by mh musings, Editor, North America TEN
Burcu Alptekin is one of the most prominent female Turkish filmmakers, leaving her mark as director for Netflix shows such as The Protector, Atiye, Another Self, and most recently as lead director for highly popular Yalı Çapkını, currently running on public TV. With an intentional approach to her sets and visual storytelling, her directorial work leaves a mark and tells its own tale. Her vision has translated into groundbreaking Turkish stories on Netflix, with Another Self now signed on for two more seasons.
We are privileged to chat with and present the dynamic Burcu, who is only going from strength to strength since she started as first assistant director on the sets of critically acclaimed dizi, The Magnificent Century. At the time of this interview, the ratings busting series Yalı Çapkını had just aired its 20th episode, which has proven to be a social media phenomenon across the globe. Burcu’s artistic direction has earned worthy recognition and it is a pleasure to learn her perspectives about her career and the industry.
Becoming A Director
“I guess it starts with the love for creating something and playing games that reside in you.”
With a fascination for the Arts from a young age, Burcu wanted to become an actress. Even though she had a knack for rallying her friends into joining her creative games and projects, she didn’t think her fiddling with horror films in high school would eventually be the career path she would follow. While she was trying to convince her beloved late father about joining a conservatoire to pursue acting, despite his misgivings, he introduced her to his friend Cüneyt Çalışkur, an award-winning theater performer and director. Mr. Çalışkur’s stories about filmmaking impressed Burcu immensely and she was inspired to become an art director.
When it came time for university, Burcu didn’t prepare for the entrance exam, feeling sure she would be accepted by the conservatoire. She took the exam anyway and got accepted to the Radio and TV programming department at Kırıkkale University. During that time, through an acquaintance, she joined Ugur Yucel’s movie “Yazı Tura” as an intern. She says, “It’s hard to have a place in this industry without an acquaintance or, rather, without having a reference or being recommended by someone from the industry.”
Burcu never left the field since. Abandoning academia, she threw herself into her work and her colleagues appreciated her for her energy and diligence. It opened bigger and better doors for her. In 2011 she joined the production team for The Magnificent Century and worked with the Taylan brothers. She says, “I have assisted Yağmur and Durul Taylan for many years and every day I spent with them was like a school. Every piece of their speech was like advice. I observed them and learned that I had to keep reading, to keep doing research in order to have the required professional efficiency, and to keep learning new things.”
In 2014, she directed a scene for the first time in the 4th season of the Magnificent Century. “Since then, I haven’t done anything that I was not proud of. I’m trying to reflect the feelings in the best way that I can. Sometimes I say, “Why did I do this?” when I watch something that I directed but I never feel disappointment. Each mistake is an opportunity for me to improve myself.”
The Feminine Journey
When Burcu joined the industry, female directors were few and far between. The rarity made her think it would be impossible for her to become a director and made her question, “Why should I become one?” In her opinion one had to be extremely talented to make it and she didn’t think she either had the talent or the ambition. Men had monopolized the job and they had been managing it in accordance with their own interests. “Fascism was dominant and I was just minding my own business. I strived to be a good assistant. The 3rd season of the Magnificent Century was filmed with 3 different teams. At the beginning of the 4th season, the Taylans went to the US and they wanted me to manage the third team. And with this opportunity, before I could become an assistant director, I became a director.
Those days were really strange. I realized that I succeeded when I understood that I could do it. That was like a school for me, both for technique and creativity. I’m grateful and I came to realize that instead of having big plans, going with the flow is the best.”
Strengths As A Director
“It is better to possess the artistic talent and to acquire the technical skills over time because you can learn techniques but never the talent.”
Burcu approaches her work with the same child-like enthusiasm she had from when she would corral the neighborhood kids into playing her creative games. She treats her sets like her playground, knowing full well that she cannot last if it’s not an environment she enjoys. She gets excited about how every day is a challenge for her as she has to work with new nervous people, new scenes, new projects. There is not a single dull moment as she thrives in her love of telling stories as a slice of life, with all its pros and cons.
Focusing on the emotions of a scene, Burcu takes a collaborative approach with her actors, teasing out the layers to tell her story. They rehearse a scene many times, discuss the characters, trying to gain insight into the past and the future of the characters. Her methodical approach has translated into dynamic scenes where the actors are never out of focus even though she has also put careful thought into the environment that surrounds the actors. Artifacts, color, furniture placement, angles and every other visual element plays a part in what she presents.
