Atom Egoyan makes films about redirected desire, the way technology distorts or amplifies passion, and the elusiveness of any objective truth beneath competing narratives. These themes are evident in the films he wrote and directed during his first decade as a writer-director working within the state-funded Canadian system, a run that stretched from 1984’s Next Of Kin through Exotica in 1994. They persisted as Egoyan began alternating original stories with literary adaptations, in a period that included The Sweet Hereafter in 1997, a poorly received adaptation of Rupert Holmes’ showbiz noir Where The Truth Lies, and the underappreciated Ararat, an attempt to address the Armenian genocide. Chloe, Egoyan’s latest, is the first film Egoyan has directed from a script he didn’t originate. (It’s taken from an Erin Cressida Wilson screenplay adapting Nathalie…, directed by French filmmaker Anne Fontaine.) Starring Julianne Moore as a Toronto gynecologist, Liam Neeson as her possibly unfaithful husband, and Amanda Seyfried as Chloe, the high-class prostitute Moore hires to test Neeson’s fidelity, Chloe is the closest Egoyan has come to making a movie designed to accommodate mainstream expectations. But it’s also unmistakably his own work, in details both great and small. Shortly before Chloe’s release, Egoyan spoke to The A.V. Club about communication, separation, researching high-class prostitutes, and the perilous activity of making dramas. [The interview contains vague spoilers.]
The A.V. Club: Chloe opens with a voiceover in which the title character explains herself to the audience, yet she disappears into enigma after that. Was it part of your strategy to misdirect viewers right away as to how much they could know about the main character?
Atom Egoyan: Yeah, I think so. It’s an interesting point, because there was more voiceover in the original script. We found it was way more interesting if you took it out. There were some scenes where she describes something of her background, and all of that felt more powerful stripped away than it was in the film. I think you are lulled into a sense that you’re going to have access to this person, but as she says at the end of that voiceover, at a certain point, she—part of her job is to disappear. I think that’s an intriguing way to approach Chloe, that she’s someone who’s really constructed by what other people imagine her to be. Our only real sense of who she is comes through this absolute obsession she develops with [Julianne Moore’s] Catherine, because Catherine listens to her so intensely. She allows herself to believe that Catherine is listening to her story, as opposed to what she was supposed to be listening to, and that overwhelms her. As someone who only exists as other people imagine her, that is such a powerful alchemy that she can’t help but be overwhelmed by it.
AVC: Catherine develops an intense attraction and repulsion to hearing stories about her husband. Would you characterize that as voyeurism, or something else?
AE: Well, I think it’s a lot of things. It’s an odd choice to go to a prostitute to determine whether your spouse is having an affair. I mean, she could go to a private investigator. But from the moment she makes that decision, there are a lot of things that aren’t really resolved. I think that at some level, what she wants to know is who her husband is in those situations. She wants access to an erotic side of this man that she still loves but has no connection to. As these stories begin to come back to her, she’s pained by them, but also charged by them in a way that I don’t think she could have ever expected, or would be able to explain. But something powerful is overwhelming her and inspires her to go further.
So it’s a number of things, and fortunately we had an astonishing actress [Moore] who could convey the wealth of emotions she’s trying to negotiate. She’s a very controlling figure. Anyone who starts in a film by saying that an orgasm is a series of muscular contractions, nothing mysterious about it, and then hands a patient a pamphlet, arouses some dubious suspicion. The fact that she thinks she can order things in her life and the lives of those around her so succinctly and yet feel that she’s disappearing, feel that she’s somehow not present. I think that’s a particular crisis that happens in many people’s lives at a certain point, and Catherine is in the throes of that, and is desperate to find some degree of emotional status.
AVC: That pamphlet scene was striking, too, because I instantly began to wonder whether this was someone who had always felt that way, or whether it was an attitude, a demystification of the orgasm that had developed over the years.
