About this series: Before it was a movie, it was a screenplay. And before it was a screenplay, it was a terrifyingly blank page. Revision History tells stories about one of the least understood but most creative stages of filmmaking: the writing (and constant rewriting) of the screenplay.
The movie: Dara Ju, which chronicles the growing pressures of a Nigerian-American financier as he navigates crises in his family, romantic, and professional life. The film premiered this week in the Narrative Competition at SXSW.
The writer: Anthony Onah, who also directs his debut feature.
Dara Ju began its life as a short film, also called Dara Ju (a Yoruba phrase meaning “better.”) The idea for the film grew out of some time the filmmaker Anthony Onah spent with his mother in the winter of 2010. His father had passed away, and Onah and his mother sifted through his effects. Onah found himself reckoning with what his father had meant to him. “How do I know myself in the context of this relationship with this person?” he recalls pondering.
Meanwhile, it was time for Onah to make his UCLA thesis film. In collaboration with a college friend named Brian Flanagan, Onah rapidly drafted a screenplay called Dara Ju. The film focuses on a young Nigerian-American man who may be losing himself as he juggles his allegiance to family with his desire to woo a wealthy young white woman, and can be seen here.
The short ends with a brutal O’Henry-esque turn, in which the protagonist horribly snubs his own mother. The film wound up being a calling card for Onah as a writer/director to watch, winning an award from the Directors’ Guild of America as well as a $25,000 prize from Afrinolly, which hosted a competition for filmmakers of the African Diaspora. Soon, Onah was getting emails from members of that Diaspora, random professionals in cities around the country, saying just how much the short resonated with their own conflicted identities. The short also caught the attention of Fast Company Most Creative Person Franklin Leonard, who became a friend and mentor to Onah and helped hook him up with management at a company called The Gotham Group.
Some filmmakers make shorts intending to develop them into features, but Onah didn’t originally have that intention with Dara Ju. In February 2012, though, Onah participated in the Berlinale Talent Campus, where he found himself talking passionately to the other filmmakers and mentors in Berlin about the characters and conflicts in his short. “At the end of that, they said, you’ve got to keep on doing this, both because we think it’s an amazing story, but also because we think it’s important for you.” Onah calls the Berlinale “a real confidence boost,” saying he left with “wind in my sails.”
He returned to the US in February and began outlining the script, sometimes at his apartment, sometimes at a coffee shop. “The first thing I did was write 24 sentences, with the 24 most important moments sequentially in the story,” he recalls–a tip he had learned from a UCLA professor named Jim Strain. Retained from the short was a plotline about the protagonist’s responsibility to his Nigerian immigrant family, as well as a plotline about pursuing a romantic relationship. Onah also added a workplace thriller plotline involving an insider trading scheme and SEC investigation.
Onah then took his 24-line sheet (which he termed “the DVD breakdown” after its structural resemblance to a DVD menu of a movie’s chapters), expanding it into a fuller story document. Then he turned to screenwriting software and began writing the script itself. He moved quickly, completing a draft of the feature by May of 2012, just three months after his trip to Berlin.
At this point, Onah had the sense that the script was working on a structural level. But he knew his work was far from done. “I knew I needed to push further along the Wall Street storyline, push further along the relationship with the girlfriend. I know I could create something more dramatic and potent, a more effective ride for the audience.”
Sometimes a new draft of a script, or of any project, is formed in a brief, discrete burst. And sometimes a new draft only emerges in an amorphous, ongoing refining process. The latter was the case for the third draft of “Dara Ju,” which would become the shooting script.
From May of 2012, Onah engaged in a years-long process of sharing the script with trusted readers, getting notes on it, and fine-tuning scenes, ideas, lines of dialogue. A steady stream of fresh readers was essential to him. In summer 2012, he joined forces with one of his producers, Justin Begnaud. In 2013, he brought on a second producer, Kishori Rajan. Each brought new ideas to the project.
Through 2014 and 2015, the project was admitted into a further string of development labs from organizations like IFP, Film Independent, and the Sundance Institute. “You really never stop writing,” Onah says of his refining process through these years. (He thinks his UCLA training in the craft of film editing may have helped him develop this mindset, since so much of editing is about refining and polishing a film through small tweaks.)
By the fall of 2014, the polishing process had clearly nudged the script across some tipping point into excellence: all of a sudden, major talent agencies were competing to get their actors lead roles in the film. (The finished movie features strong performances from Aml Ameen and Lucy Griffiths.)
Eventually, financing came together, and Onah and his team embarked on the adventure of shooting and editing the film, culminating in its debut at South by Southwest’s film festival last week. The film was warmly received, garnering mostly favorable reviews out of the handful that have come in so far, with RogerEbert.com’s critic calling the film “lived-in and genuine.” Onah is currently in negotiations to find a distributor to share the film with audiences beyond the festival circuit.