|Cineaste: The Sweet Hereafter is your first adaption of another authors material. Did you feel that it was time to change gears and integrate other perspectives with your own?
Atom Egoyan: After I finished Exotica, I felt that I had gone as far as I could, given a certain set of impulses that had formed a lot of my work. I was afraid of parodying myself. It was a very confusing time after Exotica, because it was a film that broke through. I wanted to surprise myself, and I think that any filmmaker wants to, more than anything, exceed his own expectations. And, after a certain point, when you become so identified with a style and approach, you want to challenge peoples expectations.
When I read The Sweet Hereafter, I felt it was a story that I would never have been able to come up with. Yet I saw similarities to my work and felt that I could serve the material. It was worth pursuing, since Russell Banks was extraordinarily generous. The book was optioned by another studio, but he was prepared to release it and let me make the film. With his encouragement, and also with this need that I felt to challenge myself, I went into the project. It was a treacherous journey, because I was involved with a studio film myself at that point with Warner Bros. which I had to leave in order to pursue The Sweet Hereafter. As an independent, you have to understand what that all means and wade through it. I think that I was smart in trusting my instincts.
Cineaste: But werent you initially fond of this Hollywood project?
Egoyan: Yeah, because I liked the script and had a fairly good idea of how it could be cast. But, ultimately, it all got bogged down; there were disagreements over casting. There seem to be two reasons to make an independent film. One is as a calling card, so you can enter the more mainstream industry. The other is that it just suits your nature: you can think and do better work when you dont have to respond to a number of people. Ive become so used to having complete control over my own work that entering a studio-driven project will inevitably be fraught with all sorts of difficulties.
Cineaste: Youre also accustomed with what could be called your own repertory company. Given your working method, Id imagine that it would be difficult to have to deal with actors who, at least in your view, werent appropriate for the material.
Egoyan: Thats so important. Theres a certain degree of necessary self-delusion that goes with filmmaking. You have to be ready to shoot. You have to believe youre the right person to do it. And sometimes you have to believe that someone is the right actor to play in it. Somewhere deep inside you, you know that may not be the case. But once a project assumes a certain momentum, you have to go with it. And thats when it becomes frightening, because then we lose our rational instincts and you surrender to what you need to believe in to get the project done. It happens all the time, and its then that mistakes can be made.
Cineaste: What kind of assistance or feedback did you receive from Russell Banks while you were working on the script?
Egoyan: It was very important to have Russells approval and support, even though it wasnt contractually necessary or anything I needed to do. But since it was the first time I was doing an adaption, and I was making some major departures from the book, I wanted to get a sense that he felt that I was keeping its spirit. I should use this opportunity to to talk about the collaboration I have with the script editor, Allen Bell, who I've been working with on all my films since Family Viewing. When I told Allen what this film was about, he said that it sounded like a modern version of the pied piper. This sent goose pimples up and down my arm, because I realized what an amazing controlling metaphor that could be, and I went out and reread the Browning book. Though this seemed so beautiful and rich, it was important for me to have a response from Russell as well. He loved it and became quite envious of it; he felt that it was something he might have used if he had thought of it. Since I had claimed complete authorship for all of my previous films, I wanted to feel that I was being true to what Russell intended. But he never raised an eyebrow or said that I was moving in a strange direction.
Cineaste: The Sweet Hereafter seems much more determined to offer the audience a sense of emotional catharsis than your early films. Unlike the straightforward trauma of the current film, the earlier films required the characters to engage in some kind of ritual or repetition compulsion.
Egoyan: Or family romance. Emotional immediacy is exactly the thing that makes the experiment of The Sweet Hereafter work so well. Ultimately, all you need to know is that a school-bus accident has occurred and that its about a community before and after that accident. I wasnt really aware of how simple that fundamental sense of placement would be. Everyone knows how cataclysmic such an accident would be. There is a degree of confusion and timelessness that people will accept because the characters have lost their sense of time as well due to their grief and shock.
Cineaste: Although The Sweet Hereafter marks somewhat of a new direction for you, it also continues to explore the obsession with family dynamics emphasized in your other films, doesnt it? You even highlight this in your directors statement, since you explicitly link the current film with the closing scene of Exotica.
Egoyan: Yes. I find cinema is a great medium to explore ideas of loss, because of the nature of how an image affects us and how we relate to our own memory and especially how memory has changed with the advent of motion pictures with their ability to record experience. Our relationship as filmmakers to those issues has changed radically over the past fifteen or twenty years. And people in our society have the instruments available to document and archive their own history. In my earlier films, I was exploring this in quite a literal way. But the ways in which our abilityand our needto remember have been transmogrified comes very much into the spirit of this film as well.
Theres nothing casual about accessing memory or the way experience is evoked. Theres something very self-conscious, quite determined about itthe way people manipulate or use their own experience to get things they want from other people. Or the way some people want to relate to their loss in a very immediate and private way and are threatened by having that intruded on them. But what is great about this material is that, for the first time, the characters are really full-blooded. Theyre not schematically conceived. In the other films, there was a more figurative approach to the characters, because thats what those films needed. The characters were lost to themselves, so they were really just shells looking for some sort of purpose. But in this film you have some characters who know exactly who they are and what theyre doing. It gives a different dimension to the piece.
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