When asked what she thought are necessary strengths for a good director, Burcu says, “A director should be curious about life and existence, question and inquire, hungry for learning and tolerant. So that they can reflect what they acquired to the collective group through their point of view and including their own styles in it.”
Digital Platform: Netflix Projects
“I prefer digital platforms since they are freer in the process of making, the working hours are pre-determined and you stay loyal to the story without having any worries about the viewers.”
There was a time Burcu was disheartened by the industry and decided that being a female director in Turkey was just not for her. The injustice became unbearable and she moved to the UK to get away. It is then that Onur Güvenatam of OGM Pictures invited her back to Turkey with the promise of work on a Netflix project. A few meetings later, she was convinced.
Since Netflix launched in Turkey, Burcu has been involved in multiple high-profile projects. The Protector, starring Çağatay Ulusoy, is still the only Turkish original with four seasons and includes Burcu as director for five of its 32 episodes. A fantasy genre that follows the journey of a young man who finds himself bestowed with powers to protect Istanbul against the dark Immortals, Burcu worked in the third and fourth seasons. By such time in a project, the series is technically fully developed and the director of cinematography uses the same camera angles. She could still influence the emotions or a mise-en-scene, but her artistic liberty was limited.
This began to change when she worked on a few episodes in the second season of Atiye, starring Beren Saat as a woman who goes on a journey to understand her supernatural powers. Pleased with her work, she was put in charge of the third season as lead director. Burcu says, “Atiye was important to me. Or rather the story that was intended to be told was significant for my inner journey. When the writers changed for the third season, I tried to embrace Atiye more, to not to leave it alone because the catch-phrase “Atiye, you are every woman” was essential for me too.”
Another Self: Global Hit on Netflix
Her stellar work paved the way to her becoming lead director for the 2022 hit production Another Self (“Zeytin Ağacı”), written by Nuran Evren Şit, and starring Tuba Büyüküstün along with a strong ensemble cast. Centered on the story of three girlfriends as they internalize the wounds of their past and present while they look to the future, Burcu says, “Of my projects, I am the most affected by Another Self because that project is a piece of me. And a piece from those 3 friends belongs to me too. It’s like a personal matter to me :).”
“Another Self does not only take an important place in my career but in my whole life, forever. I wanted the camera to be the fourth friend. What I mean is that I wanted the viewers to be a part of it, to laugh and cry with the girls. I wanted us to be one of them. I believe I achieved it. I asked for some accessories that match with the traumas of each character.
For example, poppy pictures for Ada’s (played by Tuba) house, hospital room and her room in Ayvalik; a painting of a rowboat in the middle of a sea for Leyla’s (Seda Bakan) house and blue for her room in Ayvalik; shades of pink for Sevgi’s (Boncuk Yılmaz) room. We decided on colors for each character and made bracelets for them with these colors. I made Sevgi’s bracelet myself. We designed clothes of these colors and decorated rooms with these colors.
It was impossible to find a poppy field due to the season. When they told me to make it a sunflower or daisy field, I insisted on poppy. They rented a piece of land and we, the entire team, planted artificial poppies on it altogether. Because poppy has a special place in my life too. What I could say about Another Self would take pages. It will always be special to me as a project that I managed fully for the first time.”
When asked about memorable scenes from Atiye and Another Self, which are both strong and female-centric narratives, Burcu says, “The final sequence of the sixth episode of Atiye’s second season gives me goosebumps. It is the scene where Atiye saves a baby thanks to her healing powers, meanwhile Erhan starts to remember Atiye. At the same time, we hear an amazing music and the poem Isis in Erhan’s voice. “Mother of the whole universe, the nature itself…” . As for Another Self, it is Sevgi’s family constellation scene.
It had an impact on me while I was directing it too. I couldn’t watch the long version of it because of my own tears. Boncuk (actress playing Sevgi) is very influential too. We both lost our fathers at a young age. Consequently, every sentence in that scene is familiar to me. I might have established a deep bond with the character.”
Working With The Stars
Working with Çağatay, Tuba, Beren – all of whom are globally known names, Burcu embraced each of their unique traits and helped them flourish on screen. She spends a long time with all her actors, trying to understand the characters and treating her relationship with them almost like therapy sessions.
She says, “Just like I follow signs in life, I also believe that I work with those actors for a reason. I like to exchange ideas. For Çağatay, he was already Hakan by the time I came on board. I just watched him and appreciated his discipline and hard work. I included him in my mise-en-scene. It was the same with Beren. I tried to make her comfortable so that she could continue to be Atiye. My journey with Tuba is something else.
