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New York, NY, USA - For Canadian director Atom Egoyan creating "Where the Truth Lies" offered the challenge of constructing something that was almost a genre film but not quite. In wrestling with musician/composer Rupert Holmes' novel of the same name, he takes a story that plays on the conventions of the classic comic/singing duo and turns it on its head. Egoyan has been good at doing that throughout many of his award winning features including "Felicity's Journey" and "Exotica."
G21: Are your characters in "Where the Truth Lies" mythic?
AE: Yes, I think that the very fact that they're on a telethon and a duo, yes, that question will come up. I think it's also a distracting question because there is something about the dynamic of any duo, going back to Laurel and Hardy, Cheech and Chong, Abbott and Costello. We don't have duos anymore. It's part of our popular culture that has faded away. There was this Freudian construction about it regarding "ego" and "id". There's always this person who's impulsive and who has unleashed another character that tries to civilize them. It's a recurrent theme. I wanted to make [them] mythological. I wanted to make them an amalgam of many different acts. By virtue that it's a telethon, people are going to think of Martin and Lewis. It seems to me that that would be distracting. Given what the drama is about, for people to think whether or not this might have happened would be disruptive.
G21: The actors in this film go against their typecasting.
AE: It's also about actors looking at their own persona and wanting to challenge that. Approaching Colin Firth in the middle of the "Bridget Jones" junket, where he's being idolized as this gentlemanly, Darcy-like [as in Jane Austen's hero in "Pride and Prejudice"], civilized, [and] polite figure and say, "Let's kind of shake that up. Let's challenge that."
In the case of Kevin [Bacon], having someone who has a persona and then say, "Let's challenge that or reconstruct that." Or Alison Lohman, a 26 year-old who's played an adolescent all of her career.
So, [I said], "Let's actually play your own age. Let's work that persona to try and do something with the alchemy of the piece that's going to be unexpected."
I just think that casting is the essential thing because very often people are very conservative when it comes to casting. Many of the actors, who are a certain point, say they want to challenge themselves, but they really don't. It's great when you work with people who are excited about arriving on set with a clean slate and [who try] to build something completely separate.
G21: You never have to worry about Kevin Bacon checking his persona at the door, because he has had so many.
AE: And to put on, in this case, brown contact lenses. It's kind of interesting, too, because the most identifying feature of Kevin are these blue eyes, but it was just startling to watch him walk on set with this kind of mask -- just in the form of these glass contacts.
G21: Did you think of it as a joke when he did the song and dance, especially since he did a musical like "Footloose"?
AE: Well, he's a performer. I love the fact that he was able to take that and extend it. It's something that he has done all year long -- he's performing all the time.
Something happened with that act, which was really magical. It was important to create an act that looked like it could have been around in the 50's, but that wasn't actually referring to anything that was actually there. When we were rehearsing, we were playing with the idea that Colin Firth [was] this proto-English person, based on an amalgam of Noel Coward and David Niven and all these figures that were floating around in American culture at that time. Combining that with Kevin [Bacon], it just became something unto itself. It was remarkable.
G21: Are you attracted to the dark side?
AE: I think my attraction to the dark side of human behavior comes from this idea of the responsibilities people have and what happens when they don't take these responsibilities seriously. It's something that I have observed a lot in my upbringing and, certainly, the relationship between parents or parent figures is something that has really marked a lot of the work that I've done.
This story, when I read it, was so incredibly entertaining and fun, but it's interesting, after you filter it through your own obsessions, it assumes a tone.
Again, it's about our relationship to parental figures -- people who we expect to give us some sort of moral guidance and, ultimately, aren't up to the task or are not able to maintain a sense of moral authority.
I am also fascinated by characters who are at a point in their lives when they are emerging from childhood and can assess that and, maybe, assess change.
G21: Which of your films share these themes the most?
AE: "Exotica" and "The Sweet Hereafter."
In a situation when a child is, again, in a place where they respect and look up to a parental figure only to find out that they have been either abused or that they were taken advantage of in a certain way. They have to, then, respond to that. In this story, you have a journalist who is doing a story on these two celebrities, but who has a child [who] adores these two men [and is also] affected by these two men, and maybe even wants to exonerate them and restore their reputations, but instead opens up Pandora's Box and realizes that these are very dark characters.
