In the fantasy thriller Imperial Blue, an American drug smuggler in deep debt travels to Uganda in search of Bulu, a shamanic hallucinogen that makes its users see real visions. He meets the cultivator of the drug, a young woman who needs money to take back her father’s land, and her sister, who has a less noble agenda. Ahead of today’s US release of the movie, We Zoomed up an interview with the lead actress Esteri Tebandeke and the producers David Cecil and Semulema Daniel Katenda to talk about how they brought this film to life.
Tell us about yourselves
I started as an actor in 2008, so that’s around 13 years ago. And I actually stumbled upon acting. I was previously a contemporary dancer and there was an audition at the national theatre. When I heard about the audition, I went in out of pure curiosity and I weirdly got cast to play a lead role in that film. So that’s how my journey into filmmaking and acting started. And that was in 2008 in a program that’s run by Mira Nair. That’s also the director of Queen of Katwe that I was part of in 2015. And since then I have been acting, and I just recently started directing. I also write, and I’m producing a short film as we speak. I had my short film at AFRIF in 2019, and it was nominated for best short film of that year.
So that’s shortly what I’m doing now. Acting, directing, writing, producing, and venturing into distribution as well.
I am producing a short film for a friend that’s talking about the issue of down syndrome and parents that have children with down syndrome. And very soon I will be directing an episode of a documentary series about women in Korea. I’m also directing a short film for an organization up in the Northern part of Uganda. That is what is keeping me busy right now.
My name is Semulema Daniel Katenda. I am a graduate of Kampala film school. After my film studies, where David was actually one of the lecturers and we got to meet, I had a short stint in Rwanda, where I was a technical director for a TV station. That had been set up by me and my uncle and I worked there for two to three years then came back to Uganda and went into short documentary films. I was trying to figure out my way in the film industry in Uganda when I got the opportunity to come on and produce Imperial blue.
David and I worked closely, from the process of when the script was being grown, to actually seeing the whole idea come together as a whole. And, yeah, David and I have been working together closely to make sure that the film comes out and also have other ventures that we are working on together.
What are you working on right now
Right now we’re working on music distribution. We are also making sure that the film comes out and also we are trying to develop distributions for Uganda in terms of film. We want to actually be able to get our films out to the international markets and be able to commercialize our industry as a whole.
Tell us what inspired the story of Imperial Blue
Imperial Blue is a kind of parable about the relationship between Africans and Europeans. It’s something that fascinates me as a European in Africa. But I also think that it’s not shown on screen enough in a way that highlights the personal relationships involved. You know, there are films about colonialism, there are films about the white man in Africa and so on, but there’s very little about the kind of psychological relationships that occur in this new globalized age. And people tend to fall into stereotypes of maybe evil colonialists versus innocent villagers. And they also shy away from the most difficult questions about how players on both sides have this grey morality where nothing is black and white. We tried to show what the relationships are like – there’s no one who’s a hundred percent innocent or a hundred percent evil. People have their motivations for doing things.
I was happy to see that a lot of people in the screenings took one side or the other. People tended to dislike the white guy, but at the same time, they kind of identified with his game. He’s hustling for his family and it leads him into doing bad things. And Bulu kind of represents these weird substances that can only be found in Africa, like uranium and similar things that foreigners come looking for. And the local population has a right to these resources and they understand the management of these resources, but then they get caught up in the money game. So in a nutshell, that’s what it’s about.
How did you all come together for this project?
So the production process started with David, and then I came on board. We had to bring the crew together and everything. We did our script breakdowns and a couple of auditions. Unfortunately, Esteri did not turn up to the auditions. We had previously seen her in another big movie, so we wanted to have her on board, but we had to look for her.
So I heard about Imperial Blue in maybe 2016. And I think I remember Dan Moss the director and David Cecil were trying to get a casting agency on board to try and get people to be part of the movie. My husband and I had been trying to go into casting as well, trying to throw our nets everywhere. We were acting, we were directing, producing and writing, so we thought we would try our hand at casting. When we didn’t get the chance to cast for the movie, I completely forgot about the movie. Then I kept hearing from friends in the film industry, talking about this film that was being cast.
I had previously seen the script and it had characters that I felt I had already played and I didn’t want to play again because I was afraid to get typecast. So I didn’t go for the audition. So one day I got called up by one of the women that was helping cast for the film, that’s Rehema. She reached out to me on Facebook and said I needed to try and come in to see Dan or David, but I was still skeptical about the movie.
