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Cutting Rooms and Cognac: Terry George on the Craft of Filming Atrocity

We hosted a masterclass with the Oscar-winning filmmaker of Hotel Rwanda and The Promise. Here are 19 takeaways.

December 12, 2017  |  by Creative Armenia

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1. On scummy protagonists:

For me, filmmaking is about telling the story of ordinary men and women who triumph over evil, who find in themselves they are often flawed characters.  In fact, flawed characters are better.  I believe you can't make a film about Jesus Christ, you can't make a film about Nelson Mandela, and you can't make a film about Pele, because basically, they ain't that flawed, and to make a good film, you need characters that are human. And by being human I mean having human flaws. 

Terry George on scummy protagonists

2. On artistic preciousness:

The stories that I try to make are too important to get involved in your own “I'm an artist” bullshit. Irish people are storytellers. I'm in the business of telling stories about human beings. Anybody who tells you a big tracking shot is a great shot… You better figure out whether it's gonna be in the film or not, because the number of tracking shots we did for The Promise, that are not in there, that are on the floor, and the hours that I spent with extras going the wrong way….

If you have a lot of space to tell your story, then go for the art of it all.  If you're trying to cram the Armenian Genocide into two hours and ten minutes, forget about the tracking shots most of the time, because you've got a story to tell.

3. On emotions:

I'm in the business of trying to motivate people, to stimulate their emotions...not just the sensation of watching an explosion. I want you to feel empathy. I want you to feel sorrow, to feel anger. Those emotions that great movies used to stimulate, and which, today, basically, Hollywood has abandoned, for raucous laughter and a flash-bang wallop of special effects. We're in the business of all the emotions being stimulated, and therefore, it's the story that does that, rather than the “wow” of it all.

Terry George on artistic preciousness and emotions

4. On levity:

Make sure that you do try to stimulate all the emotions. Including laughter. Even in The Promise, there are moments of levity: when Morwen drops the body in the surgery or when Ana’s uncle says, “Thank God my wife died, she was a witch…barren as a desert!” It actually is important that you give the audience relief. And In the Name of the Father, it's full of jokes, Gerry Conlon needing the LSD on the map, and tripping off.

5. On the absence of Kurds in The Promise:

Someone asked me yesterday, "Why weren't the Kurds in The Promise?" I'll tell you why: because I couldn't explain them. To introduce another factor into an already complicated story was a step too far.  

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6. On a magic word:

We had a mantra on Hotel Rwanda, which we then passed on for The Promise, and that mantra was a single word: Peoria. Peoria, Illinois is the center of the United States. And we said to each other, "If they don't get this film in Peoria, we've failed."  

7. On Kubrick’s comment that “the Holocaust is about 6 million Jews who died, Schindler’s List is about 600 people who didn’t.”

No apologies to Stanley Kubrick but that’s bullshit, because most of the world understands the Holocaust because of Schindler’s List. That’s their education into the Holocaust. My education into the Cambodian Genocide was The Killing Fields, my education into the coup in Chile was the film Missing, with Jack Lemmon. Jim Sheridan and I tried, through In the Name of the Father, The Boxer, and Some Mother’s Son, to enlighten people about the situation in Northern Ireland.


I can tell you that we thought Hotel Rwanda was going to be in six cinemas, go to cable and disappear…it’s a crap shoot, it’s the local draw and the roll of the dice. We won Toronto, we won the People’s Choice Award, and we took off from that. Because of Hotel Rwanda, Starbucks got involved in Rwanda, George W. Bush watched it twice – no matter what you think of him – he did a lot of work in Africa, he changed things in Darfur, the campaign in Darfur was directly helped by Hotel Rwanda.


So film, political film, has a huge, huge, huge impact, it’s how people learn today. That’s why the Turkish government went out and made a film called The Ottoman Lieutenant, with a completely fictitious story, to try to undermine our film, and have spent money on bots trying to undermine the film, and they’ll continue to do so because the first reaction people get after watching The Promise is: “I didn’t know this happened. I didn’t know this happened to the Armenian people.”

Terry George on Kubrick’s comment about Schindler’s List

8. On his cinematic influences:


Costa-Gavras…the great David Lean obviously…John Ford…I mean I love The Searchers, all the great old westerns…For me it’s about the story. I came out of theatre along with Jim Sheridan, so we come from an Irish storytelling tradition.


9. On the importance of cutting:


If you have the slightest suspicion that something is weak, it definitely is. You know, if you have a suspicion (“I’m not sure if this isn’t working”), throw it out. The other rule that tends to be true is: you kill the thing you love most. The scene you hold on to most is the one that needs to go in the edit-room all the time.


10. On his definition of scriptwriting:


Scriptwriting, particularly political and non-fiction scriptwriting, is the distillation of a story down till it's cognac.


