INTERVIEW: Atom Egoyan's "Journey" to the UK, And Finds Himself
by Anthony Kaufman
Atom Egoyan has quickly risen to become Canada’s foremost filmmaker, joining the ranks of David Cronenberg as one of the most defining cinematic voices of his country. How curious then that his 8th feature film “Felicia’s Journey” takes place in England, where young and pregnant Felicia (Elaine Cassidy) sets out to find the father of her child — and instead meets Joseph Hilditch (Bob Hoskins) a menacingly cordial catering manager with plans of his own. The movie debuted in competition at Cannes (where Egoyan previously took home a Special Grand Jury Prize for “The Sweet Hereafter“) and later opened the Toronto Film Festival (where his films have won Best Canadian Feature on four separate occasions).
Though Egoyan may have been raised in Western Canada, his roots are more international, having been born in Egypt to Armenian parents, a trait hard to miss in films like “Next of Kin” or “Calendar.” So perhaps it’s not so unsurprising that for “Felicia’s Journey,” Egoyan manages to feel right at home in the UK, adapting William Trevor‘s acclaimed British novel of the same name — and transforming it into a uniquely, unnerving Egoyan-esque experience. While passing through New York for his U.S. festival premiere, the Oscar-nominated director spoke to indieWIRE about location scouting in the UK, the seductive power of the image, the fatefulness of tracking shots, and the everyday experience of video, so recurrent in his work. Artisan Entertainment will release “Felicia’s Journey” in theaters this Friday.
indieWIRE: Tell me about shooting for the first time in the UK? The areas you shot provided for some great locations.
Atom Egoyan: I think location scouting is crucial. To find that town where there happens to be a castle above, looking over the town. If you ask an English location manager to find areas that are unusual or something heightened about the landscape, they might not see it. They don’t look at a concrete water cooling tower and find that unusual, because they’re dotted all over the landscape. But from a North American perspective, we look at those and think of nuclear sites, so the fact that there’d be a public road right beside it is a bit horrifying to us. That’s a good example of something that an English location manager wouldn’t see. So when I photograph a car traveling, dwarfed by those huge silos, it’s a horrifying image for us, but it may not be for them. I think locations and casting, are a huge part of your job.
iW: Especially in this case, where this is unfamiliar territory for you. . .
Egoyan: And to give yourself time to be able to that. We had a good couple months. And Hilditch’s home, it was so important to find the right place. I get very stubborn about locations. Like when we find something, I have to get it. And I get really miserable when a producer comes back and goes, ‘they want too much money or it’s not available.’ You have to find a way to make it available, even if you have to beg the owners. I learned that from my no budget days, where so much of getting a film made is just coaxing someone to let you shoot there.
iW: In a recent press conference, you spoke about how you are “celebrating the seductive power of the image.” And yet I know from your writing and your previous films, that you have a tremendous mistrust of image making. How do you reconcile creating images that you doubt?
Egoyan: By recognizing that I doubt them, but also acknowledging that they’re seductive. If I can say, this is a self-conscious construct here. But if I can make that beautiful, if I can make the camera movement beautiful, if I can make the cuts from one time to another seamless, if I can do the sound design and music in such away that we are drawn into that world against all our doubts about it, then you enter into exactly what my attitude about it is.
iW: You have many of these sweeping, smooth tracking shots, like that long shot at the factory where Felicia and Hilditch first meet. . . ?
Egoyan: When you take a camera and you make a very deliberate move through space, you’re saying that it deserves attention. So when you set that move against a bland, anonymous, industrial park, you’re making a real statement. You’re saying that this place, that just looks completely nondescript is actually worth looking at and there’s a reason why. And that reason is based on the notion of pre-determination. You have decided to put a camera there and to move it across. So when you’re dealing with two people meeting in that frame, that has huge repercussions. Notions of predetermination become really complex, because to what extent was that meeting destined? Because certainly that camera move is.
iW: Can you talk about the shot where Hilditch looks straight into the camera, into the audience? It’s an extremely loaded moment.
Egoyan: We did the take of Bob coming up the stairs with the milk and cookie. We did a first take, then for the second take, suddenly, we had this idea that he would look at the lens. And I didn’t tell him how long to look, he just looked and turned away. Then when I saw the rushes, I had chills. It was the perfect timing. And that regard, that moment, is amazing, because it implicates the viewer. You realize you don’t know who this person is, at all. He doesn’t know who he is, at all. Then when I was editing the film, I realized that I had done the shot — in this beautiful landscape of Ireland — where Felicia’s father is looking at the lens as well. You put these two scenes together — and those are the only two moments where someone looks at the lens — it somehow connects Hilditch to the father. But it was only in the editing that I became aware of that. I don’t know what made me say to Bob to look at the lens at that point. But when that happens, it’s a gift, it just happens. There’s no science. You create a situation where those moments might happen. Other times, it’s very controlled. When you’re writing, it’s very controlled.
iW: Do you use a lot of still photography before you shoot?
