Behind the Scenes at Egoyan’s Film Ararat

* In its August 4 edition–the National Post of Canada published an article–"Masters Of Illusion: An Exclusive Visit Behind The Scenes Of Atom Egoyan’s New Film–Ararat," in which the writer goes behind the scenes of the Genocide-themed movie. Below we reprint the article from the National Post.

BY Rick McGinnis

From the [National] Weekend Post

On the day after filming began on Ararat – Atom Egoyan’s new film– notices appeared in several Toronto newspapers that Egoyan and his crew were on location–somewhere in Armenia.

The news couldn’t have come as more of a surprise to Phillip Barker–Egoyan’s production designer–as he stood in a parking lot on Cherry Beach–overlooking Toronto’s harbor–supervising the construction of a street in a city that was virtually destroyed more than 80 years ago. Turkish Armenia – the Armenia of the infamous 1915 genocide – was being built almost 13,000 kilometers away from the real thing–next to Lake Ontario.

Barker–46–is a slim–soft-spoken man in black jeans and a white shirt. His slightly spiky black hair makes him resemble a one-time new-wave musician who got out with his dignity intact. On the first day of shooting–the crew is in a Toronto soundstage–where Barker has designed the office of a tyrannical Turkish governor under whose orders a city – indeed–virtually a whole people – are to be wiped off the map. It’s a lovely room–with thick worn floorboards–broad wood lintels the color of tobacco–studded doors–a huge open fireplace and smoke-stained plaster walls. Two weeks before–it was barely a plywood shell.

A few yards away–a dilapidated and shell-scarred Red Cross mission overlooks a spectacular view of the mountain that gives the movie its title–the mountain where Noah’s ark touched earth again after the Flood – Mount Ararat–a three-story painted backdrop lit with strips of movie lights–shrouded in a dusty Anatolian mist provided courtesy of a seamless net scrim. The vast soundstage–once a factory–smells of wood shavings–paint and dirt.

It is the end of May–but Barker has been working on Ararat since the previous year–full-time since January–sitting in an office surrounded by photocopied blow-ups of twisting–ancient streets with the spires of minarets spiking the sky; old postcards of Ottoman cities and bazaars; men in balloon-legged pants and fezzes; women in black robes; starving–pot-bellied children and piles of corpses on dusty earth.

"At some point," Barker says–"I had to separate myself from the truth of these images in order to manufacture them. Most of them are in black and white–so I had to ask myself basic questions like–’What color were they? How would it have looked to your eyes?’ "

The job of production designer is probably one of the least understood roles on a film set. Most people know what the cinematographer does–and the costume designer–and it’s generally assumed that the director is responsible–to some degree–for almost everything.

At parties–Barker tells people he’s a set designer or art director. Even at the Academy Awards confusion reigns–as the category in which production designers are recognized is Best Art Direction. There is al- ready an art director working on Ararat: Kathleen Climie–Barker’s trusted assistant–who oversees the precise logistics–the physical and budgetary reality–of the sets Barker designs. "She’s my left brain," he explains.

Even more confusing is the blurred jurisdiction that typifies movie making. Too often a film’s cinematography is praised when it’s really the set design that’s doing the job. In period films–the set design will win awards that should probably go to the location scout who found the perfect–intact set–already built and decorated. Most of the time–though–it’s the director who will be praised–for his "vision."

Atom Egoyan is all too aware of this dynamic. Two weeks before shooting starts–the crew’s principals – producers–set Behind the Scenes at Egoyan’s Film–Ararat dressers and art department–cinematographer–key grip and gaffer – spend two long days in a hot bus visiting almost every location they’ll use over two months of shooting. At one point–on the highway heading out of town–Egoyan gets up from his seat at the front and stands next to me. "What I’d like to know is–why it all has to come from me," he says–in a loud–peevish voice–addressing everyone and no one. "I mean–the script–the cinematography–the design–the costumes–everything – it all comes from here," he practically wails–jabbing at his head. His crew–most of them long-time Egoyan veterans who know his sense of humor too well–are laughing. He casts a sidelong glance at me to make sure I’ve witnessed his prima donna tantrum–and strolls back to his seat–grinning.

