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From Spike Lee’s intern to sought-after filmmaker: Julius Onah

At a very early age, Julius Onah knew he wanted to be a filmmaker. Having moved to America from Nigeria when he was 10, a major part of the process of integrating, learning about the culture and becoming more comfortable in his new home was watching movies.

“I was obsessed. I wanted to know how these movies were made, who’s in control, who has the vision,” explains Julius Onah. “By the time I was 12 years old, I said, ‘This is it.’ I looked to my mom who said, ‘You’re crazy. I didn’t bring you hear from Nigeria [so you wouldn’t] be a doctor or a lawyer.’ I made up my mind then that I wanted to be a director.”

The 32-year-old filmmaker produced and directed eOne Films’ The Girl Is In Trouble, a crime thriller about a Lower East Side (New York) bartender who becomes entangled in a murder mystery involving a desperate woman, a missing drug dealer and the scion of a powerful investment firm, starring Columbus Short, Wilmer Valderrama, Alicja Bachleda and Jesse Spencer. It was the first film written when he was a college student.

While in middle and high school he made shorts. He studied black theatre and of particular interest to him was “Dutchman” by playwright Amiri Baraka.

“For my film, Nigger, I experimented with bringing some of that [Dutchman’s] attitude, energy, and exploration of black identity into a short film. That’s where Nigger came from,” he reveals.

Onah credits Spike Lee and his team at 40 Acres for opening the door. While an undergrad, Onah wrote a letter to Lee. “I was in Connecticut; he was in New York at 40 Acres [and a Mule Filmworks]. I never expected to hear anything back at all. One day out of the blue, I got a return note saying come in for an interview. I interviewed and got an internship. That summer, Spike was making one my favorite movies, 25th Hour. I worked mostly in story development, reading scripts. But I also saw behind the scenes, how that film was being made. That was a big part of my education and my entrée to making movies on a professional level.”

What they say about the twin bond is true. Onah’s identical twin, Anthony Onah, studied chemistry at Harvard University, but is now a filmmaker. What does mom have to say about it?

“My mom blames me for it, but she’s proud,” he laughs. “She sees that we’ve come far and we’re doing our best. She is so supportive. We owe it all to her and my dad. They worked so hard to give us the opportunities we’ve had.”

While a graduate student at New York University, Onah was a jack-of-all-trades: bussing tables, doing editing work, producing, promoting parties and deejaying. During his last year, for his thesis, he chose to work on a then-unnamed project during his independent study, which is now The Girl Is In Trouble.

“I had short films that played at a few festivals. I always loved classic film, noirs from the 30 and 40s. I decided to take something that I really loved and put in modern context. I was a big music fan in Lower East Side. I took everything that was in my life. I was an immigrant, making music and loved classic film noir. We shared the script with Spike. He read it and gave us feedback. Spike liked the script so much that he ended up mentoring Mayuran [Tiruchelvam] and I as we rewrote it. Ultimately he came on board to executive produce the film and really give us guidance,” he offers.

Read what else Onah has to say.

What makes a great film?
First and foremost knowing you are making your film for an audience. It is not to say that the film shouldn’t be personal to you or to say that it lacks idea, feeling or point of view that you have, but you’re trying to communicate with an audience whether you want to provoke them, make them laugh, cry or think …whatever the case is. The most important thing is that you want to communicate something to an audience.

Having that as your basis, you are in more control to express what you want to express. The great thing about storytelling is we’re doing it as much to express ourselves as we are to share something with somebody else. Movies are one of the few artistic forums out there that really still is a communal experience – going into a theater to watch a film with strangers.

Knowing that you want to communicate something is the most important thing in putting together a great film.

Do you believe you have a responsibility as a creative to tell a story that reflects, inspires or encourages culture?
I think it is one of my responsibilities as a creative. I look at it as a communal experience. Like, if you are cooking a meal for somebody, some days you want something really healthy and nutritious – that’s responsible and speaks to something bigger than just eating. Other days you want to entertain and provide the experience that’s fun. The way I look at it is some of the movies that I will make Is that someone can step away for an hour and a half or two hours to escape from their lives. We all work very hard and live challenging lives so I think it’s a big part of the responsibility.

Other days, I do want to speak to the big issues, with The Girl is in Trouble, I tried to do a little bit of both. I am an immigrant I started in black theatre and it’s really important for me to tell stories that reflect the African American and African Diaspora, and speak to other communities including Latino and Asian American. It has all been part of my experience growing up all over the world. I think there are issues in those communities that rarely or don’t often get reflected on screen.

At the same time, I don’t want to forget there are certain days you go to a theater or sit in front of the TV and have a wonderful experience watching something that helps you forget everything going on in your life.

What was it like working with this cast, The Girls in In Trouble?
It was really fantastic. These are all really talented actors. I felt very fortunate to work with such a great group for my first feature. Every single one of them are different and come from different experiences.

Columbus Short: Columbus has done a lot of good work in television and in film. He was really the lead of the movie. It was exciting to work with him.
Wilmer Valderrama: This was very transformational for Wilmer. He’s never done a role like this. On some levels, it wasn’t the [conventional] way to cast the role. I was just so excited about the energy, enthusiasm and passion he brought. He worked really hard to do something I don’t think he’s done before on screen. The reaction people have had to his performance has just been fantastic. I couldn’t be more proud of him.
Alicja Bachleda: She is a talented Polish actress who has done some good work in Europe. This is one of her first films in America.
Jesse Spencer: He played on FOX’s “House” and he’s Australian. He also transformed himself.

Every single one of them was coming from a different place and brought something really special to the film.

What films have been the most inspirational and influential to you and why?
A little French movie, Blue by Krzysztof Kieslowski, starring Juliette Pinoche, has been wildly influential for me. It was the first movie I saw that made me say, “Wow.” I wanted to know everything about that movie. How it was made in terms of the music, cinematography, and every single component had a huge influence on me.

I have to show mad love to Spike’s 25th Hour. As I said, I was interning at 40 Acres when that film was made. When I finally saw the finished product, I was blown away. I think it is one of the best New York films ever made. It is one of Spike’s best work yet. It is such a touching and powerful New York movie, the way it touches on 9/11 in a subtle way.

THE GIRL IS IN TROUBLE is available on VOD and in-theaters on April 3.