Egoyan: I used to, not so much anymore. I started off drawing storyboards, then I felt why draw them if I can just take pictures. Then, I stopped doing that too, and just sort of see it more and more in my head.
iW: The most striking part of your adaptation of Trevor’s novel is, of course, the addition of the video. What is the reaction that you’ve been getting from people, because it’s just so radically different from what was in the original novel.
Egoyan: It’s audacious, yes, but it’s respectful. Any gesture I’ve done, like the Browning poem in “The Sweet Hereafter,” it’s always been out of respect of the spirit of the book. I’m not trying to do something in order to make it mine. I’m not doing it to assert authorship. It’s a way of dealing with either a problem I have or something that I feel tonally enhances the quality that the book gave me — or in the case of these two writers, that their work has given me. When I do an adaptation, it’s not just a matter of my reaction to a specific book, but the other work they’ve done.
iW: The video does remind the viewer strongly of your earlier work, though?
Egoyan: Especially “Family Viewing.” There’s a lot of links between “Family Viewing” and this. But it’s also curious to me that there’s a whole generation of viewers who aren’t aware of my work before “Exotica” and this whole video thing is something they haven’t seen in my films that much.
iW: In your next project, do you feel that video will crop up again?
Egoyan: Probably, I’ve been writing the new one and it is there. The risk is self-parody, but on the other hand, it’s become so much a part of our language now. When I started using video in the mid-80’s, it was all new territory. I was really pushing it in “Family Viewing” to have a boy who was 18 to have access to video equipment. But now, it’s completely quotidian. Look at “American Beauty.” A friend of mine called and asked me what I thought of the use of video, and I said, it’s just a part of our language. I mean, the moment “America’s Funniest Videos” came on, that’s just the best of, think of how many video clips are whirring at all times in our households. It’s not about having 2 minutes of $12 film that you have to decide what you want to shoot, you can shoot everything, you can tape over it. It’s just part of our experience. I think people that know my body of work are able to make references that I think other people can’t. And I’m not sure which response I’m more comfortable with. I sort of like the idea that people sort of see this film as a way of expressing something very particular about these two people, as opposed to a way of linking it to other films. That being said, there’s really interesting parallels to “Family Viewing.”
iW: What do you think of the actual visual texture of video?
Egoyan: Well, it’s changed, right? Because there was a time when I would have said that if you see a pixilated image on a projected film image, you become self-conscious and aware of the fact that this image has been made. But there have been so many films lately, like I look at “julien donkey boy” which I loved, but I was not necessarily aware that it was shot digitally. The technology is such that when you want to actually show pixels now, you actually have to go out of your way to make sure you’re close enough on the television screen to get that texture. When we were shooting [“Family Viewing”] on high-end video, like 1-inch video, and doing live switching and then doing a kinescope, you can still detect that there’s something fishy about those images, and I loved that texture at that particular time.
For “Felicia’s Journey,” we had to go through a system of filtered degradations. For the TV show, that took a lot of post-production to get that effect, while in “Family Viewing,” that was just a natural part of what the technologies were in 1986 when we did that. . . . I think our approach to those textures is radically changing, because the technologies are such that people are becoming used to that. They wouldn’t have 10 years ago. You wouldn’t have been able to show a Dogme film 10 years ago — you would have been laughed out of the theaters.
iW: Shifting gears, this is your first film where you didn’t have to act as a producer. How did that change your experience?
Egoyan: It just meant I didn’t have to deal with certain pressures. I didn’t have to go into this schizophrenic thing, where I want things, but I know I can’t afford them. I could pretend that I was the spoiled kid and wanted everything, knowing of course, that there were limits. But really being able to push for things and knowing there would be someone at the other end, playing the bad cop. It just means that you could go and have the audacity to construct a set like we did, to build a house in a studio. I never would have dreamed of being able to do that. I’ve never built a set, never a full scale set and never in a studio.
iW: Was that simply because you had more money?
Egoyan: We had more money, yes, and I didn’t have to censor myself. I was never put in that schizophrenic situation with my crew where I have to play both halves, where you know what you want creatively, and you have to be part of the team, but you also have to wear this other cap, where you’re literally in a position where you have to pull the plug on yourself. That doesn’t mean in this situation the plug won’t be pulled, but at least, you can go out with the crew and have a drink later and mutter about the producers.