Bilall Fallah: “It has always been our dream to work in Hollywood, and we’re thrilled the dream comes true”

Belgian filmmakers Bilall Fallah (b. 1986) and Adil El Arbi (b. 1988), both known and praised for their youthful and engaging enthusiasm, their upbeat, joyful, sparkling sense of humor, and above all their passionate and boundless dedication to their craft as filmmakers, are ‘going Hollywood.’ Nothing special, you’d think, but considering their young age and with only two low-budget films made in Belgium to their credit, “Image” (2014) and “Black” (2015), they’ve got quite a bit to offer. And now there’s much more to come.

American film producer Jerry Bruckheimer (b. 1943) – his long list of blockbusters includes “Flashdance” (1983),  “Beverly Hills Cop” (1984), “Top Gun” (1986), “Bad Boys” (1995), “Pearl Harbor” (2001), “Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest” (2006), and its sequels – took notice of the two Belgians after he got to see “Black.” Impressed by their achievement, he got in touch with them, had them come over to Hollywood, and the rest will soon be film history. Why? Simply, because after working on the TV series “Snowfall” and the TV movie “Scalped” (2017), they’re now all set to direct Eddie Murphy in “Beverly Hills Cop IV” with a budget of roughly 50 million dollars – quite a difference compared to the approximately 1.5 million dollars they got to spend on their little masterpiece “Black.”

Not too bad for two young filmmakers who, while studying at film school in Brussels, were considered to be wonderful and very sympathetic, while nobody really took them too seriously. Now Hollywood is about to become their favorite playground. Dreams can still come true, and the American dream is still worth dreaming.

Bilall Fallah at the Festival International du Film Francophone de Namur in Belgium. Photograph: Leo Verswijver

Bilall Fallah, one half of this highly creative duo, was the jury’s president of the shorts section at the latest Festival International du Film Francophone de Namur in Belgium, while Adil El Arbi remained in the editing room to work on their third feature, “Patser,” to be released next January.

Mr. Fallah, if I’m correct, you were offered to do “Bad Boys 3” in America, but turned it down because you preferred to do “Patser” in Belgium instead. That’s pretty powerful, isn’t it?

For us, it’s very important to know where our roots are and who we are, and since “Patser” was already scheduled by the time we were asked to do “Bad Boys 3,” it would have been very ungrateful to tell the entire crew, ‘Okay guys, we won’t be doing “Patser” because we have to be in America three weeks from now.’ Also, “Patser” is a film we wanted to make for a very long time, it’s a very dear project to us – “Bad Boys 3” too, of course, so when producer Jerry Bruckheimer called us and asked if we would be available in a few weeks, it was a tough choice to make. But again, it was very difficult to leave our crew in Belgium behind and go to Hollywood right away. So in the end, we are making “Patser” now, and I really hope it will be a blockbuster in Belgium, hopefully ranking among the ten most successful Flemish films of all time.

Let’s compare the filmmaking process in Belgium and in Los Angeles: here you got total autonomy, how about working in Los Angeles?

In America we have to make many compromises. We’re by far and large no Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino: whenever they say anything, everybody is listening. We have to work with the producer and the studio, so if we make a decision of any kind, we have to explain why and how. That’s also one of the reasons why we really wanted to do “Patser,” the creative freedom we had on this project was very important to us. On the other hand, we did [the TV series] “Snowfall” in Hollywood in the meantime, and I can tell you, it was a wonderful experience. You can work there with enormous budgets, the possibilities as filmmakers are almost endless. It has always been our dream to work in Hollywood, and we’re thrilled the dream comes true. I mean, how great is that?!! The way we see our future, it would be absolutely magnificent if we can work in America and in Europe, so we can have the best of both worlds.

What I like about your films “Image” and “Black,” you have the nerve to tell those stories from a woman’s point of view.

That’s true. In “Black,” the story is set in a macho world, with mostly men as the central and principal characters, and we thought it would be interesting to look at it from a different point of view. Making a film includes pointing out something that people maybe haven’t seen too often, or try to come up with an original or different approach. So “Black” tells the story as seen through the eyes of a black sixteen-year-old girl from Brussels – and as far as we know, it has never been told before in that particular way. The film was based on a book, and when Adil and I first read it, that was really what we were looking for and we wanted to tell this in a film. And that’s what we really admire about Scorsese or Tarantino: they tell stories you don’t get to see every day. That’s the power of cinema, they’re able to touch people on an emotional level.

The theatrical trailer of “Black”

After your two highly acclaimed features, and with “Beverly Hills Cop IV” coming up, everyone is watching every step the two of you make professionally. The expectations are tremendous now. How do you cope with that?

