In 1915, at the onset of World War I, the Ottoman Turks went on a government sponsored campaign to remove ethnic Armenians from the country. This forced relocation and slaughter of 1.5 million people would eventually be called the Armenian Genocide. To this day, Turkey refuses to acknowledge this event or take responsibility.
The Promise is a dramatization of the Armenian Genocide by Director Terry George. He was also the filmmaker behind Hotel Rwanda twelve years ago. Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale star as two men in love with the same woman, swept up in the bloody turmoil. Isaac plays Mikael, an apothecary studying to be a doctor. Bale co-stars as Chris Meyers, an American reporter for the Associated Press. Both men partake in an epic struggle to survive and escape the country.
Coming from Open Road, The Promise has had an interesting journey to the screen. Last year, after the premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB were flooded with negative metrics. It was obvious that the responders hadn’t seen the film and were part of a campaign to discredit it. Then you have the release of a Turkish sponsored film called The Ottoman Lieutenant. It was rushed into production and put out before The Promise. There seems to be a concerted effort by Armenian Genocide deniers to detract and sabotage The Promise.
The cast of the film was in New York City today for various press interviews. The actors felt a genuine responsibility to give voice and presence to those killed. They were deeply moved during preparation and filming for their roles. Here’s our talk with Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale on The Promise and the horrors of genocide.
Where you aware of the Armenian Genocide before this film? How did you prepare for your characters?
Oscar Isaac: To my shame, I didn’t know about the Armenian Genocide before I got the script and spoke with Terry George. It was new to me. To read that 1.5 million Armenians perished at the hand of their own government, it was shocking. To this day, there’s an active denial of it. That was the most interesting part of it, but the cast they put together, and the fact that all of the proceeds will go to charity. That’s a great thing to be a part of. My approach was to read as much as I could. Try to immerse myself in the history of the time. Also, in LA, there’s a small museum you can go to. For me, the biggest help was videos and recordings of survivors, who would recount what they witnessed. Little boys, as children, seeing their grandmother bayonetted by the gendarmes, or their mothers and sisters crucified, horrible atrocities. It was heartbreaking. I did feel some responsibility to try and tell their story.
Christian Bale: For me, it was the documentaries where you would see survivors, talking about horrific experiences where loved ones, families, where barbarically killed. To try and get into that mindset, and in a small way, understand the pain they were going through. Then you have the fact that people were telling them that they were lying. They had witnessed it with their own eyes. People to this day refuse to call it a genocide. We have yet to have a sitting US President call it a genocide. Obama did before, but not as president. The pope did recently, but this is the great unknown genocide. The lack of consequence may have provoked other genocides. For me, it became startingly relevant as I was reading the script. In the same way as Oscar was learning as I was reading. I’m reading about Musa Dagh, Armenians being slaughtered, under siege, on a mountain. Then I’m watching on the news, it’s the Yazidis, on a mountain, being slaughtered by ISIS. It’s so relevant. Tragically sad it’s so relevant.
What do you say to the deniers, like the Turkish government that refuses to acknowledge or take responsibility for the genocide?
Christian Bale: There’s a false debate that’s been created, like climate change. As though there’s strong evidence on one side, as on the other. There isn’t. There isn’t just as strong an argument. The evidence backs up the fact that it was a genocide.
What was your favorite scene in The Promise?
Christian Bale: Favorite is the wrong word. Terry and Survival Pictures made a decision not to show the full extent of the barbarity and violence enacted during the genocide. There were multiple reasons for this.
[Terry George wanted a PG-13 rating for a wider audience.]
Christian Bale: The scene where Oscar’s character sees many of his family members and his hometown slaughtered on the riverside, that was a very emotional one for many people that day. Also, seeing Armenians whose family members had gone through that, it was a very affecting day for every single one of us on the film.
Oscar Isaac: Yes, that scene was really why I wanted to do the film. Every time I would read the script, it would impact me deeply. Also, throughout shooting, knowing that moment was going to come. It was going to fall on us to convey the reaction. There was a challenge. For me, it wasn’t the most challenging scene physically. It was a wild shoot. But emotionally, at that point, the culmination of all the reading and watching the videos of people recounting the tragedy, to do that justice. Of course we’re just actors, but you can’t separate yourself from politics totally. There was something liberating about that moment, being able to share it with everyone. We can all mourn together through the act of imitation. There’s also a scene in a tank. We had to do all of this underwater stuff. That was difficult, especially with a fake beard. [Laughs] Beard number two, beard number three, there were some challenging evenings. But again, we were watching on the news, a man jumped in the water to save his wife and kids…they all drowned. Here we are doing that. Seeing the same thing happening over and over again, it took its toll.
Is the press responsible for not holding people and countries to account?
Christian Bale: Yes, the post-truth era, just how important it is to have a free press for any democracy. That’s another aspect of the film that’s become more relevant.
There is a scene where Oscar’s character chastises you, as the journalist, for being able to leave and go back home.
Christian Bale: That line is countered by Chris, my character. That line is, of course, absolutely valid and truthful. But equally truthful is when Chris says, without the press, nobody would know what happened. That’s why it’s so important to have the press, so we can really know what’s happening. Especially now, in this era, where we have to filter through what’s real and not. People are claiming fake news, when it’s clearly not. It’s getting chaotic. One other thing that was very surprising and inspiring, the film is just the beginning of a big social campaign. The Promise Institute for Human Rights just opened at UCLA. A hundred percent of this movie is going to charity. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, we’re getting out there with people on the front lines so to speak. We’re trying to hold people responsible for genocide. Obviously the press is needed to get evidence, data trails, it’s essential. Hopefully people will see the film and have compassion for refugees, the crisis they are going through.
What are you filming now in New York?
Oscar Isaac: A movie called Life Itself, Dan Fogelman wrote and directed.
Is it a comedy?
Oscar Isaac: It’s an unusual one. It’s comedy, but it’s also tragic. It has a lot going on. It has a meta level to it as well. He does more cross generational stuff, kind of like This is Us. It has a lot of elements.
What else do you want to do at this point?
Oscar Isaac: Well, I’m doing Hamlet at the Public Theater next.
From Open Road and Survival Pictures, The Promise will be released Friday, April 21st. The Promise is Directed by Terry George. Starring Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale, Charlotte Lebon, and Angela Sarafyan.