Darren Lynn Bousman has directed four Saw movies—parts 2-4, and the Chris Rock-starring Spiral—and while his latest, The Cello, has some gruesome elements, it’s a big departure for the filmmaker in many ways. Ahead of the film’s release December 8, io9 got a chance to ask him more.
Set mostly in Saudi Arabia, The Cello follows a talented but struggling musician (Samer Ismail) who acquires a gleaming new instrument from a stranger (Saw’s Tobin Bell) he meets after a performance. Unfortunately, while it makes stunning music, the cello is infused with deeply sinister powers—and there’s a mysterious conductor (Jeremy Irons) seemingly, ahem, pulling the strings.
What follows is a slightly edited and condensed version of our interview with Bousman.
Cheryl Eddy, io9: Cursed-object films have a long history in horror, but we don’t see many cursed cellos. How did you tackle making a cello scary?
Darren Lynn Bousman: I think a lot of it leans on the composer Joe Bishara; he did The Conjuring and Insidious and a lot of other stuff. He is, to me, one of the greatest character composers out there, the stuff that he’s able to do. And I think he just did a fantastic job with this, creating something that felt dark. We also used the mixers who did the Saw films, Urban Audio. I sound kind of douchey saying this, but if you hear it in the theater in 5.1, the cello sound becomes a character in the surrounds. Like it talks, it says things, it says really horrible [things]. And I think that that’s only really heard in the surrounds. I think a lot of it is the production design as well. The cello is made of bones. And so when you get when you get close to the cello, like you… hold on… [here, Bousman holds up the actual prop cello used in The Cello]
So like there’s a child pelvic bone down there. And then there are finger bones up here. One of the tricks as a filmmaker on this movie was navigating the cultural differences between a Western audience and a Middle Eastern audience. One of the things that I really wanted to do was be subtle in a lot of the things like that, like the cello itself. But if you actually look at the cello in the movie, it’s just off a little bit. Not a lot, but a real cello player would notice the creative liberties that we took in doing it, from the strings that it’s using, to the tuning parts, to again just the bones that are kind of all throughout it.
io9: In America, we don’t see a lot of horror from the Middle East and we also don’t see a lot of movies of any genre from Saudi Arabia. How did this project come together and how did you come to be involved?
Bousman: Maybe it’s a midlife crisis thing, I don’t know—I like things that feel dangerous, things that are not safe. And that’s maybe one of the reasons that for me, after doing the Saw franchise, doing a movie [2008’s Repo! The Genetic Opera] with Paris Hilton felt like the right thing to do, because I wanted to do something that was risky and kept me energized and on my toes. I got a phone call a few years back from a friend of mine, saying “I’ve got a weird movie for you, but you have to fly to Egypt to find out about it.” And I said, “You’re crazy. I’m not doing that.” And he’s like, “No, no, no. Just trust me.” So after some back and forth, I decided it’s a free trip to Egypt, if nothing else. And so I fly to Egypt and I meet the writer, Turki Alalshikh, who the only way I can describe him is “Quentin Tarantino.” He had such an infectious, giddy excitement over movies, and his references were—I mean, it just felt like I was sitting with Quentin. He was using references, obscure movies from like the ‘80s that maybe five people besides me had seen. I just really liked this guy. So we talked about [The Cello], it was based on a book that he wrote, and how to translate that book into a movie for the Middle Eastern culture. After about two weeks of being in Egypt, he goes, “Why don’t we go and film this in Saudi Arabia?” Originally I was like, “Absolutely not.” And he goes, “Just come for 24 hours.”
When I got off the plane, I don’t know what I was expecting, but there was Gucci, Armani, McDonald’s, Starbucks, H&M, everything. It felt like I was in Los Angeles, outside of the heat. The heat was insane. But what excited me was that for years and years and years, there weren’t movies being released there. There was no music being released there. There was nothing. Art was not allowed like this. The idea of getting to make a movie that challenged some of those things that had so long not been allowed there excited me greatly. So we talk about the danger thing, about doing things that are dangerous—I love that. And then, as well as that, I love the idea of getting another chance to work in a culture that I knew nothing about, and having to immerse myself in that culture. I’ve done it a few times. I shot a TV series in Japan called Crow’s Blood. I did a primarily all-Spanish film. I’ve done a movie that was 50% Thai. I just think it’s cool because it’s a way that I’m growing as a person. I’m seeing all these preconceived ideas I had just washed away, and getting to work in a completely different style than I’m used to. And so while I love making sequels to popular franchises, I just felt alive [while making a movie like The Cello]. I felt like I was constantly learning and having to reinvent myself.
io9: There’s a good bit of gore in the movie, which is something you’re known for. Were there limits placed on you for The Cello and what was your approach to filming the violence in the movie?
