PROFILE

EXOTIC ATOM

With Exotica, Atom Egoyan has become the most celebrated Canadian film-maker of his generation

Brian D. Johnson October 3 1994
PROFILE

EXOTIC ATOM

With Exotica, Atom Egoyan has become the most celebrated Canadian film-maker of his generation

Brian D. Johnson October 3 1994

EXOTIC ATOM

PROFILE

With Exotica, Atom Egoyan has become the most celebrated Canadian film-maker of his generation

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

ERIN ELDER/MACLEAN'S

EXOTIC ATOM

Rolling up to a movie première in a limousine is a familiar ritual. But at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, Canadian director Atom Egoyan elected to walk to the North American première of his new movie, Exotica. Egoyan knew that refusing a limo could seem as pretentious as accepting one—but he had taken the luxury route two nights earlier with absurd results. After the festival’s opening-night party, he and his partner, actress Arsinée Khanjian, found themselves ushered into a preposterously long stretch limo. “I was ready to jump into a cab,” recalls the film-maker, but his handlers at Alliance Releasing “had insisted we ride around in these limos.” He directed the chauffeur to Riverdale, on the eastern edge of downtown, where Egoyan,

Khanjian and their one-year-old son,

Arshile, share a modest semi-detached house on a narrow little street—so narrow that the driver could not get around the comer. “He spent 15 minutes trying to negotiate the turn,” Egoyan laughs.

“You could see the dismay in the driver’s face. He started to think maybe he’d taken the wrong people home.”

It was an Egoyanesque moment, the kind of bizarre incident that could be a premise for one of his movies—a limo driver and a moviemaker go through the motions of a ritual neither believes in.

One way or the other, Egoyan’s films are all about ritual. They are stories of separation and loss, featuring characters with strangely fetishized occupations. In Speaking Parts, a hotel chambermaid is infatuated with a co-worker who moonlights as an extra in B-movies. In The Adjuster, a fire-insurance claims investigator provides his dispossessed clients with sexual solace. And in Exotica, a young stripper does therapeutic table-dancing for a tax auditor mourning his daughter.

Egoyan’s movies are dark, disturbing and encoded with mystery. His tautly controlled visions of alienation can seem exquisite or excruciating. But over the course of his 10-year career, after writing and directing six features, Egoyan has created a unique body of work. His films do not look like anyone else’s. The 34year-old director, who was bom in Cairo to Armenian parents and raised in Victoria, B.C., is now the most celebrated Canadian filmmaker of his generation. Last May, Exotica became the first English-Canadian film in 10 years to be accepted for official competition at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the prestigious International Critics’ Award. And at the Toronto festival, Egoyan won the annual prize for best Canadian film for the third time.

A favorite at film festivals around the world, Egoyan has a serious following in Europe—a German TV crew just finished filming a one-hour documentary about him. Now, his appeal is broadening. With each of his movies, he has gradually expanded his budget and his audience. Even before opening commercially, Exotica

has recouped its $2-million cost with sales to distributors. In the United States, it was picked up by the Disney-owned Miramax Films. And Hollywood scripts are regularly showing up in Egoyan’s mail. “His star is definitely ascending,” says fellow Canadian director David Cronenberg {The Fly, Naked Lunch). “He has a world of possibilities opening up to him.”

Cronenberg, whom Egoyan considers his mentor, recognizes some parallels in their work. “There’s a dry intellectual humor coupled with a mischievous sexuality,” says Cronenberg. “I think we both have that, a cerebral approach with some earthiness— the lascivious professor.” And, just as Cronenberg has turned down offers to direct the likes of Tom Cruise, Egoyan seems determined to pursue his own vision. Both directors make movies that “get under your skin” says American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino {Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs). “But while everyone talks about the voyeurism and creepy feeling in Atom’s films, they forget that he’s a really great storyteller.”

aturday morning. Dressed in a black T-shirt and black jeans, Egoyan serves black coffee in his kitchen, apologizing for the lack of milk. The house is a slim three-storey affair, renovated by the previous owner—its oddest feature being an undulating pine banister that ends in the form of a bird’s beak. There are various artworks about the place, including one by each of his parents, and a New Mexican painting bequeathed to him by the late Jay Scott, The Globe and Mail film critic who helped put Egoyan on the map.

Sitting down at a patio table in the small, fenced-in yard, Egoyan reflects on his latest dealings with the Miramax publicity machine. “They are telling me there are certain phrases I shouldn’t use in interviews,” he says. “They don’t like me talking about ‘ritual.’ They would prefer I talk about ‘game-playing.’ ” The director seems more amused than offended by the attempt to doctor his image. “Maybe I should do everything they suggest,” he says, only half joking. “I’d be curious to see if it makes a difference.”

