Mar 28, 2017
Please contact us
or breaking news
Celik Kayalar: On Cinema, Science, and Generosity
by Doniphan Blair
On the Sonata Set (lf-rt) cinematog Sam Chase, assistant camera Chris Aran, and Celik Kayalar. photo: courtesy C. Kayalar
Kayalar started making films as a kid in Turkey, continued while working as biochemist, and finished his accomplished first feature last year
Celik Kayalar is a man after my own heart. He is from a liberal Turkish family, meaning he is a direct inheritor of the art, tolerance and mysticism of the Sufis - Rumi's Konya, lies 100 miles south of his home town, Ankara. Secondly, he is a scientist, a biologist even, and I'm also a devotee of Darwin - albeit of his second axiom, sexual selection, not natural selection. And, thirdly Kayalar is a dedicated, do-or-die filmmaker, who turned later in life to the artistic expression he had been cherishing since childhood. Indeed, he kept working on and studying cinema throughout a scientific career that started with a Fulbright fellowship and peaked when he accompanied the biochemist Paul Boyer to Stockholm to receive his Nobel Prize in 1997. Boyer was awarded in large part for work done by Kayalar, under Boyer's supervision, for his 1977 Ph.D.
So Kayalar put everything on the line: his money, his ideas, even his professional reputation. The result is a moody, intense and psychologically complex feature, "Moonlight Sonata" (2009), which he wrote and directed. It played 13 festivals last year, notably the Honolulu International, and won prizes at four. It will be released theatrically in Turkey fall 2010.
Aggressive and noir-ish, with command performances by little-known actors, much narrative needle-threading, and masterful cinematography - replete with balletic tracking shots - by cinematographer Sam Chase, "Moonlight Sonata," would be an achievement for any filmmaker. Kayalar also painted the Bosch-like canvases hanging in the house of the protagonist, an architect played powerfully by Warren Keith (also seen in "Fargo," and "The Big Lebowski," among others). In a desperate effort to improve his life, the architect descends into a hell of bad breaks, hidden psychology, and the inevitable fact that nothing is as it seems.
Kayalar also obtained outsized performances from his other actors, Irena Hoffman, M.J. Karmi, and Sita Young, because he is an actor's director. Indeed, he founded and runs Film Acting Bay Area which was at the San Francisco School of Digital Filmmaking for four years, until 2009, and is now at Ex'pressions College. Kayalar created FABA to specifically help actors grow into fully professional film actors.
It was a little funny to interview Kayalar, a renaissance figure and polymath, who epitomizes the classical science/art balance, in the bustling, brightly appointed Ex'pressions campus in Emeryville, but so be it, And that was where our conversation started.
CineSource: So your acting program is part of Ex'pressions?
Celik Kayalar: No, we are collaborating - they use our actors in their shorts and commercials, about 200 a year and we use their facilities.
A Lab of His Own Celik Kayalar (left) at UC Berkeley with colleague Dr. Nejat Duzgunes. photo: courtesy C. Kayalar
Are you still doing biochemistry?
Just as a consultant. I make some money out of it. Science switched with ... let's call it art - not to be presumptuous.
Not a lot of scientists make that switch, right?
It is becoming more and more difficult to do one thing well and also do another thing at that level. 200 years ago, that was no problem. Looking back, it was a blessing that I never married - not that I didn't want to [laughs]. I don't have children. That gives me total freedom. I can still act as if I am an undergraduate - sleep on someone's couch, not worry about my children's college fees. That gives me a license to live selfishly. It's a selfish life, in a sense.
With directing and writing, you need a lot knowledge of different stories and people.
With writing and directing - which I consider two sides of the same coin - you are absolutely right. You have to be a psychologist and an artist. You have to know art history and, obviously film history. You have to know human nature. If you are telling stories, where are they coming from? Which is why I find it so gratifying. When you go into filmmaking, a new life opens up for you.
You don't miss science?
It is like anything else. When you reach a certain level of success, the next level is very difficult. Did I want to do that? No, I had enough achievements. My Ph.D. work at UCLA led to Paul Boyer winning the Nobel. I felt 'OK, this is where I peaked.' What is next? Maybe getting [the Nobel] myself - which 'ain't gonna happen soon.' [laughs] I enjoyed the journey. I am blessed with some recognition. It gives me license to say, 'OK, you have these other interests - now explore them.'
