The last time he introduced a hot button film at the Toronto Film Festival on a genocidal campaign, Terry George infused Hotel Rwanda with the momentum it needed to break through and make a global impact. He’s back here with The Promise, a sweeping drama set against the backdrop of the WWI-era genocide of Armenians by Turkish troops. The film stars Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, James Cromwell and Shohreh Aghdashloo. George wrote the films In The Name of the Father and The Boxer, and wrote/directed Some Mother’s Son, so the Irish-born hyphenate is no stranger to controversy. As his film premieres tonight at Roy Thomson Hall, George discusses his compulsion to expose such shameful points in modern history.
DEADLINE: For a movie that doesn’t yet have distribution, you are premiering in a prime slot in the Toronto Festival program.
GEORGE: I’ve always had a good relationship with Toronto. Not that I’m saying they play favorites, but I premiered Some Mother’s Son, Hotel Rwanda, and Reservation Road here. Hotel Rwanda had an amazing screening up there, and we ended up winning the People’s Choice award. So it’s kind of home base for launching my movies. I love the festival and its balance of being a people’s festival and industry. Without Toronto, Hotel Rwanda would’ve got eight cinemas to play in, and then it would have gone down the toilet.
GEORGE: Because it was the last film from United Artists and Chris McGurk, and they didn’t know what they had, so they needed that reinforcement.
DEADLINE: That would have been a hard sell for any studio.
GEORGE: Yeah, well, they all rejected it. They said if you get Denzel, we’ll do it, and I’m like, yeah, well, how gracious of you.
DEADLINE: So you made a lasting document about a genocide campaign in Rwanda. What sparked you to tell another one, about the murder of 1.5 million Armenians in WWI?
GEORGE: It is one of the great unknowns of the 20th century. Pretty much everybody says, ‘Oh my God, I knew nothing about that,’ but during the research for Hotel Rwanda, one of the first books I read was Samantha Power’s A Problem From Hell. It tells the story of Americans’ relationship with genocide in the 20th century, and the first couple chapters are about the Armenian genocide – what took place, and its implication, because the word hadn’t been invented. The word ‘Genocide’ and the legal definition was developed by a Jewish lawyer called Raphael Lemkin after the Second World War in order to codify that crime. He specifically studied the Armenian genocide, and came up with the word and then had it applied to the Holocaust. But also had it instituted as a legal term with the United Nations. He is a fascinating story himself. Three years ago someone came to me with a biography of a bishop who had suffered in the Armenian genocide and escaped. It was a really fascinating story, and I researched it for almost a year. I went to Armenia. I went to Istanbul. It didn’t look like it was going to get made, and out of the blue, my agent sent me Robin Swicord’s script. That evolved into this story, and here was an opportunity and a reality that it would get made.
DEADLINE: The Swicord script came with Tracinda Corporation behind it. Did you meet Kirk Kerkorian, who never took a credit on a movie when he was alive, but has a posthumous one here?
GEORGE: I never met him. Obviously, he owned MGM and didn’t own it, and then did own it again, but I think that relationship was more as a financier, a property owner. He was born in the United States, but his family had come from Armenia two years after the genocide, and so he was steeped in that story and the culture and wanted his adult life to have this story told as a film in cinema. The attempts to tell the story of the Armenian genocide by Hollywood are quite fascinating. There were two serious attempts to do it in the ‘50s, to make a film of a book called Forty Days of Musa Dagh, which, in the ‘40s, had become a bestseller across Europe and America. It was written by Franz Werfel. MGM or one of the other studios tried to put it together. The Turkish government leaned on the state department and the U.S. government at the time, who then leaned on Hollywood, and the film was stopped.
DEADLINE: What was the other attempt?
GEORGE: Sylvester Stallone tried to make the same book in the ‘70s and had the same thing happen. There was a current that was like, the studio doesn’t want to make this. The Turkish government had become involved, and the sense that I got, and the research seems to show is, Turkey has enormous, disproportionate power and influence because of its strategic position. In the ‘50s and ‘70s, it was the Cold War and where they were on the border, and their situation with Israel. Today, clearly, they’re just as influential.
DEADLINE: Did the Turkish government try to stop The Promise?