While Egoyan’s films tend to be chilling, hermetic and austere, the director comes across as a warm, genial presence, with an eager sense of humor. For an artist who has achieved such acclaim so soon, he remains gracefully modest ánd down-toearth. “I’ve been very lucky to make my living at what I do,” he declares. “Arsinée and I are new Canadians, and we are extraordinarily appreciative of the opportunity to make films in this country that couldn’t be made anywhere else.”

Arsinée Khanjian has been Egoyan’s partner in life and art ever since he cast her in his first feature, Next of Kin, 10 years ago. And she plays a crucial role in his career. The 36-year-old actress, an Armenian who immigrated from Lebanon at the age of 17 and speaks five languages, has appeared in all of his movies. But she

PROFILE

With Exotica, Atom Egoyan has become the most celebrated Canadian film-maker of his generation

BY BRIAN D. JOHNSON

S

also serves as his artistic foil, questioning his decisions at every turn. Although her screen characters are often eerily restrained, offscreen she is convivial and exuberant. Together, they make a striking couple— their faces forming a symmetry of bold eyebrows and seductive smiles.

The relationship, however, seems fuelled by creative friction. Their closest friend, producer Niv Fichman, says it is “probably the most volatile and tempestuous relationship I’ve ever experienced, and yet the most true. He knows he has her support, but there are so many eruptions and tests that she puts him through. And that gives him such confidence because he knows that he’s had to go through the wringer to make a decision.” Egoyan concurs. “It’s not a romantic process making movies together, not at all,” he says. “It’s fraught with tension and anxiety. But that chemistry creates something interesting when it works well.”

Egoyan and Khanjian underwent an unusually difficult ordeal in making Exotica. By the time they were shooting the film, during a July heat wave in 1993, Khanjian was seven months pregnant with Arshile. Egoyan had written the script before learning he was to be a father. Had he known, he doubts he would have written it.

The story revolves around a father’s ritualistic grief over the death of his young daughter.

A tax auditor named Francis (Bruce Greenwood) frequents a striptease emporium called Exotica, where Christina (Mia Kirshner), a dancer tricked out like a schoolgirl in a tartan skirt, performs at his table. Francis is a voyeur who just wants to talk.

And during his evenings at the club, he hires his niece (Sarah Polley) to “babysit” an empty house. With lambent flashbacks to a search party combing for a body in a sunlit field, layers of mystery are gradually stripped away. “It was such a perverse film for a new parent to have made,” acknowledges Egoyan, who now has a babysitter of his own. “But it wasn’t conceived that way.”

Khanjian’s pregnancy was incorporated into the script. She plays Zoe, Exotica’s enigmatic owner, who is involved in a tense triangle with its emcee (Elias Koteas) and the schoolgirl stripper. A deadpan Don McKellar plays Thomas, a pet-store owner who smuggles exotic animals and gets investigated by the auditor. Khanjian says that she and Egoyan were first thrilled by the way her pregnancy enriched the story—“We thought it would be a great metaphor, the way you inherit life and pass it on.” Zoe and Thomas both inherited establishments from parents. And Egoyan, leaving no symbol unturned, points out that Thomas’s act of smuggling eggs by taping them to his stomach is a kind of artificial pregnancy.

But the idea was more fun than the execution. “It was very disturbing,” says Khanjian. “I was going through those incredible moments of doubt and need for complete attention. And here was this guy who every day was going on the set to direct what seemed to be a very perverse environment. I realized how much parents can become completely conservative. Suddenly, I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, we are both parents for this child. What are we going to pass on to him? Is this the world we are introducing him to?’ ”

‘There’s a dry intellectual humor coupled with a

mischievous sexuality ’

-DAVID CRONENBERG

Egoyan’s parents, Joseph and Shushan, emigrated from Cairo when he was three. Settling in Victoria, they changed their name from Yeghoyan to the more pronounceable Egoyan. Atom, named in honor of atomic energy, disliked being called that when he was growing up. And it did not help that his younger sister (now a concert pianist in

Toronto) was named Eve—Atom and Eve jokes soon wore thin.

