Egoyan’s Journey: An Interview with Atom Egoyan

Felicia's Journey

by Donato Totaro, Simon Galiero Volume 4, Issue 1 / January 2000 18 minutes (4265 words)

Atom Egoyan’s latest film, Felicia’s Journey (1999) is a serial killer film unlike any other. Rather than the traditional serial killer pile of corpses and bloody mayhem, Egoyan, in his inimitable style, takes us into the nostalgic and romanticized private world of middle-aged catering supervisor Ambrose Hilditch (played by Bob Hoskins). Playing alongside Hilditch is a young Irish woman, Felicia, who has come to Birmingham, England in quest of her boyfriend and the father of her expected baby, Johnny. Instead of finding Johnny, she finds the timid, fatherly figure of Hilditch, who leads her into quite another type of journey. Egoyan presented Felicia’s Journey at Montreal’s 1999 International Festival of New Cinema and New Medias. Egoyan was nice enough to find time in his busy schedule to indulge us with the following interview, which took place at the festival headquarters, Ex-Centris .

Offscreen: First off, I was struck by Bob Hoskin’s performance as Ambrose Hilditch. I was wondering whether he did anything special to prepare for the role?

AE: Well the most important thing was in establishing a system of references and motifs during the rehearsal process that you can then draw on as you’re shooting.

Offscreen: So you spent a long time on rehearsals?

AE: We had a lot of discussion. And Bob had to do a lot on getting the accent right, because that particular accent, the Brumie (Birmingham) accent is very unusual. His character is in such a state of denial, that we had to be very specific about what it was that he was holding back. I think it is also a question of organizing the shooting schedule in such a way that allows that process to become organic. Because you can talk about rehearsal a lot, and that is crucial, but I’m finding that for the type of performances that I’ve been using in my later films, where there is something more immediate and accessible about the emotionality of the characters, that it is what I do on set that is more important. For example, in the earlier films, where I was trying to find a very repressed, held back performance style, they required almost a theatrical type of rehearsal process.

Offscreen: And speech is so important in your films, the timber, inflection, going all the way back to Family Viewing (1986).

AE: Yes, that took a lot more rehearsal, because that is a more theatrical presentation. And when you are using dialogue that is so sparse and so reduced, and where everything is being held back, you have to be very specific about how loaded every statement is, and what is being held back.

Offscreen: Do you know whether Hoskins was patterning his voice after any other filmic characters?

AE: No, because I’ll tell what is unusual about the Brumie accent, which is never heard in British cinema, even though it is the second largest city in England. Unlike Manchester, Liverpool, or Sheffield, there’s no fantasy that exists in London about Birmingham. The reason the accent is so nasal is that for many years, because of the industrial waste in the air, they couldn’t breath through the nose. And because of that, this very particular accent was developed, which grates the English ear like you can’t believe. So it was a real journey for Hoskins to immerse himself in that particular voice.

Offscreen: Well I mention it because it reminded me of the real-life character John Christie from the film 10 Rillington Place (1972), played by Richard Attenborough. In both cases the voice is so unassuming, it is the last person you would consider to be a serial killer. Felicia’s Journey also seems to me like a collection of some of the most perverse moments in films made by British directors, like Michael Powell and Alfred Hitchcock.

AE: Well certainly Michael Powell, I mean you have to re-watch Peeping Tom (1959) if you are making any movie about a child who is traumatized by the profession of a parent! And then who ends up killing people! I mean it is the über-serial killer film to watch. So I was certainly aware of Peeping Tom. And then I re-watched a lot of Hitchcock, but Hitchcock to me, where I find that I’ve been most inspired by Hitchcock is in the way he deals with perversion and obsession. But the actual science of the way he creates suspense is not something that it very compatible with my way of filmmaking, because I’m always trying to find a way of showing how these characters see themselves. Which means that the viewers are not necessarily in a privy position. The viewer does not necessarily know something that the character’s don’t realize themselves. And Hitchcockian cinema is almost founded on that principle. In some ways it is anti-Hitchcockian in science, but very Hitchcockian in tone.

Offscreen: Well there’s of course the moment you reference from Suspicion (1941), where he’s walking up the stairs with the glass of cocoa (instead of milk).

