Atom Egoyan’s Journeys

Atom Egoyan’s Journeys

Articles - Directing


Egoyan directing Bob Hoskins
in Felicia’s Journey

Nothing about Atom Egoyan is predictable. The now
39-year old director has made a series of films over the last 15
years which are more artworks than traditional movies. A true auteur,
the Canadian writes, directs and sometimes acts in his movies. His wife, Arsinée
Khanjian, is always a major character in his films, and the plots
revolve around issues central to his life.

With The Sweet Hereafter (1997), he became a player
in American commercial cinema, and indeed, it was more accessible
than his previous films with their somewhat nonlinear storylines and techniques,
but Egoyan has not moved to Hollywood. His new movie, Felicia’s
Journey, a British film produced by Bruce Davey (Braveheart) for
Icon and distributed by Artisan, is a crystallization of his earlier
movies about dislocation, sexual dysfunction and delusion, hardly
popular American film themes.

Felicia’s Journey, a chilling brief encounter
between a Little Red Hiding Hood and a Big Bad Wolf, is deceptively
straightforward, and appears to conform to the mystery/horror genres
while managing to elude clichés and defy easy classification.
Though it uses the plot elements of these genres, it concentrates
on symbolism and philosophy to develop its theme of delusion. The
movie was favorably received this fall at the Toronto and New York
Film Festivals; while in New York Egoyan and stars Bob Hoskins and
Elaine Cassidy discussed the production with MovieMaker.

The Egoyan of past years, with his rapid hand motions
and nervous energy, has been replaced by a mellow, professorial
figure in a conservative black suit, appropriate for someone with
five honorary doctorates from Canadian universities. He was knighted
with a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by the French government in
1996, elected a Member of the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts,
and inducted into the Order of Canada. A happy marriage to Arsinée
Khanjian, who plays the glamorous TV cook in Felicia’s Journey,
and the birth of their son, Arshile, have centered his life. “She’s
my muse—she inspires me—her presence and her response
and her image, I suppose. She’s a really intelligent, compassionate,
but also critical partner. She


Ian Holm in The Sweet Hereafter (1987)

is an invaluable contribution, and I’m really,
really blessed with having found her, having found each other. It’s
extraordinary. I’m able to deconstruct her, and yet, thankfully,
the relationship has been able to remain, I think, relatively healthy.
But she understands the rules of the game and is there to support
me.”

His themes of dislocation and delusion, however, have
not changed, and have only deepened. Though he grew up in Canada,
Egoyan’s artistic approach is more European than North American,
and he underwent profound changes in his early years. His parents
emigrated from Armenia to Cairo, Egypt, where Atom was born in 1960.
The introduction of nuclear energy in Egypt at that time inspired
his parents to name him after the source of atomic energy. Despite
the fact that they owned a successful furniture store in Cairo,
the unstable political climate motivated their move to Canada with
Atom and daughter Eve by 1963.

In British Columbia, the Egoyans were cut off from
Armenian culture. Atom surmises that his recurring artistic theme
of alienation derives from not only his personal disorientation
in a new land but also the profound sense of dislocation felt by
Armenians because of the destruction of Armenia as a nation and
the 1915 massacre by the Turks. His central idea is “how people
deal with loss and the psychology and politics of denial” and
“the notion of entitlement,” as he calls it. “At
what point is someone entitled to claim an experience theirs?…I
came into this [Canadian] culture as a child who didn’t speak
English, and came at a point when this other personality wasn’t
wholly formed, and suddenly I had to absorb another culture and
I remember being aware of that. I remember the things I had to do
in order to be like the other kids. That does have an effect on
you, and you realize that personality is something that you construct.
The moment that you become self-conscious about that construct,
that induces a sense of alienation and disenfranchisement. That’s
what I’m more interested in—that notion of what is it
that people have to do in order to feel at place, and the degrees
of self delusion that they suffer through in order to convince themselves
that they have found their place amidst the havoc. Those are all
really loaded issues for me. This is true for Felicia as well. She
comes from a place [Ireland] where her history is being drilled
into her. This is where you come from, this is what happened to
our people… the links to the maternal great-grandmother who speaks
the ancient tongue are so important.”

Music and playwriting were Egoyan’s artistic
outlets. While he was at Trinity College in Toronto he earned a
degree in international relations and made short films for a film
club. He soon discovered that the movie camera was more artistically
satisfying than the stage. He inherited, after all, a strong affinity
for visual composition from his parents, who were trained painters.
“I’m very attuned to the screen as a canvas; the notion
of the projected image and the relationship that the viewer has
is as exploratory as it might be in a gallery.

