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Atom Egoyan won't work for the Hollywood studios

The ”Felicia’s Journey” director tells EW Online about his new film and why he never made a thriller starring Susan Sarandon

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Atom Egoyan
Sophie Baker

Atom Egoyan is one of those filmmakers who either inspires utter adulation or a quizzical ”Who?” His recent films — 1994’s ”Exotica” and 1997’s ”The Sweet Hereafter” — have been lauded by critics (”Hereafter” was also nominated for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars), but his devotion to independent filmmaking means that his movies are seen by few average moviegoers. His latest, ”Felicia’s Journey,” the story of a young Irish woman who travels to England and is befriended by a prim caterer (Bob Hoskins) who is not as gentle as he seems, is now in some 40 theaters across the country and is earning the usual raves. EW Online spoke to the 39-year-old Canadian director about the film and about how Miramax tried to mess with his final cut of ”Hereafter.”

After the success of ”The Sweet Hereafter,” you probably had the clout to get a well-known actress to play Felicia. Why did you go with Elaine Cassidy, an unknown?
Because an unknown changes the dynamic. We can’t even guess what might happen to her. If it’s a well-known name, we kind of project that she can’t die because she’s the star. I like the fact that there’s no way, even at a subconscious level, that you could anticipate what the outcome might be.

Listening to this movie’s description makes it seem like a genre film, but it’s like your other films in that it’s more of a character study, and would probably disappoint anyone expecting to see blood, gore, and chases. Have you ever wanted to make an all-out thriller?
All the time. I read a script and say, ”Wow, this would be fun to do!” But that fun wears thin after a couple of weeks. You have to make the differentiation between the films you’d like to see and the film you actually want to spend a year of your life making. I can’t just do something on the spur of the moment, because I might regret that two weeks into pre-production, and then I’m in real trouble.

You’ve remained an independent filmmaker, even with the success of your movies. Have you ever been tempted to team up with a studio?
After ”Exotica” was on 40 screens in L.A., it seemed the right point to take a bite and make a studio film. I signed to do a thriller for Warner Bros. in 1995 called ”Dead Sleep,” and I had a very clear idea that I wanted to cast Susan Sarandon. The studio was very adamant against her and had a list of six other (younger) actresses they wanted, until she came out with ”Dead Man Walking” and the studio changed its mind. But it was too late. (Making a Hollywood thriller) was the last thing she had on her mind at that point. So I left the project and went to make ”Sweet Hereafter.” And I was really lucky because I went through the whole process without having to make a compromised movie. I could see it all beginning to unfold and realized I wasn’t really meant for that.

Do you think you’ll ever go back?
There is that budgetary threshold in Hollywood where if you haven’t had a huge commercial success, you don’t have the clout to ask for final cut. The bottom line is I need that. The idea of letting final cut go would be detrimental to my type of filmmaking, which is not linear. The approach my films take is such that you don’t really get it until all the pieces are put together and the music’s in, and only at that point is the film presentable. Up until then it’s way too vulnerable to withstand the studio process.

Have you ever had anyone try to meddle with your film?
After the American distributor for ”Exotica” (Miramax) had a marketing screening, they came back to me with this idea that the last scene in the film (which reveals the telling pasts of the damaged characters) should be at the beginning, and that there should be a voice-over explaining it. I just went, ”No, the point of that film is that we find out those things at the end. That’s what makes it interesting.” I had the ability to say No because the film had been delivered. But we’re living in a time when there’s way too many digital Avid editing machines whirring away in executive suites, with everybody trying to get their two cents worth and come up with another version of a scene. The thing I miss about (old-style) film editing is that there would only be one copy of a print floating around. Now anybody can access an Avid output, try something else, and send it to you on a VHS and say, ”Well, we think this works.”