PROFILE: ATOM EGOYAN

ATOM EGOYAN

Born, July 19, 1960

Cairo, Egypt.

 

Named in honour of the first nuclear reactor in Egypt, Atom Egoyan seemed fated to make a lasting impression. The first child born to Joseph and Shushan Yeghoyan, Armenian refugees living in Cairo, Atom, his sister and his parents moved to Canada in 1963 — where they set down roots in the gardening capital of the Great White North: Victoria, B.C. In order to make the transition smoother, the Yeghoyans opted for a phonetic spelling of their family name and opened a furniture store — despite their own creative bent. Both parents had once studied fine art, and Joseph even spent time at the Art Institute of Chicago as a young man. They were the only Armenian family in Victoria at the time, and for the young Atom, a first-generation immigrant trying to find a place in the verdant bosom of British colonialism, an outsider stance came as second nature.

At first, like most kids whose parents have “accents,” Egoyan rejected his roots and his mother tongue and tried to assimilate, which introduced the concept of contradiction as the central creative spindle in his burgeoning vision. As an outsider, he became sensitive to the idea of identity as something that is socially constructed — not something that one simply inherits. His mental detachment can be seen in one of his earliest films, a short he did when he was 12 that involved putting a camera on a stage and shooting the audience as they smiled.

In his teens, he found himself drawn to the stark stage works of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, which led him on a writing quest of his own which allowed him the freedom to create his own universes instead of living in an anonymous life in the surreal, and windy world of west coast Canada. If you’ve never been to Victoria, B.C. — it’s a small city populated mostly by retirees looking for snowless winters and semi-urban living. I’ve also been told it is also a city situated at the intersection of two “dragon-lines” or “fire-lines” — spirit meridians that circle the globe, which supposedly accounts for its high percentage of Wickans and Satanists, and perhaps, politicians (it is the capital of the province of British Columbia, and home of the provincial legislature). In short, Victoria is a weird and wonderful place. It has moments of genuine creepiness compounded by the dislocated Victorian architecture and constant winds. One of the spookiest structures is the Empress Hotel, a looming greystone hotel built by Canadian Pacific at the turn of the century. Covered in ivy and lined with dark wainscotting interiors, it’s hard not to think of a movie like The Shining once you walk through the doors to this monolithic structure overlooking the inner harbour. Egoyan worked for the Empress housekeeping staff as a teenager, spawning an interest in hotel-related themes like dislocation, voyeurism, anonymity and interlaced narratives — all of which can be see in

such efforts as Family Viewing, The Adjuster and Speaking Parts. Egoyan says there is a connection between film-making and making up rooms: “It’s all about the creation of illusion.”

At the age of 18, Egoyan moved to Toronto to study International Relations at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College. Now able to create his own identity from scratch, he returned to his roots and joined the Armenian club on campus and rediscovered his mother tongue with the help of an Anglican priest ê. He also joined the campus newspaper, The Varsity, and wrote movie reviews as well as his own plays and fiction. A student of classical music, Egoyan also played guitar and studied opera — finding a sense of mental harmony with fugues. This musical experience is visible in all his films, which in Egoyan’s own estimation appropriate a fugue-like structure with their repeated, melancholy motifs. Later on, Egoyan also directed and conceived several operatic productions including Salome for the Canadian Opera Company (staged in Toronto in the fall of 1996 and Vancouver in 1997), and Dr. Ox’s Experiment for the London-based English National Opera (1998).

In his first year at Trinity, he made another film, Howard In Particular, which picked up a few prizes at the big Ontario summer fair, the Canadian National Exhibition — or “The Ex.” He was hooked, and followed up with other shorts, leading to his first 30-minute effort, Open House, with financial assistance from the Ontario Arts Council. Egoyan graduated with an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in 1982 and joined the established local theatre troupe, Tarragon Theatre, as a playwright. When the CBC bought the rights to Open House as part of a series on Canadian pluralism, Egoyan had the necessary contacts and track record to make his first feature, Next of Kin (1984).

More TV directing work followed, with Egoyan directing things like In this Corner (an Irish-themed boxing movie) for the Mother Corp., as well as American episodics, like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone.

With more directing experience under his belt and an understanding of how to make the most on a limited budget, Egoyan made his second feature, the self-produced Family Viewing (1987). He toured the festival circuits, where he was beginning to make an impression for his distinct style. When he finished Speaking Parts in 1989, he and the film were invited to the prestigious Directors Fortnight at Cannes. The Adjuster was accepted two years later into the same screening lineup, and Egoyan inked his first US distribution deal. In 1992, Egoyan made the CBC- TV movie, Gross Misconduct, a hockey story with a nasty edge as it dramatized the real-life story of Brian Spencer.

