Neil Schell: The Man behind ‘My Life in Crime’ the Film

Last  Sunday afternoon as I went to the Kenya National Theatre to watch a play, I came across a poster on an upcoming acting workshop. Upon reading further, I could not believe what I was seeing!

The Classic Novel ‘My Life in Crime‘ by John Kiriamiti was being adapted to a Film by none other than Neil Schell.

I excitedly tweeted about it and I was not the only one who got excited by these news! @bankelele, @matrixster, @kainvestor and @savvykenya among others retweeted the announcement.

That evening I decided that I must get the story behind this. It was not hard to track Neil as he has a lovely frequently updated website.

Tell us something about yourself that we will not find in your Biography
 I’ve painted some pretty cool oil paintings – landscapes of my homeland British Columbia – and I use bright, unusual colours.

Neil Schell
Actor, Director, Producer, 
Writer and Acting Coach
(Photo Courtesy of his website)

 What inspired you to pursue your career in Film? 

When I was young I loved watching old movies on TV. Where I grew up there were only two TV channels so the selection wasn’t like today. I had to watch whatever the broadcaster would schedule. No choices. I think it exposed me to some great movies that I would never have chosen for myself – you know a 8 year old watching loves stories and gangster movies. But the big turning point was Star Wars. I know it’s cliche for people my age to say but that movie had a gigantic impact on me in so many ways. And it was the story more than the special effects that just woke me up to the universe of movie making. I knew my life would be in this industry but I had absolutely no idea how to go about it.

You have had a very successful career in the Film Industry in the various capacities that you serve (Director/Producer/Actor/Writer and Acting Coach) how are you able to manage all these? 

I have no idea! I think the best way to answer your question is to say – I do what I am doing when I am doing it. I don’t think about producing when I am directing. I don’t think about directing when I am acting. And so goes the list. I think that’s how I do it. I have never really sat down and tried to figure that out. But I do know I just fully immerse myself into the task at hand and do it to my full capability at that moment in time.

 What did you study in college?

Sciences. Go figure. I have this great capacity to do math. My mother tells me she was good at math too so maybe I can attribute that to genetics (although I don’t believe in genetics much). It’s just one of those natural talents. I have this other talent too, I can spell words of any length at lightening speed without stopping or hesitating or thinking. Strange huh. Haven’t found a great use for that talent yet.

When did you come to Kenya in relation to your career? 

Wow. Well, I had finished shooting The A-Team when I got the email. I was so very focused on my acting career and helping other actors make their dreams come true. But this email looked like a great opportunity.

Why Kenya? 

That’s a bit of a story. Several years ago while I was on one of my whirlwind teaching trips across Canada (big country, it takes 6 days to drive across it at 110 km an hour!) there was a student in my class who was Kenyan. No big deal really. But she was so impressed with my class she quit her corporate job in Edmonton and went into show business as an actor. She then started writing TV shows. This Kenyan was Dorothy Ghettuba.

 I gave her another class in Toronto where she had moved to to pursue her new found career. I didn’t hear from her for awhile, but when I did she was asking me to come and train actors for a new series that MNET was producing in Kenya. To be honest, I knew very little about Kenya and, you know, I got the usual North American diet of news from Africa. So I was a bit in disbelief about the whole thing when she asked me to come. Regardless, I tossed aside any weird thoughts promoted to me by the media and arrived here in Kenya in 2008. I was only here for three weeks but I knew I would be back!

You have directed Saints and Higher Learning, both local productions. Tell us about it? 

Some of the Cast members
 in the Series ‘Saints’

Two different shows with very different feels. And I love them both! I had the very fortunate privilege of being given complete casting authority for these series. Something a TV director doesn’t usually get a chance to do. That allowed me to select some very good local actors. And, I must say, my selection was not based on fame or who I knew, because I didn’t know any actors here at all and had no idea who was famous, who was new, who was working and who wasn’t. I was also very impressed with the crew I got to to work with.

Very professional and hard working. And fun! The more fun it is on set, the better the final work is. At least, that’s what I have discovered. And we had a lot of fun working on both Higher Learning and Saints. I worked with the actors closely in order to get a “real” feel to the shows. I’m into what is called “truthful” acting and I tried to get that from every actor I worked with. The challenges were many but with some great team work the majority were solved in very brilliant ways. Directing these two series have given me unforgettable good experiences. It’s truly been an honour for me.

