Director Atom Egoyan talks remakes, marriage, and "Chloe"

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"Chloe" photo by Rafy

Canadian director Atom Egoyan (1994's Exotica, 1997's The Sweet Hereafter) was recently in town to discuss Chloe, his latest film, which producer Ivan Reitman commissioned him to direct. Based on, but markedly different from, the 2003 French film Nathalie, Chloe follows the unexpected course of events triggered when the middle-aged Catherine (Julianne Moore), suspecting her husband David (Liam Neeson) of having an affair, hires luxe call-girl Chloe (Amanda Seyfried) to tempt him.

San Francisco Bay Guardian: Do you know what attracted Ivan Reitman to this project?

Atom Egoyan: My only clue, really, is that in looking at his filmography, he made a film [in 1993] called Dave, which I enjoyed because it really is also a study of a marriage, a marriage that had gone completely cold. Sigourney Weaver plays the wife of a president, played by Kevin Kline, and they can’t stand each other. He dies, and a ringer is brought in, also played by Kevin Kline. All they have to do is make public appearances, because this couple doesn’t talk to each other in private at all. And she finds herself strangely falling in back love with her husband, and of course it isn’t her husband, it’s a surrogate. I think I understand why the person who made that film would be attracted to Chloe, because it’s dealing with similar themes.

SFBG: This is the first time you’ve directed a feature film script you haven’t written. Have you been approached before?

AE: Oh yes, all the time [gestures to two stacks at the end of the table, two and four inches thick, respectively]. I’ve had an agent since Exotica, sending me scripts. I was actually about to do a script after Exotica, a thriller, with Warner Brothers, and I spent a year in LA. And like anyone else, you can spend time there and have meetings and sort of not make movies. And I had an opportunity in Canada to make a certain type of  movie, so I went back and made The Sweet Hereafter, and I didn’t really ever regret that decision. I’m still sent scripts all the time. And some of them are tempting, some of them are films that you’d be interested in watching, but my question is, would I be able to spend a year, year-and-a-half, two years making the film, and remaining interested, and then talking about it?

SFBG: The script contains some of the recurrent themes in your work -- identity, secrets, history; were there any other aspects that drew you to it?

AE: It was the study of a marriage. I thought it was a challenge to deal with this issue and this script that was written by a women, dealing with this very specific issue of a woman who feels she’s disappearing, and the crisis that it brings on in her, but also the very extreme action that she takes as a result. She wants to prove her husband is having an affair, and there are other ways of doing that than hiring a prostitute [laughs]. What she wants to do is not just prove he’s having an affair, but re-eroticize an image of him. because she can’t do that herself. There is something that Chloe’s stories are eliciting in her that she’s finding very compelling, and it’s a reconnection with her husband, a connection she once had. Unbeknownst to her, I think Chloe is finding it very powerful telling these stories to her of these encounters which she actually is having, though not necessarily [exactly as she is describing them]. It’s basically the story of these two women’s fantasies colliding in ways that they aren’t necessarily aware of.

SFBG: Did Reitman have something in mind that he wanted to change or add to the original film, a specific reason for wanting a remake? Had you seen Nathalie, and did you think about doing a remake?

AE: That’s the strange thing, I’ll tell you. I did see Nathalie, at the Toronto Film Festival in 2003. I enjoyed the film, and I know [director] Anne Fontaine, she’s a friend, someone I’ve known in Paris. It never would have occurred to me to do a remake. I wouldn’t have thought it was a particularly interesting premise to explore, but Ivan did. And then Ivan hired Erin Cressida Wilson to write the script, and by the time I got the script, it was intriguing. There were problems with it for me -- it really pushed the thriller aspect way too far, so I felt it had to be pulled back, because the ending in the script I got was wildly different.

SFBG: Did you change anything else? The names are so tailored to the characters -- “Catherine” means “pure,” “Chloe” means “blooming,” and “David” means “beloved” -- that I wondered whether you or Erin had chosen them.