We were working during the pandemic and spent many hours on video calls, conversing and getting to know each other as we developed the character. We had heart-to-heart talks, laughed and made the deep conversations as part of our method. We established a deep bond.”
Burcu believes that the relationship between a director and an actor depends on trust. “There’s something marvelous that goes on between these two people. It’s so powerful, like a relationship that’s based on love or hatred. I always want the actors to feel my presence by their side.
I always let the actors add something of themselves during rehearsals if they have a solid grasp of the feeling of the scene before coming to the set and if the characters are fully developed. It helps them feel better and motivated. In Yalı Çapkını, almost all scenes of Afra Saraçoğlu and Mert Ramazan Demir as a couple develop like that.”
Yalı Çapkını: Major Dizi Production
“The “first-destruction-then-rise” story of the female characters attracted me.”
Since September 2022, Burcu is lead director of Yalı Çapkını, the first mainstream series under her leadership. Wary of the difficulties and stress of keeping up with the tempo of a TV series, she was not very enthused when Mr. Güvenatam first brought her the project. She says, “I won’t lie; I didn’t really want it. I didn’t fancy the script. Again, Onur convinced me.” With initial plans to air in the summer, Burcu wasn’t excited about the perception that it might be a romcom. She told Onur, “I’m in if we make it a romantic drama, not a romcom.” And she endeavored to make it a family drama with her own touch.
“In Yalı Çapkını, I tried to tell a modern tale. From the colors, the decorations, to the way the actors carry out the characters, I wanted to give that touch. For example, I use the upper angles a lot. Because, in my opinion, nobody could look down on that (Korhan) family before; so I want the viewers to see their vulnerabilities, to realize how miserable they are. When Seyran came, we added green to the bedroom. To me, green symbolizes mercy and the change of heart.”
She is cognizant of the complexities of a TV series. They are long, ambiguous journeys and extremely stressful. “In weekly projects, we don’t have the time to make changes in the script. We shoot the episode in 5 days and hand it over. On the set, we can only make changes in the dialogues or how it is acted. Consequently, as a director, I don’t sway. I try to make the best of what I have. Even if I don’t like a scene, I can try to turn it into something I feel close to myself.”
The series has received unexpected acclaim, trending on twitter and leading the ratings game for weeks. Plot choices get scrutinized by the audience and there have been calls for changes in the trajectory. We wondered how the intense social media engagement hurt or helped a production. Burcu says, “I don’t think there are cons if we don’t mind the comments. There are destructive criticism and antipathetic comments that include insults as much as the constructive feedback. In social platforms, there are people of any type and every age. That’s why I tell the actors, “If you’ll get affected, don’t read them.” Just like the positive comments can motivate, negative comments may destroy just as much. The majority of the actors are emotional; it’s hard for them to recover once they have a breakdown. A director or an actor shouldn’t move according to the social media. They shouldn’t read comments. The stories don’t develop as the majority wishes; it develops according to what the story requires. The characters should develop based on how they were built.”
Nevertheless, it is the producer’s duty to look at the bigger picture and make decisions based on a variety of factors. “It’s hard to keep a view of the broader story. Every week, we go to set focusing on making the scenes better. I try to make the best of the feelings in each scene.”
After a busy preparation period of securing locations, costume rehearsals, art direction, decoration, music and more, when the series came on air, they only had the script completed for three episodes and working on the fourth. By the time they reached episode 6 or 7, they had lost the time advantage of the stock episodes and had to start working on a weekly rhythm. Due to audience love for Seyran and Ferit, the leading pair played by Afra Saraçoğlu and Mert Ramazan Demir respectively, the number of their scenes might have increased but the main story didn’t really change. Burcu says, “If the scripts were changed for the viewers, then the projects would have to deviate from the main story.”
We were curious if the characters had shifted from what was planned in pre-production summaries, especially in how it was said to be a love story of this rogue Istanbulite Ferit who falls in love with Seyran, a girl from Antep, after they are forced into marriage. Burcu’s response is illuminating for the show’s ardent followers, “Anything can happen any time in a TV series. Let’s not call it the story of a rogue Istanbulite who falls in love with a girl from Antep. Let’s call it a story of two people getting to know and transform each other. It’s not right to say “a shift from what was planned” either. Sometimes the ratings, sometimes the circumstances, illnesses, interrupt the story or extend the time. The couple is loved so much that it made people want them to be together immediately. In real life, it isn’t that easy. If we make it faster, we will betray the main story. People sometimes forget that it’s a drama, not a romcom.”
