Levent Cantek and Volkan Sümbül are the clever and erudite screenwriters of “Yeşilçam,” whose first season was recently released with great fanfare on BluTV – the largest digital TV platform in Turkey. The series marks their third collaboration.
“Yeşilçam” stars Çağatay Ulusoy as Semih Ateş – a struggling cinematic producer, who seeks love and redemption during the golden era of Turkish cinema. The series is directed by the prolific and acclaimed Çağan Irmak and produced by ESFilm. After four episodes, “Yeşilçam” is already very successful in Turkey and around the world. The second season is currently being filmed in Istanbul, and is likely to be released in the Fall of 2021.
Levent Cantek is a Turkish writer, screenwriter, comic book writer, editor, and academic. He was born in Ankara in 1969. In addition to screenwriting, he is a prolific author of graphic novels and studies in popular culture. In the realm of Turkish television, he is well-known for his work in “Bozkir” (2018,) “Halka” (2018,) “Eski Hikaye” (2013,) and “Mor Menekşeler” (2011.)
Volkan Sümbül is a Turkish screenwriter (for both TV and cinema,) actor, and producer. He was born in Bursa in 1981. He is best known for his work in “The Protector” (2018,) Ölümlü Dünya (2018,) Içerde (2016,) Eski Hikaye (2013,) and “Barda” (2007.)
Their busy schedule notwithstanding, Levent and Volkan generously agreed to our request for an interview. We sent them several questions to choose from and, a few days later, they thoughtfully sent us their written replies. This article reproduces their answers in our English translation from the Turkish original.
The interview left us with the impression that “Yeşilçam” is definitely not your grandmother’s dizi. Levent and Volkan’s series has the intellectual depth to stimulate reflection and rekindle a much-needed public debate on key issues in contemporary Turkish history.
We are extremely grateful to both for taking the time to provide such interesting and exhaustive replies to our queries. This is one of their most extensive declaration on “Yeşilçam,” and the first to appear in an English-language publication.
Çok çok teşekkür ederim!
When did Levant Cantek and Volkan Sümbül meet? And how did your long and fruitful collaboration start?
Levent Cantek (LC): We met six or seven years ago. I had started to work on a TV series, but I was writing alone, and the work was heavy. Thus, the broadcaster arranged for me to collaborate with another screenwriter. I was hesitant at the beginning because I am usually removed from the world of TV and Cinema. I live in Ankara and I try to remain somewhat distant. I have been a screenwriter for ten years, but I know perhaps only five other screenwriters. Volkan was one of the first colleagues I ever met. Our initial collaboration worked out much better than I expected. We found ourselves rapidly agreeing on many things, and supported each other through a challenging job. Since we live in separate cities, we usually hold our meetings online and see each other in person from time to time.
Volkan Sümbül (VS): We met years ago for professional reasons, but our relationship immediately turned into a friendship. “Yeşilçam” is the third project that Levent and I have collaborated on. When we do not work together, we continue to meet and communicate on a regular basis. Television generally offers project-based work. Working on a regular TV series can be tiring because – if it gets the ratings — it may go on for many episodes. When you work on the same series for a year, it becomes difficult to write alone. Hence the need to form a team.
Where did the idea of “Yeşilçam” come from? And how long did it take you to realize it?
LC: I had the initial idea, but the screenplay is the work of two people. I had already written “Bozkir” for BluTV, and the platform subsequently wished to continue our collaboration. While we were negotiating a new contract, I pitched them several ideas. One of them was the story of a cinematic producer, who lived during the golden era of “Yeşilçam.” I had a struggling, romantic, and stubborn character in mind, and BluTV liked the idea. I then immediately reached out to Volkan. He came to Ankara, and we started our conversation on the project. Forty days later, we had completed the first episode. BluTV liked the script and gave us the green light to continue. Five months later, we had finished all ten episodes of the first season. In October 2019, BluTV commissioned us another installment of the series, and so we continued to write. The second season of “Yeşilçam” took longer because, in the meantime, I lost my father, and then both my mother and I became infected with COVID-19. We eventually completed the second season by early December 2020.
VS: As Levent said when we first convened in Ankara in 2019, we had an idea of the general framework of “Yeşilçam” – we had identified the main characters, the premise of the story, and the time period. At that initial stage, however, the story could have gone anywhere. Next, we mapped out the key events in Turkish history during the mid-1960s and asked ourselves what our characters would be thinking and doing at each particular juncture. While working within the context of a specific time period may appear restrictive on one hand, on the other, it helps to mark the fundamental turning points in the narrative. Guided by the real events, we developed the story further. Slowly but surely, the final framework and destination for our original plot became fully clear to us.
What kind of research into the “Yeşilçam” era did you carry out to write such a richly detailed script?
