Director Terry George & Actress Angela Sarafyan Discuss Keeping ‘The Promise’

Terry George and Angela Sarafyan sit down for an exclusive interview about working on the sweeping romantic epic, The Promise.

It’s taken several decades for Hollywood to finally have the opportunity to depict the Armenian genocide on the silver screen. Hotel Rwanda director Terry George hearkened back to classic cinema with the eventual product, entitled The Promise and out in theaters now. While promoting the film he and actress Angela Sarafyan sat down with Culturess to discuss female characters, the importance of the story, and working with “the internet’s boyfriend.”

Kristen Lopez: What was the challenge in telling a story that many people would write off as “just another movie about genocide?” And in the light of the recent release of The Ottoman Lieutenant, was that problematic for you?

Terry George: Regarding The Ottoman Lieutenant, none of us really knew this was coming out till about four weeks ago and subsequently a journalist at The Daily Beast did an investigation [on the The Ottoman Lieutenant] and it turns out it’s connected with the [Turkish] government and is basically the denialist point of view told through a story that’s remarkably similar in storyline, construction and look to ours. It seems to me it’s almost a fake movie brought out ahead of time to confuse people and present that argument. For us, separately from that, we were never in competition. We created a movie in the classic genre of the David Lean films – Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter, Warren Beatty’s Reds – a great love story against the background of a catastrophic event.

Our hope is to A) entertain people, which is the obligation of all filmmakers, and B) to educate and hopefully encourage people about the subject of genocide and refugees, which is so relevant today. Ultimately it’s about how you universalize a story and how many people you can draw into it. This was also about giving the Armenian people the feeling that their story had been told in this great genre, both educational and entertaining.

KL: You said you were influenced by Reds, Dr. Zhivago, A Man for All Seasons. Were there things you wanted to replicate from those films or was it more conveying a feeling those films presented?

TG: In some ways the look of Reds really impressed me. It’s probably my favorite film. And just the scope of the political story Warren was able to tell through this love triangle. I’d say Reds was the blueprint in terms of structure and emotion and drama. That form, along with the political nonfiction or humanitarian nonfiction feature drama, is, for me, the best type of educational and entertaining films, whether it’s Schindler’s List or Missing or The Killing Fields or Reds. It educates the audience in a way that no other medium quite can, in that it brings people inside the event itself.

KL: You and Angela have both done several projects outside our contemporary landscape. What’s the appeal for you in looking back at history through film?

Angela Sarafyan: When I worked on The Immigrant it was about immigrants. It was about people who left their home and took everything on a boat, and came to a new country and didn’t know if they would actually make it to that country, hence that complicated thing that happened in the ’20s with Ellis Island. That’s what drew me in; it wasn’t just the time period. My family were immigrants and it was incredibly moving to have that moment investigated in film. I love James Gray. When I read the first few pages of the script I was very much hooked and that’s usually when I know I want to be part of a story, if I can add something to it.

Similar to this, it’s a film about the Armenian genocide. It’s a love story that takes place in that time and is connected to everything heard from my ancestors, from our grandparents telling those stories down to us. It was something I felt I could offer something to.

TG: For me this is the furthest back in history I’ve gone in my career. The films I’ve done tend to be almost contemporary; the Rwandan genocide was ten years before when I made the film and In the Name of the Father was similarly ten years before. There was an immediacy to this film because as I was writing, and in particular as we were shooting, the events we were filming such as refugees fleeing across the desert to Aleppo; refugees stranded up a mountain, under siege. Literally we were filming that when the Azadi crisis was going on and they were trapped by ISIS; people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. All of that gave it a contemporary nature, so it was a challenge to weave in the history and at the same time make it somewhat contemporary.

It’s about the storytelling itself. You have to engage the audience, particularly the audiences who today are so used to CGI. I wanted to try to recreate the David Lean/Warren Beatty [feeling], so we steered away from CGI as much as possible, had hundreds of extras and locations rather than paint anything in. I believe that film has lost some of its mystique now because of CGI. You never believe a stunt anymore. If a car heads towards your lead actor you know it’s a blue screen. So with us we wanted the audience to feel the movie recreated or relived some of these events.

