Atom Egoyan Interview – Part 2
by Wyndham Wise
The following interview appeared in 2004 in a Special Edition of Take One Magazine. Northernstars.ca acquired the archives of Take One in 2007.
W.W.Your first film was called Howard in Particular. Tell me about it.
A.E. Howard in Particular actually won an award down at the CNE, which was an interesting experience, but I never really capitalized on it. I still didn’t think I would have a career in film. However, with my playwriting I was always in the shadow of Pinter or Beckett; everything I wrote up until then was influenced by those two. I did understand from the moment I made Howard that the camera was like the eyes of the people watching the film. That really resonated with me. There is one sequence in Howard, just a brief moment, where this old man is being led to his retirement party, which is being tape recorded. It`s like Krapp`s Last Tape, which I filmed in 2000 with John Hurt. There`s this moment where the old man is led into a room and the camera follows him objectively. Then the room goes black, he sits down, and when the light comes back on, the camera is engaged with him in a subjective way. I thought this was really interesting. You can change the point of view and create a way of regarding the character and creating a relationship with the camera, where the camera becomes another character. I found that really exciting.
W.W. Would you talk about how you met Peter Metler and Bruce McDonald.
A.E. I met Peter through Ron Mann, who was also at the University of Toronto. Ron was shooting Poetry in Motion, and he was doing a section with Alan Ginsberg, who was performing at Trinity College in The Buttery. At the last moment Ron wanted me to put up some of his crew in the basement of Trinity College. There was a guest room for visiting parents down there. I remember having to negotiate with the college to allow these musicians and crew to sleep in the basement. Ron had this incredible energy and had a way of connecting with people. So when it came to making Open House, I wanted to have a proper crew after doing everything myself on the earlier films. But I wasn’t connected to anyone, so it was Ron who connected me with Peter Mettler and the whole Ryerson crew, including Bruce [McDonald].
W.W. What was it like working with Peter?
A.E. I remember the moment I met him there was an energy he had and an aesthetic that I found so inspiring. He really taught me that cinematography was an extraordinary art form, an artistic way of looking at things that was immediately transferred to a viewer. You actually had this instrument that gave you direct access to how an artist would look at something. There was nothing to adulterate that; it was an absolutely clear expression. I went back to look at his earlier shorts and it was just a complete revelation. Peter was really a teacher. I had seen some of the European films and Michael Snow`s Wavelength – and understood this notion of the gaze – but all these people were outside my frame of reference and had little influence on the way I was shooting my own films. At the time I was using a lot of subjective camera work because I didn’t really understand anything else. I really didn’t study film in any sort of formal way.
W.W. I understand you used a crane shot in Open House, which seems awfully ambitious for a small film.
A.E.Actually, it was a cherry picker. The shot is a very tentative move downward. I learned if you keep something in a continuous shot, it has a more muscular effect than if you cut away. My films before Open House were very primitive in terms of the way they were shot. Peter taught me how to be patient and watch.
W.W. Bruce McDonald tells a funny story of how Open House had been rejected by the Festival of Festivals so you showed it on the sidewalk outside the old University theatre.
A.E. Open House had been rejected, which was the same year Let Me See had been rejected. I put on what was close to a tux, and Bruce had rented a projector and a generator, and we showed our films on the sidewalk outside the University theatre during the nightly gala. This was at the end of the tax-shelter period. The idea of Canadian independent features being hip or the existence of any kind of infrastructure for showing them was non-existent, except for the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre. We all felt very much on the outside. We were all really ambitious and knew that a community was being formed, although no one identified it as such.
W.W. Were you involved in LIFT, like some of the other filmmakers I am talking to?
A.E. I was an early member of LIFT, but unlike Bruce and Peter, I was not involved with its formation. As the former chairman and secretary of the Hart House Film Board, I felt an anxiety about the politics of any kind of organization. I had been really involved with the Hart House Film Board, handling the maintenance and having to police the equipment and the headaches of serving members who needed equipment at short notice. That was always a problem. However, I used LIFT and it was very helpful on Next of Kin and Family Viewing.
W.W. Open House might not have made it into the Festival of Festivals, but Peter`s Scissere did. Describe to me your reaction to that event.
A.E. Scissere was the first film from the group that got into the Festival of Festivals. It was a huge event for us. I remember after the screening being down at the Rivoli on Queen Street. Somehow I got the early edition of The Globe and Mail and there was a review by Adele Freedman, the architecture critic. It was a tiny caption review. I remember picking up the paper on Spadina Avenue and running back into the Rivoli. This was it! We made it into The Globe! Of the group, Peter would provide the aesthetics and Bruce the marketing. The Bloor Street screening was Bruce`s idea and I just showed up. I wouldn’t have thought to do it. Bruce`s idea was always to reach out to the public, with the ‘Outlaw’ edition of Cinema Canada and all that stuff.
W.W. Would you tell me about the making of Next of Kin, your first feature.
