ATOM EGOYAN Interview: ‘Where The Truth Lies’
Q. There were problems getting a certificate. Did the censors refuse an appeal?
They didn’t refuse an appeal for it, we resubmitted it three times. We had an appeal screening, and they refused to overturn the rating, which was a very disheartening experience, because I didn’t convince others that it didn’t warranted an NC-17, but this was inexplicable. So once they refused to overturn the rating, we just reconstructed the film as it was originally intended.
Q. So the version shown in America is the same as at the Cannes Film Festival?
Oh yes,when I watched the film at the appeal process, it was sort of butchered, and essentially a different movie, but they were really dogged about it. You never really find out what their agenda is about. I sort of allowed myself to conclude, that it has to be because they are famous actors, and the studio look of the movie, that’s what’s ultimately most transgressive about it, because there really isn’t anything you’re seeing that you wouldn’t see on cable TV.
Q. Which scenes in particular did they have a problem with?
There where four scenes originally – the scene with Lanny and the publicist, there was the orgy and the lesbian scene, and there was the threesome. So the publicist, the orgy and the lesbian scene we substantially cut. The threesome was a master shot, there wasn’t a lot of flexibility. We tried to trim it a bit at the head and tail of it, we tried everything we could, but they obviously had a very strong attitude. I think what they were responding to was just the general feel of sleaziness, it’s a pretty dark cynical view of things.
What I’ve learned since, talking to other filmmakers who have been through this, is that if I was really smart, I would have shot a much more extreme version, knowing that I couldn’t get through, and then you cut back on that. So you sort of play ball with them a little bit, but I never had the foresight to do that, and when you’re dealing with a master shot, there’s not much else you can do.
Q. How did you like working with a studio system and a bigger budget?
Well, it looks like a studio system, but it’s still an independently made film, but because it’s referring to studio movies, we made it look like a studio film. We shot in many iconographic studio locations, we were on the back lot of Universal, we were in the Hollywood hills, we were at Venice Beach. But, as I said, it was made independently, much like The Sweet Hereafter , or any of those movies. You then re-inject them into that system, but you have a degree of control you wouldn’t have had if it was a studio movie. It was a bigger budget, but it was still a challenge to get that look for the budget we had, and there is a point to get this look. Because of the world these people lived in, we had to make that as convincing as possible.
I was paying homage to a whole bunch of films that have had a really strong influence on me. Studio movies like Sunset Boulevard , Double Indemnity , In a Lonely Place .
Q. Were you deliberately going for the Film Noir genre?
No, I don’t think so, because it’s not shot like a Noir, it’s not lit like a Noir. Certainly there are devices, like the voiceover, which are inherited from a lot of Film Noir.
Q. What Attracted You to Rupert Holmes Novel?
It was deliciously fun to read, and he himself was a pop star in the 70’s, he knows this world so well, and I think of the three adaptations I’ve done – The Sweet Hereafter , Felicia’s Journey and Where the Truth Lies – the author has access to a world that’s outside my own, in which it is like a gift they are providing me. I was raised in a small town, so Rupert Holmes and Russell Banks made me understand that dynamic.
The whole Anglo-Irish world uncovered something that was a revelation to me. This world of entertainment and culture in the 50’s and early 70’s, just so magnificently entertaining. I changed the book as in the one character that was mysterious to me was O’Connor. She was never given a first name in the book, and she is substantially different from the character we see in the film. She was very hard edged and confident. She didn’t adore them [Morris and Collins] the way Karen does, so that was a major reinvention. I was very interested in the way Karen matures from a girl into a woman during the course of the film. She comes to realise who her heroes really are, so that is different in the book. Also, the book is based almost entirely on [Jerry] Lewis and [Dean] Martin, quite explicitly, so I couldn’t really keep that as it would be distracting. You kind of think, did this really happen to Lewis and Martin.
Q Why did you decide to portray Karen at the Telethon?
It just seemed it was a good opportunity to deal with this theme that runs through a lot of my work, which is the corruption of innocence. Where and how and when someone is really innocent. Also, I’ve also been fascinated by these older male figures I perceive to be predatory. I say this with a degree of hindsight, as I wasn’t aware I was doing it, I don’t think you should be. Now looking at it, it falls into a pattern of film like The Sweet Hereafter, and certainly Felicia, and now Karen, these women who have to completely renegotiate their relationship with people who have provided them a degree of guidance, but who have abused that situation. The idea that these three days of the telethon were somehow magical to her, that her life was changed by those three days, and especially by this exchange, this thing that was said to her by Lanny.
We don’t really hear to the end, but we understand how that is the type of thing that could transform your life. She finally understands what this means, and what it meant at the time. This idea of convergence of the public and the private, how a telethon is the most public event imaginable, that your gestures change within it, that no one has access to. At the same time, you have this middle room of a hotel suite no one has access to. But it’s completely the result of people’s imagination. At the end, her imagination becomes public to us. Like when she’s on the studio lot taking to Ruben, she’s putting all these pieces together, but ultimately it’s her imagination, we need to believe this to come to the same conclusion.
