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Celik Kayalar: Man About Many Towns
by Don Schwartz
A production still from 'A Leap to Take' with Celik Kayalar, also the film's executive-producer playing a role with co-star Brette McCabe. photo: courtesy of C.Kayalar
CELIK KAYALAR MAY APPEAR LIKE
your average UC Professor, if you ran into him on Restaurant Row in Berkeley, where he likes to hang out, or your European uncle, if you detect his accent. If that is the case, however, your imagination would be barely scratching the surface considering his quadruple career: as an scientist and filmmaker—in both fields award-winning—and as an actor and the director of a local acting school!
Born with a brilliant mind, he began his professional life as a scientist with a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from UCLA. Indeed, his doctoral dissertation served as the basis of the Nobel prize awarded to his mentor, Prof. Paul Boyer. But Kayalar’s interest in filmmaking, sparked at the age of ten, in his homeland of Turkey, has recently overshadowed his scientific achievements and endeavors.
Although he maintains his biochemistry career, the vast majority of his energy and focus is in filmmaking and education. In addition to his rapidly growing filmography, Kayalar owns and runs a burgeoning film acting school,
Film Acting Bay Area
, which is already producing successful actors and incubating short and feature films.
In addition to his first feature as writer/director, "Moonlight Sonata", an anti-romantic noir about the attempt to kill his wife by a man, incredibly well-played by Warren David Keith, who also works with Kayalar at FABA, he has recently directed and produced several short films.
“99%” (2012) is an award-winning drama produced and released circa 2012, the time of the United States Presidential election, and featuring Kayalar's old friend from his post-doctoral days at MIT, none other than Noam Chomsky, who does an incredible dead-pan.
Kayalar's latest, “Valentin Popov Face” (2013), is a documentary about the unique portrait work of Bay Area fine artist, Valentin Popov. It’s currently in the festival circuit.
Kayalar also executive produced and acted in “A Leap to Take”, the latest film directed by legendary filmmaker Rob Nilsson, who essentially invented and still leads the Bay Area's improv or Cassavettes school of cinema. Nilsson is also a faculty member at FABA. “A Leap to Take” has been playing in the international film festival circuit and will soon be released.
Kayalar teaching acting at FABA, the school he runs in Emeryville. photo: courtesy of C. Kayalar
Kayalar started teaching acting in 2005, at the nascent San Francisco School of Digital Filmmaking (SFSDF). The idea was simple, an in-house acting school with a readily available pool of actors for the filmmaking students. He assembled a strong team of experienced acting teachers for his faculty—including Nilsson, to spear his improv angle. In 2010, Kayalar moved his school across the Bay, to Emeryville with its new FABA name.
Ever since first meeting Kayalar in 2006, I have been curious about who this man is, and especially, about his path to teacher, school owner, actor, writer, director, producer—not to mention his first career: biochemistry. I began our interview with my usual question:
Where were you born?
And you were raised there?
I was raised there and Istanbul all the way up to graduate school, and at the age of twenty-two I received a Fullbright scholarship from the American government which allowed me to come here and have my choice of universities—and I chose UCLA for their Ph.D. program in Biochemistry.
And you’ve been living in the United States ever since?
What led you to the worlds of media and all the roles—in both senses of the term—you are playing?
Well, I have been shooting with a film camera since the age of ten, with my brother. So, it was a part of me, and I was painting from the age of six—a kind of a visual arts inclination was there. But it was mostly a hobby.
The poster for Kayalar's film, '99%'. photo: courtesy of C. Kayalar
I always wanted to be a scientist, and kept my visual arts interest on the side. But as I succeeded in science beyond my wildest dreams—I was credited for the Nobel Prize awarded to my mentor, Prof. Paul Boyer in 1997. I felt like I reached a point—like a saturation—in how far I can go with that science activity which I’m still doing and enjoying tremendously.
That’s what happened. Visual arts that was a hobby started almost taking over. Not completely. I have a biotechnology practice—mainly consulting. It’s both going on in a balanced fashion.
After you received your doctorate degree at UCLA, did you remain in California?
I got a Ph.D. in 1977, and I did post-doctoral research for three and a-half years at M.I.T. with a Nobel laureate, Prof. Luria. M.I.T. is where I had the good fortune of being introduced to Prof. Noam Chomsky, the famous philosopher, linguist, and human rights activist.
After that I was offered an Assistant Professor position at UC Berkeley, in their Chemistry department. I moved back to Berkeley, and was there for seven years, from ’81 to ’88.
What happened after 1988?
I went to UCLA as a research faculty member, and spent another seven years there. I spent a lot of time taking extension classes from UCLA’s film department. I pretty much took every filmmaking class—cinematography, editing, acting, producing—they offered.
After another year at a private research institute in La Jolla, I was ready to leave academia behind, and start my own business in biotechnology which I did in 1997, and moved back up to the Bay Area which I love.
I continued to pursue bio technology because that’s my training. By that time my filmmaking, my training through UCLA Extension, and many workshops, courses, acting classes—I mean I have, including my second time in LA, I have seven years of filmmaking education.
