Q & A with Director Atom Egoyan

Director Atom Egoyan

Director Atom Egoyan

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to director Atom Egoyan about his new drama “Chloe,” starring Julianne Moore, Liam Neeson and Amanda Seyfried, opening Mar. 26 via Sony Pictures Classics.

Sexual addiction, infidelity, family secrets and betrayal are some of the key elements in Atom Egoyan’s erotic thriller “Chloe” in which Julianne Moore brings the conflicted character of Dr. Catherine Stewart to life. Liam Neeson plays her husband, a friendly and flirtatious college professor. Amanda Seyfried is the mysterious and lovely Chloe who enters their lives. The common threads that appear in much of Egoyan’s work are all to be found in “Chloe” — rich complex characters, family dynamics; the differences between appearance and reality and the subjective nature of truth.

“Chloe,” a remake of the 2003 French film “Nathalie” (directed by Anne Fontaine and starring Fanny Ardant, Emmanuelle Beart and Gerard Depardieu) is the first of Egoyan’s 13 feature films that he did not write as well as direct. Its screenplay was written by Erin Cressida Wilson (“Secretary”). The film was produced by Ivan Reitman, Joe Medjuck and Jeffrey Clifford and executive produced by Jason Reitman, Daniel Dubiecki, Thomas P. Pollock and Ron Halpern.

The Story (spoiler alert): When college professor David Stewart (Liam Neeson) misses his flight home to Toronto from New York and, as a result, misses the surprise birthday party his wife Catherine (Julianne Moore), a doctor, has planned for him, Catherine must swallow her disappointment and any suspicions and return to her waiting guests.

But Catherine’s fear grows the following morning when she reads a text message sent to David’s phone by one of his female students. The successful couple have a 17–year–old son, Michael (Max Thieriot) and seem to have everything. But their careers and raising a child have put strains on their marriage and their relationship is suffering greatly from the loss of communication and intimacy.

Two weeks after the surprise party, Catherine and David are at dinner with friends. Catherine meets an alluring young woman, Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), in the restaurant’s restroom. In their brief encounter Chloe connects with Catherine. When Catherine returns to her table they’re playing the game “spot the hooker” and Catherine watches with interest as Chloe approaches an older businessman. While driving home Catherine finally asks David if he intentionally missed his flight from New York to stay for drinks with someone. When he claims he did not, she knows she's caught him in a lie.

Now more suspicious than ever that David’s having an affair, Catherine seeks out Chloe, an escort, and hires her to test David’s fidelity. They meet regularly and Catherine absorbs the explicit details Chloe shares of her encounters with David, igniting Catherine’s jealousy and awakening long–dormant sensations. Soon caught in a web of sexual desire, Catherine finds herself on a journey that places her family in great danger and poses the question, “Is it too late to stop Chloe?”

Atom Egoyan is one of today’s most celebrated international filmmakers. Through his uniquely personal feature films Egoyan has created a body of work that’s received critical acclaim and achieved commercial success around the world.

Egoyan has won numerous prizes at international film festivals including the Grand Prix and International Critics Awards at the Cannes Film Festival and received two Academy Award nominations for “The Sweet Hereafter”. In early films such as “Speaking Parts”, “The Adjuster”, and “Exotica”, Egoyan delved into issues of intimacy, displacement, and the impact of technology and media in modern life.

“Ararat”, Egoyan’s meditation on the Armenian Genocide of 1915, was distributed in over 30 countries. It won several awards, including Best Film on Human Rights by the Political Film Society of Hollywood and the National Board of Review’s Freedom of Expression Award. Egoyan’s adaptations have received critical praise, including “Felicia’s Journey” and “Where The Truth Lies”, which was honored at the 2006 Frankfurt Book Fair as Best International Literary Film Adaptation. Egoyan’s films have been presented in numerous retrospectives around the world, including a complete career overview at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 2007.

