Film Essays & Articles >> Interview with Atom Egoyan

Armenian Mirror-Spectator, 2001
The following interview with Atom Egoyan and Arsinée Khanjian was conducted at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, DC on October 9th. The interview was conducted in two stages: over breakfast with Atom and Arsinée for one and half hours, and a follow-up one-on-one interview with Atom in the afternoon of the same day for approximately 45 minutes.
Atom Egoyan is one of the most important and unique voices in the film industry to emerge in the 1990’s. The son of Armenian refugees, Cairo-born, and raised in Victoria British Columbia, Egoyan grew up consciously rejecting his own ethnicity in favor of assimilation into his adopted culture. After enrolling as a student at the University of Toronto, he began to reconnect with the heritage that he previously rejected by joining an Armenian student society.
Egoyan directed Calendar, which was partly filmed in Armenia, in 1992. Calendar looked at issues surrounding his Armenian identity. Egoyan achieved a much wider audience with the darkly mysterious Exotica, which was awarded the International Critics Prize for Best Film at the 1994 Cannes Festival.
Egoyan finally attained widespread international recognition and acclaim three years later, with the release of the The Sweet Hereafter. Based upon an adaptation of an Irish novel of the same name, the film was honored with the 1997 Special Jury Prize at Cannes, and Egoyan himself received an Academy nomination for Best Director and Best Adapted Script.
Interview Conducted by Paul T. Boghosian
Question: Arsinée, how do you work with Atom, your husband and director versus how you might work with other directors?
AK: There is definitely an access as to what develops around my character when I am working with Atom both physically and otherwise because I’m often present during the writing process. And because he is a very communicative person in terms of the exchanging of ideas, I have the awareness, understanding and input on the characters that I have played in Atom’s works than I wouldn’t necessarily have with other directors. It has supplied a certain comfort as well as given me options that sometimes perhaps confuse me because there is a possibility of exchange and development that is not always the case with other directors.
I like working with others because I have a fixed situation that I need to deal with and I have to make best out of that. And that challenges me in a very different way. What has been quite interesting working with Atom is that for months, sometimes a year or years, we have been working on a subject matter and it becomes a very important part of my relationship because it is not only the part that I play, it is also the context in which I need to situate my part and understand it.
I have come to realize that one thing that I trust and I really look for is regardless of how much we have talked about a part and how much we have developed it as a script, there is always this incredible surprise that you know of having to actually materialize that. And in a way, I would say that it is not any more comfortable for me to be in a project with Atom than with someone else. People project a lot into it and I don’t know exactly why they do that because it isn’t necessarily as smooth or pleasurable as it seems but it is gratifying at the end.
Question: I would think that the pressures would be greater because you were there at the creative process, you discussed the character, he wrote the character specifically for you and for your parameters.
AK: In a way the check and balances are much higher and much more prominent. The excitement of knowing that nothing will go by unnoticed and it is something that you can always do something about. You can rectify, you can change your perspective. Ultimately it is all about trust and not so much about this common need to succeed.
Question: I have talked to directors and producers in Hollywood who say that after having one wife who is an actress, they would say never again. Are there particular difficulties as a director working with an actress who is also your wife?
AE: Yes. I think that the situation is fraught with all sorts of situations.
You are making that person into the object that you want them to be which is something that you can’t do in a relationship. You have to question how much of what you are doing on the set is a reaction to things that you can’t do in real life. It is to find order, some coherence and control over things that we would otherwise not have any control over. There are moments when you want someone to look a certain way because that is how you like them to look. And yet they may not feel comfortable but are aware that you do call all the shots. Arsinée and I always have issues with hair, for instance. I want the hair to be pulled back and Arsinée may say no I want it this way. But that is the way that I want it to look. So there is that resentment, there is that resistance.
Question: I would think that one of the advantages of working with your husband as a director is that you can, you don’t have the tradeoffs or compromises that many actresses have to make as it relates to profession vs. family. Have you actually made conscious choices regarding your career and family?
AK: Yes. There have been periods where I really had to consider what was important in terms of my career and how I would integrate that within the family balance. I have for instance gone to Europe for three months, four months in a row where Atom has stayed with Arshile to literally be both parents. But I also have turned down projects where I was asked to go back to work in the theater in France just after the shooting of Ararat. It would have been an impossible situation.
Question: Are there any choices that you regret?
AK: No, I don’t have any regrets at all. I actually have to say I have no fantasy of it because I knew that was the price I had to pay for a personal relationship which is the most important thing out of all the other things. That has been something that I have always known is a necessity for me.
Question: Did you consciously decide to have only one child?
