When DN alums NONO and Rodrgio Inada (last seen on our pages here and here respectively) were approached with the challenge of creating the maiden short film for messaging giants Whatsapp they were immediately taken with both the colossal possibilities of the project and the unassailable linkage to the filmmakers’ own backgrounds and zealously launched into the making of film Najia Odyssey. The short centres around basketball giant Giannis Antetokounmpo, a Greek-born Nigerian whose own search to unify his heritage and migrant upbringing was pitched by New York creative agency Translation coupled with the inspired touch of basing the narrative on Homer’s Odyssey. Whilst Odysseus battled mythical creatures, NONO and Inada were equally challenged to create a cohesive, inspiring and narrative journey under the guise of a commercial potentate and they did so with passion, stunning camerawork and the cross-border cohesion of an international team of collaborators. The resulting Naija Odyssey – the director’s cut of which features below – is a testament to their combined vision and a project we were keen to speak to the pair about, from working with renowned Writer Walter Campbell, ensuring the authenticity of the tale by spending time with the “Greek Freak” himself and the huge collaboration required for such a herculean production.

This is the first original content release from Whatsapp, how did you come to be working on the project?

The concept of this campaign came from the Translation NYC team, Patrick, Jon, Alex and Kirsten, and the Whatsapp creative team Rodrigo Moran and Belén Márquez who had the idea of connecting the story of Giannis Antetokounmpo with the Odyssey by Homer. For us, the project was a fascinating way to portray a really beautiful and powerful identity journey of a person that felt stuck in the middle between two countries and identities. We were hoping to create a script that could resonate with other people who find themselves in different situations and places at some point and feel the same way. As immigrants ourselves and with multiple backgrounds this was a story which easily reverberated between us and we were heavily drawn into the human connection and the culture that passes from generation to generation that we always carry with us. Nono Ayuso is an Andalusian director that moved to London and Rodrigo Inada is a Japanese-Brazilian director that grew up in Brazil but has never been to Japan.

We wanted to shoot something that could feel more like a narrative piece rather than a commercial.

You have a heavy-hitting list of writers including Walter Campbell on this project. How was the collaborative process with everyone and how did the script take form?

That’s an interesting one! The process of writing this script was actually super collaborative between the agency, Walter Campbell and ourselves. It started with the Translation team. They had the idea to associate Giannis’ story with the Odyssey of Homer, following the structure of four acts and sent us some key points combined with some scenarios where they envisioned the story happening. We wanted to make this in our way, we are not documentary filmmakers and we always like to have layers between the camera and what is being shot.

We always love to have textures and a visual license to what we are telling in order to portray a feeling and we wanted to shoot something that could feel more like a narrative piece rather than a commercial. So, we wrote to Walter Campbell to collaborate with us on the writing of it, and he was extremely down and excited to make it happen. In our conversations, we always talked about telling the story, but also what was extremely important was to pass on the feeling to whoever is watching it. We wanted to tell a real story but with metaphorical visuals that could represent dreams, heartwarming memories of home, fears of confronting a new reality, and the feeling of isolation and resilience.

There is such a genuine and heartfelt authenticity to the telling of Giannis’s story, how much involvement did he have in the project?

We jumped on the pitching process and started implementing some ideas to the structure put in place by Translation and their team but we got to a point where we knew that we couldn’t keep working forever and imagining scenes, and we needed to have a chat with Giannis to hear his story from his own words. We needed to bring in ideas that would be related and authentic to his story. As soon as the project was signed off we flew to Milwaukee and met up with Giannis. We had innumerable conversations and spent the day together talking about the film, stories about his childhood, fatherhood, his identity journey, who Giannis is as a son, a father, a Greek person, a Nigerian person and how he felt when he went to the US to play basketball. Giannis has never been to Nigeria where all his family is from so we wanted to create a scene in Nigeria that felt like an imagination in his head, built with the culture his parents shared with him, by cooking him Nigerian food, discussing Nigerian matters, movies, and the language itself.

We are not documentary filmmakers and we always like to have layers between the camera and what is being shot.

After this crucial step we produced the transcripts from the interviews, separated them into parts and different stories and then we started thinking about the scenes from those stories. When we had a first draft of the structure, knew what we were missing and what we wanted to improve on we invited Walter back to write with us. Everything was a mix, we bounced ideas off each other, each created scenes then worked on merging them together. One funny moment is that he told us, “Why don’t we start the film with a really young kid running on the water on the shore of the beach?”, but we understood that he was trying to say, “Why don’t we open with a kid running on top of the middle of the ocean” and by happy accident, we created that scene in the beginning.

The central explorations of identity and belonging are powerful, moving and relatable no matter where you’re from. How were you able to connect with Giannis when you met him to bring out these emotive moments and weave them into the grand scale of the film?

