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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

'Aram, Aram' At Los Angeles Film Festival - Interview with Christopher Chambers and Ian Coyne

Sonia Gumuchian |
June 14, 2015 | 1:40 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

(Sonia Gumuchian/ Neon Tommy)
(Sonia Gumuchian/ Neon Tommy)

On June 14th, "Aram, Aram" premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival to a packed house, as the first ever Armenian-themed film to be screened at the festival, and was met with adoration.

The film tells the story of a 12-year-old Armenian boy who is sent to live with his grandfather in Little Armenia, where he grapples to find his identity in his new-found home. "Aram, Aram" paints a fascinating, in-depth portrait of an immigrant's story while introducing audiences to Armenian culture. What's even more fascinating is the making of this film, as the filmmaker behind the story managed to flawlessly incorporate Armenian nuances and present an insider look into the world of Little Armenia...without being Armenian or speaking a word of the language.

Let's face it, if you're non-Armenian and reading this, you probably know of three Armenians: Your Uber driver from last night, Kim Kardashian, and that one Armenian friend you had back in college who taught you how to say "Parev." It's not everyday that a genuine and artistic film about Armenians is made and it's unheard of that all of this would be coming from a non-Armenian American who slaved away for years nailing down every detail he possibly could. Neon Tommy had a chance to chat with Christopher Chambers (Director/Writer/Honorary Armenian) and Ian Coyne (Co-Producer) about the making of "Aram, Aram." 

Neon Tommy: Walk me through the genesis of this project. 

Christopher Chambers (Director/Writer): [Before "Aram, Aram"] I was doing about 5,000 TV promos and working basically 6 1/2 days a week for a year and a half non-stop. It was really exciting and challenging but also very far away from storytelling. The only reason I knew how to direct promos was because of the stuff I learned trying to learn how to make movies. So, finally once I had worked a lot, I had some money saved up and decided to pull the breaks and get back to what I love. 

A mentor once said to me "Be careful how you make your money because you’ll wake up twenty years later and find out that’s all you’ve done with your life." I’ve never forgotten that he said that. So I jumped the rails, called up Ian [Coyne], told him to read my script and he gave me a great note.

Ian Coyne (Producer): My first response was, wait, this isn’t in English? There are English parts and Armenian parts but making a film that was subtitled, funny enough, was something I never thought I would do. I guess you could say I am more commercial in that sense, but it was so cool to be able to do something so genuinely artistic and uniquely cultural. 

CC: The script is actually a coming of age story that was originally written in English. Then we translated it to Armenian using a battery of translators. It was a big problem. We went through six translators. The ability to understand nuance and translate that was very hard to find.

NT: Like nailing down the different dialectics?

CC: The nuances, the dialects. There were some translators who were 'Beirutahye' (western) and claimed to be fluent in 'Hayastantsi' (eastern) Armenian, but in fact weren’t. They translated a scene then gave it to Levon Sharafyan and he said “Why did you write a script written by a baby? It’s like baby talk” I said, "I don’t understand, this is not baby talk! It’s a scene with subtext." Then I had someone look at it and say this wasn’t actually written by someone who’s fluent in Armenian. 

So, that’s how we ended up going through six translators until we found Laurita Megaritchian, who’s amazing and became a key part of our production all the way through and will be at the premiere. She’s the hub of our process.

IC: I remember Chris being absolutely on point with ‘you gotta get the dialects right, it’s very important that we not offend this culture. It’s very important that we’re true to how they represent themselves and not just go in from the outside but get in the inside.' I found that to be very inspirational because I’ve learned a lot of about cultures but I’ve never really went that deep into it. When he started to go into the culture I was amazed how much time he spent with the dialects, references, and foods that might be present. Everything down to the smallest detail he made sure to research and made sure to speak to Armenians hours on end to make sure what was authentic

CC: I had two rules going into it. All the roles that were Armenian had to be played by Armenian actors…which is very hard in casting. Another thing is, I hate when you have movies that start out with two characters saying one sentence in the language from the culture that they’re supposed to represent, and then end up speaking in the wrong accent for the rest of the movie. I find that so condescending, and I didn’t want to make that mistake. I want to have the kind of film that accurately portrays when a character (from another country) is angry at another character. He will never scream at his grandson in a language he’s not comfortable with. He will never go into English to express himself when he’s emotional—he’ll revert to the most comfortable dialect that he knows. That’s human nature. I wanted to make a movie where characters would speak in whatever language they would speak in every moment.

NT: How was the casting process?

CC: Much longer than I ever expected, because those rules were so difficult to meet. We couldn’t be flexible on that because we wanted to be authentic. There’s no way I, as an American, would be able to make anything remotely authentic if we didn’t have the right people for these roles. 

