Interview: Darren Lynn Bousman Discusse New Horror The Cello and Reuniting With Tobin Bell

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Darren Lynn Bousman has brought us musical horror before with the likes of Repo! The Genetic Opera, but The Cello is a different beast.

The Cello tells the story of the titular cursed Instrument that brings out the talent of a struggling musician, but at the same time, it forces him to compose an ancient verse of evil that could do devastating damage to all who hear it.

ComingSoon’s Senior Editor for Horror Neil Bolt spoke with Bousman about the film, the importance of music in movies, parallels with the struggles of real-life artists. and reuniting with Saw star Tobin Bell.

Neil Bolt: Musical instruments are an underutilized medium for the focal point of a horror movie; what about the idea connected with you?

Darren Lynn Bousman: I think in a secondary life I wish I would have been a musician, a rockstar or something like that, but I have no musical talent so I live vicariously through my career making rock operas and musicals. So with The Cello, the concept of an evil instrument was something that excited me and I think that for me when I watch a film, music is more than important, more than a character; it’s the backbone to me, like Gaspar Noe’s films. I remember seeing Irreversible in theaters and you’re seeing horrific images absolutely, but it was the music and the sound that made me feel physically ill. He created a sense of unease in his audience with that. You see Darren Aronofsky do it a lot with his stuff like Requiem for a Dream.

Oof, yeah that one for sure.

You look at that film score, and to me, it’s as important as Jared Leto or Ellen Burstyn in that in what the movie does. So here’s the thing about this movie, a thing that’s hard as a filmmaker now sitting and talking to someone who’s watched the film on a screener link; we were so meticulous and granular in the mix that you won’t ever be able to hear on a laptop, but when it’s 5.1, and it’s behind you, it’s talking. So every time the cello is played, you hear demonic voices like Nasser does. Now obviously you don’t get that full experience, but It was my homage to those films like Noe’s and even Suspiria—Goblin’s theme song for that.

Yeah, I was going to say, there’s an oppressive feeling to the film with the score by Joseph Bishara, who you’ve worked with a lot that compliments the obsession story quite well. It’s almost relentless, building the chanting in crucial moments. So I’m assuming that was a deliberate move?

Yeah, listen, I have this dichotomy of thought when it comes to subtlety vs. non-subtlety. When it comes to music, I am the opposite of subtle. I’m in your face, screaming in your ears. But when it comes to this, and this is one of the biggest challenges, when you’re dealing with a Middle Eastern audience and actors, and these were some of the biggest, most sought-after actors of their region. Whether they came from Saudi, Kuwait, Libya or Lebanon, they were the creme-de-la-creme, and each came from a different style of acting. So some of them were like, I don’t wanna say Soap Opera because that’s doing it a disservice, but they’re very big and grandiose in their movements and their actions. And I was trying to find that balance where I’m subtle with some of the acting and the mythology, but over the top with the music. Trying to thread that needle was a very challenging thing.

Do you think that stems from your love of musicals? And having done musicals yourself where everything is quite theatrical and expressive?

Yeah, this was probably one of the hardest movies I’ve worked on because you are trying to juggle so many different things. This movie was made for an Arabic audience, and it was written by a Saudi writer. It has big Saudi stars in the film. This was their first really big foray into motion pictures like this. So part of me as a Western filmmaker wanted to use those Western tropes that I love, but you’re also having to think, ‘’What is that region going to respond to and what is not going to respond to?’’ but you mix that with a Syrian actor in the lead, and you have this hodgepodge of all these different people coming together to make this thing, and that was very exciting.

There was a review I read about Repo! The Genetic Opera that I loved that said it was ‘’A Cacophony of operatic stew’’ and that’s kind of what it is because you’re mashing all these cultures, but you gotta make it human, and make it a story about a family, but still leaning into my love of the theatrical, over the top lighting in some places, that kind of thing. It was definitely a fun challenge.

You filmed in Ireland, the Czech Republic, and Saudi Arabia, which all have quite different architecture and atmospheres. Was it a challenge tying them together visually speaking?

It was. The cinematographer Maxime (Alexandre), who I’ve been a huge fan of, one of the things we talked about was when you go to the movies, you wanna be transported somewhere you don’t want the mundane. They see the mundane every day of their life. So what we try to do is present a vast palette and tapestry of visuals. So the opening in 1700s Cremona, Italy is filmed in Saudi Arabia, but it’s not the Saudi Arabia I was expecting before I went out there, it was the city, the high rise. Then we go to the desert, to Ireland, to Prague showing them these unique different places. I think Maxime did a great job capturing that. He had a whole scientific approach about what lights and lenses to use in each place. It’s one of those things I love as a filmmaker where i’ll watch films again and again and notice where they use certain lenses and lights for certain scenes. I think Maxin a fantastic collaborator in helping tell the story through that as well as through actors and music.

In the film, the protagonist, Nasser, is often frustrated by the limitations on his creative outlet, and after receiving the cursed Cello, he gets to the point where playing music is all he can think about, causing him to get distracted in everyday situations. As an artist, in a different medium, is that passion and obsession something that resonated with you in terms of your own creative process?

