Screenwriter Volkan Sumbul’s impressive resume includes being part of the writing team for fan favorite Icerde (Show TV, 2016 – 2017), The Protector (Netflix, 2018) and, most recently, Yesilcam (BluTV, 2021), where he resurrects his partnership with Levent Cantek since their collaboration on Eski Hikaye in 2013 – 2014.
A team player with his own strengths in being technically very adept with the screenwriting process in addition to his creativity, we had the opportunity to learn more about him during a recent interview. Mr. Sumbul reiterates our awe with the ingenuity the gifted scriptwriters bring to the tales from Turkey. Their love of a good story over the associated fame reflects in the end product, which bewitches a diverse audience that resonate with the human elements captured so beautifully.
“I believe that stories live as long as they are remembered. I’d be happy if a part of our story, one of our characters stayed in the audience’s memories in the years to come.”
Icerde Misin? (Are you Inside?)
Icerde is one of the most popular dizis among North American fans of Turkish drama, for the depth of a story told creatively, which held plot and character consistency throughout its fast paced run with 39 episodes. With powerhouse performances by Cagatay Ulusoy, Aras Bulut Iyinemli (who shot to stardom with his turn as Mert/Umut), Cetin Tekkindor, and more, Icerde remains talked about across various fan forums, especially with its current airing in Latin America.
Loosely adapted from Hollywood’s The Departed (2006), which in turn is adapted from Hong Kong’s Infernal Affairs (2002), Icerde is a perfect blend of drama, suspense, action, humor and romance, with two brothers separated by life and who follow circuitous paths to reuniting their family.
Icerde on ShowTV follows the progression of the typical dizi, where the success of the first few episodes decides continuation, and the weekly ratings affect the quality and length of story being told. Mr. Sumbul says, “Writing a series script in Turkey has some conditions that would seem astonishing for the rest of the world. We start with a goal of writing more than 30 episodes for the season. The episodes are very long, more than 100 minutes. So, it’s a very exhausting job.”
“Icerde was a “high concept” project, it required new inventions in each episode, it had convinced people of the intellect of the characters from the beginning, its tempo never slowed down, and it could not slow down. As such, it was a more exhausting project than usual and when I joined toward the middle of the season (on Episode 17), Ertan was a little tired and he needed a rest. He joined us again after having a break.”
“Icerde is very special to me, it’s one of my favorite projects.”
A team player through and through, the writers operated like a well-practiced soccer team, where no one kept track of who “scored the goal or who assisted.” It was a collective job. The camaraderie has left a lasting impression for Mr. Sumbul, and he remembers his colleagues Ertan Kurtulan, Toprak Karaoglu and Simge Karadag with fondness.
What are some unexpected audience reactions to plot choices?
“The reactions about the Coskun character were surprising.”
Coskun, played by Nebil Sayin, starts off in the series as a sinister character who is a ruthless henchman for Kebabci Celal, the crime lord played by the incomparable Cetin Tekkindor. Other than Celal, he is the only other person alive who knows the secret to how the separated brothers Sarp (Cagatay Ulusoy) and Umut (Aras Bulut Iyinemli) are connected. Still reeling from Celal’s betrayal, Coskun is on a mission to get even with Celal. Over time, Coskun’s character develops in remarkable ways.
“Of course, owing to the actor’s performance and with the contribution of his own music, Coskun evolved from being a villain to something different. He was still bad but the audience wanted to see him, they smiled when they saw him. The audience’s reaction to Coskun, and the fact that they loved him that much, were a little surprising.”
Can you share some specific decisions (by writers, producers and/ or directors) that influenced the story, which leaves the audience cheering in joy by the end?
“I know that we made the audience excited and happy with the finale. As writers, we thought about every possibility while we were coming closer to the end. Who will survive, who won’t, what will happen. Some claim that a story will last longer in memories, will be remembered for years if the audience feels sad, cries. But we thought that the spirit of the story will go better with the victory of the good characters.
Nevertheless, I remember that we decided that they should remain in suspense until that point and the audience should feel a sense of excitement.
[Spoiler Alert] I’m talking about the scene where everybody fires one another in the last episode and the screen goes black. We watched the finale with a crowded audience in a huge theater, on a night that Ay Yapim donated all the money that was earned from it to a charity association. I can’t forget how the theater suddenly fell in silence and everybody took their breath, the panic and the noise of fury when the screen went black. Then the applause when they found out that nobody died…”
“It was a very interesting experience to watch the finale with the audience.”
