Close-Up: Conquering Lion Pictures

By Margaret DeRosia ● February 09, 2017 05:00

A profile of CFC alumni and company co-founders

Damon D’Oliveira and Clement Virgo

(L-R): Author Lawrence Hill, with Conquering Lion Pictures co-founders, Clement Virgo and Damon D'Oliveira, at a screening of 'The Book of Negroes' at the United Nations in 2015.

On March 22, 2017 in Los Angeles, the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) will present the fourth annual CFC Award for Creative Excellence to Damon D’Oliveira, Clement Virgo and their production company, Conquering Lion Pictures, for creating a compelling body of high-impact work.

From the start, Conquering Lion Pictures has been committed to telling stories rich with diverse perspectives and voices. Their films have been selected for international film festivals like Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, London and Toronto. Past credits include Poor Boy’s Game (2007), starring Danny Glover, Lie With Me (2005) and Rude (1995).

In 2015 they adapted The Book of Negroes, a national bestselling novel by Lawrence Hill, into a six-part television miniseries. Co-written by Hill and Virgo, it starred Aunjanue Ellis, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lou Gossett Jr., Ben Chaplin, Jane Alexander and Lyriq Bent. In addition to Conquering Lion Pictures, The Book of Negroes was also produced by Out of Africa Entertainment, Entertainment One (eOne) and Idlewild Films. Its world premiere was as the Opening Night Selection at MIPCOM 2014, before debuting to record-breaking numbers on CBC in January 2015, followed by its premiere in the U.S. on BET in February 2015. It won 12 Canadian Screen Awards in 2016, the NAACP Award for best mini-series, and was nominated for two TV Critics Choice Awards and a Peabody Award among a multitude of other honours.

Read on to learn more about their history of collaboration and what’s next for this dynamic duo.

Formative Years

D’Oliveira and Virgo first met at the CFC in the summer of 1991, the inaugural year of the CFC’s Summer Lab initiative. They were invited to participate in the Film Residency Program, with D’Oliveira arriving for the Producers’ Lab and Virgo, the Writers’ Lab. They went on to produce the highly stylized, provocative and award-winning short film, Save My Lost Nigga’ Soul, through the CFC’s Short Film Program. Virgo wrote and directed the film, D’Oliveira produced it, and Save My Lost Nigga’ Soul went on to win Best Short Film prizes at the Toronto, Fespaco and Chicago International Film Festivals, launching them both onto the international film stage.

Encouraged by the CFC’s then-executive director Wayne Clarkson, both men joined CFC Features, out of which came their first feature, Rude, in 1995. It premiered at Cannes as an Official Selection in the Un Certain Regard Programme, and you can watch the trailer here.

D’Oliveira recalls that when he and Virgo met at the CFC in 1991, they were part of an “incredible room of people, including Mina Shum, Stephen Williams, Joan Jenkinson, Rob Adetuyi and Beatrice Mosionier." When he learned Virgo was working on a screenplay of the then-titled Rude Boy, which would eventually become Rude, D’Oliveira adds: “It was one of the best things I had read in my young career, with a voice I had not really seen in Canadian film before."

Both men came to Canada when they were 11 years old; Virgo from Jamaica and D’Oliveira, Guyana. As Virgo reflects, “We both had to leave our parents to come to Canada, so we had a similar background and history as immigrants.” When they started working together on Rude, “the story and the world that it took place in resonated with us both. That’s how we connected."

(L-R): Sharon Lewis, Clark Johnson, Clement Virgo, Rachel Crawford, Damon D'Oliveira and Karen King at the world premiere of 'Rude' at Cannes.

Conquering Lion Pictures was born when Rude was greenlit. The film also helped shape the company’s name; a majestic lion features prominently throughout the film. Also, because both men came from the Caribbean, where the Conquering Lion of Judah is associated with the Rastafari religious movement, they were drawn to the name “Conquering Lion” because, as Virgo suggests, it gave their fledgling company “good spiritual energy."