The cash and his building reputation gave him the freedom to take time off and go to Armenia, where he and his wife Arsinee Khanjian took a trip around ancient church sites with a video camera and a loose idea for a movie. Calendar came out in 1993, and was the first film to show a different side to the director. Where his previous films were somehow emotionally unavailable, Calendar pushed Egoyan to be personal. Not only did he star in the movie with his wife, but he mocked his own persona — the detached artist/photographer/film-maker who watches his wife fall in love with someone else before his eyes. “It’s not a question of wanting to go [with her] or not, it’s much stranger than that,” says Egoyan’s own voice-over in Calendar. “It’s about watching the two of you walking away from me, into a landscape that I will photograph.”

In 1994, Egoyan was off to Cannes again, this time in official competition with Exotica, the first English-Canadian feature in competition since Ted Kotcheff’s Joshua Then and Now (1985), and Egoyan’s biggest feature to date that starred a pregnant (with their son, Arshile) Khanjian as a sex-club owner, Bruce Greenwood as a troubled father mourning his dead daughter and Don McKellar as an exotic bird breeder. “In telling the story of Exotica, I wanted to structure the film like striptease, gradually revealing an emotionally loaded history,” said Egoyan in the throes of Cannes coverage. Exotica won the International Critics’ Prize, and shortly after his return to Canada, Egoyan touched down in Vancouver to lead a Praxis Centre for Screenwriting Workshop. I was lucky enough to interview Egoyan at this time, May 31, 1994. It was a highly creative time for the director, and new dad, who was emerging as Canada’s leading cinematic force. Because it was a turning point — not to mention one of the best interviews I’ve ever had — excerpts of that conversation follow below:

 

EGOYAN: It’s kind of a crazy time. I’m completely exhausted. But it’s completely thrilling. I’m from Victoria and I’m not too aware of the talent pool in Vancouver. I’m realizing that I always sort of cast around Toronto but there is some amazing talent here. I was talking with John Hunter, who wrote Grey Fox, and he told me when they made that film they cast everything from Toronto. But that wouldn’t happen now.

MONK: Are you in that highly creative stage?

EGOYAN: Well, I arrived here exhausted and now I’m completely recharged. Meeting new people I can’t believe that there are so many people who are at such a high level of professional attainment that I don’t know. I feel a bit like a kid in a candy ¸ store.

MONK: And what do you feel like eating next? What’s in your head now?

EGOYAN: Last week, I had a transcendent moment in terms of what I’ve been doing. I didn’t expect the award [the Jury Prize at Cannes] and it’s going to help this film with the European distribution. It’s really valuable. Cannes is the biggest festival in the world and very competitive and for them to pick the film was a great honor. But it’s also great to get here and get back down to the reality of making a film. Working with actors has been wonderful. It’s a collaborative process that can turn an idea into something dramatic and tangible. Right now, I feel I need that kind of grounding because winning an award is great, but the down side of something like Cannes is that it is celebrating something that is already finished and you can only do that for so long before you feel parasitic. So right now, I feel so happy to immerse myself in an act of creation. I mean, just today, I read a really great script that came out of nowhere, and that’s almost ready to start shooting. It’s really a euphoric experience to share that first reading with professional actors.

MONK: What’s your approach to the director-actor relationship?

EGOYAN: My approach to dramaturgy is quite particular: I have a stylized sense of reality. So working with the actors can present a challenge because they’re trained to find certain levels of authenticity. As a result, they’ll push me to be more grounded — which is a great exercise because you have to be very clear about your decisions, it also keeps my head very level.

MONK: Well, I guess you could worry about ego inflation now that you’re a Cannes prize winner. Do you?

EGOYAN: No. My growth is incremental, I’ve been doing this for a long time. This is my seventh film. So it I mean I know what the reality of the situation is: I know I’m going to be besieged by American agents before and I know what it actually all means. Fortunately, I feel very privileged to be making films here because I can only make the films — films like Exotica — here in Canada, with the kind of creative control that our system allows.

MONK: Is there anything that makes them distinctly Canadian, do you think?

