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A Conversation with Atom Egoyan (REMEMBER)

Canadian director Atom Egoyan announced himself as a major filmmaking talent with 1994’s steamy psychodrama Exotica. He has since forged an eclectic career, turning out a stream of unique, often challenging fare encompassing erotic thrillers (for which he has an evident penchant, see Where The Truth Lies, Chloe et al), provocative historical exposé (2002’s Ararat, a chronicle of the Armenian genocide) and poignant literary adaptation (author Russell Banks claimed Egoyan’s 1997 version of his novel The Sweet Hereafter outshone the book), each imprinted with his signature visual style, restless imagination and affinity for the darker reaches of the human condition.

Egoyan spoke to H2N at the Marrakech International Film Festival which this year paid tribute to Canadian cinema, represented by Egoyan and a contingent of fellow Canadian filmmakers.

Hammer To Nail: Remember is already out in Canada but the rest of the world won’t see it till next year. What can you tell us about it?

Atom Egoyan: It’s a study of a character unlike any you’ve ever seen before, played by Christopher Plummer. He’s a survivor who lost his family in the Second World War. He thinks he’s found the person who killed them, so he goes on a mission to assassinate this person. But he’s suffering from dementia so he keeps forgetting why he’s on a mission. He keeps forgetting why he has a gun, why he has these instructions. It’s a study of trauma, memory, revenge but told in a very unusual way. It’s also the last time you could tell this story because in five years time, these characters may not be around any more.

There are no flashbacks, it’s all told in the present day, but it’s dealing with the issue of historic justice.

H2N: Would it be safe to assume he’s a Holocaust survivor, hunting the Nazi who killed his family?

AE: I don’t want to give too much away but that’s certainly what you believe when you’re watching the film.

H2N: What moral stance does the film take on revenge?

AE: Well, of course forgiveness would be preferable. But what I found compelling about this [story] is that it’s about two old men. Usually you see these things and it’s about people coming to terms with the past, time heals all wounds and so on. But that’s not the case. These issues are as raw and as painful as if they’d just happened. Of course it would be better if we could heal ourselves, but I think there are some crimes that are too egregious and too enduring. And what we’re dealing with in this film is people who cannot get justice. The other character apart from Zev (Plummer) is Martin Landau as Max who has been working with the Simon Wiesenthal Center all his life, pursuing justice in the right way. But now at the end of his life he realizes that there are people who, because of their mental state, will never stand trial, and what does that mean? It’s a troubling question but it’s a very real issue as we enter into the last years of these people’s lives.

H2N: What’s your take on that, trying people for war crimes who are now incapacitated by age? Does it serve a purpose?

AE: I think it does because there really can’t be a statute of limitations on genocide. Otherwise we begin to diminish the horror of that crime, which we do anyhow because we’re so overwhelmed with violence. First and foremost we have to understand that any state’s attempt to abstract a constituent sector of its population and propose exterminating them has got to remain horrifying. And the only way to keep it horrifying is to keep it alive in a judicial way, to ensure that we pursue it as a crime. It’s an obligation we have to each other.

H2N: This is the second time you’ve collaborated with Christopher Plummer, following Ararat, a film about a different genocide. What was it like to work with him again?

AE: It was thrilling because I know his process now. The first time was a bit disarming. I’ll never forget the first day on Ararat. Most actors like to do several takes and to try different things. So we did a take and I said, ‘Okay, great. Let’s go again.’ And Christopher said, ‘Why?’ I was like, ‘Oh, well, I thought you might like to try something else.’ He said, ‘Did you like what I did?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said ‘Do you have any specific notes?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Okay, let’s move on.’ I said, ‘Well, maybe just for insurance.’ He said, ‘I’m assuming you have insurance. Okay, so if there is a problem the insurance can pay for another take.’

H2N: It sounds like it would’ve been quicker just to do another take.

AE: It would! It was so startling and yet he was absolutely right. When he’s on set, he’s a machine. He’s totally efficient and comes completely prepared. When people see the film they’re worried about him. They say, ‘Oh my god, he looks so old and frail.’ That’s a performance. He’s actually in incredibly good shape, full of vigor. But he’s such a good performer you believe in him absolutely. He’s a delight to work with. You should read his book In Spite Of Myself, it’s one of the best showbiz autobiographies ever. He seems to have been in the exactly right place at the right time throughout his career. He was on Broadway during its heyday, he was making these European co-productions during their best years and of course he was in Salzburg when they were making a little movie called The Sound Of Music.

H2N: I’ve heard you don’t mention the nun movie in his presence. Does he still get very touchy about that?

AE: Oh, it’s a good thing he’s not here right now (laughs). He has become more comfortable with it. When we were shooting Ararat he wouldn’t talk about it at all, which is a shame because so many are huge fans of his because of that movie. But he has become more at ease talking about the Von Trapps.

H2N: As a fan of thrillers, did you talk to Martin Landau much about working with Hitchcock on North By Northwest?