I’ve been able to combine my interest in science as well as filmmaking. I kept on studying acting—just to be a better film director. It helped a lot. Now I’m a much better writer and director.
And this led in various ways to opening up a film acting school where I teach, and I now have ten faculty. I started it first at the San Francisco School of Digital Filmmaking, and after five years moved it to Emeryville, under a different name. Most of the original faculty I hired moved with me.
While we were at the SFSDF, they produced a film, ‘Torn’ (
), which is playing now as a theatrical release. I have a small role in it, and helped in casting it. It’s got great reviews. Jeremiah Birnbaum, the school’s co-founder, directed and produced it.
You also wrote, produced, and directed a feature narrative, ‘Moonlight Sonata’, while you were at SFSDF.
Yes, it was at that school. The idea was to produce a feature length film at least once a year. One of the films that came out of the school and its associated production company, Fog City Pictures—which also made ‘Torn’—was my film which I co-produced with Fog City. Although we didn’t manage to get a theatrical release, it played at thirteen festivals within one year, and won four prestigious awards. The movie is still looking for theatrical release. I have some thoughts about putting it out in venues like iTunes or Netflix.
Moving on, you moved your acting school to Emeryville, changed the name to Film Acting Bay Area (FABA).
Yes, we offer all levels of film acting classes. Most of my teachers, including myself, run our classes like a film set. So, students get a nice dose of a movie set experience. Filmmakers, too, attend our classes. They become not only better directors, but better writers.
That’s what happened to me. I had been writing and directing films without putting myself through any acting training. And once I did that, I noticed that the quality of my directing went up quickly. I now have several filmmakers studying acting under me. We also have filmmaking workshops, but just by studying acting with me or my other teachers, their filmmaking tremendously benefits.
We’re also producing short and feature films. FABA works almost like a production company. We always favor our student actors, we cast them as much as possible—along with our teachers. ‘99%’ (
), a narrative short I wrote and directed before the last Presidential election, won several awards. It features many of our students including Jessiqa Pace in the lead. Prof. Chomsky makes an appearance in this film.
Another more recent film is a feature-length narrative, ‘A Leap To Take’. It’s a joint production between FABA and Rob Nilsson, who also directed. It played at the Moscow International Film Festival, in June (2013), at the Varna (Bulgaria) International Film Festival in August. The film came out of a FABA workshop taught by Rob Nilsson. We have many hopes for it. Maybe it will get theatrical release. This is our first feature length film out of FABA.
We have many short films available on the Internet. Films directed either by Rob Nilsson, Brian Scott, FABA’s associate director, or myself.
Our philosophy is to cast as many of our student actors as possible. The more experienced ones, obviously, get the bigger roles, but there are many speaking roles. So, our school is not only training our students to be film actors, we’re giving them casting opportunities directly.
My latest effort is something new for me, I just produced a documentary film through FABA, ‘Valentin Popov: Face’. It’s about a prominent local painter friend of mine, Valentine Popov. I’ve been documenting his work for a year and a-half. We’ve screened it privately, and now we’re sending it to various festivals—we’ve already been accepted by the Sonoma International Film Festival in April. And it will also screen at the Albany Film Festival on March 1st.
I also teach an advanced level workshop on Sundays. With the workshop participants we are developing a web series which we call ‘On the Rocks’. I’m writing and directing it. Our faculty will also have roles in the series—in addition to our students. I anticipate we’ll begin uploading ten-minute stories early in 2014.
Something new at FABA is that we’re bringing up prominent casting directors from Los Angeles for one-day workshops, on a monthly schedule.
Would you share some recent successes of some of your students?
The numbers are too big to mention all of them, but I’ll single out a few recent successes. Jazlyn Yoder finished with us after three years, moved to Los Angeles only five months ago, and got cast as one of the five leads in a new TV show called ‘Tribes of the Wild’. This comes from the creator of ‘Mighty Morphin Power Rangers’. She was selected out of thousands of applicants in a nation-wide search. Brook Penca, who is a filmmaker as well as an actor, is the lead in a new TV show called ‘Unusual Suspects’.
Another very recent one is Jessiqa Pace a filmmaker as well an actress. She moved to LA less than a year ago, and she got cast in an Infinity car commercial as the lead, and it’s gone national. That’s very rare—somebody coming there and quickly beating the competition.
There are also numerous ones locally who are getting out there, auditioning, and getting the parts. And now people are coming to me looking for more actors. So far, twelve FABA students have signed with local talent agencies.
How do people find FABA’s produced projects?
People can see many of our productions right from our website (
) by scrolling down and clicking on ‘Learn More’ under Short Films.
‘99%’ can be watched on its own website. The trailer for ‘Moonlight Sonata’ (
) can be found at its own website. ‘A Leap to Take’ will have its own website soon.
My hat’s off to you, Celik. You’re making a big splash in the Bay Area, and supporting a lot of us actors and filmmakers.
Posted on Jan 30, 2014 - 09:16 PM