Atom Egoyan Interview

Atom Egoyan’s Remember is his most accomplished film in years, taking a clever revenge thriller narrative and eliciting a fine performance by his leading man, Canadian treasure Christopher Plummer.

Regardless of the caliber of some of his most recent output, Egoyan is always a pleasure to talk to, proving to be both generous with his time and genuine with his reflections upon his work. It’s clear that this project in particular struck a deep nerve, and the overt echoes of his earliest films have in some ways rekindled elements of his craft that first gained him international notice.

Dork Shelf spoke to Egoyan during this year’s TIFF where the film made its Canadian debut.

DS: I spoke last year about this project and how excited you were for it. Do you feel it connects more deeply with your earlier work?

AE: In my first features – Next of Kin, Family Viewing – I was using a lot of hand held camera and I was obsessed with this idea of some central character that was missing in these people’s lives. In Family Viewing, it’s a missing mother, and it was a missing son in the first feature. In Remember it’s a missing wife. Every time the protagonist wakes up, he’s thinking about his wife Ruth.

I loved the idea that the camera was the spirit of his wife watching him and that really motivated an approach. That made the film much more direct. It wasn’t just sort of observational from the point of view of me but rather from this other missing character and I got rather excited about that.

I felt I was back in to something that I hadn’t done for a long time because i stopped using handheld after those early films. I tried it in Exotica and it didn’t really feel right.

In this film because it’s shifting between hand held and the stuff with Martin Landau which is more steady, more controlled. There are also these themes that are obsessive to me – ideas about how to deal with trauma and memory, with questions of justice and things that are not resolved. In this case the character wasn’t really aware of these elements, he didn’t really have that connection because of his dementia and being controlled like a puppet. He was reacting to those ideas but it wasn’t really coming from a place that he could access. That felt very unique, almost radical, to have the performer that could pull off playing in the present all the time.

You have to be excited about what you’re shooting, you have to feel like there’s something really unusual about it. In this case, I knew it was the performance and this very unique story.

DS: It is a fascinating sequel to The Sound of Music though!

AE: I have to tell you, the other night, I was with [my wife] Arsinee right before the gala and we stopped by a bar. She’s obsessed with The Sound of Music and by weird coincidence, and you won’t believe me unless I actually show this to you, on the actual television in the bar was playing is Plummer on screen as a Nazi in another movie. It wasn’t The Sound of Music, it was called Triple Crown, and I just thought that’s crazy! There’s a certain time where that’s all he was playing. 

DS: Did you spend much time researching the character’s condition?

AE: There’s a lot of research into the idea of suppressed memories. Dementia is defining the tone, but it’s not explaining this character. What is explaining him is something which is very different from dementia which is suppressed, repressed memory. I really had to understand psychologically if it is possible. I don’t want to give it away, but is it possible that someone could obliterate their sense of something? You come to the conclusion that he’s traumatized himself by whatever happened in that camp, he was traumatized as well, and so that’s very unusual as a character. 

It’s very different from the final character we see who’s just in denial, or camouflaged his life. We not only had to really research that, we had people who were specialized in that explain it to us but also to understand exactly what his story was. That’s not important for a viewer, because you don’t see any of that in the film, but I think every film has to have its own kind of logic. 

DS: There’s a fine balance of keeping the tone right between humour and horror

AE: That was the tone I wanted it to have. There are people who just go with the story, and then there are people who take it really literally. If you take it totally literally, that everything is planned to that moment, then it becomes a little absurd.

I think the films I really like have an openness to them and they can be interpreted in a number of different ways, but I still think that they should have a logic to themselves. But that’s not necessarily the case. I just read Luis Bunuel’s autobiography and I don’t think there is a logic to Obscure Object of Desire. He just decided to work with two actresses because one of them he couldn’t stand working with at some point. That was a shock. I mean, I remember thinking that was so beautifully designed, but it’s not, it’s just, and I go, that’s radical. You just dropped that actress and got someone else. And it seems, but it’s random. 

DS: Game of Thrones does it all the time, but usually between seasons. 

AE: Right. Weird. 

DS: In some ways this is a simple road movie

AE: Well, there’s a ton of references. I didn’t want it to be like Nebraska, where you’re kind of like totally luxuriating in it, I wanted it to be very functional and I’m not dwelling in these landscapes. There’s a whole history of older people in road movies. There’s Harry and Tonto, a very old 70s film that I loved with Art Carney. There’s even stuff like Umberto D

I wanted to move through these places almost in note form. Because I wanted the film to stay on his face, not on the landscape so much. So there are brief shots of landscape, but it’s not really important. 

Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau

DS: How did you choose your cast?

I worked with both Landau and Plummer before, and I thought of them immediately when I read it and I just hoped that they would be as excited as I was. The German actors were more difficult because I wanted Germans of that same generation. The problem was that they had to be believable that they had been living in the States for that long and that limits your choice. Hardy Kruger didn’t want to do it and then Maximilian Schell passed away and so we had to go to this.

I was toying with the idea of Gunther Lambrecht, the Fassbinder actor, but his English never got good enough. Jurgen Prochnow and Bruno Ganz, they’re younger, but they were the only choices. It became difficult because Bruno doesn’t usually do a cameo. I met him in Munich and he was was a huge fan of Chloe of all things. We got along very well and he came to Sault Saint Marie for a day which was surreal.

I remember when I came to Toronto in 1978, there was a film called The Consequence and it was one of the first German films I saw, and it was the first gay character I’d seen. Jurgen played this so movingly Of course there’s Das Boot and stuff like that, but that was for me the legendary performance of Prochnow.

DS: Do you adapt to your actors’ acting styles or do you expect your actors to adapt to your directing style?

AE: In the case of Chris, I knew what his approach was. I had this day on Ararat which I’ll never forget, where we did this take and he was great and I said that’s great, let’s just try it again and he said “why?” I’d never heard an actor do that and he said “did you like that take?” and I said yes. “Is there anything specific you’d like me to do differently?” And I said no, and he said “so why don’t we move on?” and I said well, maybe for insurance. He said “I assume you have insurance for the film?” and I said yes. “So if there’s a problem, insurance will pay for another take?” and I went, yeah. And so I went, ok, you’re that sort of actor. 

I thought that was great. With Chris you talk about the role, and he prepares and he comes on and he’s ready to do it.

Now, the question is, how do you make that work with an actor who wants a lot of takes? That becomes more problematic. I really love working with actors who are prepared, I mean, I think that’s really amazing to have that, but then there are other actors who just want to not rehearse and not think about it and just throw themselves into the moment. That also can be wonderful, but you do have to adapt. 

In order to get what you think is the best performance you can’t be too rigid. I worked with Kevin Bacon and he’d just done Mystic River which I thought was great. I asked him if it’s true that Clint Eastwood only does one take? And he said yeah. And I said is that weird? And he said yeah. And I said, so do you have to fight for a second take? And he goes yeah. And I thought, oh, that’s odd. Like really, to be that rigid as a director.

I’ve done the other thing, where actors want take after take after take. You’re on take 16, take 17, and at that point you’re losing it, and they’re getting frustrated, and you’re getting frustrated, and you go to the editing room, and usually it is the first or second take that you use. It’s true. That’s the one where they’re saying the line for the first time. The problem with doing too many takes is that you forget what you have and you’re wasting time. 

With this film, also, you’re working with old actors, so they can’t do long shooting days, so you just want to preserve their strength. Chris was very specific that he’s before lunch. After lunch it’s not as good, and you respect that.

DS: Does their style change the way you even compose the shots? 

AE: Yes, for sure, of course. 

DS: You can’t do a 10 minute tracking shot.

If it’s first up, you can do it but you can’t do it after lunch. Filmmaking is all about the organization of these shots and being able to imagine what you need.There’s something very tactical about it – when someone tells you something specific like I’m best before lunch, then you take that seriously and think about how to organize the day. 

DS: Are you a director that adjusts the aesthetics of a given shot based on the proclivities of a given performer? Or do you set the performer within your milieu?

AE: You try to make them excited about how you want to do the shot. You try to get them excited about how it’s going to be and you explain why. If there is a longer take, they understand where and why they’re doing what they’re doing throughout that performance. You’re trying to activate them. 

But then there are moments I’m seeing more, like out of circumstance, where you have to like challenge that. There are moments when you realize that you can’t get that shot. 

I’ll tell you one thing that was really amazing here – One of my first shots was when Jurgen Prochnow makes the admission. It was a very windy day and suddenly a flag appeared in the frame and Paul [the cameraman] suddenly was crouching to avoid this in the frame but still not ever quite getting it out. He was very tense as he was shooting it. I love the tension in the shot. You feel that. And of course, digitally, you can just remove the flag, but you get this weird movement which is very unexpected. There’s the possibility that a technical challenge might give you a surprise.

