‘Paranormal’ — Netflix’s first original Egyptian horror series — will set a new standard for Arabic-language television when it premieres on November 5.
Dubbed and subtitled in English and showing in 190 countries, the six-episode series delivers subtle scares and otherworldly quality in an attempt to set the bar for future projects.
Based on the beloved supernatural novels from the late Ahmed Khalid Tawfik, ‘Paranormal’ is set in Cairo in the 1960s, and follows Dr Refaat Ismail, a down-on-his-luck doctor who connects to the world through sarcasm and his deadpan humour. While losing his hair — and any hope for a normal life — the chain-smoking haematologist finds himself surrounded by paranormal happenings.
As an avid fan of the books himself, lead actor Ahmed Amin felt a huge responsibility with the popular character.
“There are fans who have already drawn up an image of Maggie, Huwaida and Refaat Ismail — and their whole universe — in their minds. To be able to take the novel’s strongest points and communicate them cinematically, without hurting the imagination of the readers, that was the hardest part,” the Egyptian actor tells Gulf News during a virtual round-table this week.
Tawfik died in 2018, leaving behind more than 200 books. The author and physician is the first contemporary writer of horror and sci-fi in the Arabic-speaking world — and a pioneer of the medical thriller in the region. He’s also behind iconic translations, including the Arabic edition of Chuck Palahniuk’s hit book ‘Fight Club’.
And it’s his voice that makes protagonist Refaat so compelling.
“The sarcastic parts are there in the novels — they’re not added by me at all. They come out of the character and they’re in the book, adapted to the drama,” says Amin, best known for his comedic skits. “But the fact that I have a stand-up background helped me understand that there was a comedy beat here.”
Amin stars across from Razane Jammal, who plays Refaat’s old flame, Maggie. The two met while studying in Scotland, but when Maggie returns to Egypt, she finds Refaat engaged to Huwaida.
“Maggie is quite independent, forward-thinking and honest,” says Jammal.
“I became a fan of her, but in the beginning, it was a challenge, because if Razane [myself] would see a guy is engaged, that’s it, bye, she doesn’t approach him. But, obviously, the love between Maggie and Refaat is eternal, it’s deeper than that, it’s beautiful,” says Jammal.
The British-Lebanese actress speaks seamless Arabic and English (without a Scottish accent) during our interview. But she’s frighteningly convincing on-screen with her broken Arabic accent and pronounced Scottish drawl.
“The first thing I did was go to Scotland, because it was very important for me to portray the Scottish people accurately. I learnt the language — we had so many dialect lessons. We also had to understand the culture in Egypt and Scotland in the 1960s,” she says.
(“I, too, went to Cairo several times to become Egyptian. It was exhausting,” jokes Amin.)
In the first episode, Refaat says that an Egyptian man who meets a foreign woman can miraculously and suddenly speak six languages — but Amin takes it even further.
“He can do anything, not just speak six languages — he could teach six languages!” says the actor.
Cairo in the 1960s
Another difficulty came in the form of the locations they filmed in — and the time of day.
“Three fourths of it was a night shoot, filming late in deserts, in fire, in water,” says Jammal.
“At the same time, we used that as a strength because it helped our performance. When you’re in extreme conditions, it puts you in a very vulnerable place and produces great performances. We really pushed one another.”
But, perhaps the biggest challenge of all, was the ability to recreate Cairo in the 1960s, from the fashion to the music humming in the background.
“Cairo is a city that always changes. You can see a street today and two months later, it’s completely different,” says showrunner Amr Salama.
“We tried to pick places that already give us a 60s feel. With had to erase a lot of artefacts, cars, and satellites. It was expensive and exhausting, to make sure it was flawless.”
Various departments on set blew Amin’s mind, including those handling decor, costumes and accessories.
“I walked on location one day and found the accessories crew had printed medications from the 60s and they were making bottles out of them, so that in the hospital, you don’t see a single bottle or slogan from the current day. That attention to detail was incredible,” said the actor.
The setback, of course, is that the 60s were a popular time for chain-smokers, and Amin’s character isn’t spared.
“As for how many cigarettes Refaat Ismail smoked, we’ll have to consult a chest X-ray. I’m not a smoker, so I smoked only for the duration of the scenes,” says Amin.
Salama, who directs the first episode and the final two, adds that it’s down to him — and Emirati co-director Majid Al Ansari (‘Zinzana’) — to ensure not a hair is out of place.
“I had an extremely skilled crew, from the set designer and the costume designer to the director of photography and filming crew. Everyone did an unbelievable job. This has been the most meticulous project of my career, and we tried not to sacrifice anything on set,” says Salama.
“This genre isn’t really available in Egypt, so we’re reinventing the wheel, so to speak. There were a lot of firsts, whether it was creating an illusion, or in stunts or graphics,” he adds.
As for splitting directorial duties with Al Ansari — he takes on the second, third and forth episodes — Salama said they were adopting international and, in particular, American standards of production.
“Me and Majid had a seamless connection. We were on the same page from the first day, the first Zoom meeting, about the style that we wanted for the show, and the visual references we wanted for the show,” said Salama.
The Egyptian director revisited dozens of horror films before shooting.
“I went back to the movies I love to remember why I love them, and analyse what works about them. ‘The Exorcist’, ‘The Shining’… and then, over the decades, movies that aren’t American, but Swedish, Spanish, Korean and Japanese. The list of movies I revisited is probably more than 50 films.”
He also looked to attempts in the Arab world, whether failed or successful; ‘Al Ins Wal Jin’ starring Adel Imam terrified him as a child.
The biggest fear
Meanwhile, the ‘Paranormal’ cast weren’t so quick to pop in a horror flick before coming onto set.
“I’m deadly afraid of scary movies,” says Jammal. “I watched ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’ and it was enough for me to never sleep again in my life or ever watch another horror movie. But this show is different than horror. There’s a comedy element, too — when I looked at [Ahmed] I would laugh so much. Refaat is not just dark and serious. The little things that make Refaat Refaat are so special and close to the heart.”
“I’m not a big fan of horror,” agrees Amin. “I’m more of a fan of the humanity and the depth that is there to the characters. That’s what made me love the novels. Of course, horror adds a layer of suspense that makes you want to know what happens next, but what I love the most is the human side of Refaat Ismail and the series.”
As for Ayah Samaha, who plays Refaat Ismail’s awkward fiancee, the biggest challenge was — predictably — the creepy, evil creatures.
“At the same time, they were sweet people. Inside the scene, I’m scared, but I want to check on them, too — are you good? You need water, anything?” she recalls, laughing. She adds that her character, Huwaida, grows tremendously throughout the show and teaches her how to be “more chic and decent” in her life.
But, did any of the eerie elements seep off the screen and onto set?
“The most paranormal thing that happened to me is that I got to play Refaat Ismail,” jokes Amin. “After that, everything seemed simple.”
The actors were well aware of the responsibility on their shoulders with ‘Paranormal’, and the fear they felt was of another kind.
“It’s the first Egyptian series on a global platform where it will be subtitled and dubbed into many languages — it’s showing in 190 countries,” says Amin.
“There was a fear of that responsibility, but that was erased by the fact that this is an opportunity that won’t repeat itself often.”
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'Paranormal' releases on Netflix on November 5.