Director Can Ulkay is born to be a filmmaker, and has been involved in highly successful projects such as Ayla, his directorial debut for a feature film that was selected as Turkey’s submission for the Oscars in 2018, and most recently in Paper Lives, a phenomenal success for Netflix, with the movie trending in 62 countries at its peak.
Visually rich frames with each telling a story, Mr. Ulkay’s skills have helped to raise the prominence of Turkish cinema across different mediums, and he is nowhere near done with pushing the boundaries. His next project, officially announced for the first time in this interview, will be a 30 episode series for the newly established TRT digital TV, titled “Mevlana Celalettin Rumi”. More details of the production are shared later in this article.
In this interview with Mr. Ulkay, we learnt so much from a man who is as creative as he is humble, as brilliant as he is generous, as insightful as he is kind. Anyone studying cinema, or with any interest in the Arts, will learn and be inspired tremendously from his words. As he says,
“We shouldn’t forget for a second to give the right messages through our movies, keeping the power of the cinema and its effect on the society in mind.”
The Making Of A World-Class Filmmaker
Born with a love for movies and artistic by nature who enjoyed painting, graphic books, photography, Can Ulkay has an aesthetic eye for the arts. With the goal to pursue a degree at the Fine Arts Academy to study photography, comics and graphics, he changed his mind at the last minute and enrolled instead in the cinema television department at the Fine Arts academy at Marmara University. Unexpectedly, this pursuit combined all his interests and helped him fall in love with the art of directing. He asserts, “It’s very valuable for a cinema school student to receive education in a Fine Arts faculty. That’s why I’m very lucky. Because while you are receiving cinema education, the other branches of art are with you too. You are educated in the branches which are intertwined with cinema, which you can use in cinema such as graphics, painting, sculpture, ceramic, interior designing, industrial designing, history of arts, conservatory… Could there be a more precious education?”
His teachers said, and Mr. Ulkay agrees, that the two things needed for a good director is to use your imagination without setting boundaries and appreciating that the richest available resource is to use the world we live in – observe, investigate, collect and use. “The world we live in – people, emotions, colors, lights, places, movements, incidents and a lot of other things – are our most valuable materials. We must observe well and discern it correctly. We must collect these observations and make the best of them in the movie we create. While you are working, you have to take account for the possibility that, as a director, the movie you create can reach out to many people around the world in a very short time. And, most importantly, you cannot ever allow yourself to fall behind the times. You need to keep renewing yourself and make good use of new technology.”
“To us, every moment we live is a lesson, every step we take is an exploration, every place we look at is an angle to shoot a movie. We shouldn’t forget that we learn a lesson from every experience.”
A Good Project: A Fine Line
We wondered given that Mr. Ulkay is able to be selective, what kind of projects excites him. He says, “What excites me the most for a particular project is this: “Can it be a good movie?”. Projects I read can be grouped in two as “the ones I really love” and “the ones I really want to make”. This is a very important distinction: sometimes, a story that you really like may not be a movie that you would really like to make. Some stories deceive you; they are good as stories but you may not make good movies out of them.”
While reading scripts, if I feel that the project I am given can be a good movie, I get excited. There is a moment I can say with perfect clarity, “That’s just a perfect story for a movie.” It catches me and makes me happy.
I am aware that, especially in mainstream cinema, one shouldn’t only care about whether a story can be a movie or not. It should be regarded as a project. The right story must appeal to the masses, must contain a message, must touch people’s emotions, the right actors/actresses must be chosen etc. While I’m reading a project, I think about all these factors alongside the story. If they function well, then it truly excites me.”
Transitioning from Advertising to Feature Films
“I directed over a thousand commercials for various brands during these 30 years.”
Mr. Ulkay had a 30 year career of doing advertisements and music videos. In 2015, he started preparing for his first feature film Ayla: The Daughter of War, which released in October 2017. The war epic tells the biographical story of a young Turkish soldier deployed to Korea in 1950, who finds and protects a young girl called Ayla. Filming over 100 days, the cast included actors from Turkey, Korea and United States of America, with the end result being a highly celebrated movie that was Turkey’s submission for the Oscars in 2018 in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
When asked how the transition was for Mr. Ulkay, moving from advertising into films, he says, “While making these advertisement movies, I told more than a thousand different stories. I studied cinema so it was always on my mind to shoot a cinema movie. I waited for the right time and the right movie. I had to start with a right and big project if I wanted to begin. It wasn’t hard for me to adapt to a big and epic project like Ayla.
