Conversation with Ali Abbas, Creator of New Supernatural Web-Series The Girl Deep Down Below

By Molly Pease

Ali Abbas is a Chicago-born, queer, Muslim writer who is drawn to horror, sci-fi, and comedy. In 2017, he was awarded the Chicago Digital Media Fund which is the same grant that helped produce Brown Girls and Brujos. He used this grant to create The Girl Deep Down Below, a Chicago-based horror web series in which Muslim women begin to disappear. I got the chance to meet up with Ali at Chicago Filmmakers. Ali goes by he/him and sometimes they/them pronouns. We talked about everything from AI morality coding to filming a pitch video with your Pokemon paraphernalia in the background. We also discussed having your comedy icons tell you that queer, Muslim scripts just won’t sell. Hearing his stories, I could relate to his frustrations. As queer writers, we are often told that you can’t write genre pieces (horror, sci-fi) with an LGBTQ+ and/or racially diverse cast because there is a false belief that it will be “too much” for an audience. But, when we did find our way back to discussing his web series, it became obvious that Ali did just that. He created a supernatural, Muslim web series that does not need to fit into any boxes. Our conversation continues below…


Hey Ali, I already know from talking to you that you’re a great human being, but would you like to introduce yourself to our readers?

I’m a screenwriter based out of Chicago and New York. I split my year down the middle. I’ve only been writing scripts a few years, my degree is in philosophy and I started in publishing and journalism. I started to learn screenwriting at the Upright Citizens Brigade in NYC one Summer. It was sketch comedy at first, but I moved towards longer formats. I’ve always loved television a little too much. My daily routine starts at 5am with watching every newly aired episode from the night before.

What is your new web series The Girl Deep Down Below about?

The Girl Deep Down Below (TGDDB) is a horror dramedy about a string of missing girls in a Chicago Muslim community, and the girls working to find them.

Yes! We need more female centric sci-fi! Where did this particular idea come from?

Though I usually incorporate a science fiction element to most of my scripts, most of my ideas come from news stories that catch my interest. The concept for TGDDB had a couple of seeds, the first being crushing disappointment. At the end of 2015, CBS had touted a “diverse” Nancy Drew reboot that was set to feature Sarah Shahi, probably one of the most talented and hardest working people in the industry. CBS later cancelled the pilot, reportedly because it skewed “too female” in testing. It was an opportunity for someone in our community to play something unique, for someone that looks like us to solve crimes and have some character depth.

A short while after the cancellation, the election started ramping up and so did the attacks on women that were visibly Muslim (wearing hijab.)

In one 2016 case, a teen Muslim girl went missing for a week and then mysteriously returned. The media speculation around her story didn’t have much hard evidence about where she had fled and why, only speculation. A lot of Amel’s character (played by Samira Baraki) was inspired by the ambiguity of those events. We just gave her a fantastical lore.

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How do you feel like the supernatural interacts with the political in this piece?

Well the main antagonist is a being without a name, so the characters refer to it as “the white man in the suit” because of its physical appearance. Like in any good horror, I wanted the monster to be representative of a deeper anxiety the characters share. Though the monster is beyond human politics, you find out later in the series it’s functioning on a very prejudice instinct from a past life.

Donald Glover hit on something a little similar a few weeks ago on the horror episode of Atlanta. In the scene where his now infamous and terrifying Teddy Perkins persona walks Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) into a room within his “museum” featuring a white mannequin in a suit. When asked about the mannequin, Teddy Perkins explains “this is my father, he’s the reason for all of this.”

I think there’s something about the brand of patriarchy a white man in a suit represents that hits on a deep rooted fear for a lot of people of color. It’s not just authority, it’s dysfunctional fatherhood, brotherhood, and toxic masculinity, too.  

Our monster:

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Do you have a favorite character or plot moment from the series that you’d like to share?

I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback on all the women in our cast, but Amira (Ragda Izar) is by far a fan favorite. From our premiere to every screening afterwards, people never fail to mention their love for her. She’s a hypocritical narcissist with extreme parasocial behavior, but I think she brings a very masculine energy to the story. We usually punish women characters that are vicious by using them as a plot device for a moral lesson, but not Amira. She just keeps moving forward. She’s grossly aware of how shallow and fake she is, but in a world where a creepy sci-fi word like “influencer” is considered a good thing, I think it’s fresh to see the moments behind the curated fake vlogs and photos.

Great! As the director/writer/producer, were there any moments where you got to take a break and enjoy this beautiful thing you were creating?

