Review: ‘Dune’ (2021), starring Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Zendaya and Jason Momoa

October 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Javier Bardem and Timothée Chalamet in “Dune” (Photo by Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Pictures)

“Dune” (2021)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Culture Representation: Taking place in the year 10,191, on the fictional planets of Caladan, Giedi Prime and Arrakis, the sci-fi action film “Dune” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people, Asians and Latinos) representing heroes, villains and people who are in between.

Culture Clash: A territorial war is brewing between two factions—House Atreides from the planet of Caladan and House Harkonnen from the planet of Giedi Primewho will rule over the planet of Arrakis, which is the only place to find melange, also known as spice, a priceless substance that can enhance and extend human life.

Culture Audience: “Dune” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “Dune” novel and to people who like epic sci-fi adventures with stunning visuals and good acting.

Josh Brolin, Oscar Isaac and Stephen McKinley Henderson in “Dune” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Pictures)

By now, you might have heard that filmmaker Denis Villeneuve wants his version of “Dune” to be split into three parts, in order to better serve the movie adaptation of Paul Herbert’s densely packed 1965 novel “Dune.” People who see Villeneuve’s version of “Dune” are also probably familiar with the 1984 movie flop “Dune,” directed by David Lynch. The 1984 version of “Dune” (starring Kyle MacLachlan, Sean Young and Sting) was such a disaster with fans and critics, Lynch wanted to have his name removed from the film credits. That won’t be the case with Villeneuve’s version of “Dune,” which is a sci-fi epic worthy of the novel.

Villeneuve co-wrote his “Dune” screenplay with Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts. Part One of Villeneuve’s “Dune” is of much higher quality than the 1984 “Dune” movie, but any “Dune” movie’s cinematic interpretations tend to be a bit clinical in how the characters are written. “Dune” is a gloomy story, with characters who are, for the most part, very solemn and rarely smile. There are no wisecracking rogues, quirky robot sidekicks or cute alien creatures. In other words, “Dune” is no “Star Wars” saga.

As is the case with most epic sci-fi movies, the biggest attraction to “Dune” is to see the spectacle of immersive production designs and outstanding visual effects. When people say that “Dune” should be seen on the biggest screen possible, believe it. However, it’s a 156-minute movie whose pace might be a little too slow in some areas. If you’re not the type of person who’s inclined to watch a two-and-a-half-hour sci-fi movie that’s not based on a comic book or a cartoon, then “Dune” might not be the movie for you.

And this is a fair warning to anyone who likes their sci-fi movies to have light-hearted, fun banter between characters: “Dune” is not that type of story, because everything and everyone in this story is deadly serious. People might have laughed when watching Lynch’s “Dune,” but it was for all the wrong reasons.

And yes, “Dune” is yet another sci-fi /fantasy story about a young hero who leads a war against an evil villain who wants to take over the universe. In the case of “Dune,” the hero is Paul Atreides (played by Timothée Chalamet), the House Atreides heir who is the son of a duke. House Antreides exists on the oceanic planet of Caladan. And like any war story, the war usually starts with feuding over power.

House Antreides has had a rivalry with House Harkonnen from the planet of Giedi Prime. In the beginning of the movie, Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV has ordered Paul’s father Duke Leto Atreides (played by Oscar Isaac) to serve as fief ruler of Arrakis, a desert planet with harsh terrain. Arrakis is the only place to find a priceless treasure: melange, also known as spice, a dusty substance that can enhance and extend human life.

Prolonged exposure to spice can turn humans’ eyes blue in the iris. Gigantic sandworms ferociously guard the spice. And therefore, harvesting spice can be a deadly activity. However, because spice is the most sought-after substance in the universe and can make people wealthy, people will go to extremes to get it and to be in charge of Arrakis. The native people of Arrakis are called Fremen. The movie presents this colonialism of the Fremen people in a matter-of-fact way, with some (but not a lot of) initial insight into how the Fremen people feel about being ruled over by another group of people from a foreign land.

House Harkonnen had previously overseen Arrakis until that responsibility was given to House Antreides. Leto and his troops are under orders to visit Arrakis, but it’s a set-up so that House Harkonnen enemies can ambush the people from House Antreides. Leto suspects that this trap has been set, but he has no choice but to follow orders and see about the territory that has now come under his stewardship.

