The Promise: Eric Esrailian on How the Movie is only the Beginning

We sit down with Eric Esrailian, producer on The Promise, to discuss how the film is only the beginning of a larger conversation.

As the producer who’s long run point on The Promise, Eric Esrailian has been working on this film for the better part of a decade. And when one considers that The Promise itself is a story that is in his literal blood—a tale about an Armenian Genocide that his great-grandparents escaped—it is perhaps a movie he has been building up to making his whole life.

Obviously a project that was borne from true passion at the outset, Esrailian still recalls vividly when the late Kirk Kerkorian asked him to make such a movie a reality. A fellow American of Armenian descent, Kerkorian ultimately financed the entire film, but this is in part because the movie is meant to be the beginning of a much bigger conversation. Soon there will be another film, a documentary, premiering before the end of the month, a new non-profit organization at UCLA, and an ever-growing vigilance to raise awareness about the catastrophe. For many Western audiences, this film will mark their first introduction to the history of how the Ottoman Empire secretly slaughtered over a million and a half Armenians during the First World War.

It will not be the last.

In the meantime, however, Esrailian is merely pleased to be celebrating the release of the long-forthcoming picture, which was co-written and directed by Terry George (Hotel Rwanda). During our recent discussion in New York, we even pause as one of the film’s stars, Charlotte Le Bon, comes by to say hello to the producer. She portrays one part of a central triumvirate of characters—the other two-thirds are played by Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale—and she also is almost an emissary for the cause. With all of them, this is a new page in awareness, and it is one that they plan to continue writing.

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I did not know a lot about this subject before seeing the movie and I thought it was very eye-opening. So I wanted to ask what this means to you and what drew you to this film?

I’m Armenian, and my great-grandparents were genocide survivors, so it’s in my DNA, the story. And I’m also a physician, so a lot of the story really connects to me as an Armenian, the descendant of genocide survivors, somebody who tries to spend their life helping people. And Mr. Kerkorian, who is also Armenian, and he was the generous financier and philanthropist who wanted us to tell this story on an epic scale. It would have been easier to be honest with you to tell it like a straightforward genocide story. Some people have said, “Why didn’t you do that instead of having a love story?”

But because there’s a lack of general awareness after a 102 years of denial and lies and smokescreens to try and distract people from the truth, this is why most people don’t know about it, particularly in this country. And to take that first step forward on an epic scale, we wanted to kind of paint a picture and use old fashioned storytelling, like people sitting around a fire and talking about the story of [Oscar Isaac’s] Mikael and his family, and what happened to them and the Armenian people. So it’s just been a true honor. I view it that way, and it’s humbling.

There have been attempts to make a movie, I know that MGM tried to make a movie, but they always were thwarted. Could you talk about why no one else in the West has been able to make a movie like this?

Yes, there have been several attempts to make a film about the Armenian Genocide, particularly as a Hollywood production. The Turkish government has been working feverishly for 102 years and spending an endless amount of money to try to suppress the truth. And other potential geopolitical partners have had to basically kowtow to the pressure. So the State Department got involved on more than one occasion in the United States, basically pressuring studios.

And this includes the MGM attempt?

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Yes, absolutely. In fact, we have a documentary coming out next week at Tribeca called Intent to Destroy on April 25. And it’s made by Joe Berlinger, who’s an Academy Award nominated documentarian, and it’s about genocide, but also the depiction of genocide in film and denial. You can see that the communications going back and forth between parties trying to block films is just fascinating, and seeing the level of orchestration. Because really it’s a form of censorship, because instead of burning books, it’s just preventing you from seeing or reading something, or hearing something in a kind of more insidious fashion.

I believe I heard most of the proceeds from this film will be going to charity.

All the proceeds to our production company, which when you’re financed you Kerkorian’s generosity, we will be donating it to non-profit organizations, including humanitarian and human rights organizations. And this week, we announced The Promise for Humans Rights at UCLA at the School of Law, and it will be an institute that will foster academic scholarship, research, academic advocacy in the realm of human rights, and using the Armenian Genocide as the past, we want people to not forget, and then to use the lessons to try to prevent atrocities in the future.

