By Shannon McGrew
In Darren Lynn Bousman's latest film, THE CELLO, accomplished Saudi cellist Nasser (Samer Ismail) has aspirations for greatness, though he feels like he's held back by the old, dilapidated instrument he's forced to play. When Nasser is offered the chance to take possession of a gorgeous red cello by a mysterious shop owner (Tobin Bell), he finds new inspiration both for his playing and for his composing.
What Nasser doesn't realize is that this cello has a nefarious past. As he prepares for an important audition with a prominent philharmonic, that past shows itself in the form of an ancient conductor (Jeremy Irons) and the suffering and death of those close to him. Nasser must now decide if achieving his dreams is worth the horror that comes with playing such a perfect instrument.
For the release of THE CELLO, Creepy Kingdom's Shannon McGrew spoke with iconic horror director Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II, Saw III, Spiral). During the interview, they discussed everything from creating the first Saudi Arabian horror film, working with a global cast and crew, the artistry behind his chilling kills and more.
*BE AWARE THAT THIS INTERVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS*
Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Darren! Congratulations on the release of THE CELLO. To kick things off, how did this project come to be and what about it was so exciting to you?
Darren Lynn Bousman: Spooky Dan called me around 2 to 2-1/2 years ago and said, 'Hey, I've got a guy with an idea for a movie, but it's got to be very secretive. I can't tell you a lot about it. Do you want to meet him?" I replied, 'Not really.' He goes, 'But you get to go to Egypt to meet him for 48 hours, and he'll pitch it to you.' I literally boarded a flight without any concept of what I was getting into. I flew to Egypt and met the writer, Turki Al Alshikh. The only way to describe it is if you've ever spoken to Quentin Tarantino; there's such an infectious energy. That's how Turki was about movies. He was referencing some of the most obscure films that I was the only one who'd seen. He knew every detail of every film, and so we just geeked out over movies. Immediately, we realized that we really liked this guy, and he said, 'Listen, you're the director.' So, we set off immediately. I didn't go back home. One of the caveats of me doing this movie was that I had to pack as if I was going to stay there, but they might also might send me home in 48 hours - I had no idea.
We then started preparations and were going to shoot in Egypt, but it became too difficult [there]. The chaos of tourism made it impossible to get access to the locations that we wanted. Turki then said, 'Listen, I have a crazy idea. Come to my country and you can shoot there.' I was like, 'Oh, where's that?' He responded, "Saudi Arabia." Initially hesitant, I replied, 'No, I'm okay.' He responded, 'Please, come look at it. Let me show it to you.' We got on a flight and went there, and I got to tell you it was … shocking is not the right word. It was nothing that I was expecting. It was beautiful and modern. I don't know what I was expecting but it wasn't that. You'd go downtown and see a McDonald's next to Gucci next to Starbucks next to a theater, it was crazy. I was sitting in this outdoor café and it felt like I was in Los Angeles. I'm hearing Jay-Z blasting from the stereos and I was like, 'This is Saudi Arabia. This is so crazy.'
It was a fantastic experience because they opened up places in the country that had never allowed filming before. There's a scene where a character dies as the cello is being broken and before that the characters go to the desert to meet him at a place called Al-'Ula. They never allowed filmmakers to go there before and we were the first film crew allowed to go into where we were. There was a level of excitement and energy in the air because all of a sudden their world was being opened up and changed. In the last 5 years, concerts have been going there. Music has been going there. Movies theaters have reopened. Women now are driving everywhere. 70% of our crew was female. Everyone I was working with was excited because of the change that was taking place around them. I looked at this as an educational thing for me. It was really cool that I was at the beginning of this huge change taking place here which was exciting.
The film features a diverse international cast as well as frequent collaborator Tobin Bell and Academy Award-winning actor Jeremy Irons. What was your experience like working with such a unique cast?
Darren Lynn Bousman: Tobin is a national f**king treasure. Tobin is awesome at being Tobin. I would watch him no matter what he did. He's amazing and we have a great relationship. I was really bummed out that I didn't get a chance to work with him on Spiral, so I knew I had to put him in whatever I did next. Jeremy Irons is the epitome of cool. He is the poster child of f**king cool. I want to be Jeremy Irons when I grow up. My wife said it best when he walked into the room. She said, 'I would leave you tomorrow for this man.' He's the nicest guy in the world.
