Wanjeri Gakuru on Making A Living As A Writer, Globe Trotting & Writing Critically Acclaimed Film: Supa Modo

Photocredit: Mutua Matheka

When did you start writing?

I started boarding school at an early age (9 years) so letter writing was my first exercise in reporting and storytelling. When I wasn’t begging to switch schools or drawing up a comprehensive shopping list, I was sharing stories of my day-to-day life, about school friends and great big plans for the holidays.

What did you study and was it difficult for you to find work after school?

A love for composition then English literature paved the way for a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and Media Studies at the University of Nairobi. I majored in print journalism with a goal to focus on arts & culture.

I got my first by-line while still in University. It was in Adam Magazine’s “Travel Misadventure” segment. I wrote about an impromptu midnight drive to Subukia that ended at a bonfire in Nakuru. I wrote two more pieces and had hoped to intern at the publication, when they announced their closure. That’s when I heard from UP Magazine, they had just put out their first issue. I interned there as a fourth year and for about two and a half years after graduation.

You worked in Print for quite some time as a Journalist and an Associate Editor. What was your experience working in Print and why did you leave?

I never left the profession, just the formalized work space. It started when UP offered me the Managing Editor position in 2012. I had just turned 25. Between their gross mistreatment of staff and a deep desire to have more world experience and a greater understanding of myself, I quit.

I’ve been on wonderful adventures since. I’ve taken solo trips to Europe, worked at festivals in Uganda and Nigeria—produced another, Jalada Festival, spending 28 days traversing the Greater East Africa; interviewed Just A Band before their hiatus for “Just A Book”, chaperoned international authors for Kwani Trust; produced photo shoots, music videos and podcasts for Blankets & Wine and written speeches and Op-Eds for high-level government officials through a PR firm.

I’m purposefully carving out a hyphenated existence and broadening my creative expressions using the written word: essayist, travel writer, speechwriter, restaurant critic, scriptwriter but always, Journalist.

What has it been like making the career change from Print to Screen writing and what challenges have you faced, if any?

Cinema has always been my healing balm but it wasn’t until 2016 that I decided to take script writing seriously. I made a short film at that year’s 48hr film project in November (and in the process discovered a desire to learn directing) before attending the first “Brainroom” in early 2017. This was a 10-day story building workshop that allowed attendees to refine their ideas from abstract concepts to actual plot points as cards on a wall.

A few weeks after the workshop, I was asked to join the Supa Modo writing team. Thankfully, the feature film was being developed through a mentoring programme supported by One Fine Day Films (OFDF), Ginger Ink and DW Akademie.  There was space to mess up, learn and create something special.

To make the most of this new shift in interest required flexibility, study, internet access, learning new software and, truthfully, getting paid enough to make a living was a struggle. However, since I have developed the very healthy habit of putting my emotional wellness first, keeping active contact with individuals and organizations in my areas of interest helped me stay afloat. Always have a plan!

Your latest film, Supa Modo, did very well during its debut at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival and got great reviews here at home. What inspired you to write the film and what would you like movie-goers to take away from it?

It started from a story idea by Director Likarion Wainaina that was jointly developed by the writing team, mentors and producers. The idea was magical, unique and yet very real; a child with a terminal illness who loved cinema and superheroes and whose mother and sister had different ideas about how to handle the child’s last days.

Mugambi Nthiga, Silas Miami, Kamau Wandugu and I, were greatly moved by the tale. The resulting screenplay is imbued with moments and memories from our own lives, from people we knew or admired.

I hope Kenyans enjoy seeing themselves reflected back on the screen. I hope they allow themselves a little sorrow and a lot of laughter with this film. I hope it reminds them that the people we love never truly die.

Are you surprised by how well Supa Modo has been received and what are your hopes for the film?

Yes and no. Worry is a big part of any creative process and one with so many moving parts is particularly nerve-wracking. However, I remember transcribing the first actors’ table read and knowing that the excitement from them was already setting us down a good path. This was affirmed by set visits. The final product is simply stunning. Kudos to Likarion and all the cast and crew! Personally, I just want everyone to see it three times at the cinema.

What other projects do you have coming up and where can we see more of your work?

I’ve been working on a second feature film, Lusala (Working Title) alongside writers Silas Miami and Oprah Oyugi plus scriptwriting mentor Ian Masters. The film shall be directed by Mugambi Nthiga and is produced by OFDF and Ginger Ink. It is in pre-production now.

My first commissioned short film, Paukwa for Creatives Garage is in production as well. It is directed by Ian Kithinji. Pretty excited about that. There’s also a horror film in the works with some friends.

I am also the 2018 Literary Ambassador for Nairobi for Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. My first “Letter from Nairobi” is out May 5th and I will be curating a joint literary and arts festival between Jalada Africa and an international festival later in the year.

Knowing what you know now what advice would you give to your younger self about starting a career as a writer?

Do it all and demand better pay, you’re worth it.

You can read more of Wanjeri’s work on her website : here.

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