LRM Exclusive Interview: Director Thomas Gulamerian for COURIER-X

– by Gig Patta

COURIER-X is a multi-layered complex story that interweaves a Pulitzer Price journalist, Manhattan boss, black market smuggler, former member of East German police and CIA agents. In espionage and crime drama, it dramatically tells a story based on loose facts and surrounding certain events in the mid-1990s, including the mid-air explosion of the Flight TWA 800.

It stars Udo Kier, James C. Burns, Lee Shepherd and Gary Francis Hope. It is the directorial feature film debut for Thomas Gulamerian.

LRM had an exclusive phone interview with Gulamerian in regards to separate the facts from fiction in this ambitious project. We’ve discussed the real players in the story, the casting, and on whether the CIA did try to prevent this film.

The film made its film festival circuit in multiple locations, including Palm Beach, Myrtle Beach, Los Angele’s San Pedro, London International Film Festival.

COURIER-X is currently playing at the Laemmle NoHO 7. It will be available nationwide on Cable on Demand, iTunes and other platforms on November 4.

Read the interview transcript below.

LRM: What inspired you to create this project COURIER-X?

Thomas Gulamerian: We solely done from the standpoint that we wanted to tell a story that will be unpredictable. There’s a lot of movies that come out across the globe. A lot of them has that formula applied to them. You know who the characters are. What they are going to do. How they are going to do it. You know what they’re going to say. The type of facial expressions. Who is going to get bumped off.? Who is going to live?

When we read this story—there was no predictability. There were some elements there in terms of the set up. You think something is going to happen and it turned out to be the opposite ends up happening. It was interesting standpoint.

It was obviously a very big cast. You got a lot of different characters. Almost all the main characters were supporting and interweaving throughout this complex story. You have three elements going on simultaneously.

It was an opportunity to challenge myself. Can I get performances out of relatively unknown actors? Obviously, Udo Kier is known all over the world. The supporting cast is not so recognizable. They did an amazing job. It’s an opportunity to test myself in terms of directing story and actors simultaneously.

LRM: Now there were a lot of different types of storylines that you were going for throughout this entire movie. Which one did you want to focus on the most?

Thomas Gulamerian: It was tough. The movie was very long. It’s about two hours and twelve minutes. As much as we wanted to cut back—we did. There were twelve minutes of footage that we have completely removed.

Considering that there were three stories going on, we tried to trim as much of the fat as possible to get those elements across. There were a lot of people and a lot of moving parts on how they interweaved with one and another. That was the challenge.

To get the point across, the smuggler is good at on what he does. We didn’t want to be gratuitous about it. We didn’t want that James Bond element for the film. There’s nothing wrong with that. We wanted to show a guy who navigated through certain precarious situations. He could do it in a low key, non-hostile manner with some intellect and tact. It was also on how he navigated through the political waters. The government had its own agenda. It was on how those two parties ended up playing off against each other.

At the end of the day, the movie is about leverage. Who can exercise more force on one person to get something done without the explosions and a high body count. We tried to keep it intellectual as possible.

LRM: I did notice all the intellectual twists and turns throughout the movie. I was wondering on why you just didn’t accomplish all of this as multiple movies? You went ahead and aggressively did it as one movie.

Thomas Gulamerian: Yeah, you could certainly do that. You could have three different types of films or three different types of stories. Unfortunately, it came down to budget. Do we focus on one or do we focus on the other?

It was obviously very challenging. How do we get all this material into one film? That’ the appeal of the whole thing. You could have a whole mini-series.

LRM: Like a TV show. Right.

Thomas Gulamerian: So how do you pare all that back into one movie? You should just focus on the steak and potatoes without worrying about the dessert. [Laughter]

LRM: So how much research did you put into this project? I understand some of the characters are based on real people. Is that correct?

Thomas Gulamerian: It is. There are several characters who are real. Not all of them necessarily interfaced with one another at the level we did in the movie. We had to do it so that it makes the story seemingly as seamless as we could. We need the certain parties engaging with one another. It was to keep this story fluid.

Most of the research were from readily available online information and dealing with former agents who were willing to provide their own stories and backgrounds. There was some surreptitious reconnaissance with information here and there. We had to make sure everything was comprehensive since it was very complex.

