Terry George on His Armenian Genocide Romance and Why Hollywood’s Blockbuster Obsession Hurts Movies

Terry George
Benjamin Lozovsky/BFA/REX/Shutterstock

Terry George earned critical raves with 2004’s “Hotel Rawanda,” an unflinching portrait  of courage in the face of human cruelty that nabbed Oscar nominations for its script and for stars Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo. Now, the Irish screenwriter and director is shining a light on another dark chapter in history with “The Promise.”

The drama stars Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac, and Charlotte Le Bon as the various points in a romantic triangle between a medical student, a journalist, and a woman during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. It is one of the hottest titles still looking for distribution at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, and could incite controversy over its portrayal of the Armenian Genocide.

That’s because Turkey, the empire’s successor state, refuses to acknowledge that 1.5 million Armenians were systemically exterminated in 1915 at the order of the Ottoman government.

George spoke with Variety about why he was compelled to wade into these turbulent political waters, the difficulty he faces making challenging movies in popcorn-obsessed Hollywood, and the great epics that inspired his latest film.

The Armenian Genocide doesn’t scream love story. Why did you decide to dramatize this history through that genre?

All the great films like “Dr. Zhavago” or “Reds” tell a personal story, and a love story seemed like a great way to take people through an event that is alien to them. Producing a piece of entertainment is an effective way to educate people. Even “Hotel Rawanda” was essentially a love story between Paul [Rusesabagina] and [his wife] Tatiana set inside a bigger political context. Robin Swicord’s script [for “The Promise”] was a straightforward love story, and I introduced the notion of a love triangle.

Why won’t the Obama administration acknowledge that this was a genocide?

Clearly because of Turkey’s strategic power. Obama promised the Armenian community that he would when he was running for election and he reneged on that promise. But successive American governments have failed to, as well. First it was the Cold War and Turkey’s position on the Soviet border made it vital. Now it is essentially the borderline between Europe and Asia, and the war with ISIS and the war in Syria, which gives Turkey a lot of control over how this story is told.

Are you hoping that this film makes people come to terms with this history?

I am. It’s one of the great forgotten catastrophes of the 20th century. The word genocide was coined to describe what happened to the Armenian community.

Do you think the Turkish government will stage protests when the film screens at Toronto?

I’m not sure that it’s on their radar yet. I’m sure that the Turkish government will react the same way that they react when the anniversary of the genocide rolls around every year, which is to deny it.

You don’t make Hollywood blockbusters and major studios aren’t financing many serious dramas. Is it difficult to get your movies made?

Increasingly so. Studios have decided to make tentpole movies about action heroes and they’ve veered away from serious drama to the detriment of the cinema-going population. The emotions conveyed by studios at the moment are eye candy and raucous laughter, but there are other emotions like empathy, rage, sorrow, joy. These emotions need to be stimulated as well. I remember when I left “The Killing Fields,” I was just devastated. Likewise with “Schindler’s List.” Those emotions are lost to us now. The inability to view these films in a cinema and walk out and discuss them — it would be a disaster if that went away. I hope the pendulum swings back and studios commit resources to making serious dramas.

Television seems more receptive to ambitious projects. Why not work in that format?

HBO and Netflix and Amazon do great things, but you’re losing this thing of going into a dark theater and sitting in communion with a group of people. It’s funny because I have a house in Ireland and there’s a lighthouse a mile away. The British government, because of GPS, decided that all foghorns were redundant, and they got rid of them. But I had grown up with the foghorn in the distance. Now that the sound is gone forever, it’s such a shame.