birth scene was something special. The infant in the film was only one day old. He was a really tiny fellow. When I lifted him up and move around with him for the scene, you could feel the air just being pulled out of the room. It was truly a spiritual moment and it was when I knew that we had something special. I also think this makes him the youngest actor in the world?
You were born in Moscow, live in the US and spent your informative years in Tanzania. Do you miss East Africa, if so what aspects?
I do. I still try to go back as much as I can but there was like a nine year complete exodus. I miss the obvious things like the food, the weather, the beach. But also an ease at which you can just relax and make new friends.
Who or what inspires you to succeed?
I don’t know really. I have never been motivated by success but I am very motivated by doing good work. I always want to try my best and see what happens. And that is with everything. Filmmaking is something that I do like a lot, so I put in even more effort.
Ernest what’s next for you?
I have a couple of scripts that I am writing (one should be shooting mid next year) and a couple of other people’s projects that I am playing a lead. I am also looking into pitching a Going Bongo TV series. I think it could work great.
Lastly, what advice would you give to a budding filmmaker hoping to break into the industry?
Do it or Don’t. It’s a lot of work and I know every job in the world would probably describe itself as so. But it’s lot of work. Trust me. So unless you absolutely love it and are ok with not having much success but feel happy just doing it, I wouldn’t recommend it. And if what I just said discouraged you, then definitely don’t.
Thank you so much
Interview by Karen Bryson
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