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Alper Caglar Interview – Fantastic Talk About RPGs and Movies

We sat down with Alper Caglar, feature film director who consistently ranks the top auteur that Turkish fans want new projects from. His The Mountain series was watched in the theaters by more than 4 million people, a staggering number for a military adventure film as it then became the highest rated Turkish feature film in IMDB history.

As a producer, his Netflix Original WOLF miniseries got the highest IMDB rating for a Turkish television episode on IMDB with its gloriously tragic Episode III, and for 2020 he plans to begin shooting his dream project, the horseback historical epic, The First Gokturk. He is a reclusive workaholic and gives few interviews, but because his love of Role-Playing games goes back to his childhood, he had a tender spot for our website. Considered an auteur, a stubborn domineering director and a brave producer of maverick content, we sat down with him for a heart to heart interview.

Alper! Welcome! How difficult was the evolution from a Dungeon Master of gaming to the most enterprising of Turkey’s auteur directors?

Not only was it difficult, but it was also a struggle involving luck and precarious coincidences that still makes me think of ‘kismet’.

Alper Caglar as he scouts locations for the Altay mountain lookalikes in Switzerland.

What advice would you give to all those creative young minds who follow you and take you as an example?

Instead of me giving any advice, let me relay to them my favorite quote. From Teddy Roosevelt’s 1910 Paris speech:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

We know that you’re a very experienced roleplaying enthusiast and an avid computer gamer. What’s the difference between being a gamer and a director?

The difference lies in the manifestation of authority. When you play a game, be it tabletop or computer game, you have to abide by the rules and dynamics of its design. You’re motivated by your desire to be entertained. As a director, however, you have to be the one to entertain. The foundation of that creative authority is to weave a story and weave it well. A gamer might want to enjoy themselves, learn a thing or two and experience the storyline. But the primary mission of a director is not that.

“One of my favorite moments in The Mountain II is that final radio talk that summarizes the essence of the film. As in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, they transcend their mission into a realm of heroism.”

What is it then?

It’s the act of sharing. Sharing their story, evoking a sense of enjoyment and to elicit feeling from your audience. Both the maker and the audience alleviate the loneliness of the human condition. That being said, there are indeed critical similarities between being a Dungeon Master and a film director.

You’ve begun expanding your reach to EU and USA. In terms of your career, do you see traces of fantastic literature or game design in cinema and television?

In terms of stuff I respect, I do. The largest content producers, be it Netflix or Amazon, have totally begun licensing the Intellectual Property (IP) of computer games, tabletop games and fantastic literature. There are flagship projects like Game of Thrones, Witcher, Handmaid’s Tale, and my recent favorite ‘The Boys’– how do you think these AAA projects are sprouting all over the place? This expansion into quality fantastic content is a natural evolution. It’s also a good thing, because three things formed the director I am; science fiction, fantasy and the world design of 90’s gaming. But I’m talking about old school giants, not the mediocrity that millennials are used to.

“In each and every one of my films, I design character sheets as if they were tabletop RPGs. This habit has been persistent for at least ten years now. The game rule system they belong to is something I came up with called SAGA; which relies on a universal system of d10s. I never really DM’ed with the system but who knows, maybe one day I’ll share it.”

Such as?

Thankfully, I made it to the final years of a magnificent era. On table top we had Dark Sun, classic Forgotten Realms and World of Darkness. On the computer we had the monumental likes of Baldur’s Gate series, as well as the original Fallouts by the trailblazing geniuses (and now my friends) Brian Fargo, Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky. These guys and their collaborators created not only the isometric Fallouts but weaved masterpieces such as Arcanum, Bloodlines and many more classics. Their juniors from that era, like Joshua Eric Sawyer and Chris Avellone became modern day design masters. We had Gerald Brom to look upto. Back then he was a prodigal illustrator and these days an amazing novelist who I’m constantly trying to persuade to collaborate with me! 15 years before I met him, I would look at his dark art and imagine worlds that could be and stories that could be told. These guys were no older than me back then. There will never be an age as inspiring as the years between 1985-2005.

How many years have you played RPG games? Do you remember any mentors?