So anyway, by the time, I was performing – I was doing a one-woman theatre play in 2016. And I remember I was rehearsing for the play when Dan Moss came to me. He said he wanted me to audition and I said I didn’t think I would have time to come in to audition. And Dan Moss came to my rehearsal venue, he auditioned me between my rehearsals and I got called that day and had been cast for the film. That’s how I joined the team of Imperial blue.
Semulema Daniel and I actually met at film school where I was a lecturer and administrator at Kampala film school. And Daniel was one of the students in my film class. I used to teach film history and Daniel used to sleep through the lessons and would wake up at the end of the class. And then when I was asking questions, he always seemed to have the answers. I was so impressed at how he managed to sleep and still watch the films at the same time that later on I contacted him.
When we met by coincidence in Rwanda where he was running a TV station, he was doing it all on his own and I was so impressed by his organisational skills. And when I and Dan were planning, I was like, there’s this crazy hustler called Semulema Daniel who’s got these magical skills of sleeping and working at the same time.
So we decided to give Daniel a much bigger responsibility than he’d ever dealt with before in terms of production. And Daniel’s situation was actually a smaller example of the way we approached all of the hirings. When Semulema Daniel came on the team, we gave him the same idea of the look, we don’t have a big budget. Let’s try and work with people who are very promising in their skills, but are perhaps more affordable. Because really, people might look at this movie as international but our budget was local. You know, we had a local budget.
So Daniel went through his contact book of guys he worked with on music videos and other friends from the film school. He put together a really good team, but effectively a lot of the people who worked on the film had never, ever worked on a feature before, or perhaps they’d never worked on a feature that was bigger than, you know, a soap opera or something like that. So this film in one sense, we don’t want to tell people, but most of the people working on the movie were not professional. Not like high-end filmmakers, you know.
I think one achievement that I’m most proud of is that we managed to pull off a movie that’s going around the world and was shot on a local budget with inexperienced filmmakers and we somehow managed to pull it off. So that would be the thing that I would single out as a source of pride.
Let’s talk more about the production, like filming and organization. What were the challenges you faced?
I think the crew of the film coming together was a testament, you know. Working with a crew that is coming from the other side of the world, which is Europe. And getting a crew together within Uganda. That itself alone presented challenges. First of all, logistically, it meant we had to transport the people from the UK to Uganda, and they have their own standards for when they’re on set. And then you had us here in Uganda who also have our standards.
Getting the Ugandan crew was a bit easy. We work in the same field so we’re able to know who does what best, and all it came down to how much people were willing to be compensated. Then came the dynamic of the European crew. Now because of the rules that they follow on set, they expected something completely different. For example, having to pay public liability insurance, which for us in Uganda we’re like why, really, it’s not necessary. The conditions were set for them, like, okay, we need to have this in place, we need to have that in place. And then coming to a place where we don’t necessarily need that.
So we had our first tiny bit of a clash, and then the next thing was feeding. You have the people in Uganda who like to have their food nice and heavy. And then you have vegetarians and vegans from the European side. And each one of them is complaining. If you try to please the vegetarians, your piss off the Ugandans, then if you try to please the Ugandans you piss off the Europeans. But eventually, going down the production process, we went and kind of found a way to work together cohesively, and then we went on. So yeah, those challenges, most of them were logistical.
I’d like to add something that I think they would appreciate in Nigeria, which Daniel touched on just now, about diets. Most of the crew preferred to have quite simple food. Like Ugandan food has not got all of these frills and spices. We have the staple food that is most common. It’s called Posho, which is like maize flour in a big lump, and you add sauce to that. And like, the sauce for the majority of Ugandan crew would ideally be like beef or goat or something like that. And so that would be like that straight up, good energy meal that they can work a whole day on. Then you have these vegans. We actually had very few Europeans. We had me, the director, Dan Moss, the camera crew of two people from Spain and we had a production designer from Poland.
So it’s only five, and we had up to 25 Ugandans, including the actors. The Europeans on set felt like around ten percent of the people on set, but those 10% made a lot of problems for the Ugandans in terms of diet. They were like, yeah, we have to have vegan food. And then when the meat arrives they’re like, Hey, what’s this, I can’t eat this. I want salad! They wanted Gazpacho, it’s like tomatoes and cucumber soup, served cold. And the Ugandans were like, what, cold tomato soup? No way! In the end, we solved the problem by hiring a Rasta catering company. So these Rastas turned up, very nice people, and they somehow managed to balance off everyone’s interests. You know, it was very clever actually. Esteri, what were your thoughts on the food?