A.E. Not having studied film, I didn’t understand the notion of coverage, and I was inherently suspicious of it because I was from the theatre and the idea of manipulating and cutting a performance was really abhorrent to me. A lot of that film was based on fear. I just didn’t get it, so it was all shot in master takes. In the opening scenes of the family therapy sessions, the camera would move in with zooms and I used pans until the moment when the therapist takes the videotape of the other family and puts it into the machine. When he talks about releasing the ghost of the missing child in that family, the camera, which had been on a tripod, suddenly becomes hand-held. What is interesting is that the camera assumes the position of watching the session instead of just recording it.
That hand-held aesthetic informs the rest of the movie as Peter seeks out the other family. I thought this would be a really great formal idea and that there would be something creepy, and there would be a tension in that. What I didn’t realize was that the hand-held aesthetic, rather than becoming creepy and giving tension, became like cinéma-vérité, and the moment Peter enters the other family, people love it because it seems so real. That was never my idea and, to me, this was a catastrophe, a failure. When people come up to me and say they love the scenes with the other family because they are so warm, they don’t get it because, to me, the Armenian family is just as dysfunctional, just as screwed-up as the WASP family. But there is this folkloric aspect to the Armenian family that is enhanced by the hand-held camera.
So the film is a total and complete failure of a formal plan that went on to succeed in a way that I didn’t want, which is the nightmare of any filmmaker. I resolved in Family Viewing that I would make my aesthetic intentions absolutely clear. There would be no mistaking what the movie was all about. It was a reaction against the spontaneity in Next of Kin. My subsequent films became really rigid. You might hate the films, but there was no mistaking what was the cinematic intention. [At this point in the interview, Egoyan brings out a book on clinical case studies he used as a reference text for Next of Kin.]
A lot of stuff in Next of Kin was drawn from case studies in this book, Salvador Minuchin`s Family Therapy Techniques. [He quotes:] ‘Humans are storytellers, mythmakers, and framers of reality. Therapy starts, therefore, with the clash between two frames of reality. A family`s framing is relevant to the continuity and maintenance of the organizism more or less as it is. The therapeutic framing is related to the goal of moving the family toward a more differentiated and competent dealing with their dysfunctional reality.’ This was a huge book for me, but it has fallen out of favour. I bring it into the film when Peter arrives at the clinic, and the receptionist refers to him as Dr. Minuchin. [He quotes:] ‘If the therapist becomes wedded to technique, remaining dispassionate, his contact with patients will be objective, detached, and clean but also superficial, manipulative for the sake of personal power, and ultimately not highly effective.’ Minuchin was really into this notion of the therapist involving himself, role-playing. You know the part when the therapist really gets involved in the Next of Kin. It all comes out of this book. All the conversations in the session, everything the therapist does was inspired by this book.
Also Videotape Techniques in Psychiatric Training and Treatment was a huge book for me. It was published in 1970, and my sense of film grammar came out of that book. During the therapy sessions in Next of Kin, the camera moves into the room with the video cameras and inadvertently – with the video recording of the session – I actually got a form of coverage. Even though I think the film is a failure, I love that scene. I thought it was so rigid and that`s what I took into Family Viewing. What if someone lives in a situation where their entire life is represented through video, like something between a soap opera and a therapy clinic? That is how we shot all the condo sequences in Family Viewing. We had three broadcast quality video cameras and we were doing live switching, so you get this very strange feeling in those scenes.
W.W. In Next of Kin you worked with Arsinée Khanjian for the first time. How did that come about?
A.E. I had already cast another actress to play her character, but I needed to find actors to play the Armenian parents. I went to Montreal to meet the Fazlians, who were known in the Armenian theatrical community. While I was there I saw a production of The Mousetrap in Armenian, and Arsinée was in it. She was so beautiful I fell in love at first sight. It turned out she was married and completely inaccessible, but I wanted to cast her for the part of the daughter. This is the weird part of the story. Her husband, who was this strapping, Adonis figure knew I was interested in casting Arsinée, but she wasn’t interested. The Fazlians were starring in a community production of Othello. During the intermission, Arsinée`s husband said to me, ‘Why don’t you audition my wife? I think she would be good for your film.’ It was ironic that this took place during Othello. So I phoned her, but she wouldn’t return my calls. I was persistent and finally convinced her to be in my movie. We came back to Toronto, shot the movie, and fell in love.
W.W. Just to finish off with Next of Kin. It did make it into the Toronto Festival of Festivals in 1984 and was made for only $37,000, is that correct?
A.E. I shot it for $25,000 and I got a completion grant to finish it. The film was totally funded by the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council. Then it was accepted in the first year of Perspective Canada, which was fantastic. That was an amazing year. Not only was the film in the festival, but suddenly I was part of this incredible growth in Canadian film culture. Suddenly I was going to cocktail parties with Don Owen and Jean Pierre Lefebvre.
W.W. Did you now think you could make a living doing this sort of thing, making films instead of working in the theatre?
A.E. At that point, yes. I had a frustrating experience with Tarragon, where I wrote a play that everyone kind of liked but it never really got workshop- ped properly and I couldn’t wait around any more. The great thing about Next of Kin was that it was respected but it did not get an overwhelming response and, in retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened.
Continue reading Part 3 of this interview.