Atom and Ivan. Or is it Ivan and Atom? Either way, it has a certain ring. They could be a folk duo, a comedy act, or perhaps a tag team of professional wrestlers. But Atom Egoyan and Ivan Reitman are prominent Canadian filmmakers, and they are now, incongruously, joined at the hip—making a movie together. They couldn’t come from more far-flung extremes of cinema. Reitman is Hollywood’s erstwhile king of comedy, who patented the modern frat-boy farce with blockbusters like Animal House, Stripes and Ghostbusters. Egoyan is Canadian cinema’s resident architect of angst, an Oscar-nominated auteur who has explored grief and sexual taboo in narrative riddles like Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter and Where the Truth Lies. The notion of them working together would seem preposterous. But this month they are in Toronto shooting Chloe—an erotic intrigue about a woman (Julianne Moore) who hires a hooker (Amanda Seyfried) to test the fidelity of her husband (Liam Neeson).
Reitman is producing the film, a remake of a French movie called Nathalie that caught his eye at the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival. And he has hired Egoyan to direct it, as unlikely as it seems. “Ivan has very strong opinions about what makes something popular,” says Egoyan before shooting a scene of tense dialogue between Moore and Seyfried in a Queen Street café. “I’ve never given a second thought about what makes something popular. For Ivan, any barrier that’s created between the viewer and the movie is troubling, and in my work, that’s the zone I love to operate in.”
Then how can they possibly see eye to eye? “The question you’re asking is a fair one,” Reitman concedes in a separate interview. Yet he insists he’s a fan of Egoyan’s work, and just wants to make it more audience-friendly. “I’m hoping that this story is as emotionally and philosophically complex as anything he’s done, but presented in a manner that will suck us in as viewers in a way that his other movies have not. That’s the great hope.”
So is Reitman trying to ghostbust Egoyan out of the art house? It certainly looks that way. After hiring Egoyan, he studied half a dozen of his movies, and had “long philosophical discussions” with him about how they could have been more accessible. “I watched them very analytically, just figuring out the DNA of his work,” explains Reitman. He seized on Felicia’s Journey (1999), which “I think may be Atom’s best movie in many ways,” he says. “I pointed out where the story-telling was effective, and what he did that hurt its chances for being an audience-relatable movie.” For a drama about a serial killer, he adds, it had an odd resistance to “whipping up the emotionality for an audience.”
The notion of whipping up emotionality sounds very un-Egoyanesque. But the director, who’s always up for analyzing his own oeuvre, relished the debate: “Ivan can be very blunt and I love that. We’re both really enjoying this process. We’re both redefining some aspect of how we situate ourselves.”
Egoyan calls Chloe “a different beast” from any of his previous 11 features. Scripted by U.S. screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary), it’s the first he hasn’t written himself, and the first with a linear chronology. “It doesn’t need the stylistic approach I use on my own material,” he says. “It can be a bit freer, a bit sloppier, and more concentrated on performance.” Chloe is Egoyan’s first movie with no role for his wife, actress Arsinée Khanjian. And his first with no Canadian funding. Entirely financed by French distributor StudioCanal—and produced by Reitman’s California-based Montecito Picture Co., with his son Jason Reitman (Juno) as executive producer—Chloe may also be the first non-Canadian movie in which Toronto explicitly plays itself.
Wilson had originally set the script in her hometown of San Francisco. But Egoyan convinced her and the producers to relocate its carnal intrigue to Toronto. “There’s a unique sexuality in Toronto,” he says, “a huge erotic subculture. We’re way more exploratory than we give ourselves credit for. Ivan told me what he loved about Exotica is the way it depicted Toronto. It’s a city I understand.”
Before the shoot, Reitman and Egoyan spent a week together in Toronto, discussing its style and scouting locations. Base camp was Reitman’s lavish penthouse suite atop the Four Seasons. “There was a lot of room service,” says Egoyan, who talks about the suite like a kid who’s had his first airplane ride. “You can see the lake directly. I loved hanging out there, because it’s a Toronto I don’t know. Something about the city was being revealed to me just by virtue of this incredible nest he had in a place I’d never been to. There was something exciting and soothing about that.”
Egoyan, meanwhile, drove Reitman around the city, suggesting locations for Chloe. “It was weird that I was driving Ivan around in my Prius,” he says. “He knows the city well, well enough to know Swatow is the best place to have something late at night, and that the shrimp dumplings are the best thing there.” Atom, meanwhile, introduced Ivan to his favorite cafés. He also pointed out Wicked, Toronto’s infamous swingers’ club—which happens to be right next door to Camera Bar, a salon/cinema co-owned by Egoyan. “We didn’t go in,” he says, deadpan. “The idea of us going in there with towels around our waists was a bit much.”