Most people don’t have the reference to the 1996-time frame aren’t necessarily going to relate to it. We tried to do our best to get the information as clear and concise as possible. It took about a year to gather all the information. As you open one door, then another door appears. Then there was this determination on whether this element would fit. We had to determine if it’s true or it would make this movie even longer. We had to pick and choose on which pieces we wanted to fit in there.

LRM: I lived through 1996 and I remembered the TWA crash. I thought it was ruled as an accident. It seems like your film tried to play off on a lot of conspiracy theories. [Chuckles]

Thomas Gulamerian: It seems like it’s a story that would never go away. That wasn’t even the most interesting piece to us. It was just part of what was in the envelope.

We are not looking to push an agenda for one way or the other. In terms of government and politics, I’m very disinterested in that standpoint. I’m more interested in the Hollywood mainstream and the bubblegum let’s have fun type of movie.

The movie did have some TWA elements and some of our recon suggests there was some ulterior motives of it how was shot down. There was a documentary not too long ago that reaffirmed that theory. No one went after on why. Why would you shoot something down? It just doesn’t make any sense. Even if it was an accident, then we would certainly understand it. No one would admit it if the intentions came from the government.

In this film, a lot more focus surrounded Samir Farat, a gentleman who was on that plane. He was supposed to be on flight IFO21 with Secretary Brown. That was the most interesting element to us. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence. Two members were supposed to be on one plane and it went down. A short time later, TWA went down.

A lot of investigations went on with the agency to see what involvement may or may not have been from a terrorist standpoint. There was no concrete information that Samir was associated with terrorism. It sounds like matters were taken and exercises were made—that’s where we’re at.

LRM: So how much truth and fiction are there in this film? I’m guessing it’s mostly fiction. Am I correct?

Thomas Gulamerian: There’s a little bit of both. With any movie, you must take some create license. I can tell you that the female character did not exist at all in real life. The real smuggler is a very reclusive individual from what we gathered in conversations with him. There were not a lot of relationships going on. We wanted to try to get the audiences to relate to him. We added that element to make him seem more grounded and normal.

He did have dealings with the crime figure in Manhattan. The [crime boss] is also a true character. He wasn’t having dealings in trying to get one over on him. That was an element from a movie similar to STING. You are trying to one over on a criminal for one’s benefit or a friend’s benefit. Those elements really didn’t take place. They did have conversations about investments in India and how they could support that infrastructure.

LRM: Hold on. You actually interviewed the actual smuggler for as research?

Thomas Gulamerian: We did. I had some loose conversations with him. He wasn’t exactly a person who wanted to come out to be a public figure. There were some embellishments to the data he provided to us. Some of the data he provided was eye-opening. It could also be hear-say. It’s difficult to prove the information given to you verbally especially if it involved the other parties to begin with. People aren’t going to be forthcoming with “Okay, here what they said.” So where can we push the envelope? Where can we keep it to be grounded?

We wanted to make a story out of it without having an agenda. There are a lot of movies with agendas. For this movie, it’s not. At the end of the day, it’s made for entertainment purposes.

LRM: Were there any actual people you spoke with? Members of the mafia? CIA agents? [Laughter]

Thomas Gulamerian: One of the co-writers said that there were conversations with some retired officials. That was the official term. I’m not a big government guy. I’m not a conspiracy theorist guy. I stay away from politics as I can. For me, it’s about the entertainment piece. We’re not trying to push on people that these are the facts, the data and it’s what really happened. I’m okay working in that medium.

As for an agenda piece, it would try to hold people accountable. I’m not going to get involved with that. Either you are going to have the facts or you don’t.

LRM: That’s true. I was looking at your poster—I saw the tagline that read, “The Film The CIA Tried to Stop.” I figured that it was just a made up tagline. The CIA really didn’t try to stop your film at all, right?

Thomas Gulamerian: As far as I know…..no. Brian David, executive producer, did have a scuttle with some people. There’s an article floating out there that pushed his buttons and suggested for him not to go down the road that he’s going. There were a lot of revisions to this story as the movie was being made. In one scene, it morphed into something else.

We tried to keep it as soft as we could. Some folks were nervous. I personally wasn’t. I’m not taking the data from the standpoint of trying to raise any alarms on sensitive subject matter. If you don’t have evidence, then you can’t prove it. So let’s try not to go down that road.

