The Blue Elephant
The Blue Elephant, a surreal, psychological thriller by Egyptian director Marwan Hamed, confounded expectations when it was released in Egypt in July. The film differed in every way from the type of light films, comedies and romances that usually perform well in the Egyptian box office and went on to become one of country’s highest-grossing films of the year so far. It claimed over EGP30 million ($4.2 million), beating all the cinema hits screened during Eid El-Fitr season, according to an announcement revealed by producer Mohamed Hassan Ramzy, President of the Egyptian Chamber of Cinema Industry.
The film, which is based on the novel of the same name by Ahmed Mourad (who also wrote the screenplay), follows the story of Dr Yehia (Karim Abdel Aziz), a psychiatrist who starts work at a psychiatric hospital five years after a fatal car accident that claimed the lives of his wife and daughter. Soon after taking the placement, one of Yehia’s former best friends, Sherif (Khaled El Sawy) is admitted to the hospital for assessment after apparently assaulting and murdering his wife. Yehia then embarks on a broader investigation into whether his friend committed the murder and why, but soon starts to question his own sanity as well.
Marwan Hamed tells us that of the main challenges making the film was securing funding. “We were doing a genre film and it’s not like your regular Arab or Egyptian production so to get it and find the money and pull the strings of the whole project wasn’t easy,” he said. The inherent risk of making a different type of film was evident in the marketing material, including the film’s main promotional poster, which gave few indications of the dark, intense nature of the film. This was a carefully calculated move, according to Hamed.
“Word of mouth is everything, especially in the Middle East because the market is not so big. So when we marketed the film we decided that we wouldn’t market the genre very much to avoid putting the film in a box before anyone sees it. I wanted to create a kind of myth about what is inside this film. So you won’t have any expectations and then you find out. I think this helped the film a lot.” The film certainly resists being pigeonholed in any particular genre and seems to actively switch between genres as it progresses, moving from what at first feels like a straightforward mystery thriller to explore madness and the occult.
For Hamed, this aspect of the film reflects the style of the novel, and was a challenge to transfer to film. “To be very honest this was the most difficult thing for me, with the adaptation from the novel to the script because the film floats from one genre to another. I had to think ‘how am I going to do this without giving it an awkward feel and trying to move from one genre to the other smoothly’. This was something very difficult to do, a bit challenging,” he says.
The film has a distinctive pace, with critical information being fed to the audience in carefully measured doses, which often completely alter the viewer’s perception of what is happening in the film.
Hamed says that the team thought carefully about what the audience would be thinking throughout the film and what kind of clues to give them. “We had a lot of thought over that in the script. Also while I was cutting it and directing it, I always had this in mind: ‘what kind of impression am I giving the audience and moreover, what am I hiding from the audience’.
The film contains some frightening dream sequences and Hamed adds that the way he deployed the more frightening or shocking was heavily influenced by Alfred Hitchcock.
“When I started working on this film I watched a lot of films and mainly I focused on Alfred Hitchcock. I was always a very big fan of Hitchcock. I think he is the grand master in terms of putting effects on the audience. He passed this on to many directors. Studying Hitchcock was something that helped me a lot.”
Hamed also pointed to a commentary he read about the horror film Carrie, directed by Brian De Palma. “He [De Palma] said when you are doing a horror film, you need moments of relief so you need to change your pace, so if you are going into a scary scene, try to put a funny scene before it. That will scare the audience more.”
One of the stand out aspects of the film is its special effects, which are mainly deployed during the dream sequences, and Hamed admits that the scenes that involved special visual effects were challenging. In these scenes, the lead character, Yehia, is seen in various location, including 19th century markets, wandering ancient labyrinthine crypts and even opening a door that overlooks the outer atmosphere of planet Earth.
“All those very trippy sequences in the movie that involved a lot of visual effects and involved a lot of shooting as well – the shoots were difficult. We had to plan them very well and work with the effects company,” he says.
