Film Scouts Interviews

The Cast of "The Sweet Hereafter"

by Henri Béhar

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Atom Egoyan, director
Russell Banks, novelist
Bruce Greenwood, actor
Robert Lantos, producer

There is something intriguing about director Atom Egoyan. As evinced by "Speaking Parts," "Family Viewing," "The Adjuster" or even "Exotica", his films are secretive; they speak - if that's the word I am looking for - in hushed tones, with the imperial simplicity of a haiku. The man, on the other hand, is 100% Mediterranean: warm, effusive, passionate. Based on a novel by Russell Banks - a teddy-bear-sized man, quite a contrast with live wire Egoyan - "The Sweet Hereafter" takes place in a little Canadian town of Sam Dent, and the impact on its small tightly-knit community when most of its children die in a school bus accident. The story is told, "Rashomon"-like, with time-cuts and jumps, from different points of view: that of a lawyer with his own troubled family life, that of an adolescent beauty queen who survived the accident but is paralyzed for life, those of the bus driver and various members of the community. Sounds complicated, but it really isn't. In point of fact, it's mysteriously luminous. -- HB

QUESTION (to Atom Egoyan): Over the years, you've been on the jury, you've had films at the Directors' Fortnight and in competition. Do you plan this year to walk away with the Golden Palm or are you here just to celebrate cinema, as the phrase goes?

ATOM EGOYAN: I was not robbed last year, if that's the question (laughs). Krszysztof Kieslowski was, of course, with "Rouge," and I think that was a very sobering fact that a jury could actually look at a film like "Rouge" and not realize that it was a masterpiece and not give it a award.

It's really something which I accept as part of the competitive process. It's not why we made this film, but on the other hand, once you're here, in this context, it's something that you manage. Or else you could become quite overwhelmed with what has very little to do with the film-making process.

I'm aware of the fact that there is sort of an expectation, which is the first time I've had to encounter that. The first few times I came to Cannes [in the Directors' Fortnight] it was not competitive, and it was a joy. With "Exotica," however, which was in the Official Selection, it was such an honor just to be invited... I'm trying to keep the same equilibrium here.

QUESTION: "The Sweet Hereafter" feels less complex, structurally, than your previous films. Are you trying to communicate with a larger audience?

ATOM EGOYAN: I'm not aware of it being more or less structurally complex than my previous films. In fact, if you look at it, it is extraordinarily fresh in terms of its use of time and the way it creates sort of a tapestry of time.

What is very clear is that the film is dealing with the emotional responsibilities towards children, towards telling the truth and how we devise our own truths.

And it's set within a community. My previous films are not in a community. The people don't have a system of values that they can refer to. And what inspired me about the book was that it was another universe from what I knew and from what I worked with.

So I'm not conscious of trying to make a film for a broader public. While I'm very aware that this is a film I really needed to make because it completely overwhelmed me, it was a great gift to be able to work with this material.

QUESTION: How did you come up with the specific time-construction in the film?

ATOM EGOYAN: It's an investigation into the minds of the characters. They're all suffering a sense of grief, a sense of loss, and their sense of time has been completely ruptured. I wanted to be true to that, and be able to find a language that would allow me to address many different people's experience of pain.

I can't really make films in any other way. To me, it's the most natural way of using cinema because I always think of Tarkovsky's notion of sculpting in time. That's what cinema does: it records time and it's up to the film-maker to alliterate it. It's a process I find very stimulating. I could watch the newer films but I can't make them, even if I wanted to. I would become tired and bored with the process.

QUESTION (to actor Bruce Greenwood): How did you meet Egoyan?

BRUCE GREENWOOD: We met in a singles bar (Laughs). Atom was alone in the corner and I felt sorry for him. (Laughs) We were introduced by a mutual friend - just before he started "Exotica". We became good friends during that process and in the ensuing years.

In terms of wanting to work with him, there's so many reasons. I guess the first one is that he's a great friend. I trust him a director more than anyone I've ever worked with. He can ask me to do anything and if my initial instinct is "Oh no," it ends up being the right idea. He's a tremendous guy.

