This post brings to a close my conversation with artist and film director Roger Kupelian. I hope readers of this blog enjoy it as much as I did. Roger, thank you for participating! You may find each section in the links below:
Those interested in finding out more about Roger Kupelian’s film and graphic novel work can check out his website, here.
The first in his ‘War Gods’ graphic novel series is also available on Amazon, here.
MARY: I enjoyed your collaborations with Serj Tankian. I’d like to see more of that.
If the genie visited me, I would probably make the same tired wish that all artists make: “Let me earn enough to live by my art.” We don’t have much imagination, do we? But really, that’s what it comes down to. We just want to work. And sometimes eat. But mostly work. And care for the ones we love. And work.
Apart from that, I’d be curious to see a play I’d written performed. That’s a whole new ball game for me and really fascinating.
Now, I’d like to ask you a different and more difficult question. I’d love to hear your thoughts on identity and the advantages/limits of a strong cultural focus when it comes to making art. Do you find you get pigeonholed as “an Armenian director”? Conversely, do you prefer to be identified that way? Do you think it enriches your contribution? Do people make assumptions about you?
ROGER: Ooo, you asked for this one…
I hope not… but people always look at the work you’ve done rather than the entire scope of what you are about to do. I try to mix the groups that work on these projects with me so that we get different perspectives. It is insulting, to be honest, when it is assumed that someone with my background, raised where I was raised, etc, is incapable of stepping outside of my skin, and looking at it from another angle. The music vids I did for Serj were not about the Armenian culture, for example, but the fact that Roger KupelIAN and Serj TankIAN did something together sends up a flag in some circles. (I’ve faced a lot of ethnic stereotyping within my 20-year stint in VFX, but maybe that’s because it’s based in Los Angeles, and they encounter Armenians on a daily basis. It’s the new group to feel ‘threatened by’. )
For EoB , I’ve had AMAZING support from diverse places, including my ethnic kin, but we’re not a culture used to supporting the media arts generally. Some other tribes are better at it and have been at it longer.
Take my Graphic Novel series – as much as it’s all in English and tries not to be too ethnocentric, it is about what it is. There’s an inherent bias to contend with, as it does not fit into any of the ‘known quantities’ and trendy topics currently circulating. I mean, I didn’t care. EoB was a labour of love and had to be expressed. People who like it like it. I didn’t wake up trying to take a mega commercial project one morning.
For the documentary series, we had to make a different consideration, however.
For Western audiences, Rome has to be a very WHITE Rome (usually with Brit accents). Ethnics are usually the bad guys, tagalongs at best. (In fact the only show to try and ATTEMPT to change that a bit was TV’s Spartacus. It almost succeeded.)
EoB is about a more ‘Ethnic’ and Culturally Diverse version of Rome, what we call the Eastern Empire, and later on renamed Byzantium by German Scholars. We cover everyone who was big at the time. And Armenians were among those who were “big at the time”. We knew that to a modern audience used to a certain thing in a certain way, one had to be careful. I’ve seen it where all people have to do is learn my last name and they immediately start stereotyping. They can’t help it.
One of our main actors who plays the Pagan High Priest is a long time friend of mine; the Artist Vahe Berberian. During one of his lectures, he spoke of the way we’re pigeonholed into being ‘nationalistic’. He said our tribal instincts come out of a need to survive as we are indeed an endangered culture. We love encountering each other in far off places. Kind of like, ‘oh you survived too!? yay!’
Others don’t come at it like that. Popular media sees us as a non-visible minority and in fact easy bogeymen for lazy TV writers. I wrote a whole article about it.
To a bland, consumer-driven world, anything that says ‘ancient’ and demands attention to a particular culture may seem a bit heavy-handed. You’ve heard that before I am sure: “You are too close to the topic”.
You’ve got the West with it’s deteriorating sense of identity, noted by a loss of faith in many of its institutions, coupled with an extreme upswing of tribalism fuelling the Middle East (once the Eastern Roman and Persian empires, to be sure). People are trying to come up with a general sense of utopia but it’s not working. In fact, Tribes are being amplified. It’s a good thing when it gives a person a sense of belonging and family, enriching traditions and such. The extreme is not so good.
