Atom Egoyan: How we made Exotica – 25th anniversary

A quarter of a century after it became a defining 1990s indie hit, we speak to Atom Egoyan about the unusual genesis of his puzzlebox strip-club drama Exotica.

Josh Slater-Williams
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Exotica (1994)

Exotica (1994)

  • Spoiler warning: This interview gives away the film’s ending

Misleadingly marketed as an erotic thriller by Miramax, Exotica proved a notable box-office success for a Canadian film when it was released a quarter of a century ago. It was a commercial breakthrough for its Cairo-born writer-director Atom Egoyan, following well-regarded arthouse titles such as Speaking Parts (1989) and The Adjuster (1991). Nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and recipient of eight Genie awards (Canada’s equivalent of the Oscars), Egoyan’s film remains one of Canadian cinema’s most enduring and influential titles, and – along with The Sweet Hereafter (1997) – the director’s most highly regarded feature.

Set primarily around the fictional Exotica strip club in Toronto, the non-linear narrative – in which Egoyan withholds many of the specifics of characters’ relationships until the very end – concerns the intertwining lives of Francis (Bruce Greenwood), a tax auditor; Christina (Mia Kirshner), a young dancer; Eric (Elias Koteas), the club’s DJ; Thomas (Don McKellar), a pet shop owner; and Zoe (Arsinée Khanjian), the club’s pregnant owner.

Atom Egoyan

Atom Egoyan
Credit: Ulysse del Drago

Exotica is largely about loss, mourning and the effects they have on human connections; how people’s attempts to cope with extreme, often concealed grief manifest in outwardly disturbing personal rituals. The final scenes are among the most emotionally cathartic of 1990s cinema, drastically reconfiguring your understanding of previous events, while also opening up many unsettling questions. Far from a shallow puzzle narrative, the film’s power only grows with repeat viewings.

With 2019 marking the film’s 25th anniversary, I spoke to Atom Egoyan about Exotica’s production and legacy while he was at this year’s BFI London Film Festival to give a career talk and support his new film, Guest of Honour. Our conversation spoils one narrative reveal from Exotica’s finale.

Where did the idea for Exotica originate?

It’s pretty specific. I was at a film festival in an American city and someone took me to a lesbian club where there were women performing as men on stage. There was this extraordinary excitement about something that I didn’t understand at the time, but I was in the middle of it. This was the seed of Exotica.

Then I had a tax audit. This person came into my life and was going through my files and discovered what they thought was an irregularity with one of my producing partners at the time. They said, “You might want to think about how much you trust this person”, which was way out of line. But the fact that they had the power to instil this suspicion was interesting, as was the idea they might have another reason for doing that.

Another experience was very important to me: a relationship I had observed as a teenager. It was an incestuous situation where this person who was quite damaged didn’t understand what was happening to them. When I was growing up, it wasn’t really discussed, and I didn’t know how I could help her out of that. I was a child as well.

The story began to emerge from these three different experiences. The convergence of those three things became what’s called a heterotopia – this really interesting [Michel] Foucault expression for a place where different realities converge in an actual physical space. And then also this notion of the panopticon, where in the classic prison design there’s an observation place where nothing can be hidden – constant surveillance.

This idea of creating a panopticon within the club, where all these people were being observed and yet none of them really understood what their connections were to each other, that begins to create this very interesting erotic tension, even though there’s no overt sexuality.

Exotica (1994)

Exotica (1994)

What are the advantages of a non-linear narrative to you as a writer?

You can access histories in a different way. You’re accessing not only the details of the personal histories of the character, but you’re also finding a way that that history might be elusive to them and how that affects their sense of reality. Exposition-wise, there’s something very fluid about it. It’s the way I tend to write my own stories – not the scripts I’m doing for other people, but my own scripts. It also allows me to situate how those characters understand their own reality, because the viewer is held in a similar position.

Was the film’s final scene always the final scene?

