Netflix’s first ever Egyptian installment has just recently premiered, and it’s already taking the world by storm. Based on the popular thriller novel series Ma Wara’ Al Tabee’a by Ahmed Khaled Towfik, Paranormal takes the term ‘thriller’ to a whole new level. The new series, brough to you by writer, director and producer Amr Salama and executive producer Mohamed Hefzy, truly is the first of its kind in the Arab region.
Starring comedian Ahmed Amin, the show follows the spooky adventures of Dr. Refaat Ismael in 1969. Amin surprisingly stuns as the cynical and detached Refaat, who has been haunted by paranormal occurrences his whole life; yet lives in denial and chooses to look the other way. Amin delivers some masterclass deadpan humour, perfect comedic timing and a shockingly raw dramatic range, proving that Salama made the absolute right decision in casting him, after some skepticism and doubts from avid lovers of the literary work before the debut of the series.
Casting Amin does not seem to be Salama’s only commendable achievement, however. The seasoned director, known for films such as Zay Elnaharda (Like Today) and series like Tayea’, has managed to bring a beloved universe of mythical creatures and unnatural occurrences to life, with a unique mix of dazzling visuals and nail-biting shockers. Salama also worked with Majid Alansari, who directed three of the six-episode season, which guarantees you some solid laughs, an abundance of tears and lots and lots of nerve-racking scares.
Opposite Amin is a talented cast, led by the breathtaking British-Lebanese actress Razane Jammal as Maggie and the Egyptian beauty Ayah Samaha as Howaida. The two brilliant actresses are joined by six-year-old breakout star Reem Abd El Kader, who portrays the main ghost of the season, Shiraz, in a bewildering blend of complete innocence and total spookiness. Just make sure to not utter her name out loud, or else you’ll suffer the consequences of summoning her!
eniGma’s Mohamed Hesham had a fun – and not at all scary – sit-down with Paranormal’s charismatic stars, Ahmed Amin, Razane Jammal, Ayah Samaha and Reem Abdel El Kader, along with the mastermind Amr Salama. Below are excerpts from the insightful conversation.
First of all, let me commend you, Amr, on this magnificent series. Going into something like this, did you feel the pressure of delivering with a risky new concept?
Amr Salama: People kept telling me that it was risky and that it had its dangers but I never viewed it that way. Of course, I knew it was an ambitious project, but I had an inner belief that once it’s out, there will be good feedback. I just felt there would be an automatic fanbase that is enthusiastic about it, and that was what I used to say to sell it. I never saw it as a risk but more of a lottery ticket.
Speaking of selling it, was it a challenge making sure a huge platform like Netflix would greenlight such an ambitious project?
Amr Salama: It was a hard sell, not as a project because whenever anyone heard our pitch, they would get really excited. The way I wanted to do it was the hard sell – the difficulty in convincing execs with my approach, especially debuting it in a season other than Ramadan, which is the usual season in which you can actually bring in a big budget and put a lot of money into something like this. So, the difficulty in selling the show was in knowing that such a vision requires a bigger budget. But I knew that Ramadan wasn’t the season for it, especially because the source material doesn’t suit the Ramadan airing format.
As for the stars, did you ever get scared filming a thriller such as this one?
Razane Jammal: From my side, I found it to be more of a suspense kind of show rather than borderline horror. Generally, I’ve always tried to steer away from doing horror because I get scared easily, especially that I’ve been living on my own for 15 years now. I normally avoid this genre even though it’s very fruitful. But I actually found that when you film a scary scene, you don’t really feel the fear.
Ahmed Amin: I must admit, there were a couple of locations that were a bit creepy and eerie. Some scenes were also heavy at times, like people dying and corpses everywhere.
Reem Abd El Kader: When I watch a horror film, I’m not afraid. However, when I go to bed I can’t sleep. I keep thinking about what I watched. I never forget it. It sticks with me for a long time after.
Ayah Samaha: I’m a bigger coward than Reem. I don’t like watching anything horror, and when I decide to finally watch something scary, it drives me further away from horror. Each time it gives me a bigger shock. As for this show, I was filming with people in demon costumes, and they’re running after me. I knew they were stunt actors of course, so I would check in on them and ask if they needed water or anything, but I was legitimately scared of them nevertheless. But overall, this was a nice new experience. It was different for me, and I was enthusiastic about it.
Paranormal is a blend of different genres. There’s horror, romance, comedy and drama in there. Filming something like this, with a very specific tone, was it hard figuring it out?
Razane Jammal: The script said it all. What’s beautiful is that it was a collaboration. Amr never imposed his vision on us; it was all about teamwork. But the script offered sort of a roadmap, with comic relief playing a big part, mostly with Ahmed’s voiceover as Reffaat’s inner thoughts.
Speaking of that, a big element in the series is indeed Refaat’s narration and his inner thoughts, much of which takes place during the character’s interactions with others. How did that work, pausing for narration that will only be inserted in post-production?
Ahmed Amin: We used to do many rehearsals and I kept trying out voiceovers that weren’t even in the script, just to get a hold of the character and how he thinks, as well as his true feelings behind saying a certain phrase. I found that he often says things while meaning the complete opposite. These quiet moments would actually make the scenes more eloquent and impactful. We used to work on these scenes with someone in the back reading Refaat’s thoughts out loud, so we could get the timing right.
Razane Jammal: I would often get to hear what he’s thinking even though my character doesn’t. (laughs)
Razane, I imagine it was not easy doing these different accents, playing a Scottish character and also mastering the broken-Egyptian dialect.
Razane Jammal: The broken-Egyptian was the easy part. The hard part was the Scottish accent. I never thought I’d ever play a Scottish character. I’ve played every single nationality, and Scottish was never on my mind. I didn’t know the first thing about speaking Scottish, so I went to a dialect coach. I also travelled to Scotland, and I would record random people talking; they thought I was insane, like who’s the crazy girl asking people to talk with her. They probably have my face on ‘wanted-posters’ there. (laughs) But the broken Arabic was easy, because I’ve always created these characters growing up to make my mum laugh, and there was one like this already. We still had to work on the extent to which the broken accent would be, because we didn’t want her to sound annoying.
Regarding Shiraz, her whole story and the way she’s introduced is just divine. Going in, Amr, how was it working with a six-year-old and getting her to balance the delivery of such an innocent yet spooky character?
Amr Salama: Shiraz has been living with me almost my whole life, ever since I read the novel in which she was introduced, The legend of the house, around 25 years ago. I always think about Shiraz, and Reem is just an amazing actress. I remember her audition, when she first came in for the role of Shiraz, she did a scene and we were all just sitting there stunned and then at once we all stood up and applauded her. We couldn’t believe how cute – and talented – she was. Directing Reem during filming was pretty easy. She understood the scenes pretty well. I remember one time, however, I told her to read along from the script with me, and she just looked at me, annoyed, and was like “I’m six; I don’t know how to read.” I completely forgot her age just because she was such a pro. (laughs)
So Reem, who would help you learn your lines?
Reem Abd El Kader: My mum and sister helped me out in every scene. And of course, Mr. Amr and Mr. Majid helped me out a lot as well. Most scenes were with Mr. Amr, but I love them both so much. I loved working with them!