[She] has to re-evaluate and respond. I find that a very dramatic situation -- something that has come up in a number of [my dramatic films]. I am always fascinated by characters [that] think that they are in a situation that seems normal but understand or come to an understanding of how dysfunctional that is and have to respond to it.
G21: Even your villains are victims in your films.
AE: Yes, but, again, [they are] victims of some sort of order or some something that has been imposed on them. Maybe, unwittingly, they have accepted that, but it has destroyed them in some ways.
G21: Did you intend to push the envelope with nudity?
AE: Unwittingly, I pushed the envelope because I did not expect an NC-17 rating. I just think that that was a shock. It's an R-rated film, but the MPAA gave it an NC-17, but we appealed and we actually made changes, [which they were insistent on].
I didn't want to push the envelope that much, but it happened. It's now unrated, so you're going to see the original version.
In terms of the nudity issue, it's not one of those situations where you can convince someone of [it being] dramatically essential, but it is. The erotic lives of these characters are an essential part of the dramatic construction of the piece. I think that, from the first discussions I had with the actors, I made that really clear.
It's something that they have to feel comfortable with. I try to make them as comfortable as possible, as well -- there are storyboards and [I tell them] what will be shown and won't be shown. It's a question of, once the actors know what the parameters are, it's a dramatic scene like everything else.
G21: You've done this before.
AE: Yes, I'm aware that, because the actors are comfortable, it creates an energy which is unusual. One of the things that drives me crazy in movies, sometimes, is that you'll see and actress in a situation where they're in a sexual scene and, suddenly, there is somebody pulling down their skirt or they are covering themselves up. It just takes you out of the scene completely. It's one of those things that I can't accept at all.
G21: Or wearing a bra.
AE: Just something which looks like it's artificial or the result of vanity. You just have to be very clear about where and what a scene has to do and rehearse -- make sure that everybody's comfortable by the time they arrive on set.
G21: Your exploration of eroticism is both dark and titillating.
AE: It's an essential part of our makeup. If you're exploring your characters with any degree of scrutiny, given what the subject matter is, I think that it's a place I need to go to. It's there from the script.
I make it very clear what these scenes entail. I often use language in the script that will also suggest the tone of what the scene will be so that the actor is prepared -- there are no surprises.
That's what I think becomes most threatening to those types of scenes, when there is something that was introduced when the actor was not expecting [it].
G21: In terms of the nudity, what were your toughest moments in the movie?
AE: People always ask me if I get turned on or excited while I'm shooting. Most of the time, you don't, but then, occasionally, you do.
In this case, I know why because there was this once scene with two women in a very theatrical setting and it was really inspired by a "Penthouse" fantasy that I had when I was around 14 or 13. Because of the setting of the film, I felt that part of it allowed me or gave me license to reconstruct the exact feelings that I had when I used to watch or look at those magazines. So, that was interesting.
Most of the time, when you're shooting an erotic scene, there's almost something surgical about it. Then, occasionally, (laughs) if you set it up in a certain way, and there is a feeling that is a feeling going on in the set, you can lose yourself there. That's interesting as well.
G21: How did the actors feel about it?
AE: I think that love-making and sex [are] very creative [acts] by their very nature. You have to allow yourself to believe something and you have to transfer yourself into another place. It's not different from them acting out the scene like bee s. Those lines and the blurred nature of those places [are] always fascinating to me.
The scene that we're talking about is actually about manipulation. There's a scene when Vince (Colin Firth) constructed a scene. We find out, the morning after, that it's a completely constructed scene. That idea of exploitation and the idea of being manipulated is actually part of the scene itself. So that we could actually go there and not censor ourselves. Also because we had an observer -- this character who is orchestrating it all, who is watching it unfold, who becomes the viewer, in a way.
G21: How "American" is this film?
AE: I think English-Canadians are always raised with an American TV. I remember waking up on Sunday morning, looking the tail-end of the telethon, thinking, "My god! These people were entertaining!" This idea of the monolithic nature of celebrity. We are not, as Canadians, in a culture that can create celebrity in the way that [it] happens in America. So, we have that distance.