AE: Well, it wasn’t conscious. What had happened is that after the birth of Arshile, it became very busy. I mean there was Exotica, our career, both went into the busiest time. Arsinée was filming a lot in Europe and then I was in LA with Warner Bros. It was a lot of management but we always took turns but that was the only way that we could do it. But it seemed improbable with that lifestyle to do it with two kids.
Question: How about your relationship with actors on the set, knowing that of course you are the wife of the director. Do you have a sense that they are looking at you differently because you might be favored by the director or anything of that sort?
AK: That is something that I have always been very sensitive to. I have no interest in enjoying special status I find on a set, because ultimately I find I have to work with my colleagues and the best way of working with them is to feel at par. It is an incredible privilege to have the trust of director who also really seeks the trust of your colleagues. So it has never been a very interesting thing for me to exploit that status issue during the process of shooting. I am not saying that I am not tempted by it like everyone else, but I have found it is not a helpful situation to have that kind of atmosphere. If anything, I have felt that I am being taken for granted because of the fact that I am his wife from his perspective, because of his efforts to diminish my obvious presence which can become very complicated to manage.

Question: What was it within your background, your relationship with your parents and grandparents that shaped your self-identity and your sense of being an Armenian?
AE: I was always aware of the fact I was Armenian. It was my mother. It was my frequent visits to Montreal to visit all of my other relatives. I was aware of the culture in broad terms. But the details of the genocide, details of the denial were not something that was explicit to me until I was 18 until I went to college at the University of Toronto. I was studying international relations and all of my studies focused around the genocide. I wrote an undergraduate thesis about Woodrow Wilson and Lenin’s views about Armenia.
I was really politically involved with the student association at that time, which was also the time of the terrorist activities because that became very loaded and we all became very flipped by that. When there was an attack in Ottawa, at that point I reacted against it. It has been a real. I reacted against the violence. But like Raffi said, “I could only understand what it would take to abstract another human being to the point of being able to target them.”
Any act of terror, either a genocide or an assassination attempt, you have to be able to abstract someone else. And that is what this movie is all about. The movie is about the dangers about abstracting others and also the responsibility to listen to someone else’s experience. To really absorb how someone else really perceives the world.
Question: Where do your Armenian roots come from?
AE: My roots of my Armenianism are very linked to my grandmother, which is why “Family Viewing” is such as important movie to me. Armenian is my mother tongue but I stopped speaking it once my grandmother left our life at the age of five or six. I was raised in Victoria BC where we were the only Armenian family and the only reason I needed to keep the language was only when my grandmother was around. My parents are both artists and that was a hugely important part of my upbringing was sort of being around art.

Question: I read that as a teenager you rejected your Armenian heritage. Was this your way of rebellion – rebelling against your parents?
AE: I think it was a way of trying to be like everyone else. I think that being an Armenian kid, especially growing up in a place where there is no community, I mean you are desperate to try to assimilate, and unless you have access to the church and some of these traditional pillars in the community you are not aware of what it is you are supposed to be proud of. You are not aware of the idea of individuality until you are an adult, I don’t think. But I always knew I was Armenian.
Question: What qualities within yourself led you to making the career choice of film directing?
AE: I have always ascertained that directing is a very perverse occupation. I think I have chosen it by nature because I like to dramatize people. I am put in a position of control and given power that I wouldn’t otherwise have. Much like custom agents, insurance adjusters, litigation lawyers, tax auditors. People have the ability to use their job to deal with neuroses that they might not be able to exploit and directing is the most extreme example of that. You walk onto a set and there are all these people who are completely suspended until you say what you want. I try not to take advantage of that.
Question: Working on an ensemble basis, as you do, I would think several actors, let’s take Bruce for example, would know you and hold almost a direct communication through a glance and they would know what your direction is and what you would prefer them to do.
AE: Yes, like with Elias Koteas. He is an actor who I have worked with a number of times. All actors have certain mannerisms that they will fall back into and as actors they know that there are safe routes to handle things that they are suspicious of. Once you build up a trust with an actor you can actually pinpoint those things and obtain an intimacy with them. They see how you represent them. They are able to trust that.
Question: Who was your favorite character of the movies that you have made?
AE: I love Mitchell Stevens in the The Sweet Hereafter - Eden Holmes character. I also really love Bruce’s character in Exotica, Francis Browning. I love Arsinée in this film.
Question: How do you prepare for a role? Do you take an outside trappings point of view? Because obviously I see you here and I see you on the screen, but on screen you have a very different look.
