How I made a Saudi horror film

Darren Lynn Boseman is no stranger to taking big risks, having helmed the acclaimed Saw sequel in his 20s and directed the flop classic Repo! The genetic opera. But one phone call will take his life in a completely new direction.

“I got a phone call one afternoon from a friend of mine who said, ‘I have this weird opportunity. Someone wants to meet you, but that requires you to go to Egypt,” he said. “I love to travel – part of being a filmmaker for me is exploring different cities or countries. When I got on the plane, I didn’t know where going and what am I going to get in. I just knew there was a movie based on a book.

That movie, which opens in theaters today, is The Cello, based on Turki Al-Sheikh’s novel of the same name about the titular instrument, which has a cursed past. Al-Sheikh, who also wrote the screenplay, is not only an author but also an adviser to the Saudi royal court and chairman of the country’s General Entertainment Authority.

“I’m sitting in this room and there are all these people around me speaking Arabic,” Busman said. “And then Turki Al-Sheikh comes in and he’s sitting in this chair and he’s so passionate and excited talking about these very obscure films. I knew immediately that I was dealing with an artist, someone who not only understood cinema, but also loved it. There was this connection in the way we spoke in a cinematic language.”

Al-Sheikh offered Bousman the chance to explore the country and shoot the film wherever he wanted.

“His job was to bring entertainment there, to open up the kingdom to the world of entertainment,” Bousman said. “While I was there, I felt like I was in the middle of a renaissance. You couldn’t go to the movies for years. There was no music, no theater, no concerts. And now, in the last five years, they’ve opened up all these things. There was this palpable sense of excitement in the air as AMC Theaters were being built and mainstream movies were playing there. And Turki’s mandate was “I want to bring cinema to the kingdom. I want it to be somewhere between Middle Eastern cinema and what they see in Western cinema.”

Although Boseman was able to sell the film to Western audiences thanks to stars like Jeremy Irons and “Saw” alumnus Tobin Bell, he admired the talent he had access to while making the film.

“They put together this international cast of superstars,” Bousman said. “I worked with their equivalent of Meryl Streep, their equivalent of Tom Hanks. The lead actor Samer Ismail is like the Syrian Brad Pitt. Another, Elham Ali, is like Saudi Sandra Bullock.

Even with his dream cast and choice of resources, Boseman said there were many challenges as an American making a film that catered to Saudi cultural sensibilities.

“You’re not just dealing with regional differences, you’re dealing with common things that don’t translate,” he said. “It was almost like going to film school again. You have to rethink how you make a movie or tell the story, because concepts that make sense to me with a Western sensibility don’t translate there. The first thing was to try to find common ground that you could all understand and agree on. There, a lot of the acting was very big and spectacular because soap operas are so common. We worked to make things subtle: How would a woman really react to a demonic spirit or a ghost?’

Still, Bousman was happy to face these challenges, always wanting to establish himself as a director. When asked if he would ever return to make a fifth film in the Saw franchise, he said only if it felt very fresh.

“I think why the first ‘Saw’ worked so well was that it was different, it was unique, it felt like its own thing,” he said. “Then Saw II came out and we tried to change it again. We said, “Let’s go in a completely different direction. Let’s catch the serial killer on page five. It was this change that made it cool for me. So if I get a chance to go back and continue to use these weird choices, I’d love to go back. I just don’t care about making Saw 11. But doing something as bold and daring as we did with ‘Spiral’. You have to give huge credit to [production company] The Twisted Pictures team. They took risks and allowed me to do something like this. It makes me excited about being a director.”

Watch the trailer for “The Cello” below.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *