Shifting fairy tales

Atom Egoyan on rabbits, restaurants and Mychael Danna and Shannon Graham's music for Guest Of Honour

by Anne-Katrin Titze and Ed Bahlman

Guest Of Honour director and rabbit competition winner Atom Egoyan with Anne-Katrin Titze’s Steiff Dürer Bunny at the Seven Grams Caffe in New York
Guest Of Honour director and rabbit competition winner Atom Egoyan with Anne-Katrin Titze’s Steiff Dürer Bunny at the Seven Grams Caffe in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

At the Canada Now Opening Night U.S. premiere on February 13, of Atom Egoyan’s Guest Of Honour, starring David Thewlis and Laysla De Oliveira with Luke Wilson and Arsinée Khanjian, 99 Records founder Ed Bahlman asked Atom about his work with longtime composer Mychael Danna (Remember, The Captive, Devil’s Knot, Chloe, Adoration, Where The Truth Lies, Ararat, Felicia's Journey, The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica, The Adjuster, Speaking Parts, Family Viewing, Gideon Raff’s The Red Sea Diving Resort, Oscar for Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi) and Shannon Graham.

Guest Of Honour China poster from Atom Egoyan’s phone
Guest Of Honour China poster from Atom Egoyan’s phone Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Ed Bahlman: Atom, it’s a beautiful score. Can you talk a little bit how you worked with the composer?

Atom Egoyan: The composer is someone I’ve been working with since Family Viewing, Mychael Danna. He’s a very brilliant composer. Because of the relationship, a lot of the visual composing is done understanding what he’s going to bring to it as a storyteller. He’s a great storyteller. He’s worked with a number of really important filmmakers.

He won an Academy Award for Life of Pi. In this film [Guest of Honour], because of Veronica’s [Laysla De Oliveira] score and her music, we also had to find a piece of music that the band would be playing. I chose this piece by a young woman in Toronto who works in jazz. That was her piece of music that you hear when the band is playing. But then Mychael is using motifs from that in elaborating his score and also his motifs.

EB: Was he given scenes before the movie was completed to work on?

AE: We have done that. There are certain films, Exotica specifically or Adoration, where characters are actually playing a piece of music. So he has to come up with the motif so that the characters can actually play the motif. In this case we chose, Shannon Graham is her name, Shannon Graham’s piece that the band is playing and Veronica is conducting to.

The afternoon after his Guest Of Honour première at the IFC Center, Atom and I met at Seven Grams Caffe in Tribeca for an in-depth conversation on his latest film and his success with rabbits.

Anne-Katrin Titze’s Steiff Dürer Bunny
Anne-Katrin Titze’s Steiff Dürer Bunny Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Guest Of Honour is the story of restaurant health inspector Jim Davis (David Thewlis) and his daughter Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira), a high school music teacher who finds herself in prison. Anything but linear, the film touches on many aspects of social interactions that only less than a month ago seemed normal.

Restaurants in the movie are fighting not to be shut down, because for some that would mean the end of their existence. A big old bunny named Benjamin functions as an almost magical spiritual talisman. Little did I know that Atom himself had a long history with rabbits and as a boy won ribbons for them.

Anne-Katrin Titze: You mentioned the scene with the drawer, which I loved. And then finding out when Arsinée [Khanjian] mentioned it at the premiere, that these were your ribbons, for your rabbit! That you had this career!

Atom Egoyan: My career! My other career!

AKT: Your rabbit presenting career!

Atom Egoyan on David Thewlis as Jim Davis: “Everything is kind of heightened. Wherever the origin of something is, it’s slightly askew.”
Atom Egoyan on David Thewlis as Jim Davis: “Everything is kind of heightened. Wherever the origin of something is, it’s slightly askew.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AE: Yes. My true calling! Unfortunately I couldn’t raise a family on that. I tried desperately.

AKT: Before we go into the bunnies, because I do want to talk about the bunnies, a word about the great sound design for the moment with the drawer. When he closes the top drawer, something gets stuck in there.

AE: Oh yes, I love that moment. But again that’s unexpected. Actually there’s a paper…

AKT: … trapped, yes.

AE: I’m so happy you say that. I love that moment. That just happened. I love that sort of gift. It’s that child’s toy that you fold. That was crammed in there.

AKT: We used to call this little paper game Heaven and Hell.

AE: You’re thankful that the microphone is there to capture that sound because you would never think of creating it.

AKT: That’s one of the rabbit holes into the story. Also, the important moment with the mirror in the end plus the rabbit theme - were you thinking looking glass and Alice?

AE: Yes, yes, exactly.

