NYFF '99 ON THE SCENE: Egoyan's Journey, Canadian Celeb Closes Out 37th NYFF
by Anthony Kaufman
"It seems like I was just here yesterday," says Canadian director Atom Egoyan, whose relationship with the Film Society of Lincoln Center goes back to 1987's "Family Viewing" which screened at the New Directors/New Films series, and has repeated 6 times since, including 1997's New York Film Festival Centerpiece selection, "The Sweet Hereafter" and this year's Closing Night film, "Felicia's Journey."
"Those early films are quite hermetic and inaccessible, but to provide the forum for them was really an amazing privilege," he says about his first screenings at the New York film events. "You take it a little for granted now, but for a 28-year-old, to have this very hermetic movie projected at Alice Tully Hall and to have a press conference with the upper echelon of the North American critics is really daunting. I'll never forget that experience."
Now an acclaimed international cinema icon with numerous Cannes and Canadian awards under his belt, Egoyan says the experience is entirely different today. "I suppose now, it's become more a matter of the marketing of the film and whether or not you can coordinate it with the launch. Before, there was no real launch. That was it, this is the screening you get in New York."
For "Felicia's Journey," which will be released on November 12th by Artisan Entertainment, Egoyan won't have to worry about additional screenings. And though the timing is slightly early for a big marketing push, that hasn't squelched chances at solid advanced press (e.g. a favorable review in the NY Times on Friday) as well as a double celebration for the film's U.S. premiere as well as the closing of the 37th New York Film Festival on Sunday night.
At the after-party at Gabriel's, a famished crowd from the film filled the restaurant at 10 pm, causing a bit of a crunch at the catering table. Actor Willem Dafoe, "Sweet Hereafter" author Russell Banks, filmmaker Michael Almereyda, Artisan's CEO Mark Curcio and exec VP of worldwide theatrical marketing John Hegeman, the film's leads Bob Hoskins and Elaine Cassidy, and actress Ann Magnuson could be seen speaking with Egoyan and the rest of the Film Society staff and friends throughout the evening.
Also on hand, sitting near the exit, were a trio of young award winners of the Grand Marnier Fellowships, announced before the screening by the festival sponsor. Each receiving $5,000, Tim Sheehy won for his short film "Turnstile," Kimberley Hassett for her video "27 Amabala" and Melissa Anderson for her critical essay on Shirley Clarke's "Portrait of Jason."
At a press conference for "Felicia's Journey" on Thursday, Egoyan explained in detail some of the origins and working methods behind his latest film, along with Hoskins, who stars as Hilditch, a repressed, kindly British gentlemen who lures a young Irish lass (Cassidy) into his murderous web.
After "the sprawling community" "ensemble piece" that was "The Sweet Hereafter," Egoyan found in "Felicia's Journey"-- based on a novel by William Trevor -- a refreshing change of scene. "I really responded to the clarity of the story," Egoyan said. "I loved the idea of doing something that was very contained. And yet, there are resonances and levels that allowed me to really apply myself. I love this notion of the way [Trevor] posited these two characters who are both lost and suspended in time."
Egoyan first received the book from Karen Glasser, head of development at Icon (Mel Gibson's production company), and was hesitant about following "The Sweet Hereafter" with another adaptation. But seduced by the characters -- "two seemingly ordinary people who are, in fact, tremendously complex . . . [and] dealing with various types of denial," Egoyan proceeded with his second film adaptation.
Though Trevor's novel is somewhat of a thriller, Egoyan was not so much interested in the genre aspects of the story. "When I read the book, I wasn't really aware of it being a thriller in the conventional sense," he told the audience of press. "There's not a lot of plotting or twists and reversals. It's really this suspended state of unease and creepiness that you feel." Egoyan also noted that he was more interested in how the story operated as a fable. "There was something really simple and direct about it. I really took into it this idea of a fairy tale, more than a thriller. And I think that it permeates the tone of the piece."
Egoyan conceded two important influences for the film, Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom," "because it's about a child inheriting the ambitions of a parent and distorting them" and Jean Cocteau's early black and white surrealist fantasy "Beauty and the Beast" for both visual elements, in particular the Beast's house, and the obvious thematic parallel between Felicia as beauty and Hilditch as beast.
Having once described Hilditch as a cross between Jack the Ripper and Winnie the Pooh, Bob Hoskins' challenge, he says, "was you had to turn this mess of a man and you had to portray him sympathetically somehow. . . . It was literally like trying to build a house of matchsticks with no glue. It was a balancing act." Always treading a fine line between courtesy and contempt, Hilditch, according to Hoskins, was "a very difficult character to find." "It could very easily -- and did quite a few times -- take off in some direction and we'd lost it. It didn't work. We had to go back and start the whole thing again."
One journalist mentioned that the movie feels as much like Hilditch's journey as Felicia's. Egoyan agreed: "Where he finds himself and where he arrives at the end is a much vaster space. Her level of denial is something which we've hopefully all gone through at that age." Egoyan continued, "We know where she has to go, but we don't know where Hilditch has to go or where he's from and what he's doing until much further on in the piece. And when we do, it floors us."
A common thread emerging in Egoyan's work, another journalist noted, was the director's use of young female protagonists on the verge of adulthood (appearing in "Exotica," "The Sweet Hereafter" and "Felicia's Journey"). Egoyan conceded the point. "What I find fascinating is that in each of those cases there is the relationship that a girl has with male figures, which then fundamentally changes when she becomes a woman. And there's a responsibility that the men have to observe and respect that change, and very often, that's not the case," he explained. "So it's a very potent time."
"It's a part of my life, for reasons I won't go into," Egoyan smiled. "You can always check out Maclean's magazine where the journalist was doggedly pursuing me on this issue, but," he continued more seriously, "there are things about that time in one's life that are really compelling for me."
Though Egoyan -- whose films reflect such intellectual perversities as image addiction, image loss, and an inability to connect -- wouldn't elaborate on the topic personally, it was Hoskins who offered the most startling response of the afternoon: "He likes young girls," joked the actor, which was followed by much laughter, then Egoyan's exacting reply, "Not."