Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Atom Egoyan

My interview with Atom Egoyan appears in this week's WE.

Acclaimed Canadian director Atom Egoyan on the set of his latest film, Chloe, with stars Amanda Seyfried (left) and Julianne Moore.

Acclaimed Canadian director Atom Egoyan on the set of his latest film, Chloe, with stars Amanda Seyfried (left) and Julianne Moore.

Credit: supplied

Atom Egoyan lets ‘Chloe’ put words in his mouth

When Atom Egoyan watched the sexy French thriller Nathalie in 2005, he had no idea that three years later he’d be at the helm of Chloe, its North American adaptation, and knee-deep in A-list actors, rising stars, and unthinkable tragedy.

Now, on the other side of directing his most star-studded, Hollywood-friendly fare to date, the director spoke with WE by phone while relaxing at his parents’ home in Victoria, shortly before embarking on several weeks of non-stop publicity for the film. (It opens in select cities, including Vancouver, on March 26.)

For Egoyan fans, the film’s premise — a middle-aged woman (Julianne Moore) hires a young, unstable escort (Amanda Seyfried) to test her husband’s (Liam Neeson) fidelity, only to find herself seduced as well — echoes elements of his previous work. Drama, deceit, and the darkest aspects of sexuality can be found in previous Egoyan works such as The Sweet Hereafter and Where the Truth Lies. The difference with Chloe, he says, was freedom from his own words.

“It was an opportunity to work outside my normal comfort zone,” Egoyan laughs, alluding to his first time directing a feature script that he didn’t pen himself. “In terms of my own scripts, I was getting more and more complicated, so this was a really good opportunity. It’s subject matter that was close enough to my own sensibility, [but] it offered me the option to sort of simplify my own work.”

The script highlights sex, obsession, and insecurity, and offers a particularly steamy scene in which Moore and Seyfried crank up the heat. (Egoyan’s own rule to ensure a natural performance between his co-stars: “Make sure they understand how they’re being photographed, that they’re going to look great!”) But it was the script’s underlying theme — a long-married couple trying to find a way back to each other — that proved particularly close to the director’s heart.

“I think there’s this point at which you take certain things for granted, and you forget that a relationship involves a lot of work,” Egoyan says. “Even though things become more comfortable, that very comfort creates a strange paralysis sometimes, and people can kind of drift into a strange place where they lose an erotic excitement. It takes a lot of work; you have to find space and ways to reignite things.”

Somewhat surprisingly, writer-director-producer Ivan Reitman, best known for big-budget comedies like Ghostbusters, was the initial mastermind behind Chloe. He handpicked Egoyan after deciding to adapt writer-director Anne Fontaine’s Nathalie for North American audiences. Egoyan was flattered by Reitman’s selection, but acknowledges there was some give and take throughout filming.

“I had heard that he’s a tough producer, but it’s all about communication,” Egoyan says. “We spent a lot of time together beforehand. He was very clear with me: He’d loved my movies, but there were certain things he didn’t want this to be and certain things he wanted me to focus on. And I listened to him, because this was a film that he wanted to direct at one point, but he realized he wouldn’t be able to get the performers he wanted because he’s used to doing comedy... and so he was very honest with me and I was very honest with him.”

Convincing Reitman to let him set Chloe in Toronto (instead of its scripted location, San Francisco) required some effort on Egoyan’s part. He attributes this, in part, to a generational shift between the two of them.

“Ivan, James Cameron, Norman Jewison — these are directors that had to leave the country [to achieve success],” Egoyan says. “I came from a different formation. I was really happy making my films here, because these are films that couldn’t be made in the States. I never had that fantasy of moving to the States for my career.”

And yet, for all of Chloe’s remarkable firsts, one tragic accident almost stalled the entire film. Neeson’s wife, Natasha Richardson, died during filming after falling and hitting her head at a Quebec ski resort. Over a year has passed, but Egoyan still sounds awed when he remembers Neeson returning to the set and his role as a philandering husband (depicted in graphic sex scenes) after taking just a week off to bury his wife and console his two children.

“He was a hero,” Egoyan says. “When he came back, he wanted to finish the film as quickly as possible, and we just had to contain our emotions. It was amazing. It was a miracle. But, given what this film was about, and what he had to play, it was really monumental what he was able to pull off.”

With the emotional and mental toll of Chloe nearly behind him, Egoyan is pragmatic about whether his future plans include directing more scripts written by other people.

“You have to be really honest with yourself,” he says. “This script was close enough to me that I felt I could do something unique with it. You can read a script and enjoy it, but are you the best person to direct it? If there are people you think would do a better job, you shouldn’t be directing it.”

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