Funny you should say that. That was the best ending I’ve ever come up with, and it came very late. It wasn’t the final scene. It’s not as though I came up with it as we were shooting, but it came to me just weeks before that. It was such a gift; it made everything connect. And it was always there in a way, otherwise it didn’t really make sense.

All of these connections were so compelling to me, but this final drive when you realise that Christina was Francis’s babysitter, I think what’s exciting about it is that it happened to me so fast that I didn’t really think it through entirely. Because it does raise the question of, well, when he walks into the club and he sees his former babysitter now working as a lap dancer, how do they get to this form of psychotherapy? Why didn’t he just run out of the club? How would they have gotten to that place?

One of the things that’s interesting about the work is that it positions you so that you’re just put in the middle of the scene and you have to locate yourself, much like the characters have located themselves after the fact. They’re already plunged into this space.

Exotica (1994)

Exotica (1994)

Exotica’s main cast features several of your previous collaborators – Elias Koteas, Don McKellar and your wife, Arsinée Khanjian – alongside future recurring players like Bruce Greenwood and Sarah Polley, plus a one-off with Mia Kirshner as Christina.

There were actors who understood the tone and were in that space. Elias at first didn’t connect to the role, and I really pleaded with him to do it; I love how he inhabits Eric. Bruce was new, and it’s interesting because he says he never understood what he was doing with that role. And I watch him now and think he is so perfect as Francis. Maybe the fact that he didn’t understand it is what makes it so touching to me.

With Mia, it was one of her first films, and she was just so perfect the moment she walked into the audition. It was an extraordinary gift to have her at that stage inhabit that role because, as she said to me later, she was closer to the role she played in the last scene than to Christina in the club.

It was very challenging for her to be in this club where she was surrounded by all these professional dancers as a young actress. She felt quite daunted by that. But once we put her in those glasses and painted the pimples on her and put the braces on – I think those were her real braces, actually – for the ending, that was closer to who she was at that moment.

Exotica (1994)

Exotica (1994)

You make very memorable use of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Everybody Knows’ for Christina’s dance routines. How did that soundtrack choice come together?

We were very fortunate, because it was beyond our budget. An Armenian friend of mine knew the person who played oud on that, and they were able to give us permission. We could only use those two minutes; we couldn’t use it in the trailer. It was also at a moment in time where Cohen’s music was in a period where it was somehow available to us. The film was made on such a low budget, but we were able to get it. It would’ve broken my heart if we didn’t, because this idea of everyone knowing and a communal knowledge just played so well to the tone of the film.

What did the film’s reception mean to you?

For the budget, it’s still probably the most commercially successful film I’ve made. The film was invited into competition in Cannes and every major French distributor passed on it. Finally, French distributor ARP took the film and it did extraordinarily well and started a relationship with them for several films. But it was not immediately perceived to be a crossover hit, which seems odd given where the film is located and the reviews that followed.

A very prominent American critic for The Village Voice watched Calendar (1993) at the Berlin festival, had been very supportive of my earlier films and came out of that screening saying, “That’s the best film you will ever make: Calendar.” And then they saw Exotica and published a very negative review. Fortunately, J. Hoberman [also of The Village Voice], a very influential critic at the time, saw it and gave it this great review, which changed the entire course of the film.

Exotica (1994)

Exotica (1994)

Miramax had a test market screening, and they wanted to put the final scene, the revelation, at the beginning and then have a voiceover as we walk into the club of Christina saying, “I started as this babysitter and now this is where I ended up.” They felt it was too confusing otherwise. Fortunately, I was able to say no. Obviously, that would destroy the film.

They threatened to put it straight to video until that review in The Village Voice came out. Then everything changed and suddenly it was being heralded as the first stripper film, before Striptease (1996) and Showgirls (1995).

I was delighted by its success. It was very confusing, because I had just become a new father. I realised I had to make a living out of making films. I had a very strange year in LA almost making a terrible thriller for Warner Bros, until I left that to make The Sweet Hereafter. That [Warner] film never got made.

I think a lot of people get lost in that idea, thinking that once you’re attached to a studio film, it will get made. It’s not so easy, actually.

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