The chief villain of House Harkonnen is its leader, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (played by Stellan Skarsgård), an obese and ruthless tyrant who has a penchant for spending time in saunas filled with a tar-like substance. In the 1984 “Dune” movie, Baron Vladimir was a cartoonish character who floated through the air like a demented balloon that escaped from Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. In the 2021 “Dune” movie, Baron Vladimir is a menacing presence that is undoubtedly pure evil. (This “Dune” movie has shades of “Apocalypse Now” because Baron Vladimir is presented in a way that might remind people of “Apocalypse Now” villain Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando.)

Baron Vladimir’s closest henchmen are his sadistic nephew Glossu Rabban (played by Dave Bautista) and coldly analytical Piter De Vries (played by David Dastmalchian), who is a Mentat: a person that can mimic a computer’s artificial intelligence. At House Antreides, the Mentat is Thufir Hawat (played by Stephen McKinley Henderson), while the loyal mentors who are training Paul for battle are no-nonsense Gurney Halleck (played by Josh Brolin) and adventurous Duncan Idaho (played by Jason Momoa), who is the closest that “Dune” has to having a character with a sense of humor.

Paul confides in certain people that he’s been having premonition-like dreams. In several of these visions, he keeps seeing a young Fremen woman who’s close to his age. Paul won’t meet her until much later in the movie. He will find out that her name is Chani (played by Zendaya), and she becomes a huge part of his life in a subsequent Villeneuve “Dune” movie. Don’t expect there to be any romance in Part One of the movie. When Chani meets Paul for the first time, it’s not exactly love at first sight for Chani. She has this dismissive reaction and says to Paul: “You look like a little boy.”

Paul also keeps envisioning Duncan as living with the Fremen people and being their ally in battle. Paul is also disturbed by a vision of seeing Duncan “lying dead among soldiers after battle.” And speaking of allegiances, Paul’s intuition tells him that there is someone in House Antreides who is a traitor. That person will eventually be revealed. Until then, it’s pretty obvious from Paul’s visions that he has psychic powers. The question then becomes: “How is he going to use those powers?”

Among the other Fremen people who are depicted in the movie is Stilgar (played by Javier Bardem), the leader of the Fremen tribe called Sietch Tabr, whose members include a fighter named Jamis (played by Babs Olusanmokun). Arrakis also as an Imperial judge/ecologist named Dr. Liet-Kynes (played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster), who acts as a go-between/negotiator between the Fremen people and those who come from foreign lands.

There are some poignant father-son moments between Paul and Leto. Their best scene together is after a devastating battle loss when Paul, who is reluctant to be the next ruler of House Antreides, gets reassurance from Leto. The duke says to his son that he didn’t want to be the leader of House Antreides either, because Leto wanted to be a pilot instead. Leto tells Paul that it will ultimately up to Paul to decide whether to be the leader of House Antreides “But if the answer is no,” Leto says, “You’re all I’ll ever needed you to be: my son.”

However, Paul ends up spending more time bonding (and sometimes disagreeing) with his mother Lady Jessica (played by Rebecca Ferguson), a brave warrior who is a member of Bene Gesserit, an all-female group with extraordonary physical and mental abilities. Jessica defied Bene Gesserit’s orders to bear a female child and had Paul instead. Villeneuve’s “Dune” spends a great deal of time showing Paul and Jessica’s quest on Arrakis than Lynch’s “Dune” did. Paul seems to know that he was born as a special child, but at times, it brings him more insecurities than confidence. At one point, Paul yells at his mother Jessica: “You did this to me! You made me a freak!”

One of the influential supporting characters who’s depicted in Villeneuve’s version of “Dune” is Gaius Helen Mohiam (played by Charlotte Rampling), a Bene Gesserit reverend mother and the emperor’s truthsayer. She has one of the most memorable scenes in “Dune” when she gives Paul a pain endurance test that further proves that Paul is no ordinary human being. Dr. Wellington Yueh (played by Chang Chen) is a Suk doctor for House Antreides, and he plays a pivotal role in the story.

Chalamet’s portrayal of Paul is someone who can be introspective yet impulsive. He skillfully portrays a young adult who’s at the stage in his life where he wants to prove his independent identity yet still seeks his parents’ approval. Momoa is also a standout in the film for giving more humanity to a role that could’ve been just a stereotypical warrior type. Ferguson also does well in her performance as the strong-willed Jessica.

