12 August 2013, 14:43
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East of Byzantium

The ultimate sense of accomplishment comes to people who are able to use their expertise to bring their visions to life. Roger Koupelian, a celebrated matte artist concept painter, uses his vast experience in Hollywood to fulfill the passion he has carried since childhood.

Roger and his team at Fugitive Studios have worked on the graphics and concepts of such Hollywood blockbusters as the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “Charlie Wilson’s War”, “The Mummy”, “Cloverfield”, and many others. The young cinematographer has also tested himself in the role of a director in the documentary “Black Forest in the Mountains”. Risking his life in the trenches alongside Armenian fighters and amidst the devastated villages and towns, he brought the amazing story of their struggle to the world. His current project, “East of Byzantium”, is an attempt to tell the world about what is important to Armenians, and what he has cherished since childhood.
The home of Fugitive Studios is an office space in a funky, repurposed complex that was an industrial site in its previous life. Fugitive Studios fits in perfectly among its neighbors – free-spirited, cosmopolitan, yet highly professional artisans and artists. The office is crammed with elaborate costumes, armor, and weaponry that are used during the concept stage for movies. Roger’s own paintings and sketches decorate the walls. A large bookshelf to the side of the conference table contains the fruits of Roger’s profession: thick albums with sketches and computer graphics of characters and backgrounds for feature films. We were invited to browse through them and enjoy a cup of Armenian coffee.

Are these authentic?
No, they are close replicas; basically, you can put them on and go to war. It’s a CA qualifier, which means that if someone hits you, you will survive. As opposed to this one, which is built out of aluminum, it is lighter and not as protective. This is a Sassanid helmet, they have one at a museum. This one is a Chinese helmet from the Han period. We made a lot. The originals were made in New Zealand. A lot of the stuff that we made you can’t find in many places; perhaps you can see them in old manuscripts. But then, in medieval Europe any hero from any time period or place is drawn exactly the same way, so Vardan looks like King Arthur. We wanted to find out how Vardan and the Armenian warriors looked authentically. Obviously, in history there were very few completely objective facts, because historians were paid to “shape” the historical record to the liking of whoever commissioned them. So we have decided to take basic facts, but not to make a documentary. We are doing two feature films for a non-Armenian audience who comes to theatres to watch a movie, eat popcorn and get entertained. The authenticity is not a priority here. Armenians are very picky about history; all you hear is, “That’s not exactly what happened - Anahit really did this, and Vartan really did that.” But the mainstream movie-goers only care about the quality of their entertainment. So we said, “Let’s do as much research as we can, because we want to do justice to our own people and their history. But then, let’s consider that we have to tell a two-hour story, so we have to be selective.” Vardan's story is in the second part. After all the men were killed in Avarair, the army was still intact. So what happened? All the women kept the army intact for thirty-three years, and then Vahan came and continued.

Is that what the history says?
Yes, but it doesn’t say it directly. What we know is that the women did not get married for that period of time. And as we were thinking about the plot, we said, “What we know about Armenian women is that when the time comes to step up, they will step up and take the leadership role.” So even though we fictionalized here and there, it is also very symbolic. So we have Vartan’s widow, who goes to an old armory, finds his armor and restyles it. We tried researching her, but they never wrote about women; they were always treated as side characters. We couldn’t even find out her actual name. So I called her Anahit, because it’s our ancient goddess. We know his daughter’s name was Shushan, because she became a saint. We want it to be more about the whole Armenian culture and identity. We took traditional motifs and put them all together.
This armor in the sketches is not what she would fight in; this is what she puts on and goes to lead the army. So the men would say: “Ah, a Mamikonian is still fighting.” And that’s the second part of the movie plot.
The first part of the movie is about Trdat and Hripsime, and it’s about our identity and its redefinition. We had our identity before, but they redefined the Armenian culture, sometimes with a sword, sometimes with faith, sometimes with sacrifice. And, obviously, people look at Hripsime and say, “Ah, that’s a legend.” But we want something of a legend, something that will get the viewer involved.

But who says she is a legend? After all, we have a temple of Hripsime, and her grave…
Absolutely, but we are interested in love and the theme of attraction. She was a beautiful and very innocent woman. He could have captured the heart of any woman he wanted. But she was different; she was a woman he couldn’t have, because she was a nun. Maybe there was a little bit of an attraction. From her part it was purely innocent, but for him it was an obsession. So once he destroyed her, he was on his downward spiral. He tried to destroy all the good things around him. Trdat lost his mind and became insane. But Hripsime is more than that for Armenians. If we had a symbol of Hayastan as a woman, it would be Hripsime - innocent, beautiful and free.
Going back to Trdat, one thing to consider about him is that he was an orphan, and orphans have a very special way of looking at the world. Later in his life, the Roman Emperor betrayed him. This is some tough luck for him, because he was a Roman person: he followed the Roman law, wrote Roman plays, Roman this, Roman that. Then, he found out that the closest of his confidants was the son of a traitor. All the way through, Trdat had people rejecting and abandoning him. So when Hripsime, a person who he really needed, said, “I can’t be with you,” it was the final blow. Eventually, when he came out of his drunkenness with fury and madness and realized what he has done, his sister confessed that she had also converted to Christianity. His sister, Khosrovidoukht, also abandons him and walks out of his life. The only good thing that happened after this ocean of misfortunes was his conversion, which brought sanity and harmony to his life.
Meanwhile, we have a whole other side of the Armenian culture, the Hetanos (Pagan) story, which is represented by Vahe Berberian’s character. There is a character like this [he points at another one of his sketches], who symbolizes the ancient Armenian way of life. So this character came up and said: “Look, this Christianity is an alien thing. We are Armenians, we have our own religion, and the idea of Christianity is all political.” Pagans rebelled, and all the nobles who were following them rebelled, too. And so it went on, until Gregory the Illuminator came up with an army and wiped them out completely. In return, Vahe Berberian’s character cursed Gregory’s descendants: “Our blood will rise from the ground and you will not have a moment of peace.” Thus, 150 years later, Vardan, who was related to Gregory from his mother’s side, was able to break the curse (what happens in part two of the story). And right now there is a decision we are trying to make: the story is written from Vardan’s point of view, but we are trying to decide whether or not we should tell it from Anahit’s perspective. A lot of our supporters are women. Men support us, too, but women are essential to this project. And another thing about Armenian women – if they are passionate about something, they will have their way eventually.

