When Yilmaz Erdoğan contacted the families of the little known Turkish poets Rüştü Onur and Muzaffer Tayyip to make a film about their lives, what he heard back from Onur’s family had its own kind of poetry.
“‘What is your purpose [they asked]? To tell a sad story? F*** you,'” the gregarious Erdoğan laughs now. “But [I insisted] it will be about poetry because this is unique. Not another sad story.”
True to his word, Erdoğan eventually won them over for the reasons that are evident while watching “The Butterfly’s Dream,” the biggest-budgeted film ever made in Turkey and the country’s official entry into this year’s Academy Awards. Covering the nation’s vast topography from its verdant plains to its coal mines as well as one of its historical blindspots during World War II when a faltering economy led to poverty and the spread of tuberculosis, it’s an epic undertaking that at its heart is about the relationship between Onur (Mert Firat), Tayyip (Kivanç Tatlitug) and naturally, a muse named Suzan (Belçim Bilgin), whose high society roots differ greatly from the men who work in the mines while pursuing their poetry.
Only a national treasure like Erdoğan, a beloved entertainer in Turkey since the 1980s, could pull off a film with the scale of “The Butterfly’s Dream” in his home country while getting the tone just right, walking a fine line between portraying the hard times faced by his central trio while celebrating the art that provides them with a certain freedom, understanding it well as a part-time poet himself. While in Los Angeles recently, the writer/director spoke about how poetry guided him in telling the story of Onur and Tayyip, taking on a project of such ambition and what it’s been like to have Turkey rediscover the poetry of his main subjects.
How did you first learn of these two poets?
We have secret poetry nights…it was secret actually, I’m telling now. [laughs] And one night, one of my friends, an actor said to me search in the Google, “poets from Zonguldak.” I searched in Google and there were maybe one or two poems on the whole Internet. I read the poems. It was interesting. It was about west and east culture and their connections in a way that’s still that’s very fresh. I loved them and I started to follow their story.
You actually have written your own fair share of poetry. Is it difficult to translate what’s special about it to the screen?
It is not easy. We actually did rewrites of the subtitles five or six times because 100 percent translation [in other languages] is impossible. But I would tell everyone the most important thing was these are their poems, their work. This movie will be our work and our poem. Let’s do a movie with poetic timing, poetic cinematography. Most people think of romance when they think of poetry, but romance is different and my story is against that point of view. Poetry is funny. Poetry is smart. Maybe sometimes romantic, but poetry is smart philosophy.
The scale of this production was unprecedented in Turkey. Did that create some obstacles?
Yes. This is the 100th anniversary in our cinema [in Turkey]. We did a thousand movies of our masters and we are students of them. This is the point to make such a big production. First-time is a stressful word, but we did our best.
It wasn’t always easy. If you dream a period story, you know that. [laughs] But we had a talented art director and his team worked 10 hours on a day. Building that fake harbor took the whole studio actually and we created the main street of Zonguldak in ’40s exactly 100 percent from old photographs. Maybe 30 percent of the movie was shot in front of a green screen, which was my first experience with that and I loved it. I’m going to use it more.
Still, one scene employs around 10,000 extras. Was it nice to go back and forth between green screen and what you could capture in camera?
I learned lots of things about post-production because of this movie. For example, ships were my nightmare. How am I going to find a ship that’s true to the period? We found the ferry in a harbor of a university and she was stopped in the ’80s or something. But our post-production team said okay, shoot that and we can [augment] it. And they did. They did! You know this post-production is expensive, but the artistic part is…forget the money, it’s good.
You have an incredible opening tracking shot that leads audiences through the coal mines, following a worker and his horse and you see the abuses that took place there and the backbreaking labor. How did you come up with that as an introduction to this world?
I needed a strong opening about awakening. It is a dream. One night, I wrote that [introduction], and I read a Turkish novel about that period [with the film] in mind. I thank [the author] again because [around] that time I met horses in the mine. They actually [only come out for the] holidays, and I was amazed [by their] eyes, but my plan was to put the camera in front of the horse and [train the lens on] both eyes, my purpose was to catch the two lights [within them]. But when I shot first in front of the horses, it was not good and the second time, we tried the profile and it worked. And my actors in that scene, they’re really mine workers. They were fantastic. We shot [that scene] three times that and in three useful shots, we got it. One day rehearsal, one day shooting it, and we finished.
I’ve heard it wasn’t as quick to get this story on screen, so much so that you actually had planned to play one of the poets before moving into the role of their mentor. Was it interesting to shift into that role?
Yeah, because this is the real relationship with me and my actors. We started work six months before shooting to educate [ourselves in their] poetry deeply and we would just talk about poetry. We researched poets, life stories, our [characters] and others, to learn what is poetry exactly because these are young people and this day, poetry is not so popular, but they had to know because they are poets. I learned very much, they learned very much and we were ready. Our souls, at least, were ready.
Since the film was released in Turkey and became a hit, Rüştü Onur and Muzaffer Tayyip’s poetry has been rediscovered and became a best seller. Has that been gratifying for you?
Yes. Their books have become popular again, [being rereleased by] three or four publishers at the same time. I said, “The job is done. Rest is fun.” Because I promised them I will make you famous. Very, very famous, if you want that. Trust me. And I did.