EGOYAN: Nothing that I can see within the films themselves…. That I can discern. But the way in which they are made. The freedom with which they are made. A lack of interference, I guess. They are all products of very, very special system that we have developed here and it goes right to the Canada Council, to places like Telefilm, where they give a lot of respect to the artist’s voice. In the US, it’s an industry-driven model and I think that if, as a Canadian film-maker, you are prepared to work with smaller budgets, which I have been, and you are able to adapt to different challenges, I think you have tremendous freedom. Anyone watching Exotica will see that. We have a crowd of people here and the talent and the dedication to make a really interesting types of films.

MONK: What was the budget on Exotica?

EGOYAN: I don’t want to really talk about it because it doesn’t look like a low budget film and I don’t want people to know how little we made it for just $1.5 million. The reason why I prefer not to say is because when you are in the process of selling the rights you don’t want people to know– they’ll try and give you less money. The film looks good because of the camera work and the art direction. The film didn’t cost too much to make because we didn’t have to pay millions of dollars for American stars.

MONK: How do you feel about the fact that Canadians generally have to wait for a US sale first before we are allowed to release our own movies here?

EGOYAN: The reality is we can’t afford to market films successfully… and that’s one of the failures of our collective system. If you can ride on the coattails of the American release — and it’s been the dream of English Canadian film to be able to marry the American studio release with the Canadian release — then you can sustain some momentum, hopefully.

MONK: In terms of how Canadian film measures up in the eyes of others, have you noticed any changes at all over the years that you’ve been to Cannes?

EGOYAN: I would have to say there is embarrassingly little understanding of English Canadian film industry as having an identity — there — you know people understand Quebecois cinema but they don’t really know what to make of English Canadian film. They don’t, first of all, identify Cronenberg as an English Canadian film-maker. They usually see him as an American.

MONK: Hmm. They aren’t the only ones. A lot of Canadian critics have said the same thing.

EGOYAN: I know. And it’s very strange that there seems to be a lack of a critical mass in terms of the number of English Canadian films that have stayed with people’s collective imagination. That is extremely frustrating for me because our industry is doing extraordinarily well and it’s much healthier than the Italian industry right now — and yet, you have four Italian films in competition. I heard two of them were just mediocre, so why is it that Exotica is the first English-Canadian film in competition in ten years? This is not something that we should have to wait ten years for. We should expect that every ten years there will be a film — either English or Quebecois — in competition. But for some reason, we walk away from that without even thinking or expecting that will happen. The real problem is we don’t make enough films. I think a high proportion of them are really great but other industries are just making more films and so it creates more of an impression. And unfortunately, we are so closely aligned with the U.S. — especially here, in Vancouver, where you have all the infrastructure for a healthy industry like Praxis — just an incredible organization. I gave a workshop here in 1985, and there was the [Pacific] Cinematheque, and Cineworks. There was this group of people who were going to make this film, but, to my knowledge, it never happened. The Americans came to town and everyone went off to make American films. I can see why. It’s incredibly tempting, but I think it also just confuses the direction of the whole indigenous community. Hopefully that will change…. I mean I was a big fan of [David Hauka’s] Impolite, but it never went anywhere. This is a big country and there are sort of regional tensions involved. I think last year was a great year for west coast production.

MONK: Great and not so great… There was a lot of hope for movies like Lotus Eaters, but they didn’t stick in theatres. It’s interesting, I find it a lot stranger to live here than say, a central Canadian city like Toronto or Montreal, but the films ë that emerge from the West right now are far more traditional narratives. They are far more genre-oriented than the wacky, alienated, auteur-driven movies that have come to typify Canadian film — thanks, in large part, to you. I don’t quite understand it, but there’s this natural apprehension about burrowing too far into the dark nooks and crannies. I mean, you’re from Victoria. You know what I’m talking about.

EGOYAN: I think part of it has to do with that “colonial” baggage we all learned about in school, but there’s also just a reticence for people to watch Canadian movies in theatres because they think — oh, it’s Canadian — it’ll be on the CBC next month. So why rush to see it in a cinema. I think that’s part of the problem that a movie like Lotus Eaters would have been facing. Exotica will never be shown on CBC. It’s important in the marketing and presentation that people feel it is an event. Ç

MONK: What about your next project? Will it be an event, too?

EGOYAN: I can’t really tell you what it is, but I can say it’s a pretty big deal. [The film would be the biggest deal of Egoyan’s career: The Sweet Hereafter].

MONK: Okay, then, tell me about Exotica and what emotional or artistic terrain you wanted to explore by making the movie.