At one point, after scouting a location at the University of Toronto, where he teaches part-time, Egoyan felt compelled to show Reitman his office, even though there’s nothing remarkable about it. He parked in his secret spot by the gate, and when they came back, the Prius was blocked by a truck. “It was very cold,” Egoyan recalls. “Ivan was standing there. I took him to this little cafeteria in University College and went back out. I was absolutely trapped, and it became a little nightmarish. When I came back, he’d finished his coffee and was looking at his watch. It was one of those bizarre moments where you feel you’re being punished for taking an indulgence that wasn’t completely warranted—showing him these glimpses into my life.”
Reitman, 62, and Egoyan, 48, are from different generations, and different worlds. But both are immigrants—Atom was born in Egypt, Ivan in the former Czechoslovakia. Reitman cut his teeth as a Canadian producer, working with David Cronenberg on Shivers and Rabid in the early ’70s. Then, decamping to Hollywood, he made movie stars of Saturday Night Live’s John Belushi, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd with a mix of broad comedy and sweet sentiment. As a director, Reitman scored his biggest hits in a single decade, from 1981 to 1990, notably Ghostbusters and its sequel. Lately there’s been a lot of Internet chatter about a Ghostbusters III, which the producer says is by no means imminent.
Reitman has never won a film award, aside from an honorary Genie and two Golden Reel Awards for box-office performance. But Egoyan’s career—nourished in the hothouse of publically funded Canadian cinema—has been fuelled by awards, more than 30 of them. “My whole philosophy,” he says, “has been to make films for as low a budget as possible to give me the autonomy to make the film I want.” His most costly film, Where the Truth Lies (2005), turned out to be his biggest flop, commercially and critically—which prompted his retreat to the small canvas of Adoration, due out in May.
But despite his aversion to Hollywood, Egoyan respects Reitman as part of a Canadian pantheon. “You think about the Ivans as you think about the Normans and the Davids,” he says, alluding to Jewison and Cronenberg. “We don’t have a lot of father figures. I’ve studied his career, and he was incredibly astute.” Egoyan was also once a student of Reitman’s long-time producing partner, former U of T professor Joe Medjuck, who was an art-film guru before leaving academe to join Ivan in Hollywood.
Egoyan recalls first meeting Reitman at the Genies in 1985, when he was nominated for Next of Kin and Ivan was picking up his honorary Genie: “I remember stopping him. I was all of 24 at the time. He said, ‘So what’s your movie about?’ ” Egoyan told him it was the story of a boy who infiltrates a family and masquerades as their missing son. “And that’s not so dissimilar to Dave,” he says, citing Reitman’s 1993 movie starring Kevin Kline as a presidential impersonator who falls in love with the first lady. “That’s right up my alley, in terms of surrogates.”
It’s easy to see why Reitman imagined Egoyan directing Chloe after seeing the French original, which stars Gérard Depardieu, Fanny Ardant and Emmanuelle Béart. With its layers of erotic subterfuge, Nathalie is highly reminiscent of Exotica. But Chloe is “a far more erotically charged version of the story,” says Egoyan. To research the movie, the director interviewed prostitutes in hotel bars in Manhattan. (He says he would have been too easily recognized in Toronto.) “I wanted to know details. I’d say, ‘I’m a writer doing research,’ but I’m sure they’ve heard that line a lot. If you’re paying $100 for information, they were insistent that if you paid an extra few hundred you’d find out exactly what they do. They see you as a john.”
Such forays into the demimonde are far removed from Reitman’s recent work, which ranges from directing My Super Ex-Girlfriend to executive-producing Trailer Park Boys: The Movie. “It’s a look at a mature marriage, and what happens to sexuality in marriage,” says Reitman. And in hiring Egoyan, “I thought the combination of our sensibilities would make it a good movie.
Egoyan, meanwhile, says that after Where the Truth Lies—“a film that had way too many twists and turns”—Chloe’s story will be served straight up. And so will the characters. In critiquing Egoyan’s earlier movies, Reitman liked the lead actors, “but with minor roles,” says the director. “He thinks I tend to cast more grotesque characters, as opposed to people who would just be those roles. I take glee in pursuing those paths. In this kind of movie I don’t need to do that.”
To observe Egoyan and Reitman together on the set, their stereotypes quickly fall away. Atom is at least as comic and playful as Ivan. As they pose for a Maclean’s photo, he jokes that Ivan is trying to recreate the poster for Twins. “So which one is Danny DeVito?” cracks Medjuck.
Egoyan says the previous night he took Reitman to dinner at Joso’s restaurant, whose co-owner once belonged to the famed ’60s folk duo Malka and Joso. Reitman, as it turns out, once competed against them in high school as part of a less illustrious folk group. “We got slaughtered—it got me out of the folk business forever.” Hmmm. Egoyan started out as a serious student of classical guitar. If this marriage of convenience over remaking a French movie doesn’t pan out, Ivan and Atom might work as a folk act after all. Failing that, they could always take a shot at Ghostbusters III.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.