What are you working on right now?
Other than El Leila El Kebira Prequel, I’m working on some ads with international companies, as well as some viral videos and shorts for brands. I’m also working on a Pampers project for Magdi Yacoub. I’m basically working on the usual right now.
Does filmmaking require natural-born talent, or can it be acquired?
You have to have the talent, then further it with studies. Think of it this way: if you don’t have the talent of writing, you can learn how to write, but you’ll never be a great writer… maybe just an okay writer, but that’s as far as you’ll go. You need to have talent, and you either enhance it with studies or self-teaching. You cannot be a writer if you don’t read, and it’s the same case with filmmaking.
You used to be a Creative Director and Visual Artist before you decided to study film direction and acting. When and how did you realise you wanted to make this shift?
I started working as a storyboard artist in 1994 when I was 14 and still in school. I’ve had an interest in art as far back as I can remember. I learned how to scribble with colours before I learnt to talk! I’ve always thought that my management skills were far below my artistic skills. It was in 2007 that I started to indulge in how artistic I am. My interest in music was sparked at an early age. I taught myself how to play piano when I was just three, guitar when I was ten, and drums when I was 16. I was also a vocalist in a band called Promised Dawn, so I’ve always had that music spark within me since I was little. I worked in the movie poster industry back in 1997, and a lot of my designs were seen everywhere. I came to the realisation that all my skills and interests summed up everything that makes a good filmmaker, so I decided to go for it. It just felt like, “C’mon, you’ve got the talent and enthusiasm, and you want to settle with just art direction and visual arts?” It was a moment of frustration. I have so much art in my blood that goes miles beyond art direction. So I studied filmmaking, and took diplomas in special effects, visual effects, sound tracks, editing, cinematography, videography, and digital filmmaking.
What was your first project?
An independent war film called Kabreet. I collaborated with another film director called Mazen Said, but he had to travel, so eventually it was just me. We filmed the promo just a year before the January 25 Revolution broke out, and it was after the military agreed to cooperate in making the film, and helped us reach out to real veterans and soldiers that survived wars. They also helped us with the script, but the revolution took everyone’s attention.It was never shot, only the promo was. This film has been stalling my work since 2011 until this very day. Yet, it did create a big buzz with just the promo. There is another movie script that I’ve been working on and it’s ready to be shot. It’s based on the operetta, El Leila El Kebira (The Big Night). The story revolves around the characters of the story two weeks prior to the operetta, where the marionettes are real-life people, and everything including their biographies as well as the relationships and conflicts between them is mapped out. It’s a family movie. I’m done with the script already, but it’s all on paper. I’m still looking for producers, and I want to direct it myself. I always want to direct anything that’s my own writing.
Does that rule ever pose a challenge?
To an extent, because producers usually have this phobia of hiring someone that wants to try out something for the first time. I’ve had people approach me, willing to have me direct their scripts, but as soon as they find out I’ve never directed a series, they chicken out. They hire someone with “experience,” and the series fails in the end because the vision isn’t realised the way they want. They don’t comprehend the concept of there’s always a first time for everything. They’re always too scared to take a risk, and sometimes it just blows up in their faces in the end because they try too hard to appeal to the market.
Do you consider yourself underground, then?
Let me tell you something. We’re all born underground as artists. You can be famous, and still be underground because you’ve climbed the ladder yourself. A good example is director Amr Salama. I’ve known him since he was struggling with the ups and downs he had to endure to get to where he is now. He even used to stop by my office and ask me to design posters for his shorts. Another time, he insisted I sing in a short film he directed. I love the guy, and I love how hard he’s worked, and today I’m among the happiest people for him because I saw what he’s been through firsthand. Even when I gave up sometimes, he didn’t. The back vocals I did were for one of his short films called Aazab Nafsi (Psychological Torture). It was one of his first short films, and my vocals were kind of embarrassing [laughs]. But what I’m trying to say is, it just takes a lot of experience, alongside good connections with people in the business, not just the latter. We’re all underground, except for those born with a silver spoon in their mouth.
Would you say you have the business connections part covered?
Well, to be honest, some people just assume I have a stick up my bum, and decide they don’t like me. Other people have the same impression, but change their minds when they get to know me. But there’s a third kind of people that knowingly befriend me just so they could steal my ideas, screw me over and pretend they have never met me. This sums up my connections.
So you donít want to go mainstream?
What makes you a well-earning artist in your field and markets your name is the mainstream part of the business. If I asked you to name 10 filmmakers right now, you’ll list them, but if I ask you to name just one performer in theatre, you’ll probably go blank because the media doesn’t shed light on them. Even though performers in theatre have always impressed me far more than movie stars. In movies, you’ve got to zoom in to the actor’s face to see a tear dropping, but there’s none of that on stage. You have to evoke emotion from a physical distance, and you have to possess the power to memorise hour-long lines and scenes so you can act them out in a single long shot. The person sitting farthest from the stage has to see and feel the acting, and all this needs incredible effort. And yet, you still cannot name a theatre performer because the media doesn’t give them the attention they need here. England is known for many plays, you know Cats the musical, and you know it’s an Andrew Lloyd Webber, but you don’t know who the director is or who first starred in it. It’s commercialism that makes a name for you. I’m proud to be underground, and of creating what I come up with on low budgets.
