Interview: Atom Egoyan

It’s late afternoon at a supper club in Toronto and Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan is at the tail end of a press day and getting ready to prepare for a Q&A later that evening for his latest effort, The Captive (in theatres Friday). Sipping coffee and leaning casually in a booth, he looks relaxed. Probably more so than he was earlier this year while trying to complete the film and bring it to the Cannes Film Festival, where it debuted this past spring.

The director of The Sweet Hereafter and Exotica has chosen for this film a story of child endangerment and the lives caught in the middle. Following the abduction of their daughter in a snowy Niagara Falls parking lot, Matthew (Ryan Reynolds) and Tina (Mirelle Enos) have become estranged and beat themselves up daily over the course of the intervening eight years. The police assigned to the case (Rosario Dawson and Scott Speedman) don’t have much to go on, with one of them deeply suspecting that the formerly troubled Mattew had something to do with the abduction. Meanwhile, the captor (Kevin Durand) has begun playing sick games with the grieving parents and teasing that their daughter (Alexia Fast) is still alive and is being used to lure young girls into a dangerous pedophile ring.

We chatted with Egoyan about the inspiration for The Captive, its thematic comparisons to some of his other films, how cases get distorted by the media, his research into the subject, and creating a refined sort of villain to show the face of true evil.

Dork Shelf: Thematically, two other films from your career spring to mind when I look at The Captive, and those are The Sweet Hereafter and Devil’s Knot. They’re different tragedies at the heart of these stories, and they all involve children being harmed, but they are personally affecting cases to look at because they take place in smaller communities where it’s harder to get in contact with your neighbour and harder to get to the community at large. What is it about that motif that keeps you coming back to it?

Atom Egoyan: Yeah, that’s a really good point. They’re all in small communities. In the case of Sweet Hereafter we purposely kept the media away from the story, there wasn’t all this coverage of what was going on in the story. It was a lot more closed off. There would have been a circus around a situation like that, normally, but we consciously decided to not put that in the film.

In the case of Devil’s Knot, that’s a film that involves a clear media circus. In reality there were four documentaries made about it. It was a case where people were always there taping it all, so we were making a film in response to the fact there were stories that were both known and unknown. There were stories that this media circus wasn’t following, and we joined that all together into a film that’s possibly even less resolved than the documentaries could be. Those documentaries were all pointing fingers, where this one doesn’t.

And in the case of this film, The Captive, again there’s moments where the community seems larger, like during the fundraising gala and moments where we become aware that there’s an outside world. Certainly the moment when we start talking about the internet and these kinds of harmful rings, it extends to a much larger group than what we immediately see.

But the main focus is Niagara Falls, and the main visual plan is that we’re seeing the most well know natural wonder in the country – which has been viewed by the whole world – but through the prism of a hotel room where a very private spectacle is being played out primarily between only a few people, certainly a captor and a captive, but shared by others that we don’t know. We don’t know how big that inner circle is, this channel of torture porn.

The community is something that can either spread or contract based on your own imagination, as opposed to setting it in a large community where we suddenly know what the scale of it is. Depending on what the narrative boundaries are that you’re setting, it can either be really contained within the community as it is in Sweet Hereafter or as it ends up sort of being in this film, but I think with Devil’s Knot, even though West Memphis is tiny – having been there – it became something international.

The Captive 4

DS: Bringing up that concept of a media presence is interesting because this film deals with a case that wouldn’t have a huge media presence: one child is missing from Niagara Falls. But it’s interesting to see in this story how the parents the heart of this story are caught between two worlds that are very media savvy: the police and internet predators. There’s no media coverage, but media are everywhere and the parents are left out of that loop.

AE: That’s a really good point. When I look at what originally inspired the story, two things come to mind. One is this case in my hometown of Victoria where a child went missing and every year on his birthday, the case was very publically brought up again through the media because the parents very publically believed that this child could come back. They kept the story alive through the media.

Certainly in this case, one gets the impression that Tina, Mirelle’s character, keeps coming back to see the detective once a year just to try and understand what’s happening and what the developments might be.

Ryan is because of what he’s trying to protect is shying away from that. He must know deep down that he really didn’t do anything that wrong, but he did. In his own mind because of the consequences, he’s doomed to keep replaying that over and over again. I think he knows if it becomes covered or mediated, that will be distorted. “How do you let your child alone like that?”