GEORGE: No. We deliberately flew right under the radar. There was no publicity getting it made. We made it in Spain, Portugal, Malta, deliberately staying away from the Middle East and just not having any publicity whatsoever, to maintain that low profile. We had extra security. It’s an extraordinarily emotive subject. Every year when the anniversary comes around, there’s a debate on the internet. The Turks, for the last 100 years, have denied this crime. The history of that denial’s even interesting. Some of the perpetrators were sentenced for war crimes, and hung. The main perpetrators escaped to Germany and Russia at the time and were actually assassinated by a group of Armenians who traveled around Europe, quite like Mossad had done.
DEADLINE: Similar to the story that informed Steven Spielberg’s Munich?
GEORGE: Exactly, and a good deal more successful, actually.
DEADLINE: Sounds like a pretty good movie idea.
GEORGE: Eric Bogosian has written a book called The Nemesis Project, which was the title of this…
DEADLINE: Is he an Armenian?
GEORGE: Pretty much anybody with an I-A-N at the end is Armenian. That’s generally the rule that you can discover, but after the First World War, initially, the British and French were rounding up everyone involved in the attempt to wipe out the Armenian nation. Then, in 1921, they became more interested in dividing up the Ottoman Empire. They needed stability in Turkey. So they came to foster the government of [Mustafa] Ataturk, and he created the state of Turkey out of what the British and French left him. And the whole history of the genocide was then suppressed by the Turkish government, and their education system, their university system. Everything became, we didn’t do this. There was a revisionist history that has had 100 years of implementation in Turkey.
There was a slight movement towards embracing it and recognizing. The big political historical debate is the word ‘genocide.’ Turks have admitted that the Armenians suffered terribly in the first World War, but that word, ‘genocide,’ they refuse to apply and refuse to recognize. The vast bulk of scholarly research into it all…and genocide is a planned and systematic attempt to wipe out a nation, tribe, religious group, whatever. So they don’t want that name put on what happened to the Armenians, and they’re vicious and vitriolic about it, and I’m sure when the film comes out, we’re going to get into that debate.
DEADLINE: Films like Bloody Sunday, In the Name of the Father, The Boxer or Some Mother’s Son, provide a window into learning and creating awareness that goes beyond a dry, dusty history book…
GEORGE: My theory of film and my motivation is to take people, cinema-going audiences, inside an event, such as the troubles in Ireland and the genocide in Rwanda. In a way that they can’t be taken in even by documentary or news reel. You take them inside it and have them see that event from within.
DEADLINE: You provide entry into something so unbelievable and vast, it’s otherwise hard to comprehend?
GEORGE: No one can otherwise perceive…I think when you see newsreel, even when you see documentary, it becomes overwhelming in a way. Whereas…the great films of this genre are Schindler’s List, The Killing Fields, and they take you inside through the eyes of one person or a couple of people, once you find an emotional entry point. I’m not trying to blow a trumpet for Hotel Rwanda, but I don’t think people had a sense of it until the movie came out, particularly in the United States where the film had a big impact. George Bush watched it three times and gave Paul [Rusesabagina] the Medal of Honor, and people from Starbucks, and from the industry, even Bill Clinton came to me and said it was the worst event of his presidency. To be able to have that impact…I firmly believe that people’s education, to a degree today, comes from cinema and television. That’s where they learn the inside of something. So you also have an obligation, historically, to get it right.
DEADLINE: You grew up in Belfast during the height of The Troubles. What is it about you, and your roots, that makes you take on the responsibility to tell these stories that no film company wants to make?
GEORGE: When I started off with Sheridan at the Irish Arts Center, and then did In The Name of the Father and Some Mother’s Son, it became, for me, a way of transmitting what I had experienced. I’m never saying it’s objective, because I believe cinema, if you point a camera one way for 30 seconds and another way for five seconds, you’ve already made a subjective decision in the nonfiction genre, for sure. But I wanted to try to be as objective as possible, and at the same time, have the cinema audience understand the reality of Giuseppe Conlon and what he went through in In the Name of the Father and Helen Mirren’s character in Some Mother’s Son, the mother of a hunger striker. I was much more interested in that, and in Paul Rusesabagina and that hotel. And here, with a cast of characters that, unknown to them, end up in this event that steamrolls over them, and allows the audience feel that reality from within and experience a sense of it that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. You can immerse yourself in a book, but a book is not a collective experience like moviegoing. I really think you need that collective experience to feel that. The impact of The Killing Fields on me, and Missing, and Schindler’s List, I felt I knew what it was like. You can’t ever imagine the suffering, but you at least have a cathartic experience of emotions. Anger, sorrow, melancholy, real pain, and joy.