But make no mistake: “Dune” is not going to win any major awards for the movie’s acting. Before being released in theaters and on HBO Max, “Dune” made the rounds with premieres at several prestigious film festivals, including the Venice International Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. This festival run is in indication that the filmmakers want this version of “Dune” to be a cut above a typical blockbuster sci-fi movie. “Dune” excels more in its technical aspects rather than in the movie’s acting performances or screenplay.

“Dune” has the type of fight scenes and musical score (by Hans Zimmer) that one can expect of an action film of this high caliber. But even with a movie that’s rich with characters who are heroes, villains and everything in between, it’s enough to say that the sandworms really steal scenes and are what people will remember most about this version of “Dune.” The overall visual effects and a reverence for the “Dune” novel as the source material are truly what make this version of “Dune” an iconic sci-fi movie.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “Dune” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on October 21, 2021, a day earlier than the announced U.S. release date of October 22, 2021. The movie was released in various other countries, beginning in September 2021.

Review: ‘The Card Counter,’ starring Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan and Willem Dafoe

September 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish in “The Card Counter” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

The Card Counter”

Directed by Paul Schrader

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the U.S., as well as in Iraq in flashback scenes, the dramatic film “The Card Counter” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latinos, Arabs and African Americans) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: An ex-con, who has a dark past as a U.S. military officer, is now a gambling addict facing a moral dilemma on whether or not to get involved in a deadly revenge plot. 

Culture Audience: “The Card Counter” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in neo-noir dramas that explore issues of military PTSD and the fallout of extreme actions made in the name of anti-terrorism.

Oscar Isaac and Tye Sheridan in “The Card Counter” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“The Card Counter” (written and directed by Paul Schrader) is a raw and unflinching portrait of a man tortured by his past and using his gambling addiction as a way to cope. On a wider level, this neo-noir film is a scathing view of the “war on terror” and abuse of power. Oscar Isaac gives an absolutely gripping and fascinating performance as a protagonist struggling to find a sense of morality in a world where many people are rewarded for crimes and punished for trying to do the right thing.

It would be an understatement to say that William Tell (played by Isaac) is feeling spiritually and emotionally bankrupt. Now in his 40s, William spent 10 years imprisoned as a dishonorably discharged ex-military officer in the U.S. federal penitentiary Leavenworth in Leavenworth, Kansas. It’s eventually revealed in the movie’s several flashback scenes why William was imprisoned.

The main thing that viewers find out in the beginning of the movie, which has constant voiceover narration by William, is that he learned to count cards in prison. After he got out of prison, he became a professional gambler (mostly in poker and blackjack), who counts cards to have an advantage in the games. It’s a risky activity that could get him banned from casinos, but so far William hasn’t been caught.

The name William Tell is most associated with the early 14th century Swiss folk hero William Tell, who was a rebel and an expert marksman. It should come as no surprise that the gambler named William Tell in “The Card Counter” is using a partial alias. The William character in this movie changed his last name to Tell after he got out of prison. His real last name is also eventually revealed.

In “The Card Counter,” William is a never-married bachelor with no children and no family members who are in his life. William is currently based in New Jersey, where he spends more time in Atlantic City casinos than he does at home. It’s made apparent very early on in the movie that William is a gambling addict. And, just like most addicts, he uses his addiction as a way to deal with past traumas.

It’s mentioned several times in the movie that William’s past traumas have given him intimacy issues. He’s a loner who’s been celibate by choice for several years. He also has severe nightmares about things that happened in his past when he was a private first-class special ops solider during the Iraq War.

The flashback scenes of what William did as a solider and as a military police officer might be too difficult to watch for viewers who are very sensitive or squeamish. The production notes for “The Card Counter” have a very accurate description of how these disturbing flashback scenes were filmed: writer/director Schrader “wanted the nightmarish scenes to feel like immersive virtual reality—an effect in the movie that feels like descending first-hand into a Hieronymus Bosch-like hellscape. [“The Card Counter” cinematographer Alexander] Dynan employed VR technology to present a flattened, equirectangular version of the standard image.”

One day, while William is hanging out at an Atlantic City hotel/casino, he notices that there’s an industry convention called Global Security Conference that’s taking place at the hotel. One of the keynote speakers is John Gordo (played by Willem Dafoe), a retired U.S. Army major, who now owns a private and lucrative security consulting company that has the U.S. government as its biggest client. When William finds out that John is in the same building, it triggers William into a cascade of negative emotions that he tries to hide. However, William’s curiosity gets the best of him to see John’s speech.

