Atom Egoyan Interview – Part 6
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 next feature was The Sweet Hereafter, which up until now, is your most successful and accomplished film.
A.E. It took me a long time to get the option on the book because it was owned by a studio in Los Angeles. Margaret Atwood connected me to Russell Banks. I met him in Montreal and convinced him to sell me the option, but I was in this crazy phase where I was developing a feature with Warner Bros. It had become a long, tortured process, and I was down in Los Angeles going through every cliché of development hell. At one point Russell invited me to his house and told me the studio option was going to run out soon and I had to make a decision. He encouraged me to take the opportunity. That, and being on the festival jury at Cannes that year, woke me up to the folly I had entered into with Warner Bros. So I walked away from that film and made The Sweet Hereafter instead.
I worked for a long period with Allen Bell in Victoria, who is great as a script editor. I had been wrestling with the idea of The Sweet Hereafter and there was something I hadn’t cracked. I was explaining it to Allen, the story about this person coming to town trying to join all the community into a class-action suit, and he said, `sort of like the modern version of the Pied Piper.’ It was an amazing inspiration to me, because the moment he said it, I knew I had found a way of doing the book. It was the key that unlocked the script. At first Russell was suspicious, because it seems a bit hoary, obvious, a literary device, but it works, and when Russell saw the film he agreed with me. But it took awhile for it to work. We had to reconstruct the film in the editing. But in the end it works.
W.W. The story in the book is told in Rashomon-like fashion, for multiple points of view, but you reworked it.
A.E.The character I was most interested in was Mitchell Stevens. I was interested in him as an adjuster, somebody who is a messianic figure coming into this community that is grieving over the loss of its children. I felt that the tricky part of the adaptation was that the novel could use the first person because each of the characters is talking to the reader. When you are making a film, you have to find someone to whom these people are talking. So Dalores tells her story to Mitchell. Billy is better off not telling his story explicitly to anyone. Nicole is telling her story to the Pied Piper, and we had to find someone to whom Mitchell could tell his story.
Originally it was a journalist in town, but that was so much an American take on things. I really felt the way to make this film Canadian was not to have a gaggle of people around. Having only one lawyer come into the community would somehow be more representative of the way our culture would respond to the incident. So I had to invent a character for Mitchell to tell his story to. That`s how we get Alison, the character he meets on the plane. And the plane becomes a very loaded throughline, because we are not quite sure where it is going. Mitchell may be going to his daughter`s funeral or he may be going to pick her up from another clinic. We don’t know. Alison and the introduction of the Pied Piper theme, were the two major inventions I brought to the script.
W.W. The film was shot in British Columbia, and the landscape plays an important part in the film. It was also the first film you shot outside of Ontario.
A.E. British Columbia is my province on some level. I really do feel it`s an amazing place to travel through, and we were trying to find the right location. The Rockies were too majestic and they didn’t fit in the frame. I wanted to see the mountains in relationship to the people, and the Rockies are just too high, too magnificent. Instead, we found this place in the Nicola Valley, which is not a stunning range, but sits very well on the screen. There is the idea that there is a transcendent force, that this town`s future is swallowed up into nature. That nature has the ability to absorb, to take away, and to regenerate. The image of the bus travelling through the mountains is something very terrifying yet comforting. Look at that shot of the bus drowning in the lake. There`s something beautiful about it.
W.W. The film had an extraordinary success. It became one of the highest-grossing Canadian films, and you won three awards at Cannes, including the Grand Jury Prize, eight Genies, plus the first-ever Oscar® nomination for a Canadian director of a Canadian feature.
A.E. It`s difficult to express how unexpected those Oscar® nominations were. We already had a great run that year, with Cannes and the Genies, then unexpectedly The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times both called it the best film of the year. The New York Times talked a lot about Bruce [Greenwood] and how his was one of the underrated performances of the year. Then suddenly we entered this zone. The Academy members were making their nominations and everyone got a chance to see it, and it created this effect. It was an amazing morning getting that news. We had won for Best Ensemble Cast from the National Board of Review and we were all together partying in New York. It was a great evening and we got back late. The next morning I was hung over. Our son wanted to watch cartoons on the hotel television, so I went into the bathroom where there was a small black-and-white radio/television. I dialed into the Academy Award nominations and heard my name. Then the phone rang immediately. We came back to Toronto that afternoon, and Robert [Lantos] organized a press conference for the following morning.
