Born in Morocco, Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah both had a passion for film. In 2010, that passion brought the two strangers to LUCA School of Arts Sint-Lukas campus in Brussels, Belgium. Amidst a sea of white faces, the pair met and found solidarity in their shared nationality and love of film.
The duo recently sat down to discuss their journey to fame on an episode of On Purpose with Jay Shetty. As they talked, it was apparent that the duo don’t take a moment of their story for granted.
“I think for anyone who’s listening and watching today, this is one of those stories that’s gonna make you dream again,” said Jay Shetty. “It’s one of those stories that helps you realize the value of hard work and the value of what it takes to really chase your dreams.”
Film School and Beyond
For Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, their first encounter was all about connecting with a familiar face.
“Sint-Lucas in Brussels was a very artistic school, and it was actually full of white people,” El Arbi explained to Jay Shetty. “I was very shy and not really sociable. I didn’t talk a lot, and I also didn’t know how to dress well. So I was like, in my corner. And then came somebody that was really loud.”
“I wasn’t that loud!” objected Fallah.
“But it was like The Fresh Prince came in,” continued El Arbi to Jay Shetty. “The Fresh Prince of Brussels was talking to everybody and I was like, ‘Who’s this loud guy?’”
“I walked in, and I only saw white people. In the corner I saw Adil, and I was like, ‘Is that a Moroccan?’ I went to him and said, ‘Yo, you Moroccan?’ He said, “‘Yeah!’ and then we became brothers.”
Although the two became fast friends, it didn’t immediately occur to them to pair up professionally. They were each charting their own course of success, and their wildly different personalities made it seem impossible to think of tackling projects as a team.
It took a while to realize that their differences benefitted them. Their work was stronger together.
“With his crazy perfectionism and my lazy nonchalance, we just let it happen,” said El Arbi to Jay Shetty. “The combination made it work like a very good balance.”
Sint Lukas Film School was known for focusing on short films that are more artistic in nature than what Hollywood is typically known for. As the duo began to get their feet wet and dabble in film, in the back of their minds, they were secretly holding on to the dream of Hollywood.
Black is their Golden Ticket
While no one waltzes into a Hollywood movie directorship, there was a point in time where El Arbi and Fallah felt like the door was flung open for them. After reading the book Black by Dirk Brache, a Romeo and Juliet love story about gangs in Brussels, the pair knew they had found it.
“When we read that book, right away we knew this was gonna be our Do The Right Thing, our La Haine, our Mean Streets. This is the movie. This movie is gonna be our ticket to Hollywood no matter what,” El Arbi recalled to Jay Shetty. The true-life tale follows a 15-year-old Congolese girl who falls in love with a Moroccan boy from a rival gang.
“What was it about the story?” asked Jay Shetty. “What was it that connected with both of you that you felt so confident that was going to be your ticket into the directing world?”
El Arbi and Fallah explain that this story was close to their hearts because it dealt with their people and the very real struggles facing Arab and African youth in Belgium.
“When a girl is in a gang like that in Belgium, she’s just an object, you know?” El Arbi said to Jay Shetty. “She’s forced to have sex with everybody of that gang. It’s a very harsh reality that nobody really talks about and nobody wanted to see. All the victims are gang members even though they’re just 15 or 16 years old. We felt compelled to really tell the story because it’s a reality and their stories are worth being told to the world.”
While the story itself is powerful enough, El Arbi and Fallah’s creative process took it to another level. Their unique approach to directing is seen from the ground up. When it came time to build a cast, El Arbi and Fallah hit the streets.
“The actors had never played in movies before,” Fallah told Jay Shetty, “Acting schools and casting agencies didn’t have the diversity we needed. We had to find them on the streets.” They hit the streets for six months and used unlikely methods to discover the right rising stars for the film.
“We did like six months of intensive casting on the street,” Fallah explained to Jay Shetty. “We knew there was such a big pool of talent that nobody saw.”
When they searched, they found. A few of the actors chosen were singers or rappers for whom this would be their first acting gig. Other times they bumped into the perfect person while eating bread in the town square.
They even chased a man down in the street when they caught a glimpse of a face that matched the vision they had for the main male character. Turns out, he was perfect for the part, not just because he looked like the lead, but because he had lived it.
“The character in the movie is an ex-child soldier because a lot of leaders in those gangs are ex-child soldiers,” explained Fallah to Jay Shetty. “Our actor was not a child soldier, but he lived through the civil war in Burundi. The scenes that we shot with him looking at civil war footage on the TV screen – he felt that. He understood completely. He was very close to the real character, you know?”
The lead female in the movie sought them out because of her deep love for the book. She tried out and landed the part. It was her first-ever role. Each character match has such a powerful story that gives more depth and life to the movie.