There’s someone else who isn’t happy about John being a lauded speaker at this convention. Unbeknownst to William, there’s someone in the audience during John’s speech who has noticed that William is there and will soon seek out William for a face-to-face meeting. During his speech, John promotes a new product from his company called STABL, which is facial recognition software that’s supposed to be able to detect truth-telling. This technology is supposedly designed to help during interrogations.

After the speech, the person who observed William from afar finds William and introduces himself. His name is Cirk (pronounced “Kirk”) Balfort, a guy in his mid-20s whose deceased father had something in common with William, besides being dishonorably discharged from the U.S. military. While having drinks together at the casino, Cirk tells William how the troubles of Cirk’s father have affected Cirk. After his father’s disgraced military career, his father became an oxycodone addict who regularly abused Cirk and Cirk’s mother. His father eventually committed suicide.

Cirk believes that his father’s downward spiral was the direct result of something that John did. For reasons that are later revealed in the movie, Cirk also believes that William has a grudge against John, so Cirk proposes that he and William join forces to torture and murder John. William immediately says no to this proposition because he doesn’t want to do anything that would put him at risk of going back to prison.

However, William is emotionally touched by Cirk, who seems aimless and depressed about his life and in need of a father figure. Cirk makes it clear that he isn’t the type of person to want to go to college or work in a boring office job. And so, William offers Cirk an opportunity to let William mentor Cirk on how to be a professional gambler who goes on tour, with William paying all of Cirk’s expenses for this training.

How is William going to pay for this road trip? It just so happens that within the same 24-hour period of meeting Cirk, William met a gambling agent named La Linda (played by Tiffany Haddish), who works with a network of mysterious and wealthy people who like to invest in professional gamblers and get a cut of the winnings. Her job is to find talented gamblers to sign with her as their agent, so she can pass on some of the prize money to these rich investors, who fund the gambling tours for her clients.

La Linda has been observing William for a while and admires his talent. And when she approaches him to become his agent, it’s in a flirtatious but business-minded manner. At first, William turns down her offer to become his agent because he prefers to work alone. However, after William gets the idea to mentor Cirk, he tells La Linda that he’ll take her up on her offer because he needs the money for this mentoring road trip. (Although “The Card Counter” is supposed to take place in various states, the movie was actually filmed in Mississippi, mostly in Gulfport and Biloxi.)

Much of “The Card Counter” is about this road trip and the friendship that forms between William and Cirk. Eventually, William is hired to enter a major poker tournament. Viewers see that when William checks into a hotel room, he has a habit of covering all of the furniture with bedsheets and using gloves. It’s as if he’s paranoid about leaving any fingerprints and DNA behind in these hotel rooms. Is he trying to hide something or hide from someone?

Even though Cirk and William learn to trust each other, Cirk can’t let go of the idea of murdering John. Cirk repeatedly brings it up, as a way of trying to wear down William to get him to agree. It’s eventually shown if William caves in or not to Cirk’s persistence.

William’s life is also altered when he becomes closer to La Linda. Their sexual tension with each other is evident in their first meeting, but they keep things strictly professional during their first several meetings. One of the more visually stunning scenes in “The Card Counter” is when William and La Linda go on a platonic date to what looks like the Gulfport Harbor Lights Winter Festival, which is known for its elaborate lights displays that evoke a magical aura. It’s here that La Linda and William hold hands for the first time.

Whether or not William and La Linda become lovers is revealed in the movie’s trailer, which unfortunately gives away a lot of moments that should be surprises to viewers. In other words, it’s best not to watch the trailer before seeing this movie. “The Card Counter” has a tone and pacing that are very reminiscent of noir films from the 1940s and 1950s, especially in William’s voiceover narrations, which are often taken from the journals that he meticulously keeps.

Some of the movie’s dialogue that doesn’t involve cursing sounds very much like it’s from the Golden Age of Hollywood, especially in the flirtatious banter between William and La Linda. That’s not the only old-fashioned aspect of the film. As well-crafted as the movie is overall, “The Card Counter” still perpetuates outdated stereotypes that movies like this often have: Only one woman has a significant speaking role in the film. And the main purpose of the woman is ultimately to be the love interest of the male protagonist. All the other women in the movie are essentially background characters or just have a few lines.