AE: Well that was a direct nod for a couple of reasons. First of all, I think that at that moment, I love that moment, because we realize that he [the Cary Grant character] is about to murder her [the Joan Fontaine character]. So that whole sequence is suspenseful in a classic way because at that point we know what is in that glass of milk or cocoa, plus with the stuff happening in the garden. So that was a way of acknowledging that we were about to enter into that zone. But also, there’s also something Hitchcockian about the way he would look at the camera and implicate the viewer quite directly. But it is troubling because there is nothing pleasurable about that. It is very unsettling because we realize at that point that we have no idea who this person actually is, and he has no idea who he actually is. And also the idea of the regard, the direct camera address, has – hopefully – been subtly worked into the film. He clearly has wanted his mother’s regard, which he has never received, and now electronically is able to. Through this ritual of the tapes, she’s able to look at him all the time. And it is a very intimate, very adoring relationship that they have, which never existed in his childhood. So he’s become very used to this look. I think ultimately the power of the gaze is so unsettling to him. I mean, look what happens to him in the garden with the crazy women. It has nothing to do with what they are saying, but I think it is just because of the fact that they are looking at him that way. He is just not used to receiving the gaze. So that when we then are presented with his gaze, it is very unsettling.

Offscreen: It completely emasculates him, the way he falls to his knees in the garden scene. You actually feel for the character at that point. There’s also the paranoia that Hitchcock creates in that scene, I like the way you used that and modified it.

AE: Well the other classic English film, I guess you can call it English, is The Collector, (1965) the William Wyler film. Which is probably the closest film I can think of to Felicia’s Journey, more than Peeping Tom, with the way it is set in the house. I love all those classic films. Another one is Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964). I just love the mood of those movies.

Offscreen: And Psycho (1960) as well in a way, with the mother figure. And I was also struck by a similarity between a line of dialogue, which is probably purely coincidental, but after Hilditch and Felicia have had dinner for the first time, he says something like, “we all do terrible things sometimes.” Is that a reference to the line Norman says to Marion after they have lunch, “we all go a little mad sometimes”?

AE: Oh no, that’s interesting, though I’ve never thought about that? I’m really proud of that scene. Everything he is telling her in order to convince her to have the abortion makes so much sense. He’s almost like the monster of pro-choice. In fact it is probably the smartest decision she can make in terms of her own life. But of course her reasons for convincing her are so skewed.

Offscreen: Sticking to the serial killer motif. I like the way you take the traditional serial killer text and subvert it by not showing any murders or deaths, except his own.

AE: Well he doesn’t see those things. He doesn’t see himself as a violent man. The whole question about how much he remembers is up in the air. I think he’s beginning to have a connection with his organic memory as he is stealing her money. Because there is something about Felicia as a mother which really jars him. The moment he realizes that she is carrying a child and that she’s a mother, that puts him into another state. And those images of him in the garden are probably the first glimmerings of consciousness he is having. So every other image is a mediated one. And they are not images he is remembering, but rather they are archival moments he’s actually preserved. It is similar to Family Viewing. Have you seen Family Viewing?

Offscreen: Yes, I love that film.

AE: Well I’m flattered. It’s probably still my favorite film. I really love that film, especially when it is the 35mm blow-up projected. Because we did a blow-up from 16mm to 35mm. And it is texturally so perfect that way. Because all the stuff that takes place in the condominium, which was shot in one inch Beta with live switching, suddenly you really see the texture of it as video. Which on tape you never quite get. You get it through the cutting style, but you don’t really see the texture. And on 35mm, not even 16mm, it is really cool. All those textures work really well. Where the technology serves as a both a metaphor for the notion of experience but also as a way of having characters deal with their neurosis. Where the manipulation of recorded experience allows them to rearrange and re-orient themselves to experiences which are unresolved and dysfunctional. I think Felicia’s Journey can exist very well on a double-bill with Family Viewing.

Offscreen: Yes I agree. Just the way Felicia’s Journey begins with the extremely lush dolly shot, the lighting, the mise-en-scene, it is so warm. And then that is contrasted with all the other video footage.

AE: Yes. Felicia’s sense of time and her sense of experience is so much more immediate. She has complete access to her life. And the way those images drift in and out is so much more vivid and lush. Though she’s living in a 19th century type of world, in a rural,. pastoral village. She is still delivering letters by hand to the mother of her boyfriend. And Hilditch is living in his own period piece.

Offscreen: Yes, well you captured that well. I mean, I couldn’t decide what period the film was set in!

AE: Well, I love that. And then you realize that he’s very much a monster of our times. And what was really cool about this was that we had a whole sequence where we showed him setting up his little spy camera in his car, and then we realized, we actually don’t need it. In fact we are living in a culture where we just consume images. Images are everywhere. And it is a real shock when we see this person who is still putting on LP records! And dealing with old technology. But it makes complete sense. He was raised on mediated imagery. Actually, it is very interesting. When I made Family Viewing I had to have the character Van, deliver this very awkward line in the film where he has to explain to his stepmother that his dad had all this technology when it first came out. I made that film in 1986, and even that was a bit of a stretch, that a boy who was 16 at that point, would have access to color VHS home movies. But in a way Van is of that first generation of kids who might have had their childhood video taped. In this same sense, Hilditch is of that first generation of kids who had their childhood mediated, through this very bizarre participation on his mother’s cooking show. So Van and Hilditch are cousins.

