Director always in the firing line

Terry George on genocide backlash, Ireland and Brexit

by Richard Mowe

Terry George in Deauville: 'it was like flying under the radar until we got this made'
Terry George in Deauville: 'it was like flying under the radar until we got this made' Photo: Richard Mowe
It was never going to be an easy task to mount a film about the Amernian Genocide in which almost two million Armenians were systematically killed or relocated by the Ottoman authorities in 1915. The Turkish Government still denies that it ever happened.

Writer and director Terry George who came to prominence making films about the troubles in Ireland (such as In the Name of the Father and The Boxer as well as the Oscar nominated Hotel Rwanda about the Tutsi genocide) is used to subjects with a touch of controversy.

As his film The Promise bows on DVD in the UK this week and is about to be released in French cinemas later in the year, George reflected on the backlash the film has attracted during his visit to the Festival of American Cinema in Deauville.

“When we were shooting the film we were very cautious. Obviously we knew we could not shoot it in Turkey. And we did not feel we could make it in Jordan or Morocco either. The decision was made to shoot in Spain, Portugal and Malta. We had no Press around the set - it was like flying under the radar until we got this made,” he says.

“When we screened at the Toronto Film Festival, we had two screenings with more than 3000 people. Within five days of that screening, we had 82,000 reviews on Internet Movie Data Base, 51,000 of which were one out of ten scores. And 20,000 were ten out of ten. Clearly the 51,000, we learned later, were from websites in Turkey that were encouraging people to go on IMDB to vote against it.”

Oscar Isaac and Terry George on the set of The Promise
Oscar Isaac and Terry George on the set of The Promise Photo: Courtesy of Deauville Festival of American Cinema
As the release rolled out in the US, there was a writing campaign of denialism from various Turkish associations across the country to newspapers and reviewers.

George adds: “Basically the letters were all saying that the events we had portrayed were not true. Then a month before the release of the film, out of nowhere, a film called The Ottoman Lieutenant appeared with Ben Kingsley and Josh Hartnett which was the mirror opposite of our story - a 1915 love story set against the backdrop of the Armenian situation in which the Ottoman lieutenant was the hero who was fighting the nasty Armenians.

“It turned out that this film had been made by a production company with close associations to the family of Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, the Turkish president. It just came and disappeared. There was all of this going on in the background. There was a definite aura of being up against this force who were not going to like this film.”

Although a political film in one sense, George considers it primarily as a love story on the scale of Doctor Zhivago by David Lean. The film begins with a promise made by a young student Mikael (Oscar Isaac) to accept a dowry of 400 gold coins to marry a young woman from his village and finance his medical studies in Constantinople. He becomes involved with an Armenian girl Ana (Charlotte Le Bon) whose boyfriend Chris (Christian Bale) is an American reporter. The backdrop is the period when Turkey entered the First World War in 1915.

George developed the original script by Robin Swicord. “I felt it needed to have a wider scope. I did a lot of research and travelled to Istanbul and Berlin as well as reading a mountain of books on the subject from both sides. It was important to get all those things right. It was a real jig-saw puzzle,” he says.

Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon in The Promise
Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon in The Promise Photo: Courtesy of Deauville Festival of American Cinema
The $100 million budget came from the late real estate developer and film mogul Kirk Kerkorian who set up the Kerkorian Foundation. “Essentially he wanted the story told, and he left an instruction that part of the Foundation’s funds should go to making a film about the genocide which was taken up by the producers at Survival Films as well as Mike Medavoy. I had been embarked on another project about the Armenian genocide so I new a lot about the subject already and jumped at the opportunity to take this forward,” says George.

Although based in New York with a house on Coney Island, he is a regular visitor to Ireland, not least to keep in touch with Jim Sheridan with whom he shared the best screenplay Oscar for In The Name Of The Father. “We talk a lot - and are considering doing something about the North on a bigger scale than it has been attempted previously - may be for television. We filmmakers from the Nineties are still trying to deal with the evolution of the medium in which it is almost impossible to get an independent film off the ground. You have to interact and adapt to what is a typewriter to computer moment and just get on with it,” he says.

His current slate involves adapting his 2012 short film The Shore (which won an Oscar) into a feature which shows how the Troubles affected a diverse group of people. He has also the rights to a book by Canadian journalist Deboarah Campbell, A Disappearance in Damascus, about Iraqi refugees. “If I get either of these made I would be a happy man,” he says.

His work on the DVD of The Promise tried to put the events depicted into a historical context rather than the standard behind the scenes content. “I have tried to look at how you deal with scenes mixing fiction and reality while maintaining honesty in the distillation of events,” he adds.

As someone with a foot in both Ireland and the States he has taken heart with the election of Leo Varadkar as Ireland’s new prime minister. “It just shows how much the country has evolved in the last 20 years. As far as Brexit goes, I think it is dawning on people in Britain they made a big mistake - and it is dawning on people in the United States they made an even bigger mistake!”

The Promise DVD
The Promise DVD
The Promise on DVD now in the UK (buy it from Amazon) and on release in French cinemas in November.

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