Haddish usually plays loud-mouthed, vulgar and unsophisticated characters in raunchy comedies, but with “The Card Counter,” she attempts to break out of that typecasting by portraying someone who is intelligent and is a combination of being upwardly mobile while still being street-smart. However, Haddish still seems a bit uncomfortable playing this type of serious character. It’s not a bad performance, but it’s not as believable as Isaac’s performance.

La Linda is someone who is from East St. Louis and is trying to make a better life for herself while becoming an empathetic friend to William. Unfortunately, Schrader did not develop La Linda’s character enough for her to have a backstory. The closest that viewers will find out about Linda’s past is that she drops several hints to William that she’s used to dating men with prison records. When they first meet, she correctly guesses that William spent time in prison. La Linda also tells William that she doesn’t care about anything bad that he did in his past.

However, William cares a lot about what he’s done in his past because he’s wracked with guilt over it. As much as he’s trying to move on to his new life as a professional gambler, he’s still haunted by his past sins. He reaches a point where he has to decide if participating in an act of revenge will bring him some relief. His fatherly relationship with Cirk is William’s way of trying to get some kind of redemption within himself.

Sheridan is perfectly fine but not outstanding in his role as the emotionally damaged Cirk, who’s hell-bent on carrying out a vendetta. Because the movie is told from William’s perspective, viewers aren’t really privy to a lot of Cirk’s thoughts, except his revenge plan. Cirk also has lingering resentment toward his mother, whom he hasn’t seen or spoken to in quite some time because Cirk thinks his mother should’ve protected him more from Cirk’s abusive father. It’s easy to see how William would want to take Cirk under his wing, because he’s trying to prevent Cirk from experiencing the same regrets that plague William.

Although the “The Card Counter” has several scenes of William gambling, this movie isn’t about who wins or how much the prize money is in these casino games or tournaments. What the movie shows so well is that William has learned the hard way that people’s souls and self-respect can be destroyed not just by abusers but by people doing damage to themselves. In that sense, William is taking the biggest gamble of his life in facing his fears and regrets, because he doesn’t quite know if he should bet on forgiving himself.

Focus Features will release “The Card Counter” in U.S. cinemas on September 10, 2021.

Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac and ‘The Promise’ team tell a story of love amid the atrocities of war

April 21, 2017

by Carla Hay

Christian Bale, Terry George and Oscar Isaac at the New York City press conference for "The Promise"
Christian Bale, Terry George and Oscar Isaac at the New York City press conference for “The Promise” (Photo by Carla Hay)

The World War II-era drama “The Promise”  (directed by Terry George) tells a story of a love triangle amid the atrocities of innocent civilians being murdered and families ripped apart. At the heart of the movie is the portrayal of a controversial question: Did the Ottoman Empire commit genocide of about 1 million Armenians living in Turkey during this period of time? The answer is an unequivocal “yes,” according to this movie, even though the Turkish government officially denies that a genocide existed.

In “The Promise,” Oscar Isaac plays Michael Boghosian, an Armenian medical student in Turkey, who falls in love with an Armenian artist named Ana (played by Charlotte Le Bon), but he is obligated to marry a local woman named Maral (played by Angela Sarafyan). Ana has also enchanted American photojournalist Chris Myers (played by Christian Bale), who has traveled to Turkey with Ana after the sudden death of her father. As the war increasingly ravages the Turkish communities, the romantic rivalry is put to the test as Michael, Ana and Chris find themselves depending on each other for survival as they try to flee the country with other refugees.

Although there may be conflicting opinions on the historical accuracy of how the war is depicted in the “The Promise,” the cast and filmmakers feel passionately that it is based on a true story that must be told. The making of “The Promise” is prominently featured in the Joe Berlinger-directed documentary “Intent to Destroy: Death, Denial & Depiction,” which was scheduled to have its world premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival the week after “The Promise” arrived in U.S. theaters. Here is what Bale, Isaac, Le Bon, George, Sarafyan, James Cromwell (who plays U.S. Ambassador Morganthau) and producers Mike Medavoy, Eric Esrailian said during a New York City press conference for “The Promise.”

To the actors, why did you decide to make this movie, and what kind of approach did you take to your role?

Isaac: For me, to my shame, I didn’t know about the Armenian genocide before I got the script and spoke with Terry [George]. So it was new to me. And to read about that, to read that 1.5 [million] Armenians perished at the hands of their own government was horrifying and that the world did nothing. And not only that, but to this day it’s so little-known, there’s active denial of it. So that really was a big part of it. Also the cast that they put together. And then to learn that 100 percent of the proceeds would go to charity was just an extraordinary thing to be a part of.

