Saturday, March 14, 2009

"We're saturated with a degree of intimacy that we never would have expected" - An interview with Atom Egoyan

Although he remains best known for his Oscar-nominated masterpiece The Sweet Hereafter, Canadian director Atom Egoyan has produced an eclectic body of work over the past twenty years. Whether he's studying the boundaries of erotic obsession in Exotica, exposing Armenian genocide in Ararat, or toying with the tropes of film noir in Where the Truth Lies – Egoyan's stylish, often non-linear films have frequently provided us with intriguing explorations of human relationships. Adoration, the director's latest film, continues in this vein, telling the story of a young man's reinvention of his family history, and using this narrative to investigate the nature of truth, prejudice, and the role technology plays in our lives. I met Atom Egoyan during last year's London Film Festival to talk about his work.

Adoration deals with a number of different themes, some of which you've explored in the past. Was there one particular idea that inspired you to write it?

I was inspired by the fact that our son is turning 15, and of course you start thinking back to when you were 15, and when I was that age I started writing plays in school. I found that exciting and I had my friends join in, and we presented it to teachers, but I was thinking that if I was 15 now and was obsessed with drama, that wouldn't be enough. You would want to extend it to the widest audience possible, and the thing that's remarkable, and would have been unthinkable thirty years ago, is that you have a global audience, and you can broadcast it to the world. Simon is a young man trying to find out who his parents were, and that is somehow blocked or distorted by his grandfather; so, as often happens when you don't have access to something, you find a more creative way of finding that. He comes across this news story, which is presented to him by his French teacher, and he finds a way of creating this alternate persona and he's seized by that. I think I've been thinking a lot about the effects of certain teachers, and when I did start writing plays I was inspired by certain teachers who directed me in certain ways, but in this case the teacher is a very complex character who seems to be creating one project but is actually creating something very different.

Did you have an interest in the internet before you started this film?

I have an interest in technology generally, in terms of how it relates to characters. From my very first films I was interested in whatever were the cutting edge technologies of that time, so in the 80's it was teleconferencing and then video and particularly the texture of home videos. People were able to access their past through finding old tapes and manipulating the tapes, and the tapes themselves had a physical quality so they became these objects, and they became controlling metaphors for these young characters attempting to reformat themselves. The internet is wildly different, although it looks the same – it's still about looking at someone on a TV screen – it's not a hermetic or private system anymore. It's widely available, it's immediate, and there is no physical object, it just exists in its own ever-changing amoeba-like world. In a way, the first part of the film is using the form of the internet as well, there seems to be something random about the structure or the way events, ideas and times are chronicled and accessed, but as we leave the world of the internet behind, there's still a physical journey these characters have to go on. So, I'm interested in technology because I'm interested in how people communicate with each other, and I think the internet has radically changed not only the way we communicate, but the way we allow ourselves to create alternate personalities. Through a device like Facebook people suddenly have way more friends than they could ever meet in their lives, and that's not delusional, it's a viable network. Also, we don't have the space or time to consider things before we voice our opinion. I think that's one of the interesting things that the film is talking about, for instance this community of people who mourn the tragedy that never happened. If those people got into a car and drove to a clubhouse they'd eventually realise "Hold on, this doesn't make sense", but because the internet allows a spontaneous and immediate response, they're just reacting emotionally to something.

When you mention people creating alternate personalities, do you think there's an interesting paradox there? The internet is a tool that can bring people closer together, but if everyone is hiding behind fake identities then it can have a distancing effect. They're not making a true connection.

Yeah, but I don't know if it's a distancing effect. I think it's just that we're saturated with a degree of intimacy that we never would have expected, so we're trying to negotiate the fact that we're way closer to a complete stranger, and what does that mean? What does it mean to have a presence in the lives of people we're not physically connected to? How committed are we to what that relationship requires of us? I think that's one of the things that's touching about the film; there's one young woman who we gather might be Simon's girlfriend, who's quite hurt that he has created this fraudulent version of his life, and she's demanding a degree of sincerity, but there still seems to be something so performative about it. I think that's just the nature of people clamouring for attention. Yes, it's a very democratic way of expressing opinion, everyone gets their say, but it's still survival of the most entertaining, the most aggressive, or the most charismatic. It's just the nature of the way we respond to televised faces. 

How did you create those chatroom sequences?

We did a lot of research at various high schools, where we set up the equivalent of internet chats. I was convinced that by the time the film had come out this would be commonplace, but it still seems to be slightly in the future. There are chats you can set up on Skype where you can have up to nine people, although it's not as fluid as text chatting, but it will be soon, I think. We set up these mock video chatrooms at high schools, and I threw out this idea of Simon's constructed reality, and they immediately got it, I mean, it was shocking how quickly that was absorbed and how they were able to react. So a lot of the kids from high school that you're seeing, especially in the scene where he's eating cereal, those are real kids coming up with those ideas themselves. If it seems a little didactic it's because kids tend to be a little didactic in the way they think, and that's what they were saying. 

You also have the terrorism subtext in this film, and one scene recalls a lot of debates people were having directly after 9/11. Had you been thinking about making a film dealing with this issue since that day, and why did you want to explore it now?

