In the audience, in the spotlight: Atom Egoyan


The lights went on, and there he was – Canadian filmmaker extraordinaire, sitting quietly with the rapt audience as they watched his highly-acclaimed film, The Sweet Hereafter. He had slipped in toward the end of the Feb. 26 screening at Curtis Lecture Hall L, and seemed to be surprised at what he had just seen.

“I’d forgotten how wonderful the performances are,” he said of the cast of the movie which earned Egoyan the Academy Award nominations for best directing and best adapted screenplay. “I am amazed at how perfectly the actors inhabited their characters.

“It’s a strange thing about filmmaking…. Somehow, films find an organic way of coming together. You have to allow a film to find its own way and if you’re lucky, you get it to happen the way it did in this film.”

Sipping on coffee, relaxed, at the front of the lecture hall, Egoyan amiably answered questions and joked with his audience.

When asked about the The Sweet Hereafter book author Russell Banks, Egoyan said in the beginning he had wondered how he would be able to collaborate with the novelist as he wrote the screenplay. “But Russell hung around the set and he was open to the changes. I couldn’t get the book out of my head after I’d read it…but I found I couldn’t film it the way the book went.”

Egoyan was passionate about his admiration for his casts, not just for The Sweet Hereafter, but also for Felicia’s Journey, Ararat and other productions in which he has been involved. He admitted that, until now, he has preferred to use cast members with whom he is familiar. “I love to see people I know become different people. When you know people really well, you can get a very strong performance. When you work with new people, there is this period of adjustment…. You can’t just say to a new actor, ‘You’re falling into those old bad habits that really bug me,’” he said to much laughter in the audience.

Casting can be difficult at times, admitted Egoyan, but when he asked Christopher Plummer to play in Ararat, he already had someone like that in mind for the part, “and he was the genuine article”. “I was lucky with Bob Hoskins [Felicia’s Journey] and Sarah Polley [The Sweet Hereafter], too.”

“If you were stranded on a desert island, what film would you want to have with you?” was one of the questions from the audience. Without much hesitation, Egoyan replied, “Jesus Christ Superstar“. I love that movie. I watched it when I was young, before Bible stories made much sense,” he chuckled. “Jesus Christ Superstar would be spiritually uplifting for me [if I were on a desert island].”

Egoyan spoke of his work on operas – first directing Salome and now Die Walküre, scheduled for performance in 2004. “Salome happens to be one of the most perfect operas; it works so well as a libretto. It just came together for me. The story is about chains of frustrated desire…. I wanted to make the dramatic tensions clear.”

The pressure to be more mainstream is ever-present, says Egoyan of his filmmaking. “The first question people ask about a film is ‘Who’s in it?’, not ‘What is it about?’ He said he set The Sweet Hereafter in Canada because it is a place he knows. (He was raised in British Columbia.) “Canadian filmmaking is in a high state of evolution. The last 15 years have been an extraordinary time. Unfortunately, the Canadian government doesn’t feel that way. They know my films have won prizes, but they want ‘box office’ [success].

Prof. Ian Balfour, left, director of York’s Graduate Program in English, spoke of Egoyan’s classical music training and how he uses that interest in music in his films. “It’s no accident that he’ll be directing Die Walküre,” he added. Balfour also commented on the filmmaker’s “distinctive power in storytelling. He handles it in a compelling way.”

Brenda Longfellow, director of York”s graduate program in Film & Video, recalled her days as a publicist with The Toronto Film Festival, “when Atom Egoyan used to come in with a cardboard box full of press releases about his film…. It shows that persistence pays off,” she quipped.

Longfellow described the screening of The Sweet Hereafter as the “premier event” in the “The Independents”, a series of film screenings at York sponsored by the Graduate Program in Film & Video.