Writer/Director Atom Egoyan Talks THE CAPTIVE, His Writing Process, the Non-Linear Narrative, Dark Material, REMEMBER, and More

     December 10, 2014


In his disturbing child-abduction thriller, The Captive, writer/director Atom Egoyan explores the ambiguous nature of the human condition and how ordinary people react when drawn into dreadful circumstances.  Haunting events unfold against a wintry Canadian landscape and secrets are revealed out of time over an 8-year period as parents Matthew (Ryan Reynolds) and Tina Lane (Mireille Enos) are torn apart by the kidnapping of their young daughter (Alexia Fast) while two detectives (Rosario Dawson, Scott Speedman) investigate the case.  Kevin Durand and Bruce Greenwood also co-star.

At the film’s recent press day, Egoyan spoke about creating the atmospheric look and tone of the film, his writing process, the inspiration behind the story, tackling a difficult subject with care and sensitivity, approaching the narrative in a non-linear fashion, the impact of sophisticated new technology and how it can be abused, working with a low budget while attracting great actors to play roles they wouldn’t be able to explore otherwise, finding ways to keep dark material from becoming too grim, how his cultural background attracts him to themes that deal with unresolved circumstances, and his upcoming thriller Remember with Christopher Plummer.  Check out our interview after the jump:

When you were doing the visual design for the movie, how much prep in general went into creating the look and the tone with your Production Designer and DOP?

the-captive-atom-egoyanATOM EGOYAN:  The first decision was the season because it was always in the script that it’s over eight years and it centered around these meetings that happened every year on Cassandra’s birthday between the mother and the detective.  So, the season is important, and winter was very appealing just because of this idea of things being covered, that there be something virginal, being something like a blank canvas, that there’s a sense of erasure.  It’s the idea of winter and how that would play visually, the idea of Niagara Falls as being the most accessible public spectacle in the country, but it’s always being viewed through the windows of this hotel room and that’s a very private spectacle.  The collision of those two was really important, but also the Falls is frozen in the winter, so it was this idea of it being shown in a very particular way.  That all comes into one aspect of the design.

It’s also this idea of viewing and always being aware of watching something and the way that that would create a certain visual strategy.  The idea of the film being very black and white, but the warmth is actually in the most dangerous place.  It’s in this lair.  That’s the most colorful place in the whole film.  So, those are all designed.  The idea that Mika (Kevin Durand’s character) sees himself as this Marquis de Sade in this kind of chateau, but it’s a modern chateau in that it has all of these echoes of this person who has designed his life to a T and to the point where he’s abducted another human being and created this cell for them that was probably part of the design of the house weirdly enough.  So, all of those — the tones and the values and the way people dress and all that — are in the conversation with your Production Designer and your DOP from the very beginning.  It’s tricky because it’s digital.  My first experience with digital wasn’t so happy, so I wanted to make sure this one looked like a film.

How long did it take you to write the script and did it go through multiple rewrites?

EGOYAN:  I’ve been working on this for about seven years.  The essential story was there in the first drafts, but I just found that it took a long time.  I put it away for a while.  And then, I had a friend of mine who I’ve known for a very long time and who always looked at my original scripts and said, “If you just tilt slightly toward genre, you can make it that much more accessible.”  This was the script I’d said, “Okay.  You’ve been saying this for years ‘what would you do with this?’”  It was interesting how it came back because all the tech developments were heightened and the procedural aspects, which was fascinating to me, because we’re actually viewers ahead of the detectives through most of the film.  We know that she’s alive.  We know who abducted her from the first frame of the film really, and they’re making the wrong choices, and we understand that.  But the banter and the tone, and the nature of their workplace, was something that really took the script to another place, and I found that was what it needed.  It was very concentrated on the mother in the hotel room and Mika and Matthew (Ryan Reynold’s character).  The detectives were always there, but they were more peripheral characters.

This is not your average run of the mill story.  Where did the inspiration for this come from?

the-captive-rosario-dawsonEGOYAN:  Well, it came from two different places.  Originally, in the town I’m from on the west coast of Canada, Victoria, there was a child abduction.  This boy was basically with his parents in a park.  His parents turned around for one moment and he disappeared.  He’s never been found.  Every time I go back, I see posters and they’re all age enhanced, and I’ve seen him grow up.  It’s very haunting because the parents still believe he’ll reemerge somehow into their lives.  So that was one place that definitely I had been thinking about of how you live with something that’s not resolved, which is so catastrophic.  But also, there was a town in Ontario called Cornwall, which is why one of the detectives is called Cornwall, where there was a suspected pedophile ring.  Seventeen victims emerged who said that they were all subjected to ritualized abuse with all the leaders of the community – priests and teachers and lawyers and well known politicians – and it all seemed improbable.