EGOYAN: It’s about how people find or lose themselves in relationships. They may think they are giving comfort to their lives, but are actually abusive and emotionally complicated way beyond their comprehension. I think what I was really sifting through in the construction of the film was the image of — well, in Ontario, we have this table dancing thing whereby a man will go to a club and pay for a woman to dance at his table to be intimate physically in a very public space. I was interested in exploring the subtext to that, you know, what it is that is actually going on in terms of the story and the oddness of the ritual? What are people actually looking for? One of the men is addicted to one dancer in particular by night, and by day, he’s a tax auditor. I got the original idea for the visuals when I saw a picture of a woman who was stopped at customs trying to import exotic bird eggs. She was smuggling eggs to be hatched here. The image was very, very maternal — and very disturbing. She had this naturally voluptuous female form, but she had this very artificial appendage of these eggs strapped across her chest, which was very disturbing to me. This idea of protection, you know? What it is, and how you need things to protect you, and how that can turn against us. All these ideas were in my head. My films are not necessarily so many elements of my own history and my own past, they’re just a list of things that run through my own palette and my own history to emerge as three-dimensional ideas. If there is a particular part of Âmy relationship that I’m trying to move through or release, it will come through…. The films are not really linear and people think I have some real analytical and academic approach to structure but the fact is, they are completely organic … I mean, I write stories and through this multiple narrative structure, or multi-layered structure, they evolve as a way for me to tell my stories.

MONK: How long is the germination — or incubation period? Do you have any insight as to how the creative process works for you?

EGOYAN: There’s a period where something just persists. In this case, it was the idea of driving a babysitter home. The babysitter is talking about the child to the man. And he is asking her questions about the child. It’s an interesting ritual because the guy is addicted to driving a babysitter home. He feels it’s a very therapeutic experience, and then we think of the parents maybe losing the child, but not wanting to lose the ritual. I think everyone needs a listening ear that will help them organize their thoughts for them…

MONK: I can see the therapeutic value. But it’s almost distancing, no? To hear about the child through a third party?

EGOYAN: Yeah, right, and that’s part of the story. Why does he need it? Why does he need to keep this proxy situation which he thinks is bringing him closer but is actually divorcing him from his own feeling.

MONK: So let’s talk about distance, since your movies tend to explore this idea of emotional distance, to the point where calling something ‘Egoyanesque’ has almost replaced the pop culture place of ‘Pinteresque’ — in this country, at any rate.

EGOYAN: Yes.. well, I love Pinter, so that’s flattering. But before you’d hear how my films were always dealing with these filters, these mediated images that are mechanically reproduced. Exotica is more accessible because the filters are in the film itself … in the sexual iconography, not just sexual, but iconography that would hit people in a theatrical way… Like my other films, this movie is about stripping back layers of projection. You know what we imagine about other people — the traits we project onto them by the way they dress or the way they appear. I think it’s probably easier to identify with what the characters are going through that way — by these internal signifiers within the film [the way they dress, etc…] — than by the formal devices, like teleconferencing, that I refer to in my other movies. Also, the themes in Exotica are themes that everyone understands.

MONK: Sex — or desire?

EGOYAN: The nature of desire, the nature of loss and the nature of transferred, or projected loss through other people and other people not necessarily understanding where the projections are coming from …. I wasn’t aware of it so much when I started writing, but I thought it was challenging. It interested me, but you really have no idea what it’s going to be until you start shooting. That’s the whole surprise of filming. If you make a movie based in formula, a movie that refers to this film, that refers to that film, which refers to that film… then you can have a pretty good idea of what it’s going to be. And that’s very much how the Hollywood system works. It’s all founded on creating and meeting expectation. But a film like Exotica refers to no formula at all. And that’s what’s exciting about it, it’s also what’s dangerous about it.

MONK: So, you’ve never had any desire to make a formula film?

EGOYAN: You’re talking about something I consciously eschew. I get bored with them. My mind tends to get very bored, very easily. Formula films are almost too easy. They are not challenging at all. The thing about film that you have to remember is that you are going to dedicate a year of your life to it. And there are certain films that you read on paper that you would love to see, but would you want to spend a year of your life going over and over the same scenes. The films I am most attracted to are the films where I’m never sure what the outcome is going to be… because there is no way of predicting the outcome in real life.

MONK: How often do you change your tack on the voyage? Do you find yourself changing direction or approach along the way once you realize your final destination?

EGOYAN: It depends. Realistically, on a fixed budget, you don’t have all that much room to be flexible. It’s all a question of you have 25 days of shooting and you can’t really deviate from what you planned. Now, something like Calendar, just sort of go there and do it as you go along like a documentary, you can have the whole counterpoint of what’s going on in the apartment and what’s going on in Armenia. What was really great about that film was that you feel that way when you watch the movie. The images were flexible…. The more orchestrated the movie is, the more cumbersome it is. We had a huge makeup and costuming department for Exotica and that adds a lot of weight to the creative process. It all has to be manufactured for the cameras. We had nothing on Calendar, and I think that’s why it was the most emancipating film, creatively, that I’ve ever made.