My approach was to read as much as I could to try to immerse myself in the history of the time. And also, in L.A, there’s a small museum that a few of us got to go to and see some stuff. And then, for me, I think the biggest help was I had these videos and recordings of survivors that would recount the things that they witnessed as little boys and children. Whether it was seeing their grandmothers bayoneted by the gendarmes or their mothers and sisters sometimes crucified—horrible atrocities and to hear them recounted with, almost they would sound like they had regressed to those little kids again, and that was heartbreaking. So I did feel some responsibility to try to tell their story.

Bale: And for me, continuing off what Oscar was saying, he was talking about the documentaries where you would see survivors talking about these horrific experiences that they’d seen their loved ones, families that had been very barbarically killed. And to try to get into that mindset, to try in a very small way to understand the pain that they must have gone through, and the fact that people were telling them they were lying about what had happened. And they had witnessed it with their own eyes, had all of that emotion, but there were people who refused to call it what it is—a genocide. There are still people who refuse to call it that. We have yet to have any sitting U.S. president call it a genocide. Obama did before, but not during [his presidency]. The Pope did, recently. But it’s this great unknown genocide, and the lack of consequence may well have provoked other genocides that have happened since.

And, for me, it became startlingly relevant because as I was reading the script—and in the same way as Oscar was learning about the Armenian genocide as I reading this–embarrassingly, but I think we’re in the same boat as many people—I’m reading about Musa Dagh, Armenians who were being slaughtered under siege on this mountain, and I’m watching on the news and it was the Yazidis under siege, being slaughtered by ISIS. And just thinking this is so relevant. And so tragically, it’s very sad that it is still relevant.

Charlotte Le Bon, Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale in “The Promise” (Photo by Jose Haro)

Le Bon: I did a lot of research as well, which is by watching documentaries. I talked to Armenian friends I have in France, just to get their take on the story and their battle stories. Also, as Christian was saying, a couple of months before the shooting, I was in Greece on a holiday. I was on Lesbos Island, which is the door to Europe through Turkey. It was the beginning of the massive arrival of refugees. They were coming, like a thousand per day. It was really impressive.

And I just remember being in the car and watching hundreds and hundreds of people walking on the street, trying to reach the capital of the island. It was really, really moving to see that. The only thing I could do is give them bottles of water. I didn’t really know what to do. And a couple of months later, I was on set [for “The Promise”] recreating the exact same scene that I saw a couple of months before.

Sarafyan: I had known about the Armenian genocide because I grew up hearing stories from my grandparents, the stories they had heard from their parents about their grandparents. So doing this film was very, very close to my heart because it was a chance for me to give some light to that world in a very different way. It’s never existed on film; it’s a very controversial issue.

So what I got to do was really look at the time and look at what it must have been like to live in that time. The simplicity of what that village was and kind of survival and the romanticism of living in a small place. And learning how people survived within the atrocity. I didn’t really have to go through some of the horrendous things that you see, but I loved being able to kind of investigate that simple life. And I read more, because Terry had introduced so many books and scripts and a lot material on it. So that was it, getting more information.

Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac in “The Promise” (Photo by Jose Haro)

Did the Turkish government give you any problems?

George: I had a very healthy exchange with a Turkish journalist in L.A., a representative of the Hollywood Foreign Press, who presented that the Turkish perspective is that the genocide didn’t happen, that it was a war and bad things happen and lots of people died on both sides. I pointed out to him that that’s exactly true, but in the case of the Armenians, it was their own government who was killing them. So we talked about that.

And you know, we had this thing where IMDb was hijacked, we had the sudden appearance of “The Ottoman Lieutenant” movie four weeks ago that was like the reverse-mirror-image of this film, right down to the storyline. And there’s a particular nervousness in Europe about the film and about the current situation … But our idea, as always with any of these subjects, get it out there, let some air in, let’s discuss the thing. I’d be more than willing to sit down with any representative of any Turkish organization and talk this out in terms of our different perspectives and present our perspective on it. So we want to bring air to the subject rather than hide away and deny that it happened or that one side is right or the other side is wrong. Let’s have this discussion.

