Atom Egoyan with Arsinée Khanjian by Liza Béar

“My biggest fear when I’m making a film is whether or not that contrivance calls attention to itself and distances you from the suspension of disbelief.”

BOMB 30 Winter 1990
030 Winter 1989 90

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

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Atom Egoyan.

Atom Egoyan’s third feature Speaking Parts is that rarity: a conceptual breakthrough as well as entertainment of the highest order. A mystery-romance set in a cavernous hotel, Speaking Parts combines the sensuality of cinema, the immediacy of video and the binary logic of drama to make a subversive statement about the power of the recorded image. No mean feat: it does this without going into self-destruct. The characters’ amorous needs and professional aspirations are wittily served by taped or interactive video, bridging chasms of time and space, the image a wanton substitute for physical presence: Egoyan makes you think as he makes you laugh. Ultimately, through Arsinée Khanjian’s Lisa as the emotional driving force of the film, (and the only one who’s not part of the image-making machine) the watchful, insidiously pervasive technology is vanquished. In a final ironic twist, fantasy loses its stranglehold, and passion triumphs over opportunity.

Aided by a superb Canadian cast and crew, 29-year-old Egoyan brought in the silky production ahead of schedule and under budget. Zeitgeist plans a February 1990 theatrical release in Seattle, San Francisco, Washington, and New York.

211 West Broadway. A table by the window. In town for their New York Film Festival debut, Atom and Arsinée breeze in, windswept and animated. We order, and soon get down to business.

Liza Béar I suspect you both come out of the Toronto theater scene?

Atom Egoyan Yes … Aren’t you eating?

LB I’ll have some soup. This deadpan, laconic acting style in your films—is that something you developed in your theater work?

AE My first theater work all had to do with questions of communication, and people’s ability to confront each other—the tendency to overcomplicate our dialogues in order to get to very simple points which everyone is too embarrassed to actually recognize.

LB Verbal redundancy.

AE Right. In some of the plays I’ve done, the verbosity of the characters is taken to an extreme. That was the theme of one play where these three boys are at a beach presumably to look at women, but one character who’s very verbose, very nervous is actually a suppressed homosexual. His two friends bring him to the beach to watch him suffer as he spins these incredibly intricate tales which they know are fatuous. It’s a very cruel piece. The last play I did, the one I did in residence, which never actually got produced, was about …

LB Minimal language?

AE Very minimal language. And at that point I realized I would find better expression for this type of language in film than in theater.

LB Why?

AE Well, first of all there was the frustration of getting a play produced. I find that, strangely enough, it was far easier and more tangible for me to go ahead and make a film than to wait for a theater company to option a play.

LB How did the two of you meet?

Arsinée Khanjian I was in community theater in Montreal. We were rehearsing The Mousetrap in Armenian. Atom was in Montreal looking for an Armenian older couple for Next of Kin. He was going around to theatre groups to see who was there. So I got auditioned and a week later he called and said I got the part. I didn’t know if I was supposed to accept it or refuse it, but I thought I’d better accept.

LB Why did she have to be Armenian?

AE Because the film deals with this Armenian … this boy who transplants himself. He’s very dissatisfied with his English-Canadian family and they’re in therapy because he can’t really deal with his own identity. And while he’s in video therapy with these people …

LB Oh, so you had already used video in the first film.

AE Oh yeah. It was the type of therapy where people’s conversations are taped and they go back later on and look at their reactions. Through that, perhaps, they come to some sort of revelation about why they’re behaving the way they are in their family situation. So one day, by mistake, he sees the tape of another family. And this other family are Christian Armenian immigrants who had to give up their son for adoption when they came to Canada because they couldn’t afford to keep him. In the meantime, they’d had a daughter who’s grown to reject their very traditional values, which is why they’re in therapy.

LB Arsinée played the daughter?

AE Yeah. Anyway, while the boy’s watching this tape he gets the idea of tracking this family down and telling them he’s their son, using all the information he’s gained about these people through the tape. So it’s a very … odd film.

AK (To Atom) The funny thing is, you hesitated initially because you didn’t at all perceive the character with an accent.

LB Would you say you’d rejected traditional Armenian values?

AK (laughing) Oh yes, God knows.

AE Actually our meeting was probably the biggest rejection.

LB Was the family opposed to uh …

AK Well, I had studied theatre in Montreal, classical theatre …

LB Molière, Racine …

AK Oh yes, all of that, but after that I had switched my course of studies to languages, partly because acting was not a perceived profession.

LB Is Armenia mostly Muslim or Christian?

