The films of Canadian Atom Egoyan can be political and intellectual, especially when his attention is on the Armenian genocide, but in his new movie Chloe, opening this week, he returns to the themes of an early work, Exotica (1994), in a Freudian teaming of mind and sex.
Viewers may want to see Chloe for the unusually sensitive attention to feminine detail: shapely ankles in strappy stilettos seen from underneath adjacent toilet stalls, lacy lingerie as the mature Julianne Moore as Dr. Catherine Stewart, a gynecologist, makes her toilette, juxtaposed with the young Amanda Seyfried as Chloe, a call girl, readying for a client, or just the voyeuristic thrill of seeing these two women in bed. Liam Neeson is Professor David Stewart, the role interrupted by Natasha Richardson's death. He's involved with Chloe too, but in this suspenseful story, not the way you think.
Chloe is the first of Egoyan's films to be made from someone else's script. In this case the writer has a resume of controversial and kinky screenplays to her name: Secretary (2002) and Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006), both directed by Steven Shainberg. So I was curious to talk to Erin Cressida Wilson. The following takes place in a Thai restaurant on 8th Avenue and 23rd street, just before the film's New York debut.
RW: One thread uniting your work is the sexual freedom and expression of the women. How and when did you know that sexuality for women was such a frontier?
ECW: It was a process. I grew up in San Francisco, a very sexual and expressive environment. Then I went to Smith College, an all-woman college, as you know, and they have a tee-shirt, "A Century of Women on Top." I started to ask this question: do I have to be an aggressive on top woman to be a feminist? I was a feminist by the fact of my upbringing. My mother is a very independent woman who did what she wanted to do.
In the '80's there was political correctness about women, so when I went into the theater at that time, I was suddenly being told, you're a woman, you can work with this female director, and then I would write about something and she would say, but that's abuse. I don't know if that's abuse. I am writing about complex feelings between people that don't fall into a category. I struggled in the 80's: doesn't anybody agree with me that I can write about the complexities of human desire without being political? My political agenda is, let's not be political about this. At one point I just said, I give up. I'm just going to write dirty books.
I'm going to write what I want to write. I met Lillian Anna Slugocki who had just started producing a radio show of erotica on WBAI. You could say anything you wanted except for the swear words. These radio performances were eventually picked up by the Public Theater, becoming one of the first shows at Joe's Pub and a total success. We made a book of this material called The Erotica Project. At the same time I started to do Secretary and people at Sundance said, I'm not sure what I think about it. That was the moment when what I had been saying and praying for, for over a decade, suddenly landed. Steve [Shainberg] and I created a way to make sexual politics topical, Okay, women have desires and they may not be what's on the political agenda for feminists, and it doesn't mean she's not a feminist, but this is what we want to say. And since then, it's been infinitely easier.
RW: Of course, your characters would be championed as feminists now by intellectuals like Camille Paglia.
ECW: Yes, I didn't have those people to look to in my young 20's. Of course when I was a young child none of this mattered: It was free love, do what you want. My mother was an extremely free woman with her self, intellect and body. I knew people at Smith who said you can't be a feminist unless you are a lesbian -- radical statement, perhaps important for people to move forward, but it didn't jive with my psyche.
RW: How did you get to Fur?
ECW: Secretary had just come out. And Steve said, how'd you like to look at Diane Arbus? I spent a lot of time alone looking at her photographs, and Patricia Bosworth's biography. We didn't want to do the usual thing. I wanted to write a fantasy about the birth of an artist. I took images from her work and facts from the book and created a fantasy of the birth of an artist, to create my portrait of Diane Arbus.
At the same time as I was writing I was pregnant and I had an upstairs neighbor whose noises I fell in love with. I loved my Manhattan apartment, and its sounds. I lived next door to Jeremy Steig for 20 years; his flute would basically make love to me day and night. In my fantasy about her, Arbus found her higher self, psyche and artist's mind in the man in the beast upstairs.
RW: Who is Chloe?
ECW: She's me. It took 4 years to write because I made Fur and Chloe producer Ivan Reitman-a wonderful, sensitive and great guy--was making another film. He worked very closely on the script with me. My joke is, I started out as Chloe and I ended up as Catherine. I related to Chloe, the young woman who loved to seduce people; I felt incredible empathy for her, and in the first draft she was totally fleshed out, but Catherine was middle aged and I didn't know if I could write a woman of that age. Wait, I thought, remembering a boyfriend sleeping with a 21 year old. I re-birthed myself into a woman who is no longer a little "flibbertygibbet." I started to feel for Catherine and knew her.
RW: As Catherine develops, Chloe becomes less of a character and more emblematic.
ECW: Yes, she's a fantasy. She's a woman who makes herself a fantasy and she is a fantasy. She re-eroticizes the family and makes them fall back in love, but they have a strange incestuous secret now; in a way it is an incest story of mother and son. A mother brings in a nightmare situation to her son.
RW: How did this project come to Atom Egoyan?
ECW: I met him at a party when we did Secretary. I gave him my Book of Erotica. He said, how can we make this? And then Ivan brought up his name-they're both Canadian.
RW: You run the Dramatic Writing Program at University of California, Santa Barbara. What advice do you give your students?
ECW: Be yourself. Keep mistakes. That mistake can be the key to telling the story. If I had told the story of Fur to a normal executive they would have said no to everything. A guy upstairs covered in fur! In a way it's all a mistake. Pay attention to what falls into your life. Let it be more than an intellectual experience. I don't understand writers who don't like to write. Why do they do it? Writing is like having the greatest lover in the world. It will do exactly what you want.
RW: What's next for you?
ECW: Untitled Woman Walks Out, a pilot for HBO. Growing up, I saw a lot of women walk out on their families with devastating results. I want to follow the devastation and that woman. I am also adapting Lisa See's book, Peony in Love, for Tony and Ridley Scott at Fox 2000. Taking place in 16th century China, it's about a girl who falls in love but can't have the man she wants. She starves to death and comes back to him as a ghost.
RW: Are you happy with Amanda Seyfried's performance as Chloe?
ECW: Joyous. I saw Mamma Mia! after shooting Chloe. I used to be an actress and I know that playing the happy, simple, girl-next-door can be incredibly difficult. It takes guts to run around and sing those songs, and I know her now and she's not that giddy girl. Her acting chops in Mamma Mia! are equal to that in Chloe.