From Peter Balakian’s book, script written by Scott Thompson
LOGLINE: During a whistle blowing effort with 60 Minutes, Peter Balakian scours the killing fields of Syria, triggering memories of his childhood as he pieces together his grandmother’s mysterious life as a survivor of the Armenian Genocide….
I‘m what some folks call an “ABC” – an “Armenian By Choice”. This honorary title is, in part, because I keep showing up at any event connected to Armenia. I’ll admit, the cooking is a big draw, but I mostly show up at these events because I’ve become obsessed with Pulitzer Prize winner Peter Balakian’s award-
winning memoir, Black Dog of Fate.
Two years ago, I was asked to see if this piece had potential as a film. I was in Europe when I read it, stunned by the horrific events Balakian details, such as Turkish soldiers stuffing thousands of deported Armenians into caves, then lighting brushfires over the exits, essentially asphyxiating everyone inside. The next day, I remember visiting the concentration camp in Dachau and hearing that those caves inspired Hitler to develop the gas chamber.
Although the book gave me chills, I regretfully told HarborSide Producer Paul Boghosian that I didn’t think an adaptation would work. I just didn’t see the spine of a film. Nevertheless, he asked me to meet with Balakian and explain why I couldn’t wrap my mind around a screenplay. I thought that would be the end of my Armenian experience.
Days later, it hit me… This could work as a “fractured narrative” or “mosaic film” – much like CRASH, BABEL or TRAFFIC. I envisioned three different story threads, woven together, essentially allowing us to cherry pick the most dramatic moments and organize them in a way that provided a narrative spine. I did a fine job convincing myself this would make an amazing movie. If I could only get Balakian and Boghosian to embrace my hair-brained idea…
I wish I could say the pitch was articulate and they weren’t skeptical, but I can say their reception was humbling. Nevertheless, they signed me on for an outline, vetted by actor Ed Harris and Director Atom Egoyan. A request for sample scripts followed and I fi red four screenplays back within twenty minutes. Then waited, for three weeks, convinced my work had scared everyone away. And then it came… I got the greenlight to spend my entire summer locked indoors, hashing out the first pass. A writer’s dream.
Eighteen months and three drafts later, we have a script with, yes, three story threads. One of which is the Armenian Genocide of 1915, where we follow a teen named Dovey, after she witnesses women in her home town being set on fire by Turkish soldiers. Although she’s able to escape, her father is carted off for questioning. The next day, his body is left on their front step, decapitated. Soon after, Dovey’s family is ripped from their home and marched out to the desert to die.
Ninety-five years later, in the same desert, where no one dare even utter the word “genocide”, we follow the whistle blowing effort of Peter Balakian, Bob Simon and a 60 Minutes TV crew, playing cat and mouse with Syrian Secret Police, as they scour the killing fields, digging up the bones of Balakian’s ancestors and secretly recording footage to end the near century old denial.
The shock of these discoveries triggers Balakian back to his own childhood in 1960s, New Jersey, where he grew up incredibly close to his grandmother – a genocide survivor who never spoke a word about her past, only sharing cryptic stories that left young Peter confused. As Balakian and the 60 Minutes crew piece together the forensics, the collision between these three perspectives uncovers the truth about his grandmother and the nearly million-and-a-half Armenian victims.
So… we’re ready to hit the American Film Market and bring this project to the next level. We hope to participate in the pitch conference, take meetings, maybe even talk shop over some good old-fashioned Armenian cooking. As a screenwriter, I sincerely believe we have the makings of a great film. As an “Armenian By Choice,” I’m honored to take part in a pursuit to end the denial.
Scott J. Thompson is Director of the Graduate Screenwriting Program at Boston University where he also received his Graduate Screenwriting MFA.
For more information contact Paul T. Boghosian at [email protected] or Scott J. Thompson at [email protected]. Since this article was first published, they attended the AFM in early November where their pitch was featured at the “Pitch” Conference before an audience of 500 and a panel that agreed BLACK DOG OF FATE is a film that needs to be made.