I’ve rarely heard that happen with a narrative production.

It’s never happened, that’s why. [Laughs] Especially a film on this scale, I’m sure there have been smaller projects that have been not for profit.

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Between that and the documentary, are you hoping that this film is the beginning of a larger conversation to bring awareness of this tragedy in the West?

Absolutely, we’ll have a study guide that will accompany the film, and that is going to be published online shortly prior to the release on Friday. Because there’s a huge amount from schools and educators around the country. We’ve partnered with the Shoah Foundation at USC, and Shoah was established by Steven Spielberg after Schindler’s List to essentially never forget the Holocaust, to create a platform for digitized remembrance and never forgetting, and it’s great to see these organizations all come together just to support our project: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the real kind of humanitarian organizations.

I heard the first person to sign on was Christian. How important was it to get the awareness of these actors?

It was critical, and I think that I’m truly touched, because these actors have become dear friends and part of my family now after the last few years of working on this, both in pre-production and production, and now [here]. We wrapped the film in 2015, and here we are and we’re in constant touch. It means a lot to me, because they’re sincere people.

And with Christian, Terry wrote a brilliant character, because we also wanted to have an homage to the journalists of not just the past, but of today. We see journalists are telling the truth and trying to in so many parts of the world, but they put themselves in danger.

It was fantastic to be able to do that in the film and create a character who would also help the audience bridge the gap from that lack of awareness, but create from a storytelling standpoint a little bit of that romantic rivalry. But Christian is really the only person who could play this role, so I would have been devastated if he did not want to do the film. It’s one of those things where it worked out so well, because he responded so well to it, and he’s so passionate about the project.

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Watching him and Oscar, and Charlotte, and Shohreh [Aghdashloo] and James Cromwell, all our great actors, become such wonderful spokespeople for the film, in addition to Terry of course. It’s really heartwarming.

Christian and Charlotte’s characters wouldn’t be out of place a few years down the line sharing drinks with Hemingway and Fitzgerald in Paris.

Exactly. [Laughs]

You also bring up a point about it being very evocative of our times. You see the vilification of the press, the scapegoating of minorities, the saber-rattling. After making this movie, do you look around the modern world and just shudder a little bit?

It’s scary, actually. The reality is much more relevant now than when we first started the production. We started working on this, Mr. Kerkorian asked me to start working on this, in 2010. And since 2010 to now, you’ve seen so many changes in the world. What’s happened with the demise of Turkey and the treatment of immigrants and refugees, and the crisis. It’s one of the largest humanitarian crises of modern times, what’s happening to these refugees. And in our film, you see the depiction of refugees and, as you said, journalists trying to tell the truth, meanwhile they’re accused of being spies.

You know, Turkey has the most jailed journalists in the world right now. Amnesty International and other human rights organizations are frequently reporting on that. So there’s also this police state that’s occurred in Turkey, and it’s a throwback unfortunately to the times in the film.

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What lessons do you think this movie has for modern audiences, and what lessons do you think this movie might have about what Americans are facing right now?

I think that the reality for modern audiences is that sometimes even in the United States we feel removed from these kind of tales which seem to be occurring in faraway lands. I hope that we can stipulate a sense of altruism and kindness to one another and to people, because even in our own country, obviously we’re a melting pot, and you see people of all backgrounds and all faiths. And we have an opportunity to band together and be strong, as opposed to feeling like some people are less than others.

Unfortunately, that’s what happened to the Armenians, they were loyal citizens of the empire for centuries. Of course, the denialist position is that Armenians were rebelling, Armenians needed to be moved from one place to another, and basically putting them into the desert without food or water. Or worse: killing them along the way.