It certainly did. Save My Lost Nigga’ Soul and Rude were the start of many successes. Twenty years later, they will receive their latest honour, the CFC Award for Creative Excellence. As Virgo states, this award is “a tremendous honour and humbling.” It brings the company full circle from when the CFC took a chance on them as new filmmakers. “The CFC has been instrumental in both of our careers. It’s fair to say that without those first programs, it would have taken us much longer to get where we are.”

On Stories and Storytelling

"We try to find things that are not in the centre, but more on the margin. We try to represent people onscreen who haven't been represented. I'm personally interested in worlds we haven't seen before."

-Clement Virgo

Conquering Lion’s projects cover a lot of territory, from short and feature films to episodic television series and television miniseries. Yet certain thematic elements and approaches guide them and connect their diverse projects. They take on stories that are innovative and challenging. They create stories about people who don’t often get to tell their story – or at least not on their own terms.

“As filmmakers,” Virgo says, “We’re always trying to find stories we can pursue over a long period of time. It takes so long to get any one project made. You need to find something that can sustain your interest and passion over several years. We are conscious of the audience, but we also like to smuggle in ideas. As members of a minority background, we try to find stories that represent certain communities and are also entertaining, stories that lead the audience to think about what they see."

This approach guides Rude and The Book of Negroes. Virgo explains that Rude “presents a time and a diverse inner-city world that represented the immigrant experience to the rest of the country and world.” With The Book of Negroes, “at its centre was this really strong powerful woman. It was talking about a period of history, both Canadian and global history, that we don’t fully understand. A lot of us know about slavery and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, of course,” but by bringing in the genre elements of action-adventure and romance, they could “get the audience to emotionally engage first and then be informed about this history."

The worlds depicted in The Book of Negroes, Rude or Lie With Me may not be mainstream, but D’Oliveira speculates that increasingly, these stories are drawing audiences in – especially on cable. Whether it’s seen as a matter of “taste or a business model,” he adds, “it’s really interesting to see how much popular appetite has caught up to our taste, to the kinds of stories we like to tell."

Whether they’re producing a film or television miniseries, D’Oliveira notes that their approach is clear: “A really original, provocative premise – that gets us excited. That’s what works for us creatively. That’s our brand.” Perspective and point of view are key, for as Virgo adds, “what Damon and I bring are different perspectives on familiar stories."

The Book of Negroes and Other Touchstones

"Lawrence Hill has been an incredible collaborator. We were both really humbled and thrilled that he was willing to trust The Book of Negroes with us. In the Canadian canon and internationally, certainly within a Black readership, that book is on a lot of people's shelves and we didn't want to mess it up.

-Damon D'Oliveira

Not only did they not “mess it up”; they succeeded more than initially imagined. The Book of Negroes was a game-changer for Conquering Lion. It resulted in, among multiple sales and awards, Oprah reaching out to Virgo to direct and executive produce Greenleaf, now in production for Season Two.

Conquering Lion experienced significant growth during and after The Book of Negroes. The production’s multiple locations and unique sources of funding (17 in total, with seven executive producers!) made for a more ambitious production than any they had done up to that point. “We shot in Capetown, Durban, Halifax, Shelbourne, Lunenberg, Hamilton,” Virgo recalls. “We were in the heat of South Africa in Capetown and in the freezing cold in the woods of Nova Scotia. That journey and spending 60+ days shooting gave me a lot of confidence, from a personal standpoint. From the company’s standpoint, it sold well around the world. We won a lot of awards for it, which was gratifying. Success lifts up the spirit. It makes you feel, ‘Oh, I could keep doing this.’ People like Oprah Winfrey saw it, and that’s why I’m in Atlanta working now."

Virgo also traces the history of Conquering Lion as a company through a series of touchstones. Save My Lost Nigga’ Soul was the first key moment of change, “because it made us legitimate” (e.g., they won the Best Short Film prize at TIFF). Rude was next. “It was made at the CFC, it got us Cannes, and it won a lot of prizes.” Another pivotal moment was their film, Lie with Me, which sold in over 40 countries. On this trajectory, The Book of Negroes represents their latest shift.

