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Atom Egoyan Fancies San Francisco from Afar

When producer Ivan Reitman first approached Atom Egoyan, the Oscar-nominated director of The Sweet Hereafter (1997) and last year’s Adoration, with the script for the erotically charged drama Chloe, it was a story set in author Erin Cressida Wilson’s hometown, San Francisco. Egoyan, born to an Armenian family in Egypt but raised from early childhood in Victoria, British Columbia, knew immediately that had to change.

“I adore this city, but my experiences with it have been touristic,” he says, sequestered in a tiny conference room in the city’s Belmont Hotel. “Also, a lot of my favorite films were shot here, and when I came to look it at it, I couldn’t imagine how people live here intimately. I don’t know the inner life of the city, and I didn’t want Chloe to seem like a visual cliché.”

Egoyan, 49, acknowledges the proposed move to his adopted hometown of Toronto, where he has lived more than three decades since attending university there, met with resistance from both Wilson and Reitman. Yet Reitman, who grew up in Toronto himself, soon came around to the idea.

“Toronto has never played itself in a foreign-financed film,” says Egoyan, who names Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and Dirty Harry as two of his favorite 'Frisco-based movies. “It’s always prostituted itself, like Chloe, as being somewhere else – New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston. It’s a city that can make a strong visual statement, but it’s still a mystery in a way no major American city could be.

“Ivan was skeptical at first, but I took him to the neighborhoods where I wanted to film, and he began to see what I had in mind. Erin, of course, was writing from the perspective of her upbringing in San Francisco, but I think she understood that I needed to draw on my own experience.”

It is rare for Egoyan to direct a movie he didn’t write, but that doesn’t stop him from calling Chloe – the story of Catherine (Julianne Moore), who thinks her husband is having an affair, and Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), the call girl she hires to seduce him – one of the most personal films of his career.

Why?
“I’ve always wanted to explore the ways that repressed desires influence modes of behavior, even in a manner people are not aware of – they’re compelled to act a certain way without really understanding why. I think Chloe, like my earlier movies, investigates how and why an action begins, and how people seek to define themselves by that action.

“Chloe, for instance, is clearly trying to define herself by talking about her job to an older woman whom she respects, which is an improbable opportunity for her. She becomes as addicted to talking about her job as Catherine is to listening. Those ritualized types of behavior – talking about jobs and actions that subconsciously reflect some deeper need – have been one of the primary themes in my work from the very beginning.”

On the popular argument that his past movies – like Adoration, the study of a teenager whose fantasy life messily spills into reality after the death of his parents – have seemed “inaccessible”:
“I think what’s inaccessible is that they use very challenging structures, and that I go pretty far in resisting identification with some of the characters. Consider ‘Adoration,’ which I’m very proud of. Both Adoration and Chloe feature scenes of estranged women trying to gain access to someone’s house. In Chloe, we know exactly who that character is and why she wants to get in.

“In Adoration, we have no idea. And yet the scene forms a very substantial part of the narrative, and the character quite aggressively resists any sort of identification on the part of the viewer. We understand why eventually, but it makes it very difficult for most viewers to attach themselves to her journey.

“For the ones who do, there are rewards, as there are in most of my films, but things are not necessarily what they seem to be – not in a twisty way, like in Chloe, but on an existential level. These are characters struggling to discover who they are, and they can’t identify themselves to the viewer until they make that discovery for themselves.”

On being an A-list celebrity in Canada, and enjoying relative anonymity in America:
"I'm thankful for it. I love being anonymous in the streets here, not being known. If you think I'm well known in Canada, try going to Armenia. I've been to the Armenian film festival, and everyone recognizes me – it's terrible. That's not a life I would wish on anyone. As an artist, I think you need some measure of anonymity. You need to be able to drift into conversations and partake of everyday things. I think people who are observed all the time have to bend their lives out of shape."

On directing Wilson’s script:
“After Adoration, I was in a bit of a stalemate as to where I should go next with my writing – I felt it was becoming somewhat formulaic – and then this script came along. It was very interesting to me, because Chloe is not a linear story, and it doesn’t fall into the trap of offering pat resolutions. When a story has so many unresolved issues, and they all get tied up neatly, that’s disappointing to me.

“It’s rare to get a script this complex. It was what I needed to do. The biggest question for me now is what’s next. I'm always working on several stories at a time, and at some point I tend to set them aside and return to them later. Working with someone else's story was liberating, and I'd like to do it again.”