I clearly had the reflexes of 30-year-commercial-shooting where you have to tell your story in 30-60 seconds in an advertisement. In cinema, it’s completely different. You have to tell the story in 1.5 – 2 hours. Consequently, my 30-year-old reflexes that make me try to tell a story fast, gave me a really hard time in the beginning. However, those commercial reflexes have also been advantageous.
Visually strong and rich frames, fluent storyline, music-story harmony, tempo, they helped me make the movies I love. The war, action, emotions, drama, music, altogether they helped me design Ayla as I wanted. I adapted to the new format quickly and, in addition, I had the opportunity to work with increased motivation and more admiration for the cinematic process. In every movie I direct, I bring these strengths with me and I enjoy them.”
Innovation & Creativity: Keystones for A Good Director
“A director must have the background to direct a movie of any theme and emotions.”
Mr. Ulkay believes that the more the themes and emotions vary, the richer the projects become. The more experience one garners, the breadth of experience helps a distinctive style to be founded and formed, and equips a director to do more with newer projects.
“Every new project is different, so it requires a different and new type of creativity. I’m always after innovation while I’m working. This is what should be asked from a director anyway, creativity and innovation. To search for something different.”
“I seek something new in each project I take on, which leads me to different types of research according to the structure of the story. I look for new things – sometimes for places, sometimes for lights, sometimes for colors, sometimes for the camera, sometimes for acting styles – and I try to involve them in my movie.”
Three Pillars of Cinema: A Shifting Landscape
“Cinema, as you know, is a 125 year-old young branch of art. Throughout these 125 years, cinema has been through 2 wars and a lot of trouble but the theaters have never been empty. The 3 essentials of the cinema, “production”,”audience”,”theater” have always been there.
We have now entered a different phase. Unfortunately, the “theater” pillar hasn’t been available for some time. It brought about a slowdown of the production of movies. This dynamic has accelerated the platform digitization process, and the moving parts have shifted to a totally different dimension with the pandemic. Cinema will always remain precious but, as creators, we have to keep pace with the digital transformation and be open to the innovations. Today, thanks to the digital platforms, a lot of projects that were not shown in theaters can meet with the audience all around the world. This is immensely valuable.”
Digital Platforms: New Dimensions
When we asked which of his projects left a mark on him and why, he says, “They all have a special place. They are all like my children. I will have an emotional connection with them for years but if I have to choose, I’d like to put Ayla and Paper Lives in a different place. The reason is, Ayla is my first project, like my first child. Its story, the Oscar selection and its journey in international film festivals had an influence on me and on the project.”
Paper Lives is a Netflix original starring Cagatay Ulusoy, which follows the story of paper collectors in Istanbul through a young man named Mehmet, who finds little Ali hidden in a trash container (Emir Ali Dogrul). Even though himself gravely ill, Mehmet takes it upon himself to reunite the abused Ali with his mother, taking the viewer on an unexpected journey. For Mr. Ulkay, this project has been a novel experience on many fronts. He says, “It’s a brand-new type of cinema for me due to its genre of psychological-drama and the feeling it leaves you with. The freshness is not only about its story though. It’s the cinema of the future. It illustrated how a movie you film for a platform can spread worldwide within a short time. With Netflix’s power, Paper Lives provided a brand-new perspective to my point of view about cinema.”
“Now we can divide the storytelling of movies on Netflix or other digital platforms as pre and post Paper Lives. In addition to the ability to create unique content, Netflix provides instant global distribution, which is a valuable resource for new talents to raise their voice in a more impactful way. The success of Paper Lives, which trended highly against guaranteed contents such as comedy, romcom, action and other content produced by the American cinema industry, will encourage Netflix and other platforms to support more of this kind of stories and content. The positive reactions of the viewers and the way they embraced the movie encourages us (the creator team) and also the publishers (platforms) more than ever before to create new and unique content.”
On working with Netflix, he says, “It’s a magnificent experience to work with Netflix. You film according to a planning that flows just right and is specifically made for your movie. It’s very important to feel the existence of such power behind you while making a movie. It’s very important to feel that you’re free in the creation. Before, only the movies that gained a particular success could find the chance to go abroad. Owing to Netflix, a lot of projects now have the chance to meet the audience from the different places of the world.