DEADLINE: Having grown up in Belfast, how do the movies depicting on those troubles play back for you, including the two you wrote, In The Name of the Father and The Boxer, and the one you wrote and directed, Some Mother’s Son?
GEORGE: We tried really hard to capture moments that…with In the Name of the Father, Jim clearly has this thing about the family, and he went for that. I tried to evoke as much as I could of the feel of the troubles itself on the street, and you have a lot of guys who’d spent time in English jails. I knew Gerry Conlon pretty well, and so it was to take the situation, which, you might as well be making a movie about someone on Mars. People don’t have the comprehension of even not just the story, but what it’s like in [prison], the drudgery of it, or what it’s like for a mother to have to decide to either let her son die or save him, and how you get to that point. Or what it was like for a Europhile hotel manager in Rwanda to suddenly take on the burden of saving 500 people in a catastrophe. So I’d feed off experiences I’d had in the past, with ordinary people that I’d met, to transmit that. With The Promise, there was a lot of historical research into the events of catastrophe happening to someone that had a different hope and life. I’m not saying catastrophe happened to me, but I’d experienced it through others, and the shock of that and what the evolution of it is, I was hoping to transmit that. But with Robin’s script and what Mike Medavoy wanted, it is also a love story in the old fashioned genre, in the Dr. Zhivago, David Lean, Warren Beatty’s Reds, English Patient mold. I love that notion because I think we’ve gone so far away from that kind of storytelling. It has been abandoned. The English Patient is the last one I can remember.
DEADLINE: From Gone With the Wind on down, melding a serious, sober historical event into a love story was once the way to go.
GEORGE: It’s what I call the sugar and the medicine. You give the audience the sugar to get them through from an entertainment perspective. Because the fundamental obligation of a filmmaker is to entertain. Now, by that, I don’t mean flash, bang, wallop, and laughs, and sex. It’s those emotions. Rage, empathy, joy, anger, sorrow. Those are the emotions that used to be tapped, and those emotions have been abandoned now.
DEADLINE: How hard was it to get your cast?
GEORGE: Christian Bale connected with the material, and we were making a picture large enough to accommodate him, and then same with Oscar Isaac, and then James Cromwell, and Charlotte Le Bon. We ended up with bona fide movies stars carrying this, and the opportunity which nobody gets, to try to go back to that grand tradition on the scale that we have. One of the biggest problems was that all of these films had 200 days, 150 days, that time to take. We basically had a hard 72 days. That sounds like a lot, but in fact, when you see the film, we were bookended by Oscar’s coming off X-Men, and then the Christmas holiday, and him having to go on Star Wars. We had 20 locations in three countries, which boils down to basically three days for each scene. I had no room for going over on any given day.
DEADLINE: So there’s no gag reel.
GEORGE: Well, there’s a gag reel of me pulling my hat off, and throwing it on the ground and stuff like that. That’s for sure, but the gag reel was our transportation system. It was all hugely challenging, incorporating big crowds of extras, and getting the real feel of the locations. By the end, I was like, brain dead. But I never felt we lost the central core of the story, and so it was thrilling and scary at the same time. And you also have this obligation to historically get the film right, particularly when you’re blending fictional characters into what is essentially exactly what happened. I was very fastidious of using the exact events that took place, and putting my characters in it.
DEADLINE: Was there a signature event, a Kristallnacht?
GEORGE: There’s a whole catalogue of those. The genocide basically started on the 24th of April 1915 when 247 Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople were rounded up, deported, and most of them killed. The idea was to remove the intellectual base. After that, there was a basic strategy of the Turks, particularly their leader, a guy called Talaat Pasha who was the minister of interior and his inner court. That was to say that the Armenian population on the border with Russia, could be a potential Fifth Column, and they all had to be moved out in order to ensure that they didn’t side with the Russians because they were Christian.
DEADLINE: How did they do that?