None of your works look like theyíre made on a low budgetÖ
I’ve heard my contemporaries mock my works and flout some of them as conspicuously low budget, but then again it doesn’t look that different to the audience from what big productions make. That’s not what the audience sees. It does make a difference when it’s visual masterpieces like the ones Marwan Hamed makes in Diamond Dust and Blue Elephant. No one in the country can make them like he does. He introduces such magical cinema to the country, it’s beautiful. But not everyone is Marwan Hamed, and not every producer will trust someone with their productions like they do with Hamed because he made a name for himself, and became known for his cinematic wonders, as much as Ahmed El Gendi is known for his comedies, and so on.
Do you think itís all about hard work, or does luck come into play?
It’s definitely about chances as well. Someone like Abu – how many million times have you heard his 3 Daqat (Three Heartbeats) playing? Abu and I were friends since childhood. His late dad (may his soul rest in peace) and mine were friends for a long time, and we used to play together when we were, like, five years old, then we parted ways growing up. When I first saw his music spreading like wildfire, it just shocked me how it’s the same person I’ve known since I was a kid. I used to listen to his music before he got big, but most people started knowing him after 3 Daqat. He also used to be underground, but he got one simple chance that made him go “boom.” It’s a beautiful phenomenon, and I’m so proud of him.
How did your documented adventures with Zein W Abou Zein start?
It wasn’t our plan from the beginning to make it into an online series. We were just fooling around on camera for my family and friends, who all know and love Zein. With time, we took it a little bit extra after Zein got older, and could endure a whole shooting day. I talked to Amy Mowafi and we decided to take it from there. MO4 produced Zein W Abou Zein, and it was a small hit. The show is basically constructive criticism aimed at both spoiled brats and abusive parents. It’s a sort of educational program on parenting. But just like I indirectly teach the audience about parenting methods, Zein teaches children her age proper behaviour, and all of this is done with neither of us saying a word about it. In the show, you could see me annoyed because she’s banging on the dining table and starting a racket, so I tell her off. And yet, you see me on the same dining table with a phone call, yelling and banging on the table out of anger. We criticise double standards, and try to show both sides of the coin without directly teaching parenting in a way that would be cheesy. It’s similar satire to what I did in the show Kheidr We Rabenna Yostor. When we wrote it, I always came up with a sort of story that I can present without having to spew out raw criticism.
You also had a show called ZeiNewsÖ
That show was on Line Live. The viewership was good, and it was fun, but we stopped because it became exhausting to do it on a weekly basis. It interfered with Zein’s school activities and her trainings. So we just shot 12 episodes, and put an end to it.
Are you a strict father to Zein?
I’m very, very strict, but never abusive. I’m a strict father, but I’m also Zein’s big brother, and I consider her my best friend. Since Zein was a kid and could barely walk, I never treated her like a child. When she would trip or fall, and anyone would baby her, I’d go insane. I hated that. I’ve always taught her that if she falls, I’ll help her stand up, check if she’s okay, dust the dirt off her clothes and tell her to go play and be careful. I’ve taught her that so when she falls, she should know that her mum and dad are there for her until she gets back up on her feet, then she’s on her own.
Youíre not proud of any of your shorts?
Real artists are never completely satisfied with their work. They always feel like something is incomplete, but they cannot put a finger on it. They always think they can do better. And I love that I still have this feeling within me, even when other people like what I do, I just know I’m capable of offering something bigger and better. It doesn’t mean I’m not proud of my projects. I love Kabreet, I love Cabled, and I love El Leila El Kebira Prequel, but I consider Cabled my CV. I wrote it, shot it, edited it, and created its soundtrack. Even the actors have been trained by me, they’re not real actors. I actually met the actress on the plane on my way to San Francisco. The conductor in the film is a real conductor, and I just showed him his way around the camera.
Youíve shot a parody of Titanic with an Egyptian twist. How was that idea born?