It was incredibly exciting for me that it was going to come out everywhere at the same time with Turkey. Thus, our story that was written in Turkey could touch people’s hearts in the whole world. Apart from the filming and conditions, you also feel very comfortable when the movie is done. Not being bounded by the ratings is a relaxing concept. The producers and the actresses/actors learn by the reactions the viewers give when they watch their projects. It’s a luxury for the producers, creators and actors/actresses that the projects are not rushed and that the people are given the chance to discover these projects whenever and wherever they like.”
The Paper Lives Experience
Mr. Ulkay joined the Paper Lives project during the script writing phase and has played an integral role in the creation process of the movie. He spent time with the street children and the young people who collect paper. The team discussed about the socio-cultural side of this matter with consultants. The entire team was excited about showcasing the lives of paper collectors and the street children, who are increasing in numbers in the big cities but are often overlooked. The ability to show a socially responsible narrative through such a human story was very appealing.
Key Success Factors
The success of Paper Lives proved to be a pleasant surprise for the creators. At its peak the movie trended in 62 countries, with several reviews written in multiple languages, and several more trying to understand the success of a story that seems simple at first glance.
We were curious about Mr. Ulkay’s theories about the key success factors and he suggests:
- A Unique, Emotional & Global Story
Mehmet and Ali have a touching story. The movie narrates a story of people who we see and pass by on the streets every day but maybe don’t pay attention to. There are children, young people all around the world who lost their families or search for them, who are alone. They all try to survive somehow. Hence, we believed that our story would touch people’s hearts from all over the world.
- The Netflix Power & Access to Millions of Viewers
There are thousands of movies/series/documentaries on Netflix. However, Netflix is putting great effort in the spread of their Turkish-made stories throughout the world and they show incredible support in every phase. We notice the same thing when we have a look at the other Netflix Turkish originals. Just like many other original content, the story of Mehmet and Ali could successfully reach every place in the world.
- Cinematography of the movie
When viewers turn on the tv, they want to enjoy the movie they watch and as a story Paper Lives achieved this.
The most important thing to me was to build the closest possible world to real life. I deeply cared about this matter so that the audience can form an emotional attachment with Mehmet and Ali. As such, as a complement to a strong cast, I focused on the cinematography, lights, creation of atmosphere, costume and art-direction, which in my opinion are what makes a movie a movie and are the keys to making a quality one. A sentimental story got paired with quality footage and succeeded in catching the attention of the viewers.
“Every frame is a picture of the director and you have no right to waste any of them.”
In working with cinematographer Serkan Guler for the first time for Paper Lives, Mr Ulkay found a great partner with whom he could work in harmony. He values the importance of visuality, light, colors and angles as tools to capture desired emotions, and worked well with Mr. Guler in locating lights and selecting the preferred angle. Both filmmakers like to stay abreast of technical advancements and had great fun preparing for the scenes.
When asked what are some scenes he was excited about after completion, Mr. Ulkay mentions, “I especially love the lights of the inside-the-house scenes and the emotions they instill. Serkan enjoyed them too. Both while preparing it for the filming and coloring it with “color grading”.
From a technical standpoint, we got excited when we watched the rainy inside-the-car scenes because we filmed them on the live stage completely with a new technological method called “rear projection”. We had a long preparation process for it to look convincing and realistic. It was very exciting to see at the end of the filming that we could give that realistic vibe.” See above for a slideshow of the preparatory process.
Script to Screen
Ercan Mehmet Erdem, known for his stellar work in Behzat C., collaborated with Cagatay Ulusoy in writing the script. He did a masterful job in the narration of the story and left many scenes to the hands of the director to fill in with space and emotion. Mr. Ulkay says, “He left me areas to think and use my creativity while he was writing. I love to work like this. The scenes and the sentences should take you to an imaginary world and you should get lost in it. It’s so valuable for me as a director to imagine, think on, solve what Ercan Mehmet has written. I’m so happy for having worked with him.”
When asked about a memorable scene that left him affected by the emotions portrayed, he says, “The second hospital scene is one of the very precious scenes that was written by Ercan Mehmet. It was a special moment when Mehmet (desperately in need of a new kidney and on dialysis) tried to get rid of the cables of the machine he was connected to so that he could go and find Ali. Gonzi, his best friend, accepts the situation even though he tries to prevent him. Both for me and for the actors, it was a difficult scene to film and to portray. We were all affected by the emotions, but we enjoyed shooting it anyway.”
“Music is one of the most important factors that directly affects the storytelling and what should be felt along the entire film. I care about the music in the movie as much as lights, places and colors. It is a reflex from my advertisement and music video experiences.