When was that?

EGOYAN:  This actually was resolved a few years ago.  If you look up Cornwall Pedophile Ring Ontario, you’ll see the whole sad story because it was the largest public inquiry in Ontario’s history.  $50,000,000 was spent trying to figure out what had happened, at the end of which time, the judge could only ascertain that he didn’t know whether or not there was or wasn’t a pedophile ring.  They couldn’t ascertain and yet the victims were telling the story.  One police officer, whose name is Perry Dunlop, hence the other detective being called Dunlop, stood up and said that this was very real and he was completely ostracized by the community.  Look up his name, too, because it’s a fascinating story.  It’s Perry Dunlop, Cornwall Pedophile Ring.  I’m not retelling that story at all specifically, but it’s that sense of not knowing how deep a ring like that can go and whether or not it’s possible that you could have a gala function, and it’s a charity, and whether or not that might be part of this.  You’re not quite sure.  I wanted to put the viewer into that space where they’re not sure where the edges are and ultimately to create this subculture.  I knew I couldn’t show a child abuse, of course, but I could show adults being abused by the people who were abusing the children.  And so, the scenes of torture with Mireille Enos give you that disquieting feeling of watching something which is transgressive.

The scariest moment for me in this film is when that green light comes on and they are completely unaware that they’re still being filmed and watched by this guy.

EGOYAN:  That technology exists now and it’s horrifying, but it’s entirely possible.

Does technology scare you a bit?

the-captive-mireille-enos-rosario-dawsonEGOYAN:  It surprises me.  I mean, it scares me in as much as everyone knows about Big Brother, but what I’m trying to touch on is the notion that there’s also Stepbrother and Little Brother and there are all sorts of permutations.  I think it was actually more comfortable when we knew where the source was of what we were being watched by, and that it was this monolithic activity that we’re subject to, and we all understand that in our society.  But what is harrowing now is that you have all there very particular, peculiar channels that are constructed for nefarious reasons by individuals who have very particular motivations.  And not only can that be used, but it can also be transmitted and it can be shared.  And there’s the whole world of the deep web, which we’re not even aware of how prevalent these types of images are and how they’re traded.  In the nineties, Interpol basically felt it had some control over the exchange of child pornography, because it was all hard images that were being mailed and the situation was relatively under control.  What has happened with the advent of the internet is you have seen a whole industry develop as a result of the anonymity and the ability of file sharing, which is just effortless.  It is encrypted and it’s completely impossible to crack.  When she says, “It’s like searching for a needle in the haystack,” the more I did the research, and the more you talk to the detectives, you understand how this nightmare situation of seeing a crime scene and not knowing where that is, and watching a child grow up in this crime scene over time and seeing them abused by a family member very often, and the heartbreaking idea that at a certain point those images just stop because they’re not children anymore.  But, in fact, they go on to whatever life and know that those images are out there and are haunted by it forever.  So that world is scary and that is a world of technology.  But I use technology all the time.  This film is on Direct TV and it’s being transmitted into homes, and the technology for my craft has huge benefits.  But, it can be abused, of course.

What are the advantages to you as a storyteller to approach a narrative in a non-linear fashion like you did with The Captive

EGOYAN:  I can’t for the life of me write in any other way.  It’s funny I just finished a film which is linear and it’s a script that I completely enjoyed and I trusted it.  But it’s just the way I write.  It’s not like there was ever a linear approach, and it felt like that with this story.  In fact, one of the reasons why I put it away for a while is that it felt like there might be another way to approach it, but I just couldn’t see how you would approach this story in any other way.  It felt that we needed to be in Cassandra’s present.  We needed to have a sense that this was a woman who had spent half of her life being raised by her natural parents and half of her life being raised by this monster and understanding that she must have learned something from him.  And in fact, she has.  She’s learned how to manipulate and she’s learned how to actually manufacture her own escape ultimately.  But to do that in a linear way would have been impossible.  We have to see that her central condition is the present, and that she lives in this cell, and that has to become a huge part of the structure of this story.

the-captive-kevin-durand-rosario-dawsonFilms like this that are deep, dark and challenging are increasingly rare, and if you want to tackle subject matter like this, you have to work with lower budgets.  Is that distressing in a way?

