‘Cello’ Producer Lee Nelson On Why Filming In Saudi Arabia Felt Like Being On Set In LA

‘Cello’ Producer Lee Nelson On Why Filming In Saudi Arabia Felt Like Being On Set In LA

12/10/2021

Saudi Arabia’s nascent film industry is in the spotlight this week thanks to the inaugural edition of the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah, which runs until December 15.

Few international productions had ventured into the Saudi desert to shoot prior to this year, which saw the first real influx of high-profile projects, such as the Gerard Butler action pic Kandahar and $100M action blockbuster Desert Warrior.

Another film to have based itself in Saudi is Cello, the Jeremy Irons and Tobin Bell-starring English and Arabic-language horror from Saw filmmaker Darren Lynn Bousman.

But how did this seemingly American project end up filming in the Kingdom? And for those involved – with the crew being a truly international gang – how was that experience? Producer Lee Nelson of Envision Media Arts reveals all below.

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DEADLINE: How did Cello end up shooting in Saudi Arabia?

LEE NELSON: The project was actually conceived to be shot in Saudi, so it wasn’t an arbitrary decision or budget-driven. They were interested in making it more of a ‘Hollywood’ production, for want of a better word. They signed an American director, Darren Lynn Bousman, and he called me up and asked me to produce it. I said yes.

DEADLINE: The film was conceived and written by Turki Al Alshikh, who is a high-profile figure in Saudi Arabia and holds the role of General Authority for Entertainment in the country. Tell us about him…

NELSON: I’ll answer the question by way of anecdote: when Darren and I first traveled over we met him [Al Alshikh] to polish the script. We sat in his living room and started getting into the creative. Darren has essentially seen every movie, he’s incredibly knowledgeable about films, there’s almost no reference you can throw out that he doesn’t know. And if he hasn’t seen it, by the next morning he’ll turn up and he’s seen it. Turki is the same. The two of them were throwing around references about obscure indie films. It was amazing how plugged in Turki is to film, and the business, he wanted everything to be first rate.

Turki is incredibly well connected, he also has millions of Instagram followers. I walked with him down the street in Riyadh and people would stop him to say “hi”, he’s a bit of a rockstar over there.

DEADLINE: You gathered quite an international crew.

NELSON: I said “Hollywood” earlier, but we were truly international. Our cinematographer Maxime Alexandre is Italian, the first AD is French Lebanese [Toufic Khreich]. VFX were Canadian out of Montreal. Our equipment came from Dubai, Tunisia, Vancouver. We pulled people from everywhere, it was a United Nations of filmmaking.

DEADLINE: How about locally from Saudi?

NELSON: Our production designer Ahmed Baageel was from Saudi, I would work with him again in a minute. A lot of our other department heads were from overseas, but then we got into locals as much as possible. We had a line producer, Marie-Lynn Nasrallah, from Lebanon who helped to source all of the crew we needed in the region.

Mostly important we were working with Saudi production company Alamiya, who provided all of the local infrastructure. They’re very established, own their own cameras, I think they’re a 40-year-old company but this is their first movie, most of their experience is in live events and broadcasting.

DEADLINE: To what extent did you get involved with government or the film council?

NELSON: I had no involvement with the government. Because the film was already funded when I came onboard, I don’t have a lot of insight into their involvement.

DEADLINE: Did the project benefit from government backing or tax incentives?

NELSON: I don’t think they did because I think their tax incentive program is still being put together. We didn’t have anyone from the film commission come down to set.

DEADLINE: Tell me a bit more about the experience of shooting, what was the vibe?

NELSON: The vibe was great. The people were so welcoming and loving. Everybody was easy to work with, if people didn’t speak English we would figure out a way to communicate with translators, whom we had around. I want to go back, it was a good experience.

If you were on our set in Riyadh you would’ve thought you were on the set of a show in Los Angeles – everyone was wearing normal clothes, the girls were in crop tops and tank tops, we had a female line producer, it just looked like a regular set.

DEADLINE: When it comes to Saudi Arabia you have to consider the ethical side of things, was there any reluctance from yourself, or your cast or crew, given the human rights situation out there?

NELSON: It did make me pause. I felt like engaging would be better than not engaging. This was not us taking American money over there, it was us making a ‘western’ movie with their money. Having been there, and having experienced the people and how welcoming they are, and everything they’re doing to improve their record on human rights… I think it was good to see.

DEADLINE: Would you shoot there again?

NELSON: Yes, we have a couple of things we’re looking at. Something with a director that we did a movie with called Girl, Chad Faust, and a project called Ballistic, which is set in America and Afghanistan but a piece of it could be done in Saudi.

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