Egoyan was president of the 2003 Berlin Film Festival jury and served on juries at festivals in Cannes, Venice, Sundance and Toronto. He was knighted by the French Government with the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, received the Anahid Literary Award from the Armenian Center at Columbia University and was inducted into the Order of Canada. His drama “Adoration” won the Ecumenical Jury Prize at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival and was released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Egoyan has also produced a body of work in television and theater. His production of Wagner’s “Die Walküre” was performed by the Canadian Opera Company in April 2004 and remounted in the fall of 2006 with the opening of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto, winning the Dora Award for Outstanding Production. At the Samuel Beckett Centenary Celebration in 2006, Egoyan’s critically acclaimed interpretation of Beckett’s “Eh Joe” was presented by The Gate Theatre in Dublin. This production, starring Michael Gambon, earned Egoyan The Irish Times/ESB Award for Best Direction, and later transferred to London’s West End. It was remounted in New York with Liam Neeson as part of the 2008 Lincoln Center Festival.

Q: How did “Chloe” come about?
A: We had actually cast Amanda Seyfried before (shooting the 2008 drama) “Adoration”. We had quite a massive search for the actress who would play Chloe. We went everywhere and looked at thousands of actresses, as it turned out. She just stood out and really from the moment she came into the room she was our choice. At that point, “Mamma Mia” (with Seyfried as Meryl Streep’s daughter) had not come out and really there wasn’t any way that it could be financed with Amanda. So I went out and made “Adoration” and while I was making that "Mamma Mia" came out and was a huge hit.

Also, I worked with Liam Neeson on a play at Lincoln Center in New York about a year and a half ago and after that experience, which was really great, Liam mentioned that we should work together again. So I presented him with the script and he came on board. Julianne Moore we’d always had in mind. So suddenly between the success of “Taken” (the 2008 thriller starring Neeson) and “Mamma Mia” it suddenly fell into place.

But it’s difficult these days with drama even when the package is as enticing as it was in this case. And then, of course, add to that (the participation of The Montecito Picture Company principals) Ivan Reitman and Tom Pollock. Everything seemed to be such a high caliber, but it’s just tough in terms of making dramas these days.
Q: When was it that you began casting “Chloe” and trying to put it together?
A: I first met with Ivan and Tom almost three years ago. Ivan had developed the screenplay. He’d seen the French original on its release in 2003 and decided to purchase the option and then hired Erin Cressida Wilson to write it as a screenplay. Ivan was even thinking of directing it himself, but realized that he wasn’t, maybe, the right person. “Exotica” had always been in his mind and so he approached me. We met in late spring 2007 and at that point we began to look for actresses.

We really cast a very, very wide net between the States, Canada, England and through the miracles of online casting now really went through hundreds if not over a thousand actresses. It was really daunting. And then Amanda Seyfried walked into a room and she was so immediately appealing. She seemed to capture something and surprised us all. We looked at each other after she left and I think we knew that was Chloe.

But, unfortunately, at that time she really (wasn’t a big enough name). Everyone knew that “Mamma Mia” was coming out, but no one really could have anticipated that it was going to strike the nerve it did. “Adoration” was in place so I took time away to make that film. And then when I finished it, I met Liam. We knew that we needed to have the strongest cast possible. It was the only way it was going to get made. And so we did. I can’t imagine a better cast for this film.
“Chloe” stars Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore

(Left to Right) “Chloe” stars Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore

Q: This seems such a different kind of film for Montecito to have made.
A: It is, though I liked “Disturbia” a lot (the 2007 thriller that Reitman and Pollock executive produced for Montecito). I thought that was an interesting film. And I also think that in Ivan’s own filmography the missing link, if you will, is “Dave” (the 1993 romantic comedy directed by Reitman and starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver) because “Dave” is also a film about a marriage and it’s also a film about a surrogate really as someone who reignites Sigourney Weaver’s passion for her husband in this very unusual way. I think “Dave” is not only the missing link between my work and Ivan’s sensibility, but it also explains a lot about father and son.

