Atom Egoyan: Interview
Ron Burnett: Atom, could you describe how you got to make Family Viewing?
Atom Egoyan: I was in a very odd situation with Family Viewing because I had made a first feature, Next Of Kin, totally outside of any system, inasmuch as it was made for $35,000, and it received a moderate amount of attention. When I was planning Family Viewing, the Ontario Film Development Corporation came into existence. I wasn’t originally intending to go to Telefilm or OFDC but it happened that they were using my first feature, Next Of Kin, as an example of the type of work they wanted to support, and I thought I would be a fool not to take advantage of the situation. Because of the formal considerations in Family Viewing, I had no desire to make it into a higher budget picture. I was in a weird position. I had to marginalize myself to make sure I had total control over the project and that meant, for instance, not going to Telefilm and not pursuing investors whom I knew would not support the way I wanted to make the film. I think the OFDC understood that when they said, “Look, we can give you more money than you’re asking for, and the only thing we would suggest is that a lot of the stuff you want to shoot on video, you should shoot on video and film just in case the video doesn’t work.” It was that sort of spirit that I felt could have undermined the whole approach to the production. I think that’s a problem with Toronto to a degree, inasmuch as you have funding organizations which try to mirror the ways in which an American funding organization would work. The whole attitude with a lot of American organizations is that you delay the process of filming until the last possible moment. In the case of a film like Family Viewing it is all about the opposite, about taking certain types of risks and seeing whether or not you can succeed.
RB: Why did you choose to work in video? Was it for aesthetic reasons?
AE: Oh yes. I think that’s one of the problems with low budget films. People see a different type of language being employed and they often think it is a result of economic circumstances, in other words, the filmmaker didn’t really have a choice. That has been very frustrating for me, because of the way we used video in that film, so it was an aesthetic decision. It was very important that it be done in such a way that it be executed with complete conviction. If I had done it both ways, if I was trying to cover myself in case it didn’t work, then it would have been to no purpose. I mean, if you are directing actors to do one thing and then directing them to do something else entirely because the one thing you wanted them to do may not work, then you are just shattering their confidence in the project.
RB: Could you define more precisely where you see yourself in relation to mainstream cinema? I ask this because your home, Toronto, has become the Hollywood of the North.
AE: I make my living doing freelance directing for North American television shot in Toronto, series like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Twilight Zone, and so forth. It is not as though the process of production holds any mystery for me, I know exactly what it involves and I know the predominant concern in shooting one of those things is production values—or as they would say, seeing it all up there on screen. That’s a very odd notion because it involves seeing money up there on the screen—if something cost $5 million to make, they want to see that $5 million up there. And of course, the whole thing with independent cinema is that what you want to see up there is a certain spirit, and the whole process of their type of production (and I’m making gross generalizations when I say “their,” I’m referring to that in a very archetypical sort of way) is that you camouflage that whole process of seeing a spirit by seeing a lot of other things in a very superficial sort of way. So, I suppose because I have a familiarity with that sort of production, I know exactly what I’m reacting against when I’m doing my own films. It’s not as though I’m working in some sort of vacuum, I do know exactly what my options are and it is a creative choice to go one way or the other.
RB: To elaborate on that, how did you get into commercial filmmaking?
AE: That’s a very odd story. When I finished my first feature, Next Of Kin, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had a series called For The Record—which was a series of shows on social issues in the form of one-hour dramas. They were looking for new Canadian talent at that time, so I ended up doing one called In This Quarter, which was quite an interesting script dealing with an IRA terrorist who got involved with an Irish-Canadian boxer. This particular episode involved a lot of action, and action is something that I very rarely choreograph in my own work—in fact in some ways they are anti-action in terms of the way they are presented—but all of a sudden I had the opportunity to choreograph action. Once I finished that show I had created something which caught the eye of a lot of the commercial productions that were being made in Toronto. Right now my career is totally schizophrenic, because when an American production like Hitchcock Presents asks to see my work I would never dream of showing them my independent films. Ironically, I now have another body of work which conforms to their idea of what film is about. So as I said, in my case it’s very schizophrenic. My exposure to mainstream forms of production has taught me what I am up against and actually clarified for me where I’d like to go.
Ron Burnett: Moving on then, what made you decide to make a film about the family?
Atom Egoyan: I think if you look at the themes that are presented in the film, some are inherently social, and I think that any film which deals with the family is dealing with the smallest social unit in our society—and in a sense it is a question of scope: when you’re working with a smaller budget I suppose one of the things that has to be in your mind when you are writing is that you have to keep the characters down to a minimum; you have to be able to deploy the themes that you want to address with a minimum of means, otherwise you aren’t going to be able to get it made. So I suppose I had these concerns but I really felt that I had to keep my scope very, very concentrated. So working on the themes I was interested in, through the context of a particular family, was a very economical way of dealing with a lot of the issues I was concerned with. Also I think it is a great starting point because you are able to deal with the central archetypes in our society. They can be reduced to Father Figure, Mother Figure, Figure of the Child, the Figure of one generation against another generation. That ties in so neatly with the generational textures I was trying to use in Family Viewing, you know, different generations of video image, film stock, and so on. So, at a certain point, it all came together and it was quite intuitive—you plot it to a certain extent but at a certain point it finds its own momentum and you just lose yourself in the process.