MONK: It comes across. There’s a feeling of humanity in the film that I never felt in the other ones. The other movies almost push the viewer back behind the fence of form — you know? You have to want to get to the other side if you want to get the most out of the movie. In a sense, the viewer has to want to go to these dark places. Do you think that’s a lot to ask? How much trust do you have in the viewer to understand?

EGOYAN: I trust in events. I think from a viewer’s perspective, you can always feel what the filmmaker was actually feeling about the material. It’s just uncanny how that works, because through structure, the film somehow conforms to the way the film-maker thinks. So that’s what’s great about personal filmmaking: you are able to get a sense of the story in the way the story is told.

MONK: Which leads to the next question, which is why is it that some personal films fail — and fail miserably?

EGOYAN: The alchemy just doesn’t work. Nobody can explain that. It’s scary, but Exotica was an extremely difficult shoot and while it was going on I thought this is going to be a complete disaster. And yet, the tensions on the shoot and the feelings of anguish are there because that’s what the film is and those things fed directly into the film itself and you can feel that in the film itself while watching the movie. There is a point in which you are imbuing the film with something that is completely beyond your control. That’s the opposite of what Hollywood is about. You have people re-writing and you wait until the last possible minute to shoot so you can process the material down to something everyone will understand. The whole thing becomes quite plastic. We don’t have the resources in this country to do that so you have to trust your being that through the process you will find this other idea of natural structure.

MONK: Natural structure, eh? Do you ever feel like you are lying to yourself — that you are looking for structure where there is none just because you have this innate desire to create and to see order?

EGOYAN: That is a question I asked myself several times while filming Exotica. The film takes place in a strip club. How do you deal with exploitation? Do you, as a film-maker, shoot it in a way that you are conscious is not exploitative or do you trust yourself that that is not what your intentions are so naturally, the film will not be exploitative? Whether or not to trust the creative instinct’s suggestions is a big decision and it changes on every movie. On the next one, and I’m not saying this to be coy — because I still can’t tell you the details — I’m going to trust my source material. Again, it comes down to trusting yourself, even if it’s confusing. That confusion can impart a discourse that you might otherwise not naturally engage in.

MONK: Do you like that confusion, that discussion? It makes some people crazy. In fact, I could swear a lot of psychosis is a strange type of creative cancer where the limits of that conversation are no longer distinguishable — the intellectual process is overwhelmed by this spreading, organic contagion called creation.

EGOYAN: Well, I think Cronenberg might agree with you about the contagion… But I think I like that discussion… and the fact that I’m ‘thinking’ at all means I haven’t succumbed to that particular type of cancer. The beauty of film is that it is so structured and so mechanical. It’s a very planned thing, so it keeps the rational side of your brain engaged at all times. But it’s also creative, and to me, filmmaking helps me to work out certain issues. It is an articulation and dissection of something. The whole process reshapes the relationship to the creative process…. But but there is something unfortunate in that in order to work something through you have to trust the viewer has a high level of curiosity and trusts the vision of the film-maker. The viewer must have confidence that he or she is going to give you a sense of order — or reordering — that you can understand. The viewer is always aware it’s a construct. This means the filmmaker must concern him — or herself — with the question: Was it composed the right way? But the [cognizance of construct] also protects the viewer because you cannot shake the viewer at a subconscious level: if the images are not working, the viewer won’t go there with you.

MONK: Totally. So what’s the pathway to the subconscious?

EGOYAN: The images. Every night, people close their eyes and project images in their brain and create these films. When films are projected there’s a surrealist sense to it. There is a definite relationship between the dreamer and the dream, and the cinema and the dream. The surrealists seized on it immediately. The relationship between cinema imagery and dream imagery is profound. How did we evolve this a bility to make films? Why?

Why is it that the basic grammar of filmmaking hasn’t changed from its inception. It’s 100 years old and it hasn’t changed since the Melies and Eisenstein? For me, the best films are the ones that induce you into a dream state… But to do that you have to feel very comfortable with the themes involved…. The viewer has to be comfortable, she has to be able to trust that process. It’s visual seduction. When a film is successful, people want to take that journey.

MONK: And what journey did you go on with Exotica?

