From his “rag-tag” beginnings as a self-taught filmmaker, to his Academy Award nominations and festival success in Cannes, to his COVID-19 Netflix binges – Atom Egoyan’s recent In Conversation event with Toronto Film School students covered all the bases.
Hosted by Toronto Film School’s Executive Producer in Residence Andrew Barnsley and Writing for Film & TV Program Director Adam Till, the inspirational 90-minute Zoom session on April 9 delved into all facets of Egoyan’s journey to becoming one of the most celebrated contemporary filmmakers on the international scene.
On his love of high school drama growing up in Victoria, B.C.
“I was really into plays as a kid…I knew (they were) something that I really loved doing. I loved assembling people and writing stuff and staging it, but I never thought I would make a living from it, so I applied to University of Toronto and went to study International Relations – so my degree is actually in political science and economics and history.”
On teaching himself the art of filmmaking at U of T’s Hart House Film Board after one of his plays was rejected by the university’s Drama Society
“Coming from a small town on the west coast, I wasn’t used to being rejected for something I had written. I remember just being so flipped out by that…I decided that if I was going to get rejected from doing it as a play, then I was going to make it as a film. So, I went to the Hart House Film Board. At the time…making films was not considered to be cool or something that everyone wanted to do, so there were, like, maybe eight members of the Hart House Film Board. They had some equipment there and there was an editing table there – but no one was really using it, so I had access and I taught myself how to make films. I sort of did it by trial and error…and I pretty much decided at the end of my second year that this is what I wanted to do.”
On the driving force behind his early ambition to become a filmmaker
“The thing you have to remember about my career is, I don’t come from family money and I really had no early connections, so I started this in the most rag tag way possible – but I always had stories I wanted to tell. I was always writing these scripts and I had these stories, and that’s what was driving everything – this need to get those stories out there.”
On building his career up through the film festival circuit
“All my early films are on iTunes in Canada, so if anyone wants to actually watch them, they’re all there – the early films like Next of Kin, Family Viewing, Speaking Parts, The Adjuster – they’re all available. But watching them, what you’ll see is, incrementally, the budgets got higher and higher, because what happened was that, at that time, there was a market for these films. And I realized, if I can make the films for a small enough amount of money, and if they got into the right festivals, then they had a fighting chance.
“The granddaddy of all those festivals was the Cannes Film Festival at the time, but I didn’t get into Cannes until my third feature. Before that, it was just a number of small festivals, starting with my first film festival ever, which was the Cleveland Film Festival. It’s been really step-by-step-by-step…(Back then), the festivals really were serving the filmmaker in a different way. You could go from festival to festival to festival and build up a brand, build up your name.”
On dealing with rejection as a budding filmmaker
“It’s brutal and you have to have an incredibly thick skin. That’s something I developed early on, because there’s a ton of rejection as a filmmaker and it’s just part of it. You need to know how to deal with rejection and you have to be realistic…It’s about finding that balance between allowing yourself to dream – because you need to be able to dream, you need to kind of project yourself into a place – but you also have to negotiate what the reality of it is.
“I look at my early films, and there were so many things I didn’t understand. I definitely wish I knew technically what I was doing before plunging into some of these films, because I was kind of learning on the fly.
“It comes down to the fact that: do you feel the stories you have to tell are so burning inside you that you could not exist if these stories did not get out there somehow? As you’re writing it or conceiving it, you just have to think that it’s something that is going to catch fire in other people’s imagination like it did in yours – and if you can project that energy and it’s genuine, I think that it becomes quite infectious, in a way.”
On which has meant more to him personally in his career: his Academy Award nominations or his success at Cannes
“For me, it was Cannes. I wasn’t one of those kids who watched the Academy Awards, so for me, it was always about festivals.
“The Academy Award nominations (for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for The Sweet Hereafter) were completely out of the blue. To this day I don’t quite know how that happened, because we didn’t have a budget to promote the film, but it was incredibly well received critically – we didn’t have one negative review. Then, at the end of the year, right before the Academy members voted, the LA and New York Times both said it was the best film of the year – you can’t buy that kind of advertising, right? So, for that Canadian film to have actually gone that distance was really a crazy stroke of luck, but it wasn’t something I expected…
“With festivals, since that was so much part of my foundation, when my second feature didn’t get into Cannes, or the third one, I took those as real blows, because I knew that was the festival I wanted to go to. So first of all, getting in with The Adjuster was amazing. And then, when we won the Grand Prix and the Critic’s Prize and the Ecumenical Jury Prize – three major awards at the 50th anniversary festival – that was huge for me.”
On the COVID-19 crisis’ short- and long-term impacts on the film industry
“Realistically, it is shakeup – it’s going to be a different landscape when this all settles, and certain things will go back to the way they were, and certain things will change…People are going to be completely exhausted by what (TV shows and films are) available now, so they’re going to need new product for sure – so that’s the good news. There will continue to be a voracious demand for new narrative, but there’s also going to be a backlog, so people are going to have to be super patient, and it’s going to take a while for production to kick back into its full gear. But it will – there’s no reason why it won’t, and there’s a whole super structure here in Toronto that’s being built as we speak.”
On the need to keep your artistic antenna out during the pandemic
“Right now, I think this is a very good time for people to just ingest everything that’s out there, and to read that thick book, and to really study that series, and to write, write, write, write, write, write, and to just force your mind to stay active…
“As artists, we also need to have our antennae out. Right now, our antennae are in our rooms, our own solitude, and we’re seeing these horrible stories about what’s happening in terms of class division in the States…we need to keep our hearts and our ears and our souls open to what’s happening in the world outside of us. It’s really important at this time not to let things become abstract, especially the real pain and tremendous trauma that people are dealing with. Because you can kind of be blocked off and feel it’s kind of still normal, but it’s not – the world has changed profoundly, and we’re just sort of absorbing that and will continue to absorb that as we look at the employment numbers and all this unprecedented catastrophe.
“Also there’s the importance of our governments when we trust them to give us hope, right? We happen to be living in this country where we have great leadership, but it’s frightening when you look at some other places, when you realize the pettiness and how venal some of these leaders are in terms of this very human crisis.
“It’s a rich time for really absorbing these amazingly human moments, but also the inhumane ones, too.”
On his social-distancing era Netflix binges
“For me, it’s been a really amazing opportunity as a writer – to actually be forced into isolation is something we do anyhow when we’re writing, but also to have time to catch up on series and to plunge into Ozark and a whole bunch of other things like Fauda, which is this Israeli series that is incredible and shockingly great. And Berlin Babylon, too. I’m watching a lot right now.”