Films

Atom's Oscar diary

A director basks in cinema's biggest spotlight

ATOM EGOYAN April 6 1998
Films

Atom's Oscar diary

A director basks in cinema's biggest spotlight

ATOM EGOYAN April 6 1998

Atom's Oscar diary

Films

A director basks in cinema's biggest spotlight

ATOM EGOYAN

February 9, New York. The Sweet Hereafter receives the National Board of Review Award for best ensemble cast. Fancy dinner in a star-studded room, with people like Jack Nicholson wandering around. At one point, Gabrielle Rose [an actress in the film] actually asked to shake his hand, and he muttered some words to her about “looking nice,” which left Gabrielle in a blush for the rest of the evening. Francis Ford Coppola presented the award and had some kind words to say about the movie and about meeting me on the ¡ury in Cannes, though he mangled my last name. After the ceremony, I went for drinks at the Essex Hotel with the cast. Stayed up much too late.

At the March 23 Academy Awards, Canadian film-maker Atom Egoyan was nominated for best director and best adapted screenplay. He has chronicled the extravaganza and the weeks leading up to it for Maclean’s:

February 10, New York. Wake up to my four/ear-old, Arshile, pleading for cartoons. Hungeer, I crawl to the television, and while I’m surfing the channels, I come upon Geena Davis mnouncing the Academy Award nominations. I aeg my son to let me watch, but he needs his early Horning fix of Curious George. I stumble into the bathroom, where there is one of those tiny blackmd-white TVs. As I tune in to the station, I see my mage through the static and blur. I’ve been nomiíated for best director. The phone immediately ings. And rings. And rings. My life has changed.

V full morning of American press, then on to the )lane to Toronto, where we have a press conference at Alliance [the film’s executive producer and listributor]. I feel like a sports hero. Everyone is so excited. All the journalists who have champíg >ned the film—and my career—for so long are all jjj hrilled. The response is even more astonished | han it was for winning the three awards at g Cannes. There’s no way around it. The Academy §

Wards are part of our collective mythology, and 8 English-Canadian feature film-making has finalE y been given some long-overdue recognition. Everyone asks rr low I plan to celebrate tonight. Well, with my wife [actress Arsine Qianjian] shooting in Europe, and the fact that I sort of celebrate ast night with my cast, I opt for a quiet dinner at my sister’s.

whelmed. Through it all, I’m most touched by the calls from fellow directors (David Cronenberg, Gus Van Sant, Curtis Hanson, Alan Rudolph, and so many others). This is all so much beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I’m so proud that this is all for a film

February 11-18, Toronto. I have never received so many bottles f champagne, flowers, faxes, letters of congratulations . . . people re joyous. It means so much to everyone. I’m completely over-

that has been made in this country, by this country, for this country (well, the last one isn’t quite true ... it was made for the world). There is something surreal about it. Why is it that some films get so much attention, and others get completely overlooked? I

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thank my stars, drink some more champagne, and wait for the one missing phone call... congratulations from James Cameron.

'How can Canadians compete with that sort of self-referential mythologizing? '

February 19, Montreal. An

evening with my aunts, uncles, cousins and other assorted family in Montreal en route to a visit with Russell Banks [author of the novel on which The Sweet Hereafter is based] in his home town in upstate New York tomorrow. I check out the French-dubbed version of the film that’s playing in a theatre downtown. It’s so strange to hear these performances that I’ve lived with for so long being spoken by new voices.

I’m suddenly moved by the experience, as I hear the anonymous dubbing actress playing Wanda Otto overlapping her cries over Arsinée’s image. I resent that the spoken French is “international.”

This story could have been set in a northern Quebec town. It would have been great to have it dubbed into jouai.

February 20, Lake Placid,

N.Y. There’s a screening here for the local arts community.

Russell Banks is the local hero (it’s suddenly the Oscar-nominated Russell Banks movie), and I’m definitely the tag-along auteur. It’s actually great to be second in line. At one point, during an interview with the local TV station, Russell actually tries to get me involved so that I won’t feel left out The journalist doesn’t have a clue who I am. Russell has to explain my involvement in “his” movie. This is really a big weekend for him. His new novel, Cloudsplitter, has received a glowing front-page review in The New York Times Book Review, and there’s all sorts of excitement We introduce the film to a packed house at the local cinema, then have a wonderful dinner together. During the question period afterwards, someone asks why I didn’t shoot the film in the Adirondacks [where Banks’s novel was set]. I have to explain that ifs a Canadian film, and therefore had to be shot in Canada. I’ve never seen someone so confused by such a simple response.

