Atom Egoyan | interview (+ cautionary tale about phone interviews)

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I recently interviewed the Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan (pictured above) via telephone—a ‘phoner’, as it’s known in the industry. I’d somehow managed to avoid phoners up to this point in my journalistic career, having luckily always been able to conduct interviews either in person, over Skype, or (always a last resort) email. When this one rolled around, I must confess, I was woefully underprepared. I just hadn’t considered how much of an arseache it was going to be.

A colleague suggested I go to the one room in my house where the T-Mobile signal is pretty solid, put Atom on speakerphone, set up Garageband on my Mac, and then record. It worked a treat until the signal crapped out not once but twice, leaving me sweating bullets over whether I was a) going to get anything decent, and b) making a dreadful, pathetic impression on a director whose work I greatly respect.

By this point literally soaked in perspiration (this took place in the early stages of London’s summer heatwave), I improvised. I grabbed my dictaphone, ran into the kitchen, and reconnected with Atom (via the London PR) on the house phone. I placed the dictaphone in-between my ear and the ear-end of the receiver, pressed record, and strained to hear the softly-spoken director’s replies. I looked, probably, like a cross between this and this. It wasn’t pretty.

Worse was to come when I played back the audio to find that, even though I had held the dictaphone to the right end (I wasn’t quite that incompetent), Egoyan was all but inaudible. I, on the other hand, wasn’t, and promptly jumped out of my skin whenever I heard my own voice barking out questions at comically disproportionate volume. It was all a little redolent of the firecracker scene from Boogie Nights, with my own stupidly deafening voice standing in for Chinese Cosmo’s bangers.

Luckily, I needn’t have worried too much. I’d captured some really decent stuff during the first part of the interview. What I missed, as I recall, was Egoyan speaking about the way in which he treats his Armenian heritage in his films; responding kindly to my fairly banal suggestion that his debut Next of Kin is quite like Bart Layton’s The Imposter; and confirming that David Cronenberg is a) nice bloke and b) the ‘Godfather’ of the Canadian film community.

As for ‘phoners’, I hope it’s a while before I have to do another one, but I’ve since found there are options, and I’ll prepare more thoroughly next time (I’ll still keep my fingers crossed for Skype, though). Folks, don’t be silly like I was, don’t let this happen to you.

The expression I imagine Egoyan was wearing after we got cut off for the second time

The expression I imagine Egoyan was wearing after we got cut off for the second time

*     *     *

Anyway, what follows is a repurposing of the interview, which originally appeared on the Grolsch Film Works website.

53-year-old Atom Egoyan is one of Canada’s most respected and critically acclaimed directors. His atmospheric and character-driven films, including multi-stranded strip club-set drama Exotica (1994), heartbreaking novel adaptation The Sweet Hereafter (1997), and haunting thriller Felecia’s Journey (1999), are known for their searching intelligence and formal control. Egoyan made the move into Hollywood with 2009’s Chloe, and now has a fictional film about the West Memphis Three (entitled The Devil’s Knot) in the pipeline.

Now, thanks to Artificial Eye, UK viewers have a chance to go right back to the start with Egoyan, as his first two films arrive, fully remastered, on DVD. His debut, Next of Kin (1984), stars Patrick Tierney as a depressed young man who abandons his own family to pose as the long lost son of another. Chilling and drily amusing in almost equal measure, it’s eerily reminiscent of the story which formed the basis of Bart Layton’s recent documentary The Imposter. In follow-up black comedy Family Viewing (1988), another sallow, disaffected young man again takes centre stage, as 16-year-old Van (Aidan Tierney) attempts to come to terms with his dysfunctional family in a series of increasingly unorthodox ways. Seemingly a huge influence on the likes of American Beauty and fellow Canadian Sarah Polley’s recent Stories We TellFamily Viewing is distinguished by its formal experimentation, switching between deliberately flat, sitcom-style shooting on video for the domestic drudgery of Van’s homelife, and lush film for its more thriller-like elements.