AE: I think it’s developed. The amazing thing about Julianne Moore is that she’s so appealing and nice that she can get away with a line like that, and you still feel it’s somehow within the realm of being acceptable, but it’s a really dangerous thing to say. [Laughs.] I think. In that position. I think that it’s an early clue as to the extent of her psychic place.
AVC: Speaking broadly, Chloe falls into the genre of the erotic thriller. Did you have any opinions of that genre going into this movie?
AE: You know, it’s funny. It’s come up a few times. I can’t say that I… Maybe I’m naïve. I just look at these films as dramas. When the drama is accelerated, then the tone shifts. It becomes something more concentrated. But I wasn’t thinking explicitly of that genre, or making references to it. There are certain films in that tradition that I have respected and enjoyed, but then do you think of Persona as an erotic thriller, or do you think of films like Teorema as erotic thrillers? They have elements that create tension, but that’s certainly… those types of films have been more a part of my formation than some of the films that have been hurled at me or hurled at this film in comparison.
I understand, though. I understand that maybe that’s what the producers were thinking, but it wasn’t part of my decision. I flirted with genre more explicitly in films like Ararat, in terms of historic epic, or even Where The Truth Lies. I was much more aware of mystery noir, and that the characters were recreating these scenes in their own minds. But in this film, it was all so concentrated on this peculiar alchemy between the two women, where there is this set of competing fantasies, and one of the women falls obsessively in love. I think that Chloe falls for Catherine in a way that’s so powerful to her. When she feels denied access, she, as people do, becomes mad. It’s mad love, l’amour fou. It happens. And that’s what I was thinking of. But I’ve also respected films like Unfaithful, say, if that’s what we’re talking about.
AVC: I used to work in a video store, so I tend to think of things in terms of where they would be shelved.
AE: Yeah. It’s funny, though. I want people to enjoy the movie, so I don’t want to apply any… I think there are people who will enjoy it as whatever type of film it’s being presented as or marketed as, and that, for me, is separate from my job. Exotica was also sold as an erotic thriller. I remember at that point, 15 years ago, I was really upset by that way of presenting the movie. But if it means that it’s more accessible to more people, then that’s fine. That’s what the distributors need to do. I certainly think this is a film a lot of people can enjoy, and I hope it appeals to a wide group of people.
AVC: How did working from someone else’s script change your approach to making this movie?
AE: It’s certainly less lonely. You feel there’s less on your shoulders. You feel you actually have a blueprint your entire crew can follow. This is a crew I’ve been working with for many, many years, but often they would come to the final cut of one of my movies and say, “Oh, now I understand what it’s about.” Because the scripts are so schematic and open to interpretation. This script was really considered and went from A to B in a very clear way. That meant we all knew what our respective jobs were. My job was to try to bring in the best actors and try to create a tone to the performances that would serve this drama, and then to choose locations and concentrate on the frame and what was in the frame, and not think about the overall structure and shape, which is my obsession when I’m directing one of my own scripts. The directing process is often a continuation of the writing. This is just a different skill-set.
AVC: There are more than a few elements, though, that fit into some ongoing concerns—
AE: Sure, of course. That’s what drew me to this material. I get sent a lot of scripts. This one excited something in me, and I felt that there were a number of issues close to me, which I then developed, I suppose, with Erin, the screenwriter, and we took the screenplay in a certain direction.
AVC: One of them is the use of video chatting, smartphones, and technology as a medium for desire, which is an ongoing concern in your works. Has your attitude toward technology changed over time?
AE: Oh, I think so. I think in the ’80s, when I started making films, we were all suspicious of these technologies. We were all convinced they would filter out any emotion and sense of intimacy, and the films I made during that period reflected that. In fact, what has happened is the opposite. I think we’re saturated with a degree of intimacy we would never have expected, and we’re trying to sort through this idea of complete access to each other’s lives on an ongoing basis. Our emotions aren’t filtered out at all. They’re actually accelerated.