 What has been your experience working with Kenyan Actors? 

Well that is a loaded question. Overall, I would say I have had a very positive experience with the actors here. I mean each actor is an individual so it’s hard to answer this question. I have had the lovely experience of working with some of the most talented and professional actors I have ever met. True. But I have also had to work with actors who were very unprofessional to the point of being destructive to the production. But I must say, there is a huge amount of talent here. And with the industry growing there are more opportunities for those talented actors.

We are witnessing a lot of Kenyan actors who were previously involved in plays now pursuing screen acting what are your thoughts on this? 

I think it’s a natural progression. I think that an actor should pursue work on stage first since it is the place where you will have a better chance of being exposed to great writing and larger roles and you get the time to sink your teeth into some incredible characters. If you just go straight into film, it is much harder to land such roles and if you do, you might not be ready for it. So stage is a good thing. But transforming from stage to screen can be challenging.

 To avoid making mistakes in front of the camera and learning by trial and error, it’s a good idea to get some training on exactly what is expected for film and TV acting. Film acting is more precise, more refined. You can get away with things on stage that you just cannot get away with in TV and film. And that is all due to the close up. Something that never happens on stage. No audience member of a play can see the slight glance of an actor’s eye like a film audience can.

What are some of the challenges you have faced? 

In life? In acting? In directing? I will go with directing. Here’s one. When directing Saints I had the challenge of making three different locations look like one place on screen. It was one heck of a challenge. I would shoot one part of a scene in a hallway at a studio with a couple of actors walking and talking. Then about two weeks later shoot the beginning part of that scene at our location in a real hospital with the same actors and then another week later shoot the end of the scene when they are in an office. This is very technical in nature and a real mind bender. But with the help of some of the crew and actors and some great ideas, it worked. When you watch it edited it looks like on building and like it’s all happening in one time continuum.

Like those two minutes of travel and talking all happened in those two minutes when in reality they were spread out over almost a month and in three different places. As far as career building goes, the major challenge has been having to persist despite how futile it can all seem at times. So many people I knew when I started out ended up quitting in those darkest of times. It’s kind of nature’s way of selecting those who deserve to be in this most incredible of all industries – filmmaking. At least that’s what I think. If you can get through those times, you will make it for sure.

 You will be conducting a 5 day acting course starting this month from 5th, tell us about it?

A keen audience during his previous workshops

Yes. I will be giving three sets of them starting on the 15th of August and running until the second of September. I had such a huge response to my one day class back in February, I thought I would give even more training now that I have a break in between directing gigs. In these classes, I will be giving out the secrets to how I have managed to work as an actor in movies like The A-Team and Watchmen and hit TV series like Fringe and Eureka. It’s not only about talent and acting skills, it’s also about a certain mindset that has to be attained and maintained.

 I respect actors very much. I am one so I can’t help it. Their quest is one of the toughest in existence and I will do whatever I can to help. That doesn’t mean I can give every actor I meet a job. It just means I can always give them something that will move them closer to their dream. When it comes to technique and skill, I know I have managed to discover the most effective ways of preparing and bringing the best in every actor. It took me many years to not only discover this but to put it into practice for myself and others and to see it work every time. All of these gems will be given out and practiced in the 5-Day workshop. And for those who go to all three, well, they will get an even wider scope of what I have done and I will be able to work with them even more on their skills.

 Which other projects are you working on? 

I’m writing an action flick, kind of Indiana Jones style, about the truth of race and how these two women scientists get into all kinds of trouble when they are finishing up their proof. It takes place in Canada, Germany and Kenya. Ends up in the area of Lake Turkana – the cradle of humankind. And I have another movie about a pretty well-known Kenyan I am in talks about but I am not obliged to tell you what that is. Ha! Mystery!!

My Life in Crime is one of Kenya’s Classic Novels based on the real life story of John Kiriamiti the author. You will be adapting it for a film is that right? 

A Front Cover of the classic Novel
by John Kiriamiti

Yes that is totally right. I am helping produce the film adaptation of the best-selling Kenyan novel My Life in Crime written by John Kiriamiti. Janet Kirina and myself are producing this film and soon will be joined by another local producer who is super excited about it. Can’t say who it is at this stage as contracts need to be signed and so on.Janet and I managed to purchase the film rights for three of John’s novels – My Life in Crime, My Life with a Criminal and My Life in Prison. The best contract we could get from the owner’s of the rights was one movie from all three novels. We took a long hard look and have figured out how to do it. Scripting is happening now by Serah Mwihaki. 