The fact is, People will always make Tribes. “One Tribe” slogan is Utopian Bullshit. Who’s version of Utopia are we buying into? Dancing on drugs in the desert? Whatever’s trending on Twitter? What some news network says is the status quo? People will react to that and form their own little tribes. Regardless. It’s human.
Everything we believe comes from that. That’s why the anti-religion crusade has it wrong. The only way to completely eradicate group violence is to do away with the ability to form groups, which is a human survival tactic. It’s ancient. It’s a tool. It gets out of hand. Never going away unless we go away.
It should be, and I believe this (which is why I choose to live where I live) ‘Of the Many, One.” A Happy Big Tribe is made up of many happy little tribes.
My projects seem to be about maintaining what is a core identity while making it work within a greater vision. E Pluribus Unum.
MARY: I admire your courage. You manage to stay true to your roots, true to your experience, all the while remaining clear and balanced in your approach. I don’t think a kind of “sane tribalism” is at odds with democratic nationhood – quite the reverse. People can be both loyal to their own close group, and working incessantly towards a greater good. I think that’s probably true of the planet in general – we can and should be able to serve our tribe and humanity at the same time. No utopias required. People who grumble and moan that it’s impossible are just playing the “divide and conquer” game.
The history geek in me loves a diverse Rome, by the way. The ancient Mediterranean world would have been a melting pot – especially those centres of culture and power, Rome and Byzantium. Endless exchanges between peoples and cultures… Phoenician, North African, Viking, Hebrew… hummus and falafel available at all ports. Everyone busily giving unto Caesar what was Caesar’s and getting on with life. (We moderns should take note.)
ROGER: Speaking of diverse roots, you have some very diverse roots and I would love it if you could expound on that a little bit. I am sure it’s added to who you are both as an artist and as a person.
MARY: Well, it’s certainly made me what I am! (Confused?)
Briefly, my family has roots in various parts of Iran, Baghdad, Azerbaijan and, rather less exotically, north London. They were Muslims, Christians and Jews. Many of them became Baha’is, which is why they ended up travelling so far from their homelands and marrying people outside their immediate communities. So a Baghdadi Jew married an Iranian girl from a Sh’ia background, for example, while an Azeri married into a family of exiles in Palestine. Later on, a contingent decamped from Iran to Uganda. Branches of the family lived in Germany, Canada, the US and Israel for many years. Basically, they all emigrated, resettled and globe-trotted from the nineteenth century onwards, and by the time it got to me the genes were a mess.
I do sometimes envy people with strongly identifiable cultural background and experience. But I suppose we’re all mongrels of one sort or another. What it has given me: a desire to build bridges between people, and a great deal of sympathy for those who find themselves on the move, exiled, uprooted or obliged for one reason or another to leave their homelands.
ROGER: Before any more wars can be waged, war lobbies and campaigns can be mounted or political decisions could be made, I wish someone would do mandatory genetic testing for everyone and publish the results. Let’s see who came from where and how connected everyone is, and then maybe we’d find some solutions.
MARY: Ha, ha. Even if they did that, some would claim to be more human than others…
ROGER: “Four legs good, two legs better.”
*END OF PART THREE*
ROGER: Looking at your characters from both your Tree series and especially Cyprus, who’s your pocket favourite?
And regarding the dejected People of Anatolia and the Caucasus, What’s the way forward for us?
MARY: Let’s see… I feel strongly for all of my characters, otherwise I wouldn’t write them. If by “favourite” you mean one that possesses me, whom I grapple with heart and soul, it would be Mitra, the mother in my Cypriot story. She isn’t easy to write: not a romantic heroine in a traditional sense, she nevertheless has a strong personality. She endures a great deal of suffering. It’s a challenge to write that sort of character and keep her active and engaging. Work in progress!
You ask a difficult question about ways forward. To look at the current situation in the Middle East is to court depression. I don’t know the way forward. I see people bickering as they have for centuries, embroiled in tribal warfare. I also see a new kind of trans-national and trans-tribal warfare, based on apocalyptic religious ideas that mean nothing to me. As much as I’d like to answer the question with one simple word – “cooperation” – it seems impossible to achieve at the moment.
