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Interview with Atom Egoyan, director of "Adoration"

Every new film by Atom Egoyan is a cinema event. Some are masterpieces -- "Exotica" (1994) and "The Sweet Hereafter" (1997) are two of the best films of the 90s, and the latter I would put on my top ten for that decade. Even when they do not totally satisfy -- I had some reservations about his new film "Adoration"-- they inevitably provoke thoughts about such issues as identity, innocence, guilt and the role of technology. And he is one of the smartest people making films these days and always fun to talk to, as I was privileged to do so recently.

Hey, why not listen in?

PK: When was the last time we talked? During "Exotica," I think?

AE: I know we met during "Exotica," and I know we met after that, but it could have been...I really don't remember, I remember "Exotica" because it was my first tour.

PK: Have you been touring a lot with this one?

AE: I mean yeah, not necessarily coming to Boston, but I mean I got from, I was doing London and then I was in Germany and then I just came out to LA and San Francisco for the film festival. It's all so strange because I'm trying to coordinate it with a post on this new movie. We waited a long time before releasing this; it was premiered a year ago in Cannes, so...I was expecting that it would be a bit more organized, but it's just the way it is. I think that there's just a lot of stuff coming out now. It's a different time, right, than the 90s. 

PK: It's tough competing with "Star Trek," I guess.

AE: Yes, there's that. There's that annoying little film that kinda happened to open the same weekend. It was funny seeing Bruce Greenwood, he was up here promoting "Star Trek."

PK: He was in "The Sweet Hereafter,' right?

AE: Right, and "Exotica.

PK: Well, he did well, he had that bug crawling down his throat. You saw the movie right?

AE: No, I didn't...So you just gave that away.

PK: Your film is probably more worthy of discussion. How have you found the response?

AE: Well, you know it's interesting. It depends. I think there are people who are incredibly passionate and lock into and can read it and then there are people who don't. And I think the division between those types of audiences, even in terms of the types of films I make, has become more extreme, you know, and I think its just a question of attention span, really, and being able to read, as I said, a piece of film in the same way that you would read a book or that you would be able to devote yourself to something that someone has spent a long time with. Maybe its always been that way, I'm not sure, or maybe I just wasn't as aware of it as I've become, but it seems that people who take the time and get the ambitions of the piece, I think respond really well to it. And I've had incredibly great conversations with people about it. And then there are people who just say "oh that too complex," or, "oh, I don't understand what's going on," or, "there's too much going on." They're just very dismissive, and it's easy to be dismissive. That's I think what I've found, of course, with anything if you want to not engage with it then you just don't engage with it.

PK: I find that more and more it becomes sort of cool to be dismissive of things that seem intellectually challenging.

AE: Yeah, well I'll tell you the other thing that was horrifying about this last tour on the stage is this just incredible proliferation of people who have blogs and who have sites and a lot of them are just really unschooled when it comes to being able to engage in any conversation about filmmaking.  There are a few of them who are really great, like incredibly ardent and focused. But there are a lot of people that have a platform now and just don't really have the history or the chops to deal with it, and are really giving these very cursory and quite ironic sort of reviews of things that they don't have any formation or ability to read or understand. I mean, I don't mean to sound elitist, it's just I know you've been around a while and I'm sure you're noticing this as well. There's just this incredible...Maybe it's always been the case. Again, I think I'm aware of the fact that I just wasn't really as aware of how there's a certain type of person who has a platform who wouldn't have been able to express their views before in a way that would've been

PK: Ignorant blowhards?

EA: Yeah. And some of them become personalities, and they have followings, and that's a little scary.

PK: Would the initials of one be HK? Not to mention any names.

AE:  Actually, I did meet him this past time, and I don't know what he's up to these days, but when he first came on the scene he was actually earnest.

PK: A symptom of this trend might be all the film critics who have been canned in the past few years. It's indicative, I think, of the fact that the whole idea of talking about movies as an intellectual thing or as an art form is held in contempt by a lot of people.