We are aware of the machinery of that. I think that this film looks very closely at how these mythologies are constructed and what might be behind them as well and our relationship to them. You can look at Karen (Alison Lohman) as proto-Canadian and, in fact, she is. You have this interesting perspective on it, yet you're able to completely construct the idea of how appealing and seductive that machinery is.
G21: Do you feel you're more inclined to shoot your films in other countries?
AE: I am sort of a construction as well. I was an Armenian raised on the west coast of Canada. We were the only Armenians in a very "WASP" sort of town. So, I was always aware of being outside of it.
English wasn't my first language and I remember what it meant to actually take on this culture and learn it, but always being aware of the construction of it and what a culture meant. All of those things I find very fascinating.
When does somebody have entry into a culture? When do you get that passport? When do you actually allow yourself to be called a person from this place?
G21: It's somewhat consistent in your films.
AE: Yes. I think that, again, in a lot of the films, the characters are trying to locate themselves, in any number of ways. In this case, they are trying to locate themselves as real people in a world of celebrity, in a world where they have all of this mythology. So, that becomes the zone [as well as] the territory.
G21: You seem to be fascinated by deception.
AE: I'm fascinated by people who adapt persona and slip into other characters. I am fascinated by professions and jobs that allow you to gain access to other people's lives in a way that might otherwise be transgressive, but which the job allows you [to do] -- [such as] litigation lawyers, tax auditors, customs officers, and journalists -- people [who] have a badge that allows them to slip into someone else's life, and maybe there are certain actions that may be considered neurotically inspired, but within the context of a job, [they] are acceptable. So, people can slip into personas effortlessly.
G21: What prompted you to do "Ararat" -- which was partially shoot in Armenia -- and is a film within a film?
AE: That was an opportunity for me to deal with a haunting subject for me. A long-time producer friend of mine said, "Here's an opportunity." It was a very important film for me to do. It was inspired by an opportunity.
It was a harsh subject, dealing with the subject of genocide that's been denied. I had a producer that was prepared to back it and I to deal with it because that opportunity was there. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to make that film.
G21: What I like about "Where The Truth Lies" is that you don't even realize that there's this next layer of deception.
AE: I love mysteries, even if they're not classically constructed as mysteries. There's that feeling of being suspended in a place where you're trying to figure out what has happened. Or you have characters who are trying to put pieces together.
In this case, it's a bit more classical because, actually, you're using more genre devises. It is noir, in a way. You have these characters that are floating in this intelligent machine that seems to be toying with their circumstance. Part of that is also playing with the viewer's own expectations.
G21: Do you feel that this film is almost like a genre film?
AE: There are aspects of noir in it. There is a classical murder mystery -- it's set up that way. We see the body at the beginning of the film and we know that there's some investigation of that. We expect that that's going to pay off, in some way. So that there is, maybe, a certain formulaic aspect to it which is different from "Exotica," which doesn't conform to any [genre].
The plot doesn't have to kick in at any place like it does here. I really feel like in [this film] there are certain narrative expectations that, if you don't fulfill, will get people very frustrated. So, I think that this film offers that as well.
G21: What in film history has influenced you to make this film?
AE: This film, more than any other film, gave me an opportunity to pay homage to a tradition of filmmaking that has really influenced me. Not only the classic noir, but also the neo-noir of the films of the 70's, like "Body Heat."
Also, the construction of Hollywood glamour, like "Gilda" or Hitchcock movies. I like psychological mystery and films that deal with questions of fate and how characters try to determine that. The whole tradition of noir and Hollywood glamour is something that has inspired this movie completely. But I also didn't want this film to be a pastiche. I wanted these influences to be referenced but not adhered to slavishly -- certainly not in a sort of parody.
G21: Are there influences from other fields?
AE: I am hugely influenced by music; I'm a musician. The other thing about this movie is that, not only does it access jazz, but also the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Santana, Funkadelic, going back to Bernard Herman and all of these very aggressive string sections. My influences are as musical as they are cinematic.
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