It was really inspiring to talk to him. We remember being in the room and being so moved when he said, “You have to connect with your origins, otherwise you forget who you are, it is really important man, it really is, I am nothing without the culture my mom and dad shared with me”. The crazy thing is also that Rodrigo’s family is from Japan but he has never been there having been born in Brazil. Giannis was born in Greece, his family is from Nigeria, but he also has never been there. We remember releasing in that moment how important the culture you share is to the individual. You might have never been to your place of origin but your family can bring that place and the culture to you. For Giannis this was one of the elements that kept him grounded and kept him going against adversity.

We needed to make a piece that had the least of the product possible but used it in natural ways where it fits the story.

This is essentially branded content but you have managed to almost completely evaporate that from the audience’s mind. How did you feel about creating content for a platform like Whatsapp?

It was really interesting because everyone was wanting to take this project to a level of entertainment, and not a commercial. We wanted to create something that would make people want to watch it in their free time. And let’s be honest no one wants to watch a commercial in their free time apart from people that work on them. We were aligned with creatives who were able to achieve that and we needed to make a piece that had the least of the product possible but used it in natural ways where it fits the story. Both agency and client were really aligned with us, and we made it possible with Giannis and his openness. The process was really interesting, but at the end of the day we are still working for a brand, so we still had limitations in the sense of what fit the brand. It truly felt like we were making one of our more personal short films, and sometimes we were able to forget it was a commercial but the sheer sense of freedom was sometimes lacking.

What were your initial thoughts and ideas to connect a very modern story to the incredibly powerful historical epic journey that is the Odyssey?

As with many films, we basically used the hero’s journey as a base of our story, but we tried to apply the call for adventure, conflict, backstory and eventual journey to the resolution to that of Giannis’s life. At the same time, we needed to make it look epic to fit the concept of the Odyssey. We mixed the structure a bit and created visual metaphorical scenes that represented certain periods of his life. Like the sandstorm for example as a way to introduce the conflict but also the conclusion when he comes out of it.

We really wanted to stay away from a trendy look and go for something that could be a bit more timeless. We joke about how our films sometimes feel like they were stored in a drawer for years and then found as an archive, but with this one, we felt like creating a different look to tell this story. A lot of the story that we are telling happened in the past, but at the same time some of the moments were more like portraying a mental state or a feeling experienced by Giannis as a kid or a teenager so for us, it made so much sense to come up with a look that didn’t feel modern either old.

We worked with our Cinematographer Andy Catarasino to achieve a look that we were extremely happy with, we shot in Sony Venice and with Arri DNA signature primes and the plan was to try to achieve the sharpest look we could in camera and then print it on 35mm film. We did a couple of tests with the film print, the idea was to print it on 35mm Ektachrome, but we tested it as well on Vision 3 negative 35mm film. We ended up mixing, some parts were in positive film, some in negative, and some were printed first in positive and afterwards re-print on negative.

One of the highlights for me, is your incredibly immersive one-shot in Nigeria, how was this worked on?

We wanted to portray the feeling of when you close your eyes and picture a place. So we decided on a one-shot sequence in Lagos which for us, was one of the highlights of the project. With more than 400 actors blocked in the sequence, we wanted to create an immersive experience for whoever was watching it, while Giannis narrated we wanted the viewer to dive into an almost two and a half minute shot with no cuts, winding through the streets of Lagos and portraying the memories of Giannis growing up with his parents’ culture.

We wanted to create an immersive experience for whoever was watching it, while Giannis narrated we wanted the viewer to dive into an almost two and a half minute shot with no cuts.

The shot started with a crane at a high angle of the beautiful city of Lagos, we had a Steadicam on top of the crane and the movement came down to the streets and followed different characters that represented special memories that Giannis’ parents’ shared with him. This shot itself took two days, one day with rehearsal for staging and blocking and the other day to shoot. Blocking and staging with 300 people wasn’t an easy task, but we made it in the end during the last 30 minutes.

Can you talk us through the epic production and shooting over so many countries, and locations?

That was one of the most challenging things because there was a different crew everywhere we went, apart from our Producers Kimi Porter and Luke Plaister and our DOP Andy Catarisano. The shoot spanned over three different countries: Greece, Nigeria, and the USA. This ambitious journey involved pre-production, shooting, and post-production in each location so it felt like doing three different films production-wise. We were scouting, casting, briefing, discussing different crew members all the time, and travelling and working back to back. It was some of the most intense months of our lives but it worked out in the end! The preps were insanely challenging with the times we had. With set builds, studio days, and long shots.

You have explored climate change, identity and so much more in your work, what’s next?

We just shot a short film we really wanted to make last month in Argentina and we are in post production of it right now. We are really excited about it and can’t wait to finish it!

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