February 28, Toronto. A day of basking. Basking in the sun (it’s unseasonably warm), and basking in the extraordinary public response. I walk down my usual stretch of Queen Street (Niagara to Spadina), and I’m overwhelmed by people recognizing me and offering congratulations. I have never felt like such a local hero. There’s something so indulgent about this. One side of me feels like I should be hiding somewhere. There’s no denying, however, that this is very fun. I get to feel a little bit like a star, except I’m also completely familiar. I think that’s the kick that a lot of people are also getting. They normally associate Oscar nominees with people outside of their world. But here there’s a curious mix of the completely mundane (me) with the otherworldly. In one sense, it’s almost impossible to take seriously. There’s something so deliciously defiant about

to people who hadn’t missed a game in 40 years—go absolutely nuts. In places like Kamloops, you can still feel what Canada is all about. Everyone’s rooting for the home team, and on March 23 the home team is The Sweet Hereafter.

March 9, Los Angeles. On my way home to Toronto after an in tense weekend of pre-Oscar shmoozing. I flew into LA from Kam loops on Saturday and introduced the film at a special screening ir some shopping mall, where I fielded questions from the overflow audience. What I really love are questions like ‘What personal pair in your history causes you to make the films you do?” Right. like I’m going to explain to 200 perfect strangers what makes me suffer In America, the credo is “If you’ve got it, show it.” In Canada, it’s more like “If you’ve got it, think about why someone gave it to you.’ Anyhow, it’s all such a contrast to the previous evening in Kamloops that I almost want to laugh out loud. My ‘handlers’ efficiently steei me out of the crowded mall after I finish my last answer, but not be fore I meet a familiar face, an actor I directed in a television episock 10 years ago. Now, he’s probably struggling. He’s literally pushec away by a publicist, who gets me into an elevator and I am whisker into the L.A. night.

On Sunday, I spent the morning at the Santa Barbara Film Festi val, doing a panel on screenwriting with such luminaries as Rober

the fact that I’m here. Everyone just assumes I should be in Los Angeles. Been there, done that This is home turf. As a gift to myself, and as the ultimate indoctrination into the more perverse side of celebrity, I buy a copy of Pam Anderson and Tommy Lee’s hard-core home video. I hope it’s as deliriously banal as I dream it is!

March 6, Kamloops, B.C. I’m

here for the opening night of the Kamloops International Film Festival (featuring nine films), and the excitement at the Paramount theatre is extraordinary No one can believe I’m here, Why would a double Oscar nominee be in this small B.C, town weeks before the most glamorous event in the world? To thank the district, that’s why, This is the area where the film was set (in a fictitious town called Sam Dent), and where most of the exteriors were shot, After I introduce the film to the insanely pumped-up crowd, I go over to see the local hockey team, the Blazers, beat a U.S team from Spokane 4-3. It’s easy to forget how exciting a hockey game in a town like this can be The fans—from three-year-olds

Towne, before I headed back to LA to attend the Screen Actors Guild Awards. I sit beside a man whose name I vaguely recognize. He ends up being the producer of Titanicl He promises to introduce me to James Cameron at the Nominees Luncheon tomorrow. After the awards, I wander around the party, soaking in the glamor and famous faces. It’s such a relief not to be recognized! At one point, I spot a semi-famous porn star. He sees me staring at him, and shuffles away. I guess he doesn’t want to be recognized either.

This morning, I had a creative meeting over my next film, Felicia’s Journey, then went to the Nominees Luncheon, a swank affair at the Beverly Hilton. I finally meet James Cameron! Not only does he immediately identify me as a fellow Canadian, but he’s actually seen the movie (big marks), and really loved it (bigger marks). So the mystery is finally solved. He has kept his Canadian citizenship, is sorry he’s never made a film “back home”

(yeah, right), and is furious over the profile about him in Saturday Night magazine. Well, I figure that anyone who’s made the biggest-grossing film in history and still has the time or interest to read an article about him “back home,” and can then start complaining about the Canadian “tall-poppy syndrome” has as much right to Maple Leaf status as I do!

After we do a big group photo of all the nominees, we watch a presentation on how to do a “good” acceptance speech, as opposed to a “bad” acceptance speech (anything over 45 seconds). As unlikely as it is, I better get to work on a speech____

“First of all, I’d like to thank Russell Banks for writing such a powerful and haunting novel. I’d like to thank Allen Bell for helping me shape it into a screenplay, and all the people and institutions in Canada that have allowed me to make this film, and so many others, with an absolute freedom and control that most film-makers only dream of. I’d like to thank my extraordinary cast and crew, my producing partners Camelia Frieberg, Andras Hamori,

Victor Loewy and Robert Lantos of Afiance Communications, the fantastic staff at Fine Line Features, my parents and, above all, Asinée Khanjian, who gave me this book as a gift, and has continued to give me the gift of her love and support.”

