Bringing Oddball Filmmaking from Sofia to Dublin with Kevork Aslanyan
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Gaslight’s newly signed director on his accidental entry into filmmaking, extensive editing career and expectations of Ireland
From the Land of Roses to the Emerald Isle, production company Gaslight’s recent signing Kevork Aslanyan is looking to bring some Bulgarian spirit and his idiosyncratic comic sensibilities to the Irish market.
Kevo’s road to directing has certainly been a circuitous one – from aspirations of rock stardom via a brief flirtation with engineering and an even briefer stint in construction, a job in the theatre and training as an editor.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with him to learn more.
LBB> When did you first realise you wanted to get into filmmaking?
Kevork> Well, that is kind of a funny story actually. I have to thank my dad here - a lot! I wanted to play guitar in a rock band after graduating high school, so much so that nothing else seemed interesting enough. My dad said, ‘fine, you can do that, but you have to work and earn the money’. Of course I accepted; in my imagination that was the easiest thing to do on Earth. Dad offered me a job on a construction site as a labourer. He knew people there, so I went to do that. Working during the day and playing with the band during the night - that was the plan. Guess what? I had the most painful two weeks of my life. My hands were shaking like crazy after the second working day, so playing was not an option… and eventually I had lost all control of my hands. On day 13 I quit and said that I would go to university and that I had learnt my lesson.
I applied for the easiest discipline at the university, to become a water engineer; everybody said that it is the easiest thing to learn. Maths and physics were fairly easy for me at the time, so that sounded perfect. I got in and everything went super well till the day I understood that a major object of study regarding this particular profession was chemistry! It sounds obvious I know, but at the time I was shocked. So this is basically day five or six at the uni - chemistry, my worst enemy. Never learned anything about it, period.
At that time I was still playing with the band, but because some time had passed I kinda knew that I sucked as a guitarist. I had a clear picture in my head now that I wouldn’t be a musician or an engineer. I desperately needed a new plan… So I quit the university after being there for about six months. My mum was very disappointed with me and so was my dad.
While all this was happening, I got this job at the local theatre as a set builder. Small theatre, small sets and they needed me only during the nights… perfect! I had the job, making some money, so I wasn’t going back to construction, but I needed something else to do with myself.
The theatre is where I was introduced to the art of storytelling for the first time. I think this was where the spark was triggered. I saw actors becoming characters, sets becoming realities, directors, composers, light, costumes, absolutely everything! I worked there for about a year and while doing that I decided to apply before the National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts with the wish of becoming a film and TV editor. Why editing? I wanted to do that because I knew stuff about computers, and the advertising materials said that I would work with pictures and music - my passion.
At this point I had zero idea what a director, DOP or producer was. Movies were not my strong suit at all. I remember that I had only one favourite film at that time - Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)… I had five months to prepare for the exams. I was watching four to five films a day. With the help of friends and friends of friends suggesting what I should watch and read and talking to me about movies, I was taken deep into the art of film. And I absolutely loved it. Around 90 people applied that year and the school was accepting only six. I was the fifth they said “yes” to. That is how things started for me. I spent four years there to finish my BA as a film and TV editor. I’ve had the pleasure of editing three feature films that I am really proud of, several feature length documentaries, TV dramas, shorts, countless commercials and a few music videos. In total around 10 years of editing experience that eventually led to a new and exciting path of becoming a director and my debut short film ‘Getting Fat in a Healthy Way’.
LBB> What was it like to grow up in Sofia? What sort of films inspired you there, before you educated yourself later on?
Kevork> Wild. Awesome and the best! I could not imagine growing somewhere else to be quite honest. I love my city very, very much.
When we were kids we would only watch movies only on VHS cassettes. I remember that when I was around eight years old the first movie that I bought with saved money was Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). My sister, who is three years older than me, then bought The Little Mermaid (1989). We would watch those two films like crazy. Then I got this friend who had all the good stuff on video – I’m talking about Commando (1985), Tango & Cash (1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Predator (1987), RoboCop (1987). We would watch the movies and then play them for the neighbourhood. The funny thing was that the majority of those VHS cassettes were illegal. Those movies were translated by one voice doing all the male and female parts! And the surreal part - every film started with the warning that video piracy was illegal. I call this brilliantly clever humour!
LBB> Eventually you found your way to London. What was that experience like?
Kevork> Well, I was told that the weather over there was simply awful. I was a month in and nothing of such happened. Clear and sunny days. Same as the weather in Sofia. I bought myself a bicycle and went literally everywhere.
I was exploring a lot. Loved the city. Then I bragged to my parents over a Skype call that the weather is nothing like what they were picturing it into the movies… and then things changed drastically. You know exactly what the weather tuned into. Can’t say I enjoyed that bit at all. Especially the lack of sun.
