EXCLUSIVE: What a fitting legacy for Kirk Kerkorian. Because of the late Armenian mogul, the first mainstream film about the genocide of Armenians at the hand of the Turks has finally been produced in Hollywood. Terry George’s The Promise starring A-list talent including Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale had its its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on Sunday night and screens again tomorrow. The filmmakers are currently in conversations with possible distributors.
The film has been a long time coming and others who have tried to tackle the subject matter have tried and failed because of pressure put on them as to not anger the Turkish government. American foreign policy has been such over the years that our government refuses to acknowledge the historical genocide that began even before 1915 at the hand of the Turks. That genocide included rounding up learned leaders of the community and mutilating and murdering them, purposely starving women and children, and marching many Armenians to their deaths. It is estimated that 1.5 million Armenians died during that time.
That genocide is still denied today by the Turkish government and some in our own who wish to keep Turkey as a political ally in the volatile region. Armenian genocide deniers have already launched negative comments one after another on IMDb and Twitter railing against the film.
“We had the same problem with Philadelphia with homophobes,” said one of The Promise producers, Mike Medavoy, who was head of TriStar when the Denzel Washington-Tom Hanks movie about a man dying of AIDS came out. “We had a similar problem with Apocalypse Now which people felt came too early after the war, and the same was true with Coming Home.”
The Promise went through under the radar in only 72 days with Hotel Rwanda director George at the helm and producers Eric Esrailian, Medavoy and William Horberg shepherding. Robin Swicord scripted the love story set during this time frame and brings to light the cruelty of the Turks and oppression and murder of the Armenian population. That story is being told, courtesy of Kerkorian, who began talking about a doing the movie in 2010. Two years later, he would create Survival Pictures and put his trust with UCLA doctor Eric Esrailian to produce content about the Armenian culture on film.
Appropriately, the logo for Survival Pictures contains the forget-me-not flower; the petals represent the parts of the world where the Armenians scattered after the genocide.
In addition, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell wrote the song “The Promise” for the film which contains the lyrics: “No matter the price, a promise to survive, persevere and thrive and dare to rise once more.“
That rise in Hollywood — to give voice to those who perished — began in earnest in 2011, when Kerkorian and Esrailian started conversations about producing the film. That’s when they set out to find a producer to join in their vision. They ended up partnering with Medavoy — a seasoned producer who has navigated through Hollywood for many years, both as an agent and studio executive. Horberg (Milk, Cold Mountain, The Talented Mr. Ripley) also joined the fray. Medavoy worked as head of UA so the two knew each other.
RELATED: Watch the Trailer For The Promise
Kerkorian died on June 15, 2015 at age 98 before the film was completed, but Esrailian, Medavoy and Horberg forged ahead to give a voice to a culture that has (shamefully) not been heard from — at least not widely on film. Although Atom Egoyan wrote and directed the Simon Abkarian-starring Ararat in 2002 about a man whose life changes during the Armenian genocide, the two-hour-plus film came and went; it did manage to make $1.5M at the box office in only 42 theaters.
In the 1970s, MGM ended up selling the movie rights it had acquired to Franz Werfel’s historical novel The Forty Days Of Musa Dagh after failed attempts to make the film. It was eventually made into a movie helmed by Sarky Mouradian, but again it went nowhere. Both Mel Gibson and Sylvester Stallone also wanted to make the film about the famous battle, but they were not made, reportedly after pressure from Turkish lobby groups.
“Kirk would periodically bring up his film career and say I really wish we would just make a movie like this. At the time, I was worried because of previous attempts to make a film and the pressure on this, and I wondered is this something that people would want to do?” said Esrailian, who began researching not only the subject matter but also historical dramas. As time went on, Kerkorian said he needed to do this film. That was 2011. The following year, they were underway.
“I feel an obligation and an honor to educate and tell the stories,” said Esrailian who called Kerkorian his mentor, but in talking to the doctor-turned-producer, it was clear that the mogul was more like an older brother. “We originated this story — and Kirk was the visionary behind the film. He was the one who said he wanted it to be epic. He was involved in the way he was involved in a lot of things: He had the vision but needed to find people he trusted to share this story. We wanted a powerful story about our culture and our heritage. He said to make it epic, to make sure it had a love story. He said he wanted it to have the best actors, which I think we have, and he said, ‘I really want it to remind me of the films that people considered great when I was growing up.’ ” Medavoy agreed with Kerkorian wholeheartedly.
The Promise, which employs an international cast including Charlotte Le Bon, James Cromwell, Marwan Kenzari, Jean Reno, Shohreh Aghdashloo and Angela Sarafyan, tells the story of a journalist (Bale) who falls in love with an Armenian woman (Le Bon) and the love triangle that forms with another man (Isaac) and their fight for survival during the end of the Ottoman empire and through the Armenian exile/genocide. The film includes one the most important and harrowing battles of resistance from the Armenians — Musa Dagh — in which they fought the Turks valiantly from the highest mountain, vowing death rather than “deportation” using the only weapons they had with them.
“It was a throwback to cinema, big elements, and it’s not easy to do, even with the financing and to pull it all together and at such a high level,” said Esrailian who shared every aspect of the project with his friend. “Kirk really enjoyed getting the updates. Every milestone we reached — he was very happy to hear. I’ll never forget telling him when our cast came together, seeing the look on his face and how happy he was.”
His relationship with Kerkorian went back several years. “We had mutual friends and basically Kirk is a legend in the Armenian community, and I was very fortunate to have been able to learn from him and he became a mentor to me in a way that is hard for me to summarize. He just did that with people. He has a long history of giving people advice over the years that has changed and transformed their lives. I was one of the fortunate ones. Outside of my own family, there hasn’t been anyone more influential. I knew him during some of the most formative years of my adult life and the last several years of his life,” said Esrailian, who became emotional while talking about him.
“Our wish — Kirk’s wish and mandate — is to be philanthropic with his legacy,” said the man Kerkorian entrusted. “First of all, to accomplish what we set out to do and do these stories. Finish what you started is what I learned from Kirk. It’s a unique situation to have a financier and philanthropic avenue with all revenue going to help others. That’s why I think a lot of people have been so supportive and responsive … our cast and crew. I can see it in their eyes. Even in our post-production offices with those who have worked in the industry for many years, I can tell that they really care about how this movie turns out. Many didn’t realize or know about the Armenian genocide, but yet, now that the door has been opened, they see it.”
Kerkorian’s name is at the end of the movie, something he wanted but just as a small mention. “I will never forget him saying, just put it way at the bottom in small letters,” said Esrailian, who said that the humble Kerkorian was always donating money anonymously, and in fact, donated more than $1B in that manner. “I said, no, we’re not going to do that. You are going to have it. He’s exec producer as a single card. Everyone who knows him sees that and gets choked up. I think it’s humbling that we were connected to something that his name is on.”
Rights for domestic distribution are being repped by WME.