Throughout these touchstones, the “steady journey” of Conquering Lion, as Virgo notes, “made us realize we could reach big and for bigger things. That’s what we want to do now.”

What’s Next

Having shared a successful collaboration on The Book of Negroes, Conquering Lion is once more working with Lawrence Hill and adapting his latest novel, The Illegal. The Book of Negroes was historical fiction, but The Illegal is set in a fictional, dangerous future.

Currently the project is in development with the CBC. D’Oliveira describes The Illegal as “a page-turner with really timely subject matter.” He adds, “It has been previewed at a couple of pitch markets in the last year. At the 2016 Berlin Film Festival’s Drama Series Days, we won a pitch that took us to Series Mania in Paris. We’ve got a number of interested European partners already, so we’re very excited about moving forward. It’s taking us into brand new terrain, but you’ll see that thematically, it echoes our earlier work as well."

Many other exciting projects are in the Conquering Lion development pipeline. One is That Lonely Section of Hell by Lori Shenher, a dark, compelling adaptation of a memoir by one of the detectives on the Robert Picton case in Vancouver – a detective who, during the investigation, was also going through a life-changing transition. Hard-hitting and topical, the book examines an ex-police detective’s searing personal account of sexism, racism and mishandling in the investigation of missing and murdered women.

Further evidence that the company now operates on a more international top-tier scale, Conquering Lion is also working with XYZ Films on adapting a speculative fiction novel, this time by a recently-published South African writer, Sam Wilson. Currently titled Zodiac, this series is set in a society living under a caste system based on the astrological signs, resulting in, as D’Oliveira describes it, “a roller coaster ride of murders, U-turns and sucker punches that cunningly reveals a window into the political, social and psychological hypocrisies that global millennials are just now waking up to.” It will be a noirish, detective procedural drama. “When the key players in this world start dying mysteriously, our hero is sent into action with an astrological profiler to try to solve the crime.” The result? A riveting buddy story rife with twists and turns.

These teasers of what’s to come reveal their creative approach in action. They also shed light on how the company is currently growing at a fast pace. D’Oliveira notes of Zodiac that “on the one hand, it reads as a straight-ahead conventional detective procedural, but thematically, it’s so loaded with fascinating characters. We’re looking far and wide for our IP!"

We closed our interview with D'Oliveira and Virgo naming a film of the past year that really moved and inspired them. Both were unanimous in their praise of American filmmaker Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, “hands down.”

As D’Oliveira states, Moonlight was “an extraordinary story that we rarely ever see, and so beautifully executed. It has opened up a slice of gay, black experience to a much wider audience than would typically line up to see this film. It wouldn’t surprise me if it wins the Oscar.”

Both were quick to add their respect for two recent Canadian films and filmmakers as well. Virgo admired Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, and D’Oliveira gave a shout out to Jean of the Joneses, written and directed by CFC/Tribeca All Access alumna Stella Meghie. “She is a really talented up-and-comer who’s poised for great things.”

In conclusion, we see two generous mentors, insightful collaborators and both commercially and artistically successful Canadian independent producers. Damon D’Oliveira and Clement Virgo of Conquering Lion Pictures represent everything we at the CFC value and foster in the work we do, so we’re excited to see them grow. We warmly extend our congratulations to them as the recipients of this year’s CFC Award for Creative Excellence, and look forward to seeing what they bring to our screens in the years to come!

Damon D’Oliveira and Clement Virgo of Conquering Lion Pictures will receive the CFC Award for Creative Excellence at a private event in Los Angeles on March 22, 2017. Filmmaker and CFC founder Norman Jewison and esteemed Academy Award-winning actor Louis Gossett Jr. will present the award. Read more about their company here and stay tuned for a website recap of the evening celebration on March 23.

This article has been edited and condensed for publication.