On the other hand, people do reach a tipping point. After a few decades of entrenched problems they turn around and change their minds. Witness the situation in Cyprus. Bit by bit we move forward. What do you think? Do you feel dejected?
ROGER: What do I feel? Honestly, due to a variety of challenges last year, survival has been on my mind. Everything else is pretty much a whole lifetime of exposure. Every country linked to my formational identity is having a rough time of it.
Sierra Leone. Lebanon. Armenia. Umm, Glendale?
I continue doing what I do because I can’t help it. I’m not playing violins all day every day but if you don’t acknowledge reality it will simply blindside you sooner or later.
MARY: The news from Sierra Leone has been devastating. It seems some places have a rough time of it on an ongoing basis, and Sierra Leone is one of them. I kept wondering why it was taking the rich countries so long to intervene in the Ebola crisis. The clock was ticking, people were dying. There was a degree of cynicism evinced by people in the UK towards those suffering, which I found intolerable. I sometimes felt like shaking some sense into people (especially when I made the mistake of reading comments on online news articles). What would they do if whole villages in Suffolk were dying off, I wonder? Would they stay within the reach of a deadly disease, or try every means of escape at their disposal? The lack of empathy amazes me.
ROGER: People are really in a calamity-fatigue climate. So much is going wrong with this world, they don’t see the possibilities. Just the cynicism. Humans are predisposed to end-world scenarios.
MARY: Well. Now that we’ve ended the world, what do you want to talk about next?
ROGER: I’d want to revisit why people leave a lucrative animation career and go off reservation.
MARY: Possibly because they were never ‘on reservation’ in the first place? 🙂
I never seem to be able to do what’s expected of me, which has its advantages and disadvantages. But I’ve watched far better people than me forge animation careers at the best companies, after which life blindsides them, anyway. The best laid plans of mice and men, and so on.
As I get older I care even less about what I “should” do. I suspect that by the time I’m 60, I’ll be a full on rebel, living on a commune and growing hydroponics. What about you? Do you miss that world of VFX?
ROGER: In a way I’m still in it. And I love VFX. EoB was my way of finding the passion again. To me, VFX is part of This Director’s toolkit.
MARY: Tell me what your dreams and hopes are for the coming years.
ROGER: In terms of work, my dream for the future is that I can take a lot of these stories that are bubbling up inside my head and put them in the graphic novel format. I would like to collaborate further with other artists and creating things that inspire people. Plus, there are a few other documentaries I would love to do. And I would like to do a bunch of things abroad.
*END OF PART TWO*
As anyone who follows this blog will know, Roger Kupelian is an up-and-coming film director, graphic novelist and Hollywood VFX wizard who also happens to have done some superb artwork for Tymon’s Flight. Roger and I met in New Zealand during my VFX animation days. I caught up with Roger recently, curious about what he’d been doing on the creative front in the last few years. I knew it would be worth looking into.
The result was a conversation that dealt with our respective creative news, but also grappled with some other interesting and sometimes difficult subjects. Because life is strange, wonderful, difficult, perplexing, sweet and heartbreaking, and it’s sometimes good to take stock with a friend and shoot the breeze.
I’ve split the breeze-shooting into three parts, and will post one part a day for the next three days. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did… And thank you for being game, Roger!
MARY: Roger, how di body? It’s been a while since I saw you in town. What have you been up to since we last spoke?
ROGER: Koosheh. We deh Freetown pikin. Things have been bittersweet and prolific. How about you?
MARY: Mostly sweet. The third instalment of my ‘Chronicles of the Tree’ fantasy series came out in Australia and New Zealand in 2011. ‘Samiha’s Song’ won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Novel in 2012, which was a very sweet/sad way to say goodbye to the Land of the Long White Cloud. We moved to London at the end of that year. Since then, I’ve been writing a novel set in my childhood home of Cyprus, which I’m currently in the process of adapting as a play. I attended a course with a wonderful playwright who works at the National Theatre, in February.
Writing for theatre turned out to be something of a revelation – I’d come home from the workshop buzzing with ideas and unable to sleep, obsessed with this new form. I realized I was onto something I loved. I hope to “workshop” my play in September and take it further.
What about you? You’ve developed some incredible ideas of your own over the past few years – could you give me a potted history of your creative doings since 2011?
