Deniz Gamze Ergüven's L.A. riots drama 'Kings' is a surprising follow-up to her Oscar-nominated 'Mustang'

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Writer-director Deniz Gamze Ergüven astonished fans when she revealed her new movie Kings—set against the 1992 Los Angeles riots and starring Halle Berry and Daniel Craig—would follow her Academy Award-nominated foreign film Mustang.

Kings,which recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and will be released this fall by The Orchard, was actually the first feature film project Ergüven started working on when she came out of film school in 2006. But it wasn’t until after she debuted Mustang, about five orphaned sisters in a Turkish village, that she got the momentum she needed for her initial passion project. The positive reviews and an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film earned Ergüven the attention of major Hollywood talent, including Berry and Craig.

Mustang started off like an evil master plan to try to make Kings afterward,” Ergüven confesses in a phone interview with Film Journal International. “Of course, I completely dove into my passion for [Mustang]. Then, in the aftermath, all the lights were green to start working on Kings.”

The Turkish-French filmmaker pitched Berry and Craig her concept for a film about the 1992 L.A. riots, which were triggered by the acquittals of the four white policemen charged with beating Rodney King, an African-American, following a traffic stop. Berry would play a single mother trying to negotiate the riots with her family and the aid of Craig’s character, a white man living in a neighborhood primarily composed of African-Americans and Koreans.

“What really set [Kings] into production was the conversation with Halle,” Ergüven recalls. “It was a lovely meeting and she is extremely funny and has a lot of points of view on everything. We started discussing the character of Millie, and it was just like a wildfire. From that point on, it was obvious that Kings had to be made.”

Craig was already a fan of Ergüven’s work and was looking for an opportunity to work on her first English-language feature. “I watched Mustang and I immediately watched it again because I was so blown away,” Craig recently told Variety. “So I did what I can occasionally do because of my celebrity and called up Deniz. That’s the lucky thing about this job. So I told her, ‘I would love to work with you if there’s something you might have for me.’”

Ergüven was delighted that Craig was up for the challenge, but she was clear that she didn’t want to retread his most famous role: James Bond.

“With actors, I want to experience something for the first time with them,” she explains. “I would never propose a film with a character that the audience knows Daniel from. If we take each other’s hands, it’s to go into a place where none of us have gone before, to have the same pleasure of discovering something we haven’t done before.” 

Ergüven describes Craig’s role as “a part with a lot of nuance.” But some of his Bond skills did come into play. “The part demanded a lot of physicality; we tied Daniel to a ceiling and then to a street lamp,” she says. 

Some have already wondered whether it was good idea for Ergüven to tackle what critic Miriam Bale calls “a foundational moment of police brutality and black rage in America.” “While artists should certainly not be limited to making films about their own experience, they should be very careful in making something about a group that is more marginalized than themselves,” Bale cautioned in a 2016 Hollywood Reporter piece, questioning whether Ergüven could pull off Kings.

Ergüven says her motivation to take on the topic was intensely personal. “What triggered the initial spark of this was two events—one private and one historic,” she remembers. “The first one was when I was refused French nationality for the second time. I had grown up in France and I had my roots in France; I was very French. For me, it jeopardized my future there. It was a personal issue, but it was like a bomb for me.”

The second event that solidified the idea was when Ergüven witnessed three weeks of riots in France. “I could recognize I was not the only one who had a problem of integration,” she recalls. “I could recognize what was fueling the fires that went on throughout the country for three weeks. And after that, I read and spoke about riots for months, then I came across the Los Angeles riots.”

The filmmaker became obsessed with the emotional constitution of the L.A. riots—more so than working on a historical recreation. “It wasn’t just anger; people went literally crazy,” she says. “There was an amount of heartbreak and madness and different notes that embodied completely how I felt. It was a story where I could express what I was living.”

For her part, Ergüven spent eight months doing research in South Los Angeles, and more than a decade trying to get the film made.

“When speaking with people about ground zero at the riots, what was striking is that there were a lot of power cuts, a lot of fires,” she recalls. “People were taking out street signs. The stories I heard were about a maze; people couldn’t recognize where they were or their own neighborhood.”

Those stories influenced the overall look of the film. “There’s always this image that I had for a lot of scenes which were almost unrealistic—being in a maze of smoke and darkness with only a streetlamp or a headlight of a car,” Ergüven explains.

“It’s a really emotional story, she says. “We zoom into a single family to recount the riots and we see what these events were from the perception of every member of the family... For the teenagers, it’s an absolute tragedy; for the children, they perceive it as if they were watching a fire in a chimney.”

Ergüven believes her take on the material combines the calamity of the riot with the defiance of the participants. “What was very striking to me throughout the years of doing research,” she recalls, “you could feel like that side by side with tragedy there was something else—that there was a smile at the corner of people’s lips, and that for a lot of people it was five days in Los Angeles without laws.”

She continues, “There was a certain amount of transgression. For some, it was a joyous moment. I wanted to say that. So, the film goes from one extreme to another. It goes from tragedy to moments of almost humor. The most absurd things could happen—and did happen.”