As a child, Egoyan worked hard to assimilate, refusing to speak Armenian at home and covering his ears when his parents spoke it. Although they made their living with a small furniture store, both had set out with artistic ambitions. His mother had a painting accepted by the National Gallery of Armenia. His father had attended the Chicago Art Institute as a 16-year-old prodigy. But “he didn’t really stick it out,” says Egoyan, who was 10 when his father staged his last major show. “They gave him the whole second floor of the provincial museum in Victoria, and his show was just images of dead birds—it did not go over well. The year before, our house was full of dead birds hanging by strings from the walls and ceiling, birds he’d collected on the beach, dead sea gulls and stuff. He would pose them around the house and paint them.” Adds the director: “I think I had a very early exposure to a very excessive mentality.”

Egoyan says his parents had “a volatile relationship, and I saw the pain they felt in not being able to do what they wanted as artists.” He appeared determined not to suffer the same fate. At 12, for a Christmas pageant skit, Egoyan set up a camera onstage and asked the audience to smile. “I remember everyone being stunned,” he recalls. “It was a wonderful moment for me, feeling the power to undercut people’s expectations.” From the age of 13, Egoyan wrote plays, soaking up influences from such writers as Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. Later, after enrolling as an arts undergraduate at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College, he began to make short films. And by the age of 23, he was shooting his first feature, Next of Kin—the tale of a bored 23-year-old who abandons his quarrelling WASP parents and masquerades as the long-lost son of an Armenian couple in Toronto. Directed with startling assurance, Next of Kin contains all the basic threads that would distinguish his later work: the theme of family loss, the use of videotaped memories as a narrative device and the sense that the camera is conducting surveillance.

The movie also introduced Atom to Arsinée. While casting, he showed up at a rehearsal for an Armenian play in Montreal. Khanjian and her husband of two years, an Armenian dental student, were both performing. “Atom arrived in this beige tweed suit, with a nice tie and rimless glasses,” the actress recalls. “The moment I saw him I thought, ‘My God, if I had any ideal man in mind, this is it.’ ” Egoyan says he had a similar response: “I had this shining image of an Armenian princess—I used to joke with my roommate about it—and when I found her I was sure she was that person.”

They did not meet until the next night, when Khanjian and her husband saw Egoyan at another play. Khanjian wanted to ignore him, but her husband insisted on going over to introduce himself. He then summoned his wife, who blushed in embarrassment as he persuaded Egoyan to audition her for Next of Kin. The director gave her a role, and during the filming they began an affair that would end her marriage. “My parents were mortified,” she says. “I had a high-bourgeois life waiting for me, and here I was going off with this guy who had no obvious future.” Next of Kin was virtually ignored, which left Egoyan demoralized as he struggled to make ends meet, working for $5 an hour as a porter at the U of Ts Massey College. But after gaining some experience as a TV director, he made his second feature, Family Viewing (1987). The protagonist is an 18-year-old boy. He discovers that his father (David

Hemblen), who is estranged from the boy’s Armenian mother, has been taping over the family’s home videos with scenes of himself having sex with his mistress.

Egoyan still considers Family Viewing the film closest to his heart, and at film festivals around the world it established his reputation. Two years before Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape, Family Viewing explored video as a literal metaphor for distressed, disembodied memory. Egoyan stretched the idea even further in Speaking Parts, which featured video-linked phone sex and a mausoleum with video images of the deceased. The story takes place in a hotel, with Khanjian playing a chambermaid. (As a teenager, Egoyan himself spent four summers working in a hotel in Victoria.) Speaking Parts had a hot debut in Cannes: the third reel burst into flames. But the audience sat through the 40-minute delay, and the movie received warm praise from critics. “For someone just turning 30,” wrote Georgia Brown of The Village Voice, “Atom Egoyan may be unforgivably sophisticated. His ideas about sex, lies and you-know-what make Steven Soderbergh look like a naïve schoolboy.”

With its narcotic pacing and deliberately stilted acting style, Speaking Parts could also seem unforgivably precious. But in his next movie, The Adjuster (1991), Egoyan grafted his otherworldly vision onto strong, naturalistic performances—by Elias Koteas as a fire-insurance adjuster who beds his clients, Khanjian as his film-censor wife and Maury Chaykin as an ex-football player with a demented fantasy life. Once again,

Egoyan found the spark for the script close to home—a fire that destroyed his parents’ furniture store on New Year’s Eve in 1989.

For his fifth feature, the director downshifted to an intimate, low-budget experiment called Calendar (1993). Working both sides of the camera, Egoyan played a photographer who travels to Armenia to take calendar pictures of churches, and whose wife (Khanjian) leaves him for their tour guide. A simulated home movie, Calendar appealed to a narrow art-house audience.

But its witty blend of postmodern formalism and unscripted cinema vérité delighted critics.