RB: I’d like to take that notion of intuition a bit further because, when one works in mainstream (it’s a bad word but, for the purposes of the discussion…) film, obviously it is the intuitive side of the process which is the most difficult to maintain because of the preplanning that goes into the production. How do you deal with that? To me, it is not only a matter of overcoming a whole production infrastructure that tends to push you more and more, because there are so many people involved in it, towards an over-determined process, where the flash of insight you might get when two characters are suddenly interacting in a manner that is different from what you imagined, well, that flash of insight just doesn’t have a space to develop.
AE: I suppose it’s important to keep that conflict in mind when you are planning the film. As a producer, I think one of the most important decisions you make is not necessarily the material you are working on but the production apparatus that you choose to develop the project with, and that determines what funding organizations you go to, it determines so many factors. With Family Viewing, I think the film is about control; it’s about how other people exercise control over others but, on the other hand, I wanted to make sure that the environment of the shooting itself was not that controlled, and the way to go about that course was to work with as small a crew as possible.
RB: Did you improvise?
AE: No, we improvised a lot during rehearsals and there are certain key moments in the film which were improvised, but they were improvised not in terms of the actors but in terms of the design of the film, the choreography of the various shots. Especially, once we were in the studio, we realized we were getting certain effects through the shooting of the dramatic scenes on video, shooting off a screen and then getting wave patterns and stuff like that. But in terms of the drama itself, it’s very precise, it is a very stylized reality, so there wasn’t room for much deviation. And it was shot very quickly—the film was shot in 15 days, so it was important that a momentum be built up and that it be maintained.
RB: How many people were in the crew?
AE: The size of the crew was about 15, I suppose. I think the situation in Toronto is such that there are funding organizations which make it easy for a film to raise more money than it needs and very often that works against a film. It becomes very obvious that it wasn’t a lean production, that the focus did not have to be precisely honed because of budgetary limitations. I think that’s one of the real joys of working with a small budget—that you have to determine exactly what it is that you need and want to say. The biggest problem with the independent film sector in Toronto is that they find themselves having to make that budget show on screen.
Ron Burnett: Specifically, what interested me in the film was that a lot of it is about a sense of loss—the loss that occurs not only from generation to generation in video, but also the loss that occurs in people’s relationships with each other. For example, the absent mother the son finally comes to grips with and finds through the grandmother. The question for me—and it’s an important one, I think, in relation to television is to some degree always about loss. So much of what you see on the TV screen is the result of a process to which you don’t have any access. You as a spectator fill in the gaps. What interests me about television is how much we add to it, not how much we take away from it, that we fill the spaces which are there because there are so many. For example, there is a certain moment in the film when the son is in the nursing home and he goes to the television and turns it off because he sees himself in the image—is that correct?
Atom Egoyan: That’s a very complicated moment, it’s a moment when there is a video surveillance image of the lead going to the hotel room with a stranger, and then what happens is that the Canadian flag comes out and broadcast day is over, and then he turns off the television.
RB: So what is his relationship to the image he has just seen? I ask the question because you see his face but the camera doesn’t give you long enough time to understand what he is feeling.
AE: It’s a very good question. I think what has happened at that point is that the film first of all very accurately reflects my own ambiguity towards the role of certain types of media in our lives—that here you have this medium which is able either to trivialize or to enhance our feelings towards things, and I think what has happened at that point is that he has been pushed to look towards this ‘shrine’ as an object of revelation because there are certain things that he has already begun to glean in terms of his own identity, his own past. Yet he is not engaged in a dialogue of any importance. It’s a very important moment because of what happens right after, because he looks away and realizes that the woman beside his grandmother has died. I think that’s an important sequence because it is about this very abstract sense of displacement that he feels the moment he turns off the television. The programme has ended, something has finished, and he has a sense of something having finished its course, and then all of a sudden he turns away and this other thing has just finished its course, this other person—then he moves away and he just pauses for a moment, and all of a sudden his face has a very odd expression; he turns around, he goes back to the beds, he pulls out a screen and at that point the film camera makes a very slow dolly back (at that point he is still obscured from view) and looks over the screen to reveal that he is switching the bodies. Now, there are so many things going on in that shot, because first of all that whole action of switching the bodies is such a detached, contrived, manipulated gesture and yet as a character we know he doesn’t really understand the full implications of what he is doing, that mentality of things just being switched and ‘plot points’ being added to one’s life is something that is obviously derived from his television watching. These sorts of things can happen, identities can be switched, the emotional implications are something that he has not been trained to feel. His whole life has been about separating himself from these sorts of actions. And then of course there is a whole dialogue between the spirit of the film camera, which is something I was focusing on very strongly in the film, the film camera’s ability to physically move through space, not zoom through space—every time we have a video camera the movement is through zoom; every time we have a film camera it is a physical movement; these are very subtle things, of course, and I don’t expect everyone to pick them up consciously, but I think that there is something there that you must be able to feel, there is an energy at work that I must trust my audience will be able to pick up at some level.
