DUBAI: In 1993, Egyptian filmmaker Amr Salama, then just 11 years old, decided that — for the first time in his life — he was going to read a book for fun. It was written by famed Egyptian author Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, part of his 81-book series “Ma Wara’a Al Tabiei,” and told the story of a hapless hematologist named Dr. Refaat Ismaeil and his interactions with the world of the supernatural. Salama’s life would never be the same.
Tawfik’s novels helped Salama discover his love of storytelling, and it is a gift he’s never forgotten. Becoming an acclaimed storyteller in his own right, helming acclaimed films including “Asmaa” (2011) and “Sheikh Jackson” (2017), Salama made it his mission to bring the beloved book series to the small screen, toiling obsessively behind the scenes to bring “Paranormal,” as it’s called in English, to life.
“I was basically carrying the show on my back,” Salama tells Arab News. “I reached out to Dr. Tawfik and got the rights from him. I went around trying to convince different networks and buyers to buy the show.”
Salama and his producing partner and founder of Film Clinic, Mohamed Hefzy, brought the idea to Netflix, which at the time was looking to start producing original content in the Arab world. The two wanted to do it properly, making a world-class series with the budget Tawfik’s great work deserved. Netflix agreed and, after two years of work, “Paranormal” has become a reality.
“We wanted to make this fantastic book series into a TV drama, and we had no idea how to do it. The market was not ready for such a production,” says Hefzy. “(Netflix coming on board) really was the beginning of making the dream come true. It's been a very long journey, but I think worth the wait because we learned a lot. This is a show that we could not have made earlier because just there's no way that we could have done something of that magnitude, in terms of production execution, challenges, and the freedom to risk so much on the idea. No Arab broadcaster or streaming service would have taken such a risk on a property of such size and that budget and with a genre which is untested in Arab drama and Egyptian drama.”
Rather than try to update the series to a modern setting, Salama and his team painstakingly recreated the Cairo of the 1960s — replicating everything from the fashion, the contemporary language, and the very streets themselves.
“I had a visual plan and a particular mood that I wanted to create. It was very hectic, and there was huge attention to detail,” Salama says. “Each department in the show (put in a) great effort. Cairo is a dynamic city that seems to transform every month. Ninety percent of the accessories that were used in the show our production designer Ali Hossam Ali had to create himself. We also spent a lot of time watching Sixties movies to be able to translate their way of speaking, how they greeted each other or said goodnight. Sometimes even one word can make a difference. It was a journey, but we were able to execute everything that we imagined for the show.”
Salama also leaned on Emirati filmmaker Majid Al-Ansari, who helmed the acclaimed 2015 film “Zinzana,” with the two splitting the load behind the camera.
“One of the blessings of this show was meeting Majid Al-Ansari. I had already seen ‘Zinzana’ and when we first were introduced to each other we found that we have a similar movie taste. It was a match made in heaven. When Majid first came to Egypt, he knew that there would be a difference in culture, but he adapted very quickly in just a matter of days. It was an amazing experience. He’s an amazing human being. Artistically, he added a lot to the project,” says Salama.
Choosing how to present Tawfik’s beloved books not only to devoted fans, but also to new audiences from across the world was just as tough a task. Even selecting which books of the 81 to pull from was overwhelming. Salama chose to not attempt to be all things to all people, instead focusing on living up to the expectations of the one fan who he’s been trying to please the longest — the 11-year-old boy who first fell in love with Tawfik’s world.
“The biggest variable was my personal love for particular stories, and which ones still linger in my mind until today,” Salama says. “And since this will hopefully get to people across the world, we wanted to choose stories that are more authentically Egyptian and tied to our culture. They might be more challenging to execute, but we were effectively able to do it. In the end, the novels are already there and whoever wants to read them can read them. What I’m giving them is my own personal vision as a producer, director, and artist. That translation might appeal to some people but not to others. That’s why you have to be very true to yourself about the vision that you have.”
To play the lead role of Refaat Ismaeil, Salama selected Egyptian comedy actor Ahmed Amin, renowned for his viral videos and award-winning TV show “Al Plateau.” While “Paranormal” is a step in a completely different direction for Amin, the character is one he has dreamed of playing since he was a boy, and one he put a lot of pressure on himself to play well.
“I have loved this character since I was 13 years old,” Amin tells Arab News. “The most paranormal thing that happened to me is that I was actually able to portray him when I reached the age of 40, similar to the age of the character. I felt like I had a huge responsibility towards the readers and towards the Netflix audience and towards drama itself.”
For Razanne Jammal, the British-Lebanese actress who plays Maggie Mckillop — Ismaeil’s schoolmate-turned-colleague and love interest — the pressure that each of them put on themselves to bring this iconic series to life paid off, and translated into the most rewarding experience of her career.
“I've never in my life been on a set that was so harmonious. There were as many women as men; it was a very cooperative spirit. Everybody was helping each other, and everybody was so passionate. It was so important to us that our hard work comes across on screen,” says Jammal.
While Tawfik sadly passed away in 2018 at the age of only 55, the cast and crew of “Paranormal” — some of his biggest fans — have done all they can to do justice to his legacy. Now, as the show debuts on Netflix, audiences around the world will finally discover the world he created.