To spice up what you and Dan have been talking about? It was quite interesting if you are like a fly on the wall, watching the situation at mealtime. The Europeans wanted avocado, we wanted our basic Posho, Matoke, which is like bananas and then like a base of beef or goat, and we’re good. Just like David had said. But the Europeans wanted avocado. It became a thing and at some point, I remember, the avocado was brought in for the Europeans. And because I love it so much, I ran and picked one that they wanted to eat. And then the production manager was like, hey, that’s not for the Ugandans, it’s for the Europeans. It’s not that I don’t want you to eat, but it’s the only thing that the Europeans can eat.
So it was quite funny. I think for me, it was a lesson to understand each other and understand where we all come from and to try and be compromising and appreciate each other’s cultures.
The food situation sums up everything we went through.
Also, we shot Outside of Kampala. So we were moving the whole team from Kampala to another district, which is about five hours away from Kampala. Most of the Ugandans are from Kampala. Moving the Europeans from Europe to Kampala to this district, that’s Fort Portal, also became a challenge. It was about accommodating people, and making sure people were comfortable. Once we got to Fort Portal, the city, we had to drive another hour into a village. It was like cultures upon cultures clashing.
At some point, we were called Illuminati because we were carrying all these cameras around the village. I can tell you it was the most challenging shoot I’ve ever been on. But also one of the most growth for me as an actor, working with Dan Moss as the director. He’s one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with. He just grew me, the way I thought about the film, the way I thought about my character and the way I worked with the team around us. If it wasn’t for the family and the togetherness that we shared on set, I don’t know if this film would have been made.
It was challenging just to have to roll the generator up the hills. Then you have to set up this generator in a dark village. We had a guy that followed us around and you have to dig a latrine for everywhere we went. And when I see that the film finally got made, I am so proud of everyone because we really, really went through a lot to make this film.
Another funny incident is with the other lead, Nicholas Fagerberg. He was terrified of mosquitoes and at some point, we had to get a net and make sure that he feels like he was safe and he was not going to catch malaria. And then he gets one tiny bite and he calls me like, Oh my goodness, I’m going to get malaria. And all the Ugandans were like, malaria is a normal thing. So you see it was a juxtaposition of cultures. Something that you consider simple like malaria is almost a daily thing for Africa, but not for Europeans. They don’t really experience it.
So, in hindsight, when I think about it, I understand where he came from. I understand where they all came from. As Ugandan, I’m thinking you can get treatment for malaria. I think the world needs to know about the courage of some of these Europeans to come all the way to a place they do not know, then go to a village they do not know, then potentially get sick from food poisoning cos it’s the food they’re not used to. Like you’re adjusting to all these meals and then maybe the environment is not good for them?
Even for us, it was still a very cold place. It was one of the coldest districts in Uganda. So we experienced quite a lot as a team. But then again, we made a film and that’s what makes me proud, that we have a film to show the world in spite of our challenges
As Esteri touched on before, with the kind of difficulties we faced on set, it was very hard to know when we were making the film, will it be a good product at the end of the day. Or is it just going to be some amateur piece of crap? We had no idea. This is a low-budget film that’s trying to punch above its weight. But you know, I’d be interested to know how a Nigerian audience reacts to the movie.
One of the things we really spent time on as well as the production. The director Dan Moss, after taking the movie back to the UK for editing, spent a long time on the sound design. So, you know, making every scene feel like you’re actually in that room or in that environment. We did a lot of recording of the sound after, in post-production in the Ugandan studio and then sent the sound files to the UK for the director and the sound designer to work on together. That was a long process. It took around eight months of working on sound design.
It took so long partly because again, we didn’t have a big budget, so we just had to rely on part-time workers. They really did spend time on every single sound. Like in the scene in the church, we recorded a little congregation in our studio in Kampala and then send the files over. Dan would send them back saying things like, I need more clapping. I need you to clap away from the microphone. The prayers are not clear. And honestly, it took eight months. It was crazy.
I noticed you dubbed some of the dialogue
Yes, some dialogue had to be dubbed. We had a couple of disasters. First of all, all of the sound in the Indian scenes at the beginning got lost! The sound recordist in India really made a mess of things and he recorded in the wrong format. We had to record all of the Indian sounds in the studio. Then there were a couple of scenes later on in the film, which I won’t mention because I’ll leave that up to people to guess. But there were a couple of scenes in Uganda where we were working with some film students from Uganda and they actually wiped one of the hard drives one day. We lost the dialogue from a couple of scenes and we had to record that. I mean, it may be noticeable, but I don’t think it’s too bad.