KL: Angela, your performance is so captivating because you do a lot with a little. Had this character been written lesser or had a weaker actress she’d fade into the background. Was there anything you specifically wanted to include in your performance to make Maral more flesh and blood?

AS: She’s an Armenian traditional woman and I’ve grown up with two very close to me, my mother and my grandmother; I found they had some of Maral’s qualities. Maral embodies that love, romance, loyalty and hope, that naivety that I see in them. I’m not saying all Armenian women are like that, but I saw those qualities in her. I believe Maral was in love with Mikhael, so I wanted to bring those parts of her to life in those brief moments. And I feel like Christian Bale’s [character] is in love with Ana.

TG: For sure! One of the things about the love quadrangle is there are two different types of love caught up. There’s what I call practical love, in that Ana relies on Chris, having carried her through the suicide of her father. She’s not sure she’s in love with him in a passionate way. Then she meets Mikhael and she can’t help herself. At the same time Mikhael has done this deal, this betrothal to get the money. But when he’s forced into the marriage, somewhat by his mother, he settles down with Maral and is clearly in love with her. You have this juxtaposition of passion versus the practicality of love. Two people who are together, who find love through being together and that, for me, is as contemporary as you get and I wanted to play with that form.

KL: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask Angela about working with “the internet’s boyfriend,” Oscar Isaac. What was he like to work opposite?

AS: He’s very generous as an actor. None of our stuff had those bigger scenes, so [it] was more intimate – talking by the fire, simple things. It was great. We were able to understand each other and live from one moment to the next, of course because Terry created that kind of set. I had a great time.

TG: I feel between the two of you, particularly with you, the impression you’re left from the first scenes haunts the film. Because you know deep down there’s this beautiful character who’s so generous to him and is praying for him to come back.

KL: Angela’s the Geraldine Chaplin to throw another Zhivago reference out there!

TG: Yeah. And Mikhael’s clearly haunted by that. Then when he does get back and marries her we see the fruition of that and realize he’s actually not going back to Ana to reunite. He’s genuinely going to tell her “I’m sorry. I lied to you,” a lie of omission. Angela, with these small scenes, anchors the whole movie in terms of what’s going on and that’s an amazing thing to do.

KL: Well, and we often see in these stories the women as set dressing. Was there anything either of you did in terms of finding a way to place the females on equal footing with their male counterparts?

TG: They [the female characters] were essential. If you didn’t find in Maral what I just described then the plot didn’t work because Mikhael had to come back and then be in love with this woman and bond with her; it is a second life for him. With Charlotte [Le Bon], and this was the audition – Angela and Charlotte auditioned – I needed a woman I knew these two men would fight over. That she was sophisticated and they could both fall in love with her, and she could handle them. But then she transforms from this joie de vivre society girl from Paris into this Earth mother for all these orphans, so there’s this transformation going on there. They’re complex characters that have to be carried through, and clearly Maral didn’t know about Ana, but unless you have that pulling of the heart, then the film doesn’t work.

AS: I think Charlotte does such a beautiful job. We were talking about this during press and she’d say, “I didn’t think I was right. I was nervous. I didn’t think I was right.” That quality that’s in Charlotte is what makes her so perfect for this part. There was almost this purity about her, this elegance and class. She was just beautiful in the role, and so well cast. You fall in love with her when you watch the film. You fall in love with her from both sides.

KL: Well, and Angela I saw a lot of comparisons between your character here and Clementine in Westworld. Is there a need to get your bearings in transitioning from one character to another when you’re working or do some things just carry over naturally for you?

AS: They’re so different. The roles require different things and you can do them both at the same time. This character had all my ancestry. Westworld was a whole other kind of world. She’s a prostitute and is a woman who knows how to use her sensuality to get men, but there is an innocence to her. I guess that’s the thing that bonds the two character. They require different energies.