Terry George: 'There was no way I was doing a propaganda thing'

Irish director and former republican prisoner Terry George tells Esther McCarthy about his controversial new genocide drama and his fond memories of Martin McGuinness.

Charlotte Le Bon and Christian Bale in The Promise.
Charlotte Le Bon and Christian Bale in The Promise.

HOTEL RWANDA won him international acclaim and an Oscar nomination. Now, filmmaker Terry George returns to a dark period in human history, with controversial results, in The Promise.

George’s new film dramatises the Armenian genocide, where up to 1.5 million people were exterminated by the then-Ottoman government during World War I.

He knew that Turkey, which has long disputed the validity of the word ‘genocide’ would not be happy, and kept the production under the radar as much as possible during filming.

“Because I’d done Hotel Rwanda, I knew a little bit of the story of the genocide,” he says of being initially approached to make the film. “It’s probably one of the least-known catastrophic events of the twentieth century.

“The thing about it is, at the time that it happened, it was one of the most heavily reported events of the war, in the United States for sure. They covered it every day.

“The main perpetrators who were supposed to be held accountable got off, or disappeared, or whatever. It became a non-issue, but not for the Armenian diaspora.”

ROMANTIC FRAMEWORK

George’s film recounts events, but is framed within a romantic triangle involving a medical student (Oscar Isaac) a young Armenian woman (Charlotte Le Bon) and an American war reporter (Christian Bale). While the love story is fictional, the dramatic events, which depict life in labour camps, death marches and the separation of families, are true, he says.

The film was financed by the late Kirk Kerkorian, an American / Armenian billionaire, who had long wanted to see this story brought to the big screen.

“It was his desire for many years to have a Hollywood-style film made about the subject matter,” says the filmmaker.

“They sent out the script to various actors and Christian Bale was attracted to it and he came on board first. That then helped us with Oscar Isaac. Charlotte Le Bon was somewhat of a discovery for me. I pushed for her in the female lead role.

“I thought: ‘This woman has enormous charisma, and charm, and if she can act then she was the one for me’. She was great, and everybody signed up for her. We did a big search, because you needed a woman who you’d believe that these two strong men would fall in love with. And that she could then morph from a joie de vivre party girl, coming out of France, into this earth mother who protected these orphans. It was a very demanding role.”

The film has been targeted in online campaigns, with George having to weather complaints that the film is biased.

Terry George on set on The Promise.

“First of all, having an Irish director mitigates somewhat against that. There was no way I was going to do a propaganda thing. For me that made it more important that the events portrayed in it were completely authentic and that I had done my research on the historical origins of them. So I took particular care.

“After what (Jim) Sheridan and I had gone through with In the Name of the Father, Some Mother’s Son and The Boxer [they collaborated on all three films] we were particularly attuned to that accusation, that it’s bias.

“So I knew the ropes in terms of what I had to do, which was prove the story we were telling. Be capable of defending what you show onscreen.

“The main argument of the Turkish denial is it was war and terrible things happened, millions of people got killed on both sides. The reverse argument that I would present for that is that millions of people did get killed, but it was the enemy who killed in most cases. In this case it was their own government.”

As soon as the film was first shown, it was widely criticised online, with thousands of people who had clearly not seen it voting against and for it on the internet resource website IMDB.

“We did two screenings in Toronto, there were 1,500 people at each screening, so that’s 3,000. By the end of the week on IMDB we had 50,000 one out of ten votes. Subsequently we had 30,000 ten out of ten votes! It’s a fiercely partisan issue, and we knew that going along.”

George’s path to success as a filmmaker is an unusual one. As a young man, he served three of six years in Long Kesh (The Maze) prison in his native Northern Ireland for an arms charge.

On being released early for good behaviour, he moved to the US with his wife and young daughter to start a new life. He worked in construction and bartending before becoming a successful journalist. A meeting with Jim Sheridan in New York’s Irish Arts Centre led him to film, firstly as a writer and later a director.

MAN OF CHARM

Martin McGuinness

It probably isn’t surprising that George had high regard for the late Martin McGuinness.

“I did know him. Not particularly well, but I’d met him on several occasions. When we won the Oscar for [short film] The Shore, my daughter and I, he and Peter Robinson greeted us and staged a screening at Stormont.

“I’ve seen the debate about his past as peacemaker. For me, I think he was a remarkable man. The ability to pull the IRA into the ceasefire, which was an extremely dangerous thing, and then his unique sort of ability and diplomacy and charm, to first of all charm Paisley, and then Peter Robinson. And hold the whole thing together over those first years. I think he’ll go down in history as one of the key figures in 20th and 21st century Ireland.”

Socially, what was he like? “Somebody who has the capacity to create an atmosphere of friendliness and an honesty between you and him. Obviously I wasn’t debating heavy political issues, and given my background, was completely on his side.

“A unique character — you meet people in life who have that ability to communicate with you in a way that is rare.”

George still gets back to Ardglass in Co Down, where there is a family home, whenever he can. The area was used as a location for The Shore, his Oscar-winning short about a man who returns to the area 25 years after fleeing the Troubles. He hopes to make a feature-length version of the tale.

“The Shore was really the end of stories I had in my head in that it was the return from exile. I have two other parts to it. It’s strange to go from this huge budget film down to a small independent again, but I’m actually delighted to be trying to do that.”

Over the next few weeks, however, as The Promise opens, he’ll probably be busy batting for a film that’s sure to attract plenty attention.

  • The Promise is in cinemas from next Friday


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