Both films hold up incredibly well, and offer slyly seductive meditations on identity and the role which technology plays in family life. To mark their release, we sat down with Egoyan to chew over his early filmmaking days, and get his opinions on the big changes in the industry since he started out.

On audience reactions to his early films…

“What happened with Next of Kin was that that film worked almost too well with an audience. The technique that I was using was handheld camera. It [the camera’s POV] was meant to feel like the real son that the family had lost was watching this all; it was supposed to have an eerie, distancing effect and it had quite the opposite! People reacted quite warmly to it, and felt there was an immediacy. So even though people were taking pleasure in that, it was quite shocking. That’s what led me in Family Viewing to have a strong formal approach where there could be no question of what the intention was; maybe it went too far!”

On re-watching his early films…

“Recently I’ve watched them again for the remasters and it’s been interesting to go back. I’m surprised about how prepared I was to talk about personal issues as I was wrestling with them in my own life. That’s been a surprise. They were big issues for me, these questions of identity: how do you fight this pressure of assimilation [the Egyptian-born Egoyan is of Armenian heritage], and how do you construct yourself as a new person in a place. Those were really urgent. I’m very proud of Family Viewing.”

On tradition…

“I think I was very aware of the tradition I was working against; these films coming from Canada, the docudrama coming from the National Film Board and all these extraordinary films that were made here in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s which made heavy use of hand-held camera. Influenced by John Grierson and this idea that he brought, we were all raised by these films which I actually thought were very different from the films I wanted to make, so it was horrifying to see Next of Kin fall into that very trap! Perhaps ‘trap’ is the wrong word, but it was interpreted as being an homage to the tradition that I was was passionately trying to react against. That was surprising. What these early films taught me was that when you have strong characters and a strong narrative, people will just want to lose themselves in that. They’re not positioning themselves outside of the film, they want to be inside the film as quickly as possible. That’s why I think a film like Family Viewing, at that time especially, with the video textures it was using, was clearly a way of creating a distance – an alienation effect – so that you had to stand outside the film, and really commit to enter into it.”

On technology…

“I started to make films at a time when the characters would have access to the technology that I was using. All this recording and transmitting felt very revolutionary at the time. I was looking at the advent of these technologies on people’s lives in a domestic setting. It’s interesting when you look at Family Viewing. I had to justify these awkward family videos by making the father [chillingly played by David Hemblen] work for the company that made them. We had access before anyone else did. Shooting in 1986 that was the only way that family might have had colour videos of their early life. Even then it didn’t really make sense! But these were huge social revolutions which we’ve seen develop in ways which had been unimaginable. We now shoot these films on professional quality, and there’s downloading, and Vimeo and YouTube. At the time there was a strong divide between the people who made these images and the people who were watching them.”

On changing audiences… 

“I think that people aren’t watching films as a continuous and immutable process. The films that I love, and my whole formulation as a filmmaker was based on the fact that I had to go to the cinema, and I was in that space where there is fixed time. Whether I left that cinema or not the film would continue to unspool. That’s such a quaint image now, people can watch films wherever they want on any device they want. They can reformat it, they can play with it; it’s such a malleable form now. I’ve seen people recreate, reconstruct, make trailers for my films on YouTube – they take a song from the film, they recut it, they’ll take deleted scenes and they’ll cut them into the film. It’s an open forum. That’s changed things. You’re just dealing with a different attention span. People are quick to say we have short attention spans and that things are more superficial now. But I don’t agree with that. I just think people have evolved. And that there’s a different way of receiving visual material. Clearly the other thing that’s changed is that in these early films there was a clear division between the video world and the film world, and you can see where those separations are made within the film itself. That’s just not the case anymore with digital.”

‘Next of Kin’ and ‘Family Viewing’ are being re-released in the UK through Artificial Eye. Head to their website for more info. 

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