“I always want to tell stories in which love is leading the way. I want viewers to learn lessons even from a tragedy. I expect viewers to have the sensitivity and say, “we shouldn’t be like this” when they watch a bad character. If a thing that you watch is disturbing, you need to learn something from its negativity.”
Sharing the director’s chair with Alptekin Bozkurt since episode 2, they have taken a mindful approach to collaborating and in showcasing the regal Korhan family. “I wanted the Korhan family to look just like an Ottoman family. So the cast and the team received training in etiquette, mannerisms of the royal class and even the order of a dinner table to the way they knock on doors. For the use of cameras and colors, we had meetings with our directors of cinematography. As mentioned before, the upper angles and lenses are indispensable in this project. Even though we are not able to approach every scene with the necessary sensitivity due to the busy schedule, we always talk about things, share things, so that we can maintain the same style.”
One of Burcu’s favorite scenes is at the end of episode 8, where, after another of their confrontations, out of anger Ferit taunts Seyran into putting on lingerie so that she would sleep with him to get the help from him she wants. “I put effort into making the viewers establish a bond with both of the characters. Seyran looked at the camera and expresses, “I’m afraid of you” to all Ferits who are watching. The camera turns to Ferit and he says, “I’m ashamed and I am afraid too” to all Seyrans who are watching. The actors and I, we wanted that to be felt.”
After repeated criticism around an apparent aversion to showing Seyran’s scars, a girl who had been violently abused by her father since childhood, we asked if understating the female journey is a conscious choice made by filmmakers. We share Burcu’s response in its entirety so that readers can appreciate the depth of thought that goes into such decisions. “I would like to explain it this way: Seyran is proud. Even if she were beaten up, she was always silent about it. A proud character doesn’t tell that they are beaten up, they hide it. Let’s not forget, Seyran is just 19. Seyran is consciously hiding this violence. She is afraid of becoming dependent if she doesn’t hide it. Seyran doesn’t use that abuse to announce herself a victim. She doesn’t let herself be pitied by others. She hides the distress that she suffers. She is ashamed of what she has been through; so much so that she ignores it.
Once in a while, she gives some small details to Ferit to make him understand her, but that’s all. Let’s not forget that Seyran is a strong woman and she will be even stronger. Ferit can’t understand the intensity of the physical abuse either. Even if he understands, he can’t put it into words or have a heart-to-heart talk about it, because he has been a victim of psychological abuse throughout his childhood. That’s why he ignores abuse, he doesn’t talk about it, he evades it. He tries to show that he understands through his actions. For example, the scene where Ferit inspires Kazim to invite Seyran, Suna and Esme to sit for the breakfast in Episode 20.
We understand each other through our scars but how much can we tell? Maybe we can tell them only to people who are close to us. In real life, nobody wears “I’m a victim of violence” as a badge of honor. First, the person has to accept it and then speak about it. Maybe, one day, they will both tell each other about the violence but it’s early for that now. How long has it been since they got married? They don’t know each other well enough. We can’t say that our couple has clearly become a wife and husband.”
Fan Service: Working with Afra & Mert
Given the incredible audience response to the series and, in particular, the explosive pairing between the young and talented pair of Afra Saraçoğlu and Mert Ramazan Demir, we wondered about Burcu’s experience with this relatively young cast in Yalı Çapkını as compared to her earlier projects on Netflix. Burcu says, “Sometimes I say, “Enooouuggh! I miss my 40 years-old friends on the set!” Jokes aside, they both feed the child in me. I find it highly enjoyable to deal with their energy and questions. Both Afra and Mert are very hardworking. Throughout 20 episodes, before each scene, we have rehearsed and memorized the lines together. We worked on every single word. We had long conversations on characters. We talked about the past and future of the characters. They are open to change, to learn to act differently.”
If not constrained by the storytelling in Yalı Çapkını, Burcu would want all the women to leave the patriarchal system and build their own lives. She would want the men to be by their side to help them realize their feelings and their potential. “Because, in this story, everybody is a victim. Once you analyze the characters carefully and empathize with them, you figure out that they all have tough lives. All of their problems were brought by their ancestors, the previous generation. And the common feeling is love. Unconditional love is a feeling that every character lacks on one hand and, on the other hand, they don’t know what it is and are afraid of it. I hope to tell this to the viewers in a balanced way.”