LC: As a veteran academic I have rigorous research habits. No matter what you are going to write on, or how much you already know about it, the first thing to do is study the subject matter carefully. Consequently, we focused on absorbing the available literature on “Yeşilçam.” We wanted to use the social and political history of the period, but also information about everyday life. For example, I watched eighty percent of the movies produced in 1964. Historical or period pieces are challenging to create because one essentially creates a fantasy out of reality. In framing the script within a precise historical period, we also provided relevant and accurate information to the audience about that era — but without giving the impression that we were actively doing so. For example, we inserted a few characters that actually existed – such as Ayhan Işik and Yılmaz Güney. For us, the most important thing is the story. Thus, our greatest challenge was to get the viewers involved in the fictional story we created, without losing the real history in the process. In short, we used real historical facts and people to recreate a specific atmosphere, and then made sure that the latter would permeate every aspect of the series.
VS: We read plenty of biographical and autobiographical books about the “Yeşilçam” era (such as the personal memoirs of actors, directors, producers.) In addition, we looked at the popular printed media from the period (such as Ses, Hayat, Pazar). The two sources combined supplied us with a good understanding of the mood and spirit of that age.
“Yeşilçam” is an example of “cinema within the cinema.” How does your approach compare to earlier films in this vein?
LC: I will leave it to film scholars to make comparisons. Our goal was to narrate not only the story of a producer but also the spirit of an era through the eyes of someone, whose life is dedicated to telling stories. Semih incarnates the “Yeşilçam” Zeitgest. When he was young, he made terrible mistakes. In the series, however, he is a mature man, whose conscience demands that he should confront his past errors. The first season reflects the historical and political depth of the 1964 events in Turkey. In this respect, I think that it will be difficult to compare “Yeşilçam” to other works. At the same time, “Yeşilçam” is a production, which adheres to high cinematic standards and communicates a cinema-like feeling. I believe that stories that contain contrasting elements can be good. “Yeşilçam” may look like a soap opera, but it is not. We intentionally employ soap opera patterns, but we do so to confront specific events in our history.
Why did you choose to narrate the story from the perspective of a producer?
LC: Film producers are highly cunning, highly pragmatic, and hardworking people who handle a large number of narcissistic personalities such as actors, screenwriters, or directors. They are always attentive to market developments, and on the constant lookout for something new. Usually, they do not get much love, because they deal with the most unpleasant side of film-making — money. They are scarcely remembered, even though they get involved in every important aspect of a movie. Of course, there may be producers, who are incompetent and choose the profession only to earn money or partake in the glamorous world of cinema. However, there are also good, competent leaders in the film industry, who work very hard. Semih Ateş is one of them. Because he has worked in cinema since a young age, he is a bit cynical. At the same time, he is also a romantic.
VS: Semih Ateş is a producer, but he is also an artist. He’s not only after money. He loves cinema and making movies that tell a good story. He’s extremely multi-faceted.
Did a film producer similar to Semih Ateş really exist during the “Yeşilçam” era?
LC: There was a famous Turkish film producer, studio manager, and director called Ilham Filmer, who provided some inspiration. However, Semih is ultimately an imaginary character.
Already in the first two episodes, Semih Ateş delivers memorable sentences such as “I make a movie, patients heal, seasons change,” or “If I don’t make a film, I die.” What do these impressive declarations tell us about his personality?
LC: Only a romantic character can deliver this kind of statement to motivate himself or encourage someone else. Semih loves his job. He has an intrepid personality and can quickly bounce back, even after experiencing a grave disappointment. He has ups and downs. He feels happiness and regret. He can whisper and shout. He can express great joy and deep sorrow. He lives all his emotions intensely.
VS: Semih expresses himself in terms of changing seasons and healing patients because he is both passionate and ambitious. However, I believe that all storytellers, even when they do not express themselves so assertively, hope that they can make a difference. That what they create will be useful.
Many have remarked that the role of Semih Ateş appears to fit Çağatay Ulusoy like a glove. At what stage did you think of Çağatay as Semih?
LC: We were not involved in casting but, of course, we were consulted. We knew that he had read and liked our script and that he wanted to play the role. Çağatay, his manager, the production company, and the broadcaster were able to agree on contractual terms and on a timeline. It was an ideal outcome all around. We believe that Çağatay is fond of Semih. For him, it is also a different role from those he played earlier in his career.
Have you had to make any significant changes to your original script along the way?
LC: Only minor changes. Since BluTV had approved the script, the production remained loyal to it. The actors, of course, always offer feedback on the characters they portray, but thus far everyone seems pretty happy. Our script is providing the blueprint for the realization of the series, and this is how it should happen.
VS: We did not make substantial changes. The script was completed before the shooting started. Of course, some of the locations did not turn out to be exactly as we described them. But this happens, and we adjusted things accordingly.
“Yeşilçam” refers to several key historical events of the 1960s. What purpose do these multiple references serve in the context of the series?
LC: During the Yeşilçam era, many films were produced based on extremely simple clichés, which everyone could understand. In so doing, Yeşilçam made cinema popular and became a winning recipe in and of itself. In our screenplay, we wanted to narrate a unique era, which most people are familiar with, from a different perspective. For example, many Yeşilçam movies lack character depth. Even the protagonists are often one-dimensional. Their personalities are essentially reduced to a single emotion — they are either good or bad. Secondary characters are left undefined. And politics never plays a role. In our script, we seek to do the very opposite. Semih is multidimensional and full of contradictions. The secondary characters are key to the narrative. And our story has historical and political depth. Indeed, we would like to emphasize that, even if apolitical on the surface, all 1960s Yeşilçam films actually reflected the complex political climate of that era.
