An Interview with Atom Egoyan, Director of "The Sweet Hereafter," Part II
by Anthony Kaufman
[To view Part I, click here]
Continuing our interview with Atom Egoyan on his recent "The Sweet Hereafter",
which opened on Friday, the Canadian auteur discusses some of his directing
strategies. Like fellow Canadian David Cronenberg, Egoyan's films tread an
icy terrain of technological obsession and transitory relationships, not to
mention automobile crashes.
But in "The Sweet Hereafter", Egoyan trades in his video camera and hollow
characters for the emotional depth of the novelistic tradition. Adaptation
offers Egoyan the solid groundwork that many audiences have felt were
missing in his earlier works. As the novel was structured by four first
person narrations, Egoyan had to figure out how to cinematically translate
first person without using voice-over. His answer was to structure the film
through the Mitchell Stephens character and use the Pied Piper story to
encompass the other points of views. Egoyan's choices have lead to an
equivalent and inspired film, deeply visual and yet also very literary. I
indieWIRE: How was your experience acquiring the rights to the book?
Atom Egoyan: Difficult. Because when I first read the book it had a studio
option. It was a closed door. And it wasn't available. Then a couple years,
actually right after "Exotica", I met Margaret Atwood at a party and we
started talking about books and I mentioned how much I loved the book and
she said, "Why don't you talk to Russell?" And we met. And what Russell
disclosed to me in the meeting was that the studio option was due to be
renewed in a couple months, but if I promised to make the film (because he
was so fed up with options that lead to no films), he would let me have the
option. So I made the promise. And the studio let it slip. So it was really
iW: When did Fine Line get involved?
Egoyan: Fine Line got involved after the fact. It was finished. It was
invited to Cannes.
iW: What was your experience with Miramax on "Exotica"?
Egoyan: Miramax did a really good job with "Exotica". I think
they are a really great company. They were massively outbid by Fine Line. A
lot of people expected Miramax would take this as well, but it just didn't
work out. And Miramax has a really busy slate too. The great thing about
Fine Line is they don't have as many titles. And they really do give a lot
of attention to each title.
iW: There's an uneasiness in the film, almost throughout. As a director,
are there specific things you are thinking about to create this?
Egoyan: Oh yeah. In this film, it's pretty obvious. It's about a bus
accident. By withholding the accident, you create a lot of tension. People
expect to see it off the top, but by not seeing and getting to know the
kids and the community, and know that at some point you're going to have to
see it, every time you see a bus moving through the snowy landscape, you're
really on the edge of your seat.
iW: What about starting your protagonist trapped in a car wash?
Egoyan: Why I was attracted to that is, most of the time we're driving in a
car, we're so aware of this responsibility, of being so aware of how we're
conducting this huge piece of machinery, and a car wash is one of the few
places where you can be in your car and it can be moving and you can have
no responsibility and it just looks after itself. There's something so
soothing about it, it's being cleaned, so you know something good is
happening, the sound of the car crash, it's very much like a birth canal.
It's very wet, there's motion, there's water, there's the sense of you're
in a womb moving towards light -- and to have that disrupted, I find really
disturbing. Suddenly to be in a place where you're trapped in that very
thing you found soothing is scary.
iW: What about the different points of views that make up the film. You
mentioned before how this makes the events resonate in a deeper way?
Egoyan: The organization of experience in the film, a lot of the scenes,
the key scenes of trauma, are shot not to elaborate the incident of what
we're seeing, but rather to show the experience of one of the main
characters. It's not the incident of the crash itself that is elaborated,
but the experience of Billy Ansell, watching this as a father, from the
distance and feeling helpless.
iW: Let me ask you about this group of actors that in some ways has become
a company for you?
Egoyan: Filmmaking is all about a degree of surprise. You have to be able
to surprise yourself and it's also great to surprise the people you know
and have them surprise you. It's so great to see Arsinee as a hippie Mom or
Gabrielle Rose totally reinvent herself and nobody recognized Bruce
Greenwood from "Exotica" as Billy Ansell.
iW: Does it establish a certain comfort to your work?
Egoyan: Well, yeah, I guess it does. You know these people, you know what
they're parameters are, you know how they work, they know how I work. There
is a shorthand. It takes less time to do certain things. When you're
working on a limited production schedule, it's a comfort to know that you
know the personalities involved, you know what they need as opposed to
having to discover that and be surprised by that.