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Egyptian film The Blue Elephant rewrites box-office rules

Al-Feel-Al-Azrak - The Blue ElephantEgyptian director Marwan Hamed’s latest paranormal thriller

The Blue Elephant is among the top-grossing Arab films this year. BroadcastPro ME delves deeper to unravel the story of its success

The commercial success of Egyptian film The Blue Elephant has rewritten the rules of the Arab box office. The film raked in more than USD 4 million, beating all the cinema hits screened during the Eid El-Fitr season. It also received an 8.6 rating on IMDB, from 13,000 users, the highest rating yet for an Arabic-language film. A genre film, and a horror thriller at that, the film did not follow the formula of the recent slew of Egyptian comedies, yet it managed to win over audiences across the Arab region.

The film is a trendsetter of sorts, setting a new benchmark of success and opening doors to newer genres. An experimental film, The Blue Elephant is director Marwan Hamed’s third long feature, following the critically acclaimed The Yacoubian Building and The White Ibrahim.

“It’s a genre film but based on a very successful book, which helped us,” Hamed explains.

Filmmakers in Egypt were somewhat complacent with the tried and tested formula of comedy and didn’t want to venture out of their comfort zone, according to the director. However, new directors are increasingly trying to break that mould by experimenting with different genres.

“The Egyptian film industry is still the biggest in the region, but there is much more that we can do. We have a thriving indie film movement in the country with a lot of young filmmakers using film as a medium of expression, but our feature films seem to be lacking,” comments Hamed.

Owing to the political turmoil in the country, Egyptian films also suffered like other industries.

“Not many people were going to the theatres, as they were stuck in front of the TV because of protests on the streets. Everybody was protesting. Now, with the improving political situation, we are trying to bring back audiences to the theatres by creating compelling content. Egyptian filmmakers are exploring eclectic genres and taking more risks, which is a good sign,” says Hamed.

The idea

The Blue Elephant is based on an Arabic novel of the same title by Ahmad Mourad. Hamed and Mourad trained at the same film school and have worked together on several projects. The idea to turn the novel into a film was Hamed’s.

“I started visualising the film from the time I read its first draft, even before it was published and became such a big success,” says Hamed.

Mourad, however, hadn’t planned it as a film. He says he would have written the novel differently, if he had.

“There are a lot of imaginary, paranormal scenes that are difficult to adapt to screen. I wrote the screenplay to tone the visual element down a bit. Having studied filmmaking helps to visualise what can be achieved or not.”

The film follows Dr Yehia Rashid (Karim Abdel Aziz), who returns to work in Al Abasyia Psychiatric Hospital after spending five years in voluntary isolation. His work entails examining the mental health of perpetrators, and in its course, he comes across an old friend who brings back bitter memories that he has tried hard to forget. This impacts his life greatly. Attempting to unravel the mysteries of his friend, Rashid embarks on a journey exploring his inner self, or the shattered remnants of it.

The film ventures into a fantasy world with lots of visual effects and the story oscillates between different realms – the real and the imaginary.

Starring Karim Abdel Aziz, Khaled Elsawy, Nelly Karim and veteran Lebleba, the film is produced by Albatros Film Production and Distribution, as well as by Lighthouse Films and Al Shorouk Production.

Albatros was founded by Kamel Abu Ali in 2003. It has successfully produced 37 films and a TV series.

“VFX for dreams is an inherent part of filmmaking now. Our film has a huge chunk of scenes with visual effects, which were done in France by BUF,” explains Hamed.

BUF is known for films like Avatar and Life of Pi.

“I was very lucky to work with BUF on this film. They don’t offer just technical expertise but contribute creatively, which greatly enhanced our film. We visualised what we wanted to achieve, made a story board and illustrated everything. I shot everything and then recreated and enhanced it with CGI for the visual artists to know exactly what

we wanted,” says Hamed.

The film has a different pace, to give a sense of time and place.

“I wanted to connect the elements of space and time movement, without having too many cuts. The film is shot in multiple locations so to achieve continuity was not easy. I didn’t want to use motion control because that’s very mechanical and puts a lot of restrictions and didn’t want to rig either. So the best way was to shoot handheld. We had to find a way to connect and stitch together the scenes shot on a handheld camera in VFX,” comments Hamed.

Most of the filming took place in real locations but many scenes were also shot against a green screen in Cairo studios. It took five months to create the VFX for the film. Filming began in March 2013 but took more than a year to wrap up.

“We wanted to shoot in Cairo because of the locations, the actors and the crew. Moving people to another location was not easy. We managed to finish sets in sequences. Getting the actors to maintain the continuity of their performances was a challenge too. They worked exclusively with us throughout the project,” said Hamed.

The film was a career shift for all the actors, which was a risk, but it worked. Karim Abdel Aziz, the lead actor, is in every scene. He is known for action comedy and romantic roles, but this was a very intense role.

“He has forty scenes alone in a confined space. He had to give a really good performance to keep the audiences engaged. But the audiences accepted him well,” adds Hamed.

The structure of the novel is a puzzle – it is linear but oscillates between the real and the unreal world. The director’s main challenge was to keep the audience engaged without confusing them.

“In the novel, you have a chance to go back to the page if you are confused, but cinema allows limited time to say a lot of things, which

was the biggest challenge in adapting the script,” he adds.

Tech highlights

The filmmakers used three different cameras – the Red Epic and the ARRI Alexa, as well as the Weisscam slomo cam, for some scenes. It shoots 2000 frames per second.

    “We did a lot of tests before deciding on the cameras. The outdoor night scenes were shot on the Alexa because of its sensitivity, as we didn’t use extra lights. One of the scenes was shot using light from three iPhones,” he adds.

The director says a lot of scenes were shot using a harness to lift the actors in the air. The biggest technical challenge, however, was shooting in the isolation room. Shooting in a 2m X 4m room with moveable walls required multiple camera positions.

“To present the result of that convincingly to the audience was a tough call,” says Hamed.

There is one scene in the film where the villain catches fire and he is lifted up. This required two parallel stunts to be shot simultaneously. The actor was cabled to the harness and lifted up while a stuntman was put on fire.

“There was  limited window to shoot this scene and it left us with no room for error. We used three cameras for this scene and achieved the results in two different shots,” comments Hamed.

The film was edited on Final Cut Pro in Hamed’s home, which according to the director, was the best decision.

“To work on this film, I had to go back to the basics. I am a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s work, and at every step of the film, I asked myself how Hitchcock would have presented it. I didn’t want to lose the audience’s attention even for a second. The bottom line was to keep the audience engaged, and I think we achieved that. We managed to scare them, thrill them and intrigue them,” the director concludes.