Atom Egoyan Talks Remember, Christopher Plummer & Holocaust

We sit down with director Atom Egoyan to discuss his new film Remember, a Christopher Plummer film about the lingering anger of survival.

Playing off themes that haltingly echo Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Remember is the new film from Canadian film maker Atom Egoyan that explores the pain and anguish still felt from the atrocities of the Holocaust. Starring Christopher Plummer as a dementia sufferer aided by his friend played by Martin Landau, the film follows a single man’s journey to hunt down the person responsible for killing his family while in Auschwitz. We chatted with Atom Egoyan (The Captive, Where the Truth Lies) to get his personal feelings on a few subjects that are close to his heart and what goes into a truly interesting thriller.

Hello Atom, thank you for your time. I was wonder if you could start off by giving us your initial reaction to the script. What drew you in toward making this film?

AE: I was really stunned by the originality of this character; I’ve never really encountered anyone like him in any book I’ve read or any film I’d seen. I think he is singular, and I thought of Christopher Plummer immediately, having worked with him before. I thought this would be an amazing role for him.

Did you know [screenwriter Benjamin August] before reading the script?

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No, not at all…

…Because his background is kind of surprising to me.

It basically came to me through a producer I had worked with before, Robert Lantos. The script had found its way into his hands, and he thought of me.

Were you shocked though when you saw Brian’s resume to see that he really hasn’t written anything before and was a guy who working in casting for reality shows?

When I got to know why he wrote this script—basically he’s someone who has been in the industry, but from a completely different perspective. He went to Vietnam for a couple of years where he met his wife and was really cut off completely from American culture, came back to it and was shocked to find out how much people forgot about Vietnam and began to reflect on his own cultural heritage as a Jewish-American and came up with this story.

Now, of course you go, “Well, how can that happen?” That someone can just think about a narrative that is so original, but he did. Yes, if you look at his IMDB, it seems like an unlikely place for this screenplay to emerge from, but I was completely confident of the quality and the originality of the material.

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Now, you just said it yourself, talking about our world’s history and how people can forget, much like you explored in Ararat. I also think a lot about our history and what may or may not end up being taught in schools; do you think we are on a road to just forgetting everything that has happened?

I think my perspective on this is very specific to my upbringing. As an Armenian, as someone who made this film (Ararat) at the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, I was very aware as I was shooting this—what haunts me is that my history is something that can be easily forgotten if it is not already something that has been erased, and certainly the perpetrators have never come to terms with it or have acknowledged it.

It’s very delicately balanced on the scale of what has happened in this last century. There happened to be this act of genocide that occurred in Anatolia, and you can say, “Yeah, well everyone knows about the Holocaust,” but I think you’ve made a very interesting observation: everyone knows about it right now, but we can see in this film (Remember) from this little girl who is reading this letter that there are people who are not being taught about the Holocaust. There are people who do still not understand the lessons to be learned from that.

We are negotiating more histories in our time than ever before. As human beings, we may not be able to absorb what the technology is offering us as a multiple series of narratives all over the world that we have access to. The danger is that we have so much we are observing that we are actually shutting down, and that we are abstracting and not understanding the full scale of what these decisions to exterminate another race might mean.

Yeah, I really do remember when the internet was being billed as the dawn of the age of information, but it really seems to be the age of disinformation. It’s really sad.

Well, information becomes a texture, right? It sort of becomes this backdrop. I don’t know if we have the wherewithal to absorb everything we have access to.

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Now, I do not know how intentional it may have been, there may have been some story points in the film that were just meant to move the piece along, but there are certainly other themes that are explored or touched upon like gun control, border patrol, how we treat the elderly, etc. Were those important for you to focus on as well?

It’s very important to pinpoint this idea that the characters are people who are marginalized in our society. They are people that we have formed a cliché around. The biggest cliché around any film about survivors at this point is that they’ve come to terms with their history and have sort of settled into what that history means.

And what I found really provocative about this movie is that, this could the last film you can make about survivors and their perpetrators in our culture because in five years, these people may not be with us. It’s a story about rage, and people feeling that justice hasn’t been served and they’re still living with the intensity of what racial hatred has done to their lives.

To move to maybe a more superficial side of that point on how we see certain sects or types of people; I’ve never met Christopher Plummer in person, but I can’t imagine him being as frail or fragile even now, as he was in this film.