We don’t sleep a lot [laughs], also because we have turned down a few projects already. In Hollywood, after “Bad Boys 3” we also had to turn down the second season of “Snowfall” because of “Patser.” And now, look at what’s happening. “Patser” turns out to be the most crucial project we ever did so far; our agents and managers in Los Angeles told us, ‘Listen, in Hollywood everybody knows you’re working on a new film. By the time it will be out, they will all forget about “Black” and will use “Patser” as a new point of reference.’ So we can’t take any chances, “Patser” has to be a wonderful film in every way. We’re extremely passionate about it, we really do hope it pays off, but at the same time it’s a huge risk, we’re very much aware of that. Hopefully it’s a film that will also be picked up in foreign territories.

How do you and Adil El Arbi collaborate as filmmakers?

Mostly we discuss certain subjects and ideas, would it be interesting to make a film about that, and once we start working on the script, it’s Adil who does most of the writing. Then we both shoot the picture, and after that, I take over and do most of the work. That keeps things perfectly in balance. But everything begins with the screenplay, and the joy of making a film, is that the screenplay changes the whole time. At one point, it almost starts to lead a life of its own. When we did “Black,” we started with a 400-page book and we wanted to make a 90-minute movie, so you need to make choices and decisions, leave things out… But as long as we feel the story is right and we’re telling the story we want to, there’s no reason for us to question ourselves. And once you start shooting, a lot of things happen on the set, and very often you’re not able to shoot what you had in mind, so you need to be very flexible and inventive. When we did “Black,” we were basically making a gangster film, but when we were editing, we looked at it and thought, ‘No, this is Romeo and Julia, it’s really a love story, that’s what the film should be.’ But that’s also what we had in mind the whole time, so the final result of “Black” is exactly what we expected the film to be.

What about “Image,” your debut as a feature filmmaker?

Looking back, I think we made a lot of mistakes then, but “Image” was like a very interesting learning process for us. We learned a lot, so we didn’t make those mistakes again when we did “Black.” We will always make mistakes, or do things that could be better, but in time you get more experienced and you become a more creative filmmaker. That’s also why we take risks. There are things in “Patser” that we never did before. So I hope they will work, but right now we will have to wait and see.

When you see a film of your own in a theater with an audience, what do you focus on?

I look at the audience, to see if they laugh or cry at the moment when they’re supposed to laugh or cry. Only then you can find out if your film works or doesn’t work. If they laugh when they shouldn’t be laughing, you need to reflect and ask yourself, ‘What did we wrong, how can we fix this in the future to make sure we don’t make that same mistake again?’

Festival International du Film Francophone de Namur, Namur (Belgium)
September 30, 2017

FILMS OF BILALL FALLAH AND ADIL EL ARBI

IMAGE (2014) DIR Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah PROD Peter Bouckaert, Kobe Van Steenberghe, Hendrik Verthé SCR Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah, Bram Renders CAM Robrecht Heyvaert MUS Hannes De Maeyer CAST Nabil Mallat, Laura Verlinden, Gene Bervoets, Geert Van Rampelberg, Wouter Hendrickx, Sanâa Alaoui, Manou Kersting, Charlotte Anne Bogaerts

BLACK (2015) DIR – ED Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah PROD Bert Hamelinck, Ivy Vanhaecke, Frank Van Passel SCR Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah, Nele Meirhaeghe, Hans Herbots (novel by Dirk Bracke) CAM Rorecht Heyvaert MUS Hannes De Maeyer CAST Sanâa Alaoui, Martha Canga Antonio, Adoubakr Bensaihi, Sanaa Bourrasse, Soufiane Chilah, Brahim El Abdouni

DODE HOEK, a.k.a. BLIND SPOT (2017) DIR Nabil Ben Yadir PROD Nabil Ben Yabir, Peter Bouckaert, Benoit Roland SCR Nabil Ben Yadir, Laurent Brandenbourger, Michel Sabbe CAM Robrecht Heyvaert MUS Senjan Jansen CAST Peter Van den Begin, Soufiane Chilah, Jan Decleir, David Murgia, Ruth Becquart, Mathijs F. Scheepers, Bert Haelvoet, Gène Bervoets, Adil El Arbi (Bar Owner)

PATSER (2018) DIR Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah PROD Kobe Van Steenberghe, Hendrik Verthé SCR Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah, Nabir Ben Yadir, Bram Renders, Kove Van Steenberghe, Hendrik Verthé CAM Robrecht Heyvaert ED Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah, Thijs Van Nuffel MUS Hannes De Maeyer CAST Matteo Simono, Gene Bervoets, Jeroen Perceval, Dimitri Thivaios, Axel Daeseleire, Hans Royaards, Bond Mgebrishvili

BEVERLY HILLS COP 4 (2018) DIR Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah PROD Jerry Bruckheimer, Eddie Murphy SCR Josh Applebaum, André Nemec (characters created by Daniel Petrie, Jr.) CAST Eddie Murphy

TV MOVIE

SCALPED (2017) DIR Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah PROD Sterlin Harjo SCR Doug Jung ED Jason Cherella MUS Hannes De Maeyer CAST Irene Bedard, Gil Birmingham, Sarah Minnich, Nic Bishop, Alex Meraz, Jesse Luken, Lily Gladstone