Types of Narratives
“Because the humanity has a common past. We are one.”
We always like to hear from Turkish filmmakers and artistes as to why they think Turkish tales have such a broad global appeal. We love Burcu’s take on it, “Because there is an infinite ocean of stories, from thinkers who lived on Anatolian territory to the legends, from achievements that were gained on the pain that was felt on these lands, from the geographical area to the history. We tell genuinely about what people have been through. We tell them from an intrinsic point of view. Our sufferings resonate with one another, a smile becomes contagious and I guess the reflection of them falls on the collective group. We know each other.”
Even though many of the stories showcase the feminine journey of growth, it is often done with a forgiving paint brush for the men and their actions. We often ponder if it is a conscious choice by the filmmakers, especially in a patriarchal society, but Burcu’s explanation is more pragmatic. “I don’t think it’s a conscious choice. It changes according to the period. Before, there were men-dominated mafia series. Then came series of powerful landlords who humiliate women involuntarily, oppressing then raising them.
Recently, strong female characters are coming into our lives. Let’s say that it happens thanks to the courageous producers and TV channels. All of our mothers and grandmothers grew up with pain and torture. This is what we see, this is what we’re taught. On these lands, a woman has always been someone who suffered, who forgave despite everything or who was forced to forgive. The stories that we listen to are always like this. Men never took responsibility, how could we make them take it in our stories? But now, in this period that we’re living, the women raise their voices. Their awareness is rising and, as a new generation, we know that we are here. It is slowly reflected in our stories as well, especially on streaming platforms. Digital platforms gave us the independence to tell woman-centered stories.”
With many already on Netflix such as Atiye, Ethos, The Club, Another Self, Fatma, and more in the pipeline, it is a welcome change in the mix.
TV vs Digital Platforms
“In theory, they both seem to be different than one another but unfortunately, none of them belongs to the director.”
According to Burcu, “At certain a point, the producer is the owner of everything in a TV series. It ties the director’s hands. They proceed in accordance with the viewers sometimes and sometimes they don’t. After a certain point, the director doesn’t have the option to say, “Maybe you should stop.” In digital platforms, you start with the locked script in your hands and you can transfer your vision to the visuals without changing anything along the way. The rating stress of the TV series is not for me. I prefer to serve for the story, not to the viewers. I don’t even need to mention the working hours.
On Netflix, a director has more time for preparation. With the script, we can plan out every scene and have more time for rehearsals too. All of this is very valuable for the creation process. So, based on my experiences, I prefer digital platforms since they are freer in the process of making, the working hours are pre-determined and you stay loyal to the story without having any worries about the viewers.”
Due to the lack of a locked script in the diziworld, inconsistencies in plot arcs begin to appear as the season wears on. Writers are under great pressure to produce 100 pages of script every week, and the production team is also working under tremendous constraints with illnesses, set hiccups, conflicts in schedule and more. Sometimes, they only have five days to shoot an episode. When asked whether these inconsistencies bothered her, Burcu says, “Of course, it does. It’s a very challenging process. Maybe it would be a solution to film 13 episodes prior to the broadcast if you have a strong story and cast that you believe in. A better story and quality can be found without the concern for the ratings or the hurry of getting the job done. Just like it is done for the digital platforms. So that you won’t be getting away from the main story or you can go back and delete some scenes in which you don’t like the details before it is broadcast on air. But, of course, it’s utopic.”
Keep on watching us.
With her valuable insights, it is no wonder Burcu is in demand and flying high these days. An intuitive storyteller, Burcu is currently obsessed with women’s stories and legends. She is also extremely curious about mythology. Her work on Atiye notwithstanding, she would like to tell a story of a woman that is mixed with myths. She dreams of writing a script some day, based on an Ursula K. Le Guin story.
As we bring the interview to an end, what emerges is a picture of a bold and courageous woman who is willing to forge her way through an obstacle course, to be able to do what she loves. With a bias towards artistic expressions that capture the emotions of the characters and the moment, Burcu is anything but happenstance. She inspires her team with the intent to get the most out of constrained resources, and the outcome is quite stunning. Whatever criticisms there might be with script, Burcu’s cinematography, focus on character and attention to detail have been lauded. There is certainly more that awaits us, especially in her next known projects with the second and third seasons of Another Self.
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