An Interview with Atom Egoyan, director of "The Sweet Hereafter", Part I
by Anthony Kaufman
Since his 1984 debut feature “Next Of Kin” to his most recent popular success
“Exotica“, Atom Egoyan has enjoyed critical acclaim across Canada and small
circles in the U.S. and abroad, but it is with “The Sweet Hereafter“, based
on a novel by Russell Banks, that Egoyan’s fetishes fit into a skillful
model and his unsettling direction has found a form just as haunting as in
his earlier work, but now with more accessibility.
The film follows Mitchell Stephens, Ian Holm’s big city lawyer likened to
the Pied Piper of Hamelin, who comes to a small town which recently lost 14
of its children in a school bus accident. Stephens must confront his own
painful relationship with a drug-addicted daughter, who calls on his cell
phone intermittently, while simultaneously seducing the town’s residents
into filing a class action suit to compensate them for the horrible tragedy.
From the success “The Sweet Hereafter” has received at film festivals
worldwide and with its November film release by Fine Line in the States,
Atom Egoyan will most likely feel the warm breath of studio heads breathing
down his Armenian-Canadian neck and will have to hold fast to the
independent and personal quality he has sustained throughout his body of
indieWIRE: We’re always concerned with the term “independent” film —
where do you draw the line?
Atom Egoyan: It’s a very weird line these days. Ultimately, how I define a
studio film is a film in which the final choice and shape of the film is
defined by consensus, by a group of people and an independent film is one
in which a director preserves final cut. Really what I’m talking about is
an independence of spirit. And I think, increasingly we find films made in
the independent scene which are actually made with a studio mentality. And
I think conversely, it’s possible to make within the studio system a film
which has an independent spirit.
iW: And at least from the name of your production company [Ego Film Arts].
. . ?
Egoyan: Ego, it’s a joke, but it’s funny, I’m toying with it again now. The
next adaptation I’m doing is a book by William Trevor called “Felicia’s Journey“, but it’s made with Icon. And Icon is one of the those interesting
little companies which is both outside and inside the system, so we’ll see
if after doing the adaptation, I will have the complete control I need to
make the film. But if I do go ahead with that, it will be the first time I
make a film that is not an Ego Film, but I still hope to bring all my ego
and emerge with it intact.
iW: That’s what is great about your body of work — there are certain
through lines, there are certain patterns, there is a certain “you”, but
“you” in the creative sense, in all of these films, and even in “The Sweet Hereafter”, still, a bigger film.
Egoyan: It is a bigger film. And I’ve only come to understand that now that
I look back on it and watch it. It’s ambitious in terms of the number of
characters, the number and scale of which its made. But it’s still a small
film, it’s a $5 million film.
iW: The whole film is leaning in a very different direction. It feels like
a big move for you in terms of your filmmaking.
Egoyan: It’s a big move because of what the book required. The characters
are identifiable. In the other films, I’ve resisted identification. I
wanted to set up the most extreme patterns of behavior, so you’d wonder why
are these people acting that way and what you would enter is the whole
personality of the film without having access to any of the individual
personalities. That’s just been the strategy of those other films. So, at
no point during “Exotica”, did you go, “I wonder what would happen if my
daughter was murdered and I met her babysitter in a stripclub many years
later dressed in her old school uniform?” You would never ask that
question, because it’s not really posed.
This book, and certainly the film, poses the question, an obvious and
horrifying question, “What would happen if you lost your children. What
would happen to the community of people you know?” I understood that it
would be disastrous to stylize those characters in the way I’ve stylized my
other ones — my other characters haven’t been stylized, the naturalism was
found in their incredible discomfort with who they were, so they couldn’t
express their feelings, cause they didn’t know what they were feeling and
who they really were. . . but everyone in the community of Sam Dent knows
who they are and I had to make that clear. Otherwise, I would not have been
true to the book.
iW: Another strategy in your previous films was a certain
self-consciousness of the image; you’re using multilayered images and
video. I kept wondering when the lawyer was going to pick up a videocamera.
Egoyan: Sure, sure. I had earlier included a lot more video. The video was
basically, he met a journalist in the motel who was doing some documentary
on the town. A lot of the information he got was from looking at interviews
and images and they formed some weird symbiotic relationship. Then I
realized that it was not really pertinent to the material. There’s always a
danger of self-parody. And there was that brief moment where he did exactly
what you thought — that always scares the shit out of me — that you would
have anticipated that.
iW: How did you wrench yourself away from this personal style that you’ve
developed in previous films?
Egoyan: By finding the book, by finding someone else’s voice that you’re
really respectful of and admire. It’s cynical to take a book that you don’t
like and extract plot elements. I couldn’t do that. If I did that, that
would be like, “Why didn’t I come up with this plot myself?” What Russell
gave me was a moral universe and he gave me a spirit which I had to honor.
And I would have been very dismayed if I wasn’t unable to do justice to
iW: Do you see yourself working on adaptation again?
Egoyan: I think I really enjoyed this process. I’ve understood what my
limitations as a writer are. I don’t have a lot of patience with the
details of a person’s life. A great novelist can write about the most
banal, inconsequential things and it becomes vivid and fascinating. But I
find even when I write screenplays, I have no patience for writing the
details of a room or what they look like. I just want to get into what they
do. The difference between my approach and a novelist’s is like, let’s say,
we did have a fire and the Adjustor did come into our life: I immediately
thought what a fascinating job, look what this person is doing, but I never
really thought who he was. What I immediately seized on was the job.
Wouldn’t it be neat if I had a character who did that, and then all the
other details began to get filled in. But a novelist immediately knows who
that person is and observes. If I can use that, if I can have access to
that, that point of view, and then be able to create a strategy around
that, then why not?