With the introduction of Moon Knight in the MCU, Marvel opened up the tomb on a pantheon of God’s and Monsters featured in the comic series. This potent mix of adventure and horror is set in Cairo, Egypt, as Mercenary Mark Spector (Oscar Isaac) receives his superpowers from the Egyptian God Khonshu. In order to portray the setting and the culture accurately, Kevin Feigi wisely tapped Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Diab to direct the lions share of the episodes.
At first glance, Mohamed may seem like an odd choice to tackle a big budget show on Disney+. Known for more intimate, politically charged films like Cairo 678 about three woman on a search for justice after experiencing sexual harassment, or Clash that is set entirely inside a Police Truck after the fall of president Morsi, Mohamed’s work is very personal. He’s more interested in people than spectacle. Perhaps that’s why Moon Knight feels different than any other of its contemporary super hero shows, eschewing the intricately choreographed fight scenes we have come to love and expect from Marvel and instead gave us a bumbling Oscar Isaac with a tenuous British accent, blacking out in the middle of a foot chase. When he awakes he is surrounded by henchmen beaten to a pulp. What just happened? We are as confused and disoriented as our hero. It is a clever bit of film making that relies on the audiences imagination and engagement with the character and story instead of five minutes of fisticuffs.
Awards Radar spoke with Mohamed about how he pulled off such an audacious approach.
“I learned this from Martin Scorsese. Someone was asking him ‘One of my favorite things you’ve ever done is the last shot of The Passion of the Christ and where the film burns’, and he said, ‘that was not intentional’. Actually, the film got ruined. And he thought he should reshoot it again. But when he put it together, it made sense. So a lot of times if you’re a good filmmaker, you use a disadvantage and turn it into an advantage. So ironically, this idea came from our visual effects supervisor, Shawn Phelan. He was trying to cut budget, ironically. And once that idea was pitched, I felt, I have better action than all the other action sequences in Marvel, because we can use that tool into in any action sequence. When you know that everything could disappear and change in a second, I’m glued. And even our action stunt coordinator, Olivier Schneider, who’s brilliant, who’s doing Fast & Furious, every time he’s telling me about the action, I tell him, ‘don’t worry, we have the best tool in the world’. The ‘Blink’ is my favorite part. So it works for so many reasons. I actually encouraged the writers and everyone to come up with more of that. Let’s ‘blink’ as much as possible because it’s so much fun and in the same time, it’s not a gimmick. It works for the drama, because this is the life of someone who has DID [Disassociate Identity Disorder]: the black out. If you switched characters, a lot of people blink and don’t know what happened in those periods of time.
The character of Mark Spector has DID, which flips the whole “secret identity” superhero trope on its head. His alter-ego Steven is unaware of his powers and struggles to make sense of the violent world he is thrust into. He is in a fight with a mysterious cult, but more importantly, he is in a struggle with his own mind over control of his body.
It’s about someone who needs to learn how to live with himself. And I think we can all connect to that. We all have the struggle inside of us. And we have the persona, what we show people, and then who we really are, the desires and everything inside of us. All through the journey of our lives, we try to make those two sides of us as close as possible. And when I connected to that, when I saw the story, that’s when I thought Moon Knight could be an extension of my small movies, my intimate movies.
Mohamed joined a creative team of writers and performers who all pushed towards the same goal: character over action.
Action comes second. Oscar, Ethan [Hawke], May [Calamawy] always wanted to develop the characters and make it as intimate as possible. And thank God, we had allies that have the same feelings. Just like the ‘blink’ action sequences. We all wanted it to feel different.
Because TV Shows are a juggernaut of departments, schedules and logistics, they can sometimes seem closer to building a car than creating art. That’s why Mohamed focused as much as possible on exploring the characters before they showed up on set.
