Screenwriter Akinlabi Ishola on His Career and the Triumph of “A Tribe Called Judah” – Albantsho’s Behind The Screen

Feb 5, 2024

One moment, you’re an aspiring writer aiming to break into Nollywood; the next, you find yourself working directly with Funke Akindele, undeniably one of the most dedicated filmmakers in the Nigerian film industry today. This is the inspiring journey of Akinlabi Ishola, one of the trio credited with writing the screenplay for A Tribe Called Judah, Nollywood’s highest-grossing movie in 2023 and currently of all time.

In a short time, Akinlabi Ishola has curated an impressive portfolio working closely with Funke Akindele under her production companies, Scene One Productions and Funke Akindele Ayotunde Network (FAAN). With screenwriting accolades for My Siblings and I, Jenifa’s Diary, and now A Tribe Called Judah, Ishola appears poised to conquer new heights.

In this edition of Albantsho’s Behind The Screen, Akinlabi Ishola offers us an intimate glimpse into his life and the rapid evolution of his career. He shares insights into the dynamics of the writing room for A Tribe Called Judah, collaborating with Collins Okoh and Funke Akindele, and reflects on what the movie’s success could mean for his future in Nollywood. It’s a captivating episode, promising an insightful journey into his world. Enjoy.


Note: Some parts of this conversation have been edited for clarity.


 

Akinlabi Ishola screenwriter A Tribe Called Judah

Akinlabi Ishola

 

Congratulations on the success of “A Tribe Called Judah”. How does it feel to be a screenwriter on the highest-grossing Nollywood film of all time?

The feeling is great and surreal. I am grateful to Aunty Funke [Akindele] for the opportunity to work with her.

 

“A Tribe Called Judah” delves deep into familial dynamics, establishing strong relationships between Jedidah and her sons. How did you and your co-writers approach developing these characters and their connections to ensure a compelling and authentic portrayal of family ties?

Aunty Funke was very keen on us painstakingly telling the story of a struggling mother who happened to have five children from five different fathers with different ethnic backgrounds. It might seem far-fetched but you will be surprised to know this is some people’s reality. Jedidah is one of the many single mothers out there.

 

Did you draw any inspiration from any aspect of your personal life for this story? If yes, how much was drawn between you and the rest of the writing team?

I don’t remember any inspiration drawn from my personal life story, but I would say that family is everything. I can relate very much to brothers riding for one another during adversity.

 

The movie seamlessly intertwines elements of a heist story with a profound exploration of family unity. Can you share insights into the creative process behind blending these diverse themes and genres to create a narrative that resonates with audiences on different levels?

We live in a country where the harshness gets worse every day and we have to fight and create our own survival. We centered the Judah story with this knowledge of our living conditions in the country at the back of our minds and you could see that with characters like Chigozie (Uzor Arukwe) and Collette (Nse Ikpe-Etim).

 

 

The film is praised for its vibrant costumes and visually pleasing aesthetics, especially notable during the heist scene. How did the creative team collaborate to achieve the visually captivating elements of the movie? I’m curious to know if the fabulous costumes we saw onscreen were described that way in the screenplay or if they were left for the makeup and costume department to actualize.

All props go to Aunty Funke for the vibrant costumes and pleasing aesthetics you see during the heist. She’s always had the visual idea before the first letter was written in the script. You needed to see how she was describing the costumes. It was pleasing to watch. And yes, the costumes are very explicitly detailed and described in the script as well.

Editor’s note: Now, I very much want to read this script for myself.

 

“A Tribe Called Judah” has achieved historic success at the Nigerian box office, surpassing a billion Naira. What do you believe contributed to the film’s massive commercial success, and did you anticipate the level of acclaim it received, both critically and commercially?

There are several factors I could say contributed to the film’s massive commercial success but above all, a good story sold itself.

Yes. We anticipated the level of acclaim it has received and will still receive by the grace of God. Like Aunty Funke said from the onset, “This project is divine”. And we can see the testament of her statement right before our very eyes.