In the last film [Adoration], I was dealing with this more explicitly. I think entire social groups are formed through these technologies that could never exist in the real world, and relationships that are a function of these technologies’ ability to accelerate feeling and emotional contact. So in that way, it’s really different from the tone of my early films, even though, curiously enough, the texture is exactly the same. If you look at Speaking Parts, it looks like they’re speaking to each other on the Internet, but it was a whole different technology. But we’re still staring at TV screens, right? They’re still monitors. But the way information is delivered is different. So it creates an interesting way of looking back at these early films, because they’re actually relevant in terms of the devices people are using. But the consideration, the debate, around those technologies was very different from what’s being presented now.
AVC: Picture quality and portability may have as much to do with it as anything. Something that looks good that you can carry in your hand is different from something you stare at while sitting in a chair.
AE: Sure. And again, that was something that came up in the last film, Adoration, the notion of portability, but that’s probably not as… Yes, there was this idea that in the previous generation, your technology was located at specific sites, and there was something ritualized about the way we would have these moments of contact in these specific sites. The portability has made that even more accessible, but it hasn’t changed the fundamental nature of what we’re looking at. Whether the quality is HD or low-grade, I don’t think that that’s… With apologies to Marshall McLuhan, who believed that was everything, who felt the nature of how we receive the information and the pixels really determined whether it was a hot or cold medium… Certainly McLuhan is getting a major revisitation up here in Canada these days, because he’s brilliant. It’s amazing what he was talking about. But I think the textures he was assigning to certain mediums is not necessarily as relevant as the concepts he was introducing in terms of global village and the nature in which we are so profoundly interconnected.
AVC: You introduced a not-yet-available type of video chatting in Adoration. It seems related to this movie, because they both present a situation where people are trying to control a narrative. That seems to go throughout your work, too.
AE: Yeah. I’m obsessed with this idea of storytellers and people who have a narrative, and sometimes sustain a relationship because they’re telling a narrative and someone is listening to that. Often the nature of the relationship is determined by how well they tell the story, or someone else’s ability to suspend disbelief, or infuse into their narrative something which they may not even be aware of. From that perspective, Chloe is very much one of my movies. [Laughs.] I don’t think Catherine’s aware of what Chloe’s projecting into her, but Chloe’s certainly aware that this relationship can only be sustained as long as she continues this narrative. So it becomes a type of sexual Scheherazade, in a way.
AVC: Did you feel any obligation to research the world of high-class prostitution?
AE: Superficially. Just to make sure it still existed in this world of Internet and online escort services; I just wanted to make sure that one would still find hookers in hotel bars. And sure enough, yes, they’re there, and I paid to have a conversation with a couple of sex workers just to get the details of their job and to ascertain how the business was conducted, knowing that Amanda [Seyfried] would need to know all that. Just to give her some background. I must confess, when I first read it, it seemed a little antiquated in terms of the mechanics of meeting people in bars and negotiating deals, but that’s still very much a part of how it’s done.
I went to… I can’t do this in Toronto, of course, but in New York, there was a particular hotel, and I was told by someone that that’s where you can make connections. Actually, that night there wasn’t much happening, so I got into a conversation with the bartender, and he told me where else to go. It’s not like every place in town has hookers in the bar by any means. I think it’s very particular. But if you know what you’re looking for, you know where to go.
AVC: In general, do these people have a life after that career?
AE: Oh, sure. I think there are sex workers who are students and are using it to supplement their careers, who can do a really great job of separating their work from their personal lives. I know people in the sex trade here, and they’re completely… I’d say it’s a lucrative job, a great way of making money. I found this out when I was doing research for Exotica. Lots of people are students and just using it as a way to earn their education. But there are others who are coming from a different place and who cannot make that separation. The job doesn’t involve needing to separate yourself from the work you do. I think it’s very dangerous to confuse those lines. Chloe is very confused. It’s all new territory for her. She’s never negotiated a client like Catherine, so those lines become blurred, tragically so.