Esteri, you mentioned that you didn’t actually plan to be in this movie, but your performance was one of the best. How did you bring your character to life?
As I mentioned earlier, the director I worked with had a lot of influence on what my performance looked like. I think Dan Moss as the director has a very structured way that he works. He put us through some exercises that helped a lot with this character. Dan had me and Nicholas and me and Rehema meeting a lot. He made sure that we were building relationships and we were playing games together and rehearsing the script a lot. And understanding what we are feeling about the script apart from just reading what the character is doing. Like me as a Esteri; how do I feel about my character Kisayke?
He had us having lunch a lot. We’d go meet him and have Ethiopian lunch near David’s house. It was a really nice restaurant, right up at David’s house, though I think it closed. We’d go sit there and have Ethiopian lunch and eat and just talk about the script. We talked about it a lot. And then he also allowed us to inject ourselves into the characters. We weren’t just reading and regurgitating what was in the script. Like Kisayke is a strong Christian and me being a Christian helped a lot as Kisayke.
It didn’t feel like a weird thing for me to do. It felt like it was something I’d experienced before. And acting opposite the European actor was very complex for me. This was my first time acting opposite a European or Caucasian actor. And he was a method actor. So I had to understand the complexities of a method actor, in comparison to me who was coming to this role as raw as I can possibly be. I learned a lot and I think I thought to myself, if I were to get like another role that was similar to the role in Imperial Blue, I would try to be a method actor. The way Nicolas worked. I saw how much time and emotion he put into his character and I feel that rubbed off on me.
I took away something interesting. However, it was also very complex to understand because if you’re a method actor, you are in the character at all times. So what would happen with Nicholas is that if he knew that today we were shooting the part where Hugo was mean to Kisakye, Nicholas would be mean to me. And I didn’t understand that until towards the end of the making of the film. He’ll be like really mean to me and I’d think he was being mean to me as Esteri, but it was actually him preparing for his character as Hugo. So he was setting me up emotionally to be angry with him as well. So he knew what he was doing. And in hindsight, when I think about it now, I’m very impressed by that. And I think it helped me a lot as an actor.
Are all of you satisfied with how the film has been received so far?
Daniel and Esteri both came to the London Premier. This was really exciting for me and director Dan Moss because it was really important for us that the Ugandan cast and crew didn’t get left out. Logistically it was difficult to get more people over, but it was very rewarding to have Esteri and Semulema over there. Maybe they can give us some of their opinions about how it was received in London at the premiere.
I was surprised at the reactions of people because this is a film that is from Africa. What the audiences were being exposed to was a new world they’d never seen. I was amazed that the audience loved it and we had a full theatre of people that were very, very impressed. And also, on the other end, I feel like this film needs to get to more audiences. I feel like everyone needs to see this film.
If I could wave a magic wand, everyone would be forced to watch this film because I know how much love and energy we put into making this film and I know how much work has gone into it, from Dan the director, David and Semulema the producers. So I feel like if I had a choice, there would have been even better distribution and even further reach for the film. So the first premiere had amazing, responses and reactions and I would love for more of the world to see it
The highlight for me was when a couple of Ugandans who live in the UK drove a couple of hours to come and make sure that they attended the film. They had just heard about it on social media. And so they came and attended the red carpet events. They reached out to us and were very excited speaking to us and they were like, they’re so happy. One of the people in the audience even offered us land. If we needed land he was going to give it to us to use for activities that we wanted to use it for. And that really made me proud. People really enjoyed it.
So how excited are you for the US release?
I’m excited because if we can reach out to the Ugandans in the US who might watch the film and enjoy it, then they will be able to tell their friends and friends of friends to watch the film. There’s a lady that I’m trying to reach out to. She’s the chairman of the Ugandan association in the US. I’m trying to get in touch with her. Maybe she can help us push that. I’m really excited. And I really want Ugandans in the US to see the film
I’m so happy that we get to tell stories like this, and I hope that the world can see more stories like this from Uganda and from Africa. I hope we can get an audience in Nigeria for this film. And I hope we can meet in other circles and under other circumstances It was really nice meeting you and talking to you. Thank you for talking to us about Imperial Blue.
US streaming links (from 6th April)
Available on Amazon Prime, iTunes and Direct TV
UK streaming links