Bale: Maybe I shouldn’t say this. but don’t you think also though that’s there’s kind of a false debate been created, a bit like climate change, you know? As though like there’s as strong evidence on one side as on the other? There isn’t. There isn’t as strong of an argument. And then similarly with this. The evidence just backs up the fact that it was a genocide.

George: The Turkish journalist’s perspective was, “Let’s have a convention about this and everyone sit down [to discuss this].” Yeah, but the evidence has been shredded. Clearly, most Europeans’ and historians’ perspective—and the world recognizes—that it was a genocide. Almost every government that isn’t swayed by Turkish strategic position recognizes that it was a genocide. So this, “Let’s sit down and figure out what’s going on”—it’s a bit late, guys. The world acknowledged what took place. Find a way toward reconciliation … because until this issue is not resolved but [reached] a reconciliation, there can’t be any real peace in that area.

Esrailian: The perpetrator of the atrocities tried to force their victims or the descendants of victims to litigate and relive and try to essentially validate the crime. As Christian said, trying to introduce doubt is like the fly in the ointment—it’s a smokescreen to try and confuse people and distract them from what’s actually happening. Denial is one of the final phases of genocide.

Oscar Isaac (center) in “The Promise” (Photo by Jose Haro)

Why do you think it’s taken this long to make a mainstream feature film about the Armenian genocide?

George: There were two attempts: one in the 1930s and then again with Sylvester Stallone producing it in the ‘70s. And on both occasions, the Turkish authorities intervened with the studio and the State Department, and the project collapsed under the weight of that intervention.

Now, because of our funding through Kirk Kerkorian and Survival Pictures and so forth, we were immune from that level of interference. And I think that’s why not only films not being made, but the subject being one of the great unknown catastrophes of the 20th century.

The Turkish government has created this “O.J.” syndrome, where the whole country now believes that they didn’t do it, in terms of genocide. And when you perpetuate that over a century, then it becomes a reality in and of itself. We’re dealing with a very successful campaign by successive Turkish governments.

James Cromwell, an unidentified guest, Eric Esrailian, Charlotte Le Bon, Angela Sarafyan, Terry George, Christian Bale, Chris Cornell and Shohreh Aghdashloo at the Los Angeles premiere of “The Promise” at TCL Chinese Theatre on April 12, 2017. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Open Road Films/AP Images)

Medavoy: I’ve been around Hollywood a long time, as you all know, and I don’t know that I’ve ever got presented doing a film about the genocide. It’s interesting to me when we went into this project and it was first suggested that we do it, my first thought was, “How do you tell this story and make it so that everybody would want to see it?”

The Jewish story has been told many times. I’m Jewish and an immigrant to this country. I was born in China to Russian parents who escaped Russia and went to China during World War II [while China was] occupied by the Japanese. And then [we] moved to Chile and then America.

This is a universal story, but it’s a story. It’s a movie. Let’s not lose sight of that, because we’re not trying to make a political statement that isn’t obvious … When we first talked about it, my reference point was “Dr. Zhivago.” You may or may not think “Dr. Zhivago” is a great movie. The story is what I was attracted to. I think we captured that.

I think the actors did a great job in capturing their characters, and I think that’s what they were hired to do, that’s what they wanted to do. It wasn’t like they came there and someone said to them, “We’re going to tell this story because politically, it’s the right thing to do.” When they did they did the film, they got the fact that it’s a movie, that they’re actors. That’s what’s important. And when you frame the story, that’s what’s important too.

Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon in “The Promise” (Photo by Jose Haro)

Was there a scene in “The Promise” that particularly moved you?

Bale: Terry and Survival Pictures decided not to show the full extent of the barbarity of the violence that was enacted during the genocide. There were multiple reasons for that that I’ll let Terry explain. But there was one scene where Michael, Oscar’s character, he sees many of his family members and also members of his home town who have been slaughtered on the river. That was a very emotional one I think for many people that day. Also seeing Armenians who were directly connected, or had family members who knew that their origins had come—that their families had gone through that previously—that was a very affecting day for I think for every single one of us on the film.

George: A lot of the scenes, I took from original photographs … Just as I did on “Hotel Rwanda,” I was determined that this be a PG-13 film—that teenagers, schools, people who might be squeamish about the notion of seeing an R-rated genocide movie, that the horror be psychological. And that put the burden—and carried magnificently by both Oscar and Christian on that scene—the horror of the genocide is told through how Oscar conveyed those moments of what he found in his face. We shot that scene just when that little Kurdi boy, the Syrian refugee washed up on the shore in Greece … But the whole methodology of letting the psychology of the genocide fell on these actors … And that’s what I’m most proud of—that we conveyed the horror of genocide without having to hit people on the head with the blood and gore of it.

