The first thing you’ll notice when Martin Nyakabete walks into a room is his hair. A bunch of dark dreadlocks sitting proudly in the middle part of his head. The sides of his head and a small bit of the back are shaved in a clean cut. “I wasn’t sure how long I wanted to have them (dreadlocks) when I grew them. But in the process, they became part of my identity. They are a symbol of my pride in my African heritage plus appreciation and acceptance of my natural hair.” He says, when I later ask him about them.
The next thing you’ll notice, if the said room happens to be a film set, is how he interacts with everyone around; the director, the first AD, the wardrobe guys, the makeup guys, the production design guys, the actors, basically, everyone. You’ll also notice a file in his hand, and a camera hanging from his neck, which he occasionally uses to take pictures of the set arrangement and the actors. If you have no idea what his job description is, you’ll end up thinking he is just a talkative guy who likes being all over the place. Or even mistake him for a behind-the-scenes photographer. You’ll be wrong, as you will notice later, he is just a guy doing his job.
Martin is a script supervisor or a ‘continuity person’, as most people refer to his job title, but as he later tells me, continuity is just a small part of what script supervision entails. He is one of the most sought-after script supervisors in the country. If you ask me, he is the best. Looking at what an accomplished script supervisor he is, it’s hard to imagine that a few months after arriving in Nairobi to follow his dream of becoming a filmmaker, he hit a dead end, found himself homeless and decided to use the 500 shillings he had left, as fare, to travel back to his home in Nyeri. “The only option was to park my things and go back home,” he says. His, as you will learn, has been a journey of determination and holding on to the dream.
I meet Martin at Java, Sarit Centre in Westlands on a hot Thursday afternoon, just a day after a film, ‘Watu Wote’, in which he was the script supervisor, is nominated for an Oscar award. He had arrived a few minutes before me and before our scheduled meeting time.
“Sorry, I’m late,” I say as we greet each other. He is already having some chicken wings and a smoothie. I order a cold glass of passion juice. I have known Martin for the past 1 year plus and this makes it easy to begin the conversation.
“So, tell me about your journey to becoming a script supervisor. From your childhood, teenage years, everything. The good, the bad and the secrets too,” I say to him as we begin the interview.
Martin was born to a single mum, 28 years ago in Nyeri, but grew up in different parts of the country owing to his mum’s job, which required her to move a lot. This forced him to attend different schools. A thing he says distracted him as a child, and forced him to become a loner. It did not help that he was an only child (until he turned 14). “It was hard to make friends. Before I could settle in one place or school, my mum would be transferred and we would move again.” This also strained his relationship with his mum, who was working most of the time. He went to boarding school in class 2. “When you’re this young you want to have attention from your parent and if you don’t, it becomes a problem.” His relationship with his mum was non-existent for the most part of his childhood and teenage years. The better part of these years revolved around living with his mum, aunts and grandma. However, the relationship was revived later in life, thanks to his career in film. “Film brought us together again and today I’m very close to her (his mum)”.
Martin is very articulate. His words are arranged inside his mouth in an orderly manner. Even the way he narrates his story, all events are arranged in order of occurrence. Like in a script. If I asked something that was not next in his ‘list’, he would politely ask me, “Can I get into that later?”
His confidence and way with words saw him one day perform a spoken word piece in front of President Uhuru Kenyatta, former President Mwai Kibaki and other dignitaries at Bomas of Kenya. This, is one of his most memorable moments.
He went to Endarasha Boys in Central Kenya where he attained a B+ in 2007. “After high school, I joined a theatre group in Nyeri called ‘Na Sisi’ that worked with an NGO to sensitize people on HIV/AIDS.” This was the beginning of his journey into filmmaking. Through the group, he would travel to Nairobi to perform and watch plays at the famous French Cultural Centre, Alliance Francaise. It was there he first saw one of his favorite actors today, Mkamzee Mwatela, perform in a play called ‘Kigezi Ndoto’. 5 years later, he would work with her on the set of the Kenyan TV series ‘Stay’, in which she was the lead character, and he, the script supervisor. He also watched actors, Ruth Maingi and Mumbi Kaigwa, whom he also later worked with, perform in the same play.
Back then, Martin saw himself as an actor. Script supervising was not a career he knew anything about. In fact, he did not know of its existence.
It was in 2010, while still working with ‘Na Sisi’ theater group, that he heard of an opportunity to join the National Youth Talent Academy; an initiative by the Kenyan government, after the 2007 Post Election Violence, to bring talented youths from all over Kenya together. Those selected joined the National Talent Academy in Karen (formerly in Kasarani Stadium). All he had to do was audition.
“I auditioned and came in 3rd in Central Province but they were only picking those in the first and second positions.” He would later in life ( 7 years later) meet the guy who was 1st, on a film set. “His name is Antony Njuguna. He plays Escobar in the TV series ‘Sue na Jonnie’. This is why you should treat everyone you meet in life with respect.”
Martin knew he wanted to become an actor and was ready to try and fail, as many times as it took, to achieve his dream. In the same year, he again auditioned for the Talent Academy and this time, he was 1st position in Central Province. The rules were different, however. One had to join a regional Talent Academy after which you would automatically qualify for the National Talent Academy. After the regional Academy, the rules changed again. “After leaving the regional Academies, we were informed that we had to go through another audition to determine those who would join the National Academy.” This was devastating news for him. He went back to his rented house in Nyeri to wait for his fate.