I remember Dungeon Mastering at age 11 to people who were old enough to be my father. I was by far the youngest dedicated Dungeon Master that I knew of. Which is funny, because I encountered the same dynamics when I first became a director at age 23– dealing with crews older than me who didn’t have enough faith in a baby faced youngling. Fortunately I was prepared for those shenanigans as a DM. As for mentors, the person who taught our generation the most was Muhammed “Nierdre” Dabiri, a pioneer of the early Turkish RPG scene. This Yoda-esque guy was the one who taught us to respect everybody, be kind, and strive to be a kickass game master.

Do you still game on the tabletop?

Before I concentrated on my film career, I played my last big game with my buddy Bogac Soydemir (social media sensation educatedear) and his friend circle. Naturally we played Dark Sun. The greatest story world ever designed.

Why?

It’s the perfect balance of hopelessness and heroism. Athas makes your efforts seem impossible and yet never futile. Not only have the Prism Pentad book series and Brom’s art been exquisite examples of visuals and story, but the game itself taught me valuable lessons in script-writing and concocting action scenes. Oh man, don’t get me started on Crimson Legion. This entire interview could evolve into compliments to Troy Denning and his colleagues.

“Mythic and a very rare peppering of folkloric fantasy will be a part of my Gokturk Trilogy. It will be even lower than what westerners call low-fantasy, but when I imply some ambigious myth, my fans will go wild.”

Can you tell us 9 more authors to love and be inspired by? After “The Foundation” easter eggs in WOLF (your series on Netflix) you started a trend for Turkish youth to rediscover sci-fi classics. Give us 10 more masters.

Arthur C. Clarke (Childhood’s End is a must), Robert Heinlein (Starship Troopers made the likes of Warhammer 40K possible), Isaac Asimov (Foundation series is the monolith that all other space opera designers are judged by), Glen Cook (Black Company), Robert E. Howard (Conan), H.P. Lovecraft (At the Mountains of Madness), Gerald Brom (Child Thief),  and last but not least Michael Moorcock (Elric of Melnibone).

What about Tolkien?

He can be the tenth.

Do I sense some hesitation?

Tolkien is a genius pioneer, I lovingly know almost every detail of his Middle-Earth. But he had an academic perfectionism that sometimes slowed down the story to perfect his philological world design. Those who read his books before the films might know this. Maybe precisely because I’m a filmmaker, I really respect Peter Jackson’s skills in supporting and sometimes surpassing the books in the tempo rhythm of actors as well as the pacing of scenes. The reason those films are colossal classics is precisely because the director was able to solve the riddle of Tolkien’s occasional lack of storytelling flow.

Now that we’re on the topic of film, let’s talk about your films. The record-breaking box office giant The Mountain franchise is on a break until The Mountain III. Your Netflix original WOLF is completed as a series and as the feature film finale. We loved all of them. How was the feedback from your diehard fans?

The Mountain franchise began as a love letter to soldiering and the inherent self-sacrifice the profession had. Nationality or culture doesn’t really matter, because to be a soldier means having an ancient profession that always asks for the same ultimate cost. The huge local and international success made me very happy because frankly, the process was a bitch. For once, hard work gave rewards it deserved. WOLF on the other hand is more of an action drama that reflects the lens onto the recent strife in Turkey. It was designed to tell the truth as is and pay homage to the selfless members of the Police Special Operations who always pay a heavy price as first responders to terror attacks. Having said those things, there are critical differences within the projects. The Mountain series is my passion project, where I am the director. WOLF was a project where I was the series creator and producer. I had to delegate directorial duties to my close friends which made it a totally different experience. I had to stand by differing creative decisions and stop being a control freak. They remain as sources of immense pride.

“This is probably the most beautiful but most anxiety inducing photo in any of my sets. On one hand I had to get all the shots in my blocking, on the other hand I had to hear and prepare for the fuel amount of the military chopper by a radio that I barely understood, not to mention trying to plead for more takes if I saw it necessary and hang onto my sanity to tell actors and extras numbering 50 all around the mesa where we shot. Those were the days.”

The question on everybody’s mind is, when does The Mountain III release in theaters?

I always answer this question but everybody keeps asking. The Mountain III will release on October 29, 2023 on the centennial of the founding of the Turkish republic.

You’re beginning an ambitious new project soon. Tell us of the Gokturk Trilogy and the first film The First Gokturk.