What was really fascinating to me about the film is yes, we shot it in Saudi Arabia but the cast and crew came from all over the world. We had people from Germany, from Russia, from India, Pakistan, Lebanon etc. I felt like I was on an acid trip in the U.N. - it was crazy! What was most challenging was trying to navigate the regional and cultural differences. The dialect in Saudi... so, in the Middle East they speak Arabic but there might be 25 different dialects and accents. The lead actor, Samer Ismail, is from Syria. His mom in the movie, Souad Abdullah, is like the Meryl Streep of Kuwait. Elham Ali, the lead actress, is from Saudi. They all speak Arabic but there's a different Saudi accent. I, as a director, can't detect that because I can't understand Arabic. I would hear the translator behind me saying 'No, no, no he's pronounced that word wrong he has to redo it and say this.' That was a difficult thing.
Then there was navigating the regional differences about what works in Western films that will not work there and vice versa. There are things that are very big in Saudi Arabia that would never work over here and things that we do that would never work over there. It was trying to navigate and find that sweet spot that worked on both sides. What was frustrating was I had an English script and the only other one that had it was my producer. Everyone else had the Arabic script. In the English script it might be a paragraph and a half of someone giving this very intense monologue but the Arabic translation would be like six words, it didn't translate the same. There was a big monologue after the mother dies, for example, that Nasser is supposed to do because he's mourning. That's not a concept that they embrace there because in that culture there is a different thing that happens when you die. To me, not being of the region trying to navigate that and make a movie that would work in both was probably the first time I had been presented with that in my career.
Your films consistently showcase impressive kill scenes. Could you describe the process behind executing these scenes in this particular film? What challenges did you encounter during that process?
Darren Lynn Bousman: What I was really shocked by was there were no restraints put on us. I was concerned that they were going to say we couldn't do certain things but there was nothing we couldn't do. Knowing that I was allowed to do the blood and the violence and all of that, we just wanted to do something that was not over the top because, again, this is the first horror movie that's ever been filmed there. This would be the first movie of the region presented to that audience. It was finding that balance of what would my fans and the Shannon McGrew's of the world enjoy versus what could they enjoy.
I went to Saudi recently for the premiere and it felt like Star Wars over there. They shut down city blocks for the premiere. I was sitting in the audience and I'm behind these men that are so enraged about one of the deaths, and it was a nothing death. They were so mad they left the theater and I kind of went out to see what had happened. I didn't know what they were saying, but they were obviously mad yelling at the theater manager. I was like, 'Oh, they haven't seen anything yet.' It was kind of awesome to know that now they can make horror films and hopefully you're going to see a lineage of filmmakers of the region doing cool and clever kills.
Another big challenge was we brought over an amazing effect artists from the United States that I've worked with on a few of my films. When you're over there it's hard to find things that you take for granted here like Latex rubber, small things that have to be shipped in because they don't have the infrastructure for filmmaking there like here. We would have ideas like, 'I want to do a compound fracture and have the bone pop out,' but the items needed would take 5 days to clear customs to get here. There were things that I had and was forced to relegate to be digital that I didn't want to but that was one of the restrictions of where we were filming.
Also, the heat was a big issue. When you're dealing with 110 degrees, things would melt off. With the amazing practical effects that were done, we'd be outside and 10 minutes later you're literally watching it turn into wax. It's just sliding off of them. However, they let me bring over my core group of people that I wanted to. I said I wanted there to be a practical person on set that could do the majority of practical things possible. He got stopped at the border of Riyadh and he had a huge steamer trunk full of body parts to which it caused some issues trying to bring that into the country. It was an adventure for sure.
Lastly, regarding the limited release of the film, where can audiences watch it? Additionally, what would you like to share to encourage horror and non-horror fans to come and check out the film?
Darren Lynn Bousman: First off, this has been the most unique and insane experience I've ever had as a filmmaker because I've had very little to do with the movie since. Normally, I'm involved in every detail of everything. I remember that I read it was coming out in the United States with everyone else, I had no idea. I still can't even tell you where it's showing. I do know that it is in theaters and it's in every major market. I think it premieres in 250 theaters on the first weekend and you'll be able to see it in Los Angeles, New York, every major city will have it.
What I would say about why you should see it is that it's strange. It's an Arabic horror film and 75% of the movie is in Arabic. What's really cool about it is yes, you have Tobin Bell. You have Jeremy Irons. You have these insane kills and an amazing score from Joseph Bishara. It's showing a side of the world that I didn't even know existed. You are seeing locations that I could have only dreamed about seeing, beautifully shot by Maxime Alexandre.
I think the story transcends the region of where it was shot. The story of good versus evil, making a pact with the devil for fame and fortune is an age old tale. But you're getting to see a Darren Lynn Bousman/Turki Al Alshikh spin on it from two different sides of the world featuring an all-star cast. Journey out of your comfort zone and see a movie that is something you probably would not be exposed to. And I can promise you, this is the first Saudi Arabian horror film directed by Darren Lynn Bousman you will ever see.
THE CELLO opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, December 8th. You can find out more about the film here.