ROGER: Having grown up as the son of a writer, I know full well how thankless writing could be. So, being a glutton for punishment, I decided to take the ideas that came out of my fledgling screenwriting efforts, and convert them to graphic novels, which I did with the East of Byzantium graphic novel series.
War Gods and Warrior Saints are a real labour of love. I don’t pretend to be a comic book artist by any means, but this was a way for me, as a film production artist, to lay out the screenplay in a sequential art form, and say “Here it is. Here is the vision!”
MARY: Both of us have come from a background in film production. We met working on Peter Jackson’s LOTR films, in New Zealand – I can’t believe that was fifteen years ago! It was a tough job and a great job in many ways.
But it’s a big step from doing shots to pulling together an entire creative project of one’s own. Many of us dream: only a few manage to do it. You’ve actually done it, developing East of Byzantium.
And now you’ve been at this fascinating, infuriating and addictive business – storytelling – for a few years. What do you think of it? Do you find you tell stories because you have some specific idea, or reality to communicate? Or do you do it because you have to – because the stories break out of you, alien-style?
ROGER: Yes. EoB is at once the most wonderful and the most vexing thing I’ve ever done.
I think a lot of this comes from any anxiety that an artist is feeling and just tries to express through art, as we developed this language of expression early on to try and deal with life. This is a way of survival, and it adds meaning.
I found myself in your Cyprus novel. I could tell that whatever the topic was at that point, it was very natural to you, and it connected with me. During the Civil War in Lebanon, my relatives found refuge in Cyprus. Also, after World War 1, my grandfather was sent there where he joined the French-created Legion Armenienne. On my own trip there, our pilot made sure to point out the greener Turkey-occupied zone.
But beyond those facts, you built a world around a set of characters in the tragic reality of that island state, yet each in their own way endeavouring to overcome history.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, projects founded on a historical reality but told through creative invention (which is what the graphic novels for EoB really are), are my favourite kind of storytelling.
It also allows us to take a look at current events and weigh them against the past, but in a way that is not immediately confrontational, giving the reader or the viewer, some time to digest and really explore what the author is trying to say.
MARY: You’ve said some kind things there about my book… I really appreciate it. History is a mine for creativity, isn’t it? Especially when it touches us in some personal way. There are stories that clamour to be told and that won’t leave us alone. (I guess that’s what I meant about the story clawing its way out.) They may be set centuries ago but they have contemporary echoes and relevance – otherwise we wouldn’t be so drawn to them.
Since we’re comparing notes about projects, I will tell you what I loved about the second volume of your graphic novel series (I’m looking forward to the third). Aside from the sumptuous visuals – something I would absolutely expect from you, given your talents – I was intrigued to discover a story I’m not usually given the chance to hear. Where else would I find a contemporary treatment of the life of a fifth century Armenian hero, which tells an exciting tale while not shying away from the historical complexities? I look at the cultural landscape around me, especially in visual media, and see multiple retellings of the lives of English kings as well as Arthurian and Nordic myth. But other cultures are pretty thin on the ground. Believe me, I love me a bit of Henry Tudor and Merlin and Game of Thrones/Wars of the Roses, but variety is the spice.
We need people passionate about telling different kinds of stories. We need to hear voices full of love for other histories, cultures, lands. The love is key. One can criticize, sometimes harshly, but the criticism is balanced out by a deep desire for something higher or better – and the conviction that the people in the story are capable of it. A storyteller is most scathing about those he loves. Storytelling is a moral exercise – not because we are sitting in judgment over some fictitious person, but because we are learning to empathize. The story allows us to say, “he struggled, he was human, he failed, he was just like us”.
*END OF PART ONE*
I think it was Kafka who said a writer without a novel is a monstrous thing. I am, therefore, indisputably monstrous. Novels – both the writing and the reading of them – require giving one’s undivided attention to the written word for a brief span of time, and undivided attention, however brief, is not what I am able to give at the moment.
It has to be worthy of a Darwin prize of some stripe to be moving house for the third summer in a row.
