BY ARA KHACAHTOURIAN
On June 15 the Armenian nation lost one its greatest sons. A man, who through his brilliance, humility, and honesty rose to become a symbol of generosity to the Armenian nation and an icon of business in the international community.
Kirk Kerkorian was 98 when he passed away, leaving a remarkable imprint on the lives of those who were closest to him, as well as the world at large.
So, imagine being responsible for carrying on his legacy, which we all found out a day before his passing, includes the establishment of a newly formed production company—Survival Pictures—that is producing a film—“The Promise” –starring some of Hollywood’s biggest and brightest award-winning talent. It is no small feat.
Throughout the decades, Asbarez has covered Kerkorian’s generosity, be that his continuous support of Armenian schools and infrastructure-building projects in Armenia, or his successes and trajectory in the world of business. But Kerkorian’s humble life has been somewhat elusive to the public at large, because he preferred it that way.
I had a chance to meet with two people who have the gargantuan task of carrying on Kerkorian’s legacy, and whose respect toward the man propels their every move to ensure that what Kerkorian started comes to fruition in the way that “Kirk would have wanted.”
The words “humble,” “vision,” and his pride in being Armenian were echoed several times in my conversation earlier this month with his longtime attorney and spokesperson Patricia Glaser and the co-manager and the producer for Survival Pictures, Eric Esrailian—two of Kerkorian’s closest associates.
“I think Kirk is with us every day,” said Esrailian. “He lived by example. He wasn’t doing anything artificial. If anything, he was extremely genuine – which we can’t get enough of in this world. I think that’s what people can strive to be: Hard working; self-made; proud; Armenian.”
Glaser, who has worked with Kerkorian for more than 40 years highlighted how his humble beginnings as the son of Armenian immigrants had informed his principles in business, finance and philanthropy, most of which also extended to his personal life. He could have afforded an extravagant lifestyle, but he consciously shied away from it.
To illustrate Krekorian’s worldview Glaser recalled a time when he opted to live in the guest house of a sprawling property, which he owned in Beverly Hills instead of the main house, which he leased, saying the smaller accommodations were more comfortable and suited his needs.
“He had his own view of things,” Glaser added. “He had a great sense of right and wrong. He was a very, very loyal guy–sometimes to a fault. Hugely loyal to the people around him.”
“You can do the right things, keep your head down, and there is not a need try to make it bigger than it is — but be proud. Everyone close [to Kerkorian] would say, he was extremely proud of his heritage. He was a proud Armenian, and he wanted the same from the rest of us. He was extremely hopeful for the future,” said Esrailian.
In 2011, Kerkorian’s charitable organization, the Lincy Foundation, transferred its assets, estimated at the time to be $200 million, to the UCLA Dream Fund. Since its establishment in 1989, Lincy donated more than $1.1 billion to schools, hospitals, scientific research projects and other charitable endeavors. The Lincy Foundation also generously supported Armenian charities in the United States, as well as endeavors in the Republic of Armenia.
The Dream Fund has consistently contributed to Armenian schools and organizations, as well as educational initiatives in Armenia.
Survival Pictures and “The Promise”
It was his loyalty toward his ancestry and convictions that propelled Kerkorian to finance Survival Pictures with the aim of producing an epic film that centered on people and life experiences.
News of a Kerkorian-financed film was hinted in the entertainment media in February. However, it wasn’t until June, a day before Kerkorian’s death, that the establishment of Survival Pictures and its plans to produce “The Promise” were officially announced.
Five months later, production on “The Promise” has wrapped on location in Spain, Portugal and Malta and the film will go into post-production in January. Esrailian told me that Survival Pictures is also producing another project which will be announced in the coming year.
“Finally in the last few years of his life he [Kerkorian] said: ‘I am not waiting for anybody else. I’m going to finance it myself and I want it to be epic, I want people to come to it’. That was really important to him,” said Glaser adding that Kerkorian wanted the film to be a love story and have “a major A-plus cast.”
“The Promise” stars Oscar Isaac. In 2013, he was nominated for a Golden Globe for his turn in the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and is up for another Golden Globe in January for his role in the HBO miniseries “Show Me a Hero.” He can currently be seen in a little movie called, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and next year in “X-Men: Apocalypse”! His co-star, Christian Bale, is also no stranger to awards. He won an Academy Award for his role in the “The Fighter,” became a cultural icon for his role as Batman in the “Dark Knight” trilogy and currently can be seen in the “The Big Short,” which is getting Oscar buzz this season.
