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There are upsides and downsides to having a film you’ve been hard at work on be abruptly shelved at the last minute by a number-crunching studio boss.
Two filmmakers who can attest to this are Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, directors of the DC universe entry Batgirl, which in August became the highest-profile casualty of David Zaslav’s cost-cutting at his newly combined Warner Bros. Discovery when it was unceremoniously canceled while in postproduction. With a budget of $90 million, the movie is considered among the most expensive cinema projects ever to be assigned to the scrap heap.
For the two Belgian directors, who first made a mark with the explosive 2020 smash hit Bad Boys for Life, there was obviously a huge amount of disappointment in not being able to share their work alongside their cast and crew, including the likes of Brendan Fraser, J.K. Simmons, Michael Keaton and lead star Leslie Grace, who plays Batgirl.
“You’ve got to imagine, we’re two fanboys, and for one second we were in the Batman universe, following in the footsteps of Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan, and then it was just like we woke up and it was a dream,” says Arbi, speaking from the sidelines of the Red Sea Film Festival in Saudi Arabia.
But then, for all the sorrow at seeing their chance of becoming part of the superhero world snatched away at the 11th hour, they say the amount of positive reactions they personally received has been hugely gratifying.
“It was unbelievable how much support we got,” says Fallah, noting that the likes of James Gunn and Edgar Wright reached out to them, along with studio execs from Paramount and Sony, and even Marvel’s Kevin Feige. “There was so much support from people in the industry, it felt like all the artists were supporting us, and that’s a great feeling, because you feel like you’re not alone.”
Also, given that Batgirl’s cancellation was somewhat unprecedented in terms of its size and the manner in which it took place, while Arbi and Fallah’s names are yet to be carved into superhero folklore, they have been added to Hollywood’s lengthy and colorful annals.
“This is something that never happened before, so we’ve kind of become part of movie history without even trying!” says Arbi.
Although a secret screening of Batgirl took place on the Warner Bros. lot for the cast and crew, Arbi and Fallah note that they couldn’t attend (they were in Belgium at the time), and that the version shown wasn’t their latest edit (but “somewhere in the middle”). The film’s cancellation actually happened just as they’d entered the first stage of the editing process, with still plenty of work left to do to get the feature finished.
“We still needed additional photography, there were a lot of scenes missing, and the VFX was not there,” says Arbi. “I don’t know if [Warner Bros.] are really gonna go for that, but we’ll see, sometimes we think it’s fucked, but sometime it’s like … maybe!”
Given the experience with Batgirl, would the two work with Warner. Bros Discovery again?
“Yeah, we’d still work with them,” says Fallah. “But on the condition that the movie comes out. I mean, if Warner says, ‘Do you want to do the next Batman or Superman?,’ of course we’ll say yes. Just so long as the movie comes out!”
On that note, while Gunn reached out individually to offer his support, there hasn’t yet been a more formal meeting with him since he’s been installed as DC Studio’s co-CEO. “But the meetings are in the books,” says Arbi.
One thing that the noise around Batgirl has done is add some sizable momentum behind the director’s latest feature. Rebel, which screened in Cannes and is part of the Red Sea Film Festival lineup in Jeddah, is a pacey action thriller about two Muslim Belgian brothers dealing with identity alongside ISIS radicalization and recruitment during the war in Syria.
For both Arbi and Fallah, who are both Muslim and of Moroccan descent, Rebel marks their most personal film to date, a movie that has been in their heads since 2011.
“We started to see people that we know go to Syria,” says Fallah, who notes that he comes from a neighborhood that had the highest percentage of youths recruited to fight for ISIS. “And they were my friends, people that I played soccer with, and I started to see them, one by one, going. And then afterward, to see the attacks in France and Belgium, it became very painful to see, because these guy had the same profile as us, they were Moroccan Belgium Muslims.”
Other TV shows or movies dealing with the situation, they say, weren’t told from a Muslim perspective. “So that’s why we wanted to tell this story, with all the complexities and the nuances, because it’s not that simple,” says Fallah. “It became very personal and important.”
The profile of Rebel, which is yet to secure a U.S. distributor (it’s being released in the U.K. by Signature in January, and has been picked up by Front Row in the Middle East), has undoubtedly been boosted by the Batgirl situation, as has that of Fallah and Arbi.
Alongside a sequel to their 2018 Belgian crime thriller Gangsta, Arbi claims they may soon have the “green light for a big action movie in Hollywood, but we don’t want to jinx it.”
Arbi also recently posted a somewhat cryptic Instagram post: a captionless image from animated series Batman Beyond that ran from 1999 to 2001. Could the two be returning, not just to Warner Bros., but to the world of Batman so soon after Batgirl’s untimely demise?
“You know, maybe in the future … when Batman is not being made by Matt Reeves … . Batman Beyond is really super cool. And I just saw that and thought that’s really badass,” says Arbi. “So who knows? Maybe in the future one day if they ask us to do that, we wouldn’t say no. But you can dream, right?”
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