I also recognize that for a great number of viewers
films don’t work that way, but I can’t afford to acknowledge
that.” A painterly style, which does not get in the way of
narrative, is a key to the beauty of his movies. Felicia’s


Exotica (1994)

Journey, in particular, is awash in various styles—French
Impressionism, Renaissance art, Expressionism, and Arts and Crafts.
There is one astonishing moment when Felicia steals the money from
her great-grandmother and leaves the room. The camera stays on the
great-grandmother, but through the window on the side of the room,
Felicia can be seen retreating across the land. The shot is a reference
to Renaissance portraiture in which people were painted with their
valuables. Granny has lost two of her valuables. Egoyan uses windows
throughout to show the alienation between characters.

The sale of his student film Open House (1982) to
the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was his entry into feature
filmmaking and his stint as freelance director of such television
shows as the resurrected “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and
“The Twilight Zone.” His debut feature, Next of Kin (1984)
was funded through Canadian arts councils, as was Family Viewing
(1987). That film, about an Armenian man erasing his videotaped
past with his family, brought him European recognition and a champion
in Werner Herzog. Speaking Parts (1989), The Adjuster (1991), Calendar
(1993), were all shown on the international film festival circuit.
Exotica (1994) won the Cannes International Critics Prize and three
Genie Awards.

The Sweet Hereafter (1997) was his breakthrough into
more commercial moviemaking. It won the Cannes Film Festival’s
Grand Prix du Jury, and a Best Picture Genie Award. Egoyan received
two Academy Award nominations, the first for direction and the second
for his adaptation of the Russell Banks novel.

Felicia’s Journey has many connections to the
films of Alfred Hitchcock. The central situation of a naive, pregnant
Irish girl (Elaine Cassidy) stealing money from her great-grandmother
to pursue her errant lover (Peter McDonald) in England and taking
shelter with an innocuous, mother-fixated man who plans to kill
her is reminiscent of Psycho. The drugged milk scene is like the
one in


Exotica (1994)

Suspicion. Is he comfortable with those analogies?
“I’m comfortable with acknowledging Hitchcock as a really
strong influence. Philosophically, I think, he was able to introduce
and normalize in mainstream cinema a stronger sensitivity to psychological
analysis. In a way, he enjoyed that, and took pleasure in that level
of investigation, and he was able give the audience pleasure in that.
He was nearly able to normalize obsessive states which would have
otherwise been quite transgressant and unacceptable. So he broke ground
with that, and I think more than anything else, I’d say that
is where I feel his influence.

“Characters like Francis Brown in Exotica come
[from] a line of characters like James Stewart in Vertigo, where
we see quite “normal, everyday” people suddenly thrust
into the middle of something heightened and mythic. So that similarity,
I readily acknowledge. I think where I’m less comfortable in
describing the film as Hitchcockian is because of the almost scientific
approach that he had to suspense, which I have not adhered to; this
idea that the viewer is in a privied situation, where they understand
something that’s inevitable that the characters don’t…
In a way, I kind of work antithetically to that because I try to
create a language which puts the viewer into the state of mind of
my characters. But that being said, it’s perhaps also a fear
that if you call it Hitchcockian, people go in expecting some sort
of payoff which the film isn’t really prepared to deliver.
Possibly if I were watching the film for the first time, I would
call it Hitchcockian without really knowing why. There’s a
mood, a sense of dread, and a pervasive creepiness which bears some
relationship to what he does.”

Hilditch (Bob Hoskins), kills emotionally lost young
women because he is obsessed with his late mother, who rejected
his love, and videotapes their confessions. He stores them away
as an archive. A food caterer for a factory, Hilditch believes food
should be prepared with love and healing hands, and at home he prepares
lavish feasts for himself while watching his videotapes of his mother
preparing food on her 1950s television show. To those who know Egoyan’s
work, this is a fascinating reversal of the way videotape was used
in Family Viewing. In Family Vi


Felicia’s Journey

ewing, the man is recording over his past and erasing
it, and in Felicia’s Journey he is archiving his past. Egoyan
laughs and says, “I’d love to see a double bill of the two
movies. It’s very interesting with my work because there’s
a whole public who really began to see my films with Exotica, and
for them, the use of video in this film probably won’t have any
resonance in terms of my early work because they haven’t really
seen those movies. Family Viewing is still probably my favorite movie
in a lot of ways. I find that this idea of someone who has an uncertain
relationship to their personal history seizing on an artifact which
records that history as being the next best thing—and by somehow
physically manipulating that artifact they can reconcile areas of
tension and nonclosure—that’s fascinating to me. And it’s
very symptomatic of our time. I remember reading an article in The
New York Times about a man who was trying to explain to his child
what his upbringing was like and his parents were now divorced so
he actually asked his parents to attend an event together so he could
videotape them and show them to his son. It seemed so perverse but
we are in a time where these technologies become extensions of our
psychosexual apparatus…We don’t acknowledge that these are
unusual or potentially disruptive. It all falls into the guise of
entertainment and distraction.”