11. On his writing method:


I was a garbage collector, taxi man, bartender, construction, all sorts of stuff. The hardest one was putting wallpaper on the ceiling. I would rather wallpaper a ceiling than write a script any day of the week. I need a deadline, and then when the deadline approaches, you sit down and crash it as best you can. In the Al Pacino movie Justice for All, I think it was Charles Durning playing a judge, a crazy judge. His hobby was flying helicopters, but he would fly the helicopter at the sea till the fuel indicator went below the half-mark and then try to fly it back. That’s exactly what I do with scripts.


12. On the three-act structure:


I am a total believer in the three-act structure. One of the dilemmas that we had with The Promise – and I couldn’t resolve it – was basically: act one better end by 30 minutes in. The modern-day audience gets extremely anxious if after 30 minutes something enormous hasn’t happened. In The Promise, Mikael doesn’t get arrested until 40 minutes in. The reason we couldn’t overcome that problem was we had to cram so much into those first 40 minutes, we had to get him out of Sirun, we had to get him to meet Ana, we had to get Chris there, we had to meet Talaat Pasha, we had to meet the German. It was so much, and one of the valid criticisms is it’s very slow to start the film. I admit that, but we tried. In the need to tell the story itself sometimes you have to ask the audience to be patient, and our audiences are patient but critics are not. But I do believe in that structure to use the post-its, and then the storyboard comes afterwards for big setups, really.


13. On directing actors:


Actors are the bravest people in the world and the craziest because their face is going to be up there, 20 feet tall, and they trust you to come up with lines and directions that are not going to make them stupid. The top-level actors I’ve worked with – Helen Mirren, Dustin Hoffman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac, James Cromwell – who am I to tell them anything? My job is to get out of the road, explain to them what I hope would happen with the scene and stand back and let them go for it. And if they say to you they can’t say that line or they don’t think the line works, tell them to say whatever they want because ultimately they’ll come back to what the story is.


14. On doing multiple takes:

This whole thing of making somebody say something 70 times… I never have the luxury of going beyond 6 takes. If we are into 10 takes, I am trying to figure out what’s wrong with that scene and how to replace it right away.

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15. On avoiding graphic depictions:


For me, it's letting the audience do the work for you, and letting the actor do the work, take the audience with them, because I don't care how much blood you throw at the scene, you're never gonna make the reality that would match the horror.


What was the one thing I could do on that death march to try to encapsulate the horror that we'd read: people being mutilated, women having their unborn children cut out of them, beheadings? What was the one thing I could do, within the context of the ratings, and involve Chris, and capture the audience? It's shooting the woman, and the little girl running away….the woman was an extra, the girl was an extra. Those are the moments that I talk about -- the distillation, finding the moment that will tell the story for you.

16. On the best line he ever wrote (from In The Name of the Father):

Gerry Conlon has been found guilty of causing an explosion and killing people in a pub. He's been sentenced to life plus thirty years. His father who came over to rescue him was sentenced to 18 years in prison. They are pariahs, they're outcasts in the prison, they're on the fourth floor and they're sitting down. The older man knows he's going to die in prison and he tells his son, “These chips aren't bad.”


That summed up Guiseppe Conlon, and the whole concept of the movie.  That there he was, feigning hope where there was no hope at all.

17. On the best way to get involved in filmmaking:


Get involved in theatre, in amateur theatre, because within that group, you've already got your film company. You go in there, you work, you see the actors work onstage, and then one day you say to them, “By the way, I've got this little script, would you come outside and film this?”

Terry George on the best way to get involved in filmmaking

18. On the Creative Armenia’s 60 Second Film Challenge:


The results were fantastic. Remember, the best and most expensive advertising in the world is either in a 30 second or one minute commercial on television. Often the greatest visual filmmakers – Ridley Scott, Parker – come out of advertising. So the challenge was really exciting.  I couldn't have pulled it off, I tell ya.


19. On second thoughts about The Promise:


One of the things that's lacking from the movie is an understanding of the Turkish frame of mind. Why did they commit the Genocide? And we had a scene between Talaat Pasha and Dr. Nazeem and some generals in the Army that explained their determination to cleanse the Ottoman Empire, to wipe the Armenians from the face of the Earth. And I use the words that Dr. Nazeem and Talaat Pasha and so forth had said. We debated back and forth about whether that scene should be in there or not, and ultimately, it didn't make the cut (though it’s in the DVD).


If I had my druthers today, I'd say, listen, let's forget about a film. Let's do eight hours on Netflix, and tell this story really right. The media has evolved now, to where in fact the six-hour, eight-hour limited series is perhaps the most important educational instrument that we have today.

The above are excerpts from a conversation among Terry George, producer Eric Esrailian, and Creative Armenia director Garin Hovannisian. The conversation took place in Yerevan, Armenia, and was co-hosted by Creative Armenia and AGBU.

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