Executive Director of the Canadian Film Institute Tom McSorley, Atom Egoyan and Arsinée Khanjian at the Guest Of Honour première in New York
Executive Director of the Canadian Film Institute Tom McSorley, Atom Egoyan and Arsinée Khanjian at the Guest Of Honour première in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: The body is gone, the grin remains?

AE: You said that’s in Where The Truth Lies, there was some of the Alice in Wonderland. Anyway thank you. It’s just great when you’re able to invest these things.

AKT: Let’s get to the rabbits. Is there a specific name for those rabbit Köttels? You are the expert.

AE: Rabbit shit.

AKT: You are eating a pastry at the moment. You don’t mind? [Atom shakes his head] Don’t rabbits eat them at night? [Now he looks concerned]. When I studied for the exam to become a [New York State Department of Environmental Conservation licensed] Wildlife Rehabilitator, one of the questions was about that: “Is it normal that rabbits at night eat some of their poop?” The answer was “Yes.”

AE: I’ve never heard this. I’ll look this up. But rabbits don’t roll their own shit, do they? When he [David Thewlis as Jim Davis] is rolling it, he is definitely manipulating it to become something else. He’s transforming it from one rodent to another.

AKT: He is becoming a rabbit by doing this?

Canada Now poster at the IFC Center in New York
Canada Now poster at the IFC Center in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AE: That’s a great concept.

AKT: Some of your edits are very funny. Right after the rabbit ear scene, you see him eat a bowl of soup and you have him eat a cracker that looks like one of those disgusting [rabbit] ears.

AE: I wish every viewer were like you. What I find very interesting, these restaurants he goes into - how these kind of national stories are distorted, right? They become kind of corrupted and weirdly made perverse in some way because they’re taken out of context.

AKT: Yes - the performative aspect of restaurants.

AE: So everything is kind of heightened. Wherever the origin of something is, it’s slightly askew. Or that’s the way that Jim Davis is seeing it. Is that how those restaurants are? Or is that his perception of what they are?

AKT: I felt that was super realistic. You captured the askew essence of restaurants that present any local cuisine. Sometimes you feel as though you are entering a performance piece in every restaurant that features an “authentic cuisine”. The German restaurant in this film, for instance, has a bit of the flavor of Remember.

AE: For instance the conversation that is not translated in the Armenian restaurant is the fact that the chef is saying “This is a stupid idea, we don’t eat rabbit meat.” And it’s true. There’s no traditional rabbit dishes in Armenian. But she is saying “It was an ancient dish. The tribes that had come from the Anatolian mountains used rabbit.”

Khawar Nasim, Interim Consul General of Canada in New York
Khawar Nasim, Interim Consul General of Canada in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

How do you substantiate when something becomes decorative? Or when it becomes performative? What is its origin, its source? Like that moment when he photographs the wife who’s died, cooking. And she says it’s actually a Brazilian dish. And he says it’s a Portuguese dish as opposed to a Brazilian dish and immediately he wants to create a restaurant which is a fusion of the two. Remember that line?

AKT: Yes.

AE: Maybe it’s his Englishness, and it’s a post-colonial space he’s in when he talks about his restaurants as empires. “We’re creating an empire”. It’s a kind of residual sense that from a colonial point of view you create this idea of cultures being something which is commodified. It’s a transaction. It’s not coming from a place that’s actually rooted. I think that’s what the film is proposing.

These new cultures are being created within the film. The rabbit feet being placed almost like a pharaoh. In the hands of a man in a Catholic funeral! The priest [Luke Wilson] is able to accommodate that because he understands the particular needs of that burial. These myths that we have, or these stories, come out of a psychological need to tell the story in a particular way. You know. How the Grimm fairy tales, how they’ve been shifted, right?

René Bourdages, Senior Director, Cultural Portfolio Management at Telefilm Canada
René Bourdages, Senior Director, Cultural Portfolio Management at Telefilm Canada Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Right.

AE: You could not have the violence of the Cinderella story. You do not have the Grandmother [mother] slicing the foot to accommodate the slipper. It becomes softened, it becomes changed to whatever that particular generation or culture needs. These things are mutable.

AKT: They have to, otherwise they die.

AE: That scene in the German Restaurant we shot in a place in Hamilton, called the Germania Club. We didn’t do a lot of set decoration.

AKT: It looked like the last house you visit in Remember.

AE: Yeah, frozen. It’s a version of that identity that’s fixed. It’s become calcified.

They Will Take My Island, Atom Egoyan’s collaboration with composer Mary Kouyoumdjian and projection artist Laurie Olinder on Arshile Gorky, which was scheduled for March 27 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been cancelled because the museum, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, is undergoing a thorough cleaning. It appears that The Met expects to be closed until July, cancelling this year’s first Monday in May (documented by Andrew Rossi in The First Monday In May) press preview and Costume Institute Gala for About Time: Fashion and Duration on May 4.

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