The Cello Interview: Darren Lynn Bousman On Working With Tobin Bell Outside Of The Saw Franchise


  • The Cello is a supernatural horror film about a talented musician who discovers a new instrument that enhances his abilities.
  • Director Darren Lynn Bousman took on the project because he enjoys taking risks and working on unique and challenging films.
  • The movie was shot in Saudi Arabia, which was an unconventional location for Bousman, but he found it to be an exciting and inspiring experience.

Written by Turki Al Alshikh, The Cello is currently available in theaters nationwide. The supernatural horror is in both Arabic and English and follows a talented musician named Nasser, who feels as if his current instrument hinders his abilities. When he is given an antique cello, Nasser’s talents take on new life. However, he refuses to acknowledge that his recently developed skills come at a cost.

Darren Lynn Bousman serves as the director of the film and is most well-known for his work on the Saw franchise. Bousman directed Saw II, Saw III, Saw IV, and the Chris Rock-led standalone, Spiral, which takes place in the same universe. The main cast of The Cello includes Samer Ismail, Muhanad Al Hamdi, Elham Ali, Souad Abdullah, Mila Al Zahrani, Baraa Alem, Ghassan Massoud, Basheer Al Ghonam, Mohammed Altoyan, Tobin Bell, and Jeremy Irons.


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Screen Rant exclusively interviewed Darren Lynn Bousman about directing a movie that is predominantly in Arabic, reuniting with Tobin Bell, and his thoughts on Saw X and the future of the franchise.

Darren Lynn Bousman Talks The Cello

Screen Rant: What drew you to The Cello and made you want to get involved?

Darren Lynn Bousman: I think that in my career I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been able to take extreme risks. The luck of doing the Saw franchise very early on has given me the ability to make really weird and somewhat dangerous choices. Doing rock operas, doing immersive theater, as well as going to foreign countries and making movies in the native language. Before this movie, I did something in Japan called Crow’s Blood. It was all Japanese, not a single word of English spoken. I loved it because it forced me out of my comfort zone. It was such a unique and different experience for me as a filmmaker. I just kind of chased that high. After going to Japan, I did a thing in Thailand, where a lot of it was in Thai. Then this presented itself. Originally, we were supposed to shoot it in Egypt.

So when I signed on, the original thing was it was going to be shot in Egypt. That’s where I actually was for a long period of time. Then one of the producers and the writer, Turki Al Alshikh, said, “You know what? You’ve got to come to my country,” and I said, “Where’s that?” and he said, “Saudi Arabia,” and I said, “No, thank you.” He goes, “No, just come for 24 hours. I promise you will have much better visuals there.” I said no for, like, a week. He goes, “Just give it 24 hours.” And so myself and the producer, Lee Nelson, got on the plane, and we flew over. Immediately, I was like, “This place is awesome.” It felt like a renaissance.

For so long, movies weren’t allowed there. Music wasn’t allowed there. There was this kind of oppressive feeling over the country, and then in the last four years, they’ve allowed art. They allowed music and movies and entertainment. There was this palpable excitement in the air. I feed off that. I feed off things that feel different. I literally was there three hours, and I was like, “This place is awesome.” You just felt this energy. That was how it started. It started with this opportunity to make a movie that was completely outside of my comfort zone in a place that I never in a million years would have thought I would be standing in. It was just insane to me. I couldn’t turn it down.

How early on was Tobin Bell attached to this project? Did you reach out to him?

Darren Lynn Bousman: I was so f*cking angry, for lack of a better word, that I couldn’t put Tobin in Spiral. Tobin and I are very good friends and one of the early mandates when making Spiral was that they wanted the movie to exist in its own universe. They didn’t want Tobin to be a part of that. I was bummed out, because I was very excited about getting to rework with Tobin after all those years of being away from the Saw universe.

When we realized we weren’t able to use Tobin, I called him up, and I said, “I promise you, the next thing I do, you’re in it. You’re absolutely in it.” So when I had this opportunity to go do The Cello, one of the first requests I had was, “Can we please put Tobin in this thing?” He’s just awesome. He exudes such confidence. There’s no other actor like him. I just loved it. He was the second actor cast. Jeremy Irons was first, and then Tobin was second.

This film was mostly in Arabic. Do you speak the language?

Darren Lynn Bousman: I barely speak English to the point that people don’t understand me. Now that I’ve gotten older in my life, I give zero f*cks, and I say things maybe I shouldn’t say. After Saw IV happened, and then I made Repo, everything became easy. I didn’t feel challenged like I wanted to. They say you’re only as successful as the people you’re surrounded with. With the Saw movies, I was surrounded by the best of the best of the best. It just got to a point that I didn’t feel challenged. For me, as an artist, I want to feel challenged. I want to do things that are challenging. The thing that’s insane that you have to know about The Cello is that these actors that are in it are the Meryl Streeps of those regions.

Nasser’s mother in it, she’s a Kuwaiti actress, who is the top of the top of the top of that universe. Samer is one of the top Syrian actors. Elham, who is the main girl, is one of the top Saudi actresses. It was insane to be able to go there, and not only not speak the language, but the way they make movies is completely different. There is an energy that I can’t even articulate. It just feels dangerous and exciting at the same time, because I don’t feel comfortable. I always feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. I feel constantly on the edge. To me, that keeps me on my toes, and I love that. That feeling of almost like it’s my first movie all over again. Directing them in English was not hard at all, because every one of them spoke English.

