Opening Remember opposite Batman vs. Superman appeared to be a brilliant stroke of counter-programming. Alas, a superhero-sized need for screen domination dictated otherwise, and the edge-of-your-seat modern-dress Holocaust thriller starring Christopher Plummer and Martin Landau — both in their late 80s — lost the battle and was pushed back to April 1.
The studio asked that we withhold the review until opening week. (Spoiler alert: five stars aren’t enough.) So as to plant a seed, here’s an interview with the film’s director and genre-warping smuggler extraordinaire, Atom Egoyan.
Scott Marks: It’s been 15 years since last we spoke — you were promoting Where the Truth Lies at the time — and you haven’t let me down since.
Atom Egoyan: Thank you. That’s very kind of you to say.
SM: Do you recall the first film your parents took you to?
AE: Yes. It was The Sandpiper with Steve McQueen. That was way back when.
SM: Forgive me, but The Sandpiper starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
AE: Right. Then it’s...Sand was in the title...
SM: Oh! The Sand Pebbles.
AE: The Sand Pebbles. That’s it!
SM: Your parents took you to see a three-hour war film?
AE: It wasn’t my parents. It was my grandmother. I couldn’t speak English at the time. I remember it very well — I haven’t seen it since — but there’s a scene where a man is crushed by the pistons of a ship. I remember my grandmother covering my eyes because she knew that it was something I shouldn’t see. For what it’s worth, my first experience with film was kind of a traumatic one.
SM: (Laughing) It beats the hell out of Old Yeller. While glancing over your filmography, I hit upon a couple of entries that took me back. I had forgotten that almost 30 years ago, you directed two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and an episode of The Twilight Zone. What was it like working for major networks? And if the opportunity were to come knocking today, would you direct a television show?
AE: Television is very different now than it was then. Those were exceptional opportunities for a young filmmaker, because they were anthologies, very cool mini-films. That was a great opportunity to hone my skills, but I have to say that in the case of Hitchcock Presents, it gave me the opportunity to work with Martin Landau. That was when we first worked together. It was an episode called “The Final Twist.” I had to pinch myself that I was working with an actor who had actually worked with Hitchcock. We spent most of the time on that set talking about North By Northwest. It was an unbelievably great experience. When I read the script, he was the first person who came to mind for the role.
AE: (A telephone rings in the background) Hold on one second, please. (Speaking into other phone) Dad? I can’t talk now. I’m on the phone. I’ll talk to you later. Bye!
SM: (Laughing) Beat it, dad! I have a movie to sell!
AE: (Laughing) Yeah. I was going to chastise him for letting me see The Sand Pebbles.
SM: Was Christopher Plummer also your first choice?
AE: Yes. I had worked with him on Ararat and we had a very good experience working on that together. We needed a phenomenal actor who could work without traditional subtext. Because of his dementia, there’s no subtext to work with as such. He’s in this eternal present. I knew that Christopher would find a way of making that really compelling and that we wouldn’t be able to look away from him. The camera certainly doesn’t look away from him for a moment. He’s always on.
SM: I must admit that after reading a plot summary that involved four of my least favorite subjects for a movie — the potential sentimentalization of the Holocaust, geezer-porn (movies, generally cuddly ones featuring Maggie Smith, geared for the over-70 set), mental disorder, and action — this sounded like a real slog. Then I saw your name and couldn’t wait to hit play.
AE: I had a lot of those same issues, interestingly enough, because it was presented to me with a lot of those clichés. Then I read the script and felt it was unlike any other character I had ever encountered in books or in film. I felt that this was an opportunity to explore this from a completely different angle and to create something that would be surprising. I had the luxury of having these two actors in mind as I read it, because I knew who could pull it off. But I felt that there was something about the machine that Max (Landau) creates with this letter and this mission — really a mission: impossible, I suppose — I felt that there was something really compelling about that. After the last couple of films I’ve made, which had been incredibly ambitious in terms of the structure and the storytelling, there was something incredibly appealing about how deceptively simple this was.
SM: There was one more thing that took me aback a bit. Prior to this, screenwriter Benjamin August was best known for his work as a casting director on Fear Factor. How did his script get into your hands?
AE: Through a quite circuitous route, through a series of producers who passed it to each other because they all felt it would be challenging to get it made. And it finally ended up with a producer who I’ve had a relationship with, Robert Lantos, who then presented it to me. Everyone was intrigued by the script, but everyone recognized the challenges it presented from a marketing perspective, mainly for the reasons that you mentioned. We knew that if were able to make the film and realize the potential of what the script was offering, that with the right actor we could make a very unusual take on material that has been excavated quite thoroughly before us. It’s all told in the present tense, so we’re really understanding that this is one of the last stories we can tell about this in our time, before the victims and perpetrators disappear. So, there was this sense of urgency and sense that it was new territory.
SM: You are one terrific smuggler. In addition to everything we’ve touched on, the film also incorporates a couple of hot button topics that in less capable hands would have felt like it was raining bricks. The first thing Zev (Plummer) does after leaving the nursing home is buy a gun. A man, clearly in the early stages of dementia and incapable of remembering how to use a firearm, walks out with a gun, no questions asked.
AE: In fact, it is that easy. We were very specific about...of course, it varies state to state, but it would be that easy, actually. I just needed to do the research and make sure it was reflecting a reality, which is in some states it’s shockingly easy to buy a gun.
SM: You know, we have this guy running for president who wants to erect a wall.
AE: (Laughing) Yeah. I’ve heard of him.
SM: And here is Zev, a man clearly disconnected from reality — and with an expired passport and gun in tow — who manages to waltz across the border. Your timing couldn’t have been better.
AE: The thing about a film like this is that you just want to make sure that you do the research, that you’re able to talk to border guards and understand that everything that happens in the film is possible. You set a tone where you’re not putting undue emphasis on what would happen quite casually and in an almost effortless way. I think that that’s part of what my job is; to make sure that tonally you create a world where...it’s one thing to say that something could happen, but it’s another thing for the viewer to accept it. This film is very much about that, suspension of disbelief. Without giving away the ending, even though we have a lot of clues that there is something else going on, none of them are so specific as to raise concerns. In fact, we spend most of the film feeling very empathetically toward Zev, and worried about him even though we know he has a gun and an assassination order.