Starring Anne Bedian, Kathreen Khavari and Arthur Darbinyan, "I Promised Her Life" follows the story of a grieving Armenian-American mother on the day of her daughter's funeral and the defiance of a ritual practiced in some Armenian families: washing your hands after a burial in order to prevent the dead from following you home.
It was Arjoyan's own experience with the practice that inspired the film, a superstition instilled in him by his great-grandmother.
"What if the dead could follow us home?" he says. "What if they could come back? What if you wanted the dead to return? Who would want such a thing? The wheels started rolling and the script took flight pretty soon thereafter."
Born in Glendale, Calif., Arjoyan graduated from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and previously worked on the award-winning "When My Sorrow Died: The Legend of Armen Ra and the Theremin," a documentary about the self-taught Iranian-Armenian-American theremin master.
Q. What was the process in bringing this film to life?
A. Here’s another superstition I learned from my grandma: on New Year’s morning, do a little bit of whatever you’d like to consistently happen throughout the year. You could leave a little water running, have some lights on, deposit some money, and do some work. Whatever you want. I woke up on January 1st, 2017 and began writing the first draft of " I Promised Her Life." Before my wife and I left for our holiday visits to family, I had completed the first page, and before the end of the month, I had finished the first draft.
Our shoot was to be in late June. 3 months to raise money, find cast, hire crew, and basically prep, prep, prep. The whole thing is a challenge, one that tests your grit and mettle in all things physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
Q. Where did you shoot the film?
A. We chose the shooting location (we needed just the one) to be my parents' house in Glendale, location of many Robert Nazar Arjoyan films. My parents agreed willfully enough, but their hesitation was palpable and warranted. Allowing a film crew into your house is a surefire way to get shit messed up, to lose a thing or two, and to basically have your life flipped upside down for the duration of the project. 3 days I needed and 3 they gave. And from a producing standpoint, that’s a cost free solution.
Actually making the film during a weekend in June was rather laid back. Once we wrapped the actual shoot, I began editing the movie and after a review, locked it within a week. I shoot the edited picture, so for me it’s a matter of just literally putting the pieces together. Following that, Bei Ru and I worked out the original music, color correction made the picture pop, and sound design sharped the sonic experience of "I Promised Her Life." We completed the film in August.
Q. Canadian-Armenian actress Anne Bedian has a starring role in "I Promised Her Life" as a grieving mother named Elena. How did she get involved with the project?
A. Anne was perfect for Elena. I’d of course seen her on various programs over the years and made a mental note of her last name. When it came time to cast the film, I reached out to my friend and colleague Alex Kalognomos and asked if he could connect us. It turned out that Anne was a fan of "When My Sorrow Died," my previous film, and that she was eager to speak with me. After a pleasant phone call, I sent her the script. Minutes later, Anne replied, telling me that she was crying in her Uber.
Anne came in to meet my producers and read the role of Elena. We tried a few things over the course of 10 minutes but we all knew early on that there was no contest. Anne was our only choice.
Q. Who else is in the film?
Arthur Darbinyan read for us. Needless to say we found Elena’s distant husband. That guy came in with a teeming electricity writhing just under the surface and fighting to leap out.
Kathreen Khavari received my script through a friend and liked it enough to come in for a meet and read. She was there for maybe 5 minutes. We ran the scene twice and we all hugged goodbye with tears in our eyes, she was that good.
Takui Akopyan plays Virgina, the demented grandmother, the enforcer of tradition and the believer of superstition. On the page, she’s described as having fiery red hair. That’s because Takui has fiery red hair. No one else even crossed my mind for the part.
Q. Why do you think it was important for you to make this film?
A. I wanted to make this film because the idea snatched my mind and wouldn’t give it back. It had been a while since I’d directed something more than a PSA, something with a narrative spine, characters, etc., and I really wanted to dive back in that world.
I’d been pushing a feature script that I’d written for a while and not much was happening so when the idea for "I Promised Her Life" stuck its claws into my brain, I just went out and did it. I got better as a storyteller and director, I met wonderful people with whom I’d work again at the drop of a hat, and some stuff that’s somewhat frowned upon in my culture was explored in a way that isn’t heavy-handed, that isn’t judgmental, and that’s hopefully healing and entertaining.
Q. What do you hope people take away from it?
A. When you scrape your knee, it scabs and sometimes scars. Same with a movie. The scrape is that laugh or cry or white-knuckled breathlessness, and the scar is the memory of the film, the moment, the experience of seeing. So basically I want to scar my audience, ha-ha. Leave a mark, rather. And that mark can be looked upon and recalled and whatever thoughts swirl in their head is their own, what they take away from my work is theirs. At a baseline level, the only thing I hope for when someone watches my film is that they are entertained and walk away without feeling slighted or duped - that their time was not wasted.
Q. Who are your influences and did any of them come into play when you were making "I Promised Her Life?"
A. That’s a big question with an answer that has, as of late, lost a bit of focus on my end. I grew up with Spielberg, Scorsese, books, and rock & roll. Really all I cared about as far as entertainment went. Those 4 elements are very much still in play, as are other filmmakers and art forms - I’m currently on a heavy David Lynch bender - but nothing remains constant for me.
For "I Promised Her Life," in particular, I focused my inspirational sources to Stephen King (whose Armenianized name can be seen on our poster on a gravestone) and the aforementioned Lynch. And those maybe are tonal directions, narrative adjustments, visual thieveries, nothing more than subtle undertones. Otherwise, I just sort of let the film tell me how to make it.
Q. Your previous films, “When My Sorrow Died” and “Midnight FistFight” deal with Armenian-related issues with unexpected twists. Do you think you’ll keep exploring Armenian issues in your films?
A. Look, I’m Armenian. First generation. Grew up learning the language, surrounded by friends and family, feeling culture shock really for the first time in high school. Being Armenian in America is ingrained in my being, there’s nothing I can do about it. So it goes without saying that some of the films I make will most certainly feature Armenian characters or themes. In spite of the fact that Armenians have been around for a very long time, we’re just now becoming exposed to the public eye. I feel it’s my duty and my pleasure to help focus that spotlight on things that I feel are more interesting than just the typical Armenian associations. I hadn’t seen an Armenian magical-realist/horror/
I want to make the films that I want to see, that I would pay to see. And you know what? Not every film I make will be an “Armenian” film, but I have more stories within that world that want to sing out. That’s where the Scorsese thing hits home for me - he’s an Italian-American who explores his culture and showcases the good and the bad. I’d like to do that for my culture.
Watch the teaser:
I Promised Her Life can be seen at:
The Pasadena Film Festival, March 9 @ 4 p.m.
Outfest Fusion, March 9 @ 5:30 p.m.
North Hollywood CineFest, March 24 @ 1 p.m.