“He is so, so talented,” gushes director Adil El Arbi when speaking to Variety about Brendan Fraser. The actor played villain Firefly in the now discarded Warner Bros. Discovery film “Batgirl,” directed by El Arbi in collaboration with his long-time partner, Bilall Fallah. “The way he played that character… It was one of the most memorable villains, so we’ll see. Maybe when he wins his Oscar they’ll want to show the movie,” concluded Adil, referring to Fraser’s Oscar buzz for Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale.”
“[Fraser] is the nicest guy I’ve ever met in my life,” agrees Bilall, who fondly remembers the seven months of shooting “Batgirl” in Glasgow, Scotland. “I never had an experience like that, the whole city was working with us to make it possible. I hope we can get back.”
“We might have it somewhere,” Adil says of the footage. Back in August, the filmmaker revealed Warner Bros. Discovery had blocked their access to all the material after scrapping the $90 million movie. (“I went on the server… Everything was gone,” he said at the time.) On their leeway in getting the film released, the Belgian director said: “We don’t have any influence on that,” but the duo remains hopeful the Leslie Grace-starrer will still see the light of day.
What did see the light of day was “Rebel,” Adil & Bilall’s poignant tale of two Belgian Muslim brothers tangled in the complex web of radicalism in Syria. On having the film screen at the Red Sea Film Festival, in Jeddah, Adil says: “It’s very important for us because this movie is about the Middle East. It’s a great honor to be able to show the film to an audience from the Middle East because they are the ones primarily concerned by it.”
“Rebel” perfectly encapsulates the duo’s rare ability to tell particular stories with a universal appeal, a discussion at the heart of Saudi’s efforts to kickstart a thriving film industry. “We try to learn from both experiences,” said Adil of being able to navigate between the European arthouse market and big Hollywood productions such as Will Smith-starring “Bad Boys for Life.” “When we are in Hollywood, we learn different technical techniques. In Europe, we can take a risk. We can use musical elements or talk about more controversial subjects, we can work on auteur movies. I think it’s a good balance to have the chance to work in both places, and that’s what we want to try to do in the future.”
Telling a politically driven story with a big studio feel wouldn’t be possible without co-producing. “To make bigger movies, we need a bigger budget,” explains Adil. “‘Rebel’ doesn’t have the budget of a Hollywood production, but I think that the good thing about having smaller countries working together is that you can have a pretty nice budget and it also allows you to go international. You can have an international cast and an international crew. Arab cinema can really be developed together with countries like Belgium, Denmark and France. That’s a good counterforce to Hollywood.”
Bilall agrees, adding that “it’s really wonderful to work with an international crew. We worked with a Jordanian crew in ‘Rebel,’ and to see their experience just makes us richer as directors and as human beings because we get to see different cultures.”
“It was a milestone. It changed our lives,” says Bilall of Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s “City of God,” one of “Rebel’s” clear influences. “As directors, it opened our eyes. And there are also films like ‘La Haine,’ urban stories we love to see. We grew up in these worlds, so these are stories that we feel we have the authenticity to tell.”
“We try to find the humanity in our characters,” adds Adil when commenting on how they can challenge Western preconceptions of Arab culture, “so you can really have empathy and then go inside the mind of a world you might not have known. That is our way of breaking those stereotypes.”
So what does a duo of directors who have traveled the world, made films with both Marvel and DC and worked with names such as Michael Keaton and Martin Lawrence can still possibly have on their bucket list? Plenty, according to Adil and Bilall.
“We want to make so many movies, to tell stories that are not being told. We also want to go into different genres, like science fiction or historical. We’ll be making movies until we die,” says Bilall enthusiastically, with Adil adding: “We want to find our own ‘Star Wars,’ not making a ‘Star Wars’ but finding something entirely new, something special.”
For now, the duo is working on the sequel to their 2018 action film “Gangsta” and holding conversations on their next big Hollywood production, which they can’t disclose details about just yet. “We have no green light yet but are working on a big action movie in Hollywood. I don’t want to jinx it,” says Adil.