“The idea was to have, or try to create, one long take in every dream where you don’t see a cut. At the same time the most traditional way to do this is to use a motion control camera or rig, but I don’t like the motion control rig. It consumes much more time, it’s expensive and the type of camera movement is very mechanical. It is not a natural kind of camera movement,” Hamed says. “What we did is we shot handheld. Some of it was on steady cam, some shots were handheld.”
The Blue Elephant team worked closely with French special effects company BUF on these sequences. “When I met BUF in France I discussed this with them and I told them that I want to shoot freely, I don’t want to have restrictions on the way I shoot and they said, ‘go ahead, shoot exactly the way you want and we’ll figure out a way of how to connect things together’.” This was in addition to the CGI that was added later.
We shot most of what we thought of as ‘real’ and then it was re-enhanced or recreated in post-production. But the thing is it had to feel real. We didn’t want it to feel like it was produced using a lot of visual effects.
“In the process we story boarded everything and then we had to break it down shot by shot with hundreds of reccy pictures. We took photos from the locations we were going to shoot at and afterwards the VFX team also took a lot of photos of the locations we shot at because we needed to restore the locations, especially locations of old Cairo because now they are ruins, but it needed to feel like they were new in the 1800s,” Hamed says.
In this way, many locations were fully mapped and then re-created in CGI. “What I like about BUF is they are artists. Most of the time when you go to VFX companies they are very technically oriented, but with BUF they have this kind of artistic input and they have this motto that I love which is they never say no to the director. They always solve their own problems without asking the director to do a lot of stuff for them,” Hamed says.
The special effects took around five months to complete during post-production.
Most of the actual film was shot on a Red Epic, with some of the night scenes shot on an Alexa. “In a lot of scenes we used no lights, so we used the Alexa for some of those scenes,” Hamed says. The team also used a super slow motion camera which can film up to 2,000 frames per second.
In terms of production schedules, The Blue Elephant also faced its share of challenges including political instability in Egypt which caused numerous delays.
“There was a lot of turbulence in Egypt at the time when we were shooting the film. The whole thing was shot in seven weeks but we had to shoot over a year and half. We had to stop so many times and this is not always good because sometimes you lose sense of continuity and you lose the mood and the pace of the acting, so this was another challenge,” Hamed says.
While the film turned in a strong performance at the box office, it was also well-received by viewers who reacted well to a film that marked a step-change in Egyptian and Arabic cinema.
“Most of the time I am trying to be really honest to the drama and at the same time trying to reach as big an audience as I can. It is very important for me to reach the audience,” Hamed says. “It is interesting to watch the film with the audience; they are very engaged with the story, with trying to figure out what is going on. There are moments of fear in the theatres and moments when they get very emotional. When they come out of the theatre there is this kind of heavy, strong dose of emotion, especially as it is 2 hours and 30 minutes. People see it more than once and I think the overall reaction is quite powerful.”
Karim Abdel Aziz, who plays Dr. Yehia, said that the role was the most challenging of his career. “It was the biggest challenge of my life, all the roles I have played before are so different to Dr Yehia in the Blue Elephant. I have made action movies and light movies, but this was very different.”
Aziz says that the film’s producers sent him the novel a couple of years ago before asking him whether he was interested in the role. After reading the novel in a day, he said he was sure he wanted to play Dr. Yehia, but admitted that he was also slightly unnerved by the role.
“I was so scared because all Arabian audience loves comic movies, adventure and action movies, but The Blue Elephant broke everything, that is why I am so happy.”
Aziz believes The Blue Elephant – and the viewers’ positive reactions to it – could encourage other Arab film makers to break with convention and make different types of films.
“When someone breaks the cage I think it is an opportunity for all film makers to do something in a different way – even romance or action movies. The real star of The Blue Elephant is the audience. They accepted the movie, and it is not a short movie at about 2 hours 30 minutes,” he says.
WHAT: The Blue Elephant, a movie based on the novel of the name by Egyptian writer Ahmad Mourad.
DIRECTOR: Marwan Hamed
PRODUCER: Albatros Film Production and Distribution Lighthouse Film, Al Shorouk Production
Words by Roger Field