Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Diab began his journey in the industry after realizing that working in finance was not his path. He pursued his passion for screenwriting by moving to America and attending the New York Film Academy nearly seventeen years ago. Diab would eventually return to Egypt with his directorial debut Cairo 678 in 2010. His career then took shape as a run of independent films that specifically concerned pressing issues in Egypt, such as Clash which opened the “Un Certain Regarde” section at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and captures the fall of the 2011 political revolution. His next film Amira would go on to win 3 awards at the 2021 Venice Film Festival. Now, Mohamed Diab and his long-time writer-producer partner and wife Sarah Goher have struck gold in the Hollywood sphere for the very first with Marvel Studios’ Moon Knight.
The titular hero’s ties to Egyptian culture led Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige towards putting full trust in Mohamed Diab and his fellow Arab creatives in order to bring the hustle and bustle of Egyptian locales like Cairo to life. Diab has a vocal history of criticizing Hollywood’s stereotypical practices in portraying the middle east, even calling out Wonder Woman 1984‘s harmful orientalism before Moon Knight premiered on Disney+. Thus, the pressure to deliver a genuine and thoughtful portrayal of Egyptian culture couldn’t have been heavier on this show. In the end, the loud and positive response from the MENA community online made it clear that Diab’s delicate work as the lead director paid off. The fact that Moon Knight peaked in streaming numbers as the most-watched series in the world at the time of its release makes this an even more notable occasion for the culture.
Following our exclusive sit-downs with Moon Knight star May Calamawy and head writer Jeremy Slater, we next dive into the cultural significance of the series with executive producer and director Mohamed Diab himself, who helmed four out of the six total episodes with Aaron Moorhead & Justin Benson coming in to direct the other two. We tackle everything from how much creative freedom he was given by Marvel Studios to how he cast the perfect Marc Spector/Steven Grant to his role in giving back to the Egyptian community. With Moon Knight’s future in the Marvel Cinematic Universe currently up in the air, Diab also shares his hopes for where the character goes next, not counting out the Scarlet Scarab of course.
Spoilers for Moon Knight follow!
Now that there’s been some time since the finale aired, have you been able to process just how much of a cultural phenomenon Moon Knight was?
Mohamed Diab: I have been sleeping for a whole month! The two years hit me. Two years of working non-stop by the way, we only finished working on Moon Knight two weeks before people saw the final episode. It’s been such a hard two years, but at the same time, I’m so proud of the result. I’m so happy that people from the Middle East and Egyptians loved it because they were the most important people to judge the show, so thank god. Right now, between me and Sarah [Wife and Producer], we decided that we’re not going to speak about Moon Knight anymore (laughs).
Did you notice any changes in terms of the way you work when making an independent film such as Amira or Clash in comparison to a big Marvel project?
Mohamed Diab: I tried my best to bring my process to working with Marvel as much as I could. We wanted to make it as intimate and find the core of the story. The moment I saw that this was about someone living with themselves, that’s when I thought, “Let’s try to make this an extension of [my and Sarah’s] movies.” Yes, there are extra things with the action and the spectacle, but we tried to make it an intimate story as well.
If you have seen my films, you can see the fingerprints of my style in Moon Knight and that’s why I loved it from the beginning, it fits like a glove. Sarah and I were very picky about what would be our first Hollywood project. But when we saw this one, we knew we were going to fight for it because we could do this better than anyone else.
Moon Knight is the first Marvel hero to have their own Disney+ series before being introduced on film, did you ever feel any pressure of leading the first team to take on that challenge?
Mohamed Diab: You get nervous because you’re introducing something that doesn’t yet have a cult following. But at the same time, it was such an exciting thing to be able to create every single aspect. Every character whether it’s Moon Knight, Mr. Knight, or Scarlet Scarab, they are something that we invented together. Even if I don’t continue with it myself, I think the characters will. Looking at them is going to be like looking at my kids. So it was exciting that we weren’t connected to anything and that it was a blank canvas where we could do whatever we wanted.
You famously said that your initial pitch to Marvel consisted of 200 pages. Could you elaborate on that?
Mohamed Diab: Well, that pitch, it was me and Sarah. Our agents sent us the project and we liked it, so we read the original comic books and then for two weeks, we didn’t do anything but think about the show. The pitch covered every single thing, starting with why I was the best person to direct and my previous work as well as the tone of the show. Then it went on to how Egypt was portrayed in Hollywood’s history and how Egypt actually looks. We also allocated a lot of locations in the script to real beautiful locations in Egypt.
