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19th August 2015
Title of film: Tiger Beer, Wave
Director: Omar Hilal
Production Company: Great Guns
Great Guns’ founder Laura Gregory has always had a sharp eye for spotting directing talent and Omar Hilal is one such creative find. Here the Egyptian director talks about making Tiger Beer ads in Mandarin (of course!) for Singapore and shooting Swimming Mangoes for the Middle East.

We love your Tiger Beer campaign for the Singapore market, but let’s talk about Swimming Mangoes first. It looks as though it might have been rather challenging to shoot?!

You would not believe the hell it was producing Mangoes. It was shot out in Cairo before I joined Great Guns. We had two days to shoot that film. My aunt is in the petroleum business so she got us a tugboat from the Suez and we had a larger boat too which we could only take out after 9am and it had to be back by 5. So we basically shot that film in 16 hours which wasn’t nearly long enough.

There were crazy moments like when I was in the little boat with the DP and camera, trying to get the shot of the swimming mango which was made of polystyrene, and when it’d hit the water it would fly off with the wind pushing it, while the prop guy who was a soldier was trying to hold onto it but kept sinking …. Then a Russian tourist boat passes by in the frame… And nobody is helping you.

Which is in contrast to here at Great Guns. Tiger Wave was shot in one night so it was perfect organization.

And now E-Lights…

Yes. The DP was amazing on this, a superb Spanish guy called Filou. He’s going to win an Oscar one day for sure. And they teamed him up with this amazing gaffer guy called Pedro who worked in silence and spot on time. I loved that experience.

Who wrote the script for Acqua Mango?

It came out of JWT in Cairo. They had a story 30 seconds long about a guy who is looking for the Acqua Mangoes. The writer knows how to write lines that people will remember. So he sent me the script and I sent him back a two-minute film which the client bought into.

I added the back story and the turmoil in the cabin… A conversation with my now ex wife was a trigger. She said it would be funny if you saw some of the things they found. And I thought that was a great idea – a black box, extinct bat fish, the titanic necklace etc. While we were shooting it we knew it was special.

And it was all edited in Cairo?

Yes. But it was graded three times, once in Spain, once in Cairo and finally with Paul Harrison at Finish.

So following Aqua Mango you signed to Great Guns and Tiger Beer came in for the Singapore market? Did you write Mexican Wave?

No the idea was as it is from BBDO Singapore. I loved the idea of him selling it to the Mexicans.

Where is home?

My home is Cairo but I come to London all the time. I come to do my grading for most of my films in London – I’ve family here too. My grandmother has lived here for more than 50 years and my brother is here. My grandfather used to be vice-president of Esso, so I’ve been coming to England all my life.

Cairo is a crazy city, you love hate it. The amount of conflict, the energy… particularly after the revolution there is so much heartache, that you have to have comedy to laugh. A lot of the funniest work came out during the revolution. We are able to take the piss out of ourselves with ease. There’re now less restrictions with humour. The funniest work works anywhere. In the same way how the UK and US tell the world what’s funny, Egypt tells the Middle East. We are the pioneers, the leaders of that part of the world.

How did you get into film making?

I did my final college years in Canada and then went to the American University in Cairo. I did a film minor and a major in advertising. I wanted to go to McGill in Canada so picked up a stills camera to get a portfolio done. Well I didn’t get in but I started taking pictures for newspapers and did fashion which I hated.

Following a time in Rome I returned to Cairo and joined Leo Burnett as a producer. I came up with some stories for a couple of brands and the creative director said you’re a creative not a producer and tomorrow you start being a copy writer. That escalated in a positive way – in four and half years I pitched on eight accounts and won them all.

I was always directing behind the directors – we used to fly in English and Italian directors to do our work. Egyptian directors are all feature film directors so they look down on advertising – so we used to fly them in and these guys wouldn’t know how to speak to the actors in Arabic so I did it.

In 2002 when I was 26 Leo Burnett sent me to be the creative director of the Saudi Arabian market, it was a big post. I don’t know why I said ok. As soon as the plane touched down I thought what the fuck have I done, why am I here? Three weeks later I quit.

Why was that?

Saudi Arabia is hell. You can’t live there, all the restrictions not only with creativity, but life. I was 26 and pretty used to a crazy life back in Cairo or wherever I travelled. You can’t live like that. No alcohol, no women…

So when I went back to Cairo I couldn’t go back to work at Leo Burnett so I thought maybe I should take this chance and direct. I directed a 90 second promo with three of our top superstars which aired in our equivalent to the Superbowl. And from that point on I moved on.