I remember those conversations, and I remember the fear. To be perfectly honest that scene was completely shot and edited, and the conversation was very much about two cultures, with the grandfather classifying the whole religion of Islam as prone to violence, but the lines about 9/11 that begin the scene were actually added by ADR (automated dialogue replacement). It just seemed that's what would have provoked that discussion. It's interesting to me that as you're editing it's always shifting, and it occurred to us that if Simon's 15 this would have been just after 9/11, so it seemed very resonant.

You mentioned how films change during the editing process, and like much of your work, Adoration follows a non-chronological structure. How much of that is worked out at script level, and how much of it is developed through editing?

With these films – and when I say "these films" I mean up to and including The Sweet Hereafter and now Adoration – the editing is the final draft, absolutely, and things are still being modified. If you were to read the shooting script of The Sweet Hereafter, it's radically different to the finished film, and it's just because of the way plot is used, it is more malleable than it would be in a conventional movie. That was one of the things I found quite startling about Where the Truth Lies, nothing changed because it was so plot-driven, and there were so many bits of information that had to be deployed at a certain moment in time; you can't really change it because there's something so formulaic about that sort of film. With original scripts and original ideas, they lend themselves to a process where they're being shifted and played with until all the elements are finally in the mix, including the soundtrack, which is something that I'm anticipating, as it's an essential part of how the film is constructed. If you look at Adoration, The Sweet Hereafter and Exotica, the soundtrack and the motifs being developed are very much part of how the drama is being developed. There's always space in the editing to allow for the music. 

I'd just like to pick up on something about The Sweet Hereafter, as that's one of my favourite films. You said the shooting script was very different to the finished film, do you mean the script was closer to structure of the book?

No, what happened was that in the shooting script we started with the accident, with Nicole in hospital, and the whole thing was constructed as a letter to the lawyer explaining why she deconstructed his case. There are a number of shots you'll see in the film now where the camera is slowly moving onto Sarah's face, which were part of this voiceover, and when we put it together it really was awful. It just seemed way too literate, and it took away so much of the power of the film. It took us a long time to reorder it and to realise – miraculously – that those shots moving onto her face were far more powerful without text. On the other hand, I don't think we would have had those shots if we didn't anticipate the text, and certainly she was thinking those things as the camera was moving in. We also realised that with The Pied Piper, which wasn't in the novel either, we didn't need to have competing narratives, that was powerful enough. So it's a question of adjustments being made, and not relying on a formula which would prevent further exploration. 

I guess another effect of taking away that literal aspect is that it adds a layer of mystery to the film, and Adoration has an element of that as well. It takes us a long time to understand Sabine's motives, and you keep dropping fragments of information into the story. Is that sense of mystery something you enjoy working with?

I love that. I know some people don't respond to it, but I find it intoxicating. I find those scenes with Sabine and Simon, where she's trying to negotiate with him, and he knows there's something up but can't figure out what it is, and she knows she can't give away too much, and this whole ploy of testing the uncle's tolerance – you know there's something strange about those scenes, they seem false. But I think I'm really interested in false notes, ultimately, and I think that happens in The Sweet Hereafter with the incest scene in the barn. You know there's something wrong about that, and yet you can't really identify it. You are trying to enter the state of mind the characters are in, and it is disquieting for the viewer, and I hope they don't lose trust in what I'm trying to do. 

You're going out on a limb, though.

Yeah, we are. You're saying "this is actually a bad scene". When she comes up the first time and starts talking about Jesus being a prophet, and she makes that strange anti-Semitic remark, it feels false, and that is going out on a limb but I think that's exciting. What was great about last night was that people reacted to it with humour, and that just deflected the tension when something wasn't right, or didn't quite fit. It's not that it's not right in a generic way, like it's a device to have an unreliable narrator, because the problem is that if you make it obvious that it's a setup it takes away the onus on the viewer to engage themselves and to deal with their own stereotypes. That's what I'm trying to do, when you see the beautiful blonde and you see the dark Middle-Eastern character who seems quite manipulative, you jump to your own conclusions. You also jump to your own conclusions when you see the woman in the hijab, and I guess that's part of the conditioning I want the viewer to experience in order to go deeper into the drama. Certainly, going back to The Sweet Hereafter, it's very risky to present the abuse from the point of view of the victim, before she understands the nature of the trauma. One of the most disturbing things about the film for many people was that after the accident she's trying to understand why her father isn't touching her, as opposed to the book where she's dealing with her anger, and Nicole is very angry in the book and not in the adaptation, which is one of the major departures. They are risks, but I think a lower-budget film is the place to take those risks. 

Even though this is a low-budget film, there was a quote from you in the production notes where you talked about shooting on 35mm, and the particular attachment you have to it.

I am, but rather stupidly. I think the shooting is great, but I cut the 35mm negative, which I think gives you a better image, but people are just used to digital now, and when you deliver a cut 35mm print, they don't know how to deal with these imperfect cut points. That is clearly obsolete, but I think for as long as I can I'll shoot on 35mm. I saw a feature a friend shot digitally, 4k and projected impeccably, but it's just disconcerting not see grain. 

