Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s first feature film, Mustang, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film at the 88th Academy Awards. Now, three short years later, she is ready to debut her second feature film, Kings. Ergüven wrote and directed Kings, the story of Millie (Halle Berry), a foster mother of eight, and her struggle to keep her family safe after the verdict of the Rodney King trial triggers the 1992 L.A. Riots. Kings is an intense, but heartwarming tale of love, family, race, injustice, and the lengths a mother will go to protect her children. The movie, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, will be released in theatres April 27th.
The Knockturnal: Why did you choose to make this story at this time?
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: I started working on Kings in 2006. Though I hadn’t lived through the LA riots, in Los Angeles, I had seen them from afar, when I was thirteen years old. The same year, in 2005, there were major riots in France for three weeks. My feeling of malaise toward France was an abstraction and through the riots- it was a mirror, an incarnation of the feelings that I had. For a year, I read, discussed, and was extremely curious about the riots so I came across a woman who was from Los Angeles, who told me her version of the LA Riots. Everything I was reading was starting to build a very strong intuition about the film. It was something universal. Something in which I could recognize my own problems within the story. And I started working on the film at that time. And then the film started 12 years later which is a good stretch of time. In the meantime, I spent years working on the script and trying to develop in production. Every door was closed. Eventually, I started working on another, beautiful project which was what everybody was demanding from me. Like ‘Do something which looks like you!’ I did Mustang. Mustang opened the door for Kings. I often joke that Mustang started as an evil masterplan to do Kings after, but it was. And it worked! The film today has maybe resonances with the world we live in, like literal resonances when you see stories of police brutality. But it’s not only that. For me, the heart of the film says what it means to be a second-class citizen and on those terms, it resonates with a lot of different stories.
The Knockturnal: How long did it take you to write this film?
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: Three years and a half. Three years of writing and then the last two years working on the production before starting to work on Mustang. It was a lot of going to different labs and I think- I’d been in every single lab or different process to help get the first feature film lifted off the ground. It was the first three to five years and a half.
The Knockturnal: How much research was involved in making this project?
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: In the beginning, I had done studies in African History prior to doing the film, in school in France. It was something that was very academic- about seeing every archive and press archives and reading everything available on the subject. There was a lot of spending time in South Central and trying to understand how people saw the world and lived; people everywhere from churches, to inside the LAPD, gangs, any community meetings. I suppose part of the research, I had to forget and put on the side and have a poetic interpretation of the events. Even after, every single step of writing I needed to listen to people, to spend time with people, it was those little details you just can’t invent. Like standing there and someone says ‘Somebody stole my toilet’ or you’ll notice that detail which is endearing like people doing things with Seven Up or things like that. So it was probably- the research was as much as I could, in three years and a half.
The Knockturnal: How was your process making Kings different from your process for Mustang?
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: In Kings, there was really something about it historically. I needed to know everything completely about the subject. Maybe the very first year was literally nothing else. Every single detail of what happened. And I had a treatment which was like five storylines, twenty-five characters, which were really saying the whole big picture of the riots. Mustang is based on family situations; on very intimate subjects as well. I think it’s important. For women, we’re always tentative to do films about ourselves and our little domestic world and things like that. But it’s very important to be curious of others and have empathy for others. The one thing which was different as well was Kings was my first script. For Mustang there was a sense of- the craft was stronger probably, more available, more present. It just felt easier.
The Knockturnal: Where does your inspiration for your stories and characters come from?
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: Millie and Jesse are inspired by real-life characters. Millie is a mother. Jesse is in real life, was her grandson. So they do exist. And Obie is not a character I have known, or I’ve seen. There’s very rarely a White neighbor in South Central. I never got close to that. When I was writing the script and also reading a lot of American Literature and at some point everything about it. I loved his depiction of not South Central, but other characters of. There was a little bit of all of those in his character. For Millie’s character, she’s literally a non-invention.
The Knockturnal: Speaking of Millie and Obie, those characters are played by Halle Berry and Daniel Craig. How did they get involved with this project?
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: After the offers came in from Mustang, the film had been circulated a little bit in Los Angeles. I had a message from Halle Berry’s team to meet and it was really not a meeting about Kings. It was really a time where I thought Kings would never see it’s day and when we met, she was extremely maternal. It was a very maternal and Millie’s energy. We started discussing Millie as a subject and about Kings. And Daniel also. When we were casting Obie, there were discussions about the best possible actor and in many ways- the fact that it’s a character you progressively look into and is biometrically different, at the beginning and at the end of the story- who’s very hostile and very charming. The part designates a lot of physical aptitude. It was something which was in his talent.
The Knockturnal: What is the most difficult aspect of being a director?
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: There’s a drive which is much stronger than you, I’d say. I always feel and say that I have a feeling film pre-exists us. We become much like their ‘hitmen’. Like we’ll do anything needed for them. It takes a lot of battles. It’s also the happiest job in the world, I guess. The hardest thing is probably like the permanent battle. And you don’t always win.
The Knockturnal: You’ve acted in some of your previous movies. How do you think acting has influenced your style as a director?
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: I’m very obsessed with the question of directing actors. I know if I haven’t been acting in a while, or demanded something, it can develop flaws in a way. Like there’s something of- you have much more empathy with actors when you act yourself. You know what will help and what will not help, or if you’re bugging an actor or not.
The Knockturnal: What do you hope audiences will get from this movie when they walk out of the theatre?
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: I think these subjects are so much still at the heart of our society, but it’s very important to generate debate and crisscross with different looks, these stories. It’s generating memory and dialogue and discussion and maybe approaching the point-of-view of people who do have to worry about their children all the time and generate empathy with that problem, I think.