During this time, his mum started asking questions, “she would ask me, ‘what do you want to do with your life’ and I didn’t know what to say”. It had been 3 years since Martin completed high school and his mum was concerned about his future. His ‘acting passion’ was not paying. Concerned about his future too, Martin enrolled at a college in Nyeri for a course in Food Production. His mum paid half the fees for that semester. As fate would have it, he only attended one class before the long awaited call came. He describes this class as the “most awkward and weirdest experience ever”. The call came on his way to the second class. Needless to say, he never stepped in class that day or any other day.
“I immediately called my mum. I expected a confrontational conversation with her since she had already paid half the fees for that Semester. Surprisingly, she only asked me ‘when are you supposed to report?’ For the first time, she was so supportive of my dream of becoming a filmmaker.”
This was the beginning of what would become his life, and career as a script supervisor. He joined the National Talent Academy in 2012 and was placed under the training of Jacob Otieno. 6 months later, he graduated as a professionally trained actor. So, what does a professional actor do? Martin had no clue. Those who had trained in production at the academy got internships in various media houses. “There is no such thing as internship for an actor,” he says.
An opportunity to audition for the 12th and 13th seasons of the TV series ‘Makutano Junction’ presented itself. He was among the 4 shortlisted guys, to audition for the role, after sending in a short video. On the audition day he was surprised to find out that the other 3 shortlisted candidates were renowned actors. One was the famous Maina Olwenya, who was still riding on the fame of the Kenyan film ‘Nairobi Half Life’, the other, Allan Weku, and the third, an actor he had watched severally on the TV series ‘Tahidi High’. Although he did not get the role, this experience strengthened his determination. “Being shortlisted with such great actors was already an achievement for me. I believed in myself and this kept me going.” He however got the role of a background actor.
After this experience, he was chosen to represent the Academy in different events, around the country, doing solo verses/spoken word pieces on peace. This was how he got a chance to perform in front of President Uhuru Kenyatta, former President Mwai Kibaki, and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga. This opportunity also won him a ticket to continue living in the Academy since at the time, those without internship were required to vacate and give room to incoming talents. His mum watched the performance on TV and this marked the turning point of their relationship. She realised her son was not just being rebellious but was actually doing something to make the ‘acting thing’ work. “I later understood where my mum was coming from. As a parent you want the best future for your children. That’s why she wanted me to do a course that would get me a job.”
A few months later he found himself in a challenging situation; it was time for him to vacate the Academy since the performance season was over. He didn’t have anywhere to go, and with only 500 shillings left, there wasn’t much he could do. At that point, he also started doubting the choices he had made in life, “I started thinking that if I had studied something else maybe I would’ve been working.” He made the only seemingly sensible decision then, “I decided to go back home and pick up where I left with the Food Production course.” However, before he implemented this decision, a conversation with Bruce, one of his closest friends in the Academy, changed everything.
“One Sunday I spoke to Bruce and he advised me to give Ben Boyd, the producer of Makutano Junction, a call, and ask him for an internship opportunity.” He calls this the most absurd but wisest advice he had ever received. Absurd because he knew nothing about production and wise because the call changed his life for good. He immediately bought airtime, with the 500 shillings, and made a call to Ben who asked to meet him the following day.
“I want to be a director like Dennis Muriithi.” This is the answer he gave when Ben asked him which department he wanted to work in. Don’t forget that this is someone who had no clue what being a director entailed, and for your information, Dennis Muriithi was not a director but a 1st AD on the set of ‘Makutano Junction’. Nevertheless, a few days later, Ben Boyd offered him a 3-week paid internship. He interned in the sound department, as a boom operator, under Kamicha Kamau, and later in the art department. “This was the best learning experience that helped shape my film career. I owe it to Ben Boyd and the ‘Makutano Junction’ set for most of my filmmaking knowledge.” This internship added him more months at the National Talent Academy. After the 3 weeks he was offered a contract job for the rest of the season and the following season in the art department.
Around this time, the Academy was closing for the holidays. Martin, and Bruce whom he worked with on the set of ‘Makutano Junction’, had no option but to vacate. Then something he describes as a miracle happened. Ben Boyd, who was his boss on the set of ‘Makutano Junction’, offered them his house until they could find a place of their own. This ended up being a one-and-a-half-year stay. “Ben took us in and treated us as he would his younger brothers. He would drive us to and from set every day. A friendship ensued. He was our boss on set and our friend outside the set.”
‘Makutano Junction’ wrapped, and Ben Boyd offered him a production assistant job on the set of ‘Playhouse’, a subsidiary of the famous kid’s show, ‘Knowzone’. At this point, he still did not know which film department he wanted to work in. But he knew he wanted to be a filmmaker for the rest of his life.
Martin became a script supervisor by chance. The script supervisor of the show then, Carol Muchiri, was taking leave for 3 days, and Martin was asked to step in. He trained under her before she took her leave. He did a very good job in her absence that when she came back, Ben Boyd asked him to continue working with her for the rest of his contract period. Luckily for him, he had fallen in love with script supervising and finally he knew this was what he wanted to do. And so began his journey as a script supervisor.
Part 2 : Martin Nyakabete: My Journey As A Script Supervisor