You had been taking film classes at UCLA, right?
As everyone knows, UCLA has an excellent film school. But you have to be in that school, and I was studying biochemistry. But they offered almost everything in their fantastic extension program, off campus, near where I lived. If you live in LA, you are in the midst of filmmaking.
A flawed but beautiful character, beautifully rendered by Irena Hoffman – who was once Ms. Romania, finally takes control of her life in "Moonlight Sonata." photo: courtesy C. Kayalar
How did you start?
When I was eight years old, my dad bought us a 8mm camera. We ran wild - for years - my brother and I. We are talking about 1960 - I grew up in Turkey - we could get it developed [nationally] if it was black and white. But when we started using color, it had to go to Kodak in Germany - we would have to wait a month! It would come and the whole family would be waiting. Just a three-minute piece, edited in the camera, little narrative stories. I'd get my classmates to act, my grandpa. It was lot of fun.
I never really dropped the camera - I kept shooting, never thinking this would be more than a hobby. Things progress: You make your first short film and people say, 'Well, that is nice.' You make another and people say, 'That is nicer.' You send it to some festival and you are hooked.
What was your first festival short like?
A little comedic piece, black and white, three minutes. I edited it on a flatbed. Then I took film production at UCLA extension - there you had to do something more!
Why did you decide to leave LA?
Jobs. LA was my stop for getting my Ph.D. Next stop was post-doctoral: I ended up at MIT with a Nobel laureate, Salvador Luria - the Ph.D. supervisor of James Watson of DNA fame. He was a close friend of Noam Chomsky, they had a language biology club. I had a few conversations with Chomsky - a wonderful man.
Kayalar with Paul Boyer, his bio-chemist mentor, on the occasion of his Nobel Prize, which Kayalar assisted on the research for. photo: courtesy C. Kayalar
Luria and Boyer were my mentors. I lucked out. They were wonderful individuals and great scientists. They had a great interest in mentoring, as opposed to doing it all for themselves. People are very lucky if one supervisor turns out to be generous; I had two, so that is luck.
Looking back, I realize, 'What a rare thing to have happened to a young man, who happened to be, of all things, Turkish.' I have never been discriminated against in this country. If there was some, I didn't even notice. If anything, my Turkishness was a positive. No one said 'Hey, we are not going to hire you for the most prestigious university in this country - you are from Turkey, for crying out loud!' 'You do well and you may even get the Nobel,' that's how they made me feel.
After three-and-a-half years at MIT [in Boston] Luria said, 'Celik, it is time to start your own shop.' Through their connections, next thing I know, I am an assistant professor at UC Berkeley, with my own lab, teaching graduate students. I did a lot of painting but not much film - didn't get tenure either. So Boyer invites me back to UCLA and back to filmmaking, because I am in the fertile grounds of UCLA. Finally, it was time for me to get out of academia. I worked in biotech - I was lucky - I made some money. I realized, I was almost there financially, so how about if I start doing film?
I jumped in. I wrote a comedic play, directed it and acted in it [called 'Couch,'], it sold out performances in both LA and SF. But my scientific career still provides me an income. There's not much money to be made from my film activities.
Did you have literary or theatrical influences?
I grew up in Ankara, a very cultural place. My family was into theater but at the time people from nice families just went and bought tickets. They didn't do theater themselves. There was a major painter in the family - one of the first Impressionists in Turkey, very refined, a well established painter. He would go out to paint from nature and I would go with him. I loved hanging out with him. He would show me little tricks, how to mix colors, from the age of 12.
You started painting around 12?
Actually six but by 12 it became official. I still love painting and three are in [my movie].
They look very much like the movie but before we explore those themes ... Did you ever come into conflict with Muslims who don't like painting?
When I grew up in Turkey, the Islamic element was almost unnoticeable. In my family, we believed in secularism, and I still do. My only experience of going to mosque was for funerals. I left 38 years ago, and things have changed a bit since. But I'm confident my countrymen will find a healthy balance between secularism and a spiritual life. To answer your question: I didn't come into any conflict with devout Muslims telling me or my family about paintings being anti-Islamic.
