When Saudi Arabia production company Alamiya set out to turn fellow Saudi Turki Alalshikh’s novel The Cello into a horror movie, they immediately knew that they wanted to blend the Arabic story with Hollywood visuals.
Those involved believed that the book's tale of an aspiring cellist dealing with the insidious, supernatural and gruesome consequences of his devotion to the instrument had all the ingredients to be both a character-driven warning about the dangers of obsession as well as a terrifying visual feast.
“I can say that this is one of the first horror movies that is a Saudi horror movie,” co-producer Raul Talwar, head of film at Alamiya, tells The National. “That sets it apart. We wanted to set a benchmark in terms of the production values of the movie.”
After adapting his own work for the screen, Alalshikh, who as well as being a highly regarded poet and writer is also the chairman of Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority, picked out Darren Bousman to direct The Cello. The American director has previously overseen four instalments of the beloved Saw franchise, which have grossed over $495 million at the worldwide box office.
Alamiya’s chief operating officer and The Cello executive producer Niko Ruokosuo was immediately fascinated by the project – so much so that he asked Lee Nelson, who he previously collaborated with on 2020’s Death Of Me, to come on-board as producer.
“It’s frankly unusual for me to get involved with a film that’s already developed and financed,” admits Nelson. “So it was a little different, but a lot of fun as I got to be involved in something where I met a whole new group of people.”
“When we met with Darren and Lee in Cairo very early on, we became like a very close circle,” remarks Ruokosuo.
After assembling The Cello’s hugely impressive cast – including Academy Award-winner Jeremy Irons (Reversal Of Fortune), Tobin Bell (Saw), Elham Ali (Sondos), and Samer Ismail (The Worthy) – the cast and crew had two weeks of preparation before they embarked on their 35-day shoot in Riyadh, AlUla and Prague.
“We had amazing people come down from Kuwait, Lebanon and Dubai. We also had a crew from Los Angeles. We had all these different nationalities work on the film. Everyone just came together from all over the world,” says Talwar.
Nelson, meanwhile, was impressed by the dedication and creativity that the Saudi crew brought to the filming. “They were full of passion and excitement and worked 24 hours a day,” Nelson explain.
There was a huge demand from locals to get involved and help too. A few weeks before production began, Alalshikh sent out a tweet seeing if anybody was interested in assisting the shoot or being an intern. “He received thousands of message applications,” says Ruokosuo.
Talwar says the production introduced a “rotation system” for interns. “One day they were in the art department and then they got to experience the different departments on different days of the shoots. It was an exciting opportunity for the youth of Saudi Arabia to nurture their love of films.”
Talwar believes that this is just the beginning for Saudi Arabia's film industry. His hope is that The Cello won’t just terrify and excite audiences, but it’ll inspire them, too.
“When they come to the cinema to watch a movie that shows them Saudi Arabia, we hope that they can relate to that and see it as a proud moment.
“Thanks to Darren’s input it is a Hollywood movie. But is also home-grown. I hope it pushes them to be more interested in this flourishing industry.”
The Cello is now in UAE cinemas