Behind The Screen With Shanty Town’s Xavier Ighorodje

Apr 20, 2023

Behind The Screen is an Albantsho series that provides a glimpse into the lives, experiences, and stories of screenwriters and storytellers in Nigeria’s vibrant film and creative industry.


Welcome to Behind The Screen (BTS), an Albantsho original series that takes you behind the scenes of the film industry, the creative process behind movies & TV shows you love, and the people who make them happen. 

For our first episode, we’re excited to feature Xavier Ighorodje, a renowned screenwriter and the head writer of Netflix’s first Nigerian original series of 2023, Shanty Town

Xavier has established himself as a master storyteller with his ability to craft gripping narratives and complex characters. Some of his other notable projects include Foreigner’s God (2022) and Africa Magic’s ensemble of nailbiting TV shows including but not limited to Enakhe, Unbroken, and Forbidden.

In this interview, we get an inside look at Xavier’s creative process, learn more about his journey as a writer, and discover the secrets behind his success, particularly with Shanty Town. So sit back, relax, and join us for a fascinating conversation with one of the most talented screenwriters in the business today.

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

Behind The Screen With Xavier Ighorodje

  1. Hi Xavier, can we meet you?

Xavier IGHORODJE is an award-winning screenwriter and producer. I live in Nigeria. 

I am the screenwriter of the documentary short A WILL OF IRON, which won a 2014 Sundance award for Short Documentary, sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

My short film THE TRUTH ABOUT B.A.E. won the awards for Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay, Best Directing, and Best Actress in a Lead Role at the Lagos 48-hr Film Challenge in 2015, this earned me and my team the chance to represent Nigeria at the worldwide festival in Atlanta, Georgia, USA in 2016. 

With over 4,000 minutes of primetime Nigerian TV writing to my credit, I have worked on either creating, head writing, or story editing 60,000+ minutes of stories on primetime Nigerian television.

I have worked on nearly all of MNET’s Africa Magic Showcase’s hit Telenovela series. I’m the creator and head writer of COVENANT, a 260-episode MNET Telenovela that premiered in October 2022 and is still airing. I am the creator and co-writer of SHANTY TOWN and am also credited with creating and writing companion materials for Burna Boy’s Grammy award-winning album TWICE AS TALL (released in 2020). I am passionate about stories that explore African identity in various genres, particularly religion, and spirituality.

Xavier Ighorodje

Xavier Ighorodje

  1. Tell us about the inspiration behind Shanty Town -the story, the characters, how these elements evolved throughout the writing process, and why it was important to make those changes in order to tell the story.

The inspiration for Shanty Town was borne out of a desire to tell a Nigerian story of what the struggle of the vulnerable and voiceless in society, in the face of overwhelming odds, feels like. 

It was at the end of 2019 and the present administration had just been re-elected into power, with very damning consequences; I wanted to create something that would feel relevant. So the inspiration for the characters was drawn from many figures in our political fabric in particular and society in general. The story development process literally began in my living room in Lagos with [my friend] Ayo. After I moved to Abuja for the birth of my son, I needed to work on the general direction alone because I felt strongly about the themes and where I wanted to take the story in a way only I could. It was after rounding up the entire story I invited my friend and frequent collaborator Donald [Tombia] in for the writing, because his writing best complements mine, especially for the tone I wanted to establish for the show.

  1. How did you approach the development of the main characters in Shanty Town, and what, in your opinion, makes each of them unique and compelling?

I used a process I’d like to call “free form” due to the tight schedule of the project. The development of the main characters’ textures and voices happened during the writing process. 

I had established the characters’ biographies in the treatment and had a series of long phone conversations with my co-writer about where my head was at. A couple of back and forths followed, where the idiosyncrasies of each major cast were clearly outlined and understood by both parties, and then after Donald sent in his draft, I edited for consistency and that was it.

I’d say many things make our characters unique – foremost among them being the way they speak. No two characters speak the same way, just like no two people sound precisely identical. Similarities may exist, but to be exact replicas? Nope. Then there is the distinction in their flavors. For instance, Chief Fernandez and Dame Dabota may both be megalomaniacs, but their externalizations differ very much from each other. Or Scar, or even Inem. Then the wardrobe, directing, and general production just elevated the uniqueness of these characters, placing them in a world that feels truly immersive.

Xavier Ighorodje on Shanty Town cast

L-R: Dame Dabota (Shaffy Bello), Scar (Chidi Mokeme), and Chief Fernandez (RMD) – Shanty Town | Netflix

  1. What are some of the challenges you and your team faced while writing Shanty Town, and how did you overcome them?

I wouldn’t say I faced any challenges while writing. I had just welcomed my first child around the time, so there was the challenge of getting past the brimming emotion of being a new father to try getting into the flow of things – but I simply used that as fuel, and, voila, here we are!

  1. What was the thought process behind deciding to make Shanty Town a TV series instead of a feature-length movie?

After filming, we had more footage than was reasonably possible to accommodate in the feature-length film format. This was why it was necessary to cut it as a TV show. Mine and Donald’s background writing for TV, and the genius of the editor and director, made the cutting come out as seamless as it did.

  1. How do you see some of the criticism for Shanty Town, and what has that changed for you with how you’d approach future projects you work on?

I take criticism in stride, but, frankly, a lot of the issues raised were questions whose answers were already given in the show. I guess people want to be spoon-fed Nigerian products, and I don’t write like that; there isn’t much I can do with those. The ones that were useful, I have taken to better understand communicating ideas clearly on paper. Hence, it is better interpreted when it comes to production  – like the Jackie voice note thing, which was written as a voicemail. If we had added a simple filtered V.O. saying “you have one voice message”, in the script for the toilet scene, a lot of the ambiguity would’ve been solved. There is also the case of the general flow of the story. The initiated eye may not understand that due to #5 above, the flow of the plot had to be changed in the editing room. Personally, I feel the editors did a great job in executing it because, objectively, if the audience had seen Shanty Town the way it was originally written, the flow was slightly different, but they’d still have questions.

Xavier Ighorodje

Xavier Ighorodje

  1. Give us a sneak peek into what you are working on next. 

I’m currently working on a couple of TV shows. Top on the list is a 5-part dramatic thriller titled ANATOMY OF A PREDATOR. I can’t say much beyond this right now.

  1. Any advice for budding writers hoping to break big in the industry someday?

Persevere. Learn. Grow. A writer is someone who writes. So leave Twitter and write.

Shanty Town is streaming on Netflix.

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


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