By contrast, Exotica is Egoyan’s most stylish, ambitious and broadly appealing work to date. With its haunting Middle Eastern score and aquariumcool images, it casts a hypnotic spell that is sustained from beginning to end. All the performances seem tuned to the same weird wavelength. “I wonder how that happens,” muses McKellar, who acted in both Exotica and The Adjuster, “because Atom never told me to act in an Atom Egoyan style.”

Despite its dangerous premise, which is based on a conftision between the babysitter and the babestripper, Exotica is so brilliantly controlled that it never seems prurient. Egoyan dissects the paradox of table-dancing—an intimate act in a public place— without exploitation or moralism.

Khanjian, meanwhile, seems remarkably sanguine about her partner’s choice of material. “I’ve never felt uncomfortable with Atom’s portrayal of sexuality,” she says. “It probably fulfils my own hidden fantasies, God knows.” But she does have her criticisms of his work. “I get annoyed sometimes by the fact that he is very suspicious of expressing emotions in an overt way,” she says. “It took me a long time to realize that it was not a gimmick, because he’s incredibly emotional in real life.” But the most contentious issue between them, she adds, is the role of women in his work. “I find his movies very male-psyche. I’m not saying macho or misogynist—he uses a lot of androgyny. But he channels his subtleties through the male characters. The female characters are very condensed.”

Still, Khanjian offers her partner wholehearted support. Although she recently took a role as a doctor’s wife in CBC-TV’s new series Side Effects, she suggests that she would put her career on hold for him if necessary. “It sounds tacky,” she says, “but I’m going to be there for him if I can be of any use.” Then she adds: “I get scared for him sometimes. He’s very smart, and he has his head on his shoulders, but this is a profession where people love turning you into a god, then crucifying that god.”

In fact Egoyan seems to be conducting his career with supreme caution. As the senior producer on all his movies, he has a reputation for finishing them on time and under budget. Other film-makers envy the steady support he has received from government funding agencies such as Telefilm Canada. But his skill behind the camera makes a $2-million movie look like $10 million. And Alliance chairman Robert Lantos, who co-financed Exotica, says its budget could have been larger if Egoyan had wanted it—“he has a very strong sense of fiscal responsibility.”

Now that there is mounting pressure for Egoyan to go mainstream, Lantos says that “making a movie that someone else could make could be damaging to his career.” Egoyan agrees: “The biggest myth in this industry is that you should go out and make your big commercial movie so you can do what you really want It never works.” The one time Egoyan did direct a movie that he did not write—CBC-TV’s Gross Misconduct (1992), about hockey player Brian Spencer—he seemed to lose his bearings.

Although he says he is proud of it and loved making it, Gross Misconduct is uncharacteristically lurid and incoherent Now, Egoyan’s options continue to multiply. He receives a lot of American scripts, typically dysfunctional family dramas and quirky sci-fi thrillers. “I get confused,” he says, “because I have the option at any time of just crossing over. The fact that I’m even courting it makes Arsinée unsure.” Filming his own material has become “addictive,” he adds. “There’s a child-like thrill in being able to tell these dark fables that come from the deepest recesses of your imagination and project them in full theatres. It seems unreal. That’s what Arsinée gets upset about—that lately I’ve been taking it for granted.”

‘While everyone talks about the voyeurism, they forget he’s a great storyteller’ -QUENTIN TARANTINO

A tthe J \ pren 1. Alant

the Toronto festival, a full theatre awaits the première of Exotica. Egoyan, Khanjian and tos stand near the stage with the director’s father, an elegant man dressed all in black who looks like Leonard Cohen. Joseph Egoyan has made a special request to meet Lantos, the money man. “Art without business, you can forget it,” he tells the Alliance president as they are introduced. “Atom is an astute businessman,” Lantos replies. “He learned that from me,” proclaims Joseph with a grin.

Egoyan is called to the stage. He confesses that he is more nervous than he was at Cannes, thanks everyone he can think of, then sits down to watch his movie one more time. At the closing credits, the audience breaks the movie’s spell with generous applause, and Egoyan takes the stage to field questions, working the crowd with wit and charm. The first question is breathtakingly erudite, a mini-thesis about editing and memory. Someone else inquires about the etiquette of clients touching table dancers. Then, a man stands up to say he was reminded of Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel—“hands touching but not touching.” The director does a double take. This is too much, even for him. ‘Ves, thank you, Michelangelo!” he quips, drawing laughter from the audience. And for a moment, Atom Egoyan seems to have found a place for himself in show business. □