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Atom Egoyan: No safe place

From Mount Doug student shooting on Super 8 to internationally acclaimed director, Egoyan has told stories differently
Photo by Rafy
Filmmaker Atom Egoyan will be be a featured speaker at the Victoria Film Festival Feb. 8.

One of Canada’s most critically acclaimed directors will discuss his latest film on the opening weekend of the Victoria Film Festival at The Vic Theatre – just minutes from where he screened his first film.

Atom Egoyan considers himself incredibly lucky to have been at the helm of a filmmaking career that set him on the world stage, but anyone who was at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria back in August of 1978 to watch the student’s work, may then have recognized he had both the creativity and drive to make it happen.

Like the later works he became known for, including 1997’s Oscar-nominated The Sweet Hereafter, Lusts of a Eunuch was inspired by a real life event and challenged audiences – enough to earn Egoyan a less than favourable review from Monday Magazine.

“It was an attempt to deal with a very strange thing that happened at Mount Doug where our vice principal was stabbed in the parking lot (by a troubled teen),” says Egoyan, on the phone from his office in Toronto. “There was a history as to why he had been attacked and everyone knew about it, but nobody wanted to address that issue.”

The director, writer and visual artist was born in 1960 in Cairo to Armenian parents – two artists who named their child after Egypt’s first nuclear power plant – before they relocated to Victoria when Egoyan was three. Egoyan’s Armenian heritage is apparent throughout his career, notably in Calendar (1993), which was shot in Armenia and features himself alongside his wife, Arsinée Khanjian, and Ararat (2002), a meditation on the Armenian genocide of 1915.

His formative years as a young man in Victoria, a classical guitar player, aspiring playwright, director and filmmaker, it seems, have also proven immeasurably influential. Somewhere among Egoyan’s Genies and Grand Prix Awards from the Cannes Film Festival shines a plaque from the Greater Victoria Drama Festival for Mount Douglas Secondary’s production of The End of Solomon Grundy. And tucked in a scrapbook, an ad still proudly promotes his first screening at the Roxy – a thrilling event for the first-year Trinity College student, who despite studying international relations rather than film, won first prize in the Canadian Student Film Festival.

“I owe a lot of what happened to me to Victoria because there was a really active dramatic community. I had great teachers and the drama festival was really important to me in the sense of being able to tell my own stories and present it to a public.”

Each summer break, Egoyan, who studied at Trinity, and later the University of Toronto, would return home to work in Victoria – first at the Empress, then at Periklies Greek restaurant – all the while screening his early films at the art gallery. The screenings provided not only a connection with an audience, but an early experience receiving a higher level of concentration from its members – something for which the Order of Canada inductee has grown more appreciative in an era when viewing via smartphone is on the rise. He still creates work for galleries – specifically, installations rooted in a filmic esthetic – when time and opportunity arise.

Egoyan’s career across mediums has been as difficult to define as his visual art. Fresh from directing Canadian Opera Company’s version of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, he’s now amidst promotion for Devil’s Knot, with Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth, and anticipates the imminent release of his latest film, The Captive, a project he wrote, directed and produced starring Ryan Reynolds.

Such creative drive isn’t conducive to ruminating over past works, perhaps due in part, as Egoyan suggests, to an awareness that choices made in post-production are final.

“I’ve made a couple of films with endings that I’m particularly proud of – Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, maybe Calendar – those films have a really specific tone. There may be things that I don’t agree with in them, but ultimately, I like where they end up – what the alchemy is. That’s really what we’re talking about: alchemy. We’re combining these elements of picture, sound, composition, performance, to create something which is deeply mysterious. We can’t know how all of those things are going to come together.”

Transferring his 16mm films to high def for iTunes was a recent opportunity for Egoyan to look back at a time when he was far less experienced with the chemistry of cinema. It was the grainy film stock, rather than his style, that caused the most pause.