I really enjoyed our conversations after night shoots. There’s something about 3 am after ten hours of shooting that makes you so talkative. I think it’s that moment at the tail end of hypothermia where you experience great warmth. The sleepiness of our last scene would wear off and suddenly we would be knee-deep in a salon on philosophy or science. Most of our cast and crew have never acted and are members of the community trying it for the first time. That said, my community is freaking brilliant so many are pre-med, engineering, or scientists in a lab. I’m blown away by the interdisciplinary brilliance of my cast and crew.

In writing a comedy with such strong human rights implications, how do you balance the entertainment with the social message of the series?

I always make it a point in my work to never stand on a soap box. I think the counterculture to the terrorist narrative of Muslims in television has been pretty vanilla. There’s a growing trend in television in which the simplest way to work around writing complex Muslim characters is to make them super innocent or one-dimensional gay characters meant to somehow be edgy or subversive. I wanted my characters to be as problematic as they were entertaining. They can be earnest, brilliant, and resourceful, but also self-absorbed, mean, or just plain incompetent.

I don’t like to perpetuate the idea that Muslims need to prove they are nice or helpful in order to be accepted. There are plenty of comedies featuring vapid and vacuous white people and nobody bats an eye.
 

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How was the experience of getting to work with an awesome all Muslim female identified cast? What do you think they brought to these characters, in both expected and unexpected ways?

Awesome. It was great working with an entirely Muslim cast and crew. Everyone came together often donating their time and energy to long hours of thankless shooting. Most of our cast are newbies to performing, but I was impressed with everything they brought from auditions to the final moment we yelled cut. We really came together as a team to make this happen. Acting veterans Arij Mikati and Sazi Bakhti played Zee and Megan respectively, while also helping the newcomers perfect their scenes. Everyone took amazing direction on set and ran with it.

As a Chicago native, how do you capture the streets of Chicago in an authentic way?

I really wanted to show the more industrial parts of Chicago. I think a lot of new Chicago tv shows try to make Chicago seems as though it’s all brownstone neighborhoods or high rise apartments. Living between New York and Chicago, I’ve started to realize that we Chicagoans take our industrial history and beauty for granted. Nowhere in Manhattan will you find a factory the size of Morton Salt’s in the middle of a neighborhood. And you’ll never see the quantity or size of car dealerships as you see in Chicago’s downtown. It’s obviously horrifying in terms of the climate, but I think it’s a part of this city’s history that’s undeniable. My brother and I used to play in the sheet metal factory my father worked in before he became a car salesman downtown. Machines and factories strangely remind me of the city.

We also take our alleys for granted. Walk down the Lower East Side on a hot new york day with all the garbage out front and tell me that Chicago alleyways aren’t the greatest invention humanity has ever made.

Where did y’all get the music for the series?

Our music, like everything else in the series, was created by a member of our community, Liyaquat Lashkariya. He’s a brilliant sound designer. When we first told him about the slightly-campy tone we were trying to hit, he came up with some great ambient tracks.

WATCH THE SERIES HERE

A Conversation with Summer Blake, Creator of forthcoming Web Series Insignificant Other

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I was able to speak with Northwestern alumni Summer Blake about her new comedy web series Insignificant Other. This series follows two exes as they continue sharing an apartment even after their break up.


First off, I’m always interested in seeing how people find comedy as their main creative outlet. Mostly, because comedy is hard. How did you come to love writing comedy?

Divorced parents. Anxiety. Depression. Getting picked on in school. Having a head that was too big for my body, bucked teeth, and incredibly hairy legs that my mom wouldn’t let me shave when I was eleven. Comedy’s just a way of coping with life, which can be such a huge bitch sometimes.  It’s like a neurotic’s meditation practice. When things were rough at home I would binge my family’s collection of Simpsons DVDs. Then I moved on to Seinfeld. Arrested Development. I actually have a tattoo on my back that’s a reference to AD. It taught me that having a dysfunctional family is yes, at times a bit sad, but anything sad or painful or embarrassing can be funny. And that’s pretty much my motto to this day.

So while this web series is a comedy, there is also a realism in how it deals with the central romantic relationship. Though it is definitely not a rom-com, if anything it seems like the anti-rom-com. Why did you decide that this story needs to be told now and how is it relevant to your own life?

Oh god, love and the lack thereof is everything. It’s EVERYTHING. It’s comedy, it’s drama. It’s the highs and the lows of life. Funny enough I stole the idea from my friend Mary who was living with her boyfriend for a month after they’d broken up. Those year-long leases are a bitch. Especially in the coastal cities it’s impossible to afford rent. I pretty much go on dates now trying to sniff out whether I can stay with the person long enough to be my bedmate and pay 50% of what I pay now for silver lake. (Maybe I shouldn’t admit that. I think the trick people into liking you is playing hard to get and not ‘ready to wed.’)

Since the time I asked permission to use my friend’s story, I’ve come across the same premise in actual life like two or three more times. Living with your ex and hating them! It’s rampant! Like the millennial version of kids putting too much strain on marriages.