It is. And as I’ve gotten older I’ve realised I’m the lead actor in all my movies. At least i push it and pervert it to be like that. And when you look back at some of my films, I’ll perhaps to the detriment of myself or the film, I’ll push whatever I’m going through at that time through the character. Be it religious issues or even when I bought a new house and was terrified of the prospect of home invasions. In my head, I was like ‘’I want to be able to protect my family, but how can I protect them?’’

I think with this film specifically, it was that ‘’the grass is always greener’’ where you look at other filmmakers’ careers and go ‘’Why can’t I have this?’ Why can’t I have that?’’ and then you get an opportunity, and it’s really no better than what you had. It’s been something that I’ve struggled with as I’ve got older and had kids. You get this idea of what you want and it’s become an obsession that drives you and everyone around you crazy. I found myself in that situation more times than I’d like to admit.

Do you see The Cello in the film as a sort of warning about creating art in the modern world? Nasser begins to realize this magical instrument has its cost, but is obsessed with his dream and appears willing to take the unholy shortcut. Given there are a lot of examples in this medium and others of companies and people taking shortcuts such as AI that hurt the art.

Yeah, as I’ve learned everything comes with a price. I’m a father to two kids, and every choice that I’ve made has come at the detriment of family, and I think that at the heart of this story, it’s about Nasser’s family and showing what his obsessions do to them. It’s shows everything comes with a price. So as an example, when I went away to make this movie, I was away from my family for six months. To me it was, ‘’Oh, I’m gonna get this paycheck and this and that’’, but then \ I’m gone from my family, and the moment I arrived in this desert 27 hours by flight away from them, I started to have these realizations of ‘’what is that doing to my daughter? My son? My wife?” So yeah, I think there is that.

Something that was so interesting was learning about the culture over there. I don’t wanna say I was comfortably ignorant but everything i knew about the Middle East had come from a very skewed idea of what I’d seen and been told on TV and in news. One of the things that was extremely interesting was that it felt like a renaissance was taking place there.

Five years ago, they were under very intense restrictions. They had the religious police. You couldn’t easily go into a restaurant with a man or a woman on a date. They couldn’t have music there. This crazy thing happened at this Marriot hotel over there and there’s music playing in the lobby. I thought nothing of it because it’s normal, right? And I overhear some people talking about how excited they are that the music is playing. I asked them what they meant and they said music had only been in hotels for a couple of years. Before that, it was just silent. That was fascinating because you take these little things for granted. And movie theaters have only just reopened there. So you see long lines going into theaters. Art is being brought back and in a huge way. This idea of the cost of art, of entertainment, is being discussed all the time there and again, something I just took for granted.

I remember being in a shopping mall in Riyadh, and Riyadh is such a modern city you could walk outside and believe you were in downtown Los Angeles. Anyway, there’s this movie theater in the shopping mall, and they had a poster for Spiral: The Book of Saw, which had been delayed getting out there so this was six months or so after release. I thought, ‘’Wow, Spiral is out here,’’ and I looked and saw lines of people, and they were excited and having popcorn and sodas and just felt ‘’ we’re all the same’’. It made me realize how connected we all are. As a filmmaker, it was this insane growth experience that I had going over and seeing the world in a way I’d not seen it before. It was such a fascinating experience.

So that brings me to my final question. The Cello reunites you with Tobin Bell. How did that feel?

There’s certain people you build amazing relationships with. Early in my career, I was able to basically think of it like my crew was my repertoire. Working with the same people, the same producers, the same filmmakers, the same actors. Because once you find someone you feel comfortable, it’s not work at all. Tobin is one of those people. When you cast Tobin Bell you don’t have to worry. You won’t have to have long, arduous conversations about things because he’s gonna put in the work.

He approached this character the same as he did for John Kramer. He shows up, and every single line he’s going to say, he’s pontificated, agonized over. He flew in once and had three lines and then flew out again, and he put more work into those three lines than I’ve known some actors to do with a whole movie. It’s why he works so well. You believe everything he says. Everything is important to him. Every word, every syllable.

Same thing with Jeremy Irons. I literally could hand him the phone book, and he would make it engaging.

He does make it look effortless, doesn’t he?

He is the epitome of cool. There are only a couple of actors who I have met in my life and I’ve been awestruck by their coolness. Christian Slater was one, and Jeremy Irons was another. He’s the coolest guy in the room. I remember my wife visiting when we were filming in Prague and I’ve never seen her so in love with another human being. He’s just so charming. So I felt so lucky to have him.

It was such a  diverse cast. You have someone like Jeremey Irons and you have Mia Alzahrani, this wonderful young Saudi actress who plays Nasser’s girlfriend who came to the craft in a way I would never have thought of. So I was surrounded by this just insane level of talent. I think I learned more on this than I did with my last few movies. Just how people approach moviemaking in different ways, it was fascinating.

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