The most important thing were the people I had the pleasure of meeting at the London Film Academy in particular. Friends, colleagues and tutors. I’d already learned film with a BA in Bulgaria, but compared to the system in the UK, it was like learning it all over again. I came from a school where things were theoretical, mostly, and tutors (majority of them) didn’t make films at all, or had worked on them many, many years ago. In comparison, the tutors I had in the LFA were working in the industry and would share their stories and experiences. That was simply amazing! I’ve had the pleasure of being tutored about directing by Gillies MacKinnon and Richard Kwietniowski!
LBB> What countries have you worked in so far and how would you compare the advertising and production industries?
Kevork> Until now, I’ve had the pleasure of working only in Bulgaria, but I hope to change that pretty soon. I am pitching already for different territories and it is very interesting to observe how creatives and clients react to some approaches.
I’ve pitched for a project in Kiev recently and I had to present a comedic approach, something that I think I am quite good at. I love to make those odd, strange, dull, misfit characters... I had a call with the agency, they liked my work and wanted to know what my approach was going to be in regards of their script. So I told them about my specialty - those silly characters and how they react to the odd universe that we have created for scratch - they laugh, which is always a great especially on a call such as this and say that this is very good and they like it very much, but in Ukraine, nobody understands this kind of humour, so I have to change the direction with something much softer… safer, so to say.
Another example, I made a similar suggestion, character wise, for a baby food TVC for Switzerland, where I wanted the baby to be played by a fully grown man. I was cut off right on the spot. It would have been hilarious though.
LBB> What recent work are you most proud of?
Kevork> I shot this music video ‘Holey Wholly Holy’ for Sasha Siem, where I had to tell this dramatic love story. I am well known and booked for comedy and this was my shot of trying to tell something different. This was a massive challenge for me as I’ve never shot and worked with actors on such sort of material.
Telling a story of a damaged marriage, where the couple are on the edge of separation was inspirational in a lot of ways. This was a melancholic, dramatic glimpse into their broken world. We had to work really hard to achieve it the right way.
I am quite happy with the end result. We created a very powerful atmosphere with believable characters. All that on a fairly modest budget. Here the huge thanks should go to the amazing cast and crew, the ninja producers at B2Y Productions who are always making the impossible possible, to Sasha and her manager Shani and to John Moule for giving me the opportunity to pitch for this track.
I am really proud of the last campaign we did for Chivas Venture 2018, it even got picked by Ads Of The World. To have such projects on your table is a gift. I guess that all creatives will agree with me on this one.
The agency had this script where regular people were complaining and the real entrepreneurs were telling them not to, as there was always a solution. Funny script, great opportunity for my speciality. I was in my territory here, but the new and absolutely unknown area was the singing part. Never did such a thing before this one. Crazy cool experience. We recorded the music in a recording studio with real opera singers. Those guys were unbelievable and amazing. I was asking them absolutely goofy things to do while singing. And they did without hesitation! One of those things was that we asked them to sing a little bit less opera like?! They were absolutely the best. The agency and client were very open to ideas and different approaches which was great as well. The thing that helped a lot was the fact that we had collaborated on several other projects before, including the previous campaign for the Venture in 2017.
Production design is a huge part of almost all of my work. The above examples do suggest this for sure. I tend to work quite close with the art people so that everything on screen looks and feels coherent - like from a real and believable world. We as filmmakers create those artificial realities, but we want them to feel real to the audience. I’m probably a control freak on this subject, but it is really hard not to be on people’s toes when you've already seen something in your head so vividly.
LBB> What attracted you to Gaslight and working with the Irish market?
Kevork> Mick and Dave (the execs at Gaslight) are very down-to-earth guys. For obvious reasons having Gaslight repping me for this market is a privilege that I am very proud of. We speak the same language and that is what makes us a special power for the Irish market.
The other rather reasonable explanation would be simply the fact that the guys really like my work. All directors love to be liked I guess — I don’t know… ask them. On my reel there are still some commercials I made for Unicredit Bulbank where a man and a woman are going to Facebook and Instagram physically to do their job and are taken care of by this awful and arrogant woman. Those TVCs were promoting the bank’s mobile app.
My initial idea was that the character of the awful woman would be played by a silent man, dressed as a woman and speaking only through a speaker with a button on his desk. The agency loved the idea, but the client decided otherwise. I am telling you this because I am sure that such an approach could work very well with the Irish market and I strongly believe that creatives and clients are way bolder in their ideas there. Not scared to take wild risks and to take this extra mile that makes work exceptional and award winning! This is what we are going to achieve with the guys at Gaslight eventually.
LBB> What is your impression of Irish creativity right now?
Kevork> I am not that familiar with the Irish market per se to be quite honest, but have rather global overview on the English-speaking market. That is what I am mostly driven towards, to explore and to be inspired by. For sure it needs my approach to become even better!
LBB> When you're not making films, what are you interested in? Any hobbies or obsessions?
Kevork> I am the most boring person. I tend to relax by working. I do try and shoot amateur photography - just for fun really - digital and some 35mm stills. I play chess with a friend, table tennis with another. We keep score and I am really very bad at it… like super bad.