TORONTO — Terry George looked to past work from Canadian director Atom Egoyan exploring the Armenian genocide during the First World War before crafting his own vision of the harrowing true story for the screen.
The Oscar-winning filmmaker cited Egoyan's 2002 film "Ararat" as one of many on the tragedy he watched as he readied to co-write and direct "The Promise," which opens in theatres on Friday.
Historians estimate up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of the First World War, an event viewed by many scholars as the 20th century's first genocide — a term that has been rejected by Turkey. Canadian governments under both Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau have commemorated the genocide.
"The biggest comment that you get coming out of the cinema is: 'I never knew of this,'" George said during a roundtable interview at the Toronto International Film Festival where "The Promise" had its world premiere last fall.
"I think that's strange, because at the time of the First World War in 1915, this was the single most reported event of the world war. In the United States, every day the papers were littered with reports about what was going on, and then it disappeared not just from the newspapers, but the history books."
Set against the backdrop of war and the decline of the Ottoman Empire, "The Promise" stars Oscar Isaac as Michael, an Armenian apothecary with lofty career aspirations.
The film opens with Michael leaving his village in southern Anatolia in Turkey to pursue medical studies in the capital. He is able to finance his educational pursuits by using a dowry from his fiancee, Maral ("Westworld" star Angela Sarafyan) whom he is pledged to marry through an arranged union — but does not love.
Michael finds himself entangled in a complex romantic web when he falls for Ana, an Armenian artist (Montreal-born Charlotte Le Bon) who is already in a relationship with Chris, a brash American journalist for The Associated Press (Oscar winner Christian Bale).
As Michael begins revelling in the joys of big city life while at school, the spectre of war is soon raised.
The Belfast-born George looked to other historical love stories played out during times of conflict as he laid the groundwork for "The Promise."
"If you look at 'Reds' or 'Ryan's Daughter' or ('Doctor) Zhivago', even 'The English Patient,' they're all set during this great wartime conflict," he said.
"So, that love affair, the love between two people, or whether they're falling out is suddenly brought into this furnace of the war.... And that's fascinating drama."
George said he was captivated by the "settled love" seen between the film's established couples, and how the passionate romance between Michael and Ana threatens to dissolve their committed relationships.
"That's what's going on with this: do you follow your head or your heart? I think that no matter what setting you put that in that's great drama," said the filmmaker.
"In a setting where these people are ripped apart, their own little love affair seems kind of diminished —and yet that's what holds them together. That fascinates me," he added. "I would hope that's what attracts people (to the film). That's what I want them come in for. The political background will tell its own story in its imagery."
— Follow @lauren_larose on Twitter.
Lauren La Rose, The Canadian Press