Upon arriving in L.A., Bola Ogun soon managed to become a swiss-army knife ready to bring something to every table she’s joined on her journey. Using her previous knowledge from Dallas, where she served as a production assistant on Prison Break and Walking Tall, Ogun began to work her way up the production chain via films you might have heard of like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight or James Wan’s Insidious: Chapter 2.
Like most aspiring industry folks, Ogun tirelessly paid her dues from working double shifts between small gigs as an actress, PA, and couch-surfing all in the name of the craft.
After almost a decade of working in the industry for other productions and inspired by the lack of genre entries by women at various film festivals, she was determined to chart her own path as a filmmaker. Here starts something that this author would like to call the Bola Ogun Mystical Industrial Complex: telling her stories that continue making space for the worlds that need to be brought to the screen from the minds of marginalized voices was born.
“I have nerdy dreams,” Ogun explains. “All of my dream projects are just about world-building; Final Fantasy, Avatar the Last Airbender or Dragon Ball Z—which is just a bunch of dudes screaming at each other. But I love that.”
Her risk was rewarded in 2014 when she was accepted to AFI's Directing Workshop for Women after submitting a unique pitch which would end up being the first short film she wrote, directed and starred in three years later.
The Water Phoenix follows the story of Anya, a mermaid who falls out of love with a human after he confines her to life at an aquarium. The short film which began her exploration into the world of directing is noted not only for its complexity due to Ogun having to take scuba diving lessons and wearing a customized tail made for the film, but most notably for the mermaid being played by Ogun, herself. A Black mermaid.
A year later, her second short film Are We Good Parents? written by Hailey Chavez debuted at SXSW. Based on Ogun’s younger sister coming out to her as a young adult, it’s a subversive comedy about two woke parents who start to question their parenting skills after their daughter, who they presume is a lesbian, announces she’s going to the high school dance with, presumably, a boy named Ryan.
It was this short film that caught the attention of Ava DurVernay that landed her first TV directorial debut on Queen Sugar. In under four short years, Ogun has managed to collect fandom's best pop culture infinity stones by directing Charmed, Siren, Legacies, Walker, Two Sentence Horror Stories, Lucifer, and an upcoming Disney+ series Big Shot.
By choosing to work and create in a world of fantasy and pop culture to lessen the gap between women of color and mythos it’s undeniable that Ogun is one busy woman ready to make her stamp on the world in front of or behind the camera.
I talk with the vibrant, writer-director Bola Ogun about navigating the TV frontier as a Black woman, directing during the pandemic, and holding the door open for others by providing help to peers in teaching how to shadow directors.
Destiny Jackson: OK, so first, I would like to start off with a quote from an interview of yours about acting from IndieActivity in 2018; where you were discussing your quick succession of successful ventures all within the year time span; The Water Phoenix, Are We Good Parents?, On the Run with Robert Rodriguez, and you said at the time “It’s been a crazy ride, and I hope it gets crazier.” So...did it?
Bola Ogun: As soon as you got to end and said “gets crazier,” I thought to myself, “Well Bola, you did it. It got crazier.” [laughs]
Destiny: Sis, you have been booked and busy. Talk about this process. How do you choose what you’re going to direct? Do they come to you? Or do you go to the studio?
Bola: Similar to any new venture in your life; first you’re like “Just give me anything. I want a chance to work on my craft and get better and add to my skill set.” In the beginning, you’re not choosing, you’re allowing things to come to you. When you get to a certain point then you have to start making decisions. This was the first year I actually had to start making decisions and figuring out which episodes I wanted to do, or said yes to something but no to something else because I’ve already committed. I decide [usually by asking myself] is the show doing or saying something that I am interested in? And only now am I getting to the point where I do have to make these tough decisions.
Destiny: Are We Good Parents? is based on your relationship with your youngest sister coming out to you, but more than that it’s also about acceptance and individuality. Can we talk about your family dynamic and where you got your creativity from?
Bola: My dad is a chiropractor so he was always like “When are you going back to school?” [laughs.] He was still supportive, but I don’t think it was until my name showed up on the credits for both The Dark Knight and Battleship that he [stopped asking.] My mom is a hairstylist—which is a huge profession in Nigeria. I find that hairstyling is also a creative medium. My middle sister enjoys fashion, my youngest sister is a chef—both artistic expressions— my aunt is an author, my grandma was a banker but she’s a fierce feminist. For me, I think it started with being an actress and wanting to be a performer. Nigerian people are just naturally and culturally bombastic. The thread was always there and I think with each generation it got bigger until I’m here now doing what I do.