But I think above all else, this is a comedy about growing up and learning that to find yourself you often have to let go of people or habits that define you. And that process rarely happens overnight. What will Gerry and Carl mean to each other in ten years? I’m not sure I know the answer. Only that love fades, but I don’t think ever completely evaporates.

What was the process like for creating this series, especially as the auteur (writer, director, star) of the piece? What did you learn along the way and what might you do differently next time?

The fact that we even made the damn thing is a huge success. But aside from that, I learned so much as a relatively new director. I learned both the power of compromise, because filmmaking is inherently such a collaboration. And also the power (which I’m still working on, because I’m a people pleaser and it’s difficult) of sticking up for yourself. Females so often are taught to be peacekeepers and agreers. To not stir up tension or be too assertive. My co-director and DP are two of the smartest motherfuckers I know - and also two of the loudest and most aggressive in their decisiveness and vision. If I was gonna get a word in or make a change, I had to stand my ground. That was difficult. Not just being a female filmmaker, but also just as a person working with their friends….who are all working for free!

In the future, I think I’ll probably stay away from acting and directing simultaneously. I don’t know how so many big hollywood icons do it! Your brain is split between two opposite roles on set and you are only able to give 50% of your brain to each. Acting is all about presentness. About being true to your scene partner and listening to their lines in order to give an organic response. But when your eyes are drifting to the monitor and you’re thinking about when to call cut, you start to phone in your performance. Thank god, my co-director, Sam Freedman (shout out, I love you) is a total pro. Our second round of shooting went so much more smoothly when we more established our roles.  He’d set up the shot with Ryan our cinematographer, while I’d run lines with the actors.

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Yes, I can definitely see how serving in so many roles would be difficult but manageable during pre-production and post-production, but insane during the actual production. Any insight into how you made things work on set?

Being on set - at least when you have an all-consuming no-time-to-breathe role as director/writer/producer/actor - is about as fun as life gets for me. With a mind that runs a mile a minute and destroys my soul with anxiety when sitting at a 9-to-7 desk job, being consistently under pressure to get the shot, get it right, then set up the next one, is like heroin. Time passes so quickly you wouldn’t believe.

Of course, filming isn’t without its stresses. We shot the entirety of episode 3 in a day and by the end I think we all wanted to kill each other. First there was the taping of a camera to the hood of a car to film a driving-and-talking scene, which, suffice to say, when you’re working without insurance, might just be the most stressful thing you can do to yourself. Then my co-director lost his backpack on the beach. (Funny story, he was pulled over later that day making an illegal u-turn, and the officer who gave him the ticket found his backpack that night.) But it was all worth it because a) we got some amazing footage. And b) we saw Caitlyn Jenner in a starbucks!

I got to watch the trailer and was very impressed by the cinematography, especially the beach scenes. How did y’all achieve such beautiful shots?

Thank you! We three (me, my co-director, and my DP) are all such film kids deep down. We may not have learned anything relevant about being a professional in the industry in college but we DID learn how to shot list the hell out of a scene.

I can’t emphasize enough how important good pre-production is to the success of a project. It’s a bitch to spend hours around your kitchen table doing preliminary concept meetings, shot listing and scheduling meetings, etc etc - especially when you know the project you’re creating is in a sense, super amateur. But taking the little steps seriously is what gets you a decent looking hour of content on a miniscule budget.

Not to say we didn’t fuck up. We totally did. Our third weekend of shooting we completely forgot to take times of day into consideration and ended up taking six or so hours to tape trash bags to the windows. Then take them all back down again. I’m sorry to our actors. They were wonderful and very patient. I love them to death.

Astrology sign?

Cancer sun / Taurus Moon / Leo Rising 

(my shrink thinks the latter one is super important for some reason. I think I have to keep paying her to find out why.)

Those are good signs to have! Especially the Leo Rising (though I am biased.)

How did you all find the music for your series? Where can we listen to it after we watch the series and become obsessed?

I don’t know too many indie bands, so I reached out to people who I thought were more in the know. My friend/roommate Sadie, for instance (who’s also helping out with our publicity) is big into smaller labels primarily in Chicago, and an ex who works as a composer who knows several indie acts around LA. And then for some finishing touches I dug deep for hours on Spotify, searching for artists who are up and coming and had the right sound for the project.

Our list of amazing performers includes: Beach Bunny, Huxlee, Space Cadets, Doso, Tealideal, and Maddie Ross. Our composer, Chris Anselmo (look him up on wikipedia he’s gonna be a huge deal!) also wrote some of the music, as did our incredible sound designer, Laszlo Bereti.

Where can we find the series?

YOUTUBE. JUNE 10TH.