Director of the movie Atatürk 1881-1919, Mehmet Ada Öztekin replied the questions by Oben Budak & Orçun Onat Demiröz
Atatürk 1881-1919 is a drama film directed by Mehmet Ada Öztekin. The movie tells the story of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk from his childhood to the National Struggle – the years-long effort to win the nation’s independence – in a dramatized story that stresses his human qualities. The lead role is played by Turkish actor Aras Bulut Iynemli.
The production was initially announced as a series, then was reconfigured into two films after its association with the digital platform was terminated. After being aired on Fox TV on Oct. 29 (in its television version), the movie was released in cinemas in Türkiye and around the world on Nov. 3. The sequel is expected to hit theaters in January 2024.
OB: Let’s start by asking about your feeling, you just came back from Los Angeles, where you attended the Hollywood Turkish Film and Drama Days. You left a remark about Atatürk to the world. It must have been very exciting. What happened in LA?
There was a serious demand for the screening. I have been told that people came not only from Los Angeles but other states too. Foreign participation was also very strong. To speak frankly as a filmmaker, Los Angeles is a special place for sure. It’s the beating heart of cinema after all. As a filmmaker, you hope to attract attention from people there. So I was in fact, very nervous but I can say it worked out much better than I expected.
OB: There was only one screening during the Turkish movie week, am I correct?
Yes. Atatürk was the opening movie for the week. There is also a screening planned for the US. Everything is planned well ahead in the US, to be honest. Especially since the reservations are made well in advance, our movie quest was left to the last minute. But I’m guessing the movie will be shown there as well.
OOD: I think it will be distributed extensively in the world, es pecially in the Balkan regions.
It will come out in other places simultaneously with Turkey. But not only in the Balkan regions, it will also come to theaters in a significant number of European countries: England, France…
OOD: The pre-preparation process was very intense, you didn’t start shooting right away. This was very obvious after watching the movie. It also spans a very long period of time. We are talking about a period from Atatürk’s childhood to the beginning of the Turkish National Struggle for Independence. Considering that this is a biography of Atatürk, I assume it’s a very challenging task. How was the planning for you?
This is a very good question. When the project was offered to me, they said that they were thinking of making three movies. The first movie would be until 1919, the second until 1923 and the third one would cover between 1923 and 1938. It made a lot of sense to me too. When you look into Atatürk’s life, this timespan is very accurate.
I was not involved in this process. It was already decided on. In fact, it was decided and written. We prepared for another two and a half years after that. Those two and a half years don’t include the process of writing the script. If we add that too, it would add up to almost four years.
OOD: This is basically the way Hollywood works.
Yes, considering the working hours, it’s close. But I worked in Europe when I was an assistant and I can say that very few films are worked on like this there. Yes, they were making extensive preparations, but not to this extent.. (Laughs)
OOD: Did you work together with historians?
They had both historical and military advisors. Dr. Orhan Çekiç, who knows everything about Atatürk, was our first advisor. Saadet Özen and Hacı Mehmet Duranoğlu were our historical advisors. Tuncal Koç was our military advisor.
In addition to them, Kadir Geçer, who has a book called Costume in The Ot toman Army worked with us as our cos tume advisor. The clothes definitely re flect the true spirit of that period -the fabric, the texture.
We also had an Ottoman Turkish con sultant. There was already a lot of Otto man language emphasis in the script. He worked on the script as well as the vis uals we used as text. How should Atatürk hold a pen, how should he write in Otto man Turkish…
We spent six or seven months together with our advisors. We held dinners to talk about one specific character. For exam ple, one week we met only to discuss Mrs. Zübeyde. We had separate meetings for Madame Corinne, or Mr. Ali Rıza.
These meetings had a title. Every week, we discussed one topic from the very beginning to the end, regardless if it was directly related to the movie or not. We discussed everything about the era. So yes, there was serious work done with the advisors.
OOD: The special effects and plastic makeup was also very good. Whether it’s Enver Paşa or Mustafa Kemal Atatürk or the other characters. A lot of effort has been put there too.
Yes, our makeup team was from England. Mark Coulier did all the makeup.
OOD: Who also worked on Suspiria…
Yeah, he worked on Suspiria. Even Harry Potter, Game of Thrones and a lot of other top productions. Remember Rob erto Benigni’s Pinocchio? That child’s makeup is his. What was that, that was unbelievable. (Laughs)
Our makeup manager was Ahsen Gülkaya Heinly. Ahsen gath ered this team. Actually it was a quite large team. The artist who did Aras Bulut İynemli’s makeup never even came to Türki ye! He took the measurements and sent them here. I had never seen him before, I wouldn’t recognize him if he sat across from me. (Laughs)
OOD: You also had to manage a very large team of extras.
Especially the extras during the Çanakkale scenes were a very serious task. There were about 700 extras and around 200 fill ins. There was a crew of almost 1000 people in front of the camera. If you include the people behind the camera, we had a total of 1500 people. These are very extraordinary numbers.
