With a series of low-budget Canadian independent features–including 1987's Family Viewing, 1989's Speaking Parts, and 1993's Calendar—director Atom Egoyan quietly established himself as the world's most astute chronicler of life in the video age. An ethnic Armenian born in Cairo and raised on Canada's west coast, Egoyan's own sense of foreignness and alienation constantly informs his work, which circles around the same obsessive themes in fresh new ways. His critical breakthrough, 1994's delicate puzzle Exotica, earned him many additional converts, and his shattering adaptation of Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival which led to a dark-horse Academy Award nomination. Egoyan's new Felicia's Journey defies the lurid conventions of the serial-killer genre by casting the likable Bob Hoskins as a cheerfully anachronistic English catering manager who abducts helpless young women and murders them without being consciously aware of his crimes. Newcomer Elaine Cassidy plays his next potential victim, a pregnant Irish runaway searching for her lover. In his otherwise faithful adaptation of William Trevor's novel, Egoyan added a darkly comic role for wife and regular performer Arsinee Khanjian as Hoskins' late mother, a demented '50s TV cooking-show host. Egoyan recently spoke to The Onion.
The Onion: Felicia's Journey is your second adaptation in a row after basing your other features on original scripts. What were you able to draw from the novels that maybe you couldn't devise in your own work?
Atom Egoyan: I think with both books, there was an extraordinary gift that was being given to me by these two master writers: their power of observation and their ability to present me with beautifully detailed characters who are completely outside of my own experience. There was, in both books, a sense of a moral universe I felt I could learn from. Both these writers are more mature than I am, and I felt they had something to offer me, something that maybe I could enhance by making the work personal. So it's a complex relationship. They're very different writers, but they're both extraordinarily gifted in being able to present characters outside of their own experience, which is something I don't do very well. [Laughs.]
O: I know you worked closely with Russell Banks on The Sweet Hereafter. Was it the same kind of experience with William Trevor?
AE: Yeah, it was. William is a very different sort of person. I think Russell is very fascinated and interested in film, but William is from a different generation. We got along very well. We met a number of times in Britain, I told him what my ideas were, and he read over the script and gave me a really great response. But he wasn't involved as closely as Russell came to be. He never saw cuts or anything like that. But when I was looking for Felicia, I sent him various casting possibilities and we talked about them. It was collaborative, but I think I have to couch that by saying that he's not as excited about film, I suppose, as Russell is.
O: What sort of challenges did this particular book present for you in adaptation?
AE: I guess the biggest challenge was to try to preserve… There's a very odd tone to the book where there's something slightly absurdist and humorous to it, but it's nothing that actually happens as much as it is the tone of the writing. So I had to find an equivalent of that, something that would bring that sense of release. So I invented the idea of the cooking show and the relationship with the mother being played out that way. In the book, it's very different. The other thing is that there are certain things a writer can get away with just mentioning in half a sentence. If it's beautifully written, it just sort of floats by. The thing with the film, of course, is you have to show it, and that becomes quite literal. If you're not careful, it can become heavy-handed. I was trying to navigate my way through what was a deceptively simple story. There were so many levels to explore with these two characters that I wanted to make sure I was giving the viewer the space and time to find their own paths through the film. That's always my challenge, I think.
O: Were you reluctant to leave Canada and most of your regular performers behind [to shoot in England and Ireland]?
AE: Yeah, I was, especially since my original idea was to set the film in Canada and have [Felicia] come from Quebec and journey across to the West Coast. But it didn't quite work out that way.
O: Did the change of location yield anything unexpectedly positive for you?
AE: Of course, because there's a history of violence between those two cultures, Ireland and England, which runs deep into the subtext of the film. And, of course, the whole issue of the abortion and how that plays in the film is really loaded, because in Ireland it's illegal. The whole notion of choice and how choice is determined, and the idea of self-determination at a personal and political level, had a special resonance in those settings.