My own process, and everyone has their own process the process, you try to rehearse beforehand, and get everything out of the way, test it and see what’s going on. So on the shooting days, you’re coloring inside the lines. And that’s what we did. What really helped us develop the story beforehand was that we had meetings before we shot everything. And the whole team, everyone chipped in, every single line in the script, got scrutinized and got examined. And every one of us had his own thing, everyone. And the best thing is, you test whatever crazy idea you have in the room full of great creative minds. And that’s really what helped us understand. So all those moments of improvisation and stuff, 90% of it was in those meetings. That really helped us. By the way, the Marvel process usually is: let’s shoot what we developed, and then fix it completely and refine it in reshoots. So they have a big, big safety net. You always feel safe, but we felt, we’re gonna try our best to make the reshoot as as little as possible. And actually, we hold the record of the least reshoots in the history of Marvel.
Moon Knight truly was a collaborative effort. For a Marvel show so focused on character, the cast required some heavy lifting for the series to be effective.
It was such a pleasure to work with someone like Oscar and someone like Ethan. Like Ethan is a legend. And Oscar himself, the best thing about him is, we worked on those characters together. The writers had great input, and how to differentiate between the two of them. And I had some input and everyone had some beautiful stuff. But at the same time, forget all that the moment that Oscar inhibited that character. His demeanor everything, changed. The day that he’s playing Mark, he’s not approachable. And the irony is, real Oscar is not Mark, or Steven or Jake, literally a different person. So I just feel that Oscar got what he deserved. We all knew that he was a great actor all along, but to play it on this big of a canvas. He was very reluctant to join the show in the beginning, because he was just coming from couple of big projects like Star Wars and Dune. But today, he describes this project as the most thing that he’s brought up in all his life. So I’m, I’m really happy.
As a recent transplant from Egypt, Mohamed has spent a lifetime seeing his culture and people distorted in Western media. Moon Knight was an opportunity for him to correct the falsehoods and misrepresentations.
I always was on the receiving end, just like every Arab or Egyptian, seeing our side always portrayed in an inaccurate way. Lots of times very offensive or exotic, and I had the chance to help correct it even a little bit. We can humanize ourselves. And in Hollywood, I want to tell you that a person’s comment was, “Oh, I didn’t know that Egypt has electricity.” I am not making fun of them. A lot of Americans, especially, don’t know a lot about the world. So a lot of them are educated through movies.
Marvel fans get to see a new side of Cairo. A more contemporary and fun side. A large part of that is the score by Hesham Nazih and the hip-hop soundtrack. Mohamed cannot take credit for that. His wife Sarah was the real influence.
Sarah handles the music part. And she always suggested beautiful songs. She was raised in America, even though she was Egyptian, she knows what bridges between the two cultures. So she knows how to dig in that beautiful well of talents in Egypt and the Arab world and pick songs that can appeal to the west. Every single time there’s a scene or a moment on YouTube or in a film about the Middle East. We hear music that we hate. It’s like the Western perception of what’s Arabic music and it’s so dull, and very old. And it was very important to get a great Egyptian composer who has modern Egyptian feel, and every track that you’ve heard one of them like, the song that ends episode two became the number 15 on the world billboards. And even though it’s an Egyptian rap song, no one understood a single word. And I really wanted people to feel a taste of who we are in front of the camera, behind the camera. And even with our music. You don’t know how effective was that for Egyptians. You don’t know how big this was.The whole show is treated in Egypt like our Black Panther. This is the first time people feel that they are seen.
It’s no small thing to see one’s culture embraced in a Marvel movie. It means being seen and respected around the world.
Marvel and DC, these are the new heroes, are the new mythology too. So to be a part of it, you feel like you exist. My daughter now has someone to look up to and feel like, okay, you know what she belongs. Because growing up, most of my friends who live in the US find names for their kids that can blend in the society. You don’t want to look like an Arab. I have people who in this day and age, we’re passing. It’s not just like I’m scared or anything. I just want to be with the cool bunch. You know what I mean? But in the massacre in New Zealand a couple of years ago when the guy killed 50 People in the mosque. I bet this guy never met a real Muslim and his real interaction with Muslims was the media. And we’re all always playing the bad guys. So to meet them like that and feel like everyone is normal. Everyone is cool, everyone is like each other. That’s it’s a very important thing.
Marvel’s Moon Knight can be seen on Disney+.