LRM: Talk about your cast. You have a huge cast, which is mostly male. Talk about how great and diverse this cast is for the project

Thomas Gulamerian: So, you like that cast? That’s what I’m getting from your dialogue here.

LRM: Sure, absolutely.

Thomas Gulamerian: Okay, great. I spent an inordinate amount of time on the cast. For me, I was trying to find the right actors for all these roles and especially that the subject matter is heavy and very dialogue driven. Let’s look at the facts that all of us would like to sit through a movie and just be entertained. We don’t necessarily want to see people sit down and talk about on how things are evolving.

We had over 5,300 submissions for the project. If you strip back the double submissions, it’s probably more like 3,800 submissions. I looked at every single demo reel that came in. Although you have an idea in your head on how a character should look, it’s really about the actor’s ability to deliver a performance.

Some of the guys surprised us and wind up getting roles. Casting was easily over a year and a half throughout the entire duration of the project. We were trying to get the folks who could really deliver the performance.

The two biggest compliments for an indie film are: A.) the amount of locations and the authenticity of those places and B.) the casting. People appreciated the cast. I think they did a great job.

LRM: I want to bring up the idea of the locations. Did you travel all over the world to film this project?

Thomas Gulamerian: No, we did not. We filmed in three primary areas in the United States. New York is being the heaviest concentration between Manhattan and Orange County, New York. You wouldn’t believe there is actually an Orange County in New York. [Laughter] Most people know of Orange County, California.

The opening of the frozen landscape of Poland was filmed in the outskirts of Milwaukee. We found a building and hoped it lend itself towards that environment. Everything in Florida was done on the surface and underwater in Islamorada.

As for the international setups, like India and Brazil, those opening scenes were stock footage that we were trying our best to find. They matched and blend with those scenes. Everyone complimented that India is looking very well. I’m a bit iffy on how Brazil all turned out. [Laughter] When you’re on a shoe string budget, you have to do it the best as you can.

LRM: [Laughter] Absolutely. I understand that this was your directorial debut for a first feature film. How was your overall experience?

Thomas Gulamerian: It’s good. It’s a lot of work when you’re taking on a project of that size and scope. Not to mention, it’s more difficult to work in a full-time job in concert [with the project]. It could be daunting and pretty taxing your physical standpoint. There was a lack of sleep. There were a lot of coordinating the logistics that going along with it. It was fun and trying at the same time.

LRM: Could you talk about some of your future projects? Would you consider directing again?

Thomas Gulamerian: Yeah, if the opportunity can afford itself. Absolutely. If we made this film fifteen years ago, it would’ve been more difficult to play in the sandbox. It comes down to the budgeting. It’s tough to compete with over 30,000 films being made a year around the globe. We’ve done very well. We hit the festival circuit. We got a little bit of distribution.

At the end of the day, it’s another film in the sea of films or another pea in a bowl of peas. So how do you expand out? We tried to do that. We tried to push the envelope with our very limited budget. From the compliments, people told us it looked like a $3-$5 million picture. That was a big thing for us. It was only around $300k. We were happy with the production value we got.

If the opportunity can afford itself, I’ll be happy to move on to the next project.

LRM: I do have one last question—I’m just curious about that shark teeth contraption—is that real and did you get to keep it? [Laughter]

Thomas Gulamerian: [Laughter] It is real. We still have it. It has been disassembled for shipping purposes. We decided not to make it fully functional, because we didn’t want an accident. You want to make sure people are safe around it.

We had two systems. One was fully hydraulic. It actually works. We also opted for one in which we removed the hydraulic element. The hardware was there, but the mechanisms to execute were removed. We think we could get the point across by doing less is more. Hopefully that worked. I have no idea.

LRM: [Laughter] It worked with me. I wanted to go on the Internet to see if I could purchase one. [Laughter]

Thomas Gulamerian: [Laughter] Oh, God. Please don’t. [Laughter] It’s not a good device to buy.

LRM: It’s probably not a good device to buy, you’re right. I appreciate this conversation and I wish you good luck with anything in the future.

Thomas Gulamerian: I thank you very much for your time.

COURIER-X is currently playing at the Laemmle NoHO 7. It will be available nationwide on Cable on Demand, iTunes and other platforms on November 4.

Source: Exclusive for LR

Film, Interviews, LRM Exclusives Thomas Gulamerian, Courier-X