The Director's Chair Interviews

A Quick Chat with Atom Egoyan

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date: November 1998
place: Shepperton Studios
under discussion: Felicia's Journey
intro: Award-winning filmmaker Atom Egoyan defies categorisation as much as his films. Born in Cairo of Armenian parentage and brought up in Canada, Egoyan repeatedly tackles difficult subjects such as personal dislocation, death, obsession and social neuroses. Yet he is as much a master storyteller as he is psychological commentator and his delight in weaving narratives continues to beguile audiences. His latest work, Felicia's Journey, is the largest budget film this intense and thoughtful self-taught filmmaker has made. Based on the William Trevor novel, it follows Felicia (Elaine Cassidy), a pregnant Irish teenager who comes to England looking for the father of her child, but instead is befriended by a sinister Bob Hoskins.

This is the second novel you've adapted. What brought you back to that genre?
A great novelist presents a gallery of characters and situations and places with such an extraordinary sense of detail that, if you feel that it is something that you could interpret and give cinematic life to, it's difficult to resist the gift that's been given to you. It's that balance of trying to respect and honour the spirit of their work, but also feeling free to reinvent and to find a way of reinterpreting it, which makes the process of adaptation organic and urgent. I think a film adaptation needs to have a sense of urgency: there's nothing more boring to me than illustrating a book. With Exotica that I'd gone as far as I could with a certain set of obsessions and concerns, and that film seemed to be the summation of a certain type of film that I was making up to that point.

What were those concerns?
Well, just the ways in which people ritualize their neuroses into socially acceptable modes of behaviour - I mean that's certainly in this film in a big way, but it comes from a different perspective. It's showing worlds - life in a small village in Ireland and life in Birmingham - that are outside of my experience.

How are you dealing with the increase in budget available [$10 million] to you for this production?
I don't feel added pressure. I think it's still a modestly scaled film, but because it's serving a source that has been acknowledged and given a value, I feel justified in the increased budget. I tend to see my own stories on a more modest scale and it was difficult for me to take that next step with my own material. But it's been very incremental: my first film, Next of Kin, was made 15 years ago for $20,000, my second $100,000 and then Speaking Parts was $500,000. I was never aware of commercial considerations, and each film found enough of an audience to justify its budget. I'm more aware of those things now, but somehow in the beginning just through ignorance more than anything else I shielded myself. There was no hype around independent films in the early 80s and it wasn't, at that point, the calling card that it now is.

Do you feel part of that "indy" scene?
One of the great advantages of being in Canada is that you are sort of slightly removed from it all. Shooting a film in England is not as much of a cultural jump as it would be to shoot a film in Los Angeles. I think people are just a lot more saner about the process of filmmaking here.

How did you go about casting Felicia's Journey?
I always had Bob in mind just because he has a different reputation outside of the United Kingdom - I think he is taken totally for granted here. What makes him so interesting in this role is that he's an actor who is immediately accessible, you sort of feel you know him. There's something about the over familiarity of Bob which is a distraction, but it's brilliant for a role like this where the character is so duplicitous and has invented this entire mythology for himself. It was important for me to pair that with an actress who was completely fresh and unknown and that meant searching through Ireland for a young actress who could be Felicia. We looked at hundreds and hundreds and Elaine just stood out. It's a difficult, difficult role because the Ireland that is represented in the book is not an Ireland that exists any more, so what we had to do in the adaptation was to show how the particular family structure that she was from could create this young woman who was in a way timeless. And the film deals with two characters who are floating in different times and that's what ultimately draws them together.

It sounds similar in theme, with a sense of dislocation and alienation, to your other films. Is it?
Yes. Absolutely. And also there's this whole idea of how memories are activated, and how there are things that people can do that are socially acceptable which mask deep neurosis and, in this case, psychosis.

How are you developing a sense of place visually in the film?
The huge challenge in the book was the very dark and quite demonic sense it paints of the industrial Midlands, the Black Country, which doesn't really exist any more - a lot of those dark, satanic mills have been torn down and the area's become quite anonymous. So it was really important to find the last remaining edifices of that, but also to find a way of composing and orienting that which had a reference to the way Felicia experienced Ireland. She comes into Birmingham with nothing but optimism and hope, but gradually the place turns against her. The bigger challenge was how to depict this man's house because the spaces that she's used to living in in Ireland are very small. My reference for that was Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast. She's expelled from this village by her father's actions and driven to this dark castle where she encounters this beast who falls in love with her.

What is it about the process of filmmaking that interests you? Aside from examining of a sense of dislocation, you seem to be particularly interested in the weaving of narrative...
I have no problem watching linear narrative stories, but I get bored silly by the idea of making something that way, because it just seems to be not taking full advantage of the powers available to you. To me it's an extraordinary luxury that a filmmaker is able to use time, but it's never a process of having a linear story and then chopping it up. The fact that the audience wants to believe all these things are real gives you incredible license to push that and take you to the edge of what is accepted, given the fact that the audience wants to be seduced. Seduction's a huge part of it - I'm always drawn to images and to sequences, to using music and patterns and rhythms which will draw people in, but at the same time, there's that sense of needing to trust sequences which may not make chronological sense. The films that I've always been inspired by - formative films - are ones like Last Year in Marienbad or Don't Look Now. Those are films were very inspiring because they questioned time and they tried to find a way in their depiction of time which mirrored or reflected the character's experience of what they were going through. That's what filmmaking is about, it's not just illustrating, but rather using a language to really enter the subconscious of the character's experience of things.

You mentioned music, how important is that in Felicia's Journey?
Part of Hildige is this idea of a certain type of music that he needs when he comes alone into this big house which makes him feel comfortable. In the script it was Peggy Lee, but because of the limitations of the budget, we just couldn't afford it. One of the drivers on this set listens to older songs all the time, and I and asked him if he could think of a singer that Hildige might listen to. He came back a couple of days later with this completely forgotten English singer from the 50s that no-one remembers called Malcolm Vaughan. He's hardly remembered, but the songs are brilliant. And they're painful. So we've woven him into our film. I just think that when you're making films you should take advantage of everything at your disposal. I've never really understood filmmakers who shy away from using music.

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