By Brent Lang
LOS ANGELES (Variety) — “The Promise,” a sweeping historical romance starring Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale, is the kind of movie epic they just don’t make anymore. It’s a throwback to David Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago” and Warren Beatty’s “Reds,” movies that transposed big, emotional stories against a sprawling canvas, and tugged at the heartstrings while dealing with thorny political periods.
It’s risky, but not just in that way. Not only is it one of the most expensive independently financed films ever made, it also deals frankly with the Armenian genocide. The mass killings of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire took place between 1915 and 1922, but decades later, the episode remains politically fraught. Bringing the story to the masses was a mission for Kirk Kerkorian, a businessman of Armenian descent who once owned Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He died in 2015 as the film was going into production.
“This was personal for him,” says Eric Esrailian, one of the film’s producers. “He always wanted to make an epic film with the best actors available that wouldn’t just be a history lesson.”
His vision wasn’t cheap. “The Promise,” co-written and directed by Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”), cost nearly $100 million to make before tax breaks. Kerkorian provided all of the financing through Survival Pictures, a company he set up with Esrailian. The film, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, has yet to close a distribution deal. Esrailian thinks the subject matter may be scaring some buyers away.
There’s a reason for that fear. Officials in Turkey continue to deny that systematic killings of Armenians took place. “I’ll just say that there are some studios that have business interests in Turkey, and you can form your own opinion,” says Esrailian.