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Friday, Dec. 23, 2005

Echoes of Egoyan's mind

With "Where the Truth Lies," his 10th film, Canada's leading art-house director Atom Egoyan had reason to believe this would be his crossover hit. With Hollywood stars in his cast and a script based on a gleefully seedy novel by Rupert Holmes (once a singer who scored big with "The Pina Colada Song"), surely this would be the film that extended his audience to those who can't pronounce Cannes. That was before the MPAA slapped an NC-17 (adults only) rating on the film in the United States. Egoyan discussed the controversy and more in an interview with The Japan Times.

News photo
Atom Egoyan

Given that the film is not explicit, why did the MPAA give it an NC-17 rating?

It will remain a big mystery to me. We cut and resubmitted it three times, but they never overturned their decision. The only thing I could conclude was that what was most offensive [to them] was not anything that was actually shown, but rather the idea that there were famous actors involved in those scenes. There's no code to the rating system -- it's just based on a feeling they get when they watch the material. There isn't anything hardcore in the film. But it all came down to the threesome. We couldn't do anything about that -- it's the most essential moment in the film. There's no way we could take it out. It was a very strange and frustrating process because it really marginalized the film in the States.

Do you think if you'd shot the same scene in a purely heterosexual context, it would have been OK?

They made it clear from the outset that it wasn't about the gay content, but they kept repeating that so often, it became kind of obvious that it was.

One theme that crops up here and seems to recur in much of your work is that of an older man preying on a young woman. Any particular reason for this?

It was something I observed, a huge part of my formation. There was this relationship that I had access to, that I watched, and I've certainly been very marked by what I saw. In the relationship this individual wanted to believe that her father was an extraordinary, giving, caring [man]. Later I found out he was quite the opposite, he was a monster. And I have always used that, I suppose, as a source for a lot of the stuff I've done, in terms of how you can misperceive, and how we are content to rely on someone else's interpretation of something, even when a person is suffering under that. So there's this notion of male figures that are both paternal and predatory, and these young females who seem to be innocent of that, but manage to come to a knowledge through the course of the film.

But in this case it became pretty overt, because the character of Karen as she was in the book is very different from how she appears in the film. In the book she was a wisecracking femme fatale who had no relationship to these guys as a child, just a journalist pursuing a story. But immediately when I read the book, I saw her on the telethon and being this kind of innocent bait the publishers use to get these men to talk. Maybe there was a side of her that wanted to exonerate them, that couldn't believe that her memory of them -- which is almost sacred -- could be tarnished by possible involvement in a murder. But in pursuing this, she opens Pandora's Box.

It's hard to imagine this film being made by you without that aspect.

Of the 10 films I've made, three have been adaptations, and those three writers gave me an entry into worlds I wouldn't have had access to otherwise. Russell Banks gave me the life of a small, rural village; William Trevor gave me access to this Anglo-Irish tradition I didn't know; and Rupert Holmes gave me access to American popular entertainers -- since he was one himself. I've allowed myself a degree of re-invention. But I've had to make the adaptations as personal as my original scripts. There's something arrogant about that, but the material is there to be used.

There's a certain similarity to the two heroines in the film -- is that a bit of "Vertigo" creeping in?

Well, it's there in the music, isn't it? I mean, you are the sum of all the films you've watched, and, God, I've been so aware of this lately. You go back to certain films and you realize how influential they were. "Vertigo" is one of my favorite, all-time films. And it's odd how there are moments in this score that almost refer to it quite specifically.

How closely did you model Vince and Lanny on Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis?

The book is completely specific about that, and I found it really distracting. In the book, [Vince] is an Italian crooner, and I tried to re-invent him as this urbane, English fusion of Noel Coward and Rex Harrison, Peter Lawford and David Niven, all these English gentlemen who were floating around American pop culture at that time. We looked at a number of different acts, right back to Abbot and Costello and Laurel and Hardy, up to The Smothers Brothers. All these duos have this kind of Freudian aspect, where one represents this very impulsive, id-like character, and the other partner has to tame that, be the ego. And in this case, those roles are completely turned around in terms of who they really are.

The girl in the Alice in Wonderland costume at Vince's place -- it's an image of innocence corrupted that reminds me of the stripper in the schoolgirl uniform in your 1994 movie "Exotica." Was this an intentional echo?

Well, these things are never conscious. But I do think in a lot of my movies there's a ritualized aspect to the sexual personae. But it's weird how you're not really aware of these motifs. You watch them later on, and you just think "Oh my God." Like with Kristin Adams, the "Alice" actress, it's not just her costume, but her regard -- the way she looks back at the camera -- it's almost identical to the way Mia [Kirshner] did in "Exotica" 12 years before.

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