While we’re creating a movie, we study the music in 3 parts. The music that is ready (Turkish or foreign songs, etc.), the music that will be composed for the movie and the scoring. Omer Ozgur (the composer for Paper Lives) is a very creative musician who has been writing music for movies, advertisements and music videos for years. He has rich imagination and ideas. He’s really crazy, hardworking and emotional.
We met with Omer during the scriptwriting process. He already had formed some ideas in his mind even while reading the script. After the montage, he started to write down his ideas for the scenes. He had analyzed the movie and the emotions so well that he could achieve putting down all the scenes into the notes meaningfully and emotionally. It’s so valuable for creative people like Omer to form an emotional bond with the movies and reflect their creativity in them. He contributed to our movie in a valuable way with his passion and his belief in the success that comes with hard work.”
Omer Ozgur’s original soundtrack is now available on several streaming services including Spotify.
Paper Lives was filmed during the height of the pandemic, between June-September 2020. We wondered how the filmmaking process had to be reimagined for this curve ball and Mr. Ulkay says, “It was a situation that we weren’t accustomed to. We had to act differently from the usual working system and reflexes. We shifted to smaller groups from huge ones. We decreased the number of people in the team. We had health checks every morning. It was hard to move in divided groups, not as a whole. Most importantly, the sets got prepared more carefully and were controlled. So, it slowed down our work but, just like everyone, we adapted and improved ourselves in the process. We took the necessary precautions, worked with schedules and completed the filming as we planned.
Also, OGM is a production company which has worked with Netflix in a lot of projects before and achieved phenomenal success. They know all the principles and the progression very well. They are very professional and they keep improving themselves constantly and produce new content. We benefited greatly from the OGM media-Netflix partnership during preparation, production and post-production processes. I’m lucky for having made my first Netflix project with OGM media and I thank the producers for their support.”
In December 2019 to January 2020, Cagatay filmed his short film Birdie, which he wrote and directed. His main cast included veteran actor Turgay Tanulku and also an important but small part by Ersin Arici. Paper Lives repeats this partnership with Ersin playing the role of Gonzi, Mehmet’s best friend, and Mr. Tanulku playing the role of Tahsin Baba, the kindly gentleman who provides a sense of guardianship to the children on the streets. The latter is particularly fortuitous as Mr. Tanulku is well known for his philanthropic work in real life, especially in the rehabilitation of juvenile delinquents.
When asked if this reunion is coincidental, Mr. Ulkay says, “Ersin is perfect for the role of Gonzalez relative to how we imagined him while we were working on the character analyses during the script writing process. He gave a very good audition. Turgay is a precious actor who we all know closely. He also was perfect for the Tahsin Baba character in our story. They are the right choices for the movie, in accordance with Cagatay and the production company’s suggestions as well as our analysis during the script writing phase. Let’s call it destiny, this reunion of the three. I think Cagatay, Tahsin, Ersin and little Ali formed a perfect four.”
Paper Lives: Cagatay Ulusoy as Collaborator and Lead Actor
In addition to being the lead actor who plays the protagonist Mehmet, Cagatay Ulusoy is a Creative Producer for Paper Lives. He was involved with Ercan Mehmet Erdem from the beginning and played a part in transforming the story into a screenplay. Once brought together, Cagatay and Mr. Ulkay worked as creative and artistic collaborators till the end.
“Cagatay is an actor with a strong perception. At the same time, he is a person who tries to understand the character, he keeps asking why and how to the character, he questions it. The character Mehmet started to form as the drafts of the script developed. We started to create Mehmet slowly by giving more depth on each draft.
Cagatay had different and significant suggestions, enriching the character, especially in the rehearsals. The scene where Ali tears up the photograph, and in the continuation where he (Mehmet) sobs alone on the groun,d developed a lot in the rehearsals thanks to Cagatay’s suggestions, making it even stronger than I imagined. His suggestions even led me to want to film the scene in a single take, which was very valuable for me.
When we worked together, I focused on the psychological side of the character to be able to interpret it correctly. I spent a long consultation process with psychologists, psychiatrists and health consultants about the psychological aspect of the character. I informed him about all the movements, styles, gestures and language patterns of the back-and-forth psychological states, hallucinations and the delirium syndrome that we used in the movie.
