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Atom Egoyan, writer/director of The Captive

A24 Pictures releases The Captive at Village East Cinema on December 12th, 2014.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What do you think is so appealing about dark themes?

Atom Egoyan: It's this idea of plunging the viewer into a space where they have to re-negotiate the world. Ultimately, we go through our days thinking that there's an order to things. When that's thrown out in a catastrophic way, to imagine creating a belief system that is able to give a coherence to a world that's shattered, I think that there's something really compelling about that.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you decide how much violence and sadism to show onscreen

AE: I wanted to create the sense that you're watching some act that was sadistic and that there was surveillance. So, this idea of the channel that Mika had set up to watch Cassandra's mother---first of all, it's very uncharacteristic. Most pedophiles break any connection with the parents and basically tell the victim "I'm your parent now." He actually offered this to her and then used it for his own means for a torture porn of her parent's grieving. That's extreme, but it also gives you a sense of how creepy that experience is of watching someone in that setting.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you find the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well an intellectually?

AE: I want to create stories where the viewer's mind is racing with possibilities. You're seeing something, and you're trying to figure out why you're seeing that and how the characters got to that place. What informs them in The Captive is this sense of people who have realistic, natural lives colliding with this force which is supernatural and almost like a fairy tale--a dark fairy tale. That creates a very specific alchemy. The suspense here is not in the traditional idea of withholding information; you have all of the information. Even though the girl who was captured 8 years ago is alive, you're not seeing it in a linear way. The suspense is entirely about the viewer trying to negotiate the different tonal places and shifts in mood and attitude. It's challenging, but it's what makes me excited about filmmaking.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Why do you think snowy landscapes fit crime thrillers so well?

AE: The snow blankets things. It changes the form of things. It's this white, blank way of covering up the natural landscape. It's virgin territory, and you don't know what's underneath it. Yet, it's kind of beautiful and stark.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Would it be safe to say that the wintry landscape in The Captive serves as a character?

AE: Absolutely! In this case, you have a frozen Niagara Falls which is the most magnificent natural phenomenon. You're seeing it in this kind of frozen state. You're also seeing something that's so visually accessible and public, but you're always seeing it through a window of a room which is very private and where there's a dark, malevalent observance. So, it's the alchemy of all these things thrown together which creates the tension.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think the film would work in black-and-white?

AE: The stuff in Mika's house, the modernist place that he lives in which has natural wood and strong, earthy tones is in contrast to the rest of the film which almost has a more monochrome look. So I think it could work in black-and-white. It's an interesting idea.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think that there's a short of movies for adults nowadays?

AE: A lot of those stories are migrating to television. That's where we see traditional films for adults. With the type of form and language that I'm dealing with, it's a cinematic structure that wouldn't work on television.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What do you think are the basic elements that turn a crime thriller into a classic?

AE: Interesting characterizations with characters who leave an impression on you and are complex. The motivations and ideas that they're exploring in their lives have a complexity and a resonance. On top of that, there's something about the location. As you said, location is a character. When you're casting a film, you're also casting for a location. That's why I was saying that Niagara Falls is so important for me because it functions like a character in the film.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How challenging is it to find humanism when writing a film?

AE: It's challenging in terms of the conventions and formulas that filmmaking often presents. To get a film funded, even though everyone talks about wanting to see human characters, the moment that things follow a formula, actually that becomes dehumanizing in a way. As a writer, producer and director, I'm able to challenge that a little bit.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Which actors from the Golden Age of American cinema do you imagine in The Captive?

AE: I'm a huge James Stewart fan. What Hitchcock was able to do with him in Vertigo is still one of the most remarkable performances. I'd like to work with Ava Gardner. She and James Stewart together would be great, especially if they're playing detectives chasing a pedophile ring.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think that something would be lost if The Captive were seen on the small screen?

AE: The reality is that, as much as I love seeing it on a big screen and what that means to me, it's been playing for the past few weeks on DirectTV. I just got the numbers and I was shocked at how many people had seen it, but on the one hand you can take comfort in the fact that people have bigger screens in their rooms and homes. It's still not the cinema experience. It's just a privilege now to be able to see these films in that setting. I love that in the opening shot of The Captive where you're seeing the details of what's happening on the TV monitors---that would be lost on the smaller screen. For all the things that are lost, most depressingly the idea of people being held captive in that space--being in a room where they can't distract themselves with other things in their life. That era has gone. You can mourn it, but you there's very little you can do about it with the exception of film festivals and brief theatrical runs. Most people will see this film on the small screen. That's just the way is. That doesn't mean that I'll change the way I'll shoot or conceive it; it's just a reality.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How challenging was it to find moments of levity in the film?

AE: In my research, working with detectives who do this kind of work, it's amazing how they find a black humor in what they do. It seems disturbing and sick, but that's what happens. People find ways to create a lightness or a way of taking the pressure off. There can be no more darker work than looking at screens of children being abused and not knowing where they are. Seeing a crime scene and the child getting older over time while being abused by a member of their own family sometimes, and not knowing where that house is---that is such an extraordinary dark space. You can't live in that space all the time. There's no way. You'd just become suicidal. Many of these detectives do this work for three or four years, and then they can't keep doing it.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What do you think makes Mika so interesting as a villain?

AE: He's very vain. He's very aware of his own appearance and very preening. It reflects how someone he feels supercharged and invincible. In a subtle way, he's tormented about that fact that this girl, after 8 years of captivity, is not suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and has not actually become enthralled by him. She has basically maintained her independence. Seeing how much Cassandra loves her parents, that must have an effect on him. It probably exacerbates the torture that he wants to inflict on the parents.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you imagine Cassandra in her adult years?

AE: Because of the contact with her parents, she might have an easier time than some of the victims of the Castro kidnappings. The trauma of it must be so deep. We know that she'll be living this for a long time--she has to be.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How challenging was it to cut the running time down to 112 minutes?

AE: Hugely challenging. There was a lot of deleted material, but it's something that you know you need to do, and tough choices were made.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How has the advancement of filmmaking technology affected your choices as a filmmaker?

AE: I don't know what it's like to start off in an industry where you can make films shot in professional quality and get distribution so effortlessly. Coming from a generation where you work with Super 8 with silent and then with sound. All this time, you're working toward an image that's going to look professional, and hopefully that would secure a distributor that's going to show it to the world. Well, you can do that at the beginning of your career nowadays. Does it change what I do? I don't know if it has really changed my practice. It's changed the industry, profoundly, though.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How challenging is it to know when to trust the audience's patience?

AE: When I watch my films alone, I totally get what the pace and rhythm is. I'm always surprised when I show it to a public and then I go, "Oh, okay. People are not absorbing it the same way I do." Certain things have to be tweaked or changed, but primarily it's this idea of having a clear sense of how you would want to see the story unfold. I find the structure of a film like The Captive would draw me in, but I understand the challenges that it might pose to other viewers who might expect a more conventional, linear approach to the material. There are some people who might feel confronted and distanced by that. That's why I make my own films that I write, direct and produce with a more manageable budget because I know I can't be having these conversations with executives that a more conventional film like Chloe would warrant. My practice is divided that way between the films I write, direct and produce, and the films which I direct for other people. And somewhere between that are the films I do adaptations of like The Sweet Hereafter, Felicia's Journey and Where the Truth Lies.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Which films do you think would make a great double feature with The Captive?

AE: Seance on a Wet Afternoon and Fritz Lang's M which is the first film about child abduction.

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