Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning film industry is in the spotlight this week with the inaugural edition of the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah, which runs through December 15.
Few international productions had ventured into the Saudi desert to shoot before this year, which saw the first real influx of high-profile projects, like Gerard Butler’s action shot. Kandahar and a $ 100 million action blockbuster Desert warrior.
Another film based in Arabia is Cello, the horror film in English and Arabic by Jeremy Irons and Tobin Bell Saw filmmaker Darren Lynn Bousman.
But how did this apparently American project end up turning out in the Kingdom? And for those involved – the crew being a truly international gang – how was that experience? Envision Media Arts producer Lee Nelson reveals it all below.
DEADLINE: How does Cello end up filming in Saudi Arabia?
LEE NELSON: The project was actually designed to be shot in Saudi Arabia, so it wasn’t an arbitrary decision or budget. They were interested in making it a ‘Hollywood’ production, for lack of a better word. They signed an American director, Darren Lynn Bousman, and he called me up and asked me to produce it. I said yes.
DEADLINE: The film was designed and written by Turki Al Alshikh, who is a leading figure in Saudi Arabia and holds the role of General Authority for Entertainment in the country. Tell us about him …
NELSON: I’ll answer the question as an anecdote: When Darren and I first traveled we met him [Al Alshikh] to refine the script. We sat down in her living room and started to get creative. Darren has basically seen all of the movies, he’s incredibly familiar with the movies, there’s almost no reference you can throw away that he doesn’t know. And if he hasn’t seen it, the next morning he will come and he seen it. Turki is the same. Both were making references to obscure independent films. It was amazing how trendy Turki is for filming, and the company, he wanted everything to be top notch.
Turki is incredibly well connected, he also has millions of Instagram followers. I walked with him on the street in Riyadh and people would stop him to say “hello”, he’s a bit of a rockstar there.
DEADLINE: You’ve assembled a fairly international crew.
NELSON: I said “Hollywood” earlier, but we were really international. Our director of photography Maxime Alexandre is Italian, the first AD is Franco-Lebanese [Toufic Khreich]. The visual effects were Canadian from Montreal. Our equipment came from Dubai, Tunisia, Vancouver. We attracted people from all over, it was the United Nations of cinema.
DEADLINE: What about Arabia locally?
NELSON: Our production designer Ahmed Baageel was Saudi, I will work with him again in a minute. Many of our other department heads came from abroad, but then we got as close as possible to the locals. We had an executive producer, Marie-Lynn Nasrallah, from Lebanon, who helped find all the team we needed in the region.
Mostly, we were working with the Saudi Arabian production company Alamiya, which provided all the local infrastructure. They are very established, have their own cameras, I think it’s a 40 year old company but this is their first movie, most of their experience is in live events and broadcast.
DEADLINE: How involved were you with the government or the film council?
NELSON: I had no relationship with the government. Because the film was already funded when I arrived, I don’t have a lot of ideas about their involvement.
DEADLINE: Has the project received government support or tax incentives?
NELSON: I don’t think they did because I think their tax incentive program is still in the works. No one from the film commission came for the shoot.
DEADLINE: Tell me a bit more about the filming experience, what was the vibe like?
NELSON: The atmosphere was great. The people were so welcoming and loving. It was easy to work with everyone, if people didn’t speak English we would find a way to communicate with the translators we had around us. I want to go back, it was a good experience.
If you were on our set in Riyadh you would have thought you were on the set of a show in Los Angeles – everyone was wearing normal clothes, the girls were in crop tops and tank tops, we had an executive producer, so ‘is just looked like a regular set.
DEADLINE: When it comes to Saudi Arabia, you have to take into account the ethical side of things, has there been any reluctance on your part, your cast or your team, given the human rights situation. man there?
NELSON: It made me think. I felt like it was better to commit than not to engage. It was not us who took American money there, it was us who made a “western” movie with their money. To have been there, to have known the people and their welcome, and all that they are doing to improve their human rights record… I think it was good to see.
DEADLINE: Would you like to shoot there again?
NELSON: Yes, we have a couple of things we’re looking at. Something with a director who we made a movie with called Girl, Chad Faust, and a project called Ballistic, which takes place in America and Afghanistan, but a part could be carried out in Saudi Arabia.