At ZIFF, Njendu thinks inside the box

Saturday July 7 2018

boxed, adetokumboh mcormack

Cinematographer Bongani Mlambo on the set of 'Boxed' with actor Adetokumboh M'Cormack. PHOTO | MAGIC WORKS PRODUCTIONS  

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Wanjiru Njendu is a director, writer and producer based in Los Angeles.

She spent her childhood in Kenya recreating scenes from ET, Superman, Indiana Jones and Star Wars with her siblings and neighbours earning her the nickname “Magic.”

Njendu has a Master's Degree in Visual Media and Arts from Emerson College, Boston.

Her film credits include several short films, with her most personal one, Look Again nominated for Winner Best Diaspora Film at the Kalasha Awards in Kenya.

She has below-the-line television credits on Samantha Who and Mostly Evil among other programmes.

In 2013, Njendu was selected by the Producer’s Guild of America’s Diversity Committee to participate in their Diversity Workshop.


She served on the African Artists Association board in Hollywood from 2013 to 2015.

She has over a decade of film studio experience having worked at Disney Studios in development, home entertainment, and imaging, as well as at Universal Studios, Los Angeles, in creative marketing, publicity and film music.

Njendu attributes her success with Boxed to her team.

The cast — Adetokumboh M’Cormack as Henry “Box” Brown, Gregor Manns, Peres Owino, Emerson Gregori, William Joseph Hill and Mikey Kettinger — and a production crew that includes Benjamin Onyango as assistant producer — a Kenyan actor and director based in the US — and Bongani Mlambo as director of photography.

Njendu is collaborating on another project with Onyango, in which the lead character is female, much like Indiana Jones.

The film is based in Tanzania. They plan to shoot in Kenya and Tanzania.

Njendu has been approached by USIU to hold film workshops for their students.

She is the executive producer of The STEM Adventures of Kabi and Sasha, a children’s show currently on YouTube.

“Success is not just about awards but also very much about waking up and wanting to do it each day and having good mental health,” Njendu says.


How did you become a filmmaker?

My father introduced us to books and films instilling an urge to create from an early age. I went to Zanzibar for the first time as a child.

I always wanted to make films. After high school, most people who wanted to get into film studied journalism first, and then transitioned.

I didn’t want to do that, so instead I went to USIU and did an undergraduate degree in psychology. It has helped me in my career as I have to deal with different personalities as a filmmaker.

After USIU, I left for Emerson College. From day one, they put a camera in my hands.

Although it was a relatively small school, we had a radio station and TV network run by the students. We were always creating, whether or not we had assignments.

Many times we worked on our own projects.

A year and a half later I finished at Emerson and moved to Los Angeles, where I’ve been based since.

How did 'Boxed' come about?

In February, I went to the Hollywood Creative Forum, which brings together writers and producers to talk about their processes.

One of the panels included social impact storytelling, and there I met Karyn Parsons who played Hillary in the TV series The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

She started Sweet Blackberry, a company that uses animation to tell black history so that children can understand slavery and civil rights.

One of the stories she tells is about Henry “Box” Brown, a 19th-century Virginia slave who escaped to freedom at the age of 33 by arranging to have himself mailed in a wooden crate in 1849 to abolitionists in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The journey took 27 hours.

I latched onto the idea of telling Henry's story, but this time as a psychological thriller with the audience in the box with him for the duration of his trip.

I thought inside the box. I wanted it to be concise, depicting the social impact of what Brown did.

I wrote the script on March 5, in one night. The way I tell the story, the audience is in the box for the entire film, “seeing” the world from his perspective, taking the jopurney with him.

On March 18, we wrapped production. The film was shot without sound on location, with all voice, dialogue and foley sound — footsteps, coughs — recorded and designed in post-production, to enable us to capture the authenticity of the time period, and the fear that Henry would have felt on the treacherous journey.

The entire film was shot in a box about one metre by one metre.

We finished the film in the second week of June. It was a work in progress. We were using temporary music as the composer, Dara Taylor, was scoring a new song for Boxed.

How did Boxed get into ZIFF?

A friend told me about a call for movies for the festival. So I sent Fabrizio Colombo, the festival director, an e-mail with a link to the movie. I found out through one of the actors that the film had been accepted.

What are you looking forward to at the festival?

First of all, showing my movie. It’s a short film, just five minutes.

This year’s theme at ZIFF is “Speak Up and Be Heard.” That’s what we’re doing. Brown’s story is still relevant today even though it happened in 1849. The story has a universal theme about facing fear and finding courage.

Also, I haven’t been to ZIFF since I was a child, so I look forward to experiencing it as an adult.

This is the first film I’ve written in 10 years that I’ve directed myself. In that time, I’ve directed other people’s scripts or projects. It is also a tribute to a friend who passed away in 2016.

I look forward to meeting creatives from other continents, and watching the films under starry skies.

Since I’m attending ZIFF as a filmmaker, I plan to hold meetings with several companies that I had reached out to. For the first time, ZIFF has a TV component.

What was it like directing your own film?

I don’t shout at people on set. I go up to them and tell them what I want them to do.

Actors say they appreciate the personal interaction, even though at times it does take some manoeuvring through equipment, but I make sure to communicate to my crew that that is how I want to work with the actors so they are prepared to wait while we speak.

Directing is a collaboration. If an actor wants to make changes, we do an extra take and look at it afterwards.

The director of photography or the production designer can have a suggestion too.

Cinematographer Bogani Mlambo with Boxed film
Cinematographer Bogani Mlambo with Boxed film writer, producer and director Wanjiru Njendu. PHOTO | MAGIC WORKS PRODUCTIONS

It’s hard work making sure everyone is working together and feathers are not ruffled.

However, I have a great team. I like to work with people from various backgrounds who have different views.