Well, there you have it. An acceptance speech that may never be heard. At least it’s being read. And if you read it out loud, it should clock in at exactly 45 seconds!

March 13, Toronto. This almost became a classic Friday the 13th. The postproduction crew gave me a send-off party. It was a wonderful night, with lots of champagne, and warm feelings from my “crew family.” At one point, I was surprised by a special cake in the shape of an iceberg, with an icing inscription that read ‘Watch out for the iceberg, James Cameron!” Very funny. And I had this sudden compulsion to thrust my head into the cake—à la the birthday scene in my film Next of Kin. But something stopped me. Then I picked up the cake and almost threw it at Paul Sarossy, my director of photography. Again, something stopped me. The waiter took the cake away, and when he came back he was ashen-faced. There was a 25-cm

piece of wood inside with a very pointed end! It was there to support the cake, but I have no doubt that if I had dropped my head onto this spear, or thrown it into the eye of my cinematographer, the evening’s tone might not have been quite so celebratory! Given the role of fate in this movie, it would have been very weird to go to the Academy Awards with a wooden spike sticking out of my head.

March 14, Toronto. A huge picture of me in The Toronto Star wearing an Olympic cap. The headline is ‘Team Egoyan,” and the article is an analysis of whether or not the achievement of the double Oscar nomination is a triumph for Canada (like an Olympic victory), or just a triumph for me personally. As though it can’t be both! What a strange

country this can be sometimes. like I said before, we seemed to be consumed with this idea that if we have it, we need to ask who gave it to us. In any case, it’s an extremely upbeat piece—given its odd premise—and the excitement is heartwarming. The drums are beating!

March 16, Austin, Tex. I’m here to give a seminar at the South by Southwest Film Festival. It’s amazing to be in a place where the film has been so deeply embraced. It won best film of the year from the Texan Society of Film Critics. Russell Banks based the story on an actual episode that happened in a small town in south Texas, so the ideas and issues have an immediacy here. Everyone wishes me luck “next Monday.” My seminar is titled “Making it in the Film Industry.” I basically tell the assembled mass that if “it” is lots of money and a big commercial hit, they’re talldng to the wrong man. If “it” is pursuing a highly idiosyncratic vision that is going to alienate and mystify a lot of people, and may gradually, after 15 I years, win a few converts and get I you a couple of Academy Award I nominations . . . well, I might have * something to say. After the seminar, I 1 introduce a program of my short “ films, including A Portrait of Arshile. The last time Ashile saw this film, he was 2. Now, at 4, he has all sorts of questions about it. I introduce him briefly before the screening— he was sitting at the back of the crowded hall—and people clap. Afterwards, I ask him how he felt about the experience. He said he wishes people clapped a little more. Uh-oh.

March 19, Toronto. Frantic last-minute dressings for Asinée. She’s being fitted by the extraordinary Queen Street designer Mimi Bizjak, who’s created a leather corset with a netted suede shawl and train. Stunning. Mimi shows me in great detail what I have to do to make sure it all fits together. I have to remember a myriad of little knots so we don’t have Asinée’s train falling off in front of Joan Rivers. I’m being fitted by Hugo Boss. We’re both delighted by all the free clothes. But they’re one-off items, made to be worn for just one night—not a bad metaphor for the whole experience.

March 20, Toronto-Los Angeles. On Ar Canada Flight 799 to Hollywood. In The Globe and Mail, there’s an article about a young woman who’s going to wait for me outside the Shrine Auditorium

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dressed as a school bus. Why? Well, to make me feel welcome, and to show that Canadians can be just as outspoken and audacious as their American cousins. Her plan is to find someone who can dress up as the Titanic, and have the two “public carriers” crash into each other. Sorry, folks, it’s just a little Canuck habit we have. What gets me is that this sort of thing actually gets coverage.

March 21, Los Angeles. The Sweet Hereafter wins best foreign film at the Independent Spirit Awards. What “independent” means has become a little murky in the past few years, since all the major studios have set up divisions to make “indie-spirited” films, and companies like Miramax and New Line are hardly underdogs anymore. Anyhow, I make a speech that seems to go over really well, thanking the people and institutions in Canada that have allowed me my independence. Later, at the ultimate Hollywood party at the palatial hillside home of legendary agent Ed Limato, I meet Norman Jewison. He’s in great form, and is obviously thrilled about the nominations. He introduces me to Jack Valenti, the notorious president of the Motion Picture Association of America. Valenti is an extraordinarily slick and charming guy who has come to represent the concept that what is good for America is good for the world, the philosophy behind the fact that there are hardly any screens in our country for Canadian films. Whenever our government makes any concessions that will help support our distribution and exhibition, it’s Valenti who’s sent up to convince it that what Canadians really want to see are more stars and stripes. After all, it’s the same culture, isn’t it? Norman introduces me and says:

“Jack, Atom just won for best foreign film at the Spirit Awards. Get it, Jack? It’s a foreign movie. Canada is a foreign country.” What a great moment! Valenti is genuinely taken aback, though he is also, in his incredibly charming way, very complimentary of the film.

