Interview with Atom Egoyan, director of "Adoration"
Every new film by Atom Egoyan is
a cinema event. Some are masterpieces -- "Exotica" (1994) and
"The Sweet Hereafter" (1997) are two of the best films of the 90s, and the latter I would put on my top ten
for that decade. Even when they do not totally satisfy -- I had some
reservations about his new film "Adoration"--
they inevitably provoke thoughts about such issues as identity, innocence,
guilt and the role of technology. And he is one of the smartest people making
films these days and always fun to talk to, as I was privileged to do so
Hey, why not listen in?
PK: When was the last time we talked? During "Exotica," I
AE: I know we met during "Exotica," and I know we met after
that, but it could have been...I really don't remember, I remember "Exotica"
because it was my first tour.
PK: Have you been touring a lot with this one?
AE: I mean yeah, not necessarily coming to Boston,
but I mean I got from, I was doing London and
then I was in Germany and
then I just came out to LA and San
Francisco for the film festival. It's all so strange
because I'm trying to coordinate it with a post on this new movie. We waited a
long time before releasing this; it was premiered a year ago in Cannes, so...I was
expecting that it would be a bit more organized, but it's just the way it is. I
think that there's just a lot of stuff coming out now. It's a different time,
right, than the 90s.
PK: It's tough competing with "Star Trek," I guess.
AE: Yes, there's that. There's that annoying little film
that kinda happened to open the same weekend. It was funny seeing Bruce
Greenwood, he was up here promoting "Star Trek."
PK: He was in "The Sweet Hereafter,' right?
AE: Right, and "Exotica.
PK: Well, he did well, he had that bug crawling down his
throat. You saw the movie right?
AE: No, I didn't...So you just gave that away.
PK: Your film is probably more worthy of discussion. How
have you found the response?
AE: Well, you know it's interesting. It depends. I think
there are people who are incredibly passionate and lock into and can read it
and then there are people who don't. And I think the division between those
types of audiences, even in terms of the types of films I make, has become more
extreme, you know, and I think its just a question of attention span, really,
and being able to read, as I said, a piece of film in the same way that you
would read a book or that you would be able to devote yourself to something
that someone has spent a long time with. Maybe its always been that way, I'm
not sure, or maybe I just wasn't as aware of it as I've become, but it seems
that people who take the time and get the ambitions of the piece, I think
respond really well to it. And I've had incredibly great conversations with
people about it. And then there are people who just say "oh that too complex,"
or, "oh, I don't understand what's going on," or, "there's too much going on."
They're just very dismissive, and it's easy to be dismissive. That's I think
what I've found, of course, with anything if you want to not engage with it
then you just don't engage with it.
PK: I find that more and more it becomes sort of cool to be
dismissive of things that seem intellectually challenging.
AE: Yeah, well I'll tell you the other thing that was
horrifying about this last tour on the stage is this just incredible
proliferation of people who have blogs and who have sites and a lot of them are
just really unschooled when it comes to being able to engage in any
conversation about filmmaking. There are
a few of them who are really great, like incredibly ardent and focused. But
there are a lot of people that have a platform now and just don't really have
the history or the chops to deal with it, and are really giving these very
cursory and quite ironic sort of reviews of things that they don't have any
formation or ability to read or understand. I mean, I don't mean to sound
elitist, it's just I know you've been around a while and I'm sure you're
noticing this as well. There's just this incredible...Maybe it's always been the
case. Again, I think I'm aware of the fact that I just wasn't really as aware
of how there's a certain type of person who has a platform who wouldn't have
been able to express their views before in a way that would've been
PK: Ignorant blowhards?
EA: Yeah. And some of them become personalities, and they
have followings, and that's a little scary.
PK: Would the initials of one be HK? Not to mention any
AE: Actually, I did
meet him this past time, and I don't know what he's up to these days, but when
he first came on the scene he was actually earnest.
PK: A symptom of this trend might be all the film critics
who have been canned in the past few years. It's indicative, I think, of the
fact that the whole idea of talking about movies as an intellectual thing or as
an art form is held in contempt by a lot of people.