EGOYAN:  Yes, but I’ve always worked with lower budgets.  So, for me, I go into it understanding that’s the case.  I have a team and we’re used to working with those lower budgets and getting the quality of work that you see.  The question is approaching the actors and their generosity.

Because you’re writing roles they want to play?

EGOYAN:  Yes.  And also, with some of these actors, they’re working for substantially less than what they would normally work for, but they’re doing work and playing characters that they wouldn’t be able to explore otherwise.  In a strange way, in this new world, they control a lot of the ability to make those films because their attachment is what makes the financing possible.  There was a time I think when it was the director’s name, but that’s shifted.  After deciding what story you want to tell, the second most important decision is at what level you want to tell it.  And the more expensive it is, the more interference that you have, and the less possible it is to actually go to these places and to work with these structures.  So, it’s a compact that I’ve made.  I started my career, as you know, with tiny films, and so, it’s been very incremental.  I think what’s difficult is for the people who have made those more serious studio projects wanting to continue working in that tradition and having to downscale.  That might be more challenging, but it’s not a problem for me.  It’s how I’ve always made my films.

Why were these the best actors to tell your story?

EGOYAN:  I knew that the character of Matthew was going to go through a ringer.  I knew that a lot of suspicion was going to be placed on him, even though I understood that the viewer would see that he wasn’t responsible.  Because of the intensity of the suspicion that’s thrown on him, I needed him to remain empathetic and yet to have another side to him where you understood that there was something he was wrestling with and that that was clear and would hold our interest.  So, Ryan was a choice I had in mind, and I’d seen Buried.  I’d seen this very little film he’d made called The Nines.  And I saw that he was capable of that.  But more than anything, I knew that the audience would root for him because it was important that at no point did you really feel that he was as suspicious as what Scott (Speedman) is projecting onto him.  At the same time, I think there are people at the end of the film who will not be sure, and that’s part of the experience of it as well.  With Rosario, I wanted someone who was completely available and open and who was believable as a spokesperson for this cause.  So she was a very appealing choice.  Scott, I wrote it for because we had such a great experience working on Adoration.  And Mireille, I’d worked with her on Devil’s Knot and she had this character where she played these three different sorts of characters.  Within one day, she transformed herself into these three totally different looks.  I hadn’t seen The Killing, but I just thought she was an exceptional actress, and I was really happy when she came on.

the-captive-alexia-fastWe asked Ryan because the film is so serious and hardcore in nature how do you juxtapose that and bring a little levity into it and he said all signs pointed to you.

EGOYAN:  I just think I love the process of making films.  It’s not tortuous for me at all.  I love being with my crew.  I love actors.  There’s a joy to the process.  We’re lucky to be making films.  My crew and I have been working together for a long time.  I think that that’s what emanates.  It’s just the pleasure of the process.  I mean, even when you’re dealing with the most dark material, much like when we did the research with the detectives themselves, a lot of that kind of joking around that they do in the film, which might seem distasteful, that’s what these people do.  They find ways to kind of keep it light in the darkest place, because you can’t actually be in that place otherwise.  It’s too grim.  It’s too extreme.  What you’re dealing with is unimaginable.  It’s like kids being abused by family members, and that being broadcast and people are participating.  It’s horrifying and it’s heartbreaking and you can’t be in that place.  Most of these detectives work for two or three years max because there’s just too much darkness.

In your body of work and in your storytelling, a lot of your characters deal with their tragedy and loss over a period of time.  Why is that one of the aspects of storytelling that you are drawn to as a writer?

