WATERTOWN, Mass. (AW)—Premiere screenings at film festivals have already created a buzz around the independent film “My Uncle Rafael,” featuring an eccentric ancient Armenian character, Uncle Rafael, played by Vahik “Vic.” Pirhamzei.
“My Uncle Rafael” promises to be a hilarious meeting point between Hollywood class and a charming, rude heart of the old world. Michele (Rachel Blanchard), a TV producer, sets her sights on a 71-year-old Armenian “uncle” as the star of her new reality TV show. Uncle Rafael is thrown in with the all-American but dysfunctional Schumacher family, with the challenge of saving the couple’s failing marriage. There is only one rule: everyone must follow the old Armenian rules. Uncle Rafael has a week to complete his mission while living with the couple, their two children, the producer and the film crew.
Uncle Rafael is a universal character, the filmmakers said during an interview with the Armenian weekly in April. Director Marc Fusco, writers/producers Vahik Pirhamzei and Scott Yagemann, and producer Michael Garrity, who were in Boston for the screening of their film at the Boston International Film Festival, and still reeling from a post- projection, established that what made Uncle Rafael the Armenian was his deep-rooted pride. His other characteristics, such as his “old man’s stubbornness”, are just universal characteristics of a seasoned old man.
In fact, no one really takes Rafael seriously. He walks and talks funny, moves around, rosary in hand, but gets everyone to do exactly what he wants them to do – and somehow it all works out.
“He happens to be Armenian,” said Pirhamzei, 42. The key was to have a well-developed character that the audience can relate to. “But we’ll take credit,” he added, “because what ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ did for Greeks, it will do for Armenians.”
“We were lucky he was Armenian,” added Fusco, a former assistant to Steven Spielberg. “It’s a culture that has never been shown in this way before. It is a very rich culture.
From stage to cinema
“Rafael Keri(“Uncle Rafael,” in Armenian) was Pirhamzei’s small play franchise. Uncle Rafael plays…”Mez Lavutyan Chi Yekel(He didn’t come for our good), “Rafael Keri Gandzere” (Uncle Rafael, the Treasures), and “Rafael Keri Bardezeh(Uncle Rafael, the Garden) – all attracted enthusiastic audiences. “They came, paid $30 a ticket, $40, to watch the game,” Pirhamzei said. The play sold over 35,000 tickets in Los Angeles alone, a fact Pirhamzei noted with pride. So he started honing Rafael’s character, “like a diamond”, but quickly decided it was time for “professional help”.
It was then that Pirhamzei contacted Yagemann, a screenwriter for Warner Brothers. The writer’s first response was: “Armenian? Interesting! I do not know [anything] on Armenians. It’s good,” recalls Pirhamzei.
“For me, all the characters are universal,” explained Yagemann, who was also delighted to learn that Pirhamzei played two of the main roles – Uncle Rafael and his son, Hamo. “It’s the Armenian Tyler Perry! he said.
Although Pirhamzei was not part of the mainstream film world, Yagemann recognized Pirhamzei’s talent and passion and introduced him to Fusco and
Garrity, two filmmakers he had worked with in the past. New recruits have had their share of hesitation and apprehension because, as Garrity said, “It’s a year of your life, no matter what.” Fusco eventually decided to watch DVDs of Pirhamzei’s plays – in Armenian – and realized that Pirhamzei was brilliant on stage. “He directed, produced and starred in the plays – and audiences are dying,” Fusco said. “They are literally laughing at their chairs. This guy commands the stage. Even though he hasn’t made an American film yet, he has all the tools, and we can definitely make it happen.
Gather the troops
The real challenge was to bring together a solid cast, experienced actors who would agree to support the character of Rafael, played by an actor almost unknown in Hollywood. Ultimately, the film was going to live or die with Pirhamzei.