EGOYAN: A really different journey. I was creating a strip club and populating it with real dancers and then I realized that I created an environment that explores all the contradictions that are explored in the film. There’s this central image of a dancer-schoolgirl. This is a very powerful and disturbing image because she is innocent and sexual all at once. Well, there’s a very disturbing moment, where as a director, you realize you have conjured an image which goes beyond artifice of the filmmaking process. I made that image and what does that mean? Not only that, but I had my wife in the film and she plays strip club owner. It freaks me out, but I was able to abstract her … even though she is carrying our child… you know, she is pregnant on screen with our baby and I’ve turned her into a sex-trade sleaze. I did this in my own imagination. Everything can get very distorted. Does that make sense?

MONK: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. I’ve just never heard anyone articulate _ it so clearly. You sound to me like a pretty introspective guy in terns if the actual process. You abstract your thoughts on the job and then abstract yourself watching it. Suddenly, I see this inward cycle of understanding at work. At first, it almost sounded too analytical and distancing, but now I see it a different way because finally, it’s all you. This infinite series of reflections in your work is actually a very intimate exercise, not an alienating one, because you are simply challenging your own intellect to understand itself…. Does that make any sense?

EGOYAN: Yes, it does… I just never heard anyone articulate it so clearly. Ha ha. To be honest, I’m very suspicious of the intellect but I’m also seduced by it. It’s part of my personality, but a part that I’m aware of. So, this ability to interact with it while being suspicious of it gives us a certain emotional quality that our generation has developed.

MONK: You mean this pervasive sense of cynicism?

EGOYAN: I think there is a tendency to remove ourselves from certain types of experiences because we have just been so jaded by overwhelming exposure to a variety of images. You know, it’s okay to take pictures of your family — and yet, to me, there is something really perverse and calculated about that gesture. What does it actually mean to take pictures of the one you love? You know? What does that do to you? It’s not a natural process. It’s based in technology, so there’s no way to make it a natural process. So it’s definitely changed the way we deal with mourning, for instance. Take the death of Kurt Cobain as an example. I think what is really happening now in the wake of his death is not a shock at his loss, but rather a shock at realizing that his presence has now been over-pacified because of his death. What was Kurt Cobain to all these people? They never knew him personally. Most only saw him in pictures. So for them, he hasn’t really died because there are more images of him now than ever. So what has happened to our sense of loss? Images and loss go hand in hand.

MONK: Images and loss… Hand in hand. You explored those themes in Speaking Parts and Calendar, but in a way, when I hear you say it now, I hear the echo of a New Guinea tribesman who doesn’t want his soul stolen by the big glass eye.

EGOYAN: I explore the same themes in Exotica as well. As soon as you have an image of something, you lose it. As soon as you invent an image, and give it properties beyond the physical characteristics of that image — you are in trouble. And then the question comes around about the mechanics of the image and whether or not you can make ‘direct’ images of people — naturalist images of people — or fool people into thinking they are realistic or natural in some way, when really, it’s all about loss. Once you take the picture, you flatten and distort whatever real thing was there to begin with… And it’s not just the photographic process, it’s every process by which we create images. In my film, Nigel goes to a strip club and pays this dancer to dress up as a schoolgirl — he is making an image, and this whole ritualization process becomes his way of trying to cope with loss, but really, it exaggerates the loss because the original source for the image is gone. Seeing the replication is destructive, even though it makes him feel good — in the short term.

MONK: Even pleasure can be a dirty word in Canada, it seems. What’s your take on the sexual nature of Canadians.

EGOYAN: The nature of sexuality here? It seems that sexuality is something North American society doesn’t really want to embrace in the same way that, say, a European might. |We’re going through some morphing in the way we deal with sexuality,,, and I imagine Exotica deals with that, too.

MONK: So, what does it deal with? What were you thinking about the nature of sexuality while you were making it?

EGOYAN: I’ll call you tomorrow…

MONK: Okay, whatever. Handle the question whatever way you can… if you want to at all.

EGOYAN: There was a time, I think, when sexuality was less about touching and more about rejecting. Then, there was a time when those two processes somehow met and that was the basis of romantic love. But where we’re coming to now with sexuality as a socially acceptable process is a post-romantic attitude whereby the projection in and of itself constitutes touching. And the whole act revolves around the projection — the image — and the whole idea of people getting very excited about something which really, is quite banal, is fascin |ating to me. There’s this whole expectation of what it — the projected idea of sex — will provide. Nothing real can ever live up to that expectation, which is why, I think, the notion of sexuality has become hyped out of its own existence in a strange way.