AE: Yeah, and I think that unfortunately extends down to the critical community, because
they're afraid of their editors accusing them of being too elite, or too
rarified, and that's unfortunate as well. So yes, it is encouraging when I can
still, I mean obviously it was a favorable review reading "The New York Times," but even "USA Today,"
thought that was really considerate, and I thought it was really great that
they're able to buck that trend.
PK: So you would say that the internet among whatever other effects
it's had, has just not elevated the dialogue on film.
AE: Well, there's no question that it's elevated the
intensity around film. Film is one of the things people love to talk about, so
there's an incredible forum for people talking about film. It's just, like the
internet does - and I think you see this in the film a little bit too - it
creates this excitement, but it doesn't necessarily leave a lot of room for
consideration or pause, because people have to be engaged at all times, and
there's not a lot of filtering, so I would say there's a lot more discussion around films, it's just that the time an
individual film is being given or treated, it's just diminished.
That also has to do with that there are just a lot more
films being made, and that's one of the beauties of the digital revolution.
When I started making films, it was a very cumbersome and expensive
proposition, and you had to convince people that you had an idea that was worth
telling, and then you had to kind of bring together some sort of a budget.
We're now in a time where anyone can create images and find global distribution
for them, I mean that was unthinkable 20 years ago, and that's very exciting,
but it also means that there's a lot of stuff to wade through, and I think
people become overwhelmed. So the actual fact that a film has been made is not,
in and of itself, cause for any sort of attention.
Maybe that's the way it should be. Film has taken the place
of a novel, or any other art form, where people have access to the actual
production. It's just that there's been a lot more pressure on the festival
programmers, and the critics certainly, to discern what's worth talking about.
PK: Throughout your career the films you've made have taken
as part of their subject the current development in communications or media
technology. In this case it's the internet. What made you decide to take on
that topic at this point?
AE: Well, because I'm dealing with a 16 year old kid. And
that's part of his life.
PK: That's a tough age.
EA: Yeah, I think that having a film on the cusp of turning
16, you realize the internet is huge for them, and they have whole identities
that they use to communicate with in chat rooms and amongst their friends,
which might be quite different from the way they relate to each other in their
day-to-day life. So what I was trying to do in "Adoration" was create a visual
equivalent of what a chat room feels like, because text is just not that
interesting to film. And I think it is really exciting for someone to find a
forum around their work or their ideas or their experiences, but it can only
take you so far, and you still then have to kind of deal with these things in
the real world, and that's the passage that Simon's going through.
PK: Does that technology exist yet?
AE: It does, but I've glamorized it. On Skype
you can go up 9 people
PK: It's like the
EA: Yea, and iChat,
but its not that fast, its not equal to what you're seeing in the film. We also
invented a bit of technology where he can actually watch himself as he's laying
it down, I think there's that one moment, it's a little futuristic...but I didn't
want it to feel SciFi. I wanted it to feel, you know, current.
PK: I bought it as a state of the art sort of thing. How
would he be able to afford to pay for that, though?
AE: It's his grandfather. His grandfather's loaded. I mean,
the grandfather forced these gifts on him - the cell phone, the computers, you
know. There's no amount of lucre coming from the grandfather's side, right. But
that's money certainly not finding its way to Tom [the grandfather's son and
the boy's adoptive uncle played by Scott Speedman].
PK: To make up for his whole distortion of the past, I
PK: That seems to be a refrain in some of your films, is
that you've got a young person who is trying to reclaim the past in order to
take charge of their own future. Have you noticed that as a theme?
AE: Uh, it is. But its only...You're not so aware of it when
you're making it [the film], but certainly when someone brings it up like
yourself and you go: yes, sure. And again, it's that process of negotiating
technologies in order to discern. It's kind of embarrassing how clear a line
there is between, let's say, Van in "Family
Viewing" or Raffi in "Ararat." They're
both young men who are trying to understand their own histories and have to
deal with technologies that can either enhance or diminish their experiences,
their own lives.
PK: In this case is your son sort of the inspiration for the
protagonist of the movie?