QUESTION (to Atom Egoyan): You usually write your own scripts. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time you adapt someone else's work. How comfortable or uncomfortable was that?

ATOM EGOYAN: There's a responsibility to someone else's story and there's an attention and you can't be cavalier about it. You have to be able to justify it. You can't just say it's what I feel. It also has to represent what you think the book is about so it took longer. When I write my own scripts, they come very fast. Maybe too fast, but they're very very quick. The people's here, the situation is here. I really wanted to be attentive and I wanted to make sure I was true to the material so it took longer.

QUESTION (to Russell Banks): When one asks a novelist whether a film based on his work follows it closely, the writer usually replies, "Yeah, like a mugger his victim." Your presence in Cannes indicates this was not the case.

RUSSELL BANKS: Actually, out of all my books, this is the one I thought would never be adapted to film. I do normally construct a story with a fixed point of view, but this story is told from four different points of view and in a kind of spiralous structure. I couldn't imagine it as a film.

In order to do it, Atom had to essentially break it apart and reassemble it in a grammatically different way. The language of film is different to begin with. The time frame of the novel was... radical. There was a radical past and a radical future and I couldn't imagine anyone tackling that.

When I saw the script, and as it evolved, I was tranquilly astonished and thrilled by it. I thought he had managed to reassemble the parts in a fresh and original way that nevertheless maintained the story-line, the characters and their depth.

Most importantly, he managed to sustain and hold to the moral universe that the book existed in. So I was nothing but pleased, gratified - and astonished.

ATOM EGOYAN: What I felt when I read the book was that these lives, which were normally so ordinary, were suddenly elevated by this accident to the level of mythology. There was something epic and heightened. I told the story once to somebody and they said, "Well that sounds like a modern version of the Pied Piper."

That got me very excited. I went back to Robert Browning's poem and realized there was a way to weave that fable into this narrative and find that vagueness of myth. It's the biggest challenge with this film. People are forced into a situation where they have to make choices: to tell the truth or not. And to believe or not. To believe either a stranger who says he could make sense of this tragedy, or to believe a daughter who is saying, "Tell the truth, father," and he can't. To avoid melodrama and yet to be able to address this very fundamental and provocative universe was very exciting.

QUESTION: Was the story based on actual events?

RUSSELL BANKS: The literal genesis for the novel was an event in South Texas a few years ago. A number of years ago now. A school bus accident in a Mexican American community. The New York Times sent a reporter down to follow-up on the consequences of the accident on the community and the effects of litigations of the individual who were involved in it. I live in Upstate New York and know very little about Mexican-American community from South Texas, so I transplanted that event to what-if-in-upstate New York. Because I was interested not so much in an accident but rather in the coping with an accident. I think the image of a school bus and the cataclysm of the loss of children, social cataclysm on a large scale in our society, is what was driving me and I saw an opportunity to explore that social cataclysm in a very literal and specific community.

QUESTION (to Atom Egoyan): Does having a kid and a wife make the story even more important to you?

ATOM EGOYAN: You could say it but it wouldn't be true. I read the book before we had a child. The most remarkable thing is that children love to have stories. To me, that's a huge challenge because I'm a story teller, but I never had a story told to me as I was growing up. When I realized that my son wanted to hear stories, I didn't know what to do. So I started making up stories which he loved.

And kids ask questions. Some of the questions are so brave! When the little boy in the film asks whether the Pied Piper was mean because instead of drowning the kids, he could have played his magic flute to induce the burghers to pay him his due, that's such a central question! And it was very moving to me to think of the film as people needing to tell stories. And what the exchange of stories means in terms of conveying a truth or a moral. What is the truth of the Pied Piper? It's such a strange story, and yet we tell it to our children. We tell so many things to our children, whether our children see things or re-evaluate the consequences or the effect. Probably not enough, especially now that we have such an abundance of ready-made stories.

QUESTION (to Russell Banks): How did you feel about the story being transplanted to Canada?

