Darren Lynn Bousman is no stranger to taking big risks, having helmed the high-profile sequel to “Saw” in his 20s and directed the flop-turned-cult classic “Repo! The Genetic Opera.” But one phone call would point 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 with you, but it requires you going to Egypt,’” he said. “I love traveling — part of being a filmmaker for me is getting to explore different cities or countries. When I got on the plane, I didn’t know where I was going or what I was going to go into. I just knew there was a movie based on a book.”
That movie, headed to theaters today, is “The Cello,” based on Turki Al-Sheikh’s novel of the same name about the titular instrument that has a cursed past. Al-Sheikh, who also penned the script, is not just an author but also an advisor of Saudi Arabia’s Royal Court and the country’s Chairman of General Authority for Entertainment.
“I’m sitting in this room and there’s all these people around me speaking in Arabic,” Bousman said. “And then in walks Turki Al-Sheikh, and he sits in this chair and he’s so passionate and excited, addressing these very obscure movies. I immediately knew that I was dealing with an artist, someone who not only understood cinema but loved it. There was this bond in how we spoke in a cinematic language.”
Al-Sheikh offered Bousman the chance to explore the country and shoot the film anywhere he wanted.
“His task was to bring entertainment there, to open up the kingdom to the world of entertainment,” Bousman said. “While I was there, it felt like I was in the middle of a renaissance. For years and years, you couldn’t go to the movies. There was no music, there was no theater, there were no concerts. And now, in the last five years, they’ve opened all of those things. There was this palpable sense of excitement in the air as AMC Theaters were being constructed and mainstream movies were going over there. And Turki’s mandate was ‘I want to bring cinema to the kingdom. I want it to be a cross between Middle Eastern cinema, as well as what they watch in Western cinema.’”
While Bousman was able to sell the movie to Western audiences because of stars like Jeremy Irons and “Saw” alum Tobin Bell, he marveled at the talent he was granted access to while shooting the film.
“They put together this international cast of superstars,” Bousman said. “I was working with their equivalent of Meryl Streep, their equivalent of Tom Hanks. The main actor, Samer Ismail, is like the Brad Pitt of Syria. Another, Elham Ali, is like the Saudi Sandra Bullock.”
Even with a dream cast and his choice of resources, Bousman said there were plenty of challenges as an American making a movie that fit in with Saudi cultural sensibilities.
“You’re not only dealing with regional differences, but you’re also dealing with customary things that don’t translate over,” he said. “It was almost like going to film school again. You have to rethink how you craft a movie or tell the story because concepts that make sense to me with Western sensibilities don’t translate over there. The first thing was trying to find the commonality that you can all understand and agree on. Over there, a lot of the acting was very big and grandiose because soap operas are so prevalent. We worked to make things subtle: How would a woman really react to a demonic spirit or a ghost?”
Yet Bousman was happy to face those challenges head-on, always wanting to push himself as a filmmaker. When asked if he would ever return to make a fifth movie in the “Saw” franchise, he said only if it felt very fresh.
“I think why the first ‘Saw’ worked so well was 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 capture the serial killer on page five.’ It was that change that made it cool to me. So if given the opportunity to come back and continue to exploit those strange choices, I would love to go back. Just making ‘Saw 11’ doesn’t interest me. But doing something as ballsy and bold as what we did with ‘Spiral’ does. You have to give massive credit to the [production company] Twisted Pictures team. They take risks and allowed me to go do something like that. It’s what makes me excited about being a filmmaker.”
Watch the trailer for “The Cello” below.