Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan has just released his newest project, GUEST OF HONOUR to audiences throughout North America through virtual cinemas. Originally released through film festivals, the film has finally made its debut to larger audiences. Egoyan is known for his intelligent and sensitive pieces, his breakthrough film being EXOTICA (1994), winning a total of fifteen awards throughout the film festival circuit. Three years later Egoyan would have incredible critical and commercial success with the film THE SWEET HEREAFTER (1997), nominated for two academy awards, Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published, and went on to win dozens of awards through the film festival circuit, as well. His highest grossing film would be CHLOE (2009) starring Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, and Amanda Seyfried, earning an unprecedented $3million as a specialty film. Egoyan has gained international acclaim and recognition for his thought- provoking and unique style, and in 2015 won the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, Canada’s highest accolade in the arts..
Egoyan’s latest film, GUEST OF HONOUR, is much like the rest of his canon, in that it is incredibly cerebral and a completely individual experience. Not all viewers will fully understand his approach to storytelling, and that’s almost the point in some ways. When former music teacher, Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira), refuses early parole, her father, Jim (David Thewlis), a meticulous health inspector, struggles to understand his daughter’s incarceration. Finally released from prison Veronica is newly tasked with planning his funeral. As she sifts through long ago memories with the church’s Father Greg (Luke Wilson), she begins to realize that perception and reality are vastly different concepts. CineFlix Daily had the incredible opportunity to interview writer and director, Atom Egoyan about his insights to his latest piece.
CineFlix Daily: The language with which you speak through film is quite sophisticated. I would call it cinematic literature, and you use colorscapes and semiotics a lot in your films. Do you ever worry sometimes that these cues could be lost on audiences? How do you approach that challenge?
Atom Egoyan: The films that have inspired me, aspire to do what literature does… there is something that’s reflective about them. In some of the great books I’ve read, you are aware of your responsibilities as a reader. And the writer has the highest expectations of viewers’ level of curiosity and that there are rewards to be had- you have to invest a lot in those books. Similarly, with the personal films, I mean, the ones I am writing and directing, I’m structuring them often in a prismatic way, but I’m also dealing with human beings who are making very, very unusual choices and feel themselves pressured into making these choices about their lives, and often, the motivations are buried and the film is trying to reveal them in an unusual way, but they are always really in the emotional space that these characters are in. I’m trying to find the language that reflects how they might see themselves and, a film like this is made even more complex maybe because you have two characters who are trying to understand the same memory, the same sort of space in their lives… The thing that makes the films challenging is those decisions are there, they’re embedded in the film, but they’re not necessarily clear to the viewer, but you’re feeling the energy of it… What’s interesting about a novel, a writer would actually have to elaborate those moments; you would talk to explain what those moments are. And the beauty and the challenge of film is you’re given these images and they’re made with some amount of conviction on the part of these actors who saturate these roles with enough humanity, that you’re feeling those choices they’re making. But it’s not literal, very often, there’s a space that is open to interpretation. And that space actually can really excite the viewer to go in themselves in a different way. When the films evoke an emotional response that means a ton to me, because the viewer has trusted that journey. But I also understand that some people will not. It’s not conforming to certain formulas, and I understand that. Other people will find it challenging.
CD: I had read that you studied classical guitar in school. And so there’s an element of musical composition and musical performance in the film. How did your relationship with music affect the film?
AE: I realized very early on that I was not a performer, but I enjoy playing music, but the performative aspect of it is something that I can’t surrender myself to in a way. So what I love about Veronica is, she’s a composer, she loves music, but there’s clearly something very performative about the way she conducts her own music, she’s doing it because she’s joyous, there’s a joy to her. And then to see what that leads to, I think makes her question a lot of things about herself and about that process. The music is very important to me, at the beginning of the film, we’re hearing it performed in a band shell [and] is very distant. And the film ends with that same piece of music now being heard very, very fully… All throughout the film, when we’re hearing music, we’re hearing fragments of it or we’re hearing variations of it, but we’re not hearing it and the way it was presented in the bandshell, until the very end. It’s this moment how people hear these pieces of music, how they perform those pieces of music. I guess it comes up in a lot of the films right from EXOTICA (1994)to SWEET HEREAFTER (1997)… So, this notion of performance is something I’ve observed and, as someone who loves music, I understand that I have that limitation.
CD: I enjoyed your color choices and the associations you made with them… How did you come about those choices?
AE: The color choices are secondary, in this case, to the notion of the glass effects… Or the fact that there’s these distortions of glass … so there’s this way that light is refracted. And that becomes a really important motif for me.
CD: Did any of the actors past casting had influenced your choice like David Thewlis is known to younger viewers as Remus Lupin from the HARRY POTTER franchise, and he’s the ultimate father figure.
AE: I’m casting him because of [Mike Leigh’s] NAKED, he made in 1993. It has in other casting choices, one hundred percent, but not particularly in this one. But I would say that there are certain films where I cast someone because of the association they have like Sarah Polley, in EXOTICA. I’m casting [her] because, at that point, she had a certain image in people’s mind, and I thought it’d be very interesting to kind of question that and I knew that people are going into that film with that. And I think anytime you cast a movie star, when I’ve worked with in that spectrum, you’re totally aware of what people expect, and sometimes there’s an interesting way that you’re riffing off of an image that people may have of that character.
CD: You really like individuals to pull their own meanings. And it is a very personal process your films, but was there an ultimate message or was there anything you wanted audiences to get from the film specifically?
AE: The importance of honesty in relationships. But, again the trap here is that literally the father cannot have been honest with […] his nine year old daughter… But he [had] to sacrifice that, I suppose, because he understood that it really wasn’t going to happen in as long as he was there.
CD: Are there any final thoughts? Anything that hasn’t been touched on that you really want audiences to know?
AE: No, I just I appreciate that it had an emotional response for you. And that’s what it’s supposed to do.
GUEST OF HONOUR released on July 10th and stars David Thewlis and, Luke Wilson, and Laysla De Oliveira. It is a beautifully crafted film that is visually engaging and cerebral, and as Egoyan also states “there is something really darkly funny about it.” Viewers quick to dissect the film should look for motifs of glass and refracted light, and listen for musical nuances. Other than that, the film’s purpose really is to elicit an emotional response, and for Atom Egoyan “that means a ton … because the viewer has trusted that journey.”