AE: I mean, the age is, you know, because it brings back a
lot of memories of when you were that age, and what you were grappling with.
But I mean in many ways he's just a better adjusted person than I was at that
age...there were a lot of things I was dealing with, and high school drama was a
revolution for me, it was this incredible opportunity to kind of create
dramatic scenarios from things I was experiencing, and be able to share that
with friends and parent. That was just so rich for me, and the relationship I
had with this particular grammar teacher at the time, who was very encouraging,
and I've been revisiting a lot of that time in my own history. And I think
that's what the film emerged from, this idea of a boy who is seized by this
opportunity, who doesn't necessarily have the...he's not like one of these drama
guys, so the teacher, who because of her own history, understands what he's
doing, guides him, and yet, she has her own agenda. And I think that's probably
one of the more challenging aspects of the film, is that Sabine [played by
Egoyan's wife and frequent collaborator, Arsinée Khanjian]
is telling the boy that she's doing one thing but really she's doing something
very different, you know, I think that the idea of teaching this kid about
multicultural, what tolerances are, that's just a pretext for getting into this
guys house, right.
And I think that's the other thing I've always been
fascinated by, is that in the dramas that I write, how you can never really
understand what someone else's agenda is, how you can be drawn into a situation
and find it really compelling without really understanding what's at play, and
I find that to be very rich sort of territory.
PK: I remember this scene in the movie at the end when he
throws the cell phone into the fire...I've often wanted to do that with other
people's cell phones, but...
AE: But there haven't been fires. They're [the other people]
usually in theaters.
PK: I know, really. Do you have a cell phone, and how deeply
involved are you in the technology? Do you twitter?
AE: I don't twitter; I have a blackberry. I got it when I
started working on this new film, and I realized the people who I was working
with were expecting that sort of access. The problem is that I'll probably keep
PK: So you were resisting for a while.
EA: Oh yeah, I don't think we need to be that connected all
the time.I mean,
I think twitter is the best example of that. That to me just seems an insane
amount of intimacy. That's the problem, is that I think there's been a major
shift in my thinking about this. In the films that I was doing in the 80s there
was this sense that technology was creating these filters, and was somehow
draining us of inabilities to feel intimacy with each other. And what's become
obviously these new technologies is, in fact, the opposite. We're just
saturated with a degree of intimacy we could never have anticipated, and we
still don't quite know what to do with it, right. I think the idea of the
impulse to let people know what you're up to at every moment is, to me,
PK: Narcissistic is a word that comes to mind.
EA: But there's a casualness to the narcissism which has,
you know, becomes really....and I guess combine that with the inherent narcissism
of an adolescent who's trying to figure out his own life, you know, and the
desire to dramatize their own life, you know, which is a huge part of
adolescence as well, and I think that's all part of what's happening in the
PK: Plus I think it alienates you from your
actual experience of what's going on in the real world. You know, like walking
down the street and seeing the birds or something like that.
AE: But, you know, the fact is most people are conditioned
now to hearing something, to having a soundtrack to their day-to-day life, you
know, and it's such a seductive concept, that once you're sort of hooked on
about it, it's difficult to let it go.
PK: You think that's a bad direction?
AE: I try not to be moralistic about it. I mean, I think it
is what it is. So, when I'm creating drama, I'm trying to understand my
characters navigating themselves in the world as it appears to me now. I think
there are good things and then there are bad things and I'm trying not to be
too moralistic, and I think that my whole view of technology has always been that,
as I said before, is that it's something that can enhance and give you access
to your past, in the way that Ben finds these little home videos and family
viewing, or certainly the expedition that Raffi goes on in "Ararat," and
certainly what this boy is dealing with. I mean, I don't know if he would have
been as excited to go as far as he does if it wasn't for the intensity of what
he's experiencing on the internet, you know, the questions that are being
raised. It's just that by nature, the technology is not designed to provide
resolutions. It's just too open ended. It just feels like you can keep going
and going, and so it's really up to us individually to decide when to get on
Next: Terrorism and the internet as the collective unconscious!