MONK: And so the cycle of self-created distance starts up all over again…The closer we want to get to it, the further it becomes because we have no real relationship to it whatsoever.

EGOYAN: It’s almost figurative. The sexuality in my film is very peculiar, but that sexuality would be reflected in all the characters. I don’t believe you can have a perfectly dysfunctional character with a fully functional sex. I think the two go hand in hand. I think sexuality is a way of revealing what is at the root of the character’s pain. That’s why I’m always exploring sexuality in my films because it’s a really interesting window to what makes the characters behave the way they do. I have an undeniable attraction towards it, because it’s something we can never, ever, be bored by because it’s a primal force. I’m fascinated when people ask why I deal with sexuality so much, and to me, it’s such an amazing territory in terms of, you know, my generation. Our generation has been exposed to sexual images and pornography to the point we’ve all been accessing images of what sex is supposed to be about, often long before we even have sex. The expectation is created long before the event has a chance to be experienced.

MONK: Sounds like another side-effect of Hollywood’s influence, where a variety of experiences — not just sex — have been distilled into a 30-second montage that can mean everything from training for a boxing match to falling in love. The signifiers or images collapse, and they take all meaning with it.

EGOYAN: That’s exactly why I love making films in this country. Images can be personal, and so they will always have meaning — a Gt least for anyone curious enough to look.

 

When Exotica was released in 1994, it performed above expectations, pulling in $5,046,118 (US) in cumulative box-office receipts around the world — making it the most successful Egoyan film to date. The following year, in 1995, he ventured back to the Riviera to take part in the Cannes jury. He also made a cameo appearance in the Tom Arnold movie, The Stupids, before beginning production on The Sweet Hereafter — the film that ultimately changed Egoyan’s filmmaking career as well as establish English-Canada as skilled player at the film industry’s poker table. Based on a Russell Banks novel about a school bus crash that takes the lives of several children in a small B.C. town, The Sweet Hereafter picked up three prizes at Cannes — the Jury Prize, the Critics’ Prize and the Ecumenical Prize — as well as two Oscar nominations for Egoyan’s direction and screenplay adaptation. Suddenly, more people had heard the name Atom Egoyan than had ever seen his films. Egoyan’s smiling face beamed around the world for a brief instant, but Canadian film had truly entered a new era: an era where we no longer apologized for our inconsistent track record and legacy of tax-shelter shinola. Along with Egoyan, several actors found their way onto the fame-bound bus — most notably Sarah Polley, Stephanie Morgenstern, Gabrielle Rose and Bruce Greenwood. People remembered these performances, and when I found myself at Sundance a few years later in 1999, I had a conversation with an American casting agent for a major studio. We were at a screening of Guinevere, the Audrey Wells movie that starred Polley as a young, socially privileged outsider who gets involved with an older man (played by Stephen Rea). The casting agent said the only reason she came to the screening was to see Polley again. “She’s so real, y’know? I mean, it’s not just the teeth — it’s the whole package. For a real waif, she has a lot of power, y’know. You can’t find anyone with real teeth in Hollywood who isn’t strictly a character actor… or a dog, excuse me, canine performer.” Even Wells, who introduced the cast and the film before the Park City audience, said she cast Polley because of her performance in The Sweet Hereafter — she also put her voice on the soundtrack of Guinevere because she was so taken with Polley’s haunting vocals against Mychael Danna’s layered soundscape.

Despite the film’s incredible critical success, The Sweet Hereafter did not exceed Exotica’s box-office total, pulling in $4,306,697 US. Nonetheless, everyone in the world was hungry to ink a deal with the bespectacled Canuck and Egoyan agreed to a Canada-U.K. co-production supported by Mel Gibson’s production company, Icon Entertainment, and Egoyan’s longtime supporters at Alliance-Atlantis (yes, look for Robert Lantos’ name on the producer credits). The project was another adaptation, this time by William Trevor, who imagined a story of a young woman venturing from small-town Ireland to industrial England in search of her unborn baby’s father. While she just misses an encounter with her irresponsible “true love,” she does run into an introverted caterer named Hilditch (Bob Hoskins), who has sinister plans for the young and innocent Felicia. Filmed on location in the U.K. and the renowned Shepperton Studio soundstages, Egoyan had his hands on the biggest budget of his career: a whopping $10 million US (half of Julia Robert’s current per-picture salary).