We would rehearse everything in English, and then after I rehearsed it in English, they would talk amongst themselves and redo it in Arabic. What I found kind of challenging is some of our concepts don’t translate. I’ll give you just one example. There was an Arabic script and an English script. I had the English script, obviously, and they had the Arabic script. Something as simple as the idea of mourning, the idea that when someone dies, you mourn—that was something that did not translate. That caused such confusion—that word, mourning.

There’s a scene after Nasser’s mother dies where he’s sitting and all these people are walking past them. That’s not something they do there. The challenges come from concepts that are not cross regional. There are some things that we all do as a society. There are some things that are just localized. To me, the most challenging part was trying to push concepts that didn’t necessarily click in that region. In reality, this was working with the top Arabic filmmakers and cast, so I had to lean into their culture. That was probably the most challenging part—the difference of regional customs.

The Cello Still 6

The actors clearly had to have an idea of what it looks like to play the cello, so did you bring in any professional musicians? Or did the cast already have a background in music?

Darren Lynn Bousman: Samer, who played Nasser, was cast very late in the process. I think he was extremely overwhelmed from the first conversation I had with him. I was like, “Hey, listen. I know you don’t speak English all the time. You need to brush up on your English, you’re going to have scenes with Jeremy Irons. Secondly, I need you to be a professional cello player that has to sell that you’re the best in the world.” We immediately sent to Syria a cellist who trained him for two and a half weeks before he came to Saudi to join us, and then he had another two weeks in Saudi.

When we were filming, we had a cellist sitting under the camera at all times who would try to correct him. Samer would look under the cello or in the camera and try to mimic the actions of what the professional cello player was doing. There were times that I tried to be cool and do a green screen head replacement where I had a professional cello player wearing a green screen cap and tried to replace it, but then I realized how dumb it looked. So we didn’t do any of that. Everything you see in the movie is the actual actor doing it himself. I would say he took about a month’s worth of lessons leading up to the movie.

I really enjoyed watching Nasser’s gradual change throughout the film as he gets more attached to this cello. How did you work with the actor to shape how that would affect his relationships and personality going forward?

Darren Lynn Bousman: The good news about this movie is, so often, you shoot things out of order. You’ll shoot the end of the movie, then you go back to the middle, and then the beginning. We were pretty much able to shoot it in continuity order, which I think helps all of us a lot. It helped me a lot to keep track of things, and I think it helped the actor quite a bit. Like I said, I think one of the hardest things on this film for me was navigating the customs of what a Western audience versus a Middle Eastern audience responds to and reacts to. That comes from the way of even how performances are done. Some of my favorite horror films are very subtle.

They have very subtle reactions to things. When I was in Egypt, for example, I spent so much time in my hotel room researching and writing. I had the TV on, and I was kind of taken aback by a lot of the performances. They’re very big and grandiose to show things. Trying to navigate that with the actors is also something. So I found that to be challenging, but the great part is that I talk in movie language. We would all sit down, and I’d say, “Like this movie,” and then they would just go home and watch it, and they’d be like, “Oh, yeah, I got it. I understand what you’re saying now.” But it was learning on both sides—on mine and theirs as well trying to do this.

As a massive Saw and John Kramer fan, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the direction that the franchise has taken since your time on the films.

Darren Lynn Bousman: Extremely jealous. Shawnee Smith and Tobin Bell are two of my favorite people in the entire world. I was over the moon giddy and excited that I got the ability to work with Samuel Jackson and Chris Rock and Max Minghella and all those people. But again, it felt like a first film for me. And then getting to sit in the theater for the premiere of Saw X, it was like all my old friends back together, doing that thing. I thought Kevin did a great job with the film. They did something very smart, which was they gave fans what they wanted. Not what they thought they wanted—what the fans were demanding.

The fans know what they like. They like Billy, they like John Kramer, they like Amanda, and they like Costas Mandylor. That’s what they want to see. I think Saw X was a love letter from the producers to the fans. “Hey, everything that you wanted to see, here it is.” I think what’s cool about Twisted Pictures is they do take risks. Doing this crazy Spiral thing with a six-minute Forrest Gump monologue starting it off was a ballsy risk. But I think going back to what the fans respond to was the smart move. I’m excited just like everyone else to see what they do next. I’m positive there will be a next. I’m excited just like you are to see what that is.

About The Cello

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Like many musicians, accomplished Saudi cellist Nasser (Samer Ismail) has aspirations for greatness, though he feels like he’s held back by the old, dilapidated instrument he’s forced to play. When Nasser is offered the chance to take possession of a gorgeous red cello by a mysterious shop owner (Tobin Bell), he finds new inspiration both for his playing and for his composing. What Nasser doesn’t realize is that this cello has a nefarious past.

As he prepares for an important audition with a prominent philharmonic, that past shows itself in the form of an ancient conductor (Jeremy Irons) and the suffering and death of those close to him. Nasser must now decide if achieving his dreams is worth the horror that comes with playing such a perfect instrument. THE CELLO is directed by horror icon Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II, Saw III, Spiral).

The Cello is currently available in theaters.

Source: Screen Rant Plus