Making The Promise: A Personal Interview with Exec. Producer Ralph Winter
PG-13 for thematic material including war atrocities, violence and disturbing images, and for some sexuality
April 21, 2017
Oscar Isaac, Charlotte le Bon, Christian Bale, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Marwan Kenzari, Angela Sarafyan, Tom Hollander, Jean Reno, James Cromwell
Open Roads Films
He had to do it.
This is the first time worldwide audiences will get a glimpse of what happened in Constantinople during the last days of the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey). It's an intimate drama wrapped up in the forgotten history of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 that claimed the lives of 1.5 million men, women, and children.
Unfortunately, history is repeating itself. Unimaginable horrors are perpetrated upon innocents in Syria even today. Winter keenly felt that current reality, as did his cast and crew, including the film's stars Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale, and Charlotte le Bon, and its director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda). (More on that later.)
Ralph Winter's Personal Connection
Though not of Armenian descent, Winter has close ties to the community. His hometown of Glendale, California, had, and still has, a large Armenian population. And his childhood friends (with whom he's still in contact) are proud of their heritage.
Each year on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, April 24th (which also happens to be Winter's birthday), his old neighbors have an annual parade honoring their brothers and sisters who were murdered in an act of war the Turkish government still does not recognize as genocide.
"To go deeper and to understand more, and to get more involved with my Armenian friends was also a motivator for me," Winter says of one of the reasons he wanted to produce this movie.
History Comes Alive in The Promise
A love of history is a part of Winter's DNA. He studied it at the University of California, Berkeley before getting into the movie business in the late 1970s.
Known for big budget movies (X-Men franchise, Fantastic Four, Planet of the Apes), Winter's built quite the resume over the years. Producing The Promise has become a career highlight for the history buff and filmmaker.
"It was quite remarkable and moving," Winter says. "History is a series of stories in some ways and making a movie like this makes history come alive."
The Promise Is Happening Today
Beyond giving moviegoers an affecting cinematic experience, Winter wants to educate the masses so that genocide becomes a thing of the past.
"A lot of people see this movie and say 'I never knew this'," Winter says. "So part of [my motivation] is an education – that they would actually understand and recognize that this happened. It's not fake news. It's not something that's been manufactured or fabricated. This is what happened to these people. Without recognizing that it in fact happened, you won't be able to make the connection of the long linkage of what's happening, for instance, in Syria today in the very same areas."
"[Secondly,] that it's all related, that this kind of persecution, this kind of genocide continues to happen in our world because we don't recognize that it's happened before. We don't recognize that there's a pattern here. The fact that the Turks got away with this gives Bashar al-Assad the confidence that he can get away with it as well. 'When is that going to stop?' should be the question people come out of the theater with. That's what I would hope."
Recalling a poignant moment in The Promise when a U.S. Ambassador (played by James Cromwell) confronts a high-ranking Turkish official, Winter confirms that the script intentionally appeals to American audiences concerning the atrocities we see on the nightly news.
"We couldn't have foretold what's happening in Turkey today or what's happening in Syria unfortunately today," Winter says. "But in making the movie, it was deliberate that we talk about Aleppo [Syria], that we talk about religious persecution, and we talk about a nation of immigrants, because that's the truth. That's who we are [as Americans]. That's our history and it dovetails exactly with what the army and community was going through in 1915. That was intentional and pointed."
Executive Producer Ralph Winter on the set of The Promise.
The Promise Cast & Crew: Filming Genocide
Making a movie about the systematic killing of 1.5 million people takes a toll. Winter remembers times on the set in Portugal and Spain when the cast and crew were overwhelmed.
"The tone was serious," he says. "We all knew the import of what we were making."
"We were mindful every day. Certainly when filming the massacre, it was very rough on the crew. We had to take breaks because we were recreating images that we had seen on the news the night before or on the web [about what's happening in Syria today]. It was too much at times for the actors and for the crew behind the camera because we knew the import of what we were doing and the images that we were putting together."
"We had fun as a crew," he recalls, "but in general, we had a pretty serious attitude because we recognized the seriousness of the story and the import of what we were trying to do."
"You recognize on a picture like this and a story like this that you're not just making entertainment," Winter says. "Yeah, we're doing that, we've got to entertain the audience. If we entertain them, then maybe they'll grasp the meanings that are there in the story. But I think that we all recognize the seriousness that a million and a half lives were lost and continue to be lost, and continue that persecution. So that had extra weight that we carried on this."
Though a difficult history to recreate on film, the cast and crew of The Promise committed themselves heart and soul.
"The crew's proud of it," Winter says. "They're proud of being a part of it, to bring the story to the screen."
The faith and persevering spirit of the Armenian people is awe-inspiring. For Winter, a practicing Presbyterian and friend of the Armenian community, it's good to know the world will finally see their harrowing history on the big screen.
The Promise is rated PG-13 and opened in theaters on April 21, 2017 (just days before the 102nd anniversary of the Armenian genocide). It's also important to note that all of the profits from The Promise are going to charity.