Q & A with Writer-Producer-Director Atom Egoyan

Writer-Producer-Director Atom Egoyan

“Adoration” Writer-Producer-Director Atom Egoyan

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to writer-producer-director Atom Egoyan (“The Sweet Hereafter”, “Exotica”) about “Adoration”, a drama about how people connect with each other and with technology today, which opened May 8 in New York and L.A. via Sony Pictures Classics.

Written, directed and produced by Atom Egoyan, “Adoration” was produced by Simone Urdl, Jennifer Weiss. It was executive produced by Robert Lantos, Michele Halberstadt and Laurent Petin. Starring are Rachel Blanchard, Scott Speedman, Devon Bostick, Arsinee Khanjian and Kenneth Welsh.

The story Egoyan tells in “Adoration” revolves around a high school teacher (Khanjian) of French and drama who has her class translate a news story about a terrorist who plants a bomb in the airline luggage of his pregnant girlfriend. The assignment impacts strongly on one of her students (Bostick), who presents it to the class as his own personal story and takes it to the Internet where it becomes the hot topic of conversation in video chat rooms around the world.

The Cairo-born and Canadian-bred Egoyan was Oscar nominated for directing “The Sweet Hereafter” and writing its adapted screenplay. He’s also won five Best Canadian Feature awards at the Toronto International Film Festival and received five Golden Palm nominations at Cannes, including one for “Adoration”. At Cannes he’s also won the international press award (FIPRESCI) for “Hereafter” and “Exotica” and a Jury Grand Prize for “Hereafter”.

Q: How did you come to make “Adoration”?
A: It came about because our son had just turned 15 and when I was 15 I suddenly became consumed with high school drama. It became a huge part of my life. I’d been thinking a lot about the origins of my interest in drama and about my relationship to teachers at that point and I began to develop this story about a boy who is introduced to the world of creating imaginary characters and that began to weave into his personal reasons for being inspired by that. But then I also came across this story, which I remembered from 1986 of a man who talked his pregnant lover onto an El Al flight with the promise that he was going to meet her in Israel and unbeknownst to her he’d put a bomb in her handbag. I thought this would be amazing story for this young man to project himself into and then looking at his family and the reasons why (he identifies with the story).

It just began to evolve. I suppose like any written text you start from one place and you end up somewhere completely different. I also wanted to create this meditation on how we form our identities in a culture where there are so many identities being thrown at us all the time. So this idea of using the Internet, using this character presenting himself one way as a means of discovering who he really is, but also showing the limitations of that, showing that the Internet is a great place to start a discovery and launch an investigation, but you still have to deal with the real world. You still have to deal with real people. At a certain point, you need to write and tell a story. Sometimes you’re on the right track and sometimes you’re on the wrong track. Sometimes you write something and you decide it’s not worth making a film and other times you think the only way it’s going to be resolved and taken to the next step is by making it a film. This was certainly a subject matter that needed to be filmed and needed to be explored through all these different textures that the film examines.
Q: When did you start writing?
A: I started writing it about three years ago. At that time I had just finished reading this huge book on the Middle East by Robert Fisk called “The Great War For Civilisation”. He mentions this news story. I remembered when it happened in 1986, but stumbling across it again all these years later in this book really inspired me and I thought what an unusual story this is. I can’t think of anything more extreme than talking someone who is pregnant with your child onto a flight and using them as a detonator. This notion of using other human beings as detonating devices began to develop. So, of course, you have the image of Simon’s imaginary parents, but also you could look at the drama teacher using her student as a detonating device, as well. Certainly, the repercussions of this type of attitude and behavior in this family and within these characters began to get really fascinating for me.
Q: The Internet video chat that is such an important visual element in your movie is particularly interesting because it goes well beyond what’s actually possible to do today in terms of the number of participants.
A: The challenge of the film was to visually create the feeling you get when you’re in a chat room. So it’s actually trying to visually represent something which is really textual. That works because it’s easy to log and to follow where and how a conversation is going. The reality of having more than six people on screen, all of them speaking at the same time, is that it would get very confusing and there’d be a lot of overlap and no one would know how to moderate that. I think I was really trying to create a visual equivalent of what happens to a textual chat. Now that being said, you can enjoin up to nine screens on Skype and I’ve seen that done with conferences. It’s not as fluid and as fast as what you’re seeing in the film, but it will be soon enough. But it was important for me not to make the film feel sci-fi. It had to feel like of this moment. I don’t think you get the impression that this a futuristic (story) because it feels as though it could be happening.
Q: When you write, do you write in the dead of night or around the clock or some other way?
A: I’m one of those people who can write really anywhere any time. I wish in some ways I could be more disciplined and say, “I wake up in the morning and write for four hours and then stop.” I really write when I need to and as it comes to me. There’s a specific place I like to write — in my studio on my old film editing table. I think that kind of keeps me in the frame of mind that this will be a film at some point.
Q: Do you give any thought while you’re writing to whether this will be something you can sell and get financing for?
A: That’s the big question, isn’t it? The first question is, “What do you want to write about?” The next big question is, “What budget are you thinking of making this for?” because that’s going to determine whether or not this film can actually get made and the freedom that you’re going to have to make it the way you want. So I know that if I make my films for a modest budget there are a family of smaller distributors that would be interested enough to sell it and that becomes viable. But after a certain budget number that becomes unrealistic.