So instead of a novel (to be written or read,) there will be this from me, from time to time: digital blips. Even if they are handwritten to begin with they will eventually be transposed into digital form, as everything is these days. Digital is the new tyranny. My computer requires absolute allegiance from me, my soul offered up in bits and bytes. It wasn’t always thus. I remember a time when the damned thing was supposed to help me write.
Let me tell you about my computer, that insidious purveyor of technological addiction masquerading as progress. There it sits, the sleek silver bastard. I didn’t write this on it. No, no. I wrote this piece of nonsense in a notebook, then typed it up on the computer. Why didn’t I just write on the computer to begin with? Because the computer, my dears, is connected. The demon Internet has taken over possession of the machine I once took for an ally in creation. Instead of allowing me to write, it thrusts me onto Twitter, Skype, email. It threatens me with instant and complete communication. I turn programs off, then find messages flooding in: “Where WERE you? I couldn’t reach you. Why don’t you sign this special important urgent petition to help the endangered peanut-eating sloth of south Peanutland?”
We are instantly and incessantly connected to each other, and so require instant and incessant communication from each other. And to say what? “I had bananas in my cereal this morning. Isn’t the war in Nowhereistan terrible. Look at this picture of a mutilated baby. Look at this picture of my lunch.”
The computer screams my connectivity to the world, and my obligation to be receptive to that connectivity. It broadcasts my location. It chastises me for my lack of intellectual curiosity. For someone, somewhere, inevitably has something vastly important to say on a subject which I ought to be following; a person of great intelligence is just waiting for me out there, and I’m missing the opportunity to hear them speak. Besides this, there are friendly civilized bonds to maintain, professional commitments I cannot shirk. Don’t forget the professional commitments. Even if you have no profession at all, you ought to be looking for one, on the net, and the computer sits there and says, “you should be job-hunting.” It doesn’t say, “you should be writing.” It calls you a coward and a drain on society and dammit, why don’t you sign that petition about the peanut-eating sloth. You lazy parasite.
So no, I didn’t write this on the computer. I copied it onto the computer. In a rare moment of tranquility.
I do believe too much connectivity will kill us: the time we don’t spend signing the peanut sloth petitions we will spend on the complaints of people who object to peanut sloth petitions, and meanwhile our hearts will die and our bodies waste away and the plants in the garden will all shrivel up.
I think space-time slopes downwards – time is certainly running away from me. How did the new year arrive so quickly? Anyway, I want to wish a most wonderful and fulfilling 2014 to all my friends out there in the blogosphere. I may not comment on your entries often, but your presence is a comfort to me every day. Never stop speaking, writing, communicating in all the ways that you do. I treasure it.
Personally, I have reached a point of silence, of stillness, after about ten years of continuous activity. During that time there was always a manuscript or a deadline, a young child to care for, jobs to apply for, a house to sell or buy, a major life move to prepare. There were very few “holidays.” Now, suddenly, that manic level of activity has ebbed. I’m sure it will take off again (with a vengeance) but for now, I’m enjoying the lull.
If the weather improves, I shall go outside and poke the river with a stick.
EDIT: the lull is already over. That was quick!
And now Nelson Mandela is gone, too.
I don’t mean to use this blog to catalogue the deaths of deeply loved and admired people, though this does seem to be a year for it. It’s just that a sense of time lies heavy on me at the moment. I feel poised on the edge of something, looking back over my own life and also forward to what might be, so naturally thinking about other peoples’ lives and legacies and endings is all par for the course. It’s entirely banal, in fact, at the age of almost-forty-one, to do such a thing. So please forgive me.
Who else out there among my friends reached adolescence and began to “wake up to the world” in the 1980’s? It was an interesting time, wasn’t it? We hear a great deal, see a great deal portrayed in film and other media about kids coming of age in the sixties and seventies, that post-war generation. They did everything, protested, changed the world. (It’s different now, right? Right?…) They had various revolutions, social and political – Vietnam – men on the moon – peace and love – bean sprouts. Bean sprouts saved the world. They had a seismic shift in demographics buoying them along. Everything seemed possible.
Then, there was us.