IC: It’s even more difficult when you’re looking for a young boy and you’re trying to be completely authentic. I know a lot of people we came across became too Americanized and I can't believe that was a conversation I would ever have in casting.

CC: The real issue was that people would come in pretending to be Armenian. When I say people, I mean 99 percent. The posting said “You must be this ethnicity,” but they walk in, do the audition, and I would ask “Are you Armenian?” The actor would say 'Well, I’m not Armenian… but yeah just give me the phonetics.' I told them they would have to improvise Armenian to English between scenes. Then they would say something like 'Well actually I’m Italian. But I can play Armenian! I play Arab, ISIS, I’m Mediterranean!" So after a month of casting, we had hardly any roles cast. 

IC: That was our first moment of realizing the scope of what we were taking on. This was a big and complex film.

CC: We casted two lead actors from that session, the lead character who plays Hakop- Sevak Hakoyan. This was his first feature film, and we just found out that was his first audition ever-- I literally found out three weeks ago. And the second actor that blew us away was Sevag (John) Roohinian. 

Christopher Chambers (left) and Ian Coyne (right) at the LA Film Fest opening night red carpet (Twitter/ @AramAramFilm)
Christopher Chambers (left) and Ian Coyne (right) at the LA Film Fest opening night red carpet (Twitter/ @AramAramFilm)
NT: How did you find Levon Sharafyan? Because I know there’s an interesting story there.

CC: I started watching Armenian TV shows on the Internet, and I started looking for different talent because it felt like we’ve been through every person in LA. In these Armenian TV shows I saw this man who had what I thought was the soul of Arsen. He had a sense of the weight of life’s disappointments, a sense of strength, weakness, and sadness. The film is not a downer, but that character needs to encompass all of that in his eyes or he’s not going to be deep enough for what the character is.

The problem was, I couldn’t figure out who he was and where I could find him. I became obsessed and I took a frame grab of his face and made it the wallpaper of my laptop. So every morning when I turned on my laptop, the first thing I saw was this man’s face and every night when I went to bed, failing to find him, that face was taunting me again. 

I even went into some TV stations to figure out who he was, but no one was able to identify him. One day we were doing an audition and an actor I recognized from the same TV show came in. I asked him if he knew this man, as I’ve seen them do a scene together. He says “Oh Levon? He’s a good friend of mine. I have his number on my cell phone.” He calls him up, and a couple hours later in comes... Levon Sharafyan. i told him the story, and he was everything I that I imagined he’d be like. I asked him if he wanted to do the film and we shook hands on it.

It was a great honor to work with him because, the man has done every Shakespearean tragedy on stage. He’s been in 500 episodes of television and about 30 movies. He’s got the equivalent in Armenia of the Lifetime Achievement Award for the Oscars that we have here—which is the 'Merited Artist of the Nation of Armenia.'

NT: Why is most of the film spoken in Armenian?

IC: I think it goes back to trying to be authentic. 

CC: By being non-Armenian and trying to do a film that goes inside the Armenian community and knowing that its the first ever done by an American, I thought I had a huge duty to try and do it justice. Whenever my actors said 'this is not something I would do,  they weren’t speaking figuratively—they were saying literally 'I as an Armenian man at 65 years old would react exactly like this.'

IC: These were constant conversations, as it was something that would come up again and again. Especially in rehearsals, [Chris] really wanted to understand how this would authentically happen.

CC: We can’t explain all the nuances to the American audience because would need to make an explanation that's as long as the movie, as Armenian history is very rich and complex. It's amazing and so fun because I feel like I know so little relative to what there is to learn. 

Because this film is done on such a small scale, I was free to make decisions that wouldn’t be commercial, but would help with the quality of the film. In my mind I think that there’s a bit of something commercial, as we end with a pretty intense climax that’s unusually intense and I think a bit epic for a small film like this. I don’t want to give to much away, but in terms with ending on a climax like that, there’s another way to tell a story that has integrity but wouldn’t be as exciting for people.

IC: Although so much of this is about Armenians, really this is an immigrant story. It is a story told then and again, as the first generation comes, the second generation tries to adapt. What does the second generation do? Do they maintain or abandon their culture? Do they get in with the wrong people? 

Every single immigrant culture in the history of this country has gone through this exact same thing. Its an interesting thing, because at it's core, "Aram, Aram" is truly an American story. I mean a real American story in the sense that we have all experienced it at some point or another in that first or second generation. Its a story that my grandfather, if he was still alive, would absolutely adore. I vaguely remember his struggle, and effectively it was a very similar experience my family went through.

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NT: My old professor used to say that there’s universality in the specific. You’re not going to reach anyone if it’s totally broad, but it’s really specific, people around the world will see the nuances.