Offscreen: In terms of the mise-en-scene, was there a lot of that period stuff in the William Trevor novel?

AE: No. The mother did not exist in the book. There’s no cooking show, or video in the book. That is completely constructed.

Offscreen: Well you’ve been to England, and I lived there for a while, and it is amazing the way that cooking shows are so popular there. And they don’t cook very well!

AE: Well in the 1950’s I think Gala would have been an extraordinary pioneer. You can understand how she would have been a cult figure. And in fact, the biggest shock was in going there and finding out that there was a Gala in the 1950’s England, this woman called Fanny Cradick (?), who was this mythical figure. She wasn’t French, but weirdly enough for one of her shows taped at the Royal Albert Hall, she put on this fake French accent.

Offscreen: Why did you give her a French accent?

AE: The whole notion of how culture is represented in the film kind of fascinates me. The way the father gives all this cultural baggage to Felicia, about the Anglo-Irish history, and dwelling on 1916. And the idea that she is somehow the repository for all this history. And I like the idea that in Hilditch’s past there was this forgotten culture, or a culture that was perhaps fabricated in the first place. What the mother’s cultural orientations were and her legacy that she left to her child is so mysterious. And also I love the aspect that the mother was possibly a construct of what, to the British, a French woman would be like in the 1950’s. And that she made a career out of playing a stereotype.

Offscreen: Back to the video imagery. I remember in Family Viewing at first the video image was always put on or started by someone, but by the end it comes on autonomously, by itself. And in this film, which I’ve only seen once until now, it appears to me that there are moments when the video images come in and you are not quite sure what the point of view is?

AE: Right. Well, in particular, like when he is watching the cooking show, he’s watching the show, and suddenly there’s an image where the mother is looking at him on the show. There is a confusion as to whether those are really part of the show that he’s watching or whether or not the imagery at that point slips into his state of mind. I love those passages.

Offscreen: Did you do any research any serial killers?

AE: Yes. There was quite a bit of research because I wanted to make him unusual. And he is unusual for a number of reasons. First of all, with most serial killers, there is a pattern to the way the victims usually look, and the type of people that they are. And I wanted to show that there wasn’t that type of regularity. That there is no similarity in the way these women look. And so he doesn’t fit that pattern at all. And research has shown that there is a genetic encoding, like young kids who pull the wings off flies, and burn things with magnifying glasses, there’s the beginnings there.

Offscreen: O boy, I think I did that when I was a kid!

AE: Well, the thing is that there are upbringings that can allow one to deal with those issues and then there are other types of upbringings that maybe enhance those characteristics. But I don’t think there are any simple reason or explanation as to why people become serial killers.

Offscreen: Yes. What’s also interesting is that a high percentage, like 90% or higher, of serial killers are white males, which is a pretty alarming statistic. But there are the stereotypes that are completely anal and ordered, and others that are competely disordered. And that Hilditch would fall under the anal and ordered type.

AE: Yes, but I remember reading about Jeffrey Dahlmer, where he kept victim’s bones in his house, and one of them escaped, they found him running down the street with like a knife sticking out of his back! He got away. And they asked him later on, well explain what was going on with Dahlmer, and what he said was that Dahlmer was the nicest man, he was warm, and kind, and the moment he turned was when I wanted to leave. So, like with Dahlmer, the moment these women want to leave Hilditch turns. He can’t stand the fact that they will go away. At that point he needs to keep them. And I think his video archive is as disturbing as Dahlmer’s bones. And he’s been taught to believe that with his skewed relationship with his television mother, that tapes keep his relationships current. With his mother never giving him attention as a kid, and suddenly through this ritual of the tape, he is able to maintain an intimacy in a relationship. He’s able to construct an electronic gaze where there wasn’t any attention directed to him as a kid. He’s able to make that happen. It’s similar to the situation in Family Viewing, with the father trying to erase over the tapes of the home video. I’m very interested in those points where the technology, as I said, can serve as a metaphor but also as a way of having these characters think they are dealing with issues of experience.

Offscreen: Yes, because Stan the father never watches the tapes he records. The cooking show was set in the 1950’s right?

AE: Yes.

Offscreen: Yet it was shot on video?

AE: It was shot live, on kine, which is how those things are preserved, and why there are scratches and stuff [ed. kine being the term for a film recording made from a picture tube].

Offscreen: Well, there’s been this huge influx and interest in serial killer films in the past five to ten years?