I think it’s an interesting link between Jason and Ivan, as well, in terms of sensibility being a political satire. It’s a very accomplished work. When people think of Ivan they immediately think of the “Ghostbusters” and the “Beethovens”. They forget that (“Dave”) is one of Ivan’s finest films. As you know, Montecito does so many different types of films. It’s really quite astonishing to look at their development slate. They’re really one of the most active companies, I think.
Q: And they did a great job of raising money when it was still possible to do that and that puts them in an enviable position to fund projects now.
A: But even with all that, this was a challenge. The deal with Studio Canal, who is their partner, was very specific. The pieces had to fit in a very particular way and they eventually did. It only really happened when we had secured all three cast members. It was clear that if we weren’t able to shoot it last March, it wasn’t going to happen. Studio Canal ended up stepping up to the plate and really financing it.
Q: Did Montecito come to you?
A: They did. Ivan approached me and it was really on the basis of “Exotica” He’s a very hands on producer. I know he worked with Erin on the script. When we began our relationship he studied all of my films. We had several meetings about the things he liked and things he didn’t like. It was interesting that even though he hired me (because of) “Exotica”, what emerged as his favorite film was “Felicia’s Journey”. And then there was a big selling job because the film was originally set in San Francisco and I really was convinced that I wanted to shoot it in Toronto.

So Ivan came out and we spent some time going around Toronto, which I think was really quite an emotional experience for him because he spent so much time there before leaving. He saw the city was completely transformed.

While he was skeptical about it being as alluring as San Francisco, I was able to convince him that there was a way of photographing it that would make it very seductive to the viewer because they would not necessarily know where they were. They knew they were in an urban center, but for most people Toronto has never played itself. In a way, Toronto is like Chloe. It gets paid to be other places. (Laughs) It gets paid to pretend its New York or Chicago or Boston and now it got to play itself and that becomes an intrinsic part of the tone of the film.
Q: If it had been shot in San Francisco we’d be seeing the Nob Hill exteriors that we know so well from so many other movies.
A: That’s exactly it. How do you shoot that city in a way that’s never been seen before? I think as a director I’m always excited to explore new terrain and so many of my favorite films have been set in San Francisco and it’s just impossible to reinvent it. Ultimately, I’m a tourist there. I don’t really know how people live in San Francisco in the way that I do in Toronto. Toronto has these extraordinary arteries and ravines flowing through the city and it seemed to be very interesting to work with the idea of a house overlooking one of these ravines and the way these dark primal forces emerge from these ravines and kind of infiltrate their way into these civilized homes.
Q: I thought Toronto looks great in “Chloe”.
A: It was important to shoot in Toronto during the winter, as well. So you get this contrast between this hostile exterior and these welcoming environments. The house becomes a character, as well. We saw this modernist sort of house that allowed Catherine, the Julianne Moore character, to be watching her own family as though they were in aquariums in a way. There was an extensive use of glass and mirrors and windows so the production design was very specific. We were able to create in a set and on this location this very distinct home that the family lived in.
Q: Looking now at some of the challenges you faced filming, you have some very erotic scenes between Amanda and Julianne’s characters. How did you shoot those? Was this the usual closed set situation?
A: I think the most important thing is you shoot them as dramatic scenes. You don’t sort of suddenly shift gears and kind of make it all very secretive and hushed. There had to be continuity between the way I would direct a dramatic scene and an erotic scene because ultimately what I’m most interested in in that erotic scene is the drama. So you come to an agreement with the actors as to what they’re comfortable showing or not showing. You’re very specific about the way you’re choreographing it. And once they understand what the parameters are, then they can concentrate on the drama, itself.

It’s not about being nervous. It’s about just trusting and being assured that they’re going to look great. Because that’s a very complex scene. There’s a lot of stuff going on and the last thing the actors have to worry about is whether or not they’re overexposed or whether or not they’re well photographed. You obviously don’t shoot those scenes at the beginning of the shoot. You make sure that the actors are comfortable and that there’s a rhythm and that the crew is comfortable. You know, I’ve shot a number of those scenes now in different films and really what the actors get most excited about is the drama — how the depiction of their erotic life extends the drama of the piece, itself. And that’s language you use. You can’t shift tones because then the actors get nervous.
“Chloe” star Amanda Seyfried