It’s like using the justification of the Holocaust by saying, “Well, there was an uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, so we had to put everyone in concentration camps.” That just doesn’t hold water. But I think it starts by dehumanizing a minority group and then marginalizing them, and then making it seem okay to do bad things to them, because they’re really the “other people.”

They’re not even people.

They’re not even people. When you see what happened in Rwanda, people were referring to others as cockroaches. When somebody is a cockroach, you don’t think twice about exterminating them, and that’s really the sadness. So I just hope that people—it’s just not about not forgetting the Armenian Genocide or not recognizing it, but what we can do as individuals on a daily basis with your neighbors, and with the people down the street. How can you treat one another to make the world better?

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The movie had an old school, classical approach. The filmmaker I kept thinking of was David Lean. Could you talk about how that aesthetic developed and your interest in getting the culture of the Armenian people correct?

Well first of all, I appreciate you saying that. I think for my producing partner Mike Medavoy and our director Terry, they always talked about the David Lean films of the past, and we talked about some of the classic films that you’re talking about. Like the throwbacks to the cinema, Doctor Zhivago and Casablanca. They all had the kind of love story, but then they’re all in the backdrop of these different events.

Like Casablanca, you have Nazi Germany, in Doctor Zhivago, you have the Russian Revolution. And these of the type of movies that people don’t really make. And some people might say, “Well they don’t make them because no one wants to see them,” but I disagree.

I think there are people who do like to go just sit in a movie theater, be transported to another time, and then potentially be drawn in with some characters, and Mr. Kerkorian, he was a studio owner. And so he grew up with these kind of memorable films. So like I said, we could have done a straight genocide movie and focused on the horror for two hours. And while that would have probably garnered a lot of praise from certain individuals saying, “Wow that was so brave and there was so much brutality, x, x, and y,” we felt like that’s not what people wanted to see. People want to go to a movie theater and basically lose themselves. We didn’t want to make a project that would only appeal to a very small segment of the population and not be kind of moving to the vast majority of people.

And also the Armenian people?

I think for me as an Armenian, I feel it’s always important that people don’t just identify Armenians with genocide. Armenians are just not about the genocide. The genocide is a dark chapter of Armenian history, but this is the first Christian nation in the history of the world, there’s a rich culture, and even though you don’t have a lot of time to incorporate some of these elements into a two-hour film, we try to convey a sense of love, family, faith, kindness, and community in the context of the film.

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… The whole point was to show what idyllic life was like for people living in Turkey who were living side by side with their Turkish neighbors prior to the genocide, and there was a life. Later during the film, you see how people’s worlds have been ripped apart, because of the atrocities by the government.

What pushback have you found from the Turkish government, if at all, since the movie was completed and now that it’s being distributed?

There’s definitely pushback. Along the way, there’s always been pressure on actors and studios, some studio executives told me without seeing the film that regardless of what happens, they can’t be involved with the project. So I think that made me think even if this is like The Last Emperor and won 800 Oscars, people are going to think it’s radioactive because they don’t want to kind of take a stand for truth.

It’s explicit. One of our actors was called into the embassy in his country and given propaganda. We had this whole attack on IMDb with trolls trying to down-vote the movie before it’s even come out. We have over 120,000 votes now of a film that hasn’t even come out into the theaters. In Toronto after two screenings, we already were in the tens of thousands of one out of 10 reviews because of an orchestrated campaign. And Hollywood Reporter wrote on it where people were being told to go to the website and vote down the movie.

But if that’s the best that people can do, or even creating The Ottoman Lieutenant in parallel to try and come out at a similar time and try to confuse people, that’s nothing compared to what my ancestors went through and it’s not going to work. We’ve had influencers and artists from all around the world coming and rallying support for the film, people like yourself who feel moved, and they see a connection to the modern day. We actually go out of our way to portray the kind Turkish individuals who saved as many Armenians, the same way certain people saved the Jews in the Holocaust. I would say all of these things together make the attempts to suppress and the denial attempts unsuccessful. It’s already out there, so we’ve already won.

The Promise is in theaters now.