Isaac: That scene was why I wanted to do the film, because similarly, every time I would read the script, it would impact me in very deeply. And also [when] shooting [the movie], knowing that moment was going to come, that it was going to fall on us and our reactions to convey that. There was a challenge there, but for me, it wasn’t the most challenging scene physically. It was a wild shoot …

You can’t separate yourself from politics totally. It is a political act sometime. Just telling a story can be a political act as well. There was something very liberating about that and feeling it was a communal moment with everybody. We all kind of mourned together through the act of imitation. But also there was stuff in the [water] tank. We had to do a lot of underwater shooting, and that was difficult, especially with the fake beard. Those were some challenging scene.

Christian Bale and Charlotte Le Bon in “The Promise” (Photo by Jose Haro)

Christian, your character in “The Promise” is a journalist who experiences being questioning over his reporting. Did the relevance of that today go through your mind?

Bale: Yeah, of course I mean that was sort of developing during filming and then obviously has become much more present in the news. What are we calling it now? “Post-truth” era? Just how important it is to have a free press for any democracy. So yeah, that’s another aspect of the film that’s become much more relevant.

What are your thoughts on the Web hijacking of “The Promise” on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes?

George: You know, it can’t have been 50,000 individuals decided, after we had two screenings in Toronto, to [rate] us 1 out of 10. Seems like a miraculously spontaneous thing to happen. So I definitely think that was a bot, or a series of bots that were switched on.

Then we had the contrary reaction from, which I genuinely think was 25,000 votes from the Armenian community—because we didn’t have a bot going—voting 10 out 10. It brought in to highlight the whole question of, not only IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, just the whole question of manipulating the internet, and manipulating reviews and people being swayed by that. And it’s a whole new world.

Charlotte Le Bon and Christian Bale in “The Promise” (Photo by Jose Haro)

For any of the actors, can you talk about any of the unsung heroes that you found out about in your research? Can you also talk about how this movie may have changed your outlook on specific causes you’d want to support as a person?

Bale: There’s Aurora Mardiganian, she’s a real Armenian national hero…who the award is named after as well, who’s a phenomenal woman who went through real tragic circumstances but came through and told her story with film as early as 1919. She was phenomenal. I mean talk about a fierce, strong woman who overcame phenomenal tragedy. She was very inspiring.

Cromwell: I think Morganthau is pretty impressive, I didn’t know anything about him when I started. And also you can’t leave out the fact that there were consular officers all over Anatolia who were also sending briefs back to Washington. And that’s one of the reasons that we have the record that we have. Morganthau’s biography, his memoirs and these reports which were eyewitness reports.

It strikes me as amazing that today there are no people with that sort of moral outrage as part of our state department. There are ambassadors to Yemen, there are ambassadors to Sudan and Somalia and Assyria and Libya and you hear nothing. No one stands up for the people who are being oppressed all over the world now as far as taking responsibility in the way Morganthau took responsibility. Wilson was supportive, but not the legislature, not congress. Congress was against him. And after [Woodrow] Wilson, [Herbert] Hoover was very much against him, against supporting his work and against establishing the Armenian state.

So as far as a cause is concerned, it just shows us that at the top, down to the average citizen, we have been so desensitized to the suffering of people, that we cannot recognize ourselves in the other, which is one of the reasons you do a film like this. That it has a narrative at the core, so that the audience can come in and feel what other people feel. And that by doing that you do what Shakespeare said: “Hold a mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” That’s what we do.

Sarafyan: For me personally, it would be in my family, the orphans really. Because all of my, I guess great great great grandparents were orphaned. They didn’t have parents left, they were all taken away. So the mere fact that they were able to survive and then able to kind of form families. One of them fled to Aleppo actually to start a family in Syria, and it seems like it’s coming full circle with people today fleeing from Syria to find refuge in other countries. So I find them personally as heroes in my own life.

And the mere fact that they were able to survive, form families, have a sane mind, because I think that kind of trauma changes you genetically. So I guess they really would be the heroes and for me doing the film was kind of continuing that legacy and making it kind of live forever. Instead of it just being a story that was told, it kind of lives in cinema and it will be an experience for people to watch and have as their own.

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