AVC: I get the sense that she never had trouble compartmentalizing before.
AE: No, I don’t think she did, either. That being said, when we meet her, she’s distraught. There’s something happening in her life now that’s raised these issues. We don’t know what those are exactly. The danger of a film like this is, you hope you’re not making generalizations about people who are working in the sex trade, or certainly about the sexuality of… It may well be the first time that either of these women have had a relationship with another woman. Again, it’s open to interpretation. You just hope people are able to understand that these are particular characters, and this is the particular story that’s being told, and that a generalization is not being made. This is an unusual circumstance for these women to negotiate. They’re wading through completely uncharted territory.
You can tell, as Chloe says in that opening monologue, if her job is to sense what a client wants, how a client wants to be touched, what a client wants to hear, you can understand her confusion with Catherine. When she says to Catherine early on, “I don’t know what you want,” she’s completely baffled as to why this woman is pursuing this, whether it is masochistic, or… She has to determine what this woman’s story is. I do think you fall in love when you feel that something of your story is being listened to for the first time, or you feel someone else is hearing it as no one else has ever done. That’s what overwhelms Chloe. She gets to actually talk about her experience to someone for the first time, and it assumes a stature and a sense of purpose she’s never experienced. So if she’s at a point where she’s feeling diminished by this work, Catherine gives her a sense of self-worth, of dignity, through the nature of how she listens. That’s very powerful. Overwhelming, as it turns out.
AVC: You worked with Liam Neeson in staging Beckett. Did you find any connections between Beckett and this material at all?
AE: Oh, God. Samuel Beckett would be turning over in his grave. [Laughs.] Well, the nature of that particular piece, Eh Joe, a man listening to the voice of a woman who is tormenting him for thinking he could ever leave her… Again narration; it’s still someone listening to a story. In that case, what was so incredible is, it is probably the longest reaction shot I can think of. It’s just Liam onstage listening to this voice as this video camera moves closer and closer onto him. It was an amazing experience for both of us. It was just so intense. It’s interesting, because there is this one long passage that Julianne Moore has where she’s telling her story to Liam, and all he does is listen. I learned what an extraordinary actor he is through this experience we had. I would not make any links between a remake of a French movie and Samuel Beckett’s illustrious career, but I’ve been personally just so influenced by his writing. It’s informed that aspect of who I am. But I wouldn’t be so cavalier as to make a connection between the two.
AVC: You’ve talked about having a lot of offers to work in Hollywood after Exotica. Is this another period like that?
AE: Yeah, it is. Confusingly so. I’m just glad I’m at a different point in my life. I don’t take these offers as seriously. After Exotica, that was such an unexpected breakthrough, and that was a different time. All these films that were being sent to me, they all seemed real. They all seemed like they were about to happen. Now I realize that’s not the case. Not only is there the question of assessing a script, but also looking at the background and the producers and how serious this project may or may not be. I made a promise not to waste time on things that have no chance of getting made. And I’m a lot more selective than I was at that time. I spent a very, very harrowing year in L.A. attached to a Warner Bros. thriller that was never going to get made in retrospect, and thankfully walking away from that and making The Sweet Hereafter.
I don’t think I would get swept up in something like that again. I get the opportunity to do these smaller films that I get to produce up here, working with European distributors, and I get to make my own movies. Occasionally something like Chloe might come up, and I’m glad it did, and I’m proud of the film, and I’m thrilled that it’s getting this sort of a release. But it’s rare, and even this film took a long time to actually get made. It was the fact that Liam Neeson’s Taken was so successful and that Amanda, from the time we cast her, became a huge star through Mamma Mia! And again, all these things aligned in a way that allowed this film to get made. And, of course, Julianne Moore coming on board. Making dramas for the cinema is very difficult these days. It’s a perilous activity.