"He's a very smart, intelligent man. He's able to understand himself and give expression to his feelings. And yet..." Atom Egoyan pauses, "he's extraordinarily manipulative. He's one of those people who need to feel needed, who needs to feel as if somebody else is projecting something on to him and thereby endowing him with a certain power."
Egoyan is describing Mitchell Stephens, the protagonist of his new film, The Sweet Hereafter, winner of the Grand Prix du Jury at the Cannes Festival in May, but admits he could just as well be talking about himself. Stephens is an inscrutable, sinister presence - a lawyer who turns up in a small Canadian town in the aftermath of a freak bus accident in which 14 children were killed, and offers to help the townsfolk prepare a law suit. The accident was just that - an accident. Nobody was really to blame. However, Stephens promises to impose a pattern on what seemed like random events. He is the equivalent of a secular priest, somebody who "ritualises loss". The money the townsfolk may win in court is not the issue. "One of the ways we cope with traumatic or extreme emotional states," Egoyan explains, "is to see ourselves in the middle of a story." And Mitchell Stephens is the storyteller.
A probing look behind the face of public grief, which hints at the self- deception and bad faith that sometimes go hand in hand with bereavement ("faulty mourning", he calls it), The Sweet Hereafter has an added resonance for British audiences in the wake of Diana's death.
On the face of it, his new film marks a radical departure for the Canadian director. There is virtually none of the video imagery that has always been a leitmotif in Egoyan's work. Nor does the setting - a rural Canadian community - seem like natural terrain for a film-maker obsessed by cities and their technologies. Most surprising of all, Egoyan is here adapting somebody else's material rather than writing it himself. It was his wife, Arsinee Khanijian, who gave him a copy of the Russell Banks novel on which the film is based, and he acknowledges that, in synopsis (if not on the page), Banks's plot sounds like the stuff of the typical US TV movie - solemn and sentimental.
But that brings us back to Mitchell Stephens, the prying lawyer who sups on other people's grief. Banks may have created him first in fictional form, but he's a quintessential Egoyan hero. Scrape away his smart businessman facade and he is revealed as yet another "adjuster" to set alongside the insurance loss assessors, taxmen, censors, photographers, voyeurs and gigolos who pass for heroes in his work. "I think that why I'm so attracted to these characters - and especially to Mitchell Stephens - is that what they do is not so different from what I do. My job is about having meetings with actors, financiers or authors whose books I may be able to secure an option on, or even with journalists. My job is to try to seduce them. But I'm struck with moments of doubt or anxiety as to what my ability to fulfil my promises might actually be. I get into these very strange conversations..."
What is disquieting to his interviewer at least is the cheerful way Egoyan identifies himself with characters he describes as manipulative and disturbed. Mitchell Stephens, as played by Ian Holm, is unctuous and creepy. Egoyan cast Holm in the part after seeing the English actor's performance as Lenny in the 1973 screen adaptation of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming. "There's something strangely compassionate, yet furtive and menacing about the way he tells stories in that film. The storytelling is used as a weapon," Egoyan explains, sounding as if he is describing his own approach to film-making, not the behaviour of a character in a Pinter play.
He himself became a father not long before shooting began. "I read the book before we'd even thought about having a child. I didn't make the film because I had become a parent. When you do have a child, though, the worst possible thing you can imagine is losing it."
As Egoyan describes a recent family holiday on which he shot hours of video footage of his young son, he sounds like any other doting father. He is courteous and softly spoken. Yet this is a film-maker responsible for some of the most disquieting imagery this side of David Lynch - think of the children playing strip poker in The Adjuster or the photographer auditioning girlfriends in Calendar, or the sticky, intimate scenes between the teenage daughter and the father with whom she has been having an incestuous relationship in The Sweet Hereafter.
Perhaps the film-maker Egoyan most resembles is his friend, David Cronenberg, with whom he recently appeared in the atrocious John Landis comedy, The Stupids. Their movies may have precious little in common, but their career trajectories and outlandish imaginations mark them out as special cases within Canadian film culture. Both skirt the boundary between the avant- garde and the exploitation pic. The Sweet Hereafter, like Cronenberg's Crash, was financed by Canadian media giant, Alliance Communications. In each case, the film-makers were given complete creative control. And like Cronenberg, Egoyan seems to prefer Canada to Hollywood.
That said, there is a bizarre moment half-way through our interview when a strange man suddenly comes bounding into the room unannounced. Egoyan spots him and gets up. The two embrace in extravagant fashion, compare schedules, and work out that, no, they won't be able to meet for lunch.
"That was my American agent. I had no idea he was in town," Egoyan whispers conspiratorially as the stranger makes his retreat. Somehow, Egoyan doesn't seem the type to hug American agents. "But God knows, Hollywood has its rewards," he sighs as he describes his first, unhappy brush with the studio system. After the success of his last film, Exotica, he was hired by Warner Bros to direct a big-budget thriller, provisionally titled Dead Sleep. Things went swimmingly until he tried to cast Susan Sarandon in the lead role. "This was just before Dead Man Walking re-established Sarandon's box-office credentials and the studio didn't believe she could carry the movie. They wouldn't so much as let me meet her."
Rather than go ahead with an actress he wasn't sure of, he withdrew from the film and went back to Canada to shoot the Sweet Hereafter instead. "It took a whole year out of my life," he says of his sojourn in Hollywood, a place he portrays as a sort of gilded purgatory. "It's so easy to hang around and believe you're about to make a film. What you do in Los Angeles is meet people. Many of them are very intelligent and very passionate, so you have the feeling you're being creative. But you're not actually making anything and time is slipping by..."
Directing esoteric, "micro-budget" movies in Canada didn't prepare Egoyan for Hollywood hype. He was startled by the aggressive way the American distributors, Miramax, marketed Exotica as if it was a violent thriller. "The gun in Exotica isn't at all important in the film, but, in the trailer they made, you see it repeatedly; they even used a gunshot on the soundtrack."
Despite his wariness about such antics, Egoyan recently signed up with Mel Gibson's outfit, Icon Productions, to make an adaptation of William Trevor's Whitbread Prize-winning novel, Felicia's Journey. In the meantime, he is also planning further adventures in, of all things, opera. He made his debut in the medium last year with Strauss's Salome. "I used to think it was a kitschy drama set in biblical times. But it's actually an incredible story about abuse and about watching. And the music was so exciting. I was in heaven!" True to form, Egoyan relocated the action to a modern-day sanatorium. "I made it all about these people watching each other on surveillance systems."
We'll have to wait for his version of The Magic Flute, though. He is currently working on Doctor Ox's Experiment, a new opera by Gavin Bryars with a libretto by Blake Morrison, former literary editor of the Independent on Sunday. All being well, the production, a joint venture between the English National Opera and the BBC, will be unveiled in June next year. So why the change of direction? "My own modus operandi has become very predictable to me. I need a challenge..."
`The Sweet Hereafter' is released next Friday
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