Turkey based producers extraordinaire Alex & Zeynep Sutherland have built their company, AZ Celtic Films, to be a leading service production company focused on supporting international content created in Istanbul. Among many worthy projects, Alex has been line producer for Hollywood productions such as Oscar winning Argo and other highly acclaimed movies such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Two Faces in January for “Working Title films”. In addition to being involved in several of these same projects, Zeynep has worked on documentaries with National Geographic, as well as working with Ridley Scott on the production of The Journey, a short film sponsored by Turkish Airlines featuring Istanbul’s historic charm.
Most recently, Alex has been the producer for Netflix originals such as The Protector and Atiye, proving his team’s mettle in being able to manage the production demands of shows that are at par with film making in more established industries such as Hollywood and the UK.
Filmmaking is in Alex’s blood. As the son of Scottish father Muir Sutherland, who was an established producer within the British film industry, and Spanish mother, having a broad and inclusive mindset is as natural to Alex as breathing. With his schooling at Millfield Boarding School, a premier co-education institution with a large international student body, located in Somerset county in England, Alex is no stranger to embracing diversity. Even though being his father’s son helped to open some initial doors, Alex has grown into his chosen profession of being a producer by carving out a unique space in geographically diverse Turkey, where AZ Celtic Films is able to offer comprehensive services to a global field of content creators.
Zeynep, a native of Istanbul, got into filmmaking while working on her undergraduate degree in Art History and Archeology. She started as a producer’s assistant to a well-known producer and translated her passion for the process of filmmaking into working her way across almost every aspect of filmmaking. With extensive relationships with regulatory bodies in Turkey, she also plays a crucial role in pushing the boundaries of how filmmaking in Turkey can grow to invite more participation from global players. With an innate confidence in her vision, Zeynep brings strengths that make AZ Celtic Films a formidable and equitable partnership. There is a natural sense of inclusiveness in the organization that has helped to pave the career path for several female filmmakers, some of whom are now in industry in countries like England and The Netherlands.
Throughout his career, Alex has worked across the world on almost every continent, and Zeynep joined him on a part of that journey once they were married. They eventually chose to settle in Istanbul where Zeynep has extended family and established AZ Celtic Films in 2010. The company has reached an important milestone and celebrated its 10th Anniversary just yesterday, August 28, 2020.
AZ Celtic is known to run a harmonious tight knit team. Lead director of The Protector, Umut Aral, mentioned Alex by name as the person who provided incredible support for a flourishing local team to run with new ideas and get them implemented in a cost-effective and timely fashion. In appreciation of his immense contribution to the first Netflix original from Turkey, which has been an unexpectedly big success for Netflix, the team pays him a tribute in one of the scenes in the last episode of the 32-episode franchise.
Even though AZ Celtic Films is not involved with local dizi productions yet, their insights into the Turkish film industry, making content for a global audience, with creative thought leadership around new methods of filmmaking, open our minds to the breadth of projects being pursued in Turkey. North America TEN is delighted to have the opportunity to sit down with such an accomplished, down to earth duo, who are playing a critical role in expanding filmmaking capacity in Turkey while raising the bar for production quality and efficiencies. As local skills get refined through the innovation their firm helps to bring into the industry, the broader industry of the dizi makers also benefits from proven workflow templates.
Without further ado, here are some highlights of our wonderful and engaging dialogue with Alex and Zeynep:
You have played various roles as a producer. Can you please provide a brief explanation of the differences in your roles as executive producer, producer and line producer?
The line producer has to be practical and cost orientated, looking for solutions in every department. S/he has to know everyone’s job on set and be a problem solver to everyone’s budget issues.
The Producer looks at the big picture, usually picks the talent and the creative heads of departments such as the main actors, Directors, Writers , Director of Photography and Production Designer. The executive is in contact with the studio and usually owns the story or brings the story rights to the table.
What are some interesting aspects of bringing modern stories like The Protector and Atiye, which are very different than the traditional dizis the audience for Turkish drama is used to?
Alex: Starting with The Protector, the idea was to bring something brand new into the Turkish market and open up a new genre and approach. Turkey has a young population that isn’t taken care of in the local free to air tv stations. The idea was to achieve a fresh approach for the younger generation of viewers to enjoy.
The challenge for me on this was to install a different way of making TV serials than what the local industry was used to. For instance, we worked with a number of different directors in all the seasons and shot episodes in blocks as opposed to one director shooting all the episodes simultaneously. The established directors were not initially interested in this concept. So, we had to think outside the box and architect our own format of executing the production. We shot each episode in 6 days and as such we had to be really careful in the preparation periods. The better prepared we were, the better the episode would end up being as we could utilize our resources much better.
Particularly on Atiye we were able to showcase parts of Turkey that many people were not familiar with. It was attractive to rise up to the challenges of filming in the east of the country in places such as Gaziantep, Urfa and Adiyaman. I want to continue finding new and exciting locations that adds a “wow factor” to productions. I still believe that there are many undiscovered locations for us to find.