I always wanted to make a film about the founding and the epic lifespan of the Gokturk Khaganate.  It was literally a familial passion since I was 18 or so. Even on the dinner table we would laud and adore how they were a gender-equal, pluralist steppe civilization.

It is destined to be an epic franchise founded on historical facts. But you still are extremely secretive about the storyline, to the point of being famous in our industry for being so reticent. Any reason for this?

Because vultures are everywhere. Blood sucking idea thieves and those who want success built on pilfered ideas of others. I would rather be strict about my intellectual property than be sorry. I work so secretive and perhaps so paranoid about my scripts that my collaborators, actors and every single member of my crew sign NDAs and receive SHA256 encrypted scripts or source materials. Every printed script is given with custodianship contracts. The specifics of the script are known to no one, not even my family and friends, let alone any agents or academics I collaborate with. My greatest hero, my father doesn’t even see dialogues of scene actions. This secrecy must be preserved, especially for the Gokturk Trilogy.

Why?

I guess I am a bit of a mule when it comes to secrecy but consider this; a massive fanbase awaits this film. Big social media companies contact me on the organic  reach of non-paid impressions about my trilogy. This is empirical data. All Turks in Turkey, Turkics around the world and history buffs have great expectations. This longing and love for a film not yet finished requires me to be responsible towards them. The most important thing (by far) in my films, are the feelings I invoke in my fans and those who watch my films. I adore their loyalty so much, that if I ever made a careless mistake which disrespected their love for my products, I would never forgive myself. Loose lips sink films.

“My buddy actor Caglar Ertugrul and myself chatting at 3200 meters altitude. Few people know this, but first Mountain film was shot with a 5 man crew, excluding the actors.”

Now that you’re on the journey to make this most epic film of Turkish film history; is your crew ready? Are any famous actors cast?

My crew is ready with ridiculous enthusiasm. As for casting, I don’t believe famous faces are needed for this franchise. The story and the age of 6th century should be the superstar of the film. Throughout my career I’ve avoided status anxious (the way Alain de Botton defined them) hyped up inflated actors.

Who are those balloons?

90% of Turkish acting. Naming names wouldn’t be proper. But academic acting is a rarity here and famous starlets don’t give a darn about bettering their craft. I’ve observed this for 15 years ever since I stepped on set and promised myself that I’d do things differently. I would work with passionate craftsmen who were ready and willing to improve. From Caglar Ertugrul to Murat Arkin, Ufuk Bayraktar to Emir Benderlioglu, these people have idealism built into their soul. They always put fame behind professionalism and innovation. Sure, sometimes they have problems, but ultimately they’re willing to declare that they will suffer to achieve something remarkable which pushes the envelope. I need actors who aren’t afraid to admit that as kids; they practiced their silly Oscar-win speeches in front of the mirror.

What do you think about Netflix and similar global companies investing in Turkey?

It gives me hope, but I also have worries. These giant companies must be sincere in their efforts to collaborate with local talent. It must go beyond milking and exploiting cheap labor and lower costs. The day Netflix gives equal budgets for Turkish originals that they give for German or Spanish originals, is the day they’ll win Turkey over. Our ad and film industry is twice the size of Spain, so why are our flagship projects 1/3 of the budget of Spanish ones? Instead of being seen as a sweatshop, Turkish content can easily become global prestige projects. SVOD (subscription based video on demand) companies need to understand Turkey well. They need to see the diamond in the rough. The first major SVOD that handles Turkish content’s soft power well, will dominate all others. That being said, our local pride and joy BluTV is not a part of my worries. They are dancing with giants with a fraction of global SVOD budgets and I always support a local underdog!

How can Turkish cinema and television industry better itself?

We need to value our own laborers while giving opportunities to youngsters wanting to do different things. Cinema and related fields are the ultimate meritocracy. Good things WILL eventually win over the masses. Sure filmmaking is a craft, but if it doesn’t have artistic hunger and intrepid people leading the way it regresses into formulaic cookie cutting drivel. I want a Casa del Papel phenomenon to rise from Turkey. I want someone 10,000 km away to say “Turks did THAT?”. We already have the potential and technical expertise to exceed the confines of the region into a global stature. With the right moves, it is entirely possible to become the third largest film and tv exporter in 10 years.

We thank Alper Caglar for answering our questions and we wish him great success on upcoming projects!