Destiny: What is something you wish you'd known before making the switch from actor to director? Any advice for people making the switch?
Bola: I wish I knew that things didn’t have to be perfect. There is this unfortunate and fortunate side effect of being Black women or not even specifically Black women, but we all have this sort of perfectionist thing. It comes from wanting to protect ourselves from criticism and people saying “no.” [We internalize] this perfection thing, so that there is no excuse for [the industry] to bypass me. And even though that is a great philosophy [to create good content] as you're going through life, it can be debilitating sometimes. Because you get so fearful of not doing “perfect” that you don't do anything. So I wish I knew that things didn't have to be perfect, that I could just keep creating and get better. And that is a much better path than being perfect.
Destiny: The pandemic threw a wrench into TV/Film production and some of the episodes you’ve filmed like Charmed, Walker, Two Sentence Horror Stories have released. You’ve got a Lucifer episode and Disney+ series on the way. How have the restraints challenged you as a director or made things easier for you?
Bola: Charmed was definitely interesting. They wrote it into the script as to why the Charmed ones couldn't be close to each other. So that was a challenge of blocking them in ways that were efficient, but also abiding with the rules of both their world and our [real life] world. There were certain types of shots [a director] would normally do to make [production] go a little quicker that now we can no longer do because the [actors] are now in three different places. For instance: if [the actors] are standing in a triangle, as opposed to two people standing on one side and one person standing on the other; now you’re shooting in three different directions instead of two different directions.
That's all very technical. It was a challenge, but also really fun because of the challenge. [I asked myself], “What can I do with this challenge? How am I going to grow?” And I did grow. I found other ways to play with the depth of the space, as opposed to thinking theater-wise, which is how my brain naturally thinks because I come from theater. Walker and Two Sentence Horror Stories I did during the pandemic as well. So I'd done three different shows during COVID and for the most part, it didn’t slow us down as much as I thought it would. I'm very pleased with that. Each of these shows handled the pandemic well, everyone was aware of the [CDC Guidelines.] Because being safe was paramount.
Destiny: Quentin Tarantino has nonlinear filmmaking, J.J Abrams loves lens flare, M. Night Shyamalan has convoluted plot points… So what’s the Bola stamp of authenticity within your own work?
Bola: I’ve definitely wondered what my thing is. I can only point to my love for emotional pushes [close-ups] which happen slowly and then it’s like [sound effect: BAM!] “What the fuck just happened?” [laughs.] I love dramatizing things in Nigerian fashion. My style is so much more rooted in what specific characters are thinking sometimes. I [gravitate] towards emotionally driven shots so that if you turn off the sound; you can understand what [a character] is feeling. I also like low angles, especially if the ceiling is pretty. But, maybe once I do more of my own work it’ll be clearer once [my filmography] is bigger.
Destiny: As a director how do you collaborate with writers on your vision and their vision? Especially since you’ve mentioned you like emotional beats. What’s that relationship look like when choosing how to direct an episode? For example, jumping into your Lucifer "Resting Devil Face" episode, which deals with five years of pent-up daddy issues that Lucifer has to overcome. There’s got to be a different expression on the interpretation of the emotions from your directorial standpoint, the screenwriter's standpoint, and the actor's standpoint, especially coming in at the show’s penultimate season!
Bola: TV really is a writer’s medium because they’re like architects of the character’s stories. I use [the screenwriters] as a resource to help me if I have questions about specific things I didn’t find during my own research; like where a character is going [in their arc]. I read scripts and watch episodes beforehand so that way I’m caught up and not asking a lot of [basic] questions like, “Why is Lucifer a detective” “Why do people call him Luci?” By doing that I’m able to ask more nuanced questions. That way when I'm directing the actors, I have the backstory, I know where this character is going and I can help guide them and make it stronger and come up with new ideas. So I love collaborating with writers so that I can get that kind of information and really help the material sing because at the end of the day, that is my job is to help it come alive, what they put on the page and make it stronger.