As producer, how do you encourage open collaboration across peer groups?
Alex: Thankfully, at the start of my career I was lucky enough to work with some of the UK’s most experienced producers in the business. One of the main things that I learnt was being straight forward and fair usually leads to having a happy film set which achieves better results and less conflicts. Therefore, harmony is key for any production, especially over a long period.
On The Protector we had a very democratic set with no hierarchy. Everyone knew where they fit in and this made all the newcomers feel welcomed. In principal, this was down to the main cast members (Cagatay, Hazal, Okan) and the key Heads of Departments. Everyone was comfortable on set and enjoyed being together, which on a personal level is a very satisfying achievement.
Zeynep: The job of a producer is very well suited to a mother (I have twin boys) as you have to nurture the needs of all the stakeholders on set through good dialogue while setting firm guidelines. Early in my career, to appease my curiosity about the process of filmmaking, I worked at all sorts of different jobs across all the departments and it gives me knowledge about how to empathize with the various stakeholders on set, and bring them together.
From your vast experience in working with various filiming industries, why is there such a growing trend in global storytelling?
Alex: As we are seeing with the “originals series” there is a lot more than Hollywood in the world. There are a lot of voices and a lot of stories to be told outside of that. And there’s an opportunity for others to tell their own versions of events in history as well.
How do you see the evolution of Turkish film industry?
Alex: Turkey, like many countries with an established film business, had a phenomenal film industry from 1950 to 1970 called Yesilçam (“Green Pine”). Around 300 films were made a year during this period. Prior to the advent of VHS, there was a thriving culture of films, very similar to the Carry On franchise in the UK, where the same actors would enact different roles in different films. However, with VHS and a number of other issues, the filmmaking industry went into a serious decline, even though the potential remained. The productions that continued were rooted in the arts or very locally orientated, which were not built for exports. This has changed significantly.
When I first came here in 1994, there was only very basic equipment for filming for hire. I had come back in 1996 and I still remember that a number of friends were starting to work on the first dizi productions. In between then and 2010, when we came back to establish our company, the industry had gone through a complete transformation. It’s almost as though the industry grew overnight.
After the success of “Argo” we were part of the team from the Ministry of Culture that went to LA to pitch Turkey as a filming destination. The growth of the industry has taken time and we have had a number of setbacks along the way which from that perspective has not been as smooth as it could be. Maybe Netflix and other steaming platforms will help bring the kind of continuous growth the indigenous industry has the potential for?
Zeynep: Turkish dizis, just like the people living in this country, are not easy to categorize. The diversity is also the very essence of our stories, which tends to be based on “clash of identity”.
Turkish feature films also typically focus on a clash which is more cultural. The stories question hypocrisy in the society sometimes through a character who’s trapped and unable to achieve his or her goals in life which reflects how the nation feels.
I don’t think that GenZ or the Gen Alpha will have this kind of concern; let’s be honest, we are leaving them a world with serious problems to deal with related to climate crisis. Besides being incredibly concerned for their future, I also see that they’re much more into interactive gaming and consuming short form content, so perhaps the future will be on apps.
Looking at how quickly the cinema medium has evolved from having one TV channel (when I was a child) to binge watching online, it’s not hard to imagine that the medium will be very different than today.
How do you think the media consumer behavior differs in other parts of Turkey beyond Istanbul?
Alex: Istanbul is generally far more technologically advanced than the rest of the country. My circle of friends are all converted to streaming services because they have busy work lives and want the on-demand feature for their viewing pleasures. I’d say that the youth of the country want to watch cutting edge international content.
Do you find the Turkish film industry to be particularly adaptable, when you compare against other ecosystems you have been a part of?
Alex: The arts community tends to be adaptable by nature, however in Turkey sometimes a problem is seen as an opportunity. We don’t take a fatalistic approach when faced with a problem and focus on problem-solving such that we can make the problem work to our benefit. We are used to thinking on our feet and having plans Bs and Cs when planning for projects.
How has Netflix changed the filmmaking in Turkey?
Alex: Netflix has helped to raise the bar to an international level and establish a high standard, whereas the local dizi industry works under a very different set of pressures and delivery models. The Turkish crews have embraced these kinds of changes because they want to achieve the best possible quality and results. All the actors have expressed the joy of working on these sets as they have an established structure and schedules which they can prepare for. One of the main aims and expectations of any producer is to create an environment on set where everyone can perform at their best.
In the case of The Protector, the support from Netflix was fundamental to the success. They took a big risk coming to Turkey and it was a brave move to come here and make such an innovative kind of show for the Turkish market. I am personally very thankful to Netflix for believing in us to do so.
However what I cherish most about our business and what platforms such as Netflix has allowed us to do is break down barriers and preconceptions about counties by letting local filmmakers from those countries speak for them selves and telling their own stories.
At the end of part 1 in this two part series, we share a video of Alex Sutherland talking about various aspects of filmmaking, and his work with the Netflix productions in particular.
Part 2 of 2 available here
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