 

With the way the Nigerian film industry is currently structured, do you honestly think this impressive financial feat to your résumé will have any impact on the kind of jobs you secure moving forward, especially in your earnings outside of FAAN productions?

The Nigerian film industry is set up in a way that recognizes and values successful projects and I am eternally grateful to Aunty Funke for this opportunity.

 

A Tribe Called Judah grosses over a billion Naira

Funke Akindele’s “A Tribe Called Judah” is the first Nigerian movie to gross over a billion Naira at the Nigerian box office

 

Funke Akindele’s performance is highlighted as a pivotal element of the film’s success. How was the collaborative process with her in bringing the character of Jedidah Judah to life, and how much did her involvement influence aspects of the screenplay?

Working with Aunty Funke to bring Jedidah Judah to life was a seamless one. She owns the story and was heavily involved in the writing process as well.

 

The movie features a diverse and talented ensemble cast. How did you approach writing for each of the Judah brothers and other characters to ensure a cohesive and engaging narrative that showcased the strengths of each actor?

There was no specific approach to writing for the Judah brothers. We only wrote the characters as the story wanted us to and the actors did an amazing job to bring the characters to life. Thanks to an awesome casting done by Aunty Funke.

 

Every film project comes with its challenges. Were there specific challenges you faced during the writing process or in the execution of certain scenes? Additionally, were there any creative choices made that stood out as particularly impactful or challenging? How were such challenges navigated within the writing trio?

I would have said writing the various robbery scene actions was challenging, but guess what? Aunty Funke made it so simple for us. She took us to the location to see what it looked like and that helped a lot in visually planning the robbery on paper. Aside from that, there weren’t any other challenges. There weren’t any creative choices that were particularly challenging. It was a very seamless writing collaboration between the three of us from the beginning to the end.

 

“A Tribe Called Judah” is hailed as a cinematic triumph for Nollywood. How do you see the success of this film influencing the future of Nollywood productions, and what opportunities or challenges do you foresee for the industry moving forward?

I am sure we will always overcome any challenge that arises in the future in the industry because we are a resilient people. There is nothing we can’t rise above.

The opportunities are endless. We hope for more international collaborations and the prospect of them seeing the importance of telling our African stories.

 

A Tribe Called Judah screenwriters - Akinlabi Ishola, Funke Akindele, and Collins Okoh

A Tribe Called Judah’s screenwriters | L-R: Akinlabi Ishola, Funke Akindele, and Collins Okoh

 

Looking back at your experience in the industry up to “A Tribe Called Judah,” what lessons have you personally taken away, and how do these experiences shape your approach to future projects?

Know your audience and feed them. No matter what story you tell, you will always find one person who resonates well with it.

 

Beyond commercial success, how do you hope “A Tribe Called Judah” resonates with audiences? Are there specific themes or messages in the film that you believe will leave a lasting impact on viewers?

There were comments online that we had an audience rooting for armed robbers to win in the cinema. We are glad to know we sparked that human side of the audience but really, it was a situation of what would you do, how far would you go to save that one family member that means a lot to you and has sacrificed their life to make yours better.

 

Working closely with Funke Akindele who writes, produces, and directs, I’m sure you must be picking up exciting practical knowledge. Do you have plans to someday make the leap from Screenwriter to Director or Producer?

Working closely with a very hard worker like Aunty Funke, you have to pick up excellent traits along the line like being hands-on with everything. She is very practical and there is always something to learn from her.

Yes, I would like to make a leap from being a screenwriter to being a producer someday.

 

Any word of advice for budding screenwriters hoping for a big break in the industry?

Good things come to those who wait but while you are waiting, keep putting in the work. Never stop sharing your work also.

 


 

A Tribe Called Judah is currently showing in cinemas in over 12 countries including Nigeria, Ghana, and the UK.

Want to write like Akinlabi Ishola? Check out The Scriptwriter on the Albantsho Suite. It’s currently free.

 

 

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