AWFJ Women On Film – ATOM EGOYAN ON SEYFRIED, SEX SCENES AND “CHLOE” – Jen Yamato interviews

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In Atom Egoyan’s “Chloe,” frigid career woman Catherine (Julianne Moore) hires a beautiful young prostitute named Chloe (Amanda Seyfried) to seduce her husband as a test of his commitment to their marriage. What ensues is a tale as old as time — or, at least as old as the trials of fidelity found in operas by Beethoven and Mozart and tragic dramas penned by Shakespeare and Cervantes — but given a modern feminine twist, courtesy of screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson.

“Chloe” is a remake of Anne Fontaine’s French film “Nathalie…” Moving the scenario from San Francisco to Toronto, Egoyan has crafted an erotically-charged thriller as icy and alluring as the city in which it takes place.

His story is about marriage and trust, love and lust, and romantic obsession gone awry. The film is very femme-driven, with strong female voices in front of the camera and behind the scenes.

Egoyan spoke with Jen Yamato to share his take on the characters of “Chloe,” on how Wilson’s script convinced him to attempt the remake, and why you shouldn’t be all that shocked to hear that Ivan and Jason Reitman served as his producers on the film.

And yes, he addressed that much talked-about erotic scene…

JEN YAMATO: “Chloe” presents such an interesting dichotomy, a sort of tug of war between emotionality and detachment. How does that factor into the dynamic between Chloe, the sex worker, and Catherine, the frigid career woman and wife?

ATOM EGOYAN: That’s a dichotomy that a sex worker has to balance, right? They have to be detached. And that’s Chloe’s tragedy, that at a certain point she actually believes what she’s playing. It’s overwhelming for her, that she’s able to tell the story of what she does with her days to somebody who’s listening that attentively, which she hasn’t experienced before. Those stories are happening, they’re stories that she’s actually had with clients and she’s never found someone — especially such an admirable older woman outside of her world — to listen to her. She’s getting support that she’s never felt before. I mean, love is ultimately someone hearing your story for the first time; that’s the feeling. That’s certainly what Chloe is experiencing.

YAMATO: How much of the intensity in Chloe’s bond with Catherine do you attribute to their relationship being between two women as opposed to the male-female relationships, some of which have been extremely disappointing to them both, that they’ve had previously?

EGOYAN: That’s a good question. I think there’s something unresolved about her own life, where Catherine is fulfilling something that she didn’t have. I can’t say what that is, exactly, except for it is Catherine. I don’t think it’s because Catherine is a woman; I think it’s because Catherine is Catherine. And I think it’s entirely possible that this is the first time either of them has been with a woman, too. We don’t really know that, but there’s something incredibly magnetic about what is happening between the two of them, in terms of what they both are experiencing. It’s almost like they’re dealing with these conflicting fantasies of each other, but rather than completely understand they’re both overwhelmed by for very different reasons.

YAMATO: Both “Chloe” and its predecessor, the French film “Nathalie…,” are very female centered and female-driven films. How did you approach that as a male filmmaker?

EGOYAN: The original film is by a woman [Anne Fontaine] and the screenplay is by a woman [Erin Cressida Wilson]. I was trying to respect the spirit of both of those women as I was directing the film. It’s not something I think I could have written myself, there’s a certain tone to it. It’s very much a woman’s story.

YAMATO: That brings up an interesting question. Why did you want to make this version of Fontaine’s original film?

EGOYAN: Honestly, it wasn’t my impulse; Erin [Cressida Wilson] wrote the screenplay before I [became involved]… I had seen the French original when it was released in 2002 and I had no desire to do a remake. But then I read the screenplay and it was very interesting because of the direction Erin had taken with it. So it was really, creatively, that gesture that made me want to do it.

YAMATO: Have you spoken with Anne Fontaine about remaking her film?

EGOYAN: Yes! I actually know Anne, and she actually thought there were limitations to her original, I guess… She always felt that it should have gone into a more — Chloe doesn’t fall in love in her original. It sort of ends when you find out that it’s just a game that Chloe’s been playing. But it doesn’t go into the territory covered in our third act.

JEN YAMATO: Yes, I noticed that “Chloe” begins as a straightforward erotic drama, then shifts tone. What’s the reason for that shift?

ATOM EGOYAN: Well, I think that Chloe starts out feeling that she’s in control of the situation and then she’s completely destabilized by Catherine’s ending [their relationship], because by that time she’s fallen in love. And I think when people fall in love that way, they can’t control their emotions. They suddenly feel that they have this need, and right, to be with somebody, and that’s what compels them to behave this quite untethered way, which is kind of crazy. It’s called mad love for a good reason. And that’s what she’s feeling, I think from the moment she leaves the office and comes up and looks into the camera — at that point, you realize there’s been a shift. And the shift is really about desperation; what does she need to do in order to stay with Catherine? She’s never felt that way in her whole life, and I wanted to somehow transmit that to the viewer, the intensity, the rawness of that.

YAMATO: Yes, and the film’s setting was changed from San Francisco to Toronto. What made Toronto the perfect setting for “Chloe?”

EGOYAN: The fact that Toronto hadn’t been used in this way, and also that Toronto is a lot like Chloe; it’s a city that’s kind of paid to dress up and pretend to be someone else. [Laughs] So it seemed to be an interesting controlling metaphor for the piece. It’s interesting to see a place that so clearly has a strong sense of character, but you’ve never seen it before.

YAMATO: What was it about the themes in “Chloe” — marriage, passion, and even voyeurism — that spoke to you directly?