I really like these pictures. What is their primary purpose? Do you use them mostly to consolidate your ideas, to work with the team, or for outsiders?
This is what I show people when I want to share the concept and get feedback. We took the battle scenes and descriptions, and we read them to expert medievalists in New Zealand. Basically, they are people who dress up in armor and charge each other on horseback. They said that it is pretty accurate in terms of the battle itself, if you take away the flowery, poetic church language. They said that out of 66,000 Armenian troops, 45,000 were actually the warriors, the rest were blacksmiths and other support personnel. Similarly with the Persians, if you had 320,000, 60,000 were cooks, tailors, musicians, the guys who cleaned up after the elephants, and such. That is logistics. But they said that it’s perfectly possible that the battle was fought that way. So there is a lot of reality in this story.

So you were saying that Christians actually fought against the pagans?
Yes, they did, but not in the beginning. At first, it was very simple: Gregory would go around and offer priests, “Your wealth is your land, you can keep your land, you can keep your income, just let us put this church on your land.” The priests would say, “No problem!” because they could keep their money. You have to remember that they had many gods, and they were O.K. with one more god. But later, people started being forced. Especially, the people who really deeply believed in their religion, or, possibly, people who were more aligned with Rome or Persia, did not want to give up what they were comfortable with. At that point, it turned into a political dilemma, since Gregory said, “The only way we can make this country stronger against Persia or Rome (Rome was Pagan, and Persia was Zoroastrian) is to unite around Christianity.” And, unfortunately, to counter this Trdat went around and annihilated any record of pre-Christian history.

So, the only temple that remained was Garni?
Yes, thanks to Trdat’s sister who liked to go there.

But this one on your sketch looks so much bigger.
Yes, we are emphasizing. And who knows what has been destroyed? In our footage we created temples that are fictional, but at that time they probably had some amazing structures. And not only the Christians destroyed temples, so did the barbarians and other subsequent invaders. Zvartnots also started as a temple.

I can’t even imagine Garni with larger structures around it, because it seems like such a small area. There are Roman baths around it though…
It was more like a retreat. Wasn’t there speculation that it was actually a mausoleum? It does not seem like an actual temple, because it’s too small.
So, I spent six years doing the research and preparing for the production at a cost of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Big companies spend a million, a million and a half to do the same job. The good thing about this is that I did all this development. I can go to the same big company guys and tell them, “Because I did this, I saved you a lot of money on development, and you don’t have to do this any more.” We have got the scripts, all the costumes designs and settings are ready, so all we need is a green light and within months we can start shooting. Otherwise, we would spend six to seven months, at the very least, before rolling the tape. Epics take about five years to make by the time you finish the post-production. So what we are doing is we are cutting down that time, because we are shooting a lot of it using green screen technology, like The Three Hundred. We are happy that The Three Hundred did so well, it was like a confirmation of viability. Already in the Lord of the Rings we saw this technology in action. “Green screen” is when we shoot everything against a green backdrop, then take out the green and put in any background we want, be that Armenia, or Persia…or Glendale.

Who wrote the script?
I wrote Vardan’s script, and then, we are going to invite a Hollywood writer. As for the first script – I wrote the story, and then a couple of people finished it up. Obviously, once the script is written, it is going to go through several revisions in the process of shooting. Serge Tankian is doing the music. Also, we have an artist who creates the graphic novel. It will give the reader an opportunity to see a different side of the story, and to think about the facts in more detail. We will eventually publish three graphic novels. Then, we want to do a module for a videogame, because it’s a good way to involve the audience.

Tell us about how you got inspired to do this project. What prospects do you see?
I grew up in Freetown, Sierra Leone. There was only a handful of Armenians living in that part of the world. My Dad raised us with a very strong understanding of who we were, even in Africa. On African sands he used to teach me Armenian letters. I learned the story of Vardan from a very young age. I remember sitting on my Dad’s shoulders and a ship from Armenia came, and my Dad said: “These are Armenians”. I was so fascinated I started calling at the top of my lungs, “Hye am yes! I am Armenian!” These people couldn’t believe it – imagine somewhere in Africa this kid yelling: “Hye am yes!” They were crying. As much as Armenians are identified as a minority, being an Armenian from Africa I was even more of a minority, and I always had to fight for my identity.
I started working in the movie industry in 1995 in New Zealand. As I saw the Braveheart and other similar epics coming up, I thought that we had our own stories to tell. I always wanted to make an Armenian epic. The saga starts with Trdat and goes on to Vardan's story. As we were planning, it became three two-hour films, then turned into two three-hour films. Then, HBO came along and suggested that they want to do even more. They want to develop it into a mini-series, like they did with the Rome. I am not going to say no, because it guarantees a big audience; we have been very flexible in that sense. But, definitely, these are very dramatic pieces – lots of battles, many diverse characters. We want to do it the right way, and we are committed to it.

Yerevan Magazine, Winter, N3, 2008

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