OB: I’m wondering about your initial reaction when the script came to you. A movie about Atatürk is going to be made and you are going to direct it after all…
I didn’t read the script for a very long time. They were even pushing me about reading it. I said “It’s a very long script, why should I read it? I know I’m not going to shoot it, I’m sure it isn’t good.” (Laughs)
Then somehow, I decided to read it. On the other hand, I have to admit something. There is no good Atatürk movie. The exam ples so far are not good examples. And why? Because we never got to see the ‘human’ Mustafa Kemal in those movies. That’s not how a hero’s journey works. A hero does not work like that. We paid a lot of attention to this matter.
I can give a recent example of this. If you don’t show Peter Parker gets bullied in high school and starts telling his story as if he has always been “Spider-Man” you are grounding your hero.
OB: We are both great Marvel fans by the way.
Great, then we’ll get along better. (Laughs)
This is how heroic movies happen. There is a scene where Mustafa Kemal’s father dies and we see him with this teacher. It’s that moment that the idea pops up in his head and the story begins.
OOD: We see that the drama arc is very well made throughout the movie.
I really wouldn’t have made it otherwise. I don’t know if this will be in the inter view or not but I am going to talk with an open-heart. First of all, I am a supporter of Atatürk’s ideals. I admire his personal ity and we made a movie about Atatürk on the 100th anniversary of the republic. But making a movie is a different matter. For example, Aronofsky is one of the di rectors who best visualizes the concept of God and religion in cinema, and he is an atheist. We are filmmakers. I don’t look at the movies, I make from a “how can I serve the republic” kind of per spective. I don’t have such motivation. I am not a politician nor a wing leader.
For me, a movie is a movie. No matter who it is about. Therefore, without a dramatization, I would not have the mo tivation to make the film anyway.
OOD: This is one of the reasons why I liked the movie. We already know Musta fa Kemal’s battles, his relationship with his childhood friends, and the period of İttihat ve Terakki. These are the things we have read and have a detailed knowl edge about. But I think what makes this movie good is the dramatic framework.
Yes, so if there was any intervention on my part, it was always in this sense. I intervened where I thought something would contribute more to the drama. This may not have been the case in Atatürk’s actual life, but this is a movie and when the subject is Atatürk, things get complicated.
There is another serious issue as you are covering his life, the founder of the Re public of Turkey.
There is also the responsibility that one might think one of the scenes was real and take it as such. I don’t want to take on that responsibility. But for example, his relationship with his sister, were they very close or not… When you showcase it as a loving one, it is not an insult to his memory at all. It doesn’t change your opinion about Atatürk. So some of the decisions were about the drama aspect of the movie.
OOD: I would like to continue with his relationship with Madam Corrine. Madam Corrine is a very special character in his life although she is not very well-known or talked about…
She was even beyond what we knew. To be frank, Madame Corinne became a subject of research for us. The more we researched, the more we realized it was a bottomless pit. So our advisors were also very careful about this matter. We also worked very hard too. Esra Bilgiç did a very dedicated job, she prepared very well for the role.
Madame Corinne is perhaps the most important character in Atatürk’s life.
İlber Ortaylı also stated this in our conversation about her. Madame Corinne is also one of the most important characters in his intellectual development. She even influenced him about the French language.
In fact, in one of her letters, Madame Corinne asks Atatürk how he can write French so well and if he is making someone write on his behalf. And Atatürk gets upset by this question. These elements were also important in terms of showing Mustafa Kemal’s insight.
OOD: It is challenging the balance of the romantic aspect of things. But you managed to do it.
I mean, my heart came in to play there. I decide whether some thing bothers me or not when I’m actually looking at the moni tor. As long as it doesn’t, it can continue. If it’s bothering me at some point, it has to stop there. The bed scene, for example, is so hard to frame… I changed that scene five or six times just in my head. In that respect, I believe we reflected the nature of their relationship well.
OB: I would like to talk about Aras Bulut İynemli. When did you decide that he should play the part? I know you have worked together many times before but this role is very different.
I’ll never forget the first meeting we had. Two of the produc ers, the scriptwriter and I met in Cihangir. They asked me who I had in mind for Atatürk. I really put a lot of thought into it. They thought Aras was too young, but it ended up being Aras. (Laughs)
It was good to have Aras for character development too. Take a look at our oth er “heroic” movies. It usually signals that the character is a hero from the very first scene. This actually means taking away his power.
I think you need to see the development throughout the movie. That’s how “char acter building” happens. And also, we made a 280-minute long movie.
OB: So, do you have a project set after this? Would you like to shoot a sequel?
Of course I would. Initially, we planned it as a three-part series consisting of three periods. On the other hand, we actually need to shoot between 1919 and 1923. That is the most crucial part of the whole story. But the period we are talking about in this movie is what created Mustafa Ke mal in that period. As a filmmaker, I can tell you that the real story lies there.
If you take this story to any filmmaker around the world and say there is such a life, most of them would shoot between 1919 to 1923. That’s where the real epic narrative is. But of course, this project started as it did because we wanted to tell everything in fine detail. I think it should have started like this.
But a sequel is not a conversation right now. Whatever I say would be specula tion. I would love to shoot it, for sure.