We read the scripts and we loved them, but there were a lot of things that we felt we could add. For example, the love triangle wasn’t there or how to develop the villain. Arthur Harrow wasn’t a false prophet or cult leader yet. Another thing we added was the music, the beautiful songs that people loved around the world, Sarah was picking them that early on. We explored how we would edit. I don’t like a lot of cuts, I like to stay with the characters. We covered everything. So what usually a director would reach after six months of work on a pitch, we tried to reach within two weeks. It was an easy process in a way because we felt connected to the story and that pitch really became the show.
Music is such a prominent element of the Moon Knight and has introduced many Egyptian artists to global audiences, how did Sarah go about choosing the right songs?
Mohamed Diab: The best thing about the music is that Sarah picked old music arranged in new ways and also new rap songs. For the first time, older generations are hearing Egyptian rap songs which they hate and they started liking them. It is also the first time the teens have heard old music like Abdel Halim Hafez and Najat Al Saghira. Parents have been telling us that for the first time their kids have started listening to the people that they love! I think everything in the right context can be more appealing.
Moon Knight is so rich in Egyptology. Did you have any kind of relationship with Egyptology before you began working on the show?
Mohamed Diab: I’m a normal guy, who is obsessed with old Egypt. I wouldn’t call myself someone who knows more than normal people, well maybe a little bit more. I am fascinated with it and as someone who watches movies, I don’t know why we’re not seeing more of old Egypt in American movies. It’s way more interesting than any period piece in my mind. Secondly, I hate the way we’re portrayed because it is mostly white people playing us. What really upsets me the most is how [Hollywood] just makes it into another period piece about anywhere else, but everyone is half-naked.
Egypt was so advanced in philosophy, science, and astrology. They had an entirely different mentality that is way deeper than the way it’s being portrayed right now. It was the cradle of civilization in the world, and I believe that we can show that and have it be very interesting, which by the way is what one of our next projects is focusing on.
We have already talked about her quite a bit, but your wife Sarah Goher was also a producer on the show. How has that dynamic been working together?
Mohamed Diab: We always say that we almost don’t fight in real life, but we fight when we’re working really hard. When we started working together, we wanted to kill each other. But at the same time, when you find the balance, it’s so good. Sarah and I are workaholics. Between our family and work, that’s our life. The good thing is we got married because we felt that we had a lot of things in common. She’s a filmmaker, I’m a filmmaker. So when it works, it’s the best feeling in the world.
It was especially vital to cast the right people for these roles in particular. How involved were you in the casting process and were there any special moments when you realized that Oscar Isaac and May Calamawy were the ones?
Mohamed Diab: When you work with Marvel, you know they have brought you on for a reason. They want your taste, they want your input. But at the same time, when you work with Marvel, you have to be smart enough to learn, listen, and know that they are bringing something to the table as well. They have had the most successful run in the history of cinema. So every big decision like that is a mutual decision whether a suggestion comes from their side or my side. Every single person that you see in the show is someone that we all picked and we’re all happy with.
May [Calamawy] was in our initial presentation as one of the Egyptian actors that we wanted to be part of the show. I remember one of the best moments was her audition with Oscar. I was so happy with the way it went. Oscar called me afterward and told me that he really liked her. I’m happy that May is the one who’s representing the Egyptians.
Having allies like Oscar, May, and Ethan Hawke made me feel so lucky because the three of them are very intellectual people. Every single day was collaborative, they were all very generous and would think about other characters’ motives to see what they could make better, so it was a great process working with the three of them.
After the finale, you made a tweet about your daughter and her curly hair in relation to Layla’s natural curls on screen. Was this character feature something you ever had to fight for?
Mohamed Diab: I want to tell you honestly, that right now is a good time in Hollywood when it comes to representation. We were given even more than we wanted at some points. I would have loved to have the chance to dig deeper into who Layla is, so hopefully, we will see that in the next iterations or maybe if she gets her own show or film one day, and I think that’s going to happen. Layla being a superhero, that’s something big and important. I have to thank Marvel, the writers, and everyone who was involved in that idea. Nothing was a fight when it came to more representation or making her into a superhero, Marvel was very supportive.
And the best thing is, in the past couple of years representation has paid off. Black Panther was a big hit, so was Shang-Chi and now Moon Knight is. That’s very important and I want to thank the fans because you’re voting by streaming or getting a ticket. That’s what tells the machine that they’re doing the right thing and we are supporting you with our money because at the end of the day, it is a business.
I’ve seen many people across the internet who have started to embrace their own natural curls after watching Moon Knight, myself included. Representation like this has such a heavy and long-term impact.
