Home Directors Atom Egoyan Interview – Part 5

Atom Egoyan Interview – Part 5

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Atom Egoyan Interview – Part 5
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. You have worked with Don McKellar on several occasions, and he won a Genie for his performance in Exotica.

A.E. Definitely, I think he`s an alter ego for me. It`s an interesting relationship I have with him. I have been mistaken for him at times, and he for me. Frankly we don’t see it, but others have told us we look alike. At the Toronto Arts Awards several years ago, he made a short film on me, for which I directed an interview with him playing me. A lot of people didn’t know the difference. There`s something about him I can project into a lot. I find his energy really appealing. He`s very intelligent and a great performer. When he gets on stage, he is very good, and I admire that. It`s something I can’t do. When he`s in a public speaking situation, he`s able to command a crowd. And as much as I have never really been able to crack theatre, he`s a real theatrical presence. I love seeing him on stage. He`s a consummate actor.

W.W. Can we now turn to Exotica, which I understand was a very demanding shoot.

A.E. It was shot in the middle of one of the worst heat waves in Toronto`s history. Arsinée was pregnant and it was a very difficult pregnancy. Going into that club every day was like going into hell. We had extras fainting all the time. And it`s very difficult when you conjure a heightened sexual environment. We had professional strippers and their managers, who are not the nicest people in the world to deal with and, without going into too much detail, it was my most stressful film to shoot. But it was a huge commercial success, there is no doubt about that, and it was the perfect film with the perfect distributor at the perfect time. Alliance was able to take the title – and the critical attention the film got – and promote it confidently and devise a marketing plan which mirrored the feeling of the film. We are able to synergize ;Take One - Issue # 6 Cover - Northernstars Collection;all the various elements with a degree of confidence and assurance. When it opened at the Angelica in New York, it broke the house record. It sold out the first weekend. Miramax opened it wide in the United States with 500 screens, which I thought was too wide, but it did very well.

W.W. It also did well internationally.

A.E. It played virtually everywhere. It was a breakthrough and it was by no means compromised. The only compromise was the marketing plan. Miramax sold it as an erotic thriller. ‘The first in a hot new trend of high-profile striptease films, the powerfully exotic hit Exotica is gripping entertainment.’ Only Miramax could come up with a line like that. Actually, Robert and Victor at Alliance are pretty smart about promoting the hell out of a film and still maintaining the core audience. They figured the marketing would bring in the rest, of which half might not like the film, but the other half will and they will tell their friends and build a word of mouth. I understood for the first time that the marketing didn’t necessarily have to reflect the film. By the time people have seen the film, and they like it, they forget about the marketing. If they don’t like it, then they are going to resent the marketing. But it`s really quite separate from the movie itself.

W.W. Can you talk about the structure of the film, which is really quite sophisticated and much more developed than your previous films.

A.E. Well, it`s a striptease. It`s a striptease in structure and deals with striptease as a performance. It`s a gradual revealing of a very naked element, and the very naked element is a horrifying event that all these people are in-volved in, in one way or another. It`s basically shrouding that naked element with as much mystery and as much al-lure as possible, so you think it`s about something else. It`s very much about what you feel at a striptease bar once that dancer is actually completely naked and spread out in front of you. It`s a very different thing than what you are dealing with when it starts. It`s a radically different issue. The fact that Mia didn’t strip down naked seemed a problem at the time, but it is fairly insignificant in retrospect. There are plenty of naked girls in the club, and her final scene with Don worked really well.

W.W. Finally, with Exotica, you were recognized by the Canadian Academy and the film won eight Genies, including best picture, director, and screenplay. It also won the International Critics Prize at Cannes that year. That must have been very satisfying.

A.E. It was a really great moment for us – Camelia [Frieberg] and I – to get those awards, for sure. It also seemed somewhat surreal that we had never won anything before. There is something odd about the Academy. Bruce has never won anything. Neither has Patricia nor Peter. [Editor`s note: Until 2003, when Mettler won Best Dcoumentary for Gambling, Gods and LSD.] The Adjuster was completely shut out, except for the director, and that is such a supremely crafted film. You might not like that movie, but the sound work, the cinematography, the production design is of a standard so beyond what was happening that year. So it`s hard to comprehend what the Academy does or does not nominate. My fellow directors [at the Directors Guild of Canada] have always been kind to me, and I have been nominated ever since Next of Kin.

W.W. Exotica seems like an important film in so many ways, not the least of which, it was one of the last films to be made with the support of the OFDC before Mike Harris and the Conservatives came to power and closed everything down.

A.E. That had a pulverizing, traumatic effect. They just never understood how important the films were to a sense of Ontario culture. I mean, who`s Mike Harris? Twenty years from now he’ll be forgotten. He`s of the moment, but what will remain are the films, the plays, and the books of the period. A culture that cannot enshrine its achievements is in deep trouble in terms of legacy. The books that are written, the films that are made, define the time and place not policies. If absolute priority is not given to cultural policy, then it`s really a sign of a society`s lack of self-respect.

W.W. After Exotica, you returned to your first love, the stage, and directed a production of the opera, Salome. How did that come about?

A.E. That was about doing something I always wanted to do. Salome is an opera that`s right up my alley. I love the music. It`s 90-minutes long. It`s like a feature film with the score already given to you and you just have to choreograph the action. It was accelerating and it was doing something I had always dreamed of, which is creating theatre, if on a more massive scale. It was deeply satisfying to me, deeply. Especially Salome, which is so much about spectacle and a dysfunctional family and about what happens when you don’t accept something, when you’re in denial. It`s all about people watching other people obsessively and not having the gaze returned.

W.W. Both you and Patricia Rozema were involved in the Rhombus production of Yo-Yo Ma Inspired by Bach. Tell me a little bit about your segment.

A.E. It was a dream situation. I got to work with one of my favourite musicians and I got to create a drama around him. Niv [Fichman] told me I could do whatever I wanted. He gave me Yo-Yo`s availability, so we shot part of it one summer and waited a whole year to do the other part. Basically what I wanted to do was to take this piece of music and hear it in every possible way that a person might encounter it – in a master class, playing on the radio, as background Muzak, in the back of a limo on the way to a concert – every possible position you could have Yo-Yo Ma playing this piece of music. He actually is a superhuman. He is one of these people who remembers everything. You want to hug him and punch him at the same time. He`s so inspiring and endlessly full of this positive energy. It was a very satisfying experience to work with him.

Continuing reading Part 6 of this interview.