By Paul T. Boghosian
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
HAMILTON, N.Y. — For months, Armenians have been hearing about a new film, “The Promise,” that had debuted at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival, not only the film, but the pushback by Turkish PR.
“The Promise” is a straightforward, narrative story set in 1915 and focuses on the love triangle between an Armenian medical student, Michael (Oscar Isaac) and an Armenian woman raised in France, Ana (Charlotte LeBon) and an American journalist working for the AP, who is based in Paris, Christopher (Academy Award winner Christian Bale). The relationship among and between these 3 characters provides an intimate look and understanding of the effects of the Turkish genocide against the Armenian people. “The Promise” is no small budget art film. It has been made for main stream audiences to be seen at the multiplex near you.
When I received a call from Peter Balakian inviting me to join his Colgate colleagues, friends and students at an advanced screening of the film in Hamilton, NY, on March 26, and to meet with the director Terry George, I jumped at the opportunity and drove five hours from Boston to see the film.
As I have had the opportunity to be on many film sets in the past, I was accustomed to meeting with film directors who are not only commanding, but also used to being the last voice heard on any subject. However, when Terry George walks into a room, he could easily pass for a Colgate professor with his tall and graceful manner, his quiet and deliberate speaking voice, and his easy conversational demeanor that easily captures the attention of those in his presence.
The following interview with George was gathered from conversation at the Balakian home following the screening, an informal conversation in the lobby of the Colgate Inn where we both stayed, and a more formal interview over breakfast the morning after the screening. For purposes of reader clarity, I organized the information provided by Terry George around nine questions.
Has “The Promise” been modified or changed since the world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last September? I heard there was a Turkish response to the film.
IMDB (International Movie Data Base) had never experienced anything like the comments after the Toronto screenings. We ran the movie twice and we were in the largest hall at the festival. We had a total of 3,000 people in attendance who gave the film standing ovations and lots of cheers. Then IMDB received about 60,000 hits of people giving the film a 1 rating out of 10. This was obviously an orchestrated Turkish response. People were rating the film who had never seen it or knew anything about it, but someone had told them to give the film a 1. Then tens of thousands of Armenians gave the film a 10 in response. The IMDB website crashed as a result, and that has never happened before. Obviously, organized denialists are out there.
The film has been shortened a bit and we made a few other changes here and there, but it is essentially the same film we showed in Toronto.
What drew you to “The Promise”? What was it about the story that motivated your involvement?
My agent sent me the script and thought I would be interested in the subject matter based on the films I have done in the past, such as “In the Name of the Father” and “Hotel Rwanda”, which both covered significant human rights issues. “In the Name of the Father” covered the true-life story of four people falsely convicted of the 1974 Irish Republican Army bombing. And “Hotel Rwanda” covered the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
When I read the original script, I didn’t think it fully addressed the scope of the Armenian genocide. So, I enlarged the story and created the character of Christopher Myers played by Christian Bale. The Myer character, the reporter, is a composite of a number of eyewitness reporters who witnessed sections of the genocide. Peter Balakian’s book The Burning Tigris was a great help in informing me of the coverage of the genocide in American newspapers. Also, Peter’s translation of his great-uncle’s journey to survival in Armenian Golgotha provided me with an understanding of the scope of the genocide and how some survived.
What role did you play in the casting?
Christian Bale was attached to the original script before I got involved and with his name in place, other great actors got involved like Oscar Isaac, James Cromwell (Ambassador Morgenthau), Jean Reno and Shohreh Aghdashloo.
We did a wide cast for the Ana character. This was a difficult role to cast. We needed a woman who had a strong and independent character who could attract 2 very different types of men. A friend sent me a Canadian fashion magazine with Charlotte LeBon on the cover. I wasn’t looking for a model, but I saw her in interviews and doing a comedy sketch on a late night show, and after I met with her I fully believed she could be Ana. Having been born in France and in the role as Ana, you could certainly believe her as an avant-garde socially liberated woman who could attract Chris Myers, but also, when she was in Constantinople, you can see how she is rediscovering her identity as an Armenian woman and would also be attracted to Michael, and how that relationship would work.
What was Kirk Kerkorian’s role in making “The Promise”?
Kirk financed the entire film. Without him, “The Promise” would not exist. He improved the script. Kirk always liked films that have this big screen narrative story line. He liked the films of David Lean, such as “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago”. The movies he liked usually had a romantic story that allows the audience to identify with the characters as if they were experiencing their difficulties and struggles.
How would you describe the filmmaking style of “The Promise”?
“The Promise” is not the kind of film that is made today. Some may call it old-fashioned filmmaking. It does have a 1970’s feel to it, and that is deliberate. The films made today for in the international market do not cover serious topics. This obviously is not an animated film, a superhero film, or a big action film with explosions every few minutes.