 What inspired the adaptation of this novel? 

That’s Janet’s doing. She picked up the novel My Life with a Criminal and after reading only about 4 or 5 chapters searched out John and went to meet him to ask his permission to make a movie of his books. He had had others request it from him but Janet won his favour. Even though he did not own the rights, Janet felt it was only right to see John in person and get his blessing.

This is one book that has been read by generations, did you carry out any form of research to determine whether it was the right choice? 

I didn’t and I don’t think Janet did either. It was one of those intuitive insights that are often much more intelligent than any analysis could ever be.

Serah Mwihaki is writing the screen play adaptation of the book, how has it been working with her? 

She has a very interesting style to her writing and her immediate take on what the movie would be like struck a chord with both Janet and myself. She’s a trooper too. She’s been ill recently but she carries on and gets the work done despite it all.

When is the film set to release? 
It will release next year – September most likely.

 What is your role in the making of this Film?
 I am working in close conjunction with Janet to oversee and approve anything and everything to do with the making of this film.

 Who are some of the actors who will appear in the film? 

It’s a bit early to say because we don’t have a first draft yet. The most obvious role is not cast yet – that of Jack Zollo. We have actors in mind but nothing is finalized. Janet is slated to play Millie, his wife. Once we have a script that’s in good shape we will start casting the roles. I have had actors contact me from as far away as Uganda and Rwanda asking for a role in this movie and we don’t even have a script yet. This movie has a power attached to it that is almost unexplainable. It will change the movie industry in Kenya forever.

 Is the author involved? If so, in what way? 

John will be involved as a consultant when we are shooting. We want to get the story as right as we can. We want to bring to life that time period in Kenya and Nairobi in particular with costumes, sets, props and music. He will be of great assistance in that matter.

 I imagine some of the scenes will be shot from the Nairobi’s Central Business District as that is where most of the events happened in the novel, how has it been choosing and/or shooting? 

Yes, a number of scenes will be in town – robberies, night clubs, car chases. Especially the River Road area. But there are lots of scenes in Jack Zollo’s house as well with his wife Millie. And there is a great scene in Nakuru. He travels to the Congo as well and Mombasa. So those scenes, at this point, will be in the movie. Then there is the prison as well. So lots of interesting scenes and action.

Are there plans to adapt the other novels which are a continuation of the initial Novel? Ie. My Life with a Criminal and A Son of Fate? 

Actress Janet Kirina
She will play the role of Millie
Photo courtesy of  Standard Media

As I said earlier, My Life with a Criminal will be incorporated in this movie. As far as other novels of John’s, no, not at this point. We are hoping, and so are the publishers, that movie makers in Kenya will look to more of Kenyan literature and written stories to adapt to film and tell the world about the real Kenya. Not the one the mass media tries to push off onto the rest of the world.

 What is the future for film in Kenya?

It’s very bright. At least that is my take on it. I see very dedicated crews and talented actors with producers who are all jumping in with both feet making things happen. And as time passes the quality will start to rise. I see Kenyan productions as high quality. That’s going to be their uniqueness. Nigeria has their mass production machine Nollywood with production values that I would never stoop to. But Kenya’s movie industry future is on a different path. It’s high quality with real Kenyan stories the world over can relate to.

 I was recently at the Rwanda film festival as a guest. I saw a few Rwandan films. Their films are also of high quality but yet to be fully made in Rwanda since they are mainly made by outside filmmakers. And their story is virtually the same about the genocide. I think Kenyans have stories to tell that they are not afraid to tell. And that honesty will talk to the world. Kenya and it’s people have some very valuable things to say and the world will benefit from them.

Tell us something that we might have forgotten to ask

Sure. One thing I have found here is the lack of filmmaking books. The technique of filmmaking has been discovered by some very brilliant and hard working minds over the past 100 years and that knowledge should be here and available. Without books, I would never even know what to do as a director or actor. I firmly believe that the most effective way to advance filmmaking in Kenya is to make this knowledge widely available and accessible to all. Creating a film making library is a project I am starting up here in Nairobi. At the moment, it’s just an idea I have talked about. But as you know, I don’t just talk. I do.

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