Here are some highlights from that gala night, a novel concept for a show that, as Mr. Sumbul says, was innovative. In fact, the show was creative on multiple fronts other than incredible characters and plots, and also introduced new promotional strategies, fundraising efforts, community events and more:
Yesilcam: A Cinema Animal
“I told a type of story I wanted to tell with Yesilcam.”
A story about a young producer Semih Ates, played by Cagatay Ulusoy, looking to thrive during the most prolific period of Yesilcam in the 1960s, the BluTV series Yesilcam takes us into the Hollywood of Turkey during a politically and socially tumultuous time in the country. We shared Mr. Sumbul’s co-creator Mr. Levent Cantek’s perspectives last week.
When asked how the writers kept the story character driven and as factual as possible without forcing a political opinion on the viewer, Mr. Sumbul says:
“Our story develops via Semih but technically, I don’t think that it’s completely “character driven”. We are telling our story via a character but we also have a strong plot that one can follow throughout 10 episodes. We can say that the story is somewhere between the two – in terms of character driven and plot driven. And of course, this was a conscious decision.
As to taking a political point of view, I don’t think it would be nice to impose such a thing on the audience. But on the other hand, sometimes some human-based stories can be very political. Especially, when you think about the dynamics of the period and the experiences, a character with conscience who is trying to face his past is actually political.”
With such nostalgia attached to Yesilcam for the local audience, we asked what aspect of the story most appealed to him and he says, “Yesilcam is a period where everything is experienced and consumed at full speed. Just like the gold rush. New companies establish; some earn a lot of money, some go bankrupt, hundreds of movies are shot. Many people come to Yesilcam with a dream of becoming famous; some achieve nothing, some become famous for a really short time and gets forgotten easily, and some stay. Except for the vibe of Yesilcam that we Turkish people regard as nostalgic, this chaotic situation of it attracts me indeed.”
Mr. Sumbul also mentions Lutfi Akad, one of the biggest directors of the period, as someone inspirational from the Yesilcam era. He is known to be one of the pioneers of the “Director Generation”, and is known for many masterpieces for Turkish cinema. His 1970s trilogy of The Bride, The Wedding and The Sacrifice, is considered to be his magnum opus. Mr. Akad is highly regarded for his contributions to the Turkish Arts scene, and even though he eventually withdrew from directing, he turned more towards academia, writing articles on theater and cinema. In his latter years he taught at Mimar Sinan University for two decades. He died in 2011, at the age of 95.
“I was very surprised of the extent of his artistic side when I read his memoirs. Yesilcam is a period where speed is in command and everything changes, develops, gets consumed quickly. Lutfi Akad is a director who could stay calm in such a period and make sense of what happened around him, who could shoot movies with his own judgements and his point of view by trying to stay away from that haste. How did he do this? I guess owing to the knowledge he had, his education, his cultivation, his hardworking nature and optimism.”
Which characters in Yesilcam did you enjoy writing the most?
“Semih has been a very enjoyable character to write because he had layers and those layers are opening up slowly. It was quite enjoyable to reveal the secrets from his past slowly and to give the answer of a question he asks today with a scene from his past.
I don’t think I can make a discrimination between the characters but, of course, it was really enjoyable to write Hakan (Semih Ates’ ex-brother in law and business partner). I love the contrast between Mine (Semih’s ex-wife) and Tulin (a new talent in Yesilcam), and Mine’s fight to stand on her feet and her courage. In general, there were many different beautiful sides in writing all our Yesilcam characters.
What is one of your favorite scenes from the series?
“The dance scene in episode 3: While Semih and Tulin are dancing, Semih’s childhood is also dancing in the flashbacks that are shown between. There, we understand this: Semih Ates didn’t learn how to dance from his mother or father or someone else. He learned it himself, from the silver screen. We understand that Semih was a lonely child but he wanted to dance, to be happy, to smile nonetheless. To me, that dance is very sorrowful on one hand and, on the other, it inspires hope thanks to adult Semih’s dance.”
Cagatay Ulusoy as Lead Actor
“I’m sure that we will watch him in more different roles in the future.”
Even though Cagatay Ulusoy has been the lead actor in three of Mr. Sumbul’s projects, he says “We met for the first time on the sets of Yesilcam, due to the busy schedules.” He goes on to say, “As a writer, I felt happy when I found out that Cagatay was going to play the lead character because I trust in Cagatay. I know that he will comprehend a character that he reads from a paper, and that he will reflect every part of the character.