AK Oh, Christian. It’s a Soviet republic right now, fairly small. The reason I was born in Lebanon, as were my parents, is because of the Armenian genocide in 1915, in which millions of Armenians were massacred by Turks in their villages in what is presently Eastern Turkey. So my grandfather left Eastern Turkey and went to the Middle East, and that’s how we ended up in Lebanon.

AE And my people went to Egypt so that’s where my roots are.

LB Believe it or not, one of my grandparents was born in Cairo and another in Turkey. (laughter)

AK Well, here we are.

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Arsinee Khanjian in Speaking Parts directed by Atom Egoyan, a Zeitgeist Film release.

LB So how did your collaboration develop?

AE Well …

AK When we met it was …

LB His turn.

AK Yeah. Good. (pause).

AE (Slowing down a little) It was a very strange type of meeting … Because of Arsinée’s social position, the fact that it ended up being a … permanent relationship, working and living, actually came as a surprise. It’s strange when you’re so close to somebody and yet you use them to communicate images, you make images of them. It’s a very perverse type of activity to engage in, and yet it’s worked out quite well.

AK It was funny, after we finished shooting Next of Kin Atom was completely out of money. He already didn’t have anything. I mean, he shot that film on a $37,000 budget so …

LB Which you got from the Canada Council?

AE Yes, but after being rejected a number of times.

AK … So to survive, he went back to this job he’d had for $5 per hour working as a doorman …

AK … At a very academic college at the University of Toronto.

AK And we spent the whole summer at the door of the college, opening it and closing it. It was quite interesting … We were talking earlier, about how you lose that excitement about things …

LB Already?

AK Yeah. After Next of Kin we got small offers. Every time it was a great occasion for happiness, we’d react physically, jump up and down and express it, and now … now we can choose, which wasn’t necessarily the case at the beginning. Things have happened quite fast, too. In five years.

AE I’ve always considered my work to be quite marginal in a way …

LB But you choose really major themes, don’t you? I don’t think love, sex, death, communication are marginal themes, I think they’re very central and that’s why you get the audience response that you do.

AE It’s funny, I never really see it that way. I know those are the themes I’m dealing with but I always find my approach to them is as oblique as possible …

LB All the same, I don’t know if you want to call yourself marginal …

AE Because it’s like the kiss of death! All right, all right. (Rephrasing) The issues that I’m dealing with are extremely pertinent, have a strong relevance to anyone, but the processes I use to interpret them are very personal and deeply felt and idiosyncratic. It has taken me probably this film to realize there is a large audience for them, and that’s something that’s come to me very, very slowly.

LB Between your second feature, Family Viewing and Speaking Parts, there was only a two-year time span. By US independent standards, that seems remarkably short, and the difference between …

Waiter Are you going to order anything else?

LB Maybe … And the difference between the two is so great that I suspect something quite major must have happened that enabled you to … Apart from having a much bigger budget.

AE No, not that much bigger.

LB Structurally, Speaking Parts is much tighter than Family Viewing. The art direction …

AE What happened is very simple. After Family Viewing, and not because of Family Viewing, I was approached to direct a number of programs for two TV series that were shooting primarily in Canada, Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and I directed a number of those episodes. Being part of that production machine, I became aware of how to create a certain look.

LB So you learned under pressure of having to direct at a …

AE Frantic, frantic pace. And I also learned how to create images that are seductive. In Family Viewing, the images are meant to be degraded, they’re meant to separate you, to an extent. In Speaking Parts, since the film is so much about people being seduced by images of each other, it was very important that the images themselves be very seductive, otherwise it wouldn’t have worked, I don’t think. And what’s interesting for most people is that Speaking Parts has a look that they associate with a type of film that doesn’t require the kind of thought processes that they undergo when they see it …

LB What’s great though, is you make them laugh at the same time.

AE Especially in the English language. I think it’s probably quite unusual for people who speak with a North American accent to find themselves in the middle of this beautiful rich film which has very high expectations of its audience, which doesn’t ask them to go to sleep for two hours. Usually the production value is used to disguise the fact that you’re looking at a film. You’re supposed to take yourself to this reality, which is the image, and to forget the fact that you’re watching a photographed image, to almost accept it as a sequence of events that’s actually happening, that you lose yourself to. And really I’m trying to subvert that sensation.

LB Hmmmm … Well, you can’t subvert it totally because you need suspension of disbelief on one level at least. But you do engage on multiple levels. The whole structure of the film is pretty interesting The opening sequence of the film consisted of one-beat scenes. They were also one shot, one unit of …

AE Of information …The film is about dialogue. No more than two characters are ever in a scene together, and whenever there is a third character he’s asked to leave. The groom, for instance, in the bridal interview scene …

LB Which is hilarious, by the way.