RUSSELL BANKS: My father is Canadian so I feel Canada is the fatherland; therefore I didn't mind that at all! (Laughs). But no, in fact I was pleasantly surprised and relieved that the story could be moved to another locale because, for me, it's a parable, even though it really very much in the clutter of everyday reality and people's lives. It's meant to be perceived as a parable and to have a more universal application. Moving it up to Canada and managing at the same time to maintain and hold to the values that matter so much to me in the story is a great relief and an affirmation in a way.

QUESTION (to Atom Egoyan): In all your interviews, you insist "The Sweet Hereafter" is a *Canadian* film. For better and for worse?

ATOM EGOYAN: I'll let you in on a secret: Wen you're a film-maker in Canada, in order to get government funding, you have to take on a perverse subject. Very often you will submit a script and some person will say, "No, this really doesn't make me upset enough." (Laughs)

We have an amazing opportunity in Canada to explore these things. Companies like Alliance, and Robert Lantos in particular, support a number of such projects - which is unheard of. You don't have to defend these projects to anybody. You don't have to go through a system of explaining why people should like it. You don't have to go through the process of dealing with a dynasty of actors who will "commit" or not. It's just a completely different process.

So different that the more I am exposed to how films are made South of the border, the more I realize what a privileged situation we have. If the only downside is we have to keep our budget modest, that's fine. We can say what we want and that's extraordinary.

QUESTION: Then how do things work between Atom Egoyan and Robert Lantos, chairman of Alliance Entertainment? Does Atom just come in and say, "This is my next script, gimme the dough, thanks, bye, Bob?"

ATOM EGOYAN (with a smile): Try calling him Bobby.

ROBERT LANTOS: I never forgive or forget anyone who calls me Bobby. (Laughs) Actually, I think it works the other way around. I harass him and ask him, "So when are you going back to work?"

From the very beginning, since "The Adjuster", our arrangement has been that there's not much point in myself or in Alliance really attempting to help shape a film that Atom makes. Our interest in being with Atom has always been motivated by his talents and his unique vision. That means that what I want is more Atom - and whichever direction that takes him is just fine with me.

Now, he in turn, once the process begins, solicits input and occasionally guidance. And when he does, he receives it. By a very fortuitous coincidence, the films that I happen to personally like and the ones that really fit the niche in the global market that is available to us is the same.

A lot of countries in the world feel that they're dominated by Hollywood movies - countries like France, Germany and Australia. Unless you've lived in Canada, you have no idea what being dominated by Hollywood movies is. Some 97%-98% of the Canadian market is controlled by Hollywood movies.

As a result, we live in a country unique in the world. On the one hand, it has its own industry; on the other hand, it has a marginal presence in its own domestic market. So marginal that it barely exists. And that market is not divided by the cinemas of the world: it belongs to one cinema - the cinema of Hollywood.

As a result, it would be futile and not particularly interesting for Atom - or any of our film-makers - to make films that Hollywood studios make, which is why they're not drawn in that direction. Nor am I personally. It happens to be very pleasant that the cinema that we do make are films that are generally out of the norm. Whether they make money or they don't make money is something we find out after the fact. They certainly have something unique to say in way of enlightening the human experience that is not readily available from the mass machines which make most of the movies that dominate the markets of the world.

That's what makes Atom attractive to me. And the Selection Committee for the Cannes Film Festival seems to agree with our own selections, since this is the fifth time that one of our films is in competition here. That in itself is a statement in support for our film industry and for the kind of films that we, in fact, do make. The only thing that they have in common is that there is no such thing as "a kind of film": each one of them is a world unto itself.

QUESTION (to Atom Egoyan): Eighty-year-old Michelangelo Antonioni plans to direct "Two Telegrams" in Los Angeles. As Karel Reisz and Wim Wenders were, respectively, on John Huston's "The Dead", and Antonioni's "Beyond The Clouds", you are to be the "sub-", the "just-in-case-", the "security-" director. How do you approach that?

ATOM EGOYAN: It's an overwhelming honor to have been asked. He is a figure who has had such a profound influence on why I want to make films and I think he's a person that needs to make this film. If I can serve that, I will do it humbly and in any way I can. If I am able to. And I'll come to the set only when and if he asks me to.

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