It was a dream come true. It was a great moment for everybody. Exotica had been a confirmation in this country, but this was something else. And it was particularly important it happened with that film. Here was an American book, optioned by a studio, then the studio decides they can’t make it into a film because of the subject matter and it figures it can’t be made for less than $30 million. It gets picked up and made in Canada for $4.5 million, Canadian, and gets massively re-injected back into American culture with all its Canadianess unflinchingly displayed.
W.W. Your next film, Felicia`s Journey, was also an adaptation.
A.E. Icon Productions [Mel Gibson`s production company] bought the book and presented it to me. Icon had been involved with Dead Sleep, which was the Warner Bros. project I had been working on, so it was not my first contact with them. I said I would like to meet William Trevor, and it was like, ‘Oh, why? We bought the book and you don’t have to meet the writer at all, just do it.’ But I really wanted to meet William. No one from Icon had even met him or talked to him. I thought that was kind of insane, but that`s the way it is usually done. I went to meet him in England and read all his work.
It`s a very intimate drama, a two-hander. I was really drawn and moved by it. It goes back to Family Viewing. Hilditch`s primal relationship is a mediated one. He probably never had the attention or the gaze of his mother except for when she was doing her television show. Suddenly he was given full attention, but he is constantly humiliated. He had a terrible, traumatic upbringing. However, he has been able to completely make it into this weird, dysfunctional therapy where he has an archive of his mother`s show. He has all these tapes of this monster of a mother who has destroyed him at some level. He watches her every day. She seems to be enjoining him to create these meals together. So he goes out and buys all the ingredients, makes these lavish meals, presents them lavishly and shares them with his mother. He is able to reformat a relationship that was supremely dysfunctional into something that seems to be functional, but it is obviously not doing the trick. Hilditch is so rooted in the 1950s and is anti-techno-logy, sort of old-fashioned, but ultimately is a complete master of technology. He has placed a video camera in this car and uses the medium to destroy these young women. The video documents destruction, until he meets a woman who is an expectant mother. I found that so moving. He has to destroy her as a mother before he can kill her.
W.W. You refer to the monstrous mother, which is a theme that runs through many of Alfred Hitchcock`s films. You even give a visual nod to Hitchcock, with Bob Hoskins coming up the stairs with a glass of milk like the famous scene in Suspicion.
A.E.The one explicit reference, of course, is Hoskins coming up the stairs with the milk on a tray. Also I think it`s there in Trevor`s choice of the name Hilditch. I always thought of Hilditch as Hitch, and if you listen to Hoskins`s accent in the film and Hitchcock`s voice, they both have that same nasal sound. That wasn’t intended, but Hitchcock was there on a number of levels. In terms of the marketing, the failure of the film was based on this uneasy marriage of the personal and the genre. I felt very close to the material and I had a profound moment when I was shooting the scene in the castle in Ireland. Felicia is being berated by her father, who, in 1916, is a Republican. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, that was only one year away from the Armenian genocide.’ It struck me that I had to do something about my own people`s defining moment. That was one of the triggers for Ararat.
W.W. Felicia`s Journey also tackles the very tricky issue of abortion, which is banned in Ireland and is a hot-button issue for many people.
A.E. If I had been doing the festival circuit with Felicia`s Journey, the discussions would have been about the notion of free will and choice, because Hilditch is the monster of pro-choice. He`s trying to convince Felicia to have an abortion and he is using all these rational arguments. He`s trying to talk to her about free will, but he has already determined what her fate will be. That was never part of the discussion around the film. It was all about being a take on the thriller genre, and I think it made me shy away from genre. I think it`s impossible to make a genre film without that being in the context through which people see it, as opposed to something of itself.
W.W. After two adaptations, you went back to an original story idea for Ararat, which seems to be a truly personal project for you. Can you tell me how that came about?