CC: We had small test screenings, and in one of them there was this girl who was Korean-American who was crying, I was curious why she was crying, and she said ‘well this exact story takes place in my neighborhood in Koreatown all the time. We tried to tap into something more universal while being authentic and specific to the Armenian community so hopefully viewers will think thats what we pulled that off. 

NT: Where did the idea of "Aram, Aram" come about?

CC: I grew up in Los Angeles and I grew adjacent to Armenian communities. I was always curious about the Armenian community because they seemed so distant from the community I lived in in, yet they were next door. They were very insular and everyone I knew had a preconception about them. I always loved cultures and traveling, so when I was 20 I became with friends with someone who was Armenian and he told me all about the culture. My mind was blown. I had no idea about them being the first Christians, never heard of the Armenian Genocide and just assumed Armenia was in Glendale. That was the seed that got planted, so I became curious. I began reading about Armenian immigration to America and Armenian gangs. 

As I was doing research, I started realizing that the Armenian immigrant experience, with the exception of the genocide, actually fits into the pattern of the eyes of so many immigrants; trying to figure out a new country, beginning to assimilate, keeping hold of your culture and protecting yourself. 

I wondered if I could build a story around this so that it communicates and connects us all in this small way. I love foreign films because I love seeing new textures and seeing a scene where the details are unique and new and I’m learning about a culture as I’m seeing a story. 

NT: How many rewrites did it take to produce your final script? 

CC: There were three big rewrites to the film: there was one where I wrote the first draft after researching. The second draft was after I went into the Armenian community and met the real people there. A couple times after stepping into a shoe store, next thing I know the owner and I are having a cigarette and having a 3 hour conversation about the culture. So what I would do was collect intelligence and details. The third rewrite was during rehearsals, once we got our actors involved. After rehearsals I would go back to scenes and rework them, after discussing their points of view.

NT: You’re not even Armenian and you’re a better Armenian than I am. The last couple weeks I’ve seen you’ve been to a lot of Armenian screenings, met Armenian musicians and actors, and marched for the Genocide Centennial. I know you touched on it before, but what is it about the culture that you like so much?

CC: I feel like that answer is either for someone else to analyze or answer. I can’t totally understand it myself because it might be in my subconscious. Ten years from now I’ll look back and it’ll become obvious. I’m interested in cultures about general, so maybe because its such a rich culture with a history many times longer than the existence of America that there’s constantly nuances to learn.

IC: I’ll touch on it. A director once told me, 'in order for a director to make a fantastic project he must fall in love with his actors and story.' My take on Chris is, as a good director he has fallen in love with the very subject matter he has taken on. When you fall in love, it’s hard to fall out of love, and I think he has a love affair now with the Armenian culture. He’s as close to an Armenian than any natural born American can be.

(Sonia Gumuchian/ Neon Tommy)
(Sonia Gumuchian/ Neon Tommy)

CC: The joke among my castmates is figuring out what my Armenian last name should be. Is it going to be Chambersian or Chambassian?

NT: You don’t speak Armenian, so how did you direct the actors?

CC: There were no issues on set, because we fixed the translations early on in the rehearsals. The thing is though, the way we communicate emotion is through music and body language. The fact is, after a few rehearsals I could tap into that and I could hear the music of what they were saying. It was clear when the intention of the line was different than what I wanted it to be. I didn’t know that would work because I’ve never worked in another language before.

IC: I have to hand it to him on that. I watched it and on set you couldn’t tell that he didn’t know what they were saying. It was so effortless. 

CC: After this project, I did a job that was all in English. I started laughing because I forgot how easy it was in comparison. 

NT: "Aram, Aram" is the first Armenian-themed film to ever be accepted to the Los Angeles Film Festival in its entire 20-year history. So, how does that make you feel? 

IC: Humbled and surprised. We had no idea going into it, and it’s something that we actually didn’t learn until a couple weeks ago. 

CC: I suspected that no one who worked on this project had done anything similar before. So I realized I was the first American non-Armenian to try to make a film set in the Armenian community with Armenian actors. I feel very grateful that we are in the festival because I want more people to be able to see it and to learn about the great actors in it.

NT: So after the festival, is "Aram, Aram" going to resurface? 

CC: We’re so excited we sold out very quickly, so for anyone who couldn’t get a ticket, good news is we’re distributing it in theaters in the fall. Our goal is to have big theatrical premiere in Glendale because that’s the heart of the Armenian community and I’d love to present it there.

"Like" https://www.facebook.com/AramAramFilm for more updates! 

Reach Staff Reporter Sonia Gumuchian here. Follow her on Twitter here



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