Throughout his sixteen feature films, prolific Toronto-based, Egyptian-born filmmaker Atom Egoyan has explored obsession, modern technology, fragmented families, the unreliability of memory, and multicultural tensions embodied within Canada. His latest film, Guest of Honour, recalls his earlier films––including Family Viewing, Speaking Parts, The Adjuster, and Exotica––in a story featuring David Thewlis as a food inspector and Laysla De Oliveria as his adult child, wrongfully convicted of a crime she did not commit but agrees to serve the time for, in order to atone for other sins.
An intimate thriller told through the unreliable memories of its protagonist’s daughter, Guest of Honour is now available via Kino Marquee, supporting Virtual Cinemas. We spoke to Egoyan about the inspirations behind hiis latest film, launching at Venice and TIFF last year, and its place in his career spanning three and a half decades since his first feature, 1984’s Next of Kin.
The Film Stage: The film reminded me of a vintage Atom Egoyan film. Can you tell me how the film came about and the process of making it? I remember you speaking about owning a restaurant in Toronto that is subject to these things.
Atom Egoyan: It came about for two reasons. I own a bar on Queen Street in Toronto called Camera Bar, and we had to deal with health inspectors and so I was aware of the details of their work and how much power they had. Around the same time, my son was working as a busboy at a very well established restaurant which had a certain reputation and coming back with these stories about a food inspector who is tormenting the owner’s chef, like basically making his life miserable. I just started thinking about being in that position and I began to think about food inspectors. I started thinking about parenting and the things you often don’t know about your child. I began to think of this story of a parent-child relationship that formed this real trap, a trap where something happened when the daughter was nine years old which was absolutely horrifying. She loses her mother to cancer and also suspects her father is having a relationship with her music teacher who she adores at the same time. It’s an absolute nightmare and she begins to blame the father for this.
There’s another story too within the film, it’s actually a very simple story, but it’s a story that a father would never be able to tell a nine-year-old daughter. That the mother who had cancer was aware of this attraction and actually in hoping for a maternal figure for the daughter, allowed the father to explore that. We don’t know if it got sexual, but there is no way a father would be able to explain that to a nine-year-old girl. The horror of it is that by the age he might be able to explain it to her she has no reason to believe it. Both women are no longer there, and one of them is no longer there because of something she might have taken some responsibility for. It allowed me to do something that I have never explored before. Even though I have worked with memory and flashback, I never had two characters sharing a similar space, a similar mental memory. So that is to say with Exotica or The Sweet Hereafter, when a character is flashing back to a moment of trauma, you have two characters that are referring back to a point with a similar point of view.
David Thewlis is such a brilliant actor. He’s worked with so many of my favorite filmmakers. How did you decide to cast him?
Well, from the moment I settled upon the fact that it would be an expat––it would be someone coming from England––it became clear there are a handful of actors who could do it, and you remember what he has done. I rewatched Naked and it blew me away like I remember when I saw it. So much of that film is monologue and knowing that this only had one monologue, but it was essential, that it needed to be delivered with such finesse and accuracy emotionally. What I didn’t know is that he would be such a wonderful collaborator and we become really good friends and he is such a wonderful person. I love that he doesn’t have the persona of a big movie star. He is just a good actor.
What about the rest of the cast? There’s a lot of really great actors here, a lot of them are unknown.
Some of the actors I have worked with before. Arsinée Khanjian has been in a lot of my films, I create roles tailor-made for her, I think she’s wonderful in it. Laysla [De Oliveira], when she auditioned, we were just very very thrilled that there was this person so open and available but there was something mysterious about her. I felt that she could play these very different phases in this young woman’s life. The woman she is when she is on the band trip, the woman she is in the conversations with the priest, the woman she is in the prison. These are really different places and she was able to embody it. Luke [Wilson] was incredible. That was a very persistent agent who said that he would be great for this, and I hadn’t seen him do dramatic work. He sent me Meadowland by Reed Morano and he is excellent in it. I thought he is great in it. He is a really solid dramatic actor. He is a great listener, and the added benefit of Luke in some way is that he is from somewhere else. So every character in this film is from somewhere else. So you have David from England, Luke from Texas, Laysla is a Brazillian, and all of these restaurants are ethnic. So there is this feeling of a weird fabric in the film where no one is actually native, but what does this mean in this country anyhow? It felt really cool to have all these people. When Luke makes his speech in the final eulogy he mentions that. “It was tough when I first got here.” Everyone said it was tough when they first got here in the film at some point, so that is interesting to me.
You set it in Hamilton, Ontario. Why set it there, is it because it is an anonymous suburb?
