NEW YORK — Atom Egoyan has always been attracted to edgy material. His film, “Exotica,” was about a man who becomes sexually obsessed with the stripper baby-sitter of his dead daughter. “The Sweet Hereafter,” about the effects of a school bus crash in a small town, explored — without opprobrium — an incestuous relationship between a father and daughter.
In the Canadian director’s new film, “Where the Truth Lies,” out Friday, he again tackles issues of sexual obsession and voyeurism. A noir-ish meditation on celebrity journalism that bounces between the Fifties and the early Seventies, it stars Colin Firth and Kevin Bacon as a Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis-like showbiz team whose lives are turned upside down when a young reporter (Alison Lohman) sets out to write a tell-all biography about them and becomes obsessed with a murder they may have committed years before while at their peak.
Unfortunately, the Motion Picture Association of America had problems with the film’s sex scenes and gave it an NC-17 rating.
WWD spoke with Egoyan about male nudity, the state of celebrity and the mores that separate Canadians from Americans.
WWD: Were you surprised at the MPAA’s decision?
Atom Egoyan: Completely. I think this is the most accessible film I’ve ever done. It was always intended for a wide audience and I signed a contract to deliver an R-rated version. But the central scene they’re talking about is absolutely essential to the logic and emotional coherence of the movie. You cannot take it out. And my producers backed me up on this.
WWD: So where does that leave you?
A.E.: We’ve decided to go out unclassified. But I’m shocked only because I’ve seen, or I think I’ve seen, films that go further. I think that what was transgressive to the MPAA is that it’s movie stars in a [sex] scene that looks like a studio movie. And that makes them feel it’s somehow crossing the line. Otherwise, it makes no sense. There’s no hard core. It’s as tastefully done as possible.
WWD: Is it correct to assume they’re more squeamish about male nudity, which this film has some of?
This story first appeared in the October 10, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
A.E.: I will say that the most surprising thing about going through the appeal was that I was told there would be 10 people in the room and I counted 12. When I asked them who the other two were, they said they were members of the clergy. I said, “So is that normal? Do they usually have members of the clergy?” And, apparently, they do. They don’t vote, but they’re there for the discussion — a secret discussion — which you can’t attend. I said, “Does it rotate? Do you have rabbis? Orthodox priests?” And they said, “No.” It’s always the same two members of the clergy — one Catholic and one Episcopalian. I think it goes without saying that that’s going to slant their opinion in some way.
WWD: What made you want to do this movie?
A.E.: [The book upon which it was based] was the most delirious and entertaining read. I was also really drawn to the early Seventies, which was a very important time for me musically and in terms of my own formation of what celebrity meant. It was exciting to explore the relationship we have toward stars set against a murder mystery. I love noir and neo-noirs.
WWD: What are some of your favorites?
A.E.: “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Killers,” “Double Indemnity.” I also consider “Touch of Evil” a noir. You have to go into the Seventies and look at films by Alan Pakula, films like “Klute,” the Altman movies of that period….A good noir deals with the notion of fate and a character who is somehow caught up in a machine that is intelligently toying or playing with their circumstance.
WWD: As an Armenian who grew up in Canada, what sort of place did Martin and Lewis hold for you?
A.E.: Well, I was raised on the west coast of Canada and I remember the feeling of waking up Sunday morning and seeing the tail end of a telethon [with Martin and Lewis] and just being amazed at the sheer physical endurance that it required. I don’t think you can create any separation of what we see as Canadian kids. All of our towns are within 200 miles of the States. What we might have is a bit more distance from [the celebrity thing].
WWD: How so?
A.E.: We’re incapable of mythologizing ourselves. It’s both the good and bad thing about our sensibility. It comes from living so close to a cultural behemoth. We’re trained to observe it and to create, but we don’t have that strange sense of despair that you see in places like L.A., where everyone feels that they’re owed. Which is why Americans think we’re so nice. When we talk, we just don’t have that kind of madness.