The task fell squarely on Garrity’s shoulders. “That was my hardest job, dealing with all these agents and managers who were like, ‘Who is this guy? [about Pirhamzei]? It’s in Armenian. I don’t know what he’s talking about. It’s not funny!’ We had to find some really clever ways [to attract the actors], and it was very difficult,” he said. But after meeting Rafael and Hamo, the cast was impressed. They realized that, ‘Oh okay, this guy is the real deal,'” Garrity said.
That cast includes Anahid Avanesian (as Linda, a role she also embraced during her Uncle Rafael theater days); Missi Pyle (Blair Schumacher); John Michael Higgins (villain Damon); Anthony Clark (Jack Schumacher, the nice boy facing divorce); Joe Lo Truglio (Father Jim); and Rachel Blanchard (Michele, the producer).
make the movie
Five-hour makeup sessions and a case of semi-arthritis made pre-shoot preparations arduous for the main star. He dreaded them, feeling like a kid who didn’t want to go to school. “Sitting in this makeup chair for hours and hours, with six to eight pieces they put together [motions to his face]and the first piece takes 45 minutes, and then you know you have another five [to go], you just feel like crying… It’s one day, then day two, and then you have 16 days left,” he said. The transformation East rigid; it’s hard to believe that Hamo and Rafael are played by the same actor.
Playing both roles, Pirhamzei had to fully embrace each character, to the point that he would only respond if called out by the name of the character he was playing – and certainly not “Vahik”. The challenge for him was to take on the role of co-producer alongside Garrity, whom he met every morning in the makeup trailer. Pirhamzei proved to have an ability to compartmentalize his many on-set roles. Taking it seriously, however, has proven difficult for some. “I would try not to tell him everything that was going on — the fires that needed to be put out,” Garrity said. “I came to the trailer every morning, and sometimes he was upset… He was half-made up by Rafael. So I was like, ‘You look silly, so I’m going to fix it. I’ll see you later,” Garrity recalled.
Much of the credit goes to the clear script and the cast which, in Garrity’s own words, “would bring you a gem.” In the end, it was director Fusco’s versatility and vision that made the film’s highlights possible.
Twenty-five percent of the film’s funny moments were the result of improvisation. Fusco knew that, given the chance, the cast would come up with some great comedic moments, so he would ask them to drop the script and improvise. For example, the scene (also in the trailer) where Michelle spells “DIVORCE” and Rafael replies, “Driver’s license? was not in the script.
Four weeks of 16-hour days in pre-production, 18 days of shooting, post-production, panel discussions and public screenings, and the filmmakers hit the milestone of the year.
Potential for sequel
Although “My Uncle Rafael” has yet to be signed by a major distributor, they are being watched. “There’s a universal fear of something new,” Fusco said. “We realize it will take a little longer for everyone to feel safe.”
The crew filmed the backstage reactions at the screenings, and they’re optimistic. Two public screenings and eight focus group screenings have proven that Armenians and non-Armenians alike will thoroughly enjoy this light family comedy.
“Armenians, especially when they see him in a non-Armenian audience, get goosebumps. They are so proud,” said Pirhamzei, who recently starred in the hit Armenian TV series “Immigrants” for USArmenia Networks.
There is potential for a sequel, or even a TV show. Everything depends on the success of the first. “If there’s success with the first one, they’ll push us to do a sequel, whether we feel it would be great or not,” Garrity said, but confessed that “oddly enough” more was talked about. a TV Show.
Yagemann agreed. “I’ve always seen him as a franchise character. That’s one of the things that attracted me [to it]. Because I saw it as ‘Uncle Rafael Goes to Europe’, ‘Uncle Rafael Mugs Someone’,” he reflected. Tyler Perry, with his character Madea, has proven that model works, Fusco added. “Uncle Rafael and Madea are going to jail,” Garrity added.
By late summer or early fall, “My Uncle Rafael” will hit the big screen, they say. When this happens, take a box of nazouks, the Armenian cookies that were a staple on set, and head to your nearest theater for a good 90-minute laugh. And, like Raphael Keri said, “Hoy hoy!”