Atom Egoyan Interview – Part 3
by Wyndham Wise
This is Part 3 of an interview that appeared in 2004 in a Special Edition of Take One Magazine. Northernstars.ca acquired the archives of Take One in 2007.
W.W. You shot your next film, Family Viewing, three years later. What were you up to during the intervening time?
A.E. Those were tough years. I was trying to sell Next of Kin to the CBC and eventually I did. Then I got this incredible breakthrough. Allan Burke, who was a producer at the CBC, loved the film and I got to direct what became the last film in the For the Record series. It was In this Corner, based on a script by Paul Gross, which I directed in 1986. That changed my life, economically. It was sort of an action film. It had boxing and a terrorist attack. It was about this IRA terrorist who gets shielded by an Irish-Canadian family. I based the boxing scenes on Raging Bull, which I watch religiously, and I recreated some of the sequences from that film. From In This Corner I got work directing television. I shot The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Friday the Thirteenth. That was a huge breakthrough because it allowed me to continue making films. It gave me credibility. I learned my film grammar really quickly, how to set up a master shot, coverage, lenses, fields, how to frame, it was like going back to school and I was absorbing all this stuff like a sponge. I was working on two separate strands. There was Family Viewing and there was the commercial work I was doing. There was no overlap. My film work was rather inaccessible, rigid, and played no part in my commercial work. Actually, there was an interesting overlap in Speaking Parts. The set that David Hemblen appears on in that film was an actual set from The Twilight Zone.
W.W. With Family Viewing and Speaking Parts, you were putting together a group of people who you worked with on many of your other films. Mychael Danna wrote the music for both, Paul Sarossy shot Speaking Parts, and Bruce helped edit both films.
A.E. A lot of Family Viewing was completely opaque until Mychael added the music. It was his music that gave it emotional life. Basically, as detached and removed as the images are, there is an emotional story of this boy who was trying to save his past and reconnect to it, but that doesn’t become explicit until toward the end of the film. What Mychael was able to do was say with his score that there was something very turbulent and primal, almost sentimental. Basically we all looked at this film – Bruce, Steve [Munro], myself, and Mychael – and asked, ‘How do we make this work? How do we communicate the ideas to the viewer?’ I realized it was something that I had been thinking about as I was designing the film. What could I afford to bury, because I knew it could be identified later on. I’m still dealing with that today. Music, sound … sound is huge. In Family Viewing, when she [Arsinée] goes to Montreal to turn a trick, all the sounds are played backwards and are distorted. You see these surveillance images and there are ambient sounds – sounds coming from a television, these nature shows. It was really a reaction against cinéma-vérité, which is about the moment and trying not to tamper with it as much as possible, cinema as a means of capturing reality.
Family Viewing was saying, it`s all about manipulation. It`s all about people acting things out and it`s about making that explicit. It`s not trying to say it`s natural. It`s about getting actors to play at being people they wouldn’t otherwise be playing. Direction is about an overt need to make people do things they wouldn’t be doing. It`s all about exercising power. It`s what I was saying earlier, ‘If the therapist becomes wedded to technique, remaining a craftsman, 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.’ What if you take that notion and then you add in emotion? What if you give it an extraordinarily rich, emotional score. What do you get?
W.W. Your earlier films have been criticized for the flat performances from your actors. Did that come about because you were intimidated by them or was that a stylistic conceit?
A.E. I saw a Robert Bresson retrospective that James Quant programmed down at Habourfront, which was hugely important to me. I’ll always remember Don Owen – who loved Next of Kin, but probably for the wrong reasons – saying to me after he saw Family Viewing that the Bresson films had gone to my head. The idea that actors are models. The feeling that if you repress emotion, that becomes emotional. If you have people holding back, that creates tension.
Definitely I was draining the life out of them. It`s about being in a society or culture where overt emotional expression is not rewarded. The head housekeeper at the hotel tells Lance it`s all about a cool eye, a cool heart, and a playful body. Detachment is the modus operandi in both Family Viewing and Speaking Parts. In today`s world we have these means and technology to keep each other at a distance and adore each other secretly. I’ve always been interested in those issues and I’ve always been interested in the notion of projection as a technical function and an emotional imperative. That correlation has always been irresistible to me, but now it continues more in my installation work than my film work. I realize that some of these formal issues that I explore in Family Viewing and Speaking Parts are probably better suited for a gallery than a commercial screen.
W.W. In Speaking Parts, the plot revolves around the making of a film within the film.
A.E. The show that Hemblen is proposing in the film is very interesting. To actually take a saccharine movie of the week and present it as a talk show – this was before the Jerry Springer-type shows became part of our culture – and anticipate that moment in time where the lines become really blurred. What does experience and art mean when they are mediocre? Hemblen has a great idea but does that warrant him trivializing Claire`s script? The film says ‘no,’ but the fact is, he is probably enhancing her script. What is the role of art in telling the truth? What is the role of love or feelings? Both women in the film have completely repressed their feelings. As much as Arsinée`s character wants to be involved with making images, she doesn’t have the fibre for it. As Tony Nardi says in that scene at the wedding, she loses her objectivity.
W.W. I want to quote to you from J. Hoberman in The Village Voice: ‘Atom thrives on urban anxiety and excels at scenes based on the deadpan staging of a single monstrous joke.’ Do you think that is an accurate assessment?
A.E. There is often a grotesque miscalculation in my films. For example, when Arsinée`s character in Speaking Parts tapes the bride at the wedding, she doesn’t understand the happiness of the day and how important it is for the bride. She screws-up badly. Claire also screws-up badly, giving the rights to her life story to a television producer. In The Adjuster, Noah puts up his clients at the same motel and makes love to them all, not realizing that there would be a cumulative effect. He doesn’t think this will lead to some sort of personal crisis. My pleasure – and my problem – with some of those earlier films is that the joke is at the expense of audience identification and feeling for these characters. You’re aware of watching a strategy being played out but there wasn’t really the opportunity to lose yourself in these people. It comes from the Theatre of the Absurd. I saw The Lesson and The Bald Soprano by Ionesco again recently. He`s not working with real characters but constructs.
Continue reading Part 4 of this interview.