Some people think it was a production we decided to make on our own. It was actually a job assigned from YouTube to an agency called DigiSay. They wanted to experiment with longer videos, or short films, to see the feedback, viewership, and how many ads will be displayed. It was kind of a demo. Basically YouTube was more or less a client that requested a film to test this. The assigned agency suggested they recruit an influencer with millions of subscribers on YouTube, hence Shady Srour, and they worked out a plan with advertisers when I was still not in the picture. The idea wasn’t mine. They were going to shoot it in Sokhna on a yacht with a bit of ribald humour, like loose trousers showing Jack’s boxers – you know, that kind of comedy. They had some sort of miscommunication with the production company, and so one of the partners of DigiSay, Ahmed Abbas -who’s a friend of mine- came up to me and told me he wants me to direct and produce it for him. I said I don’t mind, I like challenges, but my point was if I’m making this film, I’m not making a modern-day Titanic tale, I’m producing part two. Which means I’m replicating the same wardrobe, the same ship, the same décor, the props – everything. So I changed everything from the core to visually achieve what I had in mind. The whole thing was never my cup of tea, but I was doing it for the sake of the experiment. Boshra was my partner back then. We had two companies together, and they were based in my office. My office used to run three companies: kheidr.com, October Film Production, and GFF; and Boshra was always there. I just casually suggested she plays Kate Winslet’s role, and she was like, “Rose? Sure, I’d love to!” But I warned her about how much we’d be roasted for this entire thing, and she didn’t care. We actually tailor made Rose’s wardrobe, every detail was replicated. I did my best to make it visually look like a big-budget production – and it was. I paid on top of the initial budget out of my own pocket to make it look like that. Script wise, it was just a silly comedy, which appealed to some people, and also stirred negative comments enough for people to be curious to see it. The film got all kinds of feedback, it was pretty controversial.
We saw a music video that you said you directed by coincidence. How often does that sort of thing happen?
Mostafa Atef is a good friend of mine. He’s a very decent guy. I was in Dubai for a meeting, and he was coincidentally there to shoot a music video. We agreed to meet up in the afternoon just to say hello. When I got to his location, I saw that the props were all set, along with the camera. They were supposed to start shooting at nine in the morning, and I got there at three, so I assumed they’d at least be half done, but they hadn’t started yet. I asked him what was going on, and he explained that they’re supposed to be shooting a wedding, but the director forgot to notify the producer that they need actors to play as guests. The director was nowhere to be found, he felt that nothing was going according to plan and just disappeared, but we could later reach him. I was asked for help to save the situation, so I paced back and forth with a cigarette, and came up with an idea to shoot the preparation of the wedding, because everyone around us was wearing casual. I said everyone behind the camera can be brought in front of it to start moving chairs in the background, while Mostafa just walks in on the groom fixing his tuxedo, and the bride is still putting on her makeup – all in a pre-wedding phase. And at the end of the video, we could have them dance in the corner and throw some rose petals over them. They loved the idea, and Mostafa insisted I direct it myself. I didn’t want to at first, because I don’t want that to be done to me – that I exert an effort preparing the props, the set and location, and some other director just walks in and takes it from me, but I agreed to do it and be credited as an assistant director. We began shooting, and the director went to grab a bite. It was all done and wrapped up from 5 p.m to 7 p.m. I later found out the director was the one who pushed Mostafa to persuade me to take over. He wanted to edit the footage, but they gave me full credit as the director.
Where do you get your inspiration?
Inspiration is difficult for me. I don’t like to copy something, or look through other works to replicate something similar. In fact, if I think of an idea that I start to develop, and I find out that it’s already out there, I kill the idea on the spot. And this is something that really exhausts me. I cannot knowingly replicate an idea, unless it’s something like the Titanic parody. But finding something and just changing names and twisting scenes around is something I’ll never do. When I’m trying to think of a new idea, I try to put myself in the mood to create. I do watch films for inspiration, but only because they put me in the right mood that makes me creative, not because I’m copying them. If I’m trying to make an ad for a car, I watch car-racing movies. When I’m down, I watch Rocky Balboa, and it lifts me up and brings me back up on my feet. I’m driven by my emotions and everything I’m passionate about. I love watching Friends, too, it gives me a needed boost.
Whatís the best and worst part of your career?
The best part is an understanding and cooperative client. The worst part is when a client refuses to communicate with you. I don’t mind a client that doesn’t understand me, because I’ll spend a lifetime trying to communicate with them, but clients that have no intention to listen to you are too just difficult.
But you work with them anyway, right? Are you patient?
I do work with them anyway, but I’m not patient at all. I’m extremely impatient and I think it’s one of my favourite qualities about myself. Patience would have me suppress too much negativity to the point that I’d either commit suicide or homicide.
Do you have any regrets?
Not in my career. Everyone thinks I’m embarrassed of Titanic, and I’m not because it was just business. I didn’t even get paid for it. I gave away my salary for two days of shooting and production. I gave up my markup in direction, and I paid a lot of money to make the film the way I want, and I do this a lot. What would make me regret it is doing all this for someone, and they just turn around and stab me in the back, by denying me or stealing my ideas - that’s when I feel regret, when I trust people and they let me down. And three of them are going to be reading this article right now.
Are you ever a control freak?
I’m a F***ing control freak for sure, but I’m proud of it. If someone proposed an impressive idea and I like it, I do it. If I don’t, we’ll stick with mine, and if you don’t abide by it, you’re out of my team. I give chances, but only during the preproduction phase when new ideas are encouraged. During production, we have an allotted time, and there is no room for back-and-forth negotiations.
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