Let The Blood Flow: ANTIDOTE And The Re-Emergence Of Turkish Action Cinema
What is the genesis for Panzehir (Antidote)? What are the elements which separate it from other action films within Turkish cinema? It clearly represents a different direction within your own filmography - what pushed you to make this move?
Panzehir (Antidote) was my own personal love letter to film noir and action films, set in a gritty urban Istanbul backdrop. It's a soup of Leone references, Turkish mob mojo and old film noir-esque innuendo. One might even call it a "dolma western", I would say kebap, but dolma as a dish is far more authentic to mainland Turkic cuisine.
Regarding the different direction in my filmography, I believe my trajectory as a director is to ever move closer to the "violent, often humorous, and genre independent" films whose primary aim is to excite the viewer and tell an engaging story. My last film was a military survival film coupled with the banter of two clueless young soldiers killing enemies to stay alive, but this one takes that flavor to the absolute limit. The duo this time is a legendary hitman and smartass young undercover cop. The film both uses classical "buddy" themes while evolving them to fit into the Turkish tenet of "friendship to the death".
Can you talk a bit about the shooting process for Panzehir? Was it a difficult film to make and did you manage to get everything you set out to do?
Panzehir was a bitch to make. Logistics to make an action adventure film in Turkey is like trying to manufacture a plasma rifle in rural Greenland. But I've always trusted my loyal crew and always will. The core team and Heads of Departments were a stout bunch of people who caused us to somehow achieve a satisfactory and sometimes superb visual cohesion.
Turkey is a country which has grown with the French idea of "composed" filmmaking. The American octane-driven film grammar used to be a big no-no here. Smooth, flowing, often painfully slow (sometimes boring) exposition was the norm. Hence the entire industry evolved to be "discreet and extremely meticulous" at the expense of efficiency and the use of shock-tactics. Fortunately my precise generation of filmmakers, including my life-long buddies Can Emre and Can Evrenol seek to obliterate this status quo. Whether we will succeed and bring the industry to revitalizing story concepts remains to be seen. We believe the audience is hungry for new things. Action, Crime, Horror, even quality Fantasy and Science-Fiction in the very near future, so we suffer the first baby steps at financial and psychological expense in order to push the envelope.
The shooting stage took 8 weeks (1 week longer than I had anticipated, and I am considered sometimes sloppily fast). Directing is a lifestyle of compromise and idealism in constant flux, but I believe I got 90% of that I had envisioned.
What was the most important element in your head when you set out to make a film like Panzehir - the one single thing you felt the film could not be made without?
The singular and most important thing during the film was to create a Turkish flavor to the formula. It wasn't enough just to emulate the Hollywood solutions to high adventure, we had to add our own cultural details to it. Every little detail, from the origins of the crime families, to the reason the main character uses a specific weapon had Turkish reasons to it. My father's hometown of Kozan, Adana (Mediterranean Turkey) and the surroundings gave us ample material to concoct our own blend of a criminal saga. The cigarettes they roll, while an obvious reference to the revisionist Westerns of our age, also have little details and solutions that come with Turkey's own insanely complex 1000 years of history. While being primarily set in 2014, flashbacks to 40 years ago give us clues to how and why these hard boiled Machiavellian hitmen evolved the way they did. While it does have some foundation in reality, it is not "based on a true story" either. The two things I always maintained a must in my vision, were "chiaroscuro" and "tension". The film can hopefully show you why and how.
The mise-en-scene of the film is incredibly stylized - can you talk about some of the inspiration behind it?
Visuals to me are a tool, and if I can manage it, or have the means to achieve it, I'd always try to perfect as much as I can. However it is secondary to the greater good of the story. I always proudly maintain that I'm a product of American cinema throughout the early 80s and 90s. The idea is that that popcorn flicks can be with good or humorous stories while performing feats of technical aptitude to impress millions. The advent of shitty comic films and overused CGI curbed this awesome evolution of storytelling. We regressed for nearly 20 years back into the age of "visuals before story".
Action films in my philosophy should be something which Robert McKee would enjoy. The great script mentor's philosophy being "engaging premise, engaging hero creates engaging film". This is genre independent in my opinion. Original Die Hard as a perfect unusual action film has more to do with the story than the lavish visuals it has. Another example is Sin City, which was a fun film because of its utterly insane and morals-free setting, rather than simply cool-visuals -- which have aged like milk. But the film remains a classic because of Marv, and the dialogues and the arcs Frank Miller put into it.
What are your thoughts on Turkish action cinema - the past, the present and the future?
While from the 70s to the 80s we had awesome trailblazing achievements, there really is no contemporary (post 90s) Turkish action cinema. We've had good attempts at trying to pioneer the modern genre, but they were few and in between. A handful of examples since the 2000s do exist, but I don't find them especially impressive in anything, least of all a Turkish identity of them. One of our primary motivations with this film was to do a film with a higher tempo than anything which has come before. I'm not talking about fights or choreography. I'm talking about the audience saying "nice -- now what?".
How about some examples of genre films that you love?
I am at my core, a science-fiction and fantasy storyteller. Action and Military even historical genres also appeal to me. On the other hand personally, I view drama and romance as tools to be placed in every film to summon empathy and immersion from the audience, so my picks will always reflect this. My all time absolute favorite film is The Man Who Would Be King by John Huston. Bar none. Nothing could surpass that film. I would do a remake of it free of charge, perhaps even sell my dog. I don't have a dog though-- I suppose I'll sell my sister's dog. Other great films I enjoy perpetually and place on a very sparse shelf of favorites might probably be On The Waterfront, Casino, Die Hard, Terminator 2, In Bruges, Reservoir Dogs-- oh and let's put something Turkish there, Yarali Kurt (an adaptation of Le Samourai) by Lutfi Akad.
And your plans for the future? Do they involve further exploration of genre films?
I do but its not just a matter of me remaining here. If the Turkish industry can't get its shit together, spread audience interaction and involvement in more films, increase the number of state assistance in logistics and permissions rather than just flat out cash, then I'll just be one of those people who brain-drain into America. Good things are happening though, Mars Entertainment Group runs a world class chain of cinemas which has logarithmically increased the numbers of film audiences around the country in the past 10 years. While surpassing France in revenue was a fleeting dream 20 years ago, at this rate we might be cruising comfortably past them by 2015. If all goes well and if more filmmakers of my generation are also embraced with their unique premises and genre innovations, then Turkey can become the 5th largest film industry in the world by revenue in 2020.
Any final thoughts that you'd like to share?
I've had the chance to work with Cüneyt Arkın. The Alain Delon-- no -- the Paul Newman of Turkey. I felt inadequate to direct such a giant of film, he is the most well-known person in Turkey perhaps aside from Ataturk and a handful of other people. Just seeing it now, on film, I still can't believe it. One of those hazy memories where you are sober, but the reminiscence creates giddiness. This film was the hardest professional process of my life, but when I look at it, I feel it has been more than worth it. That to a director, ultimately, is the most precious feeling in the world.