Bousman: That was something that I was kind of surprised by. There was nothing that they said I could not do. I think as I’ve gotten older, and now that I’ve had kids and maybe settled down a little bit, I look at violence differently than I looked at it 20 years ago. It used to be, “How far can I push the envelope?” Now, it doesn’t affect me as much. It’s more about, I would rather have a couple of really great scenes that make an audience uncomfortable than throughout the movie just being constantly grossed out. There was one kind of interesting, intense moment shooting, which was the last week that we were in Saudi before we moved to Prague, we got access to this place called Al-’Ula. They had never allowed film or filmmakers in there, let alone Western filmmakers in there. And it is a sacred place, pre-dates Islam, pre-dates Christianity. It was built by the same people that did Petra in Jordan. We had to go through all of these precautions and red tape to be allowed there. And it was the one time that I was uncomfortable because I was like, “We are in a very, very, very sacred place;” we had a very violent scene planned there, and it didn’t feel right. So we re-thought that kind of on the fly—but that was, I guess, a self-regulation [because] I just felt uncomfortable [filming anything violent in that setting].
io9: Most of the cast is actors that won’t be familiar to Western audiences. But you also have Tobin Bell, who’s obviously from Saw, so we can guess why you brought him on. How did Jeremy Irons get involved?
Bousman: We had a phone call. It’s simple as that. I’ve been a fan of the guy since the very first time I saw him as a kid in movies. Jeremy Irons walks in and he is the coolest guy in the room. He’s got this—not only from the style of his dress, but the way he holds himself, the way he walks, the way he makes everyone feel like they’re the most important person in the room. He just has this swagger about him. And I think swagger shows itself in his character, Francesco. He is that person. In fact, I think a lot of the wardrobe he wears is his own wardrobe. I mean, that’s what he looks like.
A fun story is that I needed to do reshoots late in the movie, so I call him up and I said, “Hey, I really need to get another scene with you.” And he goes, “Why don’t you come on down to my castle in Ireland?” He lives a castle in Ireland. That’s just who he is. That’s how he is! But [at the start of working together], I said that one of the things that I’m navigating is I didn’t want there to be really any religious undertones in the movie, specifically when you’re dealing with a film that has completely different belief systems, East and West. We did not ever want to call him the devil. So we just basically made him this very kind of supernatural, bigger than life character that is the coolest guy in the room. And that’s who he is.
io9: Did Samer Ismail, who plays the main character, Nasser, learn to play the cello for the role? Did you have on-set musicians giving him pointers?
Bousman: He was the last person cast. He’s a huge Syrian actor. He would be like the Syrian Brad Pitt. He had one month to basically learn English to the point where he’s comfortable enough to speak it with Jeremy Irons. He can speak English, but to be able to hold his own, and [then also to] look like an expert cello player. So the month before coming to set, we flew a cellist out to him. He had to [play] cello every single day when he got to set; when everyone else would go out and hang out, he had to work with his cello person. Then every time he played on set, we had a cellist right under the camera that was basically pantomiming what he was supposed to be doing. So that’s how we did that. There was an idea very early on that we were going to try to use technology and we were going to have someone actually playing the cello and then put his face on it. So we actually have shots of, you know, this expert cellist with a green hood on. But at the end of the day, I was just like, “I don’t want that.” I wanted it to be that character, I wanted it to be Samer. So we just stayed with all of his own stuff doing it.
io9: If you did a sequel to The Cello, would you follow the other instruments we see Francesco with in the movie—the cursed zither or the cursed mandolin?
Bousman: The writer Turki Alalshikh had this idea of a universe that this exists in, and there’s a sequel already written that’s pretty awesome. It takes place here in America. I think the idea is to make this global—I’ll just say that if given the opportunity, what he wants is to build a cursed orchestra. You’ve seen one instrument of the orchestra; eventually all the instruments will get together and bring about whatever horribleness is going to happen. Wait and see on that. But I think what’s cool about his idea is—it’s not a direct sequel, meaning that it will follow a completely different storyline with a completely different person getting possession of a completely different instrument. So we will see. But yeah, I would do that, because again, it doesn’t feel like a full-on sequel like a lot do.
The Cello opens in theaters Friday, December 8.
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