AK: It is interesting. To understand something that was not necessarily provided to me within the text is something that I haven’t done historically in a solitary way because we continually work with all the actors involved as well. For instance, in theater, where there is a lot of discussion about rehearsal, subject matter and the characters, it is a very important process to understand the history or to create a history that does not necessarily appear in the script itself. But then there is the technical side and at times I will need to work it out regardless of how I feel the camera will technically will be covering me, and that is something that happens not necessarily at an emotional level but at a level of functional awareness.
Question: Is Ararat your greatest accomplishment to date – is that the film that you are most proud of?
AE: I don’t have the perspective of that. I will tell you that has been the most remarkable journey. Some Armenians have come to me and asked, ‘You have Academy award nominations and all of this status, why would you choose to tell this story.’ They don’t get the basic fact that it is because I have this status that I can tell this story right now. The only reason why this film is told is because I used my position. I have gone back to the sources who have the more obvious successes and have said, now look, now is the time for me to make this movie.
Question: Talk to me a little bit about the development of the project. I read somewhere that Robert Lantos the producer provided some spark, some motivation for you to do this film.
AE: I have been wrestling with this since the beginning of my career. I knew that I had to tell the story at some point. From the moment I arrived in Toronto in 1978, I not only began to understand what the nature of the details of the genocide were but also the magnitude of the denial. And then meeting Arsinée in 1984, understanding how this was burning in her as well though the nature of our conversations over these years and the sense that there was something inevitable that at one point we really needed to make this, the question really was how do you make it. If it wasn’t for Robert Lantos’ extraordinary gesture that he made to be able to support this movie, the film would not have developed. He basically, when he left, he was the head of Alliance. When he sold the company he had a deal which allowed him to produce a certain number of films within three years after he left the company. He made a film about his people called Sunshine and then said now it is your turn. You make your film. So, we did have this window and we had to seize the opportunity.

Question: When you are directing, writing and producing a film, do you look at it from an audience point of view, particularly a non-Armenian audience and how they are going to find the film, how accessible the film is going to be for them?
AE: It is very interesting. We’ve had a mainstream American critic who loved the film for the family dynamics. He was swept up with what was going on in those families and actually didn’t know anything about the politics or any of the other issues. I just felt that is was very important to show how those epic issues that we had to wrestle with historically can be played out in families. This is a hit. And there are people who just connect to it emotionally and others who are outside it. I can’t really explain one or the other.
Question: But do you think about the audience and their reaction to the material as you are writing?
AE: Yes, in the case of the Christopher Plummer character I felt it was very important to have a character who knew nothing about Armenian history. I thought that would be very important point of entry. I think that I was aware of this during construction. You have to realize that doing these adaptations of novels by Russell Banks and William Trevor caused an influence that otherwise would have taken the film in that other direction because this is where I am using a more novelistic approach. We have the opportunity to look at films more than once, and this film in particular, more than any other film that I will ever make, had to be encyclopedic.
We may not have another opportunity to tell this story, so I needed to pack as much into this movie as possible. Not only at the level of Armenian mythology, poetry, history, politics, but also in terms of the dynamics and the issues that we have had to confront. I wanted to look at it from as many different points of view as possible. I do think that the film needs and warrants more than one viewing. I don’t have a problem with that. If people say that it is really dense and very loaded, I personally find that very exciting.
Question: During the creative process, were there a number of different iterations in which you started in one place and you ended up somewhere else?
AE: A curious and most moving example of that probably was in my relationship with Charles Aznavour. When he read the script, he made a very interesting observation which is why I didn’t take more advantage of the personas that he represents because in the draft he was more vulnerable. As a performer, Charles projects something to people. Rather than to play against that, it was very interesting to play into it. As well, once we knew that Eric was going to be playing Ruben, there is a certain way in which he speaks that I think was tailored towards him.

 Question: Are you happy with the reaction to the film this far?
AE: I am happy with the public response. I’ve been surprised that there are certain critics that have followed my work and have been able to really support my way of exploring issues. I think Armenians have expectations of what the movie should be and that begins to color their experience. This whole thing about Armenians wanting to have seen the movie within the movie is actually wrong because they said that movie is not that interesting non-Armenians. I think Armenians just needed to kind of vindicate something.
The film versions of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh or Simon Berlin, for example, are the films that some members of our community are still expecting to see. What’s interesting to me is when people talk about something like Mayrig, and say it was banned from distribution in the States because of Turkish pressure, well, that’s not true. It just wasn’t good enough; it did not have pedigree. I was prepared to put my career and my reputation on the line and make this movie. I knew it had to be true to what people expected from one of my films and if I was true to that, then I felt I had a chance.
I was reacting against these other films, and reacting against my frustration in watching those films, feeling that those films didn’t quite get it, feeling like Raffi does. You know, this confusion when he’s talking to the Turkish actor in the car, you know that feeling that those films certainly arouse certain emotions but they don’t really explore anything artistically.