O: Were you setting out primarily to subvert the serial-killer genre, or was that incidental?
AE: I just think that serial killing has become an occupation we come to expect in films, like "the lawyer character" or "the doctor character," one of the those jobs that people have. I don't think presenting a serial killer—and maybe this says more about our culture than I want to admit—has become that odd. It's almost become one of those things that people might do. The question then becomes, "What does it mean in terms of the film?" and "What do the inherent ramifications of that occupation have to do with the moral content of the piece?"
O: I've heard a certain amount of debate over the Mychael Danna score. It's obviously quite different from his other scores for your films, which seem a little more hypnotic. This one's really cacophonous. What were you going for?
AE: I think I was trying to find a way where the music could become a really active participant in the piece, because I thought the story was simple enough that I could actually use this music in a much more expressionistic way. Now, you have to remember that I've been doing a lot of opera projects over the last few years [including a production of Salome and Egoyan's original opera Elsewhereless], and maybe that's had a really big influence. I was trying to experiment, I suppose. With the operas, I felt that this idea of music and text being able to present themselves in a really overt way would allow me access into the inner workings of what these characters were feeling. Now, it is an experiment, I do grant you that. I think this is a very radical type of score, and it goes against the law that says, "The best scores are the ones you don't notice." This isn't like that; this is really quite out there. But, then again, you have to realize that this is a character [Bob Hoskins] who overwhelms himself with music, who walks into his house and needs to hear music, putting on these songs all the time. So the theme of music and the way it can drown out and help suppress other emotions is one of the subtexts of the film, and I wanted to take that really far. So with these Monteverdi syrupy string sounds he uses to drown out his pain, at a certain point they turn against him and become very threatening, and it's as though he can't turn them off.
O: Well, it's certainly striking. Part of my experience of watching your films, which for me began with Speaking Parts, was being drawn in by this score, which is part of what made it so mesmerizing. But maybe the content of [Felicia's Journey] demands something else, I suppose.
AE: I think we just wanted to surprise ourselves and do something different, and this seemed to be the project to do that with.
O: What motivates your fractured editing style? Do your goals for it change from project to project?
AE: It's an organic process of trying to assess how these characters see themselves. A lot of people think that at some point I have this linear story and then chop it up, but it's never like that. This is just the way the stories unfold to me. There's no science to it except trying to use the medium of film—which is a medium that allows us to move through time effortlessly—to its full effect. We have to try and make sure that those transitions are as seamless as possible so that the viewer is not too aware of the sometimes radical shifts in time that we're presenting. But with [Felicia's Journey], I think one of the reasons we went the way we did with the music was because I felt the structure was a bit more straightforward than some of the other films.
O: Do you have the timeline entirely figured out before shooting?
AE: Well, you do, but that doesn't necessarily mean that's going to be the one you're going to use. There are always rhythmic surprises and issues that come up as you're editing it that you can't anticipate, and that would mean restructuring time. But that's what editing is about.
O: Is it also part of this idea that you want the audience to think about the way these images are arranged, or about their relationship with images?
AE: I do welcome a degree of self-consciousness on the part of the viewer. I do think that this idea of the viewer being aware of the fact that they're watching an image can ultimately lead to a greater identification and excitement about what they're being presented with. It makes them more active. I do find that pleasurable. A very entertaining way to watch a film is to be in a space where you have to lose yourself to a world of surprise and enchantment, but also be aware of the distance you have to go in order to lose yourself. So I guess it's this weird combination of seduction and suspicion, which informs a lot of my image-making.
O: Was Calendar something of a turning point in your career?