AE In a sense, the concerns of one scene are mirrored in the concerns of the next. For instance, Lisa’s looking at a videotape of the bride’s father while Lance is being auditioned by Clara. Then Lisa goes to the orgy while Lance and Clara are masturbating via video teleconference. And there’s the whole wedding sequence when Lisa is behind the camera, while Lance finds out he’s got the part that Clara auditioned him for.

LB So what are you saying, you used intercutting to do what?

AE To create a dialogue between scenes. Also, because the dramatic impetus for a lot of my films requires people to have knowledge of other characters, it’s always important for me to define an environment which will allow that to happen. In Next of Kin, there was the video therapy clinic which allowed characters to hop in and find histories of other people. Information about someone is the most difficult thing to gain access to in real life. It’s usually held at a great great distance from you.

LB I liked your new definition of character profiles in the After Dark video store. Eddie draws a character profile of Lisa on the basis of the videos she rents.

AE Right, right. I’m very interested in what you said, there being problems one has to find a solution to, that really figures in my own thinking dramaturgically. Devices like coincidence …

LB … Simultaneity …

AE … Simultaneity, those ideas are very important to me. My biggest fear when I’m making a film is whether or not the contrivance calls attention to itself and distances you from the suspension of disbelief. I remember when I was making my second film, Family Viewing, to me the most contrived moment in that was when the two grandmothers were exchanged. I was torturing myself over, how do you create this moment? And I talked to a friend, a filmmaker, and he said something so simple, ultimately you have to create a world in which that sort of thing can happen. And that is really the greatest challenge … through the tone of the piece through the feel of the piece, you create a world where certain properties can exist. Properties which may be heightened or surreal or totally improbable in our day-to-day lives.

LB A world in which people go to a special place to watch videotapes of their deceased relatives is already a bit absurd. It makes me think of Soylent Green.

AE It’s about five years ahead, I would say. I wouldn’t say it’s totally a science fiction world. They have them in Japan.

LB The shot of Clara watching her dead brother in the video mausoleum bothered me.

AE But you know we are a culture obsessed with the preservation of image and perhaps you’re not familiar with the fact that people do go to cemeteries and look at tombstones where images are kept.

LB Well, I’m not. But in that scene, I feel the video is a violation of the human mind.

AE But that’s just it! The whole film is about things being violated. But being violated in such insidious ways that we’re not entirely sure who has the right to lay claim to what history. And even in this perverse sort of situation where Clara has made the disastrous mistake of thinking she can create a sacrifice equal to the one her brother made for her with her script. Of course, the moment you decide to make an object of something emotional, a feeling, a memory, all of a sudden because it is an object it can be bartered with, it can be taken away from you, it can be changed, it can be manipulated.

LB There’s the artist’s dilemma in a nutshell.

AE The way the script started was as a love relationship set in a hotel between two people who worked in the hotel. I’d written that as a play some time ago, and it was based very much on a situation I’d encountered delivering laundry and that sense of being in a working environment with someone that you adored and only being able to see them when you had a functional reason to do so. Being too shy to be able to go farther than that, and yet going out of your way to provide them with special towels, making sure they were provided for in a special way. The other person of course doesn’t care if you give him hand towels when he’s run out …

LB Or leave red roses in the dryer …

AE I like that sort of situation, that tension. So that was the point of departure. And also I like the types of relationship that occur during a film production, when people become involved in the creation of illusions, because they’re in a very odd frame of mind and it’s conducive to romance.

LB A very intense frame of mind.

AE Yes, and yet it’s also very fragile, very precarious. So the point of departure was the idea of the hotel, the laundry room, the person delivering, the cart in the hallway …

LB That gave you a lot of nice sound cuts, that cart.

AK A lot of trouble to me too.

LB You really started with a dramatic premise. What about the video element?

AE Well, that came very late. To be quite honest, after Family Viewing and after Next of Kin, those two films which deal so much with the video image, I was very wary of doing it again because I didn’t want to repeat myself. And I know with Family Viewing I’d done something with the video image which is quite radical, inasmuch as I made it part of the form of the film …

LB It allowed you to do a heck of a lot.

AE And once I said, Okay, look, it’s stupid pretending I’m not fascinated and obsessive about this image and I don’t really care if I’m called limited, I have to use this, because the type of subject matter I’m dealing with, the whole idea of romantic projection, ideas of representation and presentation, the differences between the two, needed to have a cinematic equivalent. I could not do it literally and do full justice to the complexity of my ideas.

Waiter Dessert is chocolate pecan pie, chocolate misericorde, carrot cake, raspberry …

LB What was I going to say … real time is in film, right, and …

Waiter… French sorbet. Raspberry Windsor tart?

LB Anything that’s fantasy is in video. At the end Lisa’s imagination takes over.