AE: Oh god yeah, how could you not! (laughs). We’d worked together before too, on a TV show called Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which is on YouTube. It’s called The Final Twist and it’s quite strange because Alfred Hitchcock introduces it. They took the old intros (from Hitchcock’s original TV show) and put them into these remakes. So when I was twenty-six I had Hitchcock introduce this script I directed. And Martin is full of so many stories from working with so many people. But of course, the most cherished ones are from those days working on North By Northwest.

H2N: Will Remember be eligible for the Academy Awards?

AE: Yes, it’s a very, very tough year, but we’ll see. It’s always tough.

H2N: Turkish director Fatih Akin is conducting a masterclass at the Marrakech Festival next week. Have you seen his film The Cut about the Armenian genocide?

AE: I have, my wife is in it actually. I was on location when they were shooting in Cuba. It was amazing to be there, and it’s extraordinary that he made this film, that he took on the challenge. I’m in awe of him really. It’s not an easy subject to address and I know he’s been under a lot of pressure (he has, in fact, been receiving death threats from Turkish nationalists) so I applaud him, he’s a superb filmmaker.

H2N: How do you think it compares to Ararat?

AE: It’s odd. I made Ararat thirteen years ago and with the film-within-the-film, the historic film in Ararat, I was trying to examine how difficult it is to represent this subject because it’s not acknowledged. I was dealing with how things become overstated. What’s interesting to me, when I look at the films that have been made since, the Taviani brothers’ The Lark Farm and Fathi’s film, that there are visual elements that I anticipated in Ararat. I think when history has been denied, there’s a tendency to overcompensate when you’re telling that story. When I make a film like Remember, I don’t even have to show the history, it’s all in the present day because we can all contextualize the history [of the Holocaust]. That’s very difficult to do with a genocide that took place in the last years of the Ottoman Empire.

H2N: Is it true that Charles Aznavour called you up recently with an idea for a movie?

AE: He did! He called me up out of the blue and he had this crazy idea. He sent me a treatment and I’m still trying to figure it out.

H2N: What’s the gist of his treatment?

AE: It’s about two brothers. It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure if it doesn’t fall prey to the same problem of how you represent it. But I was very moved to receive his call.

H2N: Not everyone picks up the phone to find Charles Aznavour on the line. How well do you know him?

AE: We worked together on Ararat and we stayed in touch. I’m involved in a film festival in Armenia and I’ve paid tribute to him there. He’s very close to my wife, but he’s kind of this mythological figure. I still cant believe it when I pick up my cell and it’s Charles Aznavour. It’s like getting a call from Frank Sinatra.

H2N: Apart from legendary singer-songwriters, the source material for your movies is extremely varied. What does a story have to have to grab your attention?

AE: It has to be something that will sustain my interest for at least two years. It can’t just be an initial enchantment with a concept. You have to convince other people to come on board. You have to shoot it, edit it, take it on the festival circuit and still feel passionate about it. Many ideas seem intriguing but they just don’t hold you that way. There are certain things that can only be resolved with the right casting and the right alchemy. How it all comes together remains a mystery to me, and some films just feel to obvious somehow. There are directors who do those types of films and then move on to other projects. I have to live with them a bit longer, I have to be able to represent them and talk about them. So they have to be something I’m passionate about.

These past three years have been pretty eye-opening because I made three films back-to-back, which was very arduous. Whether or not that’s a smart way to make films, it’s certainly not a pace I want to keep up.

H2N: What do you attribute that pace to?

AE: Things coming up, projects that I thought had fallen apart suddenly being resurrected while I was in the process of making something else. That and opportunities that were too good to pass up. It’s easy to think when a project comes along, ‘oh well, something like that will come along again.’ And it doesn’t. I didn’t intend to make Remember hot on the heels of Captive, because I was still dealing with the after-affects of that. But then the script seemed so unusual and so unique, and I now how rare that is. I was completely immersed in that whole world of Devil’s Knot and the West Memphis Three. I understand all the criticism that’s been leveled at it, but I can still justify why I made that film.

H2N: Is it more important to you now that your films are entertaining than it was at the beginning of your career?

AE: That’s a good question. It’s not a question of entertaining. What I’ve found is that if you’re working within a genre, that makes the marketing of the film less mystifying. Those early films were not made with any marketing in mind at all. The marketing was the festival circuit, it was a chain of distributors at that time, and audiences that had the patience with that kind of film. I think that’s become really challenging now. I don’t know if that world exists in the same way anymore. And if you do make those kinds of films you’re marginalizing yourself, which is absolutely essential if that’s the story you need to tell. I look at a film like Adoration, which is very much in the mold of those earlier films. I made that around the same time as Chloe and it was very interesting making those films back-to-back. One got a tremendous amount of attention, even though it’s, in some ways, kind of a predictable erotic thriller with movie stars. The other is, I think, a more interesting film. But it’s difficult to have that conversation because it’s an impossible film to market.

H2N: Do you have your next project lined up?

AE: No, I don’t.

– Simon Braund

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