Nuri Bilge Ceylan: An Actor's Director?

Arguably one of the most important directors of modern Turkish cinema, Nuri Bilge Ceylan didn't take home an award from the Cannes Film Festival for his latest film "The Wild Pear Tree."

But it wasn't a complete loss for him. Nuri Bilge, whom will be referred as NBC by his initials, has won every possible award from Cannes for nearly every film he has made. His name is mentioned in the same breath as master filmmakers such as Yasujirō Ozu, Andrei Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman and Abbas Kiarostami, and his work is compared with theirs. Forget about beginnings, endings, scripts, music, or making a film with a story or characters; if NBC filmed his family picnic on a cellphone, serious critics like Manohla Dargis, Antony Lane, and Bilge Ebiri would write 1500-word articles on his choice of camera angles and the meaning behind his work.

And they should.

First, an observation: Whereas NBC was seen as "quiet" in his early works as his films contained barely any dialogue, he now makes  very "chatty" films. His characters sit and discuss deep subjects on life and art by quoting sacred texts and serious literary works. The evolution of NBC's cinematic life - which started out as being a photographer similar to Stanley Kubrick - is the opposite of the general tendency of filmmakers. In their early work, new directors prefer to have dialogues with long speeches and characters that explain their feelings and thoughts, as opposed to showing it through storytelling. As filmmakers mature and gain more experience, there is increased silence and fewer words. Cacophony slowly makes way for calmness and quietness.


NBC has said that he does not like the writing process, struggles while writing, and he can't wait to finish the script to start shooting. To write a script as thick as a brick must be torture for him and also this must be the reason why he remains very loyal to his script, sticking to it word by word. Behind the scenes of "Once Upon A Time in Anatolia," we see NBC mauling Taner Birsel, the actor playing prosecutor, for saying "can he kill" instead of "can he do away with somebody" and “is it?” instead of “Could it be?”. Taner Birsel does not see that difference, neither do we, but that is an unforgivable mistake for the creator of that world.

once upon a time in anatolia

At the same time that his scripts become more like books, we can see that NBC working more with professional actors, perhaps out of necessity. Especially in "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" (2001) and "Winter Sleep" (2014), he gave roles to veteran stage actors  who memorize at least 100 pages worth of lines to play dramatic roles, to become kings, queens and fools.

Unfortunately the result of this collaboration is a big dissapoinment, especially in "Winter Sleep”. Considering its wonderful cast, Winter Sleep would have been an opera like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia with ups and down and high and lows, hitting on every possible note of human emotion. Instead it is a chamber music. The strong instincts, imagination, and energy of the performers of the movie - Haluk Bilginer, Demet Akbag, Nadir Sarıbacak, Nejat İşler, Tamer Levent, Ayberk Pekcan, Serhat Mustafa Kılıç - were stifled or snuffed out altogether.

winter sleep

Behind-the-scenes footage on NBC's YouTube channel reveals why: NBC tell his actors where to look, how to turn and how to say the line, in most instances shows himself the tone, stress, and pauses in speeches.

NBC is an "auteur" director like Michael Haneke, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, and of course Kubrick. Auteurs are fastidious and meticulous in making sure that every second of the film aligns with the world they've constructed in their head. Depending on who you ask, these directors are rude, cruel, passionate, obsessive, detail-oriented, and perfectionists to the point of driving everyone around them mad.


Anyone who works with David Fincher knows that he will make an actor repeat the same thing 80 times if necessary to get what he wants. But you will never see him do a “line reading”; show an actor how to say the line in a very specific way. NBC, on the other hand, is a direct result oriented director. If he needs someone to make a sour face, then the thing to do is simply shout "sour!" Indeed, he does this. In the middle of the scene in "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia," he yells out the word "sour" at Muhammet Uzuner, who played Doctor Cemal, in the middle of a scene, and Uzuner makes the face of a baby sucking on a lemon.

"Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" is a masterpiece. It's a beautiful and very special film for me as it tells stories that took place in the mountains and the lowlands of a geography where I was born and raised. Without disrespecting the heart and mind of its creator, it should be noted that the director-actor relationship ,particularly in the U.S.,  evolved. The actors are now an essential part of the creative process from the very beginning. Actors who take their roles seriously will decide on the details of their own character, such as the character's gait, speech, weight, hair, as well as when and how to say their lines and this is a given. I am talking about a much more significant partnership.

In the US, actors are nowadays “ collaborators.'' From writing to editing, as equal partners of the project, they demand to be included in the entire creative process. Instead of being puppets in the hands of a semi-God, they contribute with their instinct, imagination and intellect.  

Aside from representing his much-beloved Turkey on an international platform such as Cannes with his film, NBC is one of the few directors who has been able to introduce Turkish actors to the world. He is a master who is much loved and respected, and who we hope that he keeps telling stories similar those heard growing up in a small village in Anatolia. Nur Bilge might also want to increase his trust in his actors and give them increased freedom that allows for more phenomenal performances.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

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