Tahaab Rais talks to Laura Swinton about making a film for Dubai Science Park that triggers extreme empathy, and the personal experiences that inspired it
In the movie Get Out, the protagonist, Chris Washington finds himself locked into his mind, a mere passenger, unable to control his body at all. As horror concepts go, it’s claustrophobic and constrictive, more unsettling than any ghost story. It’s also the reality for people suffering from paralysis; at its most extreme people find themselves trapped and unable to even change their view.
It’s a chilling idea, and one that came close to reality for strategist, writer and director Tahaab Rais as his father faced the possibility of a stroke that could lead to paralysis. This scare got father and son discussing the condition and inspired Tahaab to write a film. In doing so, he also remembered a childhood friend, whose own dad had been paralysed.
Tahaab, who is Regional Head of Strategy, FP7 McCann, began fleshing out the idea and sharing it with colleagues and friends. He worked with his colleagues at McCann Health, who helped him with the medical communication aspect of the film, and collaborated with FP7’s Regional ECD Fouad Abdel Malak who helped push his idea forward. He also found someone keen to bring the film to life, Saad Yusuf at Dubai’s TECOM business district – at Dubai Science Park, there’s a hospital and medical companies for whom the issue of paralysis is highly relevant.
FEEL Productions, Déjà vu Dubai, Mango Jam Studio and Famous Studios got on board to produce the film, which was also directed by Tahaab. It’s been running in cinemas in Dubai, taking advantage of the surround sound and making for a fully immersive and impactful experience. The film urges viewers to find out more about paralysis prevention, and social media ads share information about the early warning signs of strokes.
LBB> This film was inspired by your dad - could you tell me about what happened that led to the idea?
Tahaab> My dad has medical ailments with his nerves and mobility. Last year, during lockdowns, we had a scare that he might face permanent challenges including the possibility of a stroke that could lead to paralysis. It was a tough time for us. We got lucky that his condition stabilized. But during that time, I did a lot of research on how someone would feel when paralyzed. And it impacted me deeply, imagining something like this happening to someone I love. It reminded me of a friend of mine, in childhood, whose dad was paralyzed. It gave me the same feeling I get watching this film – every single time.
Then, when dad was better, over breakfast, as we were talking about films I’ve been writing, we spoke about this topic and how bad it could’ve been. That is when we thought, ‘why don’t we show the reality of someone who is paralyzed.?’ And what better way to show it than when people are in a confined space - on their chair, on their sofa and even better, in a cinema hall on their seat.
LBB> How did Dubai Science Park get involved?
Tahaab> Once the idea was cracked and I’d written out the film, because this was an important message to get out in this region, I wanted to find a credible brand that could talk about it with authority and make a genuine impact.
After knocking on a few doors, I spoke to a close friend of mine, Saad Yusuf, who is the Marketing Director at TECOM Business Districts. I shared that I had an idea for a film that I loved and asked if he knew someone who could help. The group he works with compromises some of Dubai’s most integral contributors. Dubai Science Park was one of them. And Dubai Science Park has companies like Neuro Spinal Hospital and Ottobock associated with it, to whom the topic of paralysis was very relevant. He presented this to his senior management and associated teams, they got on board, they supported it and they made it happen.
LBB> How did you collaborate with McCann Health to develop the script and make sure that the science communication aspect was accessible and accurate?
Tahaab> I’m lucky that in my capacity as strategy head for our regional group, under which McCann Health is a key company, I get to work with different disciplines. As I did with Saad, I approached Karen, our GM at McCann Health and her creative team led by Prajakta More. I asked what they thought about this idea and film and if we could get McCann Health’s support in not just putting an agency name behind it but importantly, putting some healthcare science behind it. The team loved the idea and the film and signed up. With their medical writers, they did research around the symptoms of paralysis and came up with ways to help educate people on how to prevent paralysis too. They were on shoot with me as we made it happen, and importantly, they have implemented an extensive channel plan that includes educational videos, influencer partnerships, a social experiment on social media, and much more.
LBB> One of the other big collaborators was Fouad Abdel Malak, Regional ECD at FP7/McCann. How did he help you develop and push the idea?
Tahaab> I love sharing ideas and films I write with any creative who’s willing to listen and indulge a strategy guy writing films! Initially, I did not have a child in the film. I’d envisioned ending it with a super that comes in abruptly with the ‘clock tick’ to keep the stark, blunt nature of the individual’s life being stuck.
