I first met Director Christopher Chambers at an alumni mixer a little over a year ago. I remember him telling me about the first feature he was planning to make about Armenian culture. I was so intrigued by how different this story sounded that we kept it touch. Fast forward to today and “Aram, Aram” is one of the most buzzed about films of the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Even as I sat down to polish my interview with Chris, the film continues to soar to media attention. The LAFF screenings sold out in minutes and Chris was just booked for an appearance on Good Day LA. “Aram, Aram” also received a nod from Los Angeles Magazine as one of the top films to watch out for at the fest, and a review from The Hollywood Reporter is in the works.
We could not be more thrilled to be one of the first to sit down and discuss his inspiration for this film, how his Armenian friendship changed his own views on this culture, and what’s next for both the film and this first time director.
PPLA: This is the first time an American filmmaker has made a film set in the Armenian community. What inspired you to learn more about this culture and make this movie?
CC: I grew up in LA, in the Valley, adjacent to Armenian communities and I had notions about what Armenian culture is all about. I had no idea, but those notions were all based on stereotypes and uninformed generalizations until I befriended an Armenian when I was starting out in the indie film world. He told me all about the richness of Armenian history and culture – how Armenia was the first Christian nation, about the Armenian Genocide, and….most delightfully, he introduced me to Armenian coffee and khorovats – Armenian bbq (which is incredibly delicious and dangerously addictive). On top of that, when I go to the movies, I don’t want to see the same story over and over – I love seeing new stories, set in new worlds. I noticed that I had never seen a film set in the Armenian Community of Los Angeles…and I thought, “Why not make the first one?” In all honestly, I still cannot completely explain my fascination with Armenian Culture, but the more I learn, the more I appreciate the richness and complexity of Armenian Culture.
PPLA: This is also the first time an Armenian themed film has ever been accepted into the LAFF in its 20 year history? Do you think that is the result of lack of submissions of these types of films or a recent change in cultural interest or perceptions?
CC: I was humbled and amazed to discover that “ARAM, ARAM” was the first Armenian themed film ever to be accepted into the LAFF in its entire year history. I knew that I had never seen an American film set in Little Armenia, but I never suspected that “ARAM, ARAM” would be the first! I’m not sure why there has never been an Armenian-themed film at the LAFF, but I hope all the amazing buzz this little film has generated will inspire future filmmakers to find unique stories within their communities instead of simply trying to make derivative films based on pre-existing Hollywood formulas.
PPLA: Is the cast made up of Armenian actors (established or first-time actors?) or non-Armenians playing these Armenian roles? How did you go about the casting process?
CC: One of my rules going into this film was that all Lead Roles that were Armenian MUST be played by actors who were actually Armenian. This made casting a ton more difficult than I ever expected. In fact, it took twice as long as anticipated and pushed the start of production back by over a month. What we ended up with was a prodigiously talented Armenian cast. I am very proud to introduce audiences at both Film Festivals and movie theaters to these amazing actors.
The titular role was played by John Roohinian, a talented young Armenian-American Actor. This film was his first Lead Role in a Feature. His Grandfather was played by Levon Sharafyan, a legendary Actor in Armenian Cinema and on the stage in Armenia. He received the equivalent of the Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in Armenia. He has performed in over 30 films and over 500 episodes of television. This is his first time working with an American Filmmaker. The third Lead was played by Sevak Hakoyan. Originally from Armenia, this film was not just Sevak’s first Lead Role in a Feature Film, it was his very first AUDITION!
Lastly, we rounded out the Cast with the “Sophia Loren of Armenian Cinema”: Alla Tumanian. Alla has been a siren of the screen in Armenian Cinema since the 60s and this is her second Festival Film this year; she also acted in Sundance favorite “Tangerine.”
PPLA: What are some of the challenges you faced as a first time feature director in getting this film made? Was anything more difficult or easier than you expected, perhaps fundraising?
CC: I made this film on a micro-budget, by saving the money I earned from working consistently as a Director in Broadcast Promos, Commercials and New Media. I had no investors. This allowed me to do two things: (1.) to actually be able to start production when I thought the film was ready to go and (2.) To make every creative decision with nothing but the best interests of the film in mind. This will probably be the only time in my life that I will be able to make decisions without worrying about the fact that someone else’s money is on the line.
PPLA: The film is set in L.A.’s Armenian community. Did you film mostly on location here? How did you find shooting in L.A. in terms of city restrictions and cooperation from the community?
CC: Yes! We shot almost exclusively in authentic Armenian locations. This gives the film an authenticity that draws audiences in and shows them a world never before represented in American cinema. Everything we did on this film was done totally grassroots – if I wanted to shoot at a location, I simply walked in and struck up a conversation with the owner. The funny thing is, if you just listen, people will really open up to you in this town. I actually did a full re-write pass of the script after scouting because I had heard so many fascinating stories from Armenian shop owners that I had to add in details from their lives to the script. I am earnestly grateful to all the members of the Armenian Community who opened up to me and shared their personal stories.
CC: First and foremost, I hope we do justice to the Armenian Community represented in the film and that we simply show audience members a movie that they have never seen before, that we take them on an emotional journey and leave them feeling like they’ve seen something special. One of the most rewarding aspects of making this film is that every screening results in a conversation…a conversation about Armenian Culture. If this film can bring about a little more understanding between people of different cultures, then I think we’ve made something special and worthwhile.
PPLA: What are you plans for this film? Any confirmed next festivals or screenings after LAFF?
CC: Yes – our next stop is ARMENIA! We were just invited to attend the Golden Apricot International Film Festival in Yerevan, the capitol of Armenia. We are still waiting to hear from a few more Festivals but I am most excited for our Limited Theatrical Run which will cover communities with strong Armenian Communities with a big premiere event in Glendale in Fall. Also, I have two Feature Scripts and one 1hr Crime Drama that I will be shopping around town after our Festival run.
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