AE What’s happening there … As an actor, Lance wants to be more than an extra, he wants to be singled out, Lisa intuits that, which is why I have her single him out on those close-ups of the videos. And she’s able to do that because she is somehow …

LB In tune with his feelings.

AE Yes. And later what happens is that he beckons her to come towards him. And when she enters that composition, and there’s no one there, what she then becomes aware of is the tool which has framed the composition, which she goes forward to touch. That “tool” is her intuitive logic, and as she’s touching that, and the image fluctuates between film and video, what’s actually happening is there’s a fluctuation between the real world and an intuitive order. And of course once you adhere [only] to that intuitive sense, you’re mad by normal conventions.

LB So when she’s touching the screen, what is she touching?

AE She’s touching madness.

LB The image takes over.

AE The other thing that’s just as important to this film as the use of film and video is eyeline.

LB How so?

AE Well, people on the video screen are always looking directly at camera, and people who are looking at the video screen are always looking off camera.

LB Oh yes. Well, they should. Otherwise it’d look like TV.

AE Yes. Because the video image is the image of “the other,” an image of a reality that is desired and not attainable, therefore the point of view, the gaze of the person being adored is being made an icon of. Or the gaze of the person that holds the power of transformation is always very very direct and somehow confrontational.

LB (To Arsinée) You played Aline in Family Viewing. Lisa was a much more challenging role.

AK Yes, it was. It required a lot of thinking and recreating the character in my mind. I knew what Aline could be, I had references around me or in me for bringing that character into life but with Lisa, I just didn’t know who she was, I just couldn’t imagine what she …

LB You’d never been in love that way?

AK Not in that way, because I’m a very proud lover. If I can’t get what I want I find every sort of way of either getting it or completely forgetting it. So I’ve never made myself vulnerable to a love story or a love hurt in that sense.

LB Yet Lisa emerges as the more heroic. Lance comes out as a bit of a slimy character. An opportunist.

AK Just a bit!

AE And actually quite stupid, I think. He is not that bright.

LB Here you are, intimately connected to the director and yet playing the role of a love-smitten lass. Lisa’s the only character who’s defined by her emotions rather than her social role. She has other objectives—she wants to learn how to do interviews like Eddie …

AK But the reason she gets involved with that process is that in her mind it’s another way of getting through to Lance, it’s another way of reaching him. She’s fascinated by other people’s ability to function at the level of images. Herself, she has absolutely no sense of that process or any way of applying that process to her life.

LB But she doesn’t just want the guy, does she? She also wants to enhance her own understanding—of the way things are. Some of the funniest dialogue is between Lisa and Eddie, in the video store.

AK It’s the only human dialogue …

LB Without video intermediary. It also shows her to be sharp, and curious, with almost an Alice in Wonderland …

AE … Wonder.

LB The other theater work Arsinée has done I assume is not in this vein—this very terse—do you mind it being called Pinteresque?

AE Not at all. I’d think it was a compliment. He’s an idol of mine.

LB David Mamet is someone else your work makes me think of.

AE Another idol. I’m really curious, are these questions on this piece of paper?

LB No, just notes.

AE Can I have it?

LB Let me see if it says anything embarrassing. (looks) No, Okay, you can have it. Oh, here’s a question. What’s the key difference between Lance and Lisa?

AE The key difference?

LB Yeah.

AE I think the main difference is that Lisa in a curious way … Lisa is capable of finding her own place in society, and Lance always needs someone else to define his place in society.

LB How has she found it? Because she’s able to adapt to situations?

AE Because in her own way, marginal and as fragile as she seems, she does not wait for people to make projections onto her.

AK Because she’s not a slave of the image …

LB She takes initiative …

AK … Yeah.

AE Though she’s punished for it to an extent, and though she doesn’t really become part of the society, she has initiative to find her own place, while Lance is a vessel, really, waits for other people to project things onto him.

LB In a way, isn’t that what an actor is?

AE She is the classical male, and he is the classical female.

AK In society, you mean.

AE Which is why they look androgynous. (pause)

AE Liza, tell me about your film. I turn off the recorder.

Liza Béar is a writer and filmmaker and a contributing editor to BOMB. Her first feature, Force of Circumstance, will be screened at the Bleecker Street Cinema soon.

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Originally published in

BOMB 30, Winter 1990

Featuring interviews with Mary Gaitskill, Carroll Dunham, Richard Price, Eduardo Machado, Sarah Charlesworth, Jane Campion, Fay Weldon, Anish Kapoor, Atom Egoyan with Arsinée Khanjian, Katell le Bourhis, and Jonathan Lasker.

Read the issue
030 Winter 1989 90