AE: It's funny you should ask that, because I was thinking about it the other day. There were two features that I made for television in '93; one was Calendar and the other was Gross Misconduct. Those are the two projects when I started working with this idea of time shifting. Gross Misconduct is a bit more conventional: There are titles and indications of where you are in terms of time. Now Calendar, of course, was a lot more personal. There was a defining structure, but a lot of it was improvised, and it was a little dream project for me. It did change things for me, because it was the first film where I used a more naturalistic acting style, and I really realized that you can go further in inviting viewers' participation. This as opposed to something like Speaking Parts, where the actors are quite catatonic and in this glacial freeze. I used to think the way to deal with issues of denial and emotional suppression was to actually have the performances really suppressed and stylized, but I think I've moved away from that. Calendar was one of the films that helped me make that shift.
O: What do you make of this sudden influx of features shot on video?
AE: What I make of it is that I welcome it, because it democratizes the film process and that's great. It makes the job more difficult for [critics] and festival programmers and distributors, because there's a lot more stuff to look at, but what's worth watching will still emerge. It's a strange thing texturally, because it's gotten to the point where you can't identify that it's video. Of course, with my movies, I've always tried to make the video sections quite overt. The first film where I was stunned by how good a video transfer can be was way back to Family Viewing in '87, when we shot a lot of it on 1" video with live switching, then made a kinescope transfer. It wasn't as obvious as I thought. I think that's what is happening now with a lot of digital formatting. What that means is that we're coming to accept a type of film image which is not in any way the type of film image that I dream of. When I look at a film like Felicia's Journey, which is shot in Cinemascope, it'll be a long time before digital can achieve that quality.
O: It seems to me that the positive aspect of this is that instead of video being used a cheap substitute for film, people are starting to explore some of the properties of video so it's more of an enhancement than a liability. It's certainly something you've done throughout your career. What are some of the properties of video that make it so fascinating for you?
AE: I think it's the decision to achieve experience and what informs those choices, and what it says about our relationship to our own sense of memory. Also, how does it change the way we look at issues of what experience means? I think there are a number of really profound issues that have to do with our ability to manipulate and reprocess experience as archival evidence, as opposed to something that's felt. It allows me to access certain space that's unique to the new technology. I can have characters involved in making these sort of effortless decisions that later may have a profound impact on the way they conduct their lives. In [Felicia's Journey], you have this pretty clear dichotomy between the type of world she's coming from—where her experience is all about oral traditions, passing things on through storytelling, and people talking about things—and his life, where those moments are being mediated and recorded. Even though both characters are in a state of denial, they have radically different ways of dealing with it and coming through that.
O: You were on the Cannes jury the year [David Cronenberg's] Crash took the Special Jury Prize. What were those sessions like for that? Was it fairly contentious?
AE: Yeah, it was contentious. It's not difficult to understand why. [Laughs.] I'm not really at liberty to talk about the jury, only to say that there was a lot of discussion about that film, and I'm really proud of the decision we made.
O: Years ago, you flirted with Hollywood over a thriller called Dead Sleep, but it never really happened.
AE: No, thankfully. [Laughs.]
O: Do you ever see yourself going back again?
AE: No. I mean, I had this great experience of being able to have a front-row seat to what filmmaking is about there, and having to go through the ignominious experience of making a bad movie. So I consider myself quite lucky.
O: Was this a script somebody else had written?
AE: Yeah, it was a script I thought I could do something with and maybe I could have, but it was clear that issues of control—which I'd come to expect and maybe I'm spoiled to expect—were not forthcoming. So I opted out.
O: Are there projects in your head that you have to dispose of now because you wouldn't have the money to make them?
AE: Well, there's a certain type of film that I'd be foolish to make or think of making, because there is that threshold where if you go beyond a certain budget, you're not going to get the control you need. It's pretty clear to me; I think I know what that budget is, though it changes from film to film. If this film is a success, that threshold might change a bit for me. There is this business side of it that you're painfully aware of when you're putting a film together, and you have to prioritize what it is you need in order to make a film you'd be happy with. If it's control that you prioritize, you'd better be realistic about what type of budget you can expect.
O: How was this film financed?
AE: This was financed by Icon, which is Mel Gibson's production company. They're funded by the studios, but independent of them as well. So it was kind of an ideal situation.