“You guys really care about telling these stories,” Jay Shetty said. “You really believe in the fact that there are these people with no voice, people who are marginalized and not really understood. You genuinely believe that they deserve a voice.”
The depth and matching of their characters not only blended the movie beautifully, but also caught the eyes of several big names in Hollywood. A handful of the actors they used have gone on to get parts in other movies thanks for the duo’s unconventional vision and bravery in casting.
From Black to Bruckheimer to Bad Boys
El Arbi and Fallah were right about their hunch. Black soared to the top of the Toronto Film Festival where it caught the eye of Hollywood giant, Jerry Bruckheimer. Because of prior commitments, the pair sadly turned him down upon first approach about working together on Bad Boys.
Eventually, however, they got their chance. In 2018, Bruckheimer came calling once again with an offer to work on Bad Boys For Life. This time, there was nothing standing in their way.
Being thrown into Hollywood and calling the shots for a highly anticipated movie was a lot of pressure. But directing childhood idols took the experience to another level.
El Arbi and Fallah had grown up looking up to Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, and Spike Lee. Fallah had so respected Will Smith and his Fresh Prince character, that he adopted his persona as an awkward teenager when he needed a confidence boost.
Their biggest hurdle was learning to sit in the driver’s seat with confidence. Smith and Lawrence had been in the business for so long, and it was intimidating. In the first week of working together, Smith stood up to them and pushed their buttons as hard as he could in an attempt to test them and help build their self-confidence.
In hindsight, the two realize Smith was helping them get over tiptoeing around. They needed to prove to themselves that they were directors and not just fanboys. Today, Smith is one of their biggest cheerleaders in the business.
“He pushed us to go all the way,” Fallah told Jay Shetty. El Arbi agrees, “He fights for you. He falls on the sword for your ideas. That was really great.” That boost of confidence was what the pair needed to walk forward and create boldly. Those decisions paid off when the film was very successful.
Living the Dream When the Magic Fades
Things didn’t start out magically, though. Like Jay Shetty, El Arbi and Fallah are not strangers to hard work and challenges. There were times when time and money were tight and stress was high. They stayed committed to their dreams by reminding themselves the only thing fear leads to is failure.
Though theirs was a dream come true, it was not always smooth sailing. It wasn’t handed to them on a silver platter. Without Hollywood connections, they worked from the ground up and many times felt like they were going it alone. Instead of stopping them, this encouraged them to go all in.
“It’s not something that you can do on the side,” said El Arbi to Jay Shetty. “You got to go all the way for movies if that’s really your passion and your dream. You got to spend all your time on it, which means that you don’t spend your time earning money.”
It was hard, but their obsession with creating amazing film projects was the catalyst for their success.
“It was the thing that would make us survive,” El Arbi said to Jay Shetty. “It’s like when you say it was our purpose, it was really only the thing.” The pair did what it took, even sleeping in the attic at Fallah’s parents’ home on a mattress on the ground.
“We knew that one day we were gonna laugh about this,” El Arbi said. “We got to laugh about this now. It was a struggle. It’s the dream and that passion that makes you feel alive and keeps you going no matter how hard the struggle is.”
The Future of Film Through the Eyes of Foreigners
Today, El Arbi and Fallah are on the other side giving young hopefuls advice on finding film success. The dynamic duo don’t mince words.
“Get ready to fall on your face,” they said to Jay Shetty’s listeners. “It’s gonna hurt, but don’t give up. Get up and try again.”
Their passion encompasses more than simply childhood dreams coming true. As the duo look to the future, they are not focused on their own fame as much as they are searching out ways to strengthen the big screen voice and representation of minorities and people of color.
If the example of how they cast Black tells us anything, we can be assured that these two are capable of finding a goldmine of talent in the most unexpected places. Not only that, but the pair feel so strongly about sharing stories of the real world on the big screen.
“I really feel you guys have disrupted the industry,” said Jay Shetty. “I’m excited to see that, and I don’t think you guys are ever going to change because you are just who you are. I’m excited to see how you continue to represent diversity and how you continue to tell stories of people that are not told enough.”
Their sights are set on playing an integral part in elevating the stories of other people and cultures, promoting women in film, and representing stories and languages that deserve to be shared. Those avenues of diversity and inclusion are the stories they are committed to telling. In the eyes of El Arbi and Fallah, the power of movies to draw empathy and spark unity is profound.
“In a very naive way,” El Arbi declares passionately to Jay Shetty, “we believe that movies can save the world.” The two can think of no higher honor than to play a vital role in seeing that come to fruition.
More From Jay Shetty
Listen to the entire On Purpose with Jay Shetty podcast episode with the Bad Boys For Life Directors ON “The Journey From Film School To Big Hollywood Success & Giving Back Along The Way” now in the iTunes store or on Spotify. For more inspirational stories and messages like this, check out Jay’s website at jayshetty.me.