As people like you and I know who work in the media, we understand that no person reading in a media outlet would understand that this girl was sleeping in the back of the car and that anyone would get caught for this. We can get that objectively, and maybe Scott Speedman’s detective here is the most horrifying example of someone who can’t understand this. He’s just using his training to understand that there’s something wrong about the fact that the only objective witness at the scene of the crime says that no one else was there or near the car, and that he does have a history of acting volatile, even if it is just a bar fight when he was eighteen. But still, he has financial troubles, and whatever he’s competing with in his own life is going to come out wrong if this goes any wider. Even towards the end of the film, Ryan knows he can’t go and try to capture this guy alone because if he does, he’s going to look suspicious as well. That’s why he helps the police to a certain point and says, “I want you to find them because no one will believe me if I do it myself.” He’s deeply mistrustful.

DS: It’s a film where everyone makes mistakes, no matter what side of the law they are on, are minor mistakes that are often made with the best of intentions for whatever they are trying to accomplish, be it good or evil.

AE: Well, except for the mistake of taking a child. That’s a major mistake. But yes, Scott’s character in particular makes a very huge mistake, too, but in all the research that I was doing with detectives who try to crack these pedophile rings, I’m not sure how they can ever do it. They’re not allowed to use children, and they’re not allowed to use images of real children. Pedophiles are incredibly protective of their identity. No one can enter a ring without bringing something to the table, and if you have to go into an undercover operation like that it’s not like infiltrating a different kind of crime ring where they could bring drugs or money to the table. These people would not answer that question of how they do their job.

I don’t know. I think they’re allowed to use digitized, pre-existing images or altering them, but then any smart criminal would know that these are pre-existing images. I think that’s where Rosario’s line about how it’s like finding a needle in a haystack is true. These officers are genuinely overwhelmed. It’s almost impossible for them to do their job, and as someone who’s coming from a different department for the first time, Scott makes a huge mistake to try and get at what’s really happening, but that’s also how mos outsiders would probably feel at some point in this situation.

The Captive - Speedman Dawson

DS: Rosario and Scott feel very much like how a real pairing of officers who work on such high profile cases would operate, though. They have to be very skeptical, and from the few law enforcement officers that I know and have talked to that handle difficult cases like this, they have pretty much explained how they work to me as it’s depicted here.

AE: Well, thanks. I actually credit my co-writer, David Fraser, with a lot of that detail that was brought to the film. The characters were there in my draft, but he’s much more aware of that world. He’s been involved with a lot more procedurals, and he knows that world a lot better than I do. That idea of Scott coming from homicide and his contribution to the team was mostly David’s work. I welcome that because that whole banter amongst them and the team is very real. If you have to go to these really dark places to work, there’s the forced levity that they have to have. There’s almost a goofiness that belies the nature of their work.

DS: When it comes to how the villain of your film, there’s a sense of refinement to him, which is interesting. Kevin Durand’s character is a man who sees himself as someone with good taste. He definitely seems to be aspiring to something.

AE: But is he, though? He’s definitely very smug that he can pull something like this off after eight years. He has this beautiful, modernist, self-designed home. He has every reason to be pretty pleased with himself. I definitely think he sees himself as a cultured person and as someone with impeccable taste. But what we don’t know if this is how he saw himself eight years ago when the arc of his character that we don’t see begins. It feels like in the intervening time he has become very self-satisfied and developed a huge ego.

I know that’s sort of become one of the more controversial aspects of the film, but I love that. There’s a preening quality to him that I think is odd, but a great choice, and the right one for me because he’s manicured. Everything about his life is polished. And he’s now at a point where whatever impulse led him to take that child, which was a paedophilic one, has since dissipated long ago and turned into something else. He’s now trying to create this other kind of relationship that there could never really be.

I can’t stop watching him. All the choices that we made feel so correct. I think that people are kind of expecting to see a slovenly kind of person, but I think if you have done something this terrible and gotten away with it for so long without remorse, you’re someone that has to feel pretty good about yourself, and you’re also feeling like there’s a feeling like you can set things up that could never hurt you. The minute he sets up this idea to vaguely put this girl in touch with the outside world, he thinks he’s opening up all of these possibilities. He’s a despicable guy. He’s a demon, but there’s something that I dare say is entertaining about the presentation.

DS: And it’s a big departure for Kevin, who has played villains before, but nothing quite like this. He’s a big guy in real life and he often gets cast a bruiser, but it’s great to see him get the chance to do something different.

AE: It inspired me working with him on Devil’s Knot and seeing him inhabit John Mark Byers. I was just in awe of him. He does amazing things and I knew I had to bring him in and give him a bigger box to play in.

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