Not too many people make it in Hollywood, certainly not too many Saudis. However, meet as far as California dreaming goes, Saudi movie producer Mohammad al-Turki made it big.
Mohammad has produced nine movies to date, which include the well-known "What Maisie Knew," "Arbitrage," "Adult World," and "Desert Dancer", he has worked with the likes of Richard Gere and is now spotted hanging out regularly with the likes of the Hilton sisters and several other A-listers.
Al-Turki will soon be launching his film fund RAV Raw Artist Vision with Producing Partner Arcadiy Golubovich who produced Oscar winner Paul Haggis's new film "Third Person" starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Adrian Brody, Kim Basinger and Olivia Wilde. Together, they aim to produce up to five movies a year for the next five years.
"I stand out in Hollywood for being a Saudi" said al-Turki who caught up with Al Arabiya News while in Dubai for the film festival.
Q. Considering the fact that you're Saudi and the industry isn’t very familiar, was it a challenge for you to be a producer in Hollywood?
Being a Saudi has been a good thing actually because I stand out in Hollywood. I'm not just another producer. By being a Saudi, people know who you are. I took it to my advantage and marketed myself on it. Also, people think that Hollywood is favorable to a certain race but that’s not true. It's universal, multi-cultural and diverse. They love foreign films; they love people from all around the world and I think that’s what makes Hollywood successful today.
Q. Was there a certain incident that placed you in an awkward situation because you're Saudi?
There isn’t a certain incident when I was put in an awkward situation but sometimes there's ignorance towards Arabs and precisely Saudis. I remember I was at a board meeting once and we were sitting down discussing a film that we were doing and there was a key talent, without mentioning names. She mentioned my name as "who's that Mohammad guy? Shall we be scared of him and does he know anything to do with film?" Not knowing that I was sitting in front of her. So, my response was "that’s me!" She looked at me and said "oh my God you’re normal, I can introduce you to my children" so I just looked at her said " yes I am normal and I would love to meet your children and just smiled." I did not react, I took it as it is. But yes, there are a lot of people in America especially in Middle America that don’t know anything about Saudi Arabia or the Middle East. Until 9/11, when I used to go to boarding school, when I used to say I'm from Saudi their response was always "which state is that?"
Q. Ok, as a producer what are the challenges that you face?
Well, there are many challenges that we face but our main challenge is financing the film and getting it up on its feet. Everything from hiring talent to locking the dates is considered a challenge to us. When we have a shoot date, usually its 30 days and you need to film the movie within this timeframe not more because every extra day is more money and we don’t want to go over budget, so we have to stick to what we have which can get very stressful at times. But then, once the movie is done, another challenge that we face is that we have to put it in a festival run or show it to distributers and then it becomes a bid who would buy it and it’s a tough decision for us because the destiny of the film enters the hands of the studio that buys it.
Q.Why did you cast Richard Gere in a lead role in the movie "Arbitrage"?
It wasn't Richard Gere at the beginning but it was actually a blessing that he signed up for the project. Originally the movie was set to star Al Pacino but he had a scheduling conflict so we then sent the script to Richard Gere and he replied within 24 hours and said "let's do the film." I honestly think he was the right choice because Richard hasn’t done a film for a long time, it reminds us of him being that silver screen legend. In this film he kind of looks like the young guy from pretty woman but he's older and still got the Hollywood charm. You want to have a loveable character in the movie, he is in a way a villain and he gets away with it but because he's Richard Gere he's so charming so you don’t know; do we love him or do we hate him? So, you get torn as a viewer.
Q. What would you tell the Saudi youth that have a similar interests?
They should be very patient and very dedicated. If they get a small tool or a small camera use it by putting stuff on YouTube, look where Fahad al-Butairi the Saudi comedian went with his videos. They should also know, and be proud, that the Saudi cinema is changing. The year 2012 was a game changer for Saudi cinema. You have Haifa al-Mansour's movie "Wadijda" with the support of Rotana and Sony picture classics, it's entering the academy award race. Just for me as a Saudi filmmaker, it is changing and a lot of Hollywood films right now and a lot of scripts that I have been reading are geared towards the region. They want to do films that are based in Saudi they no longer want to do the stuff that they used to do before like portraying us as "villains or criminals" I think they are over that. They are focusing more on love stories and comedy in the region. They are trying to introduce this new aspect of the Middle East and its culture. So I think that is highly beneficial for Saudis. So, simply dedication and patience are the keys to success. I never knew I'd be working with Richard Gere one day. It's completely surreal to me right now sometimes I need to pinch myself.
Q.How would you compare the film industry in the East and the West? What are the differences?
Well it is very different, not in terms of talent. As a matter of fact we have so much talent in Saudi Arabia but the difference is that we are a very new industry. But, we've done relatively well considering the fact that were new. I think in a few years we will catch up, there's a lot of change happening. Hollywood has been there for a very long time, they kind of marked the start of this industry from the beginning of silent films. I think that they are not comparable but were on the right track. Also, in the GCC we already have a lot of support like the Dubai Film Commission and Dubai Media City. All these institutions are pushing to have a more successful and a faster growing film industry.
Q. Would you ever consider opening your own institute?
Actually yes, were planning to launch a new project in 2014. I'm staring a film fund where we will be producing five films per year, mainly Hollywood films because it's more profitable. I'm a business man at the end of the day. Two out of the five films will be dedicated to help the film industry in this region.
Q. Have you ever been approached by people who ask for your help or advice in anything related to film making?
A lot of people do approach me, I try to give advice, I try to listen and sit with them if I can. I met a lot of interesting people who surprised me, especially the youth in Saudi Arabia. For example, there are people who have never left Riyadh but when you sit down and talk to them they have more knowledge and know about film more than I do. If you hear the references they have you'll be shocked. I sometimes think to myself "I need to get a pen and paper and start noting all of this down." I think the number one form of entertainment in Saudi Arabia is Hollywood films. Last year I went to Saudi Arabia and I was supported by the royal family to host Michelle Rodriguez in Riyadh. It was quite an interesting experience to see that in a restaurant or a shopping mall people recognized her and approached her. It made me happy because our society is very welcoming yet very conservative so to see all of these young people coming and taking photos actually shocked me. We were also getting a lot of interaction on social media. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram so we agreed that from all the tweets that we got that we'll meet up with the fans right before going to the airport and leaving Riyadh. Well, 60 to 70 young girls lined up with some stuff they bought on their trips that have to do with some of her films, including DVD'S from Avatar to Fast and Furious. Not to forget that it was nine in the morning and everyone made it on time full of energy. It was fascinating for me to see that much enthusiasm.
Q. Is there anything you would want to add or a message that you would like to deliver?
I am very happy. I thought being in the film industry, I would get a negative approach from Saudis. Being in this industry is very challenging but I was shocked from the amount of love and support I've been given. I am overwhelmed with love, which humbled me. I get a lot of tweets, a lot of comments on Instagram and I just feel that having support from the locals just makes me happy and make me view this as a responsibility. I never chose to be responsible or called to be "bridging the gap between East and West" but it is just from that love and support that I am getting from my people that I feel like my responsibility now is to make them happy and proud. Thank you.
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