A scene from Amr Salama's "Sheikh Jackson"

Interview: Amr Salama on Looking at the Man in the Mirror for “Sheikh Jackson”

Amr Salama’s parents wanted him to be accountant, but for the young man growing up in Egypt who showed a passion for animation and could do a mean version of the Moonwalk, crunching numbers was never going to be a satisfying career. Yet he indulged his parents’ wishes, going to school for math while keeping some time for himself to pursue his own interests.

“While I was studying accounting, I was teaching myself everything that I wanted to learn,” recalls Salama. “3D animation, some photography, and then editing, and then this and that, until I found out that film directing is the thing that combines all my passions together, so I thought directing makes sense. I started making short films and I signed my first contract for a feature film before I even finished college.”

Salama has just finished his fifth feature, “Sheikh Jackson,” which premiered recently at the Toronto Film Festival, and it’s no doubt his most personal to date, imagining a double life for a conservative imam named Khaled (Ahmad El-Fishawy) as he arrives at a crisis of conscience. Now having an impressionable child of his own, Khaled recalls his own difficult relationship with his father (Maged El Kedwany) during his teenage years, following his mother’s death when he sought solace in the music of Michael Jackson to his gym rat dad’s disgust that he might be becoming soft as he latches onto such empowering anthems as “They Don’t Care About Us.”

For those within the same age range of the 35-year-old Salama, the frenzy that Khaled, then going by the nickname “Dudu” (and played in his younger years by Ahmed Malek), gets swept up in as Jackson released the “Dangerous” album in 1991 will feel especially familiar, but the writer/director’s tale of making peace with one’s personal identity is likely to hit home no matter where you are, crossing any borders of time and place. Venturing into the surreal as Khaled begins to have visions of Jackson walking into the mosque he presides over, “Sheikh Jackson” stays grounded in the reality that Salama so lovingly recreates, from the discotheques he frequented as a young man to the tiny clicker Khaled uses to count his good deeds and his sins as an Imam in the present.

While Salama was in Toronto, he spoke about the challenges of investing himself in a story that he didn’t initiate and making a film that references the King of Pop, as well as finding the right length for the film and showing it to his own family.

A scene from Amr Salama's "Sheikh Jackson"How did this come about?

Actually, the story started when a guy that I didn’t know [cold-]called me and said, “I have this story” and I [dismissed it] like, “Another guy with a story.” And he said, “I’m thinking about making a film about an Islamist who loves Michael Jackson,” and he said, “I only have a very short treatment.” And I said, “Man, I really want to write that because [that premise is] very personal to me. I’ve been religious for some time and a Michael Jackson fan for a long time and [I told him] I really want to write that.” That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, which is to try to fit your memoir into a movie drama.

It took me a lot of drafts. I usually write very systematically – 100 pages, and I know my plot points. I think like an engineer about any film I’m doing – I think about it broadly and brainstorm, but then when I get to the writing phase, I’m very systematic. In this film, I wanted to be free from all of that and just write what I was feeling. That’s why the first draft was like 300 pages. [laughs] And then I tried to shorten it and shorten it. I had a couple of script consultants and one of them was very harsh on me. She said, “Listen, Amr. I see this as a book, not as a film.” And I was shocked, so I decided to step back and think of it as a film I’m watching in theaters, not just as a self-indulgent memoir.

After I did all the [work] to write it as I wanted with my heart, I tried to think of it as if this is not my story at all. As a filmmaker, I was questioning myself, how I’m going to interpret that visually? How can I color plan it and cinematically deliver the kind of emotion that I want the audience to feel? So there was a big part when I thought about it with my heart, but then came the part when I was a professional that’s trying to make the film as cinematic as it can be.

A film involving Michael Jackson is no doubt difficult because the rights to his music are likely prohibitive or simply getting permission, but it seems like that pushed you to be more creative. Was it a blessing in disguise?

Yes. It was a lot of effort and a lot of pursuing the rights – I was fighting for that. I used all the contacts in the world and it was hard [when] we didn’t get the rights. But on the other hand, I said, “Okay, let’s look at the bright side. I will now imagine myself doing the music I want Michael Jackson to hear.” So I did the music as if I’m pitching to Michael Jackson. I sat with the composer and I was like, “Okay, put that theme [in]… We wanted to create something that’s totally different but still has the same spirit. So reworking the score was actually some of the most fun while doing the film because we created the score at first hoping that we’d get the rights. And then after we didn’t get the rights, we made the whole score from scratch, and this was the first time I involved in making the score because I’m not a music guy, and it was painful [probably for the composer] because I don’t have the lingo even of music making, so it took some time, but when we made the different soundtrack, I said, “Wow, that’s better than actually getting the rights.”

You have that amazing montage referencing a number of his music videos. What was that like to create?

That was the hardest part of the film. It took months with the CGI guys to do it right. You could combine them together, you could go from one to the other, and you can [create transitions because you] have the same look of each video depending on the time that the video was made. It was really hard, but I studied [the videos] completely and I’m glad with the end result.

How did you find the actors to play Khaled at different ages?

Everybody that read the script said Ahmad El-Fishawy has to be the guy [to play the older Khaled] because for some time he was very famous for being religious and he was very famous for being a party animal, so he had this identity crisis and I knew him for so long. He was actually in my first film, so our relationship is really good, and it was very obvious as well that Malek should play the younger version [Dudu] because everybody says that [Ahmed] Malek is the younger Fishawy in real life. So it was really easy casting these two guys.

Khaled has this clicking device to count his sins against his good deeds. How did you come across that?

It’s actually a thing. There was a site selling that online and I thought, “Wow, this must be very pressuring.” And then when I was doing the film, I remembered I was talking with one of my script consultants, an American, who said, “You have to have something that shows that issue you have in Islam.” You’re thinking all the time about this balance sheet. So I thought if I use this [clicker] it will make it obvious to everyone what exactly he’s feeling when he’s dealing with God and religion.

Was there a particularly tricky day of shooting?

[The dance number] in the last scene was really tricky, and the funny thing about it is that me and Fishawy both had the same outfit exactly because I was the one doing the Moonwalks. So all the shots were only on the legs – and those are actually my legs. Because I can do the Moonwalk better than anybody in Egypt. [laughs]

A scene from Amr Salama's "Sheikh Jackson"Given it’s such a personal story, have you actually been able to show it to your family before the premiere?

Yeah, I showed it to my mother, and she is always happy about anything I do, so her opinion is not that critical. But I’ve shown it to a lot of friends and I really trust their opinions because [many] work in the field. Whenever I finish a draft of the script or a cut [of the film] they give me their opinions and I tweak based on that a lot of the time.

This [premiere at TIFF] is the happiest moment in months or years now. I’m really happy that this film is done. I didn’t believe in life after “Sheikh Jackson,” to be honest, so now I’m panicking about next projects, but I think the audience at TIFF is the best audience to watch the film and I’m crossing my fingers that this film will get me where I want to go. My ambition is to cross borders and do international films, especially in the States, so I hope this film will get me noticed somehow.

“Sheikh Jackson” does not yet have U.S. distribution.

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