I sent the script I had to Fouad and minutes after, he gave me a call as he had just downloaded the script and storyboard. He said how much he loved it and gave me a bunch of builds and suggestions, as he always does. The most exciting one that I loved was that of having someone say those lines at the end. We discussed whether could be a nurse or a family member. It really helped me get a new perspective and honestly, I quite liked it. I gave him a virtual hug on the phone because consulting him genuinely made this better.
LBB> It's a film that really challenges an audience that's used to fast cuts and information overload - why did you want to take the approach that you did and why do you think this stillness works?
Tahaab> As human beings, our empathy influences how we classify the importance of things we should focus on. It’s only when we feel what others are going through that we really become aware of their need and their anxieties. And only then do we care. So, to get people aware and talking about paralysis and showing that Dubai Science Park’s healthcare community could help, I wanted to target people who are used to a world that’s moving fast and are restless. I wanted them to feel constricted and restricted by this film to get the message and point across effectively. Because when someone is paralysed, their life is stuck much like this film is stuck on one frame. What they see. What they hear. What they go through in their day. It’s all stuck in time. I wanted to capture that and make this an experience for people. In doing so, creating that empathy that’ll make this a topic that’s important for people to focus on, to talk about and for brands to do meaningful work for.
LBB> The family member speaking to the patient/to the camera could have been any member of the family - why did you decide to cast the little girl?
Tahaab> As I alluded to earlier, when I was nine, the dad of a friend of mine was paralyzed. Watching him with his dad, by his bed side, has stayed with me since then. It’s so vivid in my mind. And truth is, the parent-child dynamic is a potent one, especially when it has to do with an impending loss. So, I wanted it to be a child from the get go. A child losing a parent is potent too.
I wanted a little boy at the start. All my initial storyboards featured a boy. I had Haley Joel Osment from Sixth Sense or Henry Thomas from E.T. in mind. But, when auditioning talents, owing to the talent pool we had in the UAE (and we couldn’t fly talent down due to COVID-19 fears and restrictions), I just didn’t see that magic in any boy we auditioned. We did around 30 screen tests. It just wasn’t working out. So, I widened the brief and said let’s look at young girls too who’d be able to deliver what we wanted. We didn’t find any. I went through profiles of over 1000 children – literally every child actor in the country – and saw Anika. And loved her look and personality. Saw a few videos where she’d acted. And knew immediately she was the one. We got her to the location, we dressed her up in the outfit she’d wear and did the screentest. She knocked her screentest out of the park. She’s a star and a really cute kid. We had to colour her down with make-up and give her a stark, bleak look, hiding that energy she had!
LBB> The film feels like it has some strong horror elements to - the sound design, the lighting and just the claustrophobia of putting the viewer in that paralysed position. How did you approach building up that emotional impact of the film?
Tahaab> Light and sound were very intentional to build that claustrophobia and feeling of being stuck that you’ve mentioned. Hearing it in cinema, this is extremely impactful and it really gets to you when you’re in your seat and the sound’s coming in from all corners and really making you feel uncomfortable.
Looking at it on TV and even on laptops and phones, it still gets to me.
When it came to the light and the look, I wanted it to feel like a hospital and demonstrate the cold, bleak reality the focus of our film – the person on the bed – was going through. It adds to the eeriness and it definitely borrows cues from horror genre. In fact, while watching it, a lot of people have said how they expected a jump scare but were totally caught off guard with what came next. The lighting, the grading, and the mood all serve the film effectively.
Then, as we sat to design the sound with our sound production team at Mango Jam Studios, there were some sound elements that were absolutely essential in my mind. I wanted to exaggerate those sounds, because when you’re paralyzed and you’re only stuck with one limited view and limited movements, the sounds are all accentuated. Every single element was layered ad designed to work in perfect claustrophobic harmony.
The droning buzz of the tube light helped build that anticipation especially when it picks up. We recorded it with a live tube light and treated it to really create the impact we wanted.
The ticking of the clock was extremely intentional and a must for me. It had so many meanings for me. The person is stuck in time. The person’s time is passing by. The only thing the person can focus on is the clock’s sound. It’s the most important part of the sound design.
The distant beats of life support machines pick up once the girl comes in make it clearer that it was a hospital all along.
The soft breathing of the person on the bed especially when it picks up builds that feeling we wanted.
All of these choices were very intentional and honestly, gave the perfect mood to this film.