Can Ulkay is the Director of “Kağıttan Hayatlar” (Paper Lives) — the Turkish movie starring Çağatay Ulusoy, which was released last March on Netflix to worldwide acclaim. (Read our review here.) When he generously agreed to an interview, we sent him 20 questions to choose from. In the end, he thoroughly and thoughtfully answered each and every one. This article faithfully reproduces his answers in our English translation from the Turkish original.
In a previous post, we illustrated Can Ulkay’s career and noticed his predilection for historical movies that explore complex characters and issues, and his attention to detail and carefully constructed sets. This interview confirms our earlier impressions. Moreover, in this first portion of the interview, Mr. Ulkay comes across as both systematic and meticulous. He considers thorough preparation essential for the shooting of a successful movie. However, he also knows when to let his actors have free rein. Indeed, he believes that the confidence that comes with repeated rehearsals is what ultimately allows actors to deliver their best performance. Can Ulkay speaks with admiration and sincere fondness about working with Çağatay Ulusoy, whom he clearly considered as an equal partner in the film. He also has wonderful words for the other extraordinary actors involved in “Paper Lives.”
In Part two of the interview, Can Ulkay elaborates on the psychological, social, and artistic implications of “Paper Lives” and what might come next in his career.
We are extremely grateful to Mr. Ulkay for taking the time to provide such interesting and exhaustive replies to our queries. Undoubtedly, this is his most extensive public reflection on “Paper Lives” thus far, and certainly the first to appear in an English-language publication.
Çok çok teşekkür ederim, hocam!
How and when did you get involved in “Kağıttan Hayatlar,” and how did the project develop chronologically?
Can Ulkay: I joined the “Paper Lives” project at the screenwriting stage. When I arrived, Çağatay Ulusoy and our screenwriter, Ercan Mehmet Erdem, had already completed a first draft. We then continued to work together on it, until we produced the final version. As far as the chronology of the movie is concerned, we started preparations in June 2020 while at the same time working on locations, actors, costumes and set design. We began shooting in early August (2020) and concluded in September. The editing, the soundtrack, VFX, and mixing were completed by the end of 2020. Before the release date on 12 March 2021, the film was dubbed and subtitled in various foreign languages for global distribution.
What convinced you to make “Kağıttan Hayatlar”?
CU: Upon my first reading, I was very impressed by the subject matter and social message in “Kağıttan Hayatlar.” Moreover, I was very excited at the perspective of working with Çağatay Ulusoy, who plays the main character in this story. Çağatay was an actor I had been following for a long time, and I believed that he would fit the role well. Most importantly, both the story type and subject matter of “Paper Lives” were very new to me. The film dealt with a particular social issue (urban recyclable waste collectors) which is only rarely discussed. Thus, one of my motivations was to make a socially conscious movie. This really meant a great deal to me both during the preparation and the shooting. I am very happy that I was able to make a film in the psychological drama genre, while narrating real stories of paper collectors in the streets. I also think that we were able to pass this feeling on to the audience. Viewers will watch a warm but emotional story about the lives of people, whom they often pass by but hardly ever notice. Perhaps, when they see the movie, they will have a better understanding of the serious consequences, which may derive from broken families, past traumas and the absence of love.
How and when was Çağatay Ulusoy cast as “Mehmet”? And how did you prepare him for this challenging role?
CU: Çağatay was involved in the project from the very start. We worked closely together with our scriptwriter Ercan Mehmet Erdem to finalize the script. In other words, while the script was still in the writing stage, Çağatay had already taken on the role of Mehmet. As you mentioned, it was a challenging role. Of course, in order to prepare Çağatay for it, I did not limit my advice solely to acting. I also provided him with the support of medical consultants, psychologists, psychiatrists, pedagogues, and real paper collectors. We spent a great deal of time in their company. We also rehearsed a lot. All this was necessary to ensure that the acting would accurately reflect reality.
How was working with Çağatay Ulusoy in his double role of protagonist and “creative producer”?
CU: Çağatay is a person who loves cinema, who consistently wishes to learn, who is open to continuous improvement, who prepares for any subject, and who has ideas, convictions and passion. He always wants to produce something for the cinema. He is comfortable both in front and behind the camera. He actually wants to be behind the camera. With Çağatay, we share the same love of cinema. For these reasons, we enjoyed working together very much not only on the acting part, but also on the creative and production phases of the movie. We appreciated very much seeing things eye to eye but were also able to find a compromise when our ideas differed.
How was Çağatay on the set?
CU: Çağatay is an incredibly hardworking person. I appreciated a great deal collaborating with him as an actor and conversing with him on many issues related to cinema and life in general. We had the chance to spend a lot of time together during the film’s production, shooting and editing processes. I have many good memories of the production process. Not only of him, but also of Emir Ali, Ersin, Turgay, Selen and other supporting actors.
How did you guide Emir Ali Doğrul through impersonating a “hallucination” so effectively?