Mohamed Diab: Sarah’s hair is unbelievable. Yet, every time her mom tells her to be more good-looking or take care of herself, that path leads her to straightening her hair. I keep telling her “Why are we doing this? You look so beautiful with your curly hair!” I believe when human beings are under pressure and are being told things like “your hair is bad,” you’re going to believe that your hair is bad, but it’s beautiful and we all have to fight that perception.
You shot many of the scenes set in Cairo on a backlot in Budapest. Were you ever worried that this was going to be too big of a challenge?
Mohamed Diab: I was so nervous because I was always openly critical of how Egypt has been portrayed in Hollywood. And it’s not just me, I think Egyptians and Arabs are tired of seeing our world portrayed to be 90% camels and desert. They often make out that we’re all very primitive and I really wanted to defy that stereotype because it’s not reality. Cairo is an unbelievable, huge urban city that never sleeps. I read a comment that literally said, “Oh, I never knew that Egypt had electricity.” As much as I don’t like that, I’m not going to say that this person is ignorant because a lot of people around the world get their information from the media and this is how they show us all the time. It was a big challenge to shoot Egypt in Budapest, but I have to give it to my team, I challenged them.
As an Egyptian, you know that putting on a veil in a way makes you Syrian or put it in a different way and you are Egyptian or Afghani. In a second, even clothing can completely put you in a different place. So I had the great Megan Kasperlik as a costume designer, my set decorator Stefania Cella, and Sean Faden our visual effects supervisor. The three of them working together, they gave us Egypt and it’s a version of Egypt that no one would know is not shot on location if we didn’t tell them. I was the “Egypt police” all along, focusing on small details, but that’s what made a difference.
In Assembled: The Making of Moon Knight you mentioned that some of the Egyptian extras on set came up to you and said that they felt like they were at home for the first time in years. What was it like to be able to give back to the Egyptian community in these ways?
Mohamed Diab: It’s the best feeling in the world. As someone that has come from independent films, I love seeing things that I’ve done be embraced by a different culture, that’s my biggest pleasure. Seeing how big Moon Knight was, I mean millions of people watch Marvel shows, but that stamp of approval from Egyptians was very important because it is showing the world that this is how we want to be portrayed. We just want to be shown as normal human beings.
Cinema is a great way to bridge the gaps to make us feel like part of one big family. So to have a character like Layla who is fierce and strong, and resembles the majority of Egyptian and Arab women, is something that defies the stereotype. Seeing Egypt as an urban place that feels similar to New York and so many other places, again, bridges the gap between people and makes us realize that we are all very similar.
Many viewers have finally been able to see what the real streets of Cairo are like. It was amazing to watch scenes like the one with Marc and Layla on the Nile boat that feels so authentic to our culture.
Mohamed Diab: We picked out things that define anyone’s trip to Cairo, things we never saw in other movies. Like you said, going on a felucca on the Nile is a part of the Egyptian experience. It was ironic to shoot that scene in Budapest, but I’m so happy that it looks exactly like Cairo in the end. Having a great team and production supporting your vision was a very important thing and I have to thank everyone.
When it comes to Jake Lockley, did he originally ever have a bigger part in the show, or was the reveal always going to be at the end?
Mohamed Diab: The way we started with Jake is very similar to the way it is right now. We did try a draft where we added him more to the script, but it felt unfair to Jake because you need to give him as much time as the other two. When we developed the blinks all together and then put Jake in at the end, it felt like that was the perfect recipe. He was trending every week, he was the elephant in the room. I love the way we ended with him and I’m so excited for the one day someone, whether it will be me or someone else, will get to develop who Jake is and his story. That’s a new chapter of the story that, as a spectator, I just can’t wait to see.
To wrap things up, obviously, you can’t say much about whether or not there will be another season of Moon Knight, but are there any aspects of the comics or perhaps ancient Egyptian mythology that you would like to see explored in future projects?
Mohamed Diab: First of all, Marvel is secretive and that is part of the fun when it comes to working with them or even watching what they’re doing. I don’t know if there’s going to be season two or not and I’m not pulling an Andrew Garfield on you. I’m sure that there is going to be an extension of this character because it’s been successful. Oscar and May are great, I’m sure they’re coming back whether it’s in a second season, film, or whatever. I really think I got the best character that I wanted from the MCU world.
My only dream is to integrate them into more of the Marvel worlds and see how he is going to interact with other characters. I think he will drive them crazy talking to them as one person creating bonds and then, all of a sudden, he is someone else. Imagine having me as a friend who loves you and all of a sudden I’m a different person that hates your guts and I can’t stand you. I love that dynamic of three personalities. I can’t wait to see them interact with more of the Marvel Universe.