Hilditch cannot see the connection between his crimes
and his personality, which is typical of many psychopathic personalities.
Egoyan says, “We expect our psychokillers to be brilliant and
there to be something almost admirable about their clearheadedness,
their wit and their charisma. We want to assign to somebody who
does something so heightened and extreme some cult personality.
That becomes an important way for us to understand how those acts
might have been rendered. But it’s jus


Felicia’s Journey

t not the case. Hilditch is not a particularly
brilliant man, and he’s not somebody who’s consumed by violence.
He doesn’t see those acts. He doesn’t see himself as being
violent at all. He doesn’t remember those moments. To have
glorified or to have included those acts would have been denial of
what his experience of it was,” he explains.

Ironically, religious fanatics who burst into
his garden defeat him. But slyly, Egoyan doesn’t let religion
get the credit. Stealing money as a child was his original sin,
and he has just found the purloined wallet he hid in the garden
as he is digging Felicia’s grave. The religious fanatics flee
when he admits he stole Felicia’s money, to keep her near him,
but he doesn’t admit his past murders. When the religious woman
(Claire Benedict) tells him that the pain will wash away and the
healing will commence, those words resonate with Hilditch, Egoyan
says, because “those are the words he repeats to Felicia as
he lets her go and has made the decision to kill himself.”
He decides to release the girl because the reason he murders is
to release his victims from suffering; now he decides to release
himself.

“Perhaps, the most unusual thing about the films
I make is that there are scenes that people expect to be rendered
in a way that would allow us to understand what that action actually
means. [For example] the incest in The Sweet Hereafter. We expect
it to be shown from the perspective of the victim’s anger,
but to see it from the point of view of what that person’s
actually imagining is happening as it’s going on is a very
unusual perspective. In a way, it addresses issues of denial of
what that character is experiencing and also puts the viewer in
a state of denial. So many people watched The Sweet Hereafter and
didn’t actually even understand the incestuous relationship
because it was shown in a language which addressed the cold denial
of it. In [Felicia’s Journey] especially, Hilditch lives in
denial of what he does and the


Felicia’s Journey

film reflects that. For the longest period of time
we can’t believe or want to believe that he is capable of what
we come to understand is true because he doesn’t see that.”

An actor himself (in the movie, Egoyan is the unseen
“Hilditch” in the car videotaping the women), he allows
flexibility in interpretation by his actors. In this film he worked
with an accomplished actor and a teenager just starting out. Hoskins,
who describes his character as a cross between Jack the Ripper and
Winnie the Pooh, has played similar characters in the past, notably
the murdering salesman in the television miniseries “Pennies
From Heaven” and Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa. The 19-year-old
Irish actress, Elaine Cassidy, admits that the biggest challenge
in playing Felicia was identifying with such a naive, deluded girl.

Egoyan estimates that he averages about five to six
takes per scene. “I do believe it’s an actual truism that
my signal of maturity as a filmmaker is when I’ll actually
acknowledge the fact that the first take is usually the best. The
first one or two always are, but you end up not believing that.
When you get into this strange thing where you’re around take
five and you’ve forgotten that the first takes are actually
pretty good, but that take five is actually not good, you end doing
takes to respond to take five…I’m always in awe of filmmakers
who actually can just go in and realize they have a take and they
don’t need a safety because if there’s a real problem,
the lab will pay for it anyway.”

Egoyan has been criticized for changing the original
ending of the William Trevor novel. Felicia in the novel escapes
from Hilditch, but she is destitute, still pregnant and clueless
about her next move. In the movie, Felicia, who has undergone an
abortion at Hilditch’s urging, has been spared because of her
own initiative in leaving the house. She realizes her vulnerability
and has shed some illusions. Trevor approved the change, calling
the movie “a brilliant interpretation of the novel.” MM


Egoyan with Peter McDonald and
Elaine Cassedy on the set of Felicia’s Journey

The Making of Felicia’s Journey

Few directors have the training in art and music that
Atom Egoyan has, so it’s natural that he is attuned to the
various components that go into the making of his motion pictures.