A.E. During the 1980s there were several terrorist attacks as a result of the complete denial by the Turkish government of the Armenian genocide, culminating with an attack on the Turkish embassy in Ottawa. That was one of the most defining moments in my life. I remember watching it on television with Arsinée. She was being cool about it, but I completely broke down. I could not reconcile my Canadian side with what was going on in that embassy. It was a really difficult time for me. It brought forth these issues of history, how we bare res-ponsibility for remembering the past, and how close I had come to letting go of my Armenian heritage. Over the years, as my reputation as a filmmaker grew, Armenians I would meet would ask when are you going to make a film that is going to show things as they really happened. We need a Schindler`s List. We need a movie that is going to say what happened.
There`s a book, Forty Days at Musa Dagh written by an Austrian Jew, Franz Werfel. That`s it. That`s the story, the epic film MGM tried to make, but the Turkish government suppressed it. But I can’t make that movie. I can’t make an historic epic. It`s not my sensibility. So Ararat is this breakthrough for me because I realized that the way to address the genocide is to make it absolutely personal, to make it about a director coming to Toronto to make a film that I can’t make myself. It`s about how the film affects a gallery of characters who are peripherally involved with the making of it or their contact with the people who are on the set. Charles Aznavour plays the director, and there is an 18-year-old kid who gets hired as his driver. That driver – whose father was killed in an aborted Armenian terrorist attack – is really my recollection of who I was at that time in my life. The challenge was to do a film within a film without being ironic about that. It`s an inherently ironic structure, but it`s an attempt to make the film within the film function exactly as one of those historic epics would.
W.W. The question of national borders comes up a lot in your films, especially in this one where the whole film is revealed in one night as the driver is stopped by a customs officer, played by Christopher Plummer, and asked to explain what is in the film cans.
A.E. It`s probably from my immigrant experience at some deep level. What I reflect on is how my life would have been completely different if I had gone elsewhere. There are certain rules and when you come into a different culture, you are very aware of the baggage you bring and you are very aware of the codes you embrace. At a border, you are being asked to itemize and talk about where you are from and whether or not you are accepting the codes of being somewhere else. Actually, it`s a little therapy session, because you’re being asked to be honest about who you are and where you are from. Those are profound issues and it is an invitation to speak, to explain yourself. One of my more formative experiences was after the Armenian terrorist attack in Ottawa. I was fully bearded and coming back from Vancouver to Toronto. When questioned at the Toronto airport I stupidly said that if I shot someone in Ottawa why would I be coming from Vancouver to Toronto. They took me to a room and I was stripped searched and I went through two hours of investigation. That left a huge impression on me.
W.W. How do you think the Turkish government is going to react to this movie?
A.E. They are completely in denial about what happened in 1915 to their own Armenian population. It`s surreal. But first and foremost, Ararat is not a movie about the genocide. It`s about denial. The genocide is a fact. I will not engage in any argument about whether it happened or not. It`s such an extraordinary thing that the Turksish government has denied what happened for so long. It`s perverse, but it all comes down to denial. The lead character in Family Viewing, who`s dealing with all sorts of denial, who`s trying to reabsorb his past, has lost his Armenian language. He sees these tapes of his grandmother speaking in Armenian. He`s trying to reconnect with all of that. His name is Van. Van is a city in Turkey we are representing in the film. It`s about the siege of Van. Van has a huge significance in the history of all this, but we’re dealing with something that most people don’t know about, so rather than educate people, which is not what the film is about, I’m using this piece of history to explore the nature of that denial.
W.W. Since your first feature film in 1984, you have risen to the status of one of Canada`s most famous film directors and your name now appears ahead of the film title. Do you reflect on this at all?
A.E. It`s been incremental, a gradual process of making films that respect and presume a viewer`s intelligence and realizing that a simple act of generosity can be returned. It`s been very satisfying to grow with a group of people. And we’re still all friends. We’re all aware of feelings of competiveness and jealousy, but we’ve known each other so long and respect each other`s work. We’re able to genuinely celebrate the individual breakthroughs and support each other. It`s the characteristic of this particular group at a certain point in time, but it`s also an aspect of our national identity that we are striving to maintain respect for each other. Being in a culture that doesn’t know how to celebrate itself, we celebrate each other. It`s a unique situation.
Also see: Atom Egoyan`s filmography.