This is what defines us. We are an artistic culture. We have great artists. I remember when I was in Armenia a year ago and I talked to one of the generals from Karabagh and he said “people will never understand us for our politics, but they will love us for our art.” And I just thought that’s absolutely right. We have these people who have been able to inspire others and yet in some ways we don’t really value the artist’s primary role. It is not to answer the question but to pose it correctly.
Question: Were they happy with the Cannes and Toronto screenings and the feedback that the film received?
AE: They are very happy with the film. What they are confused about is how some of the groups that supported my other films are suddenly surprised that I would attack something politically. The timing of this release is either phenomenally great or dismal, depending on how you look at it. I mean this is an amazing time to tell a film which sees history for all its complexity. But this is also a time when people want things in black and white.
Question: Do you think Weinstein and Miramax are happy with the film?
AE: Yes. They have been incredibly supportive. They are also incredibly busy. They are in Chicago, in New York with two films that have gone through spectacularly well for them. The idea of the screening was part of their original excitement over this project. They would love this to be a hit. I am not sure if it will be. I don’t know.
Question: During the production of this film, you reached out to the Turkish community to get them to look at the script.
AE: No, we didn’t reach out. They kind of reached out. They kind of like clawed out at us.
Question: Was it Miramax’ decision to show the Turks the script or did you?
AE: No. We don’t know how they got their hands on a script. We had this one meeting in the fall of last year with the Turkish Association and it was full of veiled threats and suggestions that the film would present a problem for our means living in Turkey and that this was the wrong film to put out at this time because it was going to create hatred. Their whole approach was that this project was a piece of propaganda to spread a political position. My approach was to try and appease the situation until the film was finished because I felt that all of the conjecture around what the movie would be was absurd until people actually saw it.
Question: Have any of your Turkish friends or associates seen the film?
AE: Yes, they have. I think that they’re able to understand that the film opens a dialogue but there are images in the movie which are absolutely forbidden for them to accept. Like scenes of Turkish soldiers involved in those scenes. I mean the mythology that they live with is that if anything happened that it was done by villagers. Our challenge right now is to get the film to the East Temple film festival, however what they’ve said to me is that we can show the film if you cut certain scenes but that’s ridiculous.
Question: Do you think there’s an opportunity for this film to be seen in Turkey as it presently is?
AE: Not commercially. My other films have been distributed commercially. This will not be.
Question: From the conversations you have had with Turkish intellectuals, do you see any movement in Armenian/Turkish relationships?
AE: There is definitely an effort to create a relationship given the present urgency between Armenia and Turkey. Because of this there is an appropriation and detouring of the genocide issue due to the present necessities of these two countries which legitimately have to deal with each other. There is a very strong effort on the Turkish side to really jump on this urgency of dealing with Armenia and try to negotiate. And yet the question of why not leave this history behind and give what present day Armenia needs has been brought up as well. However, present day Armenia does have some very justifiable needs but what it asks for is to have its own history to deal with. I think the attempts are as convoluted and self interested as they has systematically been. However, I think that this issue needs to be taken from within Turkey as well because the Armenian genocide is not something of relevance only to us, but for them to move on as well.
Question: Many people feel that the Turks would own up to it if they didn’t have to make economic reparations. Do you think there is an economic factor?
AE: I think it goes beyond that. I do think it is something that is now so engrained into their belief system that it would be very very difficult to deal with. It is not necessarily so much the issue of reparations with Armenians but the whole Kurdish issue that becomes opened. It is a Pandora’s box for that culture.
Question: Is there anything about the film that you would change at this point?
AE: Yes, just little things, but for the most part I am very happy with it. For instance, one of the shots with Christopher Plummer where in the background you see the customs officers wondering why he is taking so long with the kid. The only thing I would change is that there be something on the ticket when you go to see it that you would have to promise to go and see it again.
Question: Did you have alternative endings in mind for the film?
AE: No. However the version you saw last night, is not the version that will be distributed. The version that will be distributed will be a tighter ending. From the whole last scene with Raffi and Cilia, it is half the length. And there is this other line so there are little changes. I think that in this version that we saw last night, the ending drags on a little and it is just tighter in the theatre version.
Question: Are there any other themes that are associated with the Armenian genocide and Armenian history that you could see addressed in another film?
AE: Yes. I think the Turkish perspective of what the Turks are. One Turkish response from Vancouver a couple of nights ago was very interesting as someone stood up and said ‘it is not all about hatred.’ You know denials all about it. As Charles’ character talks about how they hate it so much that they will deny their hatred. He said that is not the question. He said the question is you know the shame of actually admitting this.

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