Cagatay is a versatile actor. He proved this with his previous roles but Semih Ates is a character who has ups and downs in his mood. He gets happy, upset, he wins, loses, he faces disappointments. He has some past mistakes, wounds. He walks a thin line. Maybe he cannot be admired that much if he is reflected as a darker person but Cagatay succeeded in reflecting the character with a perfect balance and with his usual dynamism.”
The Writing Process
Even though Mr. Sumbul described the writing pressures on the sets of Icerde, we wanted know more about the writing process for a dizi with weekly demands for content. He says, “We generally talk about the story for 1-2 days. Afterwards comes the film treatment process (which is written as a short story form, presenting the whole story and not written in screenplay form). Then comes the scriptwriting. The stronger the treatment is, the shorter the scriptwriting process is. Then, if everything goes well and there are no unfortunate events, no required revisions, you have an opportunity of having a break for a day or half a day. Then it starts all over.”
We have already surmised from several interviews and from our earlier interviews with filmmakers working with Netflix that production process for a public tv show and a digital platform is quite different. Mr. Sumbul says, “The tv projects are a little wearing because of the reasons I have already discussed. The ratings affect the project too. A little drop can cause a lot of changes and interference, from changes to the axel of the story to the change of the scriptwriter. It’s stressful. It’s true that digital platforms ensure more freedom. We have the chance to narrate stories with more depth. However, in Turkey the number of digital projects are yet to catch up to the number of projects on TV.”
We were interested in knowing how a repeat collaboration worked with Mr. Cantek and how they complement each other as writers. “We both have strong intuitions about the story and the characters. We love to challenge our character and thus to increase the level of tension. There are different points we care about and I guess we have a better result when they are combined. To me, the structure and the treatment are very important. I believe that these are the elements that will take the audience to the end of the episode then to the end of the season finale.”
Global Inspirations & Turkish Drama
We tend to gravitate towards certain kinds of stories because something within them – style, content, artistes, story – appeal(s) to us. We wondered what kinds of stories Mr. Sumbul likes to watch when given a chance, and he says, “Thanks to technological innovation and digital platforms, we have greater and easier access to series’ and this also brought about an increase in the number of the viewers. When viewers increase, the variety of the products also increase. There are series that can be ‘binge-watched’ whereas there are ones that are harder to watch, which expand the story through episodes, through the years by giving it more depth. I prefer the second type of stories. Like Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad.”
Unlike the sit coms or longer-running series in the West, the dizi format is distinctive and has been growing in popularity across the globe. What are Mr. Sumbul’s thoughts on this phenomenon? “There is great labor and investment in Turkish series. First of all, the series are technically very good. Our actors/actresses are quite successful. The scripts generally develop from big and powerful dramatic conflicts. Nobody would watch otherwise.
Of course, there are other things we do under required conditions which are peculiar to Turkey, different from other countries. One of them is the tempo of the series, the length of some scenes in Turkish series. We call it “duygu almak” (a short process where the actor/actress makes you feel the way you are supposed to feel in a scene by showing the emotion on his/her face effectively). Some moments last longer than usual in our series 🙂 I was surprised when a friend of mine who watches dizis and lives abroad said that he likes it, that he better understands what the character feels.
Secondly, the utilization of music, which supports the same thing. The songs are the type that can highlight the emotions of a given scene.”
What would you like to say to the growing base of international fans for Turkish drama?
“It’s a pleasure to have viewers from different territories and cultures. I thank them for their interest.”
From insights into writing for the dizi world to building a story and the numerous perspectives that inform the creation process, Mr. Sumbul’s thoughtful responses to our many questions help to build the picture of a dedicated individual who loves what he does, and does it through careful deliberation. The two seasons of Yesilcam were completed in December, and he is already working on two other projects. One is a comic book adaptation and another is his own story. Even though he is not at liberty to share further details, our feelings mirror what he said about Cagatay. We trust him to produce a work of art that will draw us in as an audience.
We thank Mr. Sumbul greatly for his time to connect with our English speaking audience for Turkish drama, and wish him the very best in his future endeavors. We look forward to sharing more about his upcoming projects in the near future.
To see trailers and other informational videos on Icerde and Yesilcam with English subtitles, visit our YouTube channel for Cagatay Ulusoy North America.
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Cagatay Ulusoy is one of the actors supported by North America TEN. For more details, go here: www.cagatayulusoynorthamerica.com, where you can follow the CUNA blog to read weekly episode reviews of Yesilcam. You can also find our authentic Facebook page here: www.facebook.com/cagataynorthamerica.