Q. In the night club scenes, how much did Colin Firth and Kevin Bacon improvise?
Lots! We shot a lot more than you actually see. I think it was one of those situations where you have 200 paid extras who are laughing laboriously at everything people say, it comes kind of infectious, so they began to respond to that. If you look at the Rat Pack shows, those legendary evenings at the Sands, they are so loose. It’s not based on any script, it’s just them being themselves, and people enjoying it and regenerating those sort of personas. Bringing out a trolley of drinks, and sort of not doing much, but somehow it’s very compelling. We wanted to capture that environment.
That being said, the shots are very carefully choreographed, very carefully choreographed tracking shots and multi angles over the actors. The scene where Collin, after beating the man to pulp, comes in and goes into this monologue. he completely improvised that, it’s kind of an amazing thing. If you look at Kevin’s expression, he is genuinely surprised. I don’t know where it came from, somewhere inside Colin
Q.Have you had any similar experiences to Karen yourself where you’ve met someone that you’d idolized previously?
Oh yeah. Well, as a kid, my idol was Carlos Santana, the guitarist. And I remember begging my father to take me to San Francisco because Santana had a vegetarian restaurant that had just opened up, and I finally coaxed him to take me when I was 13-14, and of course Santana never showed up. I think I was expecting him to serve me my hummus and strike up a conversation. And then later on, I guess after I gave up my loose dream of becoming a rock-and-roll star and starting making films and going to festivals of course you meet people. You can’t express to them what they meant to you without sounding foolish, it’s just the nature of it. You know they’ve heard that so many times before, you’re not going to say anything that’s going to surprise them. So you’re sort of reduced to this level of frustration. That’s why I think it’s interesting with Karen because she has this pretext to be able to talk to them, and the two times she mentions who she was and what they meant, they seem to be completely uninterested. If it registered anything to them, they aren’t going to grant that to her, and it sort of hounds her anger or her despair, especially at the end with Kevin. It’s interesting, because I think we often have these relationships with celebrities that cannot be returned, it’s just the nature of it. And shouldn’t be returned, probably. It would be kind of scary if it was, if they felt everything you projected onto them.
.Q. How did Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth come onboard?
They immediately seized the opportunity; I wrote it with them in mind. I kind of prayed they would respond to it. Colin had a scene in my other film, and was quick to respond, and then Kevin, who had never played an entertainer before. They didn’t know each other, but got on really, really well. It gave them the chance to do what they wanted to do, play performers.
Q. Why did you have one American and one Englishman?
I’d written a version based on Lewis and Martin, but it was too distracting. So I wanted to create an act that didn’t exist, but could have existed. It seemed to me the sort of English figures imploding through American culture in the 50’s, the Niven’s and the Harrison’s, it was imaginable that this act could have happened. You wouldn’t be distracted by trying to figure out ‘well did this happen?’ to those real people.
Q. You’re perceived as being anti-Hollywood. Why is this?
Well, what I’m anti, more than anything else – I’ve loved some Hollywood films – is the industrial approach to filmmaking. Where it’s done by committee, test screenings and audience responses. Where a film is completely manicured by the largest constituency possible, I think that takes away from a film’s character. The Hollywood films I have liked have been able to survive that process, or were not exposed to it, an older style Hollywood film.
I do think there are filmmakers working now who are powerful enough to over ride that. But for the most part, I hear stories of what happened at test screenings. A film like 40 year old Virgin , that film was tested, and ultimately the focus group went to the studio and claimed a credit, because they felt they were so involved in the final decision.
Not only that, one of the people in the focus group, an attendant at Crispy Cream Donuts, got a studio deal because of his brilliant suggestions. It’s difficult to condone that approach to filmmaking.
The only film of mine that has been exposed to that is Exotica , where we had to have a marketing screening for Miramax. At the end of the screening, the executive said the ending should be the beginning, so that people know what’s going on. But there would be no mystery, so you’re not never lost.
So I think that’s what I’m objecting to, it really tries to take away any ambiguity, all the stuff I love about movies. The mystery, and the idea of feeling a bit lost, I like that experience. I like to try and locate myself within a movie, and I think that is very dangerous to a studio setting, were they want the most collective response imaginable.
Q. How has your music background influenced your filmmaking career?
I love music, studied music, and I now work in music a lot. Maybe this particular film was influenced by the fact I’d just finished directing a version of ‘The Valkyrie’ by Wagner, so these big orchestral gestures and screen motifs, I was listening to it the other day, and it’s a little over the top, but that was where I was at the time. There’s a ton of music here, all sorts of music. The music I loved as a kid in the ’70’s, a great opportunity to indulge in that.
Q. How do you find directing for opera?
The best thing about that is it’s a reversal of process because, when you’re directing an opera, you’re adding gesture and action to something that’s already there, as opposed to film, where it’s the last thing you apply. I just love that fusion, there’s nothing to me more satisfying than a camera gesture that seems to just work in a certain way, or finding a gesture on stage, that articulates what the composer had in mind.
There are a lot of things in this movie where I just let it go. I just indulged in a way I might hesitate in doing before. I felt that this would be the film to be able to do that with. I’ve been wanting to do a classic Noir score for a long time, and I thought, if you don’t do it with this movie, you never will!