Your painting are little like Hieronymus Bosch's and those themes carried into 'Moonlight Sonata.'
Yes. When I was painting, I wasn't thinking 'Moonlight Sonata,' the script came later, but it is the darker side of human nature which is being explored. Not that all my paintings are dark, there are whimsical ones too.
'Moonlight Sonata' is very Freudian. Were those conscious themes?
I have always been a student of psychology. The actual laboratory research I conducted was on brain chemistry. It always fascinated me, not as a three-pound tissue, but where our emotions come from. I have studied, in my own way, Freud, Jung, and all that. One of Freud's greater contributions was the unconscious mind and how it leads to repressed memory syndromes. That gave me the theme for 'Moonlight Sonata.'
The movie starts with this family: a husband, a wife, a daughter. The mother is depressed, in and out of hospitals, and has this Freudian psychiatrist. He is putting her under hypnosis to uncover repressed memories. If she could bring those painful memories to the surface, she would feel better. In that process, however, there is danger. That is the suspense element. What is it that she forgot? We get the feeling her husband isn't happy she is digging around.
It is a very Freudian concept: suffering from anxiety and depression due to repressed memories. Lately, the controversy is: What are they? Are patients making up something to please the psychiatrist? Did it really happen or is it created by our imagination? I think the jury is still out.
One moment I thought was very strong [in 'Moonlight Sonata'] was when the hit man and the architect become friends - reflecting how the characters were partially good and partially evil.
Thank you. None of us are all good or bad, I truly believe that. There are circumstances that allow one or the other to come out. We don't all hire a hit man, but who hasn't thought of doing away with someone who did you wrong? You can't do it yourself but you wished God would - that's an evil thought, isn't it? 'Moonlight Sonata' was meant to ask: What if people start making these moral choices, thinking one unethical decision will solve their problems, while they know it is a bad thing to do.
Well, moral choices have consequences, things get out of hand. One thing leads to another. We have to be very careful with our seemingly minor moral decisions. Although if they are always very well checked, we wouldn't have a movie, of course. 'Moonlight Sonata,' is one case where things turn into a Greek tragedy. The dark side takes over, and the next thing you know you have to make another bad choice and it builds on itself. That was my theme. The original [characters], by any standards, are regular people, like you and I. The main character finds himself in this dilemma and he makes the wrong choice, thinking that it will work out. He is operating, like most of us, in a grey zone.
Kayalar relaxing with colleagues after a long day in the lab smoking a traditional Turkish – tobacco – pipe. photo: courtesy C. Kayalar
Have you been working on this theme for a while?
It is not autobiographical. I am not married, I am not an architect. It came to me one day that a family dilemma could be the good start of a story that gets more complicated. Nobody is all evil and nobody is all good. Even hit men and prostitutes find themselves in a situation where some come out honorably and some go under - that is the history of humanity in every culture.
I could place these characters in the '30s, the '70s or '2010, it wouldn't matter. Or I could put these people in France or England or maybe even my own country ... [although that] I am not sure. But I wanted to explore a universal theme of human condition. Other then that, I let may imagination run wild. Obviously, we are not going to give away the ending in this article. [Anyway,] I left the ending open.
The psychiatrist implies that he does not believe the official story but they are going to pretend -
I tried to set that up in an early scene. The psychiatrist and the detective philosophize about how 'only ten percent of murders get solved or people get cured.' It can't just be a simple case. But for that night, they are begging each other, 'Let's tell each other a nice little story, 'cause otherwise, it's too painful.' We make up and tell each other comforting stories. They don't have to be true, this is what the inspector says to the doctor: 'Even Freud may like that.'
But then the prostitute went back to her childhood and used art to get rid of the pain. She was very good; the nude scenes were very natural.