AE: Yeah, and I think that unfortunately extends  down to the critical community, because they're afraid of their editors accusing them of being too elite, or too rarified, and that's unfortunate as well. So yes, it is encouraging when I can still, I mean obviously it was a favorable review reading "The New York Times,"  but even "USA Today,"  thought that was really considerate, and I thought it was really great that they're able to buck that trend.

PK: So you would say that the internet among whatever other effects it's had, has just not elevated the dialogue on film.

AE: Well, there's no question that it's elevated the intensity around film. Film is one of the things people love to talk about, so there's an incredible forum for people talking about film. It's just, like the internet does - and I think you see this in the film a little bit too - it creates this excitement, but it doesn't necessarily leave a lot of room for consideration or pause, because people have to be engaged at all times, and there's not a lot of filtering, so I would say there's a lot more discussion around films, it's just that the time an individual film is being given or treated, it's just diminished.

That also has to do with that there are just a lot more films being made, and that's one of the beauties of the digital revolution. When I started making films, it was a very cumbersome and expensive proposition, and you had to convince people that you had an idea that was worth telling, and then you had to kind of bring together some sort of a budget. We're now in a time where anyone can create images and find global distribution for them, I mean that was unthinkable 20 years ago, and that's very exciting, but it also means that there's a lot of stuff to wade through, and I think people become overwhelmed. So the actual fact that a film has been made is not, in and of itself, cause for any sort of attention.

Maybe that's the way it should be. Film has taken the place of a novel, or any other art form, where people have access to the actual production. It's just that there's been a lot more pressure on the festival programmers, and the critics certainly, to discern what's worth talking about.

PK: Throughout your career the films you've made have taken as part of their subject the current development in communications or media technology. In this case it's the internet. What made you decide to take on that topic at this point?

AE: Well, because I'm dealing with a 16 year old kid. And that's part of his life.


PK: That's a tough age.

EA: Yeah, I think that having a film on the cusp of turning 16, you realize the internet is huge for them, and they have whole identities that they use to communicate with in chat rooms and amongst their friends, which might be quite different from the way they relate to each other in their day-to-day life. So what I was trying to do in "Adoration" was create a visual equivalent of what a chat room feels like, because text is just not that interesting to film. And I think it is really exciting for someone to find a forum around their work or their ideas or their experiences, but it can only take you so far, and you still then have to kind of deal with these things in the real world, and that's the passage that Simon's going through.

PK: Does that technology exist yet?

AE: It does, but I've glamorized it. On Skype you can go up 9 people

PK: It's like the Hollywood Squares.

EA: Yea, and iChat, but its not that fast, its not equal to what you're seeing in the film. We also invented a bit of technology where he can actually watch himself as he's laying it down, I think there's that one moment, it's a little futuristic...but I didn't want it to feel SciFi. I wanted it to feel, you know, current.

PK: I bought it as a state of the art sort of thing. How would he be able to afford to pay for that, though?

AE: It's his grandfather. His grandfather's loaded. I mean, the grandfather forced these gifts on him - the cell phone, the computers, you know. There's no amount of lucre coming from the grandfather's side, right. But that's money certainly not finding its way to Tom [the grandfather's son and the boy's adoptive uncle played by Scott Speedman].

PK: To make up for his whole distortion of the past, I guess.

AE: Yeah.

PK: That seems to be a refrain in some of your films, is that you've got a young person who is trying to reclaim the past in order to take charge of their own future. Have you noticed that as a theme?

AE: Uh, it is. But its only...You're not so aware of it when you're making it [the film], but certainly when someone brings it up like yourself and you go:  yes, sure.  And again, it's that process of negotiating technologies in order to discern. It's kind of embarrassing how clear a line there is between, let's say, Van in  "Family Viewing" or Raffi in "Ararat." They're both young men who are trying to understand their own histories and have to deal with technologies that can either enhance or diminish their experiences, their own lives.

PK: In this case is your son sort of the inspiration for the protagonist of the movie?