CU: I had been following Emir Ali’s acting for a while. During the screenwriting process, we consulted psychologists, pedagogues and psychiatrists. For starters, a pedagogue and an acting coach guided Emir Ali through the script. We explained to him the psychological aspects of the story. We walked him through each scene in the script. The hardest scene was the one when Emir Ali was hallucinating. Moreover, it was a scene, where he had to act in syntony with Çağatay’s state of mind. Çağatay, Emir Ali, the acting coach and I rehearsed it together over and over again. In the end, I suggested to the actors that we should shoot the scene, which they had so often rehearsed, in a single take. I am glad that I had the idea, because it enabled the actors fully to express their feelings. Conversely, splitting the scene into different takes would have meant splitting the emotion as well. It made our job more difficult but, if we managed to do it, the scene would result much more effective. If you pay close attention, that scene is just one take. I think that, thanks to Çağatay and Emir Ali’s full understanding of the emotions involved, we created a very powerful scene. Again, I am grateful to both and to the acting coach.
How did Turgay Tanülkü and Ersin Arıcı come to participate in “Kağıttan Hayatlar”?
CU: As you know, in our story, there is Tahsin, whom Mehmet regards as a “father” of sorts, who guides him through life. And there is Gonzi, whom he considers as a brother. These are very important characters, who represent Mehmet’s only family. When, at the screenwriting stage, you start to work on character analysis, the faces of the protagonists begin to take shape before your eyes. Tahsin was a good, compassionate, and human character who had looked after Mehmet and all the other neighborhood’s street children for years. He raised them, protected them, and became a father figure to them. As you know, this is what Turgay actually does in real life. Currently, he is taking care of 10 orphaned children. Hence, Turgay Tanülkü was exactly the actor we wanted for this role. I thank him very much for accepting it.
As far as Ersin Arıcı is concerned, as we were creating the character of Gonzi, we thought of him as “Speedy Gonzales.” As a fast, animated, exuberant, endearing, cheerful, and lively character. He is so rapid that no one can catch up to him while he is running. He is quick to find the most valuable bottles. And he enjoys smoking a half cigar and singing and dancing in the bathhouse. Our dear Ersin Arıcı joined us following an incredibly good audition. He was perfectly suited for the role. It was a good thing that he joined us.
Did the actors improvise any scene in the movie?
CU: I am a Director, who places a great deal of importance on reading rehearsals before shooting. The dialogues and motions, which are carefully outlined in the script as the result of months of work, take final shape during the reading rehearsals. I find it very important to test and refine important scenes many times over during rehearsals. Because when you enter the set, you should have already analyzed, experimented, and resolved everything. This is very important and beneficial for both the actor and the director. Because, once we enter the set, it becomes very easy to capture the real emotion in the context of the actual scenery, costumes, and lights. All the efforts invested in dialogue and memorization during the reading rehearsals blend with the emotion, which arises from being on the actual set. Taken together, they generate a brilliant performance. The answer to your question, therefore, starts here. All the work we do in advance of the shooting handsomely pays off. Once the actor is in his/her costume, on the set, and under those lights, he/she is ready to deliver authentic emotions. Once I set up the scene, I then love to give free rein to my actors. It is very important to create room for their own feelings. Following our meticulous rehearsals, I let them pursue their own goals and experience their own emotions. This allows me to obtain very accurate and varied performances. I love to set my actors free. That’s why I always make room for them to improvise. It is their most important right. When after all this, something good and real comes out, we all enjoy the moment. And if it does not work out, we can quickly move on.
Your movies have often explored the themes of parenthood, trauma, memory and identity. What drives you to such complex issues?
CU: Yes, also in my movie “Ayla,” I explored themes related to parenting, trauma, memory, and identity. This is not to say that I prefer those themes. I don’t have a specific attachment to them. Resolving complex problems requires mathematical precision. Mathematical precision is also necessary for telling a story or writing a script. The more complicated the story, the greater the challenge. Successfully confronting such a challenge often leads to making a movie that is both personally rewarding and widely popular. People confront issues of family, trauma, and memory in their own lives, especially as they attempt to find their own identity. These are currently top items on everyone’s agenda.
I am more passionate about cinema than about specific issues. I love cinema. I always want to create and produce for the cinema. I love real stories. I am mostly interested in telling stories, which took place in real life and were lived by real people. For this reason, and as a person who loves research, I prefer to read authentic stories. Of course, in the future, I want to make all kinds of films. I do not wish to distinguish between real stories, fiction, comedy, war, or drama. I think that as Directors, we must possess the ability and experience to film all kinds of stories.
Why do you so often choose to tell emotionally intense stories from the perspective of children?
CU: Whenever a child is involved, you find yourself in an emotionally intense story. If the story allows it, I prefer to narrate from a child’s point of view. From a psychological perspective, the world of children is much purer and simpler than ours. Consequently, their thoughts and ideas are never malicious, and their behavior and actions are both real and natural. I love to reflect children’s pure and natural behavior in my work. I believe that it is actually our “inner child,” which makes us experience intense emotion. It is this “inner child,” which reminds us of courage, freedom, curiosity, thirst for knowledge, excitement, and unrestrained enjoyment. Like I mentioned earlier, I like to use a child’s perspective as much as the story allows.
TO READ PART TWO CLICK HERE.
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