EGOYAN: You know, I’d have to say it’s any story that tells the complexity of human beings and the mystery of any meeting between two human beings. In this case, it’s also about the mystery of a marriage; what is it that brings and keeps people together, and how do they have to reinvent, what do they have to do to keep an erotic life, when they know each other so well? And also, when they’ve changed… there are so many issues that this script was touching on, which are really urgent to me, at this point in my life, certainly, and I was really compelled. I don’t know if it was an intellectual thing as much as an emotional reading of the material and what it’s talking about in terms of how we behave with each other, and how honest it is.

YAMATO: Is that a very uniquely modern predicament to you, or is it timeless as your cinematic references to opera and “Don Giovanni,” for example, suggest?

EGOYAN: Well, this is an old story. The idea of testing the fidelity of your spouse through a trick is something that not only comes from Mozart in “Cosi fan tutti,” but it’s in Shakespeare, Boccaccio’s “Decameron,” it’s in Cervantes — there’s a whole section in “Don Quixote” called “The Tale of Impertinent Curiosity.” But usually it’s about men testing the fidelity of their female lovers, and this is unusual in that it’s a woman testing the fidelity of her male lover. But then, it’s really about these two women testing themselves. I think it’s kind of a classic idea, but reinterpreted — it’s not just a remake, it’s a motif, a new variation on an old idea.

YAMATO: Talk about working with your sister, Eve Egoyan, on the classical piano music in the film, and with your longtime composer, Mychael Danna.

EGOYAN: My sister’s a really exceptional concert pianist; she specializes in new music, and she plays piano in all of my films. The challenge here was that the young actor [Max Thieriot] doesn’t play piano at all, so Eve coached him to look like he’s playing one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire, which is Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” It’s Eve actually playing it, but him faking it brilliantly. But she played on the very first soundtrack for a movie that I made when I was 15 years old! [My work with Mychael Danna] is really one of the most important collaborations that I have. We’ve been working together since “Family Viewing” in 1988. It’s been interesting to see him do all these big Hollywood scores now, and I think [his score for “Chloe”] is an amazing piece of music.

YAMATO: What sort of notes did you give him when you talked about what you were looking for in the score?

EGOYAN: I wanted something that was really rhapsodic, and felt lush, and then was able to turn on itself and become kind of discordant.

YAMATO: Let’s talk about your leading ladies. What was your first impression of Amanda Seyfried when she auditioned for you?

EGOYAN: I was grateful that we found Chloe. We looked at so many young women, and there was something kind of predictable about what they were all doing. I saw her as having a really open heart, kind of unexpectedly vulnerable for someone who works in the sex trade, and she just got it. She immediately stole my expectation of what Chloe should be. And she wasn’t really famous at that point; she was so perfect that we offered her the role, and she was the first person on board, really.

YAMATO: What’s striking about Amanda’s performance is that it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen her do before…

EGOYAN: Yes, it is! I think she usually plays lighter roles, and I think this will kind of redefine who she is.

YAMATO: She’s also got such a fresh, wholesome look to her… how were you able to get such an unexpectedly sexual performance out of her?

EGOYAN: I think it’s a testament to her complexity as an actress. She can look so many different ways, she’s very malleable. And also, because she’s never played this sort of role we haven’t had any indication of what she would be like in it, and that really helps as well.

YAMATO: How did you come to envision Julianne Moore as your Catherine?

EGOYAN: I had wanted to work with her for forever, since I saw her work in the early ’90s. We’d met a couple of times, and when this role came it was perfect for her.

YAMATO: Did you have many discussions with Amanda and Julianne about how the power dynamic between them shifts over the course of the film?

EGOYAN: That’s a good question. I’ve learned that a lot of that is stuff that I think about that actors don’t need to hear. Actors need to hear where they are, specifically, in that moment. The overall shape of it is something that sometimes I have to keep my mouth shut about, because sometimes it can overwhelm them with information that they don’t need. But if it’s specific to a scene and they need to hear it, and there’s a moment I want them to hit, it’s important to get that. But I don’t think they need to know about the overall architecture in the way a director does.

YAMATO: The much talked-about sex scene between Chloe and Catherine is very erotically charged; how do you strike the right balance without veering into titillation, especially when you’re dealing with two actresses like Julianne and Amanda?

EGOYAN: By dealing with it as a dramatic scene. It’s not a sex scene; it’s a dramatic scene in which they have sex. But it’s first and foremost a dramatic scene, you don’t switch your attitude in the way you’re directing it, otherwise I think the actresses become kind of alarmed.

YAMATO: I’ve heard another director express his discomfort when directing actresses in nude scenes, because he’s asking them to bare so much. Do you agree or disagree?

EGOYAN: I don’t, I think if they’re committed to doing this role, it’s a part of the whole thing that they’re committing themselves to. Actors use their bodies to tell stories about other people. An erotic scene is like any other scene. You set parameters, but you treat it as a dramatic scene.

YAMATO: Some folks may be surprised to hear that Ivan and Jason Reitman were your producers on “Chloe.” Is it really that strange that they were involved in the film?

EGOYAN: I was surprised, too. But if you look at a film like “Dave,” by Ivan Reitman, what’s that about? It’s about a marriage, a surrogate, and how the surrogate comes into the marriage and reinvigorates Sigourney Weaver’s love for her husband. It’s an interesting parallel. So once I saw that film I understood why Ivan was so fascinated by this, and also maybe why he would ask me to direct it. There’s a tone to this that’s obviously very different from the tone of “Dave.” But he’s a really creative, hands-on producer. And if you look at “Dave,” you also notice a link between Ivan and Jason, in terms of their two filmographies as well. It’s kind of a crucial film, in looking at how the sensibilities mix and match.

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Jen Yamato (Archived Contributor)

Jen Yamato is a movie reporter and critic for the Los Angeles Times. LA-based, she has served as entertainment reporter for The Daily Beast, editor and reporter on staff at Deadline, Movieline, and Rotten Tomatoes.