VS: We can think about this question in this way. We know that a producer’s income is a function of how many people will watch his/her movies. Of course, a producer cannot possibly know the taste of every single viewer. However, he/she must have a pretty good idea of what audiences are generally interested in and tailor his productions accordingly. And if a country is experiencing a major social, economic, or national security crisis, a producer must also take this situation into account. For example, the crisis in Cyprus during the 1960s probably increased public interest in patriotic films. In turn, Semih would have had to know about it and attempt to meet this demand.
Does “Yeşilçam” seek to communicate a broader socio-political message through Semih’s story? If yes, which one?
LC: I don’t like movies that communicate anxiety. And I believe that there is no single truth in life. We tried to illustrate a period of decline, while also telling a story that communicated optimism. If we managed to create different reading layers, even for those who started to watch the series just to enjoy a good story, then we will have succeeded in our intent. I believe that the world of cinema is characterized by freedom and tolerance. Semih is a person of conscience, who seeks to confront his difficult past and face his destiny. I am convinced that societies, who can confront a challenging past, tend to be more democratic.
VS: We did not start with a message in mind. We are writers, who are chiefly interested in developing the characters and the story we created. Consequently, we never sought to tailor our story to fit a specific message. Our script, however, chronicles some of the change and loss we experienced as a nation in the 1950-60s. We talk about events that are often ignored. Events that we perhaps wanted to forget about.
The series showcases independent, liberated and assertive female characters. Did these exist during the 1960s, or are they modern additions that reflect the “spirit” of our contemporary era?
LC: We inevitably look at the past from the perspective of our time. In turn, we create stories that reflect our current concerns. It has never been easy to be successful as a woman in a world, which is dominated by men. There were defiant and inspiring female actors during the Yeşilçam era. The positive legacy they bequeathed is still with us today.
VS: Yes, there were such women back then. As Levent said, it was a world dominated by men. Hence, they had to struggle to survive.
Çağan Irmak is a master filmmaker and an expert of the “Yeşilçam” era. What impact did his vision have on your original script?
LC: As far as I know, it is the first time that Çağan Irmak is filming a story based on a script, which he did not write or contribute to writing. We said that we were open to accommodate the script based on his input, especially if he required adjustments to fit certain actors, locations, or other things. He is kind, calm, collected, and a good person who lives and lets live. A screenwriter himself, Çağan was always very respectful towards us. He consulted us even for minimal changes to our script. His contribution strengthened the story visually, but he had no desire to change the direction of the script. He was able to transfer the darker side of our story onto the screen without sensationalism. I appreciated his enthusiasm and work ethic. I am happy it all worked out. Visually realizing a world that exists only on paper is not easy . However, Çağan did this many times before. “Yeşilçam” is the latest example of what he can achieve.
VS: I had worked with Çağan before in 2015, and it was a great experience. He is a very skilled director all around. I can say that I was both happy and relieved when I learned that he was going to direct the series. Especially because I knew that his approach, like ours, is to give priority to the story. Both his knowledge and his appreciation of the period added strength to the series.
Did you take into consideration that “Yeşilçam” might attract viewers from around the world? If yes, what do you want them to think after watching the series?
LC: This is more a marketing issue, which I am no expert on. I can only guess that there are many different factors. which may determine the global impact of a show. Hollywood productions often appeal globally across cultures. Indeed, Hollywood often drives global popular culture. In the case of “Yeşilçam,” we are talking about our local Turkish film industry, which at the time sought to imitate “Hollywood.” What we have is a story based on a strong character. Whether or not it will attract global attention will depend on the strength of the character and of the story.
VS: Although we are telling a story that relates to a specific time period in Turkey, I believe that the main theme of our story will attract everyone’s attention. I trust our script. And I also trust how our script came to life on the screen. I think that people will like it.
The series is not only visually stunning but also reminds viewers what dreams are made of. Did you at any time intentionally craft your script to provide collective relief during the difficult times we are experiencing?
LC: While we were writing the script, the pandemic had not yet started. However, I wish to reiterate that we tried to write a story that felt good, colorful, and sweet. From the beginning, we wanted to infuse it with the optimism often found in Yeşilçam cinema.
Can you tell us anything about what viewers can expect in Season Two?
LC: Season two will start five years later from where season one ends. We jump from 1964 to 1969.
Many people describe “Yeşilçam” as a “game-changer.” Is Turkish cinema entering a new “golden age”?
LC: Answering from a strictly personal point of view, I only chase my own aspirations. And what I want, is to create stories that make me happy while I am writing them. Other considerations are of little interest to me.
VS: Viewers from all around the globe currently watch Turkish TV series. I believe that also “Yeşilçam” will be one of those series, which will be globally appreciated.
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