This is a film that’s made for a modest budget and certainly it’s realistic that a film like this could exist as a business model, but you have to be careful. It’s very different from, say, the film I’m finishing now called “Chloe” (for The Montecito Picture Company and Studio Canal), which is a higher budgeted film. Its commercial expectations are very different from a film like “Adoration”. But then it’s structured in a very different way than “Adoration”. It’s not as non-linear as “Adoration”.
Q: What budgets did you have for these films?
A: For “Adoration” it’s about $4 million (and “Chloe”) would be in the range of about $15 million.
Q: Is there a distributor yet for “Chloe?”
A: It’s being distributed by Studio Canal in France. They’re distributing it basically through the world. I’m not sure what’s happening with the States, but it’s set up. It’s being edited right now. We’re aiming (to have it ready) for the festival in Toronto.
Q: How did “Adoration” come to Sony Classics?
A: I’ve had a long relationship with them because when Michael Barker and Tom Bernard (who just renewed their deals as co-presidents of SPC for four more years) were with Orion Classics they bought “The Adjuster” in 1991. (One of the stars of “The Adjuster,” by the way, was Arsinee Khanjian, who stars in “Adoration”.) They were actually the first distributors that took me to this other level. Before that I was with Zeitgeist, which is a much smaller distributor. I haven’t worked with them since that time. The other films (I’ve made) have been handled by Miramax, Fine Line and other distributors.

So this is the first time we’ve worked together since that time, but I have a really strong feeling for them because they’ve been at it for a long, long time and they in some ways discovered me. So I’m thrilled to be working with them again. They saw the film before Cannes. We wanted them to distribute it if possible so rather than putting them in a bidding war situation they came up and saw the film privately and we agreed that they would be the best choice.
Q: In the marketplace today for specialized films it seems harder and harder for them to find an audience. There are fewer specialty distributors now and there’s more competition for theaters that show such films. Is that frustrating to you?
A: It is. I’ve seen a huge change. I think what’s happened is that people are waiting to see these films at home on DVD. What they don’t understand, though, is that if the films don’t have a theatrical release they don’t sometimes even make it to DVD. It’s a very perilous moment right now. We’re looking for other models, but the tragedy for me is that the films I make, certainly, are designed to be seen projected on a larger screen and they have a certain pace and a rhythm and, certainly, an expectation of the viewer’s commitment to what they’re seeing.

If you look at a film like “Adoration” it’s very challenging, but I think incredibly rewarding for the viewer. But they need to experience it as a film as opposed to something that they’re kind of switching in and out of. It just doesn’t survive that type of approach. So I will always fight to have my films seen on screen.
Q: Of course, young people today are happy to view movie content on their cell phone screens.
A: Yes. You know, our son’s favorite film is “The Godfather” and he has it downloaded onto his cell phone. He understands that it’s a better experience to see it visually on a screen, but he loves the film and he wants access to it. And you can’t blame him for that. I made a short film for Cannes a few years ago on the 60th anniversary of the Festival. They asked a number of directors to contemplate the state of cinema and I dealt with this phenomenon of people watching films on cell phones, even going to far as to suggest that you can watch a movie in a theater and be watching something else on a cell phone. That’s the nature of where we are. You can resent that. You can be bitter about it, but it’s a reality and we have to as filmmakers address it.
Q: Coming back to “Adoration”, what were the biggest challenges you faced in production?
A: Well, the biggest challenge was to make these chats as fluid as possible. We went to a number of different high schools and tried to find students that were smart enough to partake in these. To make it look as though it was actually happening in real time with the actor playing Simon (was difficult because) it’s all pre-recorded and he’s having to respond to something that he wasn’t present for when we were filming it and (he now has to) look like he’s a part of it at the same time. And then (there was the challenge of) designing a program that would allow his live feed image to be planted as one of those (computer screen) squares. You notice at certain points that he’s actually looking as though he’s talking live to these other kids — but he’s not. That was a very tricky thing to design. It looks very fluid, but like anything else in the film it takes planning and design.
Q: “Adoration” has a number of very intense scenes. Were you able to shoot the movie in sequence to accommodate the pressures that your actors had to have been under?
A: It would be such a luxury to be able to shoot these things in sequence, but we ended up having to shoot some of the most intense scenes at the beginning. And that actually was very good for the actors, I think, rather than have those things loom over them, to get them through and actually be able to then position and calibrate the rest of their performances based on that.