AE: I mean, the age is, you know, because it brings back a lot of memories of when you were that age, and what you were grappling with. But I mean in many ways he's just a better adjusted person than I was at that age...there were a lot of things I was dealing with, and high school drama was a revolution for me, it was this incredible opportunity to kind of create dramatic scenarios from things I was experiencing, and be able to share that with friends and parent. That was just so rich for me, and the relationship I had with this particular grammar teacher at the time, who was very encouraging, and I've been revisiting a lot of that time in my own history. And I think that's what the film emerged from, this idea of a boy who is seized by this opportunity, who doesn't necessarily have the...he's not like one of these drama guys, so the teacher, who because of her own history, understands what he's doing, guides him, and yet, she has her own agenda. And I think that's probably one of the more challenging aspects of the film, is that Sabine [played by Egoyan's wife and frequent collaborator, Arsinée Khanjian] is telling the boy that she's doing one thing but really she's doing something very different, you know, I think that the idea of teaching this kid about multicultural, what tolerances are, that's just a pretext for getting into this guys house, right.

 

And I think that's the other thing I've always been fascinated by, is that in the dramas that I write, how you can never really understand what someone else's agenda is, how you can be drawn into a situation and find it really compelling without really understanding what's at play, and I find that to be very rich sort of territory.

PK: I remember this scene in the movie at the end when he throws the cell phone into the fire...I've often wanted to do that with other people's cell phones, but...

AE: But there haven't been fires. They're [the other people] usually in theaters.

PK: I know, really. Do you have a cell phone, and how deeply involved are you in the technology? Do you twitter?

AE: I don't twitter; I have a blackberry. I got it when I started working on this new film, and I realized the people who I was working with were expecting that sort of access. The problem is that I'll probably keep it now...

PK: So you were resisting for a while.

EA: Oh yeah, I don't think we need to be that connected all the time.I mean, I think twitter is the best example of that. That to me just seems an insane amount of intimacy. That's the problem, is that I think there's been a major shift in my thinking about this. In the films that I was doing in the 80s there was this sense that technology was creating these filters, and was somehow draining us of inabilities to feel intimacy with each other. And what's become obviously these new technologies is, in fact, the opposite. We're just saturated with a degree of intimacy we could never have anticipated, and we still don't quite know what to do with it, right. I think the idea of the impulse to let people know what you're up to at every moment is, to me, unfathomable.

PK: Narcissistic is a word that comes to mind.

EA: But there's a casualness to the narcissism which has, you know, becomes really....and I guess combine that with the inherent narcissism of an adolescent who's trying to figure out his own life, you know, and the desire to dramatize their own life, you know, which is a huge part of adolescence as well, and I think that's all part of what's happening in the movie.

PK: Plus I think it alienates you from your actual experience of what's going on in the real world. You know, like walking down the street and seeing the birds or something like that.

AE: But, you know, the fact is most people are conditioned now to hearing something, to having a soundtrack to their day-to-day life, you know, and it's such a seductive concept, that once you're sort of hooked on about it, it's difficult to let it go.

PK: You think that's a bad direction?

AE: I try not to be moralistic about it. I mean, I think it is what it is. So, when I'm creating drama, I'm trying to understand my characters navigating themselves in the world as it appears to me now. I think there are good things and then there are bad things and I'm trying not to be too moralistic, and I think that my whole view of technology has always been that, as I said before, is that it's something that can enhance and give you access to your past, in the way that Ben finds these little home videos and family viewing, or certainly the expedition that Raffi goes on in "Ararat," and certainly what this boy is dealing with. I mean, I don't know if he would have been as excited to go as far as he does if it wasn't for the intensity of what he's experiencing on the internet, you know, the questions that are being raised. It's just that by nature, the technology is not designed to provide resolutions. It's just too open ended. It just feels like you can keep going and going, and so it's really up to us individually to decide when to get on and off.

Next: Terrorism and the internet as the collective unconscious!

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