AE: Erin did. I think Erin’s incredibly attendant to all those things. She’s a really great writer and it was really a pleasure working with her, but I think there were things she felt she was being pushed to bring forward, certain more formulaic expectations of where the film should go. [Egoyan describes the specifics of making the ending less melodramatic. Redacted to avoid spoilers.] That alteration tonally just changes the whole film. I never wanted to demonize Chloe -- I mean, the instigator in all this is Catherine, in a way, and I felt for Chloe and I wanted that to form our sense of who she was.

SFBG: You normally have great compassion for and involvement with your characters -- and yet we never really find out anything about Chloe, not even if that’s really her name. Was there originally more story or backstory for her?

AE: Yeah, there was. But I think we must understand through the nature of her interaction with Catherine that there’s something she hasn’t received in her life, and I think we can figure that out, there are clues to that. I just didn’t want to make it too explicit because that felt reductive.

SFBG: She’s not really getting all that much from Catherine, is she?

AE: But she is. And it’s only my interpretation, I never want to assert orthodoxy over these movies, because I want them to be open, but I see that [how she comes to feel about] Catherine, all that she has from Catherine really is that someone is listening to her so attentively, listening to her tell stories about her day-to-day life. She’s paid to be forgotten. When they meet, Chloe’s crying in a bathroom cubicle, there’s some crisis that she’s experiencing, and from the moment that she meets Catherine, although you could say she sees her as a prospective client, I think there’s something in the first gesture, something that Catherine does, in that first touch -- Chloe over-responds to it, maybe, but she needs to at that point.

SFBG: I wondered if this difference, that we never find out more about Chloe, was rooted in the fact that you hadn’t written the script.

AE: I have to admit, there is something, in retrospect, talking about it now, almost a year later, to do with Adoration [Egoyan’s 2009 film, starring his wife and longtime collaborator Arsinee Khanjian]. The deployment of exposition in the last part of that movie just doesn’t work for me somehow, when they begin to actually explain who they are. I really love the beginning of that film, the way it’s structured, and the way these [metaphoric] balls are being juggled -- I don’t need to know exactly where and why, exactly what Arsinee is doing. Both these films involve  women are trying to get into the house of someone they either are in love with or were in love with. But if you make the comparison with Arsinee’s character in Adoration, the audience cannot have access to why that woman in that strange outfit wants to get into this house. There’s no way that that invites identification, and yet there’s tension and mystery....

SFBG: There was originally also more story and backstory on the son?

AE: Yes, Max Thieriot’s a really wonderful actor and he has a great story, which we had to cut. This will be on the  “deleted scenes” on the DVD. There’s a conversation with Catherine and Chloe about Catherine’s background....

SFBG: How long would the film have been if --

AE: The problem really wasn’t about the length, it just became unwieldy, it didn’t play right.

SFBG: The original script was set here. Was San Francisco’s iconic status as a locus for hedonism and sexual freedom a significant factor in Wilson’s original script?

AE: Yes, but there were things about it that made me recoil, because first, I was trying to wrap my head around the issue, how do you photograph this city in a way that hasn’t been shown before, when it’s been so detailed through films. My attraction to filming in Toronto is that it’s a place with a very distinct iconography -- except most people don’t know what it is, so it creates this interesting tension. We’ve shown this film to a lot of people outside of Toronto, especially outside of Canada, and they’re going, “Where. Is. This. Place?” They feel they should know but they don’t.

SFBG: Because we’ve all seen Toronto masquerading as New York.

AE: Exactly. Toronto is like Chloe, paid to be something else. It becomes a controlling metaphor throughout the film.

SFBG: Was it relevant at all to the making of this movie that you and Arsinee had separated?

AE: We’re trying again. But I’ll be honest, it was a tough time for us when I was shooting, so . . . a lot of reflection on marriage. So this ended up being a strange and personal movie, and I was very thankful for Erin to have written it, because there is no way I could have gone to these [emotional] places as I was experiencing that. But we’re in a better place now.

Chloe opens Fri/26 in Bay Area theaters. Go here for Lynn Rapoport's review of the film in this week's Guardian.

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