He’s not. He is in very good form; he is acting that. I think it was a very difficult role for him to play. He had to fit into a character that he is not like in real life. He had to assume all the mannerisms of that and a lot of his friends have actually suffered from dementia, and he knows exactly what that means and what the details of playing someone with dementia might include.

Is there a side of that process that maybe affected the way you first approached him about the role? I know you worked with him before, but did you at all feel at first that maybe you had to skate around certain issues because you weren’t sure how he would feel about them?

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Oh no, he reacted as strongly to the script as I did and he knew this was a unique opportunity. It was funny; I’ll tell you a story. We were shooting Ararat 14 years ago about. He was still very aware about angles and he had a certain vanity about how he wanted to be photographed, and that wasn’t the case here at all. The way I was shooting, where the camera was, he just wanted to completely immerse himself in this role; it had nothing to do with wanting to look a certain way.

Aside from Christopher and Martin, who are obviously amazing in their own right, a lot of the smaller but still crucial roles are played by people who are true character actors: Dean Norris, Henry Czerny, Jürgen Prochnow, and of course the wonderful Bruno Ganz. Now, obviously you want to work with talented actors, but was there also an idea of using actors that people would recognize without maybe immediately knowing from where or what their name is?

Well… Yes. I can say there is some perverse pleasure in casting Bruno Ganz for a role where he is actually not in the ads after people have famously seen him play Hitler in Downfall. Or, casting Martin Landau from Mission: Impossible where again he is creating a different mission that really does seem impossible. Maybe even going as far as saying we cast Christopher Plummer, because everyone knows him as Captain von Trapp, and he usually plays German characters. He has played Nazis and then suddenly he is not play that. There are these delicious kinds of resonances, but you can’t get too obsessed with that.

Really that is for film geeks and a lot of people won’t recognize Jürgen Prochnow. We know him from Das Boot, but a lot of people won’t recognize him, won’t remember that film. Maybe the most interesting resonance is Dean Norris who we all know as Hank from Breaking Bad, and this is an odd spin on that role in terms of playing a different type of law enforcement officer.

True, but as much as I love Christopher in almost everything he does, he will always be in some strange and twisted way, Harry Reikle from The Silent Partner, to me.

Oh cool, I’m glad you’ve seen that film. It is such an amazing performance.

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Now, again for me, even just hearing your name, I always immediately think of The Sweet Hereafter, but in ways it seems that you have a penchant for thrillers. Is that something that has always been on your radar?

Here’s an interesting story. My second feature was this film called Family Viewing. It won an award at the Toronto film festival in ’88 for Best Canadian Feature…. They asked [the film critic for Le Monde] why he gave this award to this unknown film maker and he said, “This person knows how to make a thriller.”

It’s interesting how this genre has come up in a lot of my own scripts, my independent films like Exotica. It was marketed as a thriller and it came up in other films like Felicia’s Journey, it came up in Chloe, and it is here again. What I find funny about the genre is that there is this idea that psychological pressures force these characters to make decisions and take actions that come to danger, could lead to violence in some way. There are perils and there are risks involved and that creates an interesting tension.

There is also this idea that the characters are maybe caught in some sort of machine beyond their control, which is a classical noir sort of trope. Hitchcock used it of course. This film is definitely one where the character is caught up in a plan and a machine he doesn’t understand; he can’t understand because of the dementia, maybe. It’s curious to have Martin Landau playing that because of course he is an actor who worked with Hitchcock in North by Northwest, which is about someone caught up in a plan that he has no control over, something that Hitchcock used repeatedly as a motif. Look, I love those American neo-noirs from the ‘70s like The Conversation; it is one of my favorite films. So I’ve been influenced by that genre.

But are there things you try to look out for when entering into the genre? Whether to avoid certain pitfalls or to look for inspiration? I mean, no matter what I did while watching this film, I couldn’t help but be a bit reminded of Memento. How conscious are you of other films while making your own?

Well Memento is an inspiration; it’s pretty obvious in the film when he writes down information on his wrist. But Memento is also, interestingly enough, more similar structurally to my own scripts. It’s non-linear and it challenges a conventional structure. This film of course is not; it’s completely linear and much simpler than a film like Memento, but it is definitely something that Ben was thinking of when he wrote the script.

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Remember is now in limited release.