Atom Egoyan: The Movieline Interview

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In Chloe, Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan returns to the pulpy, psychosexual domain that first established his international reputation, with 1994's Exotica. In it, we meet Catherine -- a successful Toronto gynecologist, played by Julianne Moore, who is coming to terms with her own obsolescence. Her husband, a handsome college professor (Liam Neeson) spends more and more time with his adoring female students, while her teen son barely acknowledges his mother's existence as he smuggles a mostly naked girlfriend in and out of his bedroom. Enter Chloe: a voluptuous and other-worldly call girl fully embodied by Amanda Seyfried, who Catherine hires to entrap her husband. Soon after, the head games and fantasy fulfillments begin.

To be sure, keeping these melodramatic proceedings from tumbling into trashier nether-zones is a tightrope act, and Egoyan -- working for the first time off a script not written by himself, but rather by Secretary writer Erin Cressida Wilson -- pulls it off. Movieline spoke to the director about breaking out of his comfort areas, how television has replaced cinema as the most consistent source of great drama, and the delicacies of shooting two stars of Moore and Seyfried's caliber in flagrante delicto.

Why the shift now to material written by someone else?

Since Exotica I've had an agent here [in the U.S.] and I've had some scripts presented to me. After Exotica I spent the better part of a year here with a project that never happened. I think that very often you read scripts and get excited, but the question is whether or not you can actually spend a year-and-a-half to two years of your life making it. That's really been the determining issue. This one I really felt that I could. It was close enough to me and I knew if I found the right actors and I was able to use my team, I would be able to do something which I felt I had to do -- which was move away from these multi-layered narratives.

I had to break a pattern. After Adoration, it felt as if there was almost something that was becoming weirdly formulaic about that kind of writing. This one just attracted me because it was very complex, a very interesting psychological study, but it was very linear. That had its own challenges -- to stay focused on the frame and performance, and not thinking about how it's all going to come together in some way. Which is what's always in my mind when I'm working on my own scripts. It's a real tightrope act. You're not quite sure what the final shape needs to be, and neither are your collaborators. So this was really attractive. It came at the right time.

While you were making it, were you at all concerned that it won't have the Egoyan hallmarks?

I promised myself not to think of that. I was going back to the mode of my twenties, when I started making my own features. I was fortunate enough to land these gigs as a director for The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which were shooting in Toronto at the time. I even did the pilot for Friday the 13th. And each of those shows, it was just like -- keep on schedule, stick with the actors, but don't think about your own "vision" so much.

This is a more complex project, but every time I began to think, "Oh, that feels like a shot I did in this movie," I just stopped. I thought, "This is not about that." This is really a different skill set, a different set of muscles -- where you're thinking that if you do this right, people will make those connections anyhow, but you don't need to do that. It's not your responsibility. I think it's almost kind of narcissistic to try and bring everything back to your own world.

I agree with the notion of auteurism when one is writing and directing, maybe, but the application of auteurism on a script written by someone else is problematic. First of all, tonally it's very different from my other work because it's a melodrama. The characters are expressing their emotions in a very clear way. That's not the case with most of my dialogue. And yet there's enough repression and subversion of expectation to satisfy my curiosity.

Would you say melodrama as a genre is thriving at the moment?

I think it can thrive when it's performed exceptionally well. I think where it gets a bad name is that it's often so untethered as to become extreme. But I think with the kinds of performances that we have here, it's a wonderful form. And in fact, it's really alive these days on television here, with some of these exceptional series which are really beautifully written.

Any you'd single out by name?

Starting with Sopranos, to Mad Men. The Wire is brilliant. When I look back at what television was 25 years ago, it really is quite amazing. It's become the most reliable place to see adult drama now. Which is I guess what makes this film all the more unusual.

Are you drawn to the idea of just telling stories of straight-ahead erotica?

No. I think I'm interested in how the erotic realm plays in the overall lives of these characters, so if that is something that needs to be touched upon, I will explore that. But not as something apart from the drama at hand. There are films where I've been very obvious about going to that erotic world, and others where it doesn't figure in. I would say that there's always some erotic tension in the movies -- that you're being both drawn and repulsed by what you're seeing. It might not be about sex necessarily, but there's some visual element or sound element or something else drawing you in that could be seen as being erotic.

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