Culture

Producer Ron Senkowski on animating ‘The Prophet’

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EIRUT: Film and television producer Ron Senkowski was in Beirut recently to promote his 2014 feature “Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet,” the animated film adaption of what is likely the best known work of prose poetry by a Lebanese author.

The character Mustafa (aka The Prophet) was voiced by Irish-American actor Liam Neeson. Almitra was voiced by U.S. actor Quvenzhané Wallis. (Photo courtesy of DFI)

The Daily Star met with Senkowski at the end of his 11-day visit to discuss his journey from the moment he got the movie rights to Gibran’s book to the day he saw it on the big screen.

As one of the 12-person production team that included co-star Salma Hayek, Senkowski attended the Beirut premiere of the movie, which enjoyed its world premiere at Cannes a little over a year ago. The Beirut debut may have been one of the biggest movie events in Lebanon’s history.

With over 25 film and TV credits under his belt, Senkowski is best known for his work on award-winning drama film “Decoding Annie Parker” and reality-TV series “Carter Can.” He is CEO and president of Symply Entertainment, a production company he founded with Lebanese actress and director Samira Kawas.

Q: How has the promotion in Lebanon been?

A: I asked the CinemaCity manager in Beirut Souks how people were responding to the film and she said it’s been sold out in the evening performances. People are finishing the movie with tears in their eyes and they’re bringing their little kids along, and the kids are liking it although it’s a dense movie that challenges adults.

Q: How was the movie’s director chosen?

A: We wanted to make [the movie] entertaining, so we brought on Roger Allers [to direct] because he is a very commercial director. Originally I found Roger by sending him an email through a friend. He replied saying this book changed his life and he would be happy to be part of this. ... We also had eight [international] animators working with Roger on the movie, each directing a three-minute piece.

Q: How did different directors collaborate?

A: There are 60 minutes directed by Roger and approximately 30 minutes by the others. ... Roger was one of those people who could guide everybody gently and make the movie a cohesive journey so there’s an emotional through-line to the film. This took a lot because we’re talking about nine different directors in one movie and you don’t want it to feel segmented.

Q: Why did you have many directors instead of just one?

A: We considered [that] option ... but we felt like we could embrace and celebrate animation around the world by having different directors bring their own voice and style to it. It worked better than we thought it would. On paper you might think this is going to feel disjointed and tough, but what happened is that there’s this little girl in the story named Almitra who, when listening to Mustafa’s poetry, we go into her mind that is creating different phantasmagoric plays of animation. And so at the end of the day, as long as she’s unifying this whole story, it feels like we’re on a single cohesive journey.

Q: How did the movie come to life?

A: The first thing we did was securing the rights. Then we decided to make it an animation. After finding Allers to direct, I went to Gabriel Yared to do the score. Then we had to raise our financing, which took over a year.

Then we started with the script. Rogers brought together the team of storyboard artists and artistic directors and people that he trusted and had worked with in the past, who could bring his vision to life. The production team was very diverse. We had a lot of people coming together to celebrate the message of Gibran.

Q: How did you secure the rights for the movie?

A: I was asked by a guy named Steve Hanson to help out with the movie. He had spent a number of years trying to get the rights. I came on board to help finalize, dealing with the legal team to get the Gibran’s National Committee to find comfort working with us westerners. I met with the lawyers in New York and then came to Beirut and met with the GNC to get the legal documents in place that give us permission to make the movie. Nobody could believe we got the rights.

Q: There are other film adaptations of The Prophet. Who was behind this one?

A: There were two guys from Michigan named Greg Pike and Mark Karavite who initially came up with the idea. “The Prophet” is a book they both loved and grew up with, and they just thought this would be a nice book to turn into a movie because its message could be enjoyed by a huge audience. They’re from Michigan and there’s a big diaspora in Dearborn, Michigan. Gibran’s a huge part of the culture and they just thought it was very resonant for our times.

Q: Why did you decide to make the movie an animated film?

A: With animation you can tell a universal story, a story that works for people around the world. You can dub it, you can make the language anything you want. You don’t have to subtitle it.

If you make a live action [film] ... set in a specific time and place, you [potentially] offend or alienate people. With animation, you can go pretty neutral. You can do things you can’t do by casting. For example, our lead character Mustafa has no nationality and it would be hard to tell his age and you can’t tell in what place we shot the movie. If you read [Gibran’s] poems, how do you turn that into a [live] scene? You can’t. It’s very philosophical and abstract.

Q: What projects to follow ‘The Prophet’ are you currently working on?

A: We’re prepping to shoot the Amine Maalouf movie ‘Ports of Call’ in Lebanon later this year. We’re also in the process of writing the script for ‘Leo the African’ now and we’re working on initial deals and development works for our script based on another Amine Maalouf book called ‘The Gardens of Light.’

Q: What was your proudest moment in making the movie?

A: I was sitting next to Roger Allers and his wife, and Samira Kawas was next to me. We were in the theater watching the premiere, thinking about how it took five years to get to this moment. Here we were in Beirut, in the homeland of Gibran, premiering the movie that we all put our lives into.

I looked at Samira at the end and she was crying because it’s very emotional. Throughout the film she was laughing and at the end she was crying. I was, like, all right, this is cool.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 29, 2015, on page 11.

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