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(Credit: Seda Grig)

TIFF 2019: Q&A interview with master filmmaker Atom Egoyan at the Toronto Film Festival

One of the special benefits of attending a major film festival is the possibility of encountering some of the people involved in the films being presented. That can include red carpet appearances by the stars themselves; but also of interest to movie lovers, and always a pleasant surprise, is the unexpected post-credits appearance by the film’s director, writer, or members of the crew, to talk about the film and take questions from the audience. These impromptu visits are casual and fun, but can also, at times, provide a great deal of insight into the making of the film. This was the case with the North American premiere of Egoyan’s latest film, Guest of Honour, after which Egoyan appeared onstage and gave the audience about twenty minutes, during which he answered any and all questions about the making of his film. 

Armenian/Canadian Atom Egoyan, who writes most of his own screenplays, produces work that is at once eclectic, and distinctively his own. Perhaps best known for his 1997 small-town tragedy, The Sweet Hereafter, the director’s theme often includes hidden knowledge or suppressed feelings and their consequences. This concept becomes larger than life in his 2002 film Ararat, which deals with the official denial of the Armenian genocide and its effect on one family, and is used on a smaller scale in many personal or family dramas: character’s lives are changed because they are concealing their sexuality, as in Where The Truth Lies (2005);  because the truth is being officially distorted, as in true-crime-based drama Devil’s Knot (2013); because the truth is veiled by suspicion, as in Chloe; (2009) or even when a character has hidden the truth from himself, as in Remember (2015).

Most of all, Egoyan is an effective story-teller. His films capture the viewer’s interest and attention regardless of content, and his characters, even his evil characters, always manage to strike a chord and present something recognisable. It’s for this reason Egoyan’s work has been nominated at Cannes eleven times (and won five), along with an endless list of honours from film festivals around the world. 

Egoyan’s 2019 TIFF selection, Guest of Honour, is even more enigmatic than usual, leaving the audience prepared to question. The first question asked was an outwardly simplistic one: “What happened to [name of character]?” The audience chuckled, but Egoyan took the question seriously, acknowledging that the character’s outcome was a little unclear, and explaining that he had actually filmed a scene which would explain things further, but because the material became too long and unwieldy, had felt obliged to edit it out. It’s the sort of reasonable, satisfying answer many of us would like to receive from a director. 

Guest of Honour’s central character is a health inspector (played by David Thewlis). A second audience member asked how Egoyan had come to give the character that profession. Was it symbolic? Laughing, Egoyan admitted that it was inspired by real life: he had once owned a drinking establishment, which had occasionally been inspected – and approved, he hastened to add. He knew of restaurant owners whose places were shut down temporarily, and Egoyan had, he said, noted both the great responsibility that goes with protecting public safety, making the inspector something of a guardian of the community; and the considerable power and invasiveness inherent in the job. There was some banter about whether people with a certain kind of personality would seek out such a job because of the power it gives them over others’ lives – and whether Egoyan’s main character might be such a person. When an audience member called out a joking comparison to filmmakers, Egoyan agreed that his work gives him a similar kind of power: “I live in this bizarre space where I tell a lot of people what I want them to do. It’s a strange, perverse kind of job as well.”

Some questions revealed the mindset behind a film’s creation. Egoyan firmly rejected the hint that some of his more confusing or erratic characters were written to be mentally ill, seeming to feel strongly that psychiatric conditions shouldn’t be lightly played with as part of a fictional story. His characters are not mentally ill, merely complicated, hurt, or ambivalent. Another query about whether Egoyan is more than typically willing to take on “risky” films (as some critics have suggested), and whether his latest is a risky film, produced a straightforward answer. He acknowledged that the story takes some patience, since characters’ hidden thoughts and intentions remain mysterious until the end, and so he may well have been taking a risk in presenting such a film to an audience, hoping they would be willing to wait it out. He did not, however, seem to have taken the risk to the film’s success into account; he may be a director who simply wants to tell a story without undue concern about its success or failure except as a work of art.

Some odd details came out in the discussion. Arising from the brusque question, “What’s all this about rabbits?” came the fact that a bundle of prize ribbons on display, which had been supposedly won by a young character who owned a pet rabbit, were actually Egoyan’s own prizes from the days when he had shown his pet rabbits at fairs. Rabbits kept turning up in the film at least partly because the director had a longstanding fondness for them. However, even more was revealed about Egoyan’s intentions in writing each character, what he believed their motivations were, and why they acted as they did. He even suggested that sometimes a character’s motives were purposely left vague, as they would have been to the other characters. Some films require a tolerance for ambiguity.

A simple question about the choice of music in Guest of Honour led to some interesting analysis. Egoyan mentioned a composer, Shannon Graham, whom he’d hired to produce original music, which was meant to be music composed by a main character. Graham and other members of the music department also composed or chose the score for the film. It was extremely important, Egoyan explained, because so much of the story was being hidden or suppressed for most of the film. In that situation, the viewer had to be “guided” by the music. The soundtrack actually served to offer an explanation, by way of its mood or tempo, when the characters were refusing to make their feelings clear. It’s true, the music was helpful, even when it was not being noticed consciously. 

To the question, “What’s next?” Egoyan simply replied, “I have no idea.” Looking forward to it, whatever it may be.