In Adoration, you're working with a number of actors you've used before, and then there are other actors with varying backgrounds and levels of experience. In that situation, how do you work with an ensemble to get a cohesive level of performance?

The most difficult thing is balancing the people who like a lot of rehearsals and a number of takes with the people you know are best on their first take. For example, the scenes between Rachel and Sami are single-shot, and the performances had to be rehearsed almost in a theatrical way. The scenes between Arsinée and Devon were tricky because Arsinée understands my language and the nature of the subtext, and we realised with Devon that the more we were rehearsing, the more mannered it was becoming. We eventually decided to do those in masters and not use coverage, because Devon was very good when he was just responding naturally on the first take. Those are the most difficult decisions to make, when you're looking at performance and realising you might have to choreograph things to accommodate certain strengths and weaknesses in your actors. 

Of course, you're working with Arsinée again...

Well that's just a pleasure, because I know what she's capable of, and it's a very particular instrument she has. She's the only person who could have played this role and it was written specifically for her, and that's a privilege. It's interesting too because I've seen her now in a number of other films with French directors and loved these other types of performances she can give, and when it comes to my material she's able to communicate that sense of being both emotionally connected and detached to the material, it's very particular. 

I'd like to ask you about your last film Where the Truth Lies, which I saw at this festival three years ago. Not only did I enjoy it, I actually thought it really had a chance of reaching a wider mainstream audience than most of your films.

So did I, and I think people do actually like that film, but I think it was bashed by a lot of people who just thought I shouldn't be making that kind of film – and maybe I shouldn't, I don't know. But I had a lot of fun making it, and I like those types of movies. I also think Alison [Lohman] was unfairly picked on, because she was exactly what I had in mind. I did make a slightly perverse decision – and speaking about taking risks, I'm still not sure about it – I had this idea of casting an actress aged 27 who could also play her 12 year-old self, which I was so excited by. We did double-shoot those scenes, we did have a child playing that part, but I was so entranced by the fact that it was Alison playing her 12 year-old self, and in retrospect it might have been stretching things a bit. This criticism that she's too young to play that part, I think it might have come from people seeing her as her 12 year-old self, and ultimately if it wasn't someone who these two powerful men believed they could fool, then you wouldn't really have the drama. I mean, I love the film, but I think you do have to start listening if enough people are criticising things, and having her on the telethon and having this relationship with Lanny as a hero, it might have added a seriousness to the film which wasn't really warranted; because that wasn't in the novel, where she's more of a classic femme fatale. So I don't know. I think what's shocking is when you look at the life it's had on DVD, and the responses it has had, people do enjoy the film, they just weren't given the chance to enjoy it in theatres, and that's sad because it's a beautiful film to look at as well. 

It seemed to me that when all the controversy started over the NC-17 rating, the film itself almost got lost behind the debate over the sexual content and censorship. Do you agree with that?

I do think that people are completely exhausted by that issue, and ultimately people are not that interested in seeing sex in cinemas anymore. People want to go to films for the emotional experience and how entertaining it is, and now you can see celebrities in hardcore on the net [laughs], so there's no value in paying money to go and see that. I mean, maybe you're right, and certainly it wasn't released as widely in the states, as the rating severely limited its distribution. That's just a North American phenomenon, though – it can't be advertised in the same way, it can't be promoted in the same way, and it's just marginalised. Again, I fault myself to an extent, because the offending scene was shot in a master, and I've since learned that if you're dealing with material that's controversial you should actually shoot it in a more extreme fashion so you can go back and say you've compromised, and you've tried to address some of their issues. That threesome scene was shot in a very beautiful and impeccably performed master, but there was nothing I could do with that shot, there was no coverage, and that's my own fault, I guess. 

Has that experience changed your perspective as a filmmaker? If you wanted to shoot a sex scene in a new film, would you have to be second-guessing the censor while you did it?

Oh, you would, and I'm also so grateful to go back to the type of filmmaking where the commercial pressures are not even a consideration. It does mean that you don't get that shot – I wouldn't shoot it that way again – which is a shame because I think it's quite visceral and powerful that way, and it feels real because it sort of is. But I'll tell you, if it was done through a studio, the moment they saw those rushes they would have demanded coverage, they would have anticipated that, so I was ultimately punished by the creative freedom I had. 

So what are you doing next, have you got another film planned?

I just thought of an idea this morning [laughs]. I mean, I do all these other projects as well, but did you see this production of Eh Joe I did? 

The Beckett play? I didn't see it but I did read about your production.

Well at least you knew I did it. I was shocked last night that a full audience was asking "So what have you been up to?"; I said I did this production of the Beckett play with Michael Gambon, and I realised nobody had heard about it, so that was kind of interesting. There's a lot things I'm involved with that people don't hear about. 

You also teach, don't you?

I'm in my last year at University of Toronto teaching a course called Transgressions, which is about the interdisciplinary practice between film, visual art, music and drama. There's also installation work, and I do opera. I did a production of The Ring Cycle, and there might be another project like that coming up in Berlin, so I'm pretty busy.