DS: Handheld can obviously be in used lieu of actual tension, ie., barfy Shaky cam. Or handheld can be exquisitely composed if you get a really good operator. Could you talk about the aspects of the handheld that you respond to and are there films that you specifically looked to that got handheld right?

AE: When you look at the Dardenne brothers’ films, the operator is extraordinary. Or you look at the Ken Loach films – there are some operators who are amazing in their ability. We have a great tradition of that in this country as well, there’s amazing, this tradition with [Quebecois documentarian] Pierre Perreault and these amazing handheld, cinema direct, incredible tradition of this observational camera. I grew up watching these NFB/ONF films. When  I saw them in school and they were showing them to us, I began to resent them, and so I actually tried to break away from that. But then you realize that that is something that cinema can do really well, to be right there. But when you look at, let’s say the hand held work in Dardennes’ Rosetta, or you look at Two Days, One Night, that to me is really great camera work. And it’s invisible. 

DS: But you’d never want to do the von Trier thing and hold the camera yourself?

AE: I did it in a small film I showed at the festival de cinema. Citadel, it was a tiny film I did digitally with Arsinee in Beirut. It was a kind of a personal essay film and I shot the whole thing myself. 

I shot the hand held sequences in Calendar, that’s my shooting on video. I shoot a lot of stuff myself, but when I’m working with performance I prefer to be right beside the actor and not be thinking about the lens so much. I think it’s a different energy. Sometimes actors get freaked out that I’m so close to them because they’re used to now directors being with a monitor, but I’m never behind the monitor. I want to be right beside them to see the detail. 

DS: Beside the lens? 

AE: Yeah, I’m right beside the lens. Actually, I say it’s hand held, but most of it’s hand held on a dolly, so he’s actually sitting on a dolly so I’m able to sit beside him as he’s hand holding. It’s not like he’s walking around. So that’s why you don’t get the idea of walking. It’s sort of like something between steady cam and a completely hand held camera. 

DS: The scope of Remember, while dealing with universal themes, it’s smaller than your recent films. Is this a conscious decision or did it just happen? 

AE: Well, it was a welcome decision. After Captive, which is a very complex and ambitious film, and very multi layered, I welcomed doing something that was very simple and just I needed to do something like that, so that was quite conscious I think in a way. It was great to just do something where I didn’t change the script at all, nothing was going to change in the editing, it was just going to go from point A to point B, so that was good. 

DS: Would you say in some ways that Remember is a rebound in form and a new path on which to move forward?

AE: I’m giving myself time. I’ve done these three films back to back and at the same time 3 operas as well, big operas here back to back so it’s been really intense activity. I want to give myself time right now because I’m trying to absorb, each of these three films has been really a really different experience.

As I was shooting this one, I was thinking I want to make films this simple all the time but I don’t think I can write these types of things. It’s not the way my mind works. So I don’t know.

DS: What would you say is the biggest misconception about you or your work out there?

AE: I’m glad to see that people are finding the humour of this film. I’m drawn towards dark humour more than other humour, but I also think that I’m, I could list a whole bunch of things that I think are misconceptions. 

DS: You do read your reviews?

AE: I unfortunately do. It’s weird. My wife and friends were saying, don’t do this to yourself. And you know what’s weird is that the first thing I go to are the negative reviews. So I will not go to the positive reviews and I will go to the negative reviews first because I want to see what’s being attacked so it’s interesting.

DS: I’ll ask what I asked about Captive, is what if anything have you learned from the negative, if there have been any negative reactions to this film? 

AE: It doesn’t really matter. It’s amazing to me, after looking at Amazon Prime and looking at the ratings, it’s like 50% is 4 or 5 stars from 9000 people and I’m getting comments every hour. My son says “why are you so obsessed with this?” It just seems to me so weird, someone saw it an hour ago and gave it 5 stars, and I can’t reconcile that with the total absence of any critical support. How is that possible? 

The misconception maybe is that sometimes I feel that I’ve been doing this for a longer time than I think I have. I’m in mid-career and mid-career is tough. You’re not being discovered, and you’re not actually just at that stage where you’re not old enough to just get to do whatever it is you do. 

The other misconception is that it’s easy to make really great films. It’s not. I had this incredible run and I know those films were really connected to me. That was a really incredible run, but it’s difficult to just keep hitting that. I’m not quite sure what I’ll learn about this period of 3 years, but I’m wanting to see what emerges from it.

With Remember, I’m excited about it and I’m just proud to have kept it really simple.

Read our review of Remember here.

Read our interview cast member Dean Norris here.