AE: Well, I think in cinema the serial killer has become a profession, it’s like showing a doctor or lawyer character. Serial killers have become another one of the ways in which a character might conduct their lives. It is odd to say that but that’s the only way we can deal with our public fascination with them. Just think of all the thrillers that are based on lawyers. And what a lawyer has come to represent in our film culture is someone who is seeking truth. And usually has to deal with notions of personal truth as opposed to objective reality. And it has become a controlling metaphor in many narratives. And the serial killer, in a similar way, has found an occupation, killing people, which serves to represent latent issues in a very convenient way. I think we are all obsessed with the notions of fate, and of course in a conventional serial killer film, there is seriality involved in the actual structure of the film. There’s a sense of the inevitable, who will be the next victim? And there is usually an investigation to try to stop what would seem to be the inevitable. It’s an interesting occupation to represent. And I think in a weird way, maybe this is one of those films where there is a serial killer, but it is not a serial killer movie. It’s actually a drama about a serial killer in the tradition of, maybe, The Collector.

Offscreen: In terms of the non-linearity of the narrative, which is something you’ve always done and more so in your later films, I think the way it works in this film is different. Can you talk about that a little, what you were attempting to do with the non-linearity?

AE: Well, I’m trying to find ways of accessing history. And in her case she’s on this particular journey. She’s made this momentous decision to leave her home and she’s playing back these scenes to reinforce this story she has to believe, which is that Johnny loves her and is waiting for her. But she is also sifting over the information of the father, the obligations and the burdens the father places on her to remember history. So she is trying to sort out what history means, what her history means. So there’s that sifting through the evidence, that she’s trying to come to terms with. And that is contrasted with Hilditch’s story, which is actually told in a very linear fashion. From point A to point B he is not moving backward and forward in time, except when he’s actually putting on a tape which gives him access to the past. Otherwise his sense of narrative is quite clear. So there is that play between the two. And because of the interplay you get the sense that the film is less linear than it actually is. It is not as complex, by any means, as The Sweet Hereafter (1997) or Exotica (1994). I mean, The Sweet Hereafter has something like 35 different time periods! This is more classical.

Offscreen: A more general question. Do you think filmmakers need to do more work in training or educating the public in how they watch movies?

AE: I think the main work is just to read. That images are to be read and that the greatest way to invite that process is by giving space, and time. I’m really painfully aware of that with my movies, because of their pacing. If you are not reading into the images then the films become almost unbearably slow. But I come from a generation where the models that I have are people like Andrei Tarkovsky. It is all about creating a space where you need to read into the image. If you are not reading, then there is nothing else happening. Anytime you hold a shot and you linger, there is an intention there. And you are saying to the viewers, that it is ok to take time. You don’t have to feel that you are caught up in a parade of images that don’t invite further investigation.

Offscreen: So do you agree with Herzog when he said that there are no more images?

AE: I don’t think it is a question of images, but of creating space.

Offscreen: As a Canadian, do you find any differences between shooting a film in Quebec as opposed to somewhere else in Canada?

AE: Well, filmmakers like Jean-Pierre Lefebvre, the way he made films and makes films, his philosophy and his use of time was really inspiring to me. He was the first Canadian filmmaker that I found an affinity with. Obviously there was a time when making films in this province was viewed as an artisanal activity, and I have a very romantic image of that period. In terms of the status of how films are made here now, I don’t see as great a split between English Canada and Quebec. I think there are more similarities, maybe unfortunately, than there was before when there was a huge difference in philosophy.

Offscreen: Do you think Quebec films lack a certain universalism? As opposed to, for example, watching an Egoyan film or a Kiarostami film?

AE: Well, there are great films, but I think it is a question of continuity, of being able to make many films. I’m not sure what happens to those filmmakers who make one good film. I’m not familiar enough with the process here to know why films aren’t being made quicker. I remember with Lefebvre in his golden period, he was making so many films. I think maybe there is a pressure here, of course….but no, if you think of Léa Pool and her latest film Emporte-moi (1999), which I just saw and think is brilliant, she’s as universal as anybody and is working under a similar system.

Offscreen: Back to your film. When you talk about space and time, I love the way you coded your opening and closing shots. Both are long takes of roughly the same lengths. The opening shot with Hilditch’s character, the last with Felicia’s character.

AE: Yes, it is there to read when the camera takes that much time. One is charting an interior space, one an exterior space.

Offscreen: Well I hope you continue shooting in that way, taking that time.

AE: Thank you!

Photos of Atom Egoyan courtesy of the authors

Egoyan’s Journey: An Interview with Atom Egoyan

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 4, Issue 1 / January 2000 Interviews   atom egoyan   canadian cinema   country_canada   serial killer  

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