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Responses by Tahaab Rais, chief strategy officer and director, Leo Burnett MEA.

Background: Fifteen percent of homes in the Middle East are homes that are of blended families, owing to remarriages. Yet, women and men marrying again is seen as a taboo—both cultural and societal. Not many talk about it, owing to social and cultural prejudices, and no brand has ever delved into it. For Home Centre, a leading home and furniture retailer, we wanted to show that stepdads who step up, the ones who reunite broken homes.

Design thinking: While studying children’s drawings of how they saw their stepdads when they first met them, our creative team saw many drawings of monsters, creatures, aliens and otherworldly or nearly grotesque figures. To share our POV in support of remarriages in the Middle East and to capture attention, we chose to show stepdads as the otherworldly creatures most children first saw them as.

The film tells the story of a child who goes through the stages of fear, disgust, angst and confusion against The Creature, who has intruded into his life, who is going to rob him of his mother’s love, the warmth of his home and everything that he holds dear. But over the course of the film, we see the child’s views about The Creature change over a period of months, and he finally accepts him as his stepdad. The film ends with the message: stepdads are the dads who step up.

Challenges: From a directional and filmmaking standpoint, our vision wasn’t to make this in CGI or using visual effects. I wanted everything on set to be real and authentic, so the child’s reactions would also be real. Hence, we set out to create The Creature using practical effects. But such abilities don’t exist in Dubai—we’re not in Hollywood—so we had to create The Creature from scratch.

Given the heat in the United Arab Emirates, we also had to make sure there was an electric motor and a fan inside the costume so the people inside it would stay ventilated and cool. We had two tall men alternating The Creature’s role to avoid heat sickness, and directing them inside that outfit to be in sync with the child actor and the environment proved to be an interesting challenge.

Additionally, we only had the budget for a one-day shoot. If you watch the film, you’ll see it’s a long film—and we shot all of that in one day, in summer heat of 50° C (122° F), with many outdoor shots.

Favorite details: The little Easter eggs. For example, the child’s teddy bear you see in one scene on the dining table is furry and fluffy like The Creature. It’s an interesting allusion to the child’s imagination and how some part of The Creature is linked to that teddy bear.

An original soundtrack, “The Lighthouse and the Boat,” was composed for this film. The song uses the metaphor of a lighthouse and a boat to convey a relationship between two people—a stepfather and stepson—two worlds apart, trying to fill a missing gap in their life, finding their way to each other and finding purpose in each other amid the stormy tides and endless darkness of the sea. This was a joy to write, tapping into personal experiences with relationships.

And the cast. I wanted to find an actor who would be able to last through a rigorous shoot. And because there is no dialog in the film, the child needed to be able to express through his eyes. Not finding such talent locally, I scouted for Middle Eastern–looking kids using Google and found Tanmay in India, a brilliant actor whom we flew over for this shoot.
Visual influences: I wanted to make The Creature look like a living, breathing giant that would be scary to kids. A design team with concept artists developed several designs inspired by the sketches of children from blended families. We kept the creature faceless on purpose to represent the kids’ perception of stepdads.

The entire suit of The Creature was created locally with a company that makes mascots. Sitting with them and working with them every day, details like his hair, head and shoulder movements were made to look as authentic as possible.

The brief was quite simple: create a nightmarish version of the baby of Chewbacca and the characters from Where the Wild Things Are, which we got pretty much right.

Time constraints: We had one day to shoot, given the budget. In the summer heat with the storyboard we had written out and a child actor whom we could not work with beyond a certain number of humane hours, this proved to be a massive challenge. But it made us work smarter and harder. The clarity of direction in every single set piece, shot and scene helped. The crew was great to work with, and the child actor was fantastic.


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