[The actress] Irena Hoffman is European. I had 1200 applicants for that role and was in LA for three weeks casting [the film]. She is very good; she is a former Ms. Romania who moved here ten years ago - her star is rising. Being European, she had no problem with nudity. Being a low budget movie, I couldn't get everything I wanted. Often, if you are paying only $120 a day, the lowest SAG fee, and you say, 'By the way, your role also requires top frontal nudity,' their agent understandably objects. But she loved the role, and did a terrific job.
Do you prefer doing the indie thing to trying to sell your scripts in Hollywood?
Having lived in LA for 12 years, I love LA. I often look down on Hollywood and hate most of its products, but not the people working there. But I found myself here and I love the Bay Area. I think if I am going to continue writing and directing, I should do it here. If I were an actor, I would think, 'How can I live in the Bay Area?' It would be tough. For an indie filmmaker, however, the Bay Area is a beautiful place. It has a great tradition of intellectualism and art.
I am happy being here and committed to this community. I am contributing by training actors with the acting program I started [Film Acting Bay Area]. At anytime, eight or nine terrific faculty teach about 100 students of all levels. We are providing casting opportunities and nurturing the acting and filmmaking community.
Do you have any thoughts about how to improve Bay Area filmmaking?
Rob Nilsson [the esteemed local indie; disciple of Cassavetes; currently making film on Trotsky in Russia, as well as few other projects] is a good friend. We talk about this all the time. Rob is a very dedicated filmmaker - a different style than what I do, but I enjoy his movies a lot. He teaches his techniques at my school. We have a group of people with whom we like to kick around ideas at regular dinners.
Last time we met, Peter Coyote was there, and his wife Stefanie, and Mark Fishkin [director of the Mill Valley Film Festival], Graham Leggat [director, SF International Film Festival] and Rob. We said to ourselves; 'Everyone is doing a wonderful job, but is there something a little beyond, perhaps, if we talked to each other a little more?' Nothing may come out of it but it was a pleasant evening. We would like to continue and to expand that circle. At that table, there were some young filmmakers. I also want to include women as much as possible.
In professional filmmaking, as you know, women are ill-represented. It is changing. I would like to be instrumental in that. The talent is there, it is a matter of opening up the system. This is not a man's profession, this is art. Women - and other minorities, obviously - have as much, if not more, to say about the human condition than anyone else.
I truly believe we have huge challenges to face in this country and the world. If we are going to survive as a species - I am speaking as a biologist here - we need to muster every resource, every idea must be put on the table. I felt that way in science, too - again a male-dominated profession. Only through this diversity of voices do we have a chance to survive as a species. Otherwise, I don't think we will make it.
I think we should collaborate more, with an open heart and mind, and compete less, although it feels counter-intuitive when the economy is bad: 'Resources are limited, I have to take care of myself.' It is getting more competitive, especially when we are competing against a huge force like Hollywood, but our strength will come from our ability to work together. We will never match the budgets of big studios. They will always come with their $200 million movies and their 3Ds. They own the theater chains. We can make movies, but we don't get to show them.
Jon Bowden, whom you wrote about [see archives: cinesourcemagazine.com], is a good friend. I am very proud of what he has accomplished ['The Full Picture' (2009)]. We have always supported each other, taken pride in each other's work. We can pool our resources in making the movies, in distribution, in promoting each other's work.
There are great people in this town. We have to reach out to them, and they will reach back. Can we bring all that talent together? I would like to see our leaders, such as [George] Lucas, come on board. I have never met the gentleman, but we hear about him as this mythical figure, in every sense of the word. There is enormous other talent here, like Coppola, filmmakers I admire, look up to, but I don't get to see them. Our paths don't cross. They have made a great contribution to cinema in this country and in the world, but I don't see their impact in this area as it should be.
Could those elements be brought together? Young, middle aged and older generations of filmmakers collaborating, talking, mentoring each other? As I mentioned, I am where I am in my scientific career because of my mentors. There is a power in passing on. We have nothing to lose by being more generous. That is true in science and I believe it is true in art. That will be our salvation. A more generous attitude towards our profession - sharing, collaboration and generosity of spirit. Then I think the Bay Area will be unstoppable, because the talent, the intellect, the artistry, everything is here. We will not surpass Hollywood with dollars but with our richness of spirit.
Posted on Aug 13, 2010 - 11:00 AM