Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, known collectively as Adil & Bilall, are a directing duo with big personalities, and their charisma comes across in their work, especially the premiere of Disney+’s Ms. Marvel.
Whether it’s their inspired camera movements and angles or their animated flourishes a la Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the Belgian directors have brought a unique style and energy to the MCU’s origin story about Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani). El Arbi and Fallah — who are most known for helming 2020’s biggest domestic film, Bad Boys for Life — were admittedly worried that their unconventional approach would be too much of a departure from Marvel Studios’ visual vocabulary.
“Surprisingly, [Marvel Studios] said, ‘Yeah, go for it! Don’t go overboard [with the animated flourishes]. Don’t do it every five seconds, but as long as it’s true to the story and the character, go for it.’ So it was a real pleasure to be allowed to do something like that,” El Arbi tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Much like Guardians of the Galaxy and The Suicide Squad filmmaker James Gunn, the duo followed up their work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by directing a DC project, taking on DC Films and HBO Max’s Batgirl, starring Leslie Grace in the titular role. And similar to Gunn, El Arbi and Fallah felt nothing but support from Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige.
“We wrote [Marvel Studios] an email that said we were going to do Batgirl, and then Kevin Feige, Victoria [Alonso] and Lou [D’Esposito] all said, ‘Congratulations!’ They were super happy for us. People say there’s a rivalry, but it’s totally not like that. They make each other stronger, and we felt the vibe between DC and Marvel,” Fallah shares.
El Arbi adds: “They’re big fans of each other. Kevin was constantly asking questions, ‘How’s it going? What’s going to happen?’ He was a real fanboy, so that was pretty dope.”
Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne/Batman will also be appearing in Batgirl, and the pair of directors are playing coy if the star of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) can finally turn his head in the Batsuit, which was quite a limitation three decades earlier.
“Well, I can only say that it’s OG Batman. So you can draw your own conclusions to what OG Batman means,” El Arbi says as Fallah imitates Keaton’s full-body head movements in the Batsuit.
In a recent conversation with THR, El Arbi and Fallah also discussed the extensive setup behind the upside-down couch shot in Ms. Marvel’s premiere episode, “Generation Why.”
I’m sure you guys are hearing the word “stylish” a lot today because Ms. Marvel has a visual spark that’s unique to the MCU. What films were the two of you referencing at the time?
Adil El Arbi: We loved the vibrancy and the colors of the comic book, and we tried to convey a way to translate the dream world, the fantasy world of Kamala Khan. So we were very much inspired by Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and we wondered what it would look like to have a live-action version of Into the Spider-Verse. Obviously, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was also a big inspiration and reference, but we were a bit nervous that Kevin Feige and Marvel would not allow it because it’s different from all the other shows and movies. You don’t really have that in the other shows and movies, so we did a whole presentation with examples that explained how it was going to look and why it was important to Kamala Khan’s journey and seeing the world through her eyes. And surprisingly, they said, “Yeah, go for it! Don’t go overboard. Don’t do it every five seconds, but as long as it’s true to the story and the character, go for it.” So it was a real pleasure to be allowed to do something like that.
Did the upside-down couch shot stem from Unbreakable? Was that an inspiration at all?
El Arbi: Well, it could be subconsciously. Together with our DP, Robrecht Heyvaert, who’s also from Belgium, we always try to make funky shots and cool stuff. So every time we see a cool, crazy shot in a movie or a TV show, we’re like, “How did they do that?” It took 15 days to build the [couch] rig and almost 20 takes just to make that work, but it was worth it. It became something memorable, so the real pleasure is in the challenge of making something like that.
At one point, Kamala says, “Don’t mention Belgium or any guy named Rob.” Are you guys responsible for both Belgium references in the first episode?
Bilall Fallah: (Laughs.) Yeah, we’re definitely responsible, and it’s a reference to our DP, Robrecht Heyvaert. We always call him Rob, so he became “Rob from Belgium.”
El Arbi & Fallah: (Laugh.)
Fallah: All the people in Belgium went crazy when they heard that.
El Arbi: Yeah, it was like, “Belgium!”
The two of you have a lot in common with James Gunn in that you’ve both worked for Marvel and DC, and James told me that Marvel was so supportive that they even visited him on the set of The Suicide Squad. While set visits are a lot harder to do now, was Marvel really happy for you guys when you landed Batgirl?
Fallah: Yeah, we wrote [Marvel Studios] an email that said we were going to do Batgirl, and then Kevin Feige, Victoria [Alonso] and Lou [D’Esposito] all said, “Congratulations!” They were super happy for us. People say there’s a rivalry, but it’s totally not like that. They make each other stronger, and we felt the vibe between DC and Marvel.
El Arbi: Yeah, they’re big fans of each other. Kevin was constantly asking questions, “How’s it going? What’s going to happen?” He was a real fanboy, so that was pretty dope.
I’m curious about your partnership on set. Do you divide up the work based on your individual strengths? Does one of you focus more on composition while the other handles performance?
El Arbi: It depends. Sometimes, I’ll be more with the actors, and Bilall will be more with the cinematographer. But that can change given the circumstances. Sometimes, I’m the bad cop with the actors, and he’s the good cop with the actors. (Laughs.) On our Belgian movie Rebel that premiered at Cannes a couple days ago, it was such a complex movie that we sometimes had two units. He would direct some scenes, and I would direct entirely different scenes because of the lack of budget. So it’s a very organic way to work.
For the visual flourishes that represent Kamala’s imagination, did the two of you take the lead on those animated moments, or did they originate on the page?
Fallah: The animation was not presented in the script or in the concept art. It was something that we really wanted to do based on Into the Spider-Verse, and we imagined we could do a live-action version of that. It was also important for us to get inside Kamala Khan’s head and capture her dream world and fantasy world. We love animation and the comic-book aesthetic, and combined with Kamala being a fan of Marvel, all of that made us think to use animation to show that. But like Adil said, we were afraid that Marvel wouldn’t accept it because it’s totally different from all the other shows and movies. So we did a whole presentation with YouTube videos, and Kevin Feige said, “Yeah, I like it. Just don’t go overboard. Use it for good reasons like character and story.” So we were surprised.
El Arbi: It was so fun to design all of that, like the opening sequence with stop motion, the murals on the wall, the text messages … All of that was great fun, and the other directors also had a lot of fun with that in their episodes.
For AvengerCon, did any of the set decoration come from real-life MCU fans?
El Arbi: Well, it was inspired by the real Comic-Cons, and it was the most fun set that we’ve ever been on. The extras, actually, were real fans. There were real cosplay artists.
Fallah: We also did a lot of research on Comic-Cons, so we found a lot of cool costumes we wanted to incorporate.
El Arbi: We were just fanboying on that day. We were taking selfies all the time and playing with all the toys. So the producers had to grab us and make us focus on directing the scene. (Laughs.) It was an amazing homage to the fandom around the world.
Fallah: There are also a lot of Easter eggs. If you go through every frame, you’ll definitely find something.
In regard to Batgirl, I have to ask: Can Michael Keaton finally turn his head in the Batsuit? [Writer’s Note: Keaton had such limited mobility in the Batsuit that he had to turn his entire body in order to change the position of his head.]
El Arbi & Fallah: (Laugh.)
El Arbi: Well, I can only say that it’s OG Batman.
Fallah: The GOAT!
El Arbi: So you can draw your own conclusions to what OG Batman means.
Fallah: (Mimics Keaton’s full-body movements in order to change the direction of Batman’s head.)
El Arbi & Fallah: (Laugh.)
Ms. Marvel is now streaming on Disney+. This interview was edited for length and clarity.