Destiny: The showrunners probably didn’t tell you while you were signing the contract, but you’re the second and last Black female director for Lucifer on it’s six season run, and that kind of got me thinking…How do you think this experience kind of shapes your directorial features? Have you seen any progress in diversity after the BLM demonstrations last summer? I feel TV is more diverse than the film industry…
Bola: There are better numbers in TV because there’s more opportunity. There’s more channels and more streaming [platforms]. Each show has anywhere from 8 to 26 episodes, so there’s more opportunities to fill those slots. Features are more expensive to make, so they’re a little more risk-averse. I think that’s the [main] difference between film and TV right now: risk aversion and opportunity. Things are slowly starting to change. It’s funny though, people have different reactions, especially if it’s another person of color. Their reaction towards me is [shock and awe], I was naive to think it’s about my work. [laughs] I had to remind myself, “No, they just don’t see a lot of Black women directors.” They are just expressing excitement and I get that a lot. So I make sure I’m here and ready to rock it so [they] can be proud. And there’s that pressure thing again, that feeling that you can’t mess something up. Then you get more nervous and it just complicates things more than it should. I still have to work on that.
Really what you should focus on is telling a story and having fun, because that’s what people are going to remember at the end of the day. The reaction from white men and women also ranges with a “let’s see how this goes” skepticism to excitement because they haven’t used a Black director before. But then I win them over every single time. I go in with the notion like, “I got you, I know what this is, and we’re going to be friends by the end of the day.” And we usually are.
Destiny: How do you think your Blackness has kind of helped you navigate this white directorial space lately?
Bola: I think it's helped lately because people understand that there's been a problem in how people have been picked to direct before. I think they've realized that they have either accidentally or on purpose, depending on who you're talking to, have traditionally shut out people of color. Simply because we haven't hit the markers or know the right people that they consider trustworthy sources for new directors. Right? So like for instance, if in the past, like if you, if your father or mother knew somebody who knew somebody or owned something or was also a director or was in the world, right. We'd consider that nepotism, right? Like that's what we call it. It's nepotism. Or if you knew someone who knew someone and it's not necessarily nepotism, it's just like you had a friend of a friend and that's how you got in. The “thing” about all of these ways is once you're in you have to keep yourself in. That’s what’s going to open the door.
And what’s happening now is I’ll get asked this, “Do you hate being the diversity hire because you’re a Black woman?” To be those things are kind of irrelevant. One, it may be the reason why they started looking, but my work is good enough that they keep saying yes. So how I got into the door is irrelevant. It’s the fact that I'm still here that you should be thinking about. If you would have slid time back 5 to 10 years, this all might not be happening. I would not be getting these chances or I would not be getting a chance to show what I could do in the first place. And that’s the problem we are trying to deal with now and what [we are doing] once we get the chance.
Destiny: Any advice on how to effectively communicate with other directors and production crew?
Bola: Because [directing] is a visual medium, a lot of people really respond well to visual aids. So I would say build a show deck. For each show, I pull images and ideas that I can show people what I'm talking about. I will do a [production set-up] drawing real quick on Adobe sketch. I’ll be like, “OK, so here’s this box, and this [crewmember is here and this talent is there]. And then everyone can see inside my head, it’s very effective so people can understand.
Destiny: It seems you’re attracted to shows in the fantasy genre? Do you have particular criteria on what mythos you’ll cover or not cover? You’ve got mermaids, spirits, Lucifer Morningstar…
Bola: Give me all of it! Vampires, werewolves, mermaids, monsters. I need to get into more Greek mythology. I want Titans. I just did [a project] on Shango, which is a God from Yoruba [African/Nigerian] mythology.
Destiny: What's next for you?
Bola: I'm working on a pilot and a feature and I don't want to say too much because I've been working on them for a while. I'm so grateful to be doing all these shows. [laughs] Again, it’s part of the perfection thing; wanting to write something and wanting it to be good, but then letting that stop you because you feel like you're not thinking deeply enough about the content. So then you just get back on the ride of directing TV. 'Cause, that takes a lot of focus too. So then you never quit and get in the right headspace. I'm trying to break that down so that I can just [develop my own project] and not put so much pressure on it. And once that happens, then hopefully I will start to hear some announcements.
Destiny: As you continue your path forward to create spaces for women of color in these spellbinding narratives and direct, what advice would you have for writers or directors of color trying to chart their own course in the TV directorial realm?
Bola: Make your own stuff as much as possible and make mistakes on your own. You’re gonna be worried about making mistakes on other people’s dime, and you’re gonna make a bunch of mistakes on the [studio’s] dime. But the more you make on your own, the more you can prove that you not only shot something, but there was a mistake that you made and figured out how to fix it. That’s what directing is. People want to know that you’re a problem solver. If something doesn’t go the way it’s supposed to go, are you going to come up with something better? And the more you can prove that and show that you’ve done the work, the more comfortable people are with having you helm the ship because nobody wants the captain who’s running around going, “I don’t know.”