ATOM EGOYAN: IT’S A QUESTION OF PASSION
Friday, January 29th, 2010 | 1:01 pm
OTTAWA – Atom Egoyan, the Canadian auteur of a unique kind of cinema –
intellectual, chronologically fractured explorations of the dualities
of truth and lies, of the viewer and the viewed – is talking about
the day he had to shoot the killer bee scene in the TV series of
Friday the 13th.
It was 23 years ago, and Egoyan was an emerging young talent, a
University of Toronto graduate whose early films, Family Viewing and
Next of Kin, were sometimes playful examinations of family, intimacy,
and technology – themes he would continue to explore in later films.
But he also had to make a living, so he hired himself out to do TV
shows: The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and the pilot
of the TV version of the iconic horror series.
"I remember one scene," Egoyan said. "I came the closest I ever came to
a nervous breakdown on that film because there as a scene where this
maniac grabs a bee’s nest and throws it into the cab of a truck where
this young woman is screaming and she’s being stung to death by bees."
Egoyan decided he wanted a shot from the bee’s point of view, from
inside the truck.
But the director of photography refused to get into the truck even
though the insects were male drones that don’t sting. So Egoyan –
already feeling under pressure because he was behind on the seven-day
shooting schedule – decided to film the scene himself.
"I got into the cab of the truck and the bee-keeper released the
bees, and the actress started screaming, and I was there moving like
a bee, the next thing I remember was people knocking at the window
and looking out and seeing the arc lights and the shadow of the crew,
and I literally didn’t know where I was. I was so discombobulated.
"And I thought, `This is very far from what I thought I’d be doing with
my life right now: having this woman screaming beside me, pretending to
be a bee, and feeling like I was going to be fired. It wasn’t where I
thought I would be when I applied to the arts council five years ago’."
Such is the life of the Canadian auteur, and even more so in the case
of Egoyan, whose themes of duality arise in his own career as well:
the auteur in a horror truck, the art house darling with a couple
of Oscar nominations, the director of cerebral enigmas like Exotica
and Adoration who is also courted by Hollywood to make big-budget
It’s not a new story, but as Egoyan enters the heartland of middle
age – he turns 50 in July – he says he is more careful than ever
about what he wants to do.
Egoyan was in Ottawa to help launch a book about his 1991 movie
The Adjuster. The book, written by Tom McSorley, the head of the
Canadian Film Institute, is one of a series of University of Toronto
Press examinations of Canadian cinema, and it makes a case for The
Adjuster as a watershed film. Starring such familiar performers as
Elias Koteas, Maury Chaykin, Jennifer Dale, Don McKellar and Arsinee
Khanjian (Egoyan’s wife and frequent collaborator), it tells the
story of an insurance adjuster and his relationship with his clients.
"The primary strategy of uncertainty, of mystery, combined with a
jigsaw puzzle narrative structure to contain and enact it, will be
developed further in subsequent films," McSorley writes.
Egoyan remembers the movie as coming at what he calls "a privileged
moment in English Canadian cinema." Canada was coming out of the
so-called tax- shelter era, when movies were made for financial rather
than artistic reasons. Patricia Rozema’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids
Singing (1987) had been invited to the Cannes Film Festival. Egoyan’s
own Family Viewing was picked up for distribution. A personal story
like The Adjuster – inspired when the Egoyan family home and furniture
store in Victoria burned down and Egoyan became curious about the
job of the man who came to assess the damages – could get made.
"It couldn’t be made now because too many people would interfere," he
said. "You would second-guess yourself as opposed to just being able
to react intuitively to this material, which is why it is hopelessly
obscure for some people and very unusual and I think quite purely
Egoyan was born in Cairo to Egyptian-Armenian parents – his name
commemorates Egypt’s first nuclear reactor – and he was raised in
Victoria. He moved to Toronto to go to school, and then started making
short films. The Adjuster was part of a career he describes as "very
incremental" – he’s made only 12 feature films since his 1984 debut
with Next of Kin, and much of his work has come under the radar of
He said he was inspired by Quebec director Jean-Pierre Lefebvre,
who said the budget of a film should reflect its intended market.
Egoyan says that’s all changed now.
"The problem today starts with young filmmakers wanting fame
immediately, and with technologies like YouTube, you have (the)
potential of a lot of people watching your material," he said. "It’s
all about how many hits you’re going to get. An Atom Egoyan couldn’t
exist. I don’t know who I would be in today’s world."
There’s another side to Egoyan’s career, however, one reflected in
his latest film, Chloe. Due out in March, it stars Amanda Seyfried,
Julianne Moore and Liam Neeson – it’s the film Neeson was making when
his wife, Natasha Richardson, died in a skiing accident in Quebec –
in a story about a woman who suspects her husband is unfaithful and
hires a prostitute to try to seduce him. It’s a remake of a French
film, and Egoyan did not write the script: he was hired by producer
Ivan Reitman to direct it.
Egoyan has received such offers before, especially after the success of
his commercial breakout, Exotica, in 1994. At the time, he moved to Los
Angeles and signed on to direct a thriller, to be called Dead Sleep,
for Warner Brothers. He calls it "the most confusing year of my life."
"I was meeting actors and meeting executives, and everyone was
speaking very intelligently about this script and it felt like (the)
right environment for me, until I realized that I wasn’t going to
wind up making that film. It was going to be in constant development."
He was rescued when American author Russell Banks – "bless his soul"
– pressured him to make a film out of his novel The Sweet Hereafter,
another dark story about a group of schoolchildren who die in a bus
accident. Egoyan was nominated for Academy Awards for his direction
and his screenplay of the 1997 film.
The studio interest got more intense, but Egoyan said he has learned
that the excitement often leads to disappointment. He had just finished
talking with fellow director David Cronenberg, who spent a year on
a project with Denzel Washington and Tom Cruise – a thriller to be
called The Matarese Circle – only to have the plug pulled.
"You can just waste a lot of time," Egoyan said. "And I made a promise
to myself now that I’m going to be turning 50 that I’m not going to do
this any more unless the project will actually get made. Chloe almost
didn’t. A French studio (StudioCanal) came in to underwrite it, or
there would have been a problem. Dramas are hard to finance right now.
I continue to read scripts and books, but if I don’t think there’s
a chance of getting it made, I’d rather spend time on my own projects."
It’s a different kind of cinema, of course. "My sensibilities as
a writer are very idiosyncratic and I have to be very protective
and understand the audiences for that film are more limited for an
audience than a film like Chloe. " But cinema isn’t his whole life.
He also directs opera and does art projects, like an installation for
the opening of Bell Lightbox and Festival Tower, the new headquarters
of the Toronto International Film Festival.
"It’s a question of what I’m passionate about," he said. "What’s
interesting … about the film The Adjuster that (is) it was made
passionately . .. you can feel that when you watch the film. And
that’s what you want to feel. "