According to the information collected, we prepared a new character analysis for the physiological movements and psychological behaviors of Mehmet. Cagatay tried to understand the language and gestures of the people we talked with. In addition, Cagatay wanted to add some behaviors and gestures according to the psychological state and disease that the character has. In each phase, he tried to give more depth to the character and he succeeded in it.
After watching his preparation and engagement with the production process, I can say that apart from Cagatay’s popularity, his incredibly successful acting, his chemistry and emotional connection with the cast drew the attention of the audience. Even if people started to watch the movie because of Cagatay’s popularity, they stayed for Cagatay’s acting performance and the narration style of the movie and it resulted in an audience interaction that grew gradually till the end.
We asked, as an experienced director and perhaps a mentor, what strengths Mr. Ulkay sees in Cagatay as a filmmaker?
“I stated this in many of my interviews: Cagatay’s love and passion for cinema is so precious. Passion is the starting point of everything. You can see the passion in him all the time. That’s the biggest power. Cagatay wants to work behind the cameras as much as he works on-screen. He has an intense interest in the process behind the cameras. His biggest strengths will be his tenacity in trying, acquiring knowledge, learning, thinking and questioning about the process behind the cameras. Soon we will see him filming his own movies or producing them. I’m sure he will contribute greatly to the movie industry and Turkish cinema. May he have an amazing career.”
Mr. Ulkay has two important projects under production, both of which are very special to him. One of them is a heroism story of Nusret Mayin Gemisi (Nusret Mine Planter) in Canakkale Wars in 1915, which he has been working on for 1.5 years as a director and a producer. The production team hopes that the world will change enough for them to have a theatrical release in Autumn of 2022.
The second project, mentioned at the beginning of this article, is being announced for the first time via this interview with North America TEN (thank you!). Mr. Ulkay says, “The second is a very important series and I’m informing you about it for the first time now. This July, I will start to film “Mevlana Celalettin Rumi” for the newly established TRT digital TV. It’s going to be a series of 30 episodes, at 60 minutes each. It promises to be a huge production with a big cast that will arouse interest both in Turkey and in the world. It’s going to be a very important project which will be filmed outside Istanbul on a live stage set in Konya, the city where Rumi lived.
It is the life story of Mevlana Celalettin Rumi who lived in Anatolia in the 13th century. It is a historical biography, that includes philosophies of Sufism, mysticism, poetry, music and the Mongolian wars. I regard each of my projects differently. That’s why even though I’m shooting another historical and biographical story (Mr. Ulkay’s past works include Muslum and Turkish Ice Cream, both focusing on historical figures or events), I prepare and like to tell each of them differently. This project is going to be very different than my previous historical and biography movies; it is going to be remarkable.”
Mr. Ulkay feels that to enhance the Turkish film industry, investments are required in four important things. The first is the human element, where international grade professionals and experienced filmmakers need to be promoted. The second is education, parallel to world standards both in infrastructure and curriculum, where schools and the government can extend better support. The third is in smart investments where even though the Turkish movie industry is producing many movies and series and exporting them, it needs to make planned investments and keep improving itself. And finally the fourth is marketing.
“Regardless of what you do, if you can’t interest people in it, your work turns out to be worthless. Consequently, marketing is the most important one. Cinema is not just a branch of art anymore; the film business is a big and important industry. Business education for the industry should become part of the curriculum, and marketing best practices should be taught.”
Mr.Ulkay is an extraordinary filmmaker whose best is always yet to come. With each movie, his productions improve in leaps and bounds, marking new territory that has been conquered. He would be delighted to work on a co-production with a foreign country, allowing him the opportunity to learn a new culture and blend it into his own style of creating a movie. To him ‘growth’ is a fundamental truth for any filmmaker. He says, “Turkish cinema industry, Turkish directors and actors/actresses have found an opportunity to introduce themselves better to the world via new platforms. It’s very, very important to seize this opportunity. To me, “growing” is this. This period (with both pandemic and the content need of the platforms) is a great opportunity for us to produce quality content in order to introduce ourselves to the world better.”
We wish him the best in all his endeavors and excitedly look forward to his new projects, which will give the international audience a deeper appreciation of the tales that are so important to Turkey and her people. Who knows, maybe Mr. Ulkay’s wish will come true very soon and we will get to see him working on international projects. Hollywood awaits!
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What a fascinating read and person! Thank you for this wonderful and insightful article.
Thank you very much to director Can Ulkay ! Great interview about career of Can Ulkay and my favorite actor, Cagatay Ulusoy and the all team from movie Paper Lives!
Thank you so much for this great article and good work!