As I tell my students in my film classes, making a film is like having a bowl of cereal. You have the Frosted Flakes type of film that is very sugary and gives you a high, but is not good for you. You have the Corn Flakes type of film that has some good things associated with it and is filling. And finally, you have the Raisin Bran type of film that is good for you, is satisfying and has a positive long term effect on you. I like to make films that are educational and entertaining. I suppose I make Raisin Bran type of films.
Don Cheadle, the star of “Hotel Rwanda”, and I used to discuss the type of film we want to make. The word Peoria. As in, is “Hotel Rwanda” going to play in Peoria? Will it be understood? Is it main stream enough? How do we make the Peoria audience understand the importance of the film? “The Promise” is meant to play in Peoria.
Do you feel “The Promise” is an authentic portrayal of the Armenian Genocide?
I learned from making “In the Name of the Father” and “Hotel Rwanda” that anything you put on the screen has to be thoroughly researched. When you are adding fictional scenes for purposes of the story, even then you cannot distort the real events and the real people you are portraying. The characters and the scenes have to accurately relate to the audience something that was going on at that time and place. I wanted to make sure that the look on the screen and the feel of the scene is real. I tried at all times to be accurate and drew heavily upon my three technical advisors to make sure that even the fictional scenes were embedded with the reality of history.
Every detail was checked and rechecked for accuracy. For example, the betrothal scene involving the dancing, the community life of the village, the paying of the dowry, as well as all the church scenes and the singing that we put on the screen are all accurate. When scouting locations in Spain, Portugal and Malta I drew upon the photographs of the period. I matched the Musa Dagh scenes to the photos that I had.
In 2 months of pre-production I did everything possible — based on the research that we did — to match the photographs that were shot in Ottoman Turkey to the locations that were available in Spain and Malta. I think there is an amazing resemblance between the locations we selected and the real ones.
I played with the notion of using subtitles, but with the five possible languages that the characters spoke, we would be entering a slippery slope which would confuse the audience. The Armenian words used in the toasting scene, that was set in Watertown, Massachusetts, was an accurate Armenian toast that was spoken in Armenian.
Did you feel any special pressure in directing “The Promise” because of expectations of the Armenians and Kerkorian’s financing?
Kirk had died before we started filming. He did okay the script. Eric Esrailian oversaw the project and represented Kirk’s point of view. From the very beginning, the plan was to follow through on Kirk’s vision of having a love story be at the front of the genocide story and provide access from an audience point of view to the violence and tragedy of the genocide.
We had only 70 days of production and for a film of this scope, we had to move quickly. We covered an amazing amount of ground in a short time. David Lean’s films, for example, would have 6 to 9 months of shooting and a year of pre-production. I had 2 months of pre-production to pick locations and finalize details, finish the casting, and hire and organize the production crew.
I was aware of the importance of the Armenian audience to the success of this film and accordingly, I knew the value of getting the details right as best as I could, given the necessary compromise of film making.
We wanted a PG-13 rating, not an R so that teenagers and families could see the film together. We deliberately stayed away from long lingering shots of the brutality and violence that the Turks perpetrated on the Armenians in order to stay away from the R rating.
How is that you have been attracted to directing films that capture historical events?
Audiences learn more from films today than they do from history books. Today’s audiences in particular get much of their history from films, popular culture and media. Who knew about the Cambodian killing fields until the film “The Killing Fields” came out? That movie put Cambodia in the consciousness of the world. “In the Name of the Father” informed audiences on Irish politics and contemporary history. “Hotel Rwanda” educated an audience about a genocide they knew little or nothing about. “The Promise” is the first Hollywood film about the Armenian genocide and in the course of its theater run, followed by cable and DVD and Netflix, there will be a greater recognition and understanding of the Armenian genocide.
What can you say about the distribution of “The Promise”?
We have Open Road as the distributor of the film and they have had great success with important themed films. “The Promise” is scheduled to be released in the US on April 21, throughout Europe on April 28 and Asia in early May. We will have about 2,000 theatres showing “The Promise” in the US. I’m doing as much press and publicity as I can. After this interview I’m leaving for London.
Open Road certainly sees Armenians as its core audience to generate box office momentum. Even the best of films are fortunate to last three weeks in a theatrical run. The first weekend and week is of critical importance. We are hoping that the film will get great word of mouth to keep it going. “Hotel Rwanda” was also considered a specialty film and the word of mouth kept the film going and going and their DVD sales were terrific, eventually resulting in an Oscar nomination. I’m hoping this film follows the same route. All the ancillary avenues follow the box office success in theaters.