Canadian Paul Sarossy, the Director of Photography,
has worked with Egoyan since the late 80s. He received two Genie
Awards for his cinematography of Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter.
He and Egoyan like to collaborate on the look of their films, and
Felicia’s Journey, which is precise in its look and texture,
reflects Egoyan’s painterly concerns.

“More than anything, Paul has a tremendous sensitivity
to light in a way that I don’t. I know what I like to see theoretically
but I have no idea what the techniques are by which you get that
effect. I can trust him completely with that. He’s very sensitive
with camera movements and there’s a wonderful kind of shorthand
that we have developed by this point. I can trust him in sort of
a classical way. I will design the shot, design the composition,
and tell him the type of movement I want; and then the actual way
that it is painted in the frame is entirely his doing. It’s
a really important collaboration.”

“As with The Sweet Hereafter, we were using anamorphic
Panavision with anamorphic lenses. This time we were using a set
of Primos, which was availab


Egoyan directing Bob Hoskins

le to us before. Those lenses generally are more
accessible in Europe than in North America. We had a full set, trying
to avoid using the zooms, trying to stick with prime lenses almost
all the time. In The Sweet Hereafter, we made sure that the key shots
were used with a flat focus lens. It was a pretty straightforward
set, except for the fact that it was anamorphic.”

Though it achieves an intimate look, the film was
actually shot in 2:35 ratio, a ratio which often works against a
film when it is shown on television and transferred to video. “I
don’t mind the way it looks on the pan-and-scan version. The
widescreen was really important to me for a couple of shots, some
key scenes. With The Sweet Hereafter, it was a lot more crucial
with the landscapes and the bus traveling through the mountains.
There was an epic scale to that movie which demanded that format.
Here, it’s a more subtle use of the widescreen.” The texture
was crucial. Egoyan felt the Irish setting [Glansworth, near novelist
William Trevor’s birthplace, Mitchelstown, County Cork] was
overused and the Midlands setting [Birmingham] banal. Egoyan wanted
to show how these settings look through the characters’ eyes
to reveal the “threatening nature of these landscapes, or the
oppressive nature, and how these landscapes press in on these people,”
he says. “One of my favorite shots in the film is where the
father (Gerard McSorley) is cursing [Felicia], and exiling her from
the town. It’s done in a very long shot, where the whole village
is compressed against her. Lens choices are something that I will
do on my own and confer with Paul, but it’s sort of unspoken
because we’ve been doing it so long.” The greens and grays
were emphasized in an Expressionistic style. “In Ireland, when
we were timing the film, we went as far as we could with those tones
without becoming unnatural. The greens in England are more burnished
and dried out than in Ireland. We have a good relationship with
the timer, Peter Hinton, who works at Color by DeLuxe in Toronto.
We insist on working with him.”


Egoyan with William Trevor on
the set

Egoyan wanted to work again with Costume Designer
Sandy Powell, who won the Oscar for her Elizabethan
costumes in Shakespeare in Love, because he loved her costumes for
the opera he directed, Dr. Ox’s Experiment, which was produced
by the English National Opera. Though the costumes in Felicia’s
Journey are modest, Egoyan was impressed by the detail with which
they were invested by Powell. The blues of Felicia’s outfit
are “almost a Catholic, sort of Virgin Mary reference.”

The set design by Jim Clay amplified the themes developed
by Egoyan, especially the magnificent country home and gardens,
with a fully realized Arts and Crafts interior and furnishings.
Egoyan chose that style over Victorian because in the 1950s when
the room was decorated by the mother he thought that would be what
she wanted; the style also possesses the contradictory intimacy
and austerity “which suited the tone of the piece,” he
says. “It was the first time I’ve been able to build a
set on that scale, and it was such a privilege. That’s where
the Expressionism comes in, where everything’s been overscaled
and heightened to really emphasize his loneliness in this house,
to have the house way bigger than it would ordinarily be. That’s
most extreme when we see that shot of the kitchen. It’s almost
absurdly large.”

Composer Mychael Danna has worked with Egoyan since
his first feature film. Danna uses lush Mantovani-type orchestrations
on the 1950s songs and juxtaposes those with Celtic melodies. “Then
we corrupt them,”says Egoyan, “and bring in other influences.
As the characters go through these fundamental shifts [in behavior],
the music would begin to corrupt and distort and bend out of shape.”
For Mantovani, it turns into Bartok, replete with military snares.
For the Celtic tunes, the woman’s voice would become more distant
and dissonant. MM

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