For the next few hours, Arsinée and I float through the most concentrated collection of celebrities you can imagine. Everyone is at this party. And, astonishingly, everyone has seen the film. The amazing thing is seeing so many stars pressed together in such a private setting. No one is prioritized as the lavish buffet meal is served. Get in line, Robert De Niro! I don’t care who you are, Arnold, I was here first! Sorry, Meg, can I get a towel to help soak that soup off your dress? You get the idea.

March 23, Los Angeles. 1:30 p.m., two hours before our pickup. Makeup and hair people are fussing over Arsinée in the hotel bathroom, and I’m sitting here typing into this machine. Am I nervous? A little. It’s strange, since this is nowhere near as nerve-racking as Cannes. That’s to be expected, I suppose, since Cannes was a world première, and the sense of anticipation was multiplied (the film could bomb). This is a celebration—everyone knows the film is good—and we’re just waiting to see what the 5,000 members of the academy think of my directing and screenplay. The odds are heaped against me, and Titanic is fully expected to sweep the awards.

Yesterday, at the Alliance party at the Ivy restaurant, I met all the expatriate Canucks here in Los Angeles. A very warm celebration. But it was strange hearing Kim Campbell trying to explain why this year, of all years, the Canadian Consulate did not host its tra-

ditional Oscar reception—especially when Alliance had of fere to pay for it! Instead, Kim invited me down for a reception time in a couple of weeks” and asked me if there was anyone like to meet. Weird.

March 24, Los Angeles -Toronto. There’s got to be a morning afte We didn’t win. James Cameron did. So did Curtis Hanson for LÁ Confidential’s screenplay. No surprises, except I was very calm th whole night. There was one moment, when Walter Matthau pause as he opened the envelope for best adapted screenplay, when thought we had won, but, alas, that did not come to pass.

The red carpet on the way in was an ordeal. For an hour and a hal Arsinée and I had to deal with the world press as it asked us whi we were wearing, how we were feeling, what we would do “if,” etc At one point, a reporter from African television asked me how it fe! to be there as an African film director! What?! Oh, yes, I remen bered that I was born in Egypt. It’s extraordinary how everyon wants a piece of success. The ceremony itself was entertainingit was the 70th birthday party after all—and Billy Crystal is aí

inspired performer. At on point, all the past Oscar wir ners—including Shirley Ten pie!—were onstage for a “fan ily album” photo. The thin] about American popular cu¡ ture is its uncanny ability ti compulsively regenerate itseh As a viewer, you can’t help bu find it moving, since so mucl of your own childhood is in vested in what you see. Whei Billy Crystal sings a son¿ about Titanic to the tune o Gilligan’s Island, you are spon taneously given the impres sion that something complete ly outside your experience—; new movie about the trip of aí ill-fated boat—is something you’ve already seen a hundrec times. How can Canadian! compete with the sheer mag nitude of that sort of self-referential mythologizing?

Speaking of mythology, the parties afterwards were exactly wha you’d dream of. At the Governor’s Ball right after the awards, Ar sinée and I were seated at the Boogie Nights table, which meant tha I got to sit beside Julianne Moore. Ever since I saw her perfor mances in Short Cuts and Safe, I’d always wanted to meet her. The irony of Hollywood is that two years ago, when I was casting for an ill-fated Warner Bros, movie [a thriller called Dead Sleep], hei agents didn’t let me meet her. They told me that she had passed or the project and wasn’t a big fan of Exotica. Now, I get the truth. She hadn’t even seen Exotical How can these people tell you such baldfaced lies, then completely forget that you might meet their clients at a party? Later, at the Vanity Fair fête, I met James Brooks, the director of As Good As It Gets, and told him how sorry I was about stealing his nomination (he was nominated for best picture but not best director). He started to laugh rather maniacally, and I couldn’t tell whether he was genuinely amused or wanted to strangle me.

Finally, we went to Elton John’s party. We were met at the dooi by a kind young man who thanked us for coming, then asked if we’d like to meet “Sir Elton.” Well, talk about a perfect host! Sir Elton said he loved the film, and asked if he could get us drinks! No, he didn’t snap his fingers and have someone else get them. He actually went to the bar himself and brought us two drinks. I was going to ask him if he could go back and drop in an olive, but that would probably have been pushing it. □