RB: I agree with you. It’s a really crucial point because I think both audiences and filmmakers underestimate their entire experience of viewing. What interests me is the parallel between the scene you just described and the scene in which his father and girlfriend are sitting on their bed and viewing their own sexual experiences on video. Their own sexuality becomes an object of their vision and in fact becomes a premise upon which they build their own sexual energy.
AE: Sure. The whole film is about people being convinced that they can reduce themselves to their archetypes. The father’s greatest folly is that he believes he can be a much more simple person than he is; he is not really able to deal with his own complexity as a human being, and that is where the irony of the film comes off, in terms of the language it employs—where he tries desperately to be a ‘TV Dad,’ to give advice and it’s so pat it becomes ridiculous. I was very interested in that whole aspect of the film, the myth that we can simplify our lives, and that technology allows us to trivialize ourselves, if we choose to use it that way.
Ron Burnett: This links up with another thing I really liked about the film, which is what I see as an interesting exploration of voyeurism and the ambivalence and ambiguity of the voyeuristic act. You believe you are closer and closer to your fantasies when, by definition, you have to be further and further away in order for your fantasy to work. That tug of war between getting closer and being further away was beautifually represented for me when the parents’ videotapes are erased and suddenly the experience of their lives, or of their sexuality, ceases to exist. In other words, they don’t really have any faith in their own memories or in their experience. They need that object, the video, and they need the kind of present tense experience it offers.
Atom Egoyan: Yes, and I think with that in mind, it’s a bit of an odd point, but I think there’s a difference between the way let’s say the old 8mm home movies worked and the way the video works. In an 8mm movie you paid, what was it, $20 for two and a half minutes of time, and were forced to be selective. You had to make decisions as to what was important, what you wanted to record, and therefore there was an active process in your mind where you pre-edited before you shot. Whereas with video you can shoot three hours at a time, and the thing that’s very strange is there is this whole phenomenon of people shooting—you are traveling and see these people shooting the entire experience of going through a city, and maybe in the back of their minds they sustain the illusion that they will edit it all, but I don’t think that’s it. Advertisers use the phrase a lot, of “being able to record their memories,” and that is such a perverse notion! The implications of that are really terrifying, and I tried to make that point in relation to Stan and Sandra’s use of video for their sex games.
RB: The film goes through a whole series of crises and at the end, the mother is found, she returns and there is a kind of narrative unity put in place by the film. What made you decide to complete the circle of the narrative in that fashion?
AE: There are two elements at play here. When we first shot it, something very, very weird happened, and it’s a good example of how things work intuitively or are improvised: that last scene in the Women’s Shelter was one track, a camera moving through space, identifying where we were, moving up to this video surveillance camera perched on top of a booth, and then the video surveillance camera moved to reveal the scene of reunion, which the film camera then identified. So we shot his scene and, in the rough cut of the film, it became clear that this was not working—there was someting that was really falling flat. Then I had the idea of inter-cutting these home videos which Chris had seen before; this boy moving up to the camera, shielding his eyes. This married so well with the dolly we had of the film camera going up to the video camera that everything we had presented to you visually in the film was not being aesthetically and formally resolved as well. So I think the actual appearance of the mother is in some ways secondary to what is happening, the fusion of the two different types of imagery, which is a much more exciting thing for me. That is the true resolution of the film, I think. When you make a film like this, you must have the highest expectations of your audience. Having worked in situations where we have the lowest expectations of our audience (I’m talking about American commercial television), I automatically thought that you had to marginalize yourself and that there wouldn’t be an audience as a result. This film has taught me that in fact people want to be challenged, right? But still, films like mine have to be placed in a certain context—they have to be introduced in the right way, because people are not about to embark on a normal kind of film journey, you know? This is not a film that tries to satisfy you and keep you seduced on a moment-to-moment basis. For the first 20 minutes you don’t know what’s going on! It sets up a very weird world, and what it’s asking you to do is trust that I know what I'm trying to say—and that’s audacious, because no one’s heard of me! I've just been very, very lucky with the film having been introduced in the right way. Though I am still very vulnerable to audiences—and it happens all the time—where for some reason the energy doesn’t connect and, since the film is very personal, obviously I am made to feel very vulnerable by that. No matter how unsophisticated a film audience is concerning theory or the aesthetics of what it is you’re trying to do, the other thing they can detect (and it’s uncanny!) is whether or not they’re being condescended to. And I think ultimately if you have a very high expectation of your audience and you know exactly what it is you’re trying to express through the medium of film, there will always be an audience for you.