The film opened the Toronto International Film Festival in 1999 amid a maelstrom of expectation. I spoke to Egoyan just hours before the opening. He was clearly frazzled. He was approving marketing materials and his father had just walked through the hotel room door as I turned on the tape recorder. “It’s pretty crazy right now, everyone wants a ticket to get in… but these [publicity materials] are important details that I just have to keep track of, as a producer, because they are so important for the release of a movie. I want to make sure the marketing campaign is accessible as possible,” he said, looking at one version of the poster after another. “Every marketing campaign is different. We have one for English Canada, another for French Canada, another for Europe, another for the U.S. — it’s a lot to keep track of, but I can’t just let go. I feel I have to do as much as I humanly can before I let it out of my hands. For me, it goes all the way to DVD and video release — like will it be pan and scan or letterbox?” he says. “For better or worse, I’ve gotten myself into a position where people are beginning to expect a lot from me, and that means I have a lot more decisions to make,” he said. “I read in Macleans today I have a publicist and driver. That makes me sound so important — even if it’s only partially true.”

Egoyan said his brush with L.A. fame was enough to convince him to stay in Canada, where we are “encouraged to live modestly and remain humble…. If I moved to L.A., I would make so much more money. But I wouldn’t be able to direct the movies of my choice, and I wouldn’t be able to direct them my way. It’s a distinct lifestyle choice and right now, my creative goals seem far more important than my financial ones.” Egoyan went on to talk about shooting in Ireland, and his first public screening there that focused on the abortion issue in the film. “It was all very moving being there. I had this sense of place, like this is where Ulysses happened. There was nothing like that at all in Birmingham — it was just a large, ugly, industrial town. It was real Jeff Wall territory, you know? But it was perfect for the film. It really was, because for me, the movie was about suppression and denial. I was fascinated by the fact that her boyfriend doesn’t care about her at all. He’s in denial. Hilditch is in denial and Felicia is in denial. If we make all these accommodations to perpetuate this state of denial, then, where does real emotion come from? What is it — can there ever be a real bond between two people if they are both lying to them selves?”

Egoyan went on to talk about his current thoughts about the Canadian identity, and said the one thing he learned is that we go on and on about being threatened by American culture, but we’re not alone. We’re in the same boat with the rest of the world. “So much of our identity is formed by what we are not, but I think we know we are different. It’s not just different from Americans. It goes deeper than that, and we fumble and make weird statements when we’re in the face of the ‘other’ but I think we all have this nascent sense of confidence. We feel it, we just have difficulty expressing it — so we are defined by the other. It’s kind of pathetic, but it’s who we are… and besides, I love our humility. In fact, when they put Arsinee on the front of the Globe and Mail, we were both stunned. It was just so, um, un-Canadian to be treated like a celebrity that we felt really uncomfortable.” A few hours later, Egoyan and Khanjian would have their bubble burst when a crowd-control officer almost declined them entry to the opening night gala, reconfirming their Canadian credentials — and no doubt, putting them back at ease because for most Canadians (at least the ones who know the rigors of the star machine), anonymity is often more precious than fame.

While Egoyan released the Beckett-based Krapp’s Last Tape at the Victoria Film and Video Festival in Februrary, 2001, his next big features are slated to emerge in 2002, when both Ararat and the Margaret Atwood adaptation, The Blind Assassin, hit movie screens around the world — and clock an entire revolution of Canadian film.

— Katherine Monk

 

FILMOGRAPHY: Smile (1972), Howard in Particular, (1979), After Grad with Dad (1980) Peep Show (1981), Open House(1982), Next of Kin (1984), Men a Passion Playground (short, 1985), In this Corner (TV Movie, 1985), Family Viewing (1987), Friday’s Curse (TV series, 1987), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (TV Series, 1987-88), Looking for Nothing (1988), The Twilight Zone (1989), Speaking Parts (1989), The Adjuster (1991), Montreal vu par… (segment, 1991), Gross Misconduct (TV movie, 1993), Calendar (1993), Exotica (1994), A Portrait of Arshile (1995), The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Bach Cello Suite #4: Sarabande (1997), Yo-Yo Ma Inspired by Bach (1997), Babyface, producer (1998), Jack and Jill, producer (1998), Felicia’s Journey (1999), The Line (2000), Krapp’s Last Tape (2000), Diaspora (short, 2001), Close (short, 2001), Ararat (2002), Where the Truth Lies (2005), Citadel (2006), To Each His Own Cinema (segment, 2007), Adoration (2008), Chloe (2009), Mundo Invisivel (2012), Venice 70: Future Reloaded (2013), Devil’s Knot (2013), The Captive (2014), Remember (TBD).

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