GEORGE: They forced them out of Northern Turkey and marched them across the desert toward Syria and Aleppo. Around where all the fighting is today. Along that road, 800,000 to a million perished through massacres, through starving in the desert. There’s a famous quote where a guy called Dr. Nazim says to Talaat…or actually, one of his generals. You can’t disappear a whole nation, basically, and Talaat Pasha says, well, we walked them into the desert, and nobody knew what happened to them. That was the overall strategy. So there was that event, and then the people were shipped in cattle cars towards Aleppo, many of them. The men of fighting age, from 15 up to 50, were basically conscripted into the army, disarmed, and then killed off in labor battalions, worked to death, or massacred. So there was this very strategic decision about how to get rid of the Armenians. When they got to Aleppo, they were basically starved. The camps that were set up had no food. So there was this deliberate plan. So I walked the audience through those events, and then in Southern Turkey, there was another concentration of Armenians around basically on what’s now the border with Syria.
And a bunch of villages refused to go on this death march to Aleppo and hid out on a mountain called Musa Dagh, which translates to the Mountain of Moses, and the Turkish Army led a siege for 53 days. They fought off the Turkish Army, and then the French Navy came on the coast and actually rescued that whole population that was there. That is part of our film, that rescue at Musa Dagh. So, basically, from the start to that rescue, I’ve plopped our characters into those exact situations.
DEADLINE: That is pretty bleak to watch.
GEORGE: So there’s that fine balance of this love triangle that takes place between Christian Bale, who plays an American journalist in love with an Armenian woman, who’s lived in France for many years. She comes back to Istanbul, and she meets up with Oscar Isaac, who had been an apothecary in a small village. He wanted to be a doctor, but couldn’t afford it, and in order to get the fees, he became betrothed to the daughter of the local rich merchant. He’s already betrothed when he gets to Constantinople. Then he meets Anna, played by Charlotte Le Bon, who’s living with Christian, and that triangle evolves. And then he’s conscripted into the army, and she follows him. So it’s a sort of classic love triangle that evolves, and get the audience invested in that as they experience what took place in the eyes of the Armenians. So it’s almost an homage to Lean, to Zhivago, those movies.
DEADLINE: It’s amazing you got this film made and Stallone wasn’t able to, when he had so much clout.
GEORGE: Yeah, he did. He definitely wanted to produce it, and the Musa Dagh story on its own, that book was quite famous as a siege. I used it because I wanted to incorporate the history of the genocide and to have the audience explain that and see how it evolved. It was a challenging…I believe that good nonfiction movies and this sort of almost docudrama are about taking the grapes of the story, and distill it down to the brandy. It’s that compression while still keeping the essential historical facts accurate. I learned from In the Name of the Father, when the Brits came after us ferociously about the film.
GEORGE: They were saying things like, oh, they don’t, say, approach the dock in British courts. No, they don’t, but I needed Emma Thompson, the lawyer, to talk with the judge and so Sheridan and I came up with that. So they’d use that as a reason to say this film isn’t true and ferociously denounce it. Ten years later, Tony Blair has to invite Gerry Conlon and his family and the other defendants, the other victims, to Downing Street to apologize, and that was a vindication of the film as much as the recognition of what they’d done to those people. With Hotel Rwanda, the reverse happened.
I took it to Rwanda to show it and sat down beside President Kagame, and his wife, and the whole parliament and screened it, and they were thanking me. A month later, Paul wrote a book, and in the last chapter, he denounced Kagame as a dictator. Suddenly, Hotel Rwanda became a fixation. They wrote books denouncing it. It was Hollywood-ization.
DEADLINE: How do you expect The Promise and its depiction of genocide to be greeted?
GEORGE: I’d say this is going to be the most debated of all, because the event generates such emotion between both sides, and it’s been debated in hundreds of books, but there’s nothing like a movie to crystallize that situation. And that’s the way it should be. An obligation of art and of cinema that we’ve lost is to present these things in a visual way.
DEADLINE: Why do you think it got lost?
GEORGE: Well, the greater debate about Hollywood today is that the box office and the profit margin drives everything, and that has gotten us to the point where a film cost 250 million, but makes a billion. So if you work out the profit margin in that, why invest your time in a movie like this or Hotel Rwanda when you get that profit margin? So that historical obligation is now left up to small independent films, and to some degree, HBO, but to have an audience sit in the dark room and experience some historical thing like that…Schindler’s List had to be cathartic for half the population of the United States. I know The Killing Fields was. Missing, and Costa-Gavras’ work stayed with me in a way that nothing else really does. Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, you go through those great films, and they have a resonance that you take with you.