“That’s not an issue anymore for a filmmaker, but I don’t know if that’s a good thing. There was something to be said about earning your right to move up to that next step. It gave you a sense that this is not an easy process. The new technology gives you the illusion that anyone can do it and in fact, it’s a very complex art form. There are so many things that you need to integrate and you need to build up a great sensitivity to the limits and the parameters of each of those elements, between sound, image, performance, choice of location: everything that’s going to colour a frame.”

The belief is rooted in memories of his early days with Victoria audiences. In the late-’70s Egoyan and his peers shot on Super 8 film without sound and knew that if they wanted to add such a luxury, it meant visiting the one guy they knew in Victoria with a massive apparatus able to affix a magnetic stripe to the film for voiceover recording. At the end of the tedious process, you were left with something that Egoyan described as, well: “crappy.”

Yet he continued to shoot in Super 8, then 16mm, all the while projecting it for willing hometown audiences. He dreamed of 35mm or “stereo sound, heaven forbid,” he says with less of a laugh than you might imagine.

As a film teacher, Egoyan is constantly taken with the quality of slick images – and how they are often created by novice directors who don’t yet have stories to tell – or haven’t found the framework for them.

“And whether or not you have the endurance to build up the craft to make those stories better and to work with actors to get the right performances – all of those issues are very separate from what it takes to make something that looks presentable.”

Another definitive difference since his days as an emerging artist? Competition and expectations. Egoyan, who had first planned to focus on a career in theatre, had no illusion of mainstream success, unlike how he views gen-y’s aspiring directors. In the days prior to instant stars and widely available box office reports, Egoyan was simply driven by a desire to make a living telling stories differently.

His current challenge: dramatizing the real life story of the West Memphis Three, in which three young boys were murdered in West Memphis, Ark. and three teens were convicted without DNA evidence. He calls Devil’s Knot the tale of a horrific crime that seems almost supernatural.

“Yet someone did this awful crime and the effect it has on this town, and people’s desire for revenge and a rational conclusion – all of that is understandable, but it wasn’t forthcoming.”

“Safe” isn’t a term that applies to the director’s work, but Devil’s Knot poses a risk unseen in his previous films. It’s a story without a third act, that follows a trend toward less tidy, formulaic story-telling on mainstream screens. Devil’s Knot is a leap, even for viewers today, whose expectations aren’t the same as in the days before Pulp Fiction or Exotica in 1994 and the Breaking Bad-style television or Spike Jonze scripts of today.

“Can you have Hollywood stars who are supposed to have agency and come to some heroic moment and avoid that? And still tell a story? That to me is such a huge opportunity. By the very nature the story was being told, I knew it would be unusual and it would appeal to me and ask really important questions about living with doubt and a situation where justice might never be found. That’s deeply unsettling.”

His career – from casting classmates to Hollywood A-listers – has spanned five decades. It’s been a slow climb along parallel trajectories as a director for hire on such sets as Devil’s Knot or 2009’s Chloe and as true auteur, the writer/director/producer for others, such as The Captive.

“Maybe it’s even better not to have success at the beginning because it makes it clear how hard you have to focus and how thick your skin has to be, how you have to deal with failure and rejection – those are all important things to know in the film business. It’s a brutal game.”

Confronting rejection leads Egoyan, once again, back to his days at the drama festival, where he learned early on to create for an audience and judgment was inescapable. The critic within remains, aware that his intellectual framework could supersede a story’s emotional undertone.

“I’ve always felt that my films are emotionally-based and I’ve been fortunate enough to have performers that can really extend that and present it, but I do know that sometimes the strategies go too far and the viewers are not quite sure what they’re supposed to feel.”

Since his breakout in 1994 with Exotica, Egoyan has felt the temptations to stray from his creative path and accept opportunities likely out of step with the calibre of filmmaking that has garnered him widespread acceptance from the international film community. Whether or not his storytelling has bowed to the pressure is a question Victoria audiences are among the most qualified to answer.

“We know what the formulas are. We know that there are fool proof ways, but they’re not that interesting. The work that excites me is the work really challenges and arrives at a place that feels fresh and urgent. I think that’s what it comes down to. You want the work to feel like there’s an urgency to it, that the work needed to be told.”