“Chloe” star Amanda Seyfried

Q: I imagine that like shooting anything you need multiple takes of these scenes. How do you get the energy back to make it work as well on the fourth take?
A: It’s a dramatic scene. It’s like any other piece of work. You try and measure it so that you find the best performance. In this case, also, after the experience I had with “Where the Truth Lies” (his 2005 thriller starring Kevin Bacon, Colin Firth and Alison Lohman, which was given an NC-17 rating by the MPAA), you make sure that you shoot it in a way so that if there are issues with the MPAA you’re able to accommodate that. The mistake I made with that film is that I shot it as a master (scene) and there was no way of altering it. But this one is carefully covered. We were able to tailor it because the one thing that was absolutely clear is that we needed an R rating. All I know is that NC-17 is the kiss of death. I learnt my lesson the hard way (with “Where the Truth Lies”).
Q: So history is not repeating itself?
A: No, that was really naïve. I just didn’t exactly know how to play that game.
Q: Of course, you could have done “Chloe” as a PG-13 if you wanted to.
A: It was always an R. We knew and agreed that it would be an R. We just felt it was (for) an older audience. I really do think it’s for an older audience.
Q: What other challenges did you face?
A: The huge advantage I have is that I’ve been working with the same crew for so many years. We started working on tiny budgeted films so we work really well together as a team. We understand the rhythm that we need to work with. It was a tight shoot, but it wasn’t unrealistic. We finished on time. We had 35 days. It’s fast, but that’s how I shoot.

I think the thing that made it unusual for me is that it was the first film that I extensively tested. And that was clear, as well, from the beginning from Montecito that this was going to be a film that we would test screen. I don’t know how my own scripts would survive that process, but this film (did) because it was more linear. It was actually a very eye-opening experience. I actually enjoyed the test screenings we had here in L.A. They were informative and Ivan’s a great believer in them as is Tom.
Q: Did you make a lot of changes?
A: Yes, we did. You could see things that played differently from what you might have thought. And you would never have known that unless you had an audience. There were some narrative lines that we had to trim. Like one performance, in particular, with Max Thieriot, the young actor, who’s excellent, but his whole kind of line had to be tailored because it wasn’t really in rhythm with the rest of the film. But that’s standard for any film.

I think, perhaps, the greatest challenge and it happens with any film, really, is that you don’t shoot a film until the screenplay is absolutely right, but you do ask a composer to come up with a brilliant score in four weeks. That to me is the most extraordinary thing. I think Mychael Danna just came up with this quite remarkable score. I expect the highest quality work from my team and they all delivered.
Q: What sort of budget did you have?
A: It’s somewhere in the range of $12-14 million.
Q: How did you work with your actors? Do you like to rehearse a lot?
A: I think rehearsals begin from the moment you start to talk about the character and the role. I like to have table readings and I like to make sure that we’re all aware of the dynamics of play here. And then it’s also very important in this film to make sure that it’s researched. I spent time interviewing sex workers to make sure that, for instance, you still could connect with a prostitute in a hotel bar in the age of the Internet and all that. I knew that Amanda would be needing to know that. I wanted it to be convincing. I wanted it to feel real.

The main thing is to be able to make sure that in this film the actresses, in particular, understood what the nature of the fantasies they were having about each other were based on. The fact that Chloe is telling stories of what is happening in her life to Catherine, though not necessarily in the way that Catherine thinks she is. They become embedded in each other. Catherine’s need to hire a prostitute to check on her husband’s fidelity, which is an unusual thing to do obviously, is based on a real need she has to reconnect with this erotic side of a man that’s become a stranger to her in some ways.

I wanted the actors to be aware of all the different levels we were working with so there was a total consistency. That’s always the biggest challenge in any film — to make sure that everyone’s in the same movie.
Q: How do you work with yourself in terms of preparing? Do you shot list or storyboard?
A: I used more storyboards here than I normally would because I was trying to combine a constructed set with a real location. We had to be very specific given the budget we had (regarding) what we needed to build and not. So certain scenes are carefully storyboarded. I’ve actually become accustomed to this. It’s very important that I know exactly what I’m shooting so that the art team and the lighting team doesn’t need to waste time and money on things that won’t make it to the screen. I don’t make those decisions on the day. Everything is planned beforehand.

I’m always astonished at directors who just want it all done and they can make all those choices on set. I’ve just never had that luxury. And actually now even if I did I still, I know, would be very specific about what I need to see. I think what that means is my DOP, Paul Sarossy, is able to light it in a very particular way. He doesn’t have to be worried about creating a general light. He knows that I’ll be looking at this specifically. I’m very involved in frame compositions and choosing shots and then I leave the specific lighting to him. I don’t need to storyboard as carefully as I used to. I think I just know what I need to get and I communicate that as clearly as possible to my team so that we can be as efficient as possible.