I’d be interested to hear what my contemporaries say, whether they feel the same way. I swear to God, the 1980’s were claustrophobic for me. Nothing seemed possible, or even probable. My adolescent brain was beginning to fire neurons in all directions. My brain case felt too small for what was going on inside, the world was big and mean and full of incomprehensible adults with far too many nuclear warheads at their disposal and seemingly zero empathy. I couldn’t stand looking at the injustices, couldn’t stand walking past people sleeping in the street while others ate warm dinners and talked about ‘the economy’ (that Beast of the last days.) Every cell in my body screamed it wasn’t right, there had to be another way.
Enter into all of this, Nelson Mandela. Half a world away in South Africa, but he inspired us. Half a world away, us kids admired that man in prison. We chanted “Free Nelson Mandela”. There were those pins people used to wear on school bags. It was sincere – probably useless, but sincere. For me, there was a particular reason to follow the story. I thought of other people in prison, also incarcerated for spurious reasons. I admired Mandela’s refusal to give in. And when he was finally freed, I wept with joy, along with so many others, all over the world. It seemed that if this one man was freed, perhaps there was hope for the rest.
Time passed. People told me I would react less emotionally when I matured, or else work towards a concrete solution to social problems rather than rebelling in my little corner. At the time I just ground my teeth and put it all down to grown-ups being condescending. I stomped off angrily towards womanhood, wearing my blue Doc Martens and knowing full well I was privileged, not in prison, not sleeping rough. Don’t be angry, said the reasonable little voice in the back of my head. Use your advantages to do something interesting. I grew up, sort of matured. And tried to use the advantages, for what they were worth.
But listen: the anger didn’t go away. The emotions didn’t go away. I am sitting here now, as righteously damned furious as I was a quarter of a century ago, minus the pin. I realise there is no getting rid of this anger, because it is a good anger. It says no. No, I won’t walk past the street sleeper with that sense that he must deserve it. No, I won’t shut up and let the Beast Economy run amok, trampling innocents. I will tell the truth as I see it, in my corner, yes, uselessly if need be. I will be emotional about the whole kit and kaboodle.
Here are some home truths from Mr Mandela to help you on your way.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.”
“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”
In the wake of the anniversary of three famous deaths – President Kennedy’s, C.S. Lewis’ and Aldous Huxley’s – there have been a slew of articles in mainstream press about the three men. I find it amusing (and edifying) that all three are united not only in death, but in the fact that they produced Great Fantasy, either in life or in death. I mean what I say: while Huxley and Lewis both wrote fantasy and science fiction to good effect, Kennedy’s death spawned myths and conspiracy theories to rival any novel. And from what I know of at least Lewis and Kennedy, both men also lived out various interesting fantasies on this earth – double lives, triple lives, versions of themselves. Huxley certainly investigated his own fantasies through the use of hallucinogens and managed I think to predict most accurately our own obsessions, now, half a century later. Hug me till you drug me, honey.
So tonight I raise a silent glass to these three men, interesting in different ways. Problematic in different ways. Complicated, complicated creatures. I particularly enjoyed this article on C.S. Lewis. Except I wonder why it doesn’t mention ‘Till We Have Faces.’ It’s my favourite of his novels. You can keep your Narnia and its thundering allegories… I will take Psyche’s older and much uglier sister, thank you.
I know I’ve sent a version of the ms out through my agents when I suddenly find myself with ample time to do housework. How floors are industriously vacuumed! Paperwork is filed, bathrooms bleached and bed covers find their way into the wash. And all of this as I try to take my mind off the thought of that ms – far from finished or worthy of attention, to my exacerbated sensibilities – making the rounds of publishers’ desks. It’s not even weighty enough to support a cup of coffee, I want to wail. At a mere 82000 words it’s half the length of a typical fantasy novel! How will it hold its own in any slush pile worthy of the name?
Ah, the perils of switching genre. I can’t see this thing – I’m too close to it – I have absolutely no idea what I’ve accomplished, if anything. There’s nothing for it but to scrub another patch of floor.
First of all, two Booksworn authors, Helen Lowe and Mark Lawrence, have been shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend award. They’re doing a giveaway over at the Booksworn site – check it out, and don’t forget to vote on this final leg of the competition! The Gemmells are popular choice awards and it’s lovely to see a strong international showing on the lists.
Secondly, I have a post up on BookSworn myself today, chewing over the subject of critiques. Feel free to drop by and share your own experiences. 😀