EGOYAN:  I don’t know if I can be specific about it, but it’s just that it’s one of the aspects of the human condition which I find [fascinating].  I love when people are resilient and when they form ways of dealing with grief or dealing with some traumatic episode, and sometimes those are the wrong choices.  Sometimes they are actually accelerating or reinforcing the trauma by the system they’ve chosen.  Like in Exotica, for instance, the decision to go into a strip club and have your former babysitter play your murdered daughter as a form of therapy, it felt so right but it was so wrong.  And you could see them spiraling into this place that’s going to be destructive for the two of them.  And that’s broken.  And so, in this case as well, there’s this sense of if a child is missing, the parents would be living with that all the time.  I mean, I guess it’s part of my cultural baggage as an Armenian.  I think it’s just this idea of living with a history that is not resolved and having to constantly talk about that and explain it.  I’m reading this really great book actually by a young journalist, Melanie Tommasi, about this century of this circumstance of what it means when things are not resolved and how that perpetuates this sense of trauma.  So maybe that’s where it comes from.  I don’t know.

You said maybe it’s because I’m Armenian that I understand and appreciate and move forward this idea of things being unresolved.  Would you say that is a thread in your work?

the-captive-mireilles-enos-ryan-reynoldsEGOYAN:  Yeah.  I’m attracted to ambiguity.  I like those moments.  I remember with this film, I don’t know if Scott mentioned this, but in the script, when he says, “He reminds me of someone,” there was a conversation between Mireille and Rosario in the café, and you can hear the question still, when Mireille asks, “Did he believe all that stuff that he said that night?”  Rosario begins to say something, and then Mireille cuts her off and says, “That’s bullshit.”  Well, we had a whole scripted response and she explains Scott’s background, but it just seemed so much more interesting not to have that.  It seems so much more interesting that we had to imagine what that might be.  I didn’t want it to be reductive.  Sometimes you think you want to know something, but it’s actually more exciting and more resonant when you have to try [and figure it out].  I think the most interesting decision in this film is what led to Mika putting this camera in these rooms.  It must have been that Cass was missing her mother so terribly and he offered this as a gift, but only to understand the moment it was there how it could be abused, how it could be turned into this other channel.  I don’t think Cass is in any way aware of these objects that are being placed.  I don’t think she’s aware of how it’s become a torture machine for the mother.  I don’t think she’s aware that she’s recording these stories and they’re being used as this weird voiceover over these images.  People make decisions that may have one intent and yet are somehow perverted into something else.  And sometimes it’s because of design.  Sometimes it’s because of happenstance.  But very often, it’s mysterious to them.  And I think what might be happening there is that Mika, for someone who’s so sadistic in his drive, it’s actually almost masochistic for him to see how much Cass loves the mother and not him.  And yet, he’s designed that himself.  In a classic pedophile situation, when the child is abducted, the parents are cut off.  There are no parents.  They don’t care about you.  It’s just me.  I’m here.  I’m your parent.  He hasn’t done that, which is curious.  So, those are all things that we see in the film, and whether or not one wants to investigate them and go further, it’s there.  It’s shocking to me how many viewers don’t.  They just don’t want to read that stuff, and maybe it’s just because of the material, but it’s what excites me to make a film.

What are you working on next?

the-captive-rosario-dawson-atom-egoyanEGOYAN:  It’s a film called Remember and Christopher Plummer plays a holocaust survivor in the early stages of dementia who thinks he’s found the person responsible for having killed his family in Auschwitz and goes on a mission to execute this person but keeps forgetting why.  It’s sort of a meditation on all of these things, but what’s remarkable when I got the script is that it’s all these themes that are really close to me, but it’s a completely linear story, and yet the complexity of the character is so fascinating, and Plummer is extraordinary.  I worked with him on Ararat and it was just a pleasure to work with him again.

You’re a filmmaker, storyteller, artist, sculptor and musician.  You’ve worked with amazing people in each one of these fields.  Which one is really you?

EGOYAN:  Oh, a filmmaker.  I mean, I started in theater and I wanted to write plays, but I never really found an original voice as a playwright.  I still write plays.  I still do theater and opera, but the moment I started making films, which I have to say I started in college because the college dramatic society turned down one of my plays, and out of spite, I went to the film club and said, “Okay, I’ll make it as a movie.”  But the moment I held that camera, it just felt like “Oh, this is another character.  This is someone watching the drama.”  It was always a character for me.  I think in the really early films, it literally is the missing person.  It’s the person watching.  So, it’s what I feel most natural doing.  But I love all these other worlds.  I’m about to go into rehearsals for an opera.  I love that world as well.

The Captive is now playing exclusively on DIRECTV through December 11th and opens theatrically in New York on December 12th and in Los Angeles on December 19th.

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