There is a practical reason and an aesthetical reason. The practical reason is try closing down restaurants in Toronto, it’s not easy. In Hamilton, the city just opened itself up. For whatever reason, people were just thrilled to have an inspector finding rat shit on the floor of a restaurant. That was the practical side. I had driven through that city so many times on my way to Niagara or to other places. If you go off of the main highway and go into the city, it’s really fascinating. This was one of the most fascinating cities in the province for a long time and like so many American cities, it fell onto hard times. It immediately looks like a lot of other cities I have been to in the states, from Flint to Cleveland to Detroit, it feels like there is something transitional about it. There was a sense of different types of restaurant culture. The second language of Hamilton right now is Arabic. They seem really open to Syrian refugees, and that seemed really helpful as well. I’m really happy with the way it plays in the film. It doesn’t have the same markings as Toronto. It makes it more compelling that way. All my urban films have been set in Toronto, so I felt a little bit exhausted by Toronto to be honest.
There was another story I remember hearing that a restaurant owner had let you in and you thought that your set designer had gone to work.
Oh no, that was hilarious. That was absolutely true. There was one restaurant where I came in the morning and it surpassed my expectations. The production designer said, “We can do anything. That’s how the restaurant looked.” And I thought, “You must be joking!”
You usually do write your own films but there are a couple of cases where you adapted material. Can you talk a bit about your process? The thing that I am always interested in in your films is that you use mixed media of the day, whether it’s video therapy or video conferencing. I always think of you chronicling these technological changes and how people interact on these platforms.
It seems organic. These are people who are living in the culture around me and using the technology around them. Sometimes it’s a bit extreme like in my first feature [Next of Kin]––that was a real clinic and I had a friend of mine working as a videographer at that clinic. He is actually a videographer in the film and when I was shown that, I thought, “This is so extraordinary.” Family Viewing is a bit science fiction because the character discovers old videotapes of his childhood and we shot that film in 1986. That wouldn’t have made sense if he was 18. So I fudged that by saying his dad worked for the company that invited the machines so he had the prototypes. Certainly in Adoration you’re seeing Zoom technology before there was Zoom. Group chats didn’t exist when we shot the film but it wasn’t hard to figure out what was going to happen next. And even in Speaking Parts, the digital mausoleum where you go into a space and press buttons and see old videos. I found out there was a place like that in Japan, they do have a sort of digital mausoleum. I don’t think these things are ever sci-fi but they’re slightly in anticipation of what will happen. What you see in this film is pretty straight forward––figuring out each other’s passwords, manipulating cell phones. It is interesting to me that the two times that the two traumas that Veronica endured were from men who had access to her phone. The student hacks into her phone as well as the bus driver. When you’re telling these stories, you want to make sure that the characters of a certain age are using the technology available to them, in that way the films become contemporary.
How was quarantine been for you? Has it been productive?
I’m very thankful the film is finished. I’m blessed we went to Venice, we went to Toronto, we went to London, we even had a screening in New York before everything closed down. So I got to see how the film played to an audience. That was a blessing because God knows that would be torture. This world that we all mourn, this festival world that is so essential to independent film, it’s nice to have a virtual festival. I’m an ambassador for TIFF, and with TIFF we are trying to maintain some aspect of the physical screening. We are trying to show maybe 50 films this year and we are recognizing how essential that is. It’s not enough to just have it online. It is time to reflect. It’s time to read Anna Karenina. I want to reread Nabokov’s Ada. I’ve been watching the series. I really enjoyed watching all of Ozark, I finally caught up with Rectify and after having read Sally Rooney’s wonderful Normal People and watching the series, I’m giving myself a lot of time to catch up. The Met is showing operas every day and that’s another big passion of mine. You don’t feel like you’re playing hooky right now because everyone is. It’s no question for the industry that this is a catastrophic period. Until we figure out what the protocols are, until we figure out how insurance companies are able to protect the investors, for independent films, it’s a real crisis.
Has there been any discussion on what that would look like?
I think the government is trying to preserve the cultural industry, but is that the biggest priority right now? This is where it is so dangerous and we are venturing into this zone where our debt is going to be a trillion dollars, here in Canada. It is very concerning to us the situation that is happening in the United States. That impacts us directly, we’re sister countries. It’s our lifeline as well. On a practical level, you can’t bring people up right now to shoot a film and you can’t come up to visit the festival [TIFF]. We can’t go visit the U.S. and that’s heartbreaking. We are in this together and we are trying to figure this out.
Is there anything else you would like to say about the movie?
I think as an artist you are aware that there are certain ideas that fascinate you and you look for other ways of expressing that. It’s funny when we were discussing this idea of people dueling over memory that did draw me to a film like Where The Truth Lies. I was just reading this review and it’s strange going back to that film, but I can also tell you why I was drawn to it because I loved this idea that thing that I loved as a kid, watching a telethon that there was this whole narrative that was going on behind the scenes that was playing out in real-time and that was a chance to do a neo-noir. And Chloe it was a chance to do an erotic mystery thriller or a holocaust revenge thriller [Remember]. I think as a filmmaker there’s what you do and there’s also what you enjoy. It’s very difficult to deny but then again you’re also aware that as I was when writing this one that it’s a more intimate, personal project. I understand this kind of filmmaking and I also understand why I’d want to try other things as well.
Guest of Honour is now available on Kino Marquee in support of Virtual Cinemas.