The writer and director of the movie also come from a similar pedigree. Writing credit is being shared by Terry George and Robin Swicord, with George directing the film. George wrote and directed the acclaimed “Hotel Rwanda” and wrote “In the Name of the Father,” for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. He also won an Oscar for his short film called “The Shore.” Swicord is also an acclaimed writer who is known for the Oscar-nominated films, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and“Memoirs of a Geisha” among others.
Esrailian said that the film “is all because of Kirk. The vision for it; the passion; even the idea of the love story and the ambiance he wanted people to experience. Those elements couldn’t have come together without somebody putting the architecture around it for us to get started.”
“He wanted [the film] to be an epic,” added Glaser. “Like Doctor Zhivago.”
Glaser and Esrailian, who is also producing the film with industry legend Mike Medavoy (“Black Swan” and “Shutter Island” among many others), say “The Promise” promises to deliver. They had high praise the cast, crew, and everyone else involved in the production of the film.
According to Esrailian, the idea for the film came together with Kerkorian in 2011, and the team formed Survival Pictures in 2012. That same year, Esrailian and Medavoy began carefully building the project, and a first draft of the script was presented in 2013. All facets of the film were in place prior his death, and the intricate production began less than three months after.
“Kirk imagined people going to the movie theater,” said Esrailian, explaining Kerkorian’s vision for “The Promise,” in the face of proposals to make the film into a mini-series or release the film on digital platforms.
He recalled a conversation with Glaser after Kerkorian had decided to move forward with the film and had told the two: “You guys better do this.”
“We were meeting with somebody very influential who said I see this as an amazing mini-series. The story of the culture is too much to put into a movie.’ We looked at each other and said how are we going to explain this to Kirk. He [Kerkorian] was very involved because of his vision and wanted to be involved in the high points. In fact, he had seen all the story boards. He knew we had cast incredible actors, and he knew that the schedule was in place,” said Esrailian.
“It’s hard to believe, and Patty can vouch for this as well, but Kirk didn’t go to a lot of movies. The ones that he went to and the ones that he loved, he remembered fondly. He would refer to them as we were planning [the film] saying ‘this is how I’d love to see it come together.’”
“He loved to stand in line in a movie theater. He didn’t want it screened at his house He loved to stand in line with everybody else. I used to love that about him,” added Glaser.
“The film is ultimately about people. The other thing that Kirk wanted was the celebration of Armenian culture. People already know about our history and the facts. It is not necessarily entertaining to have a history lesson, especially when you’re somewhat educated to it. However, most people don’t know about Armenian culture,” said Esrailian.
“Because of who inspired us to make the film, there is an important Armenian aspect to it, but it really is a universal story,” added Esrailian.
Both Esrailian and Glaser agree that the subject matter is very relevant. “If you look around and think about love, peace, tolerance (‘Genocide,’ Glaser interjects), and man’s inhumanity to man, you realize that – unfortunately — it’s extremely relevant,” said Esrailian.
“The story is beautifully written. If we do say so ourselves, we have an unbelievable cast. I think we have some of the best actors in the world including Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale. Charlotte Le Bon—she’s done an incredible job. And, everybody else…I don’t want to limit it just to the leads, because it doesn’t do justice to the work that other cast members have done. Even people who have come in for more focused parts, like James Cromwell, who plays Ambassador Morgenthau; Marwan Kenzari, Jean Reno, Shohreh Aghdashloo, or Angela Sarafyan. It’s truly like a United Nations in the cast. Each one of them brought the goods. This is a universal story. Because of all those elements apply to people anywhere and at any time in the world,” added Esrailian.
“As an Armenian, I ask what would make Kirk proud? I can look at these actors and their performances and say ‘Wow. You’re making us proud,’” said Esrailian, adding, “Sadly, he doesn’t get to see it, but I do feel like he is with us every day.”
“The two things that I keep thinking about every day is that it’s an honor and that it’s humbling,” said Esrailian of his involvement in the project. “Thanks to a great mentor like Kirk, I feel the responsibility with everything we do going forward, but I also view it as an honor. To have somebody like Kirk trust me… I don’t think there is anything else that one can do that is more monumental in my life.”
“Kirk will be proud,” Esrailian said in an email to me after production was completed on “The Promise” on December 22 and several week after our conversation. “That makes all of the hard work even more special.”
The film is scheduled to be released at the end of 2016.