Barker has worked with Egoyan on one other feature–The Sweet Hereafter–as well as a television film featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma–and two operas–Salome and Elsewhereless. Their working relationship resembles any that Egoyan shares with the rest of his regular cast and crew: rigorously polite–based on shared aesthetics and a common vocabulary. It might not have happened as Barker–until very recently–never had any intention of becoming a movie production designer.

Born in England–Barker moved to Canada at 13. By high school–he knew art was his calling–and went on to the Ontario College of Art–moving from commercial illustration to experimental and video art by the time he graduated. He spent a year and a half in Paris–bustling with his mandolin in the metro–moved to Holland–where he got a job as a scenic painter–then came back to Canada and worked as a set builder on David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone–gradually rising up the film hierarchy–working on commercials and rock videos to fund his "art habit."

All the while–he was gaining an international reputation for his installations and graphic pieces–usually involving film projection. At the 1992 Seville Expo–he represented Canada with a controversial project. The chosen theme was water. "Is this your work?" a bureaucrat from the Quebec ministry of culture asked Barker–looking at a flooded tent set up in the middle of a vast pond where images of Canadian ecological disasters – dead moose being airlifted from the flood plains behind the James Bay project – lit up the canvas walls from projectors inside. "It’s s–," the bureaucrat pronounced.

At a show held in an abandoned CBC building–Egoyan saw Barker’s work and left a note in the guest book–inviting Barker to work with him. Barker thought the note was a joke and didn’t call Egoyan for six months. Since joining the movie business–Barker has designed two other films–directed several short films of his own and hopes to direct his own feature art film soon.

"There’s nothing harsh about his work," Egoyan says–"but it still raises serious issues about perceptual logic. I just felt that I’d met someone who shared my vision and enhanced the approach in different ways. I keep forgetting that–even though he’s fully assimilated–he was born in England and has that melancholic–even morose–English viewpoint–which is still remarkably playful."

Ararat is Egoyan’s first original script since 1994’s Exotica–and his first film to explicitly explore his Armenian roots since 1993’s Calendar. It is also his first historical film–albeit a complicated one – there are scenes set during the genocide and scenes set 20 years later in the New York studio of painter Arshile Gorky–a survivor of the genocide. There are also modern-day scenes featuring French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour as Edward–the French-Armenian director of a bio-pic about Gorky–set partially during the 1915 genocide. The film also stars Bruce Greenwood–Elias Koteas and Egoyan’s wife–Arsine Khanjian.

"The film is a lot about ‘How do you know something’s real?’ " Barker explains. "Atom was always saying things like: ‘I’m not sure if this is part of Edward’s film or reality.’ "

Even if practical barriers – the region’s physical remoteness–the prohibitive cost–the utter impossibility of getting the production insured–didn’t prevent Egoyan from shooting in Armenia–there are political barriers–prime among which is the Turkish government’s refusal–almost a century later–to acknowledge the fact of the Armenian genocide. Never mind that Van – the city in which the historical scenes are set – is now in Eastern Turkey–as is much of historical Armenia. There is a lot of pressure on Egoyan to get it right–especially from the huge Armenian Diaspora that lives in Canada.

So–on a day almost two weeks into shooting–Egoyan has issued a standing invitation to the Armenian community in Toronto to visit the Cherry Beach set–where a street in Van has been reconstructed by Barker and his crew. As it is–most of the extras–in fezzes and brocade vests–black shawls and dresses–are drawn from the community. Down the dirt street–just by the tailor’s shop and the bakery–working behind a vegetable cart–is a 92-year-old man who was born in Van and escaped the genocide. He’s an antique-carpet dealer who has lent Barker his most precious rugs to decorate the set.

From any perspective except right behind the camera–the overwhelming sensation you get of this meticulously researched and built set–the most expensive of the whole film–is of unbelievable fakeness. From the extras on their cell phones to the cables and wooden struts that hold it all up–there’s this anxious sense of the magic–neurotic essence of movies: industriously illusory–fantastic sums of money and effort balancing on a narrow vista down the center of a plaster-and-plywood model.

It’s only a few days later–when local newspapers run photos of the set–that Barker has any sense he was successful. "That’s when it became photography. It could have been one of the old photographs–all flat and black and white. To me–standing there–it never looked dirty enough–the people never looked hungry enough."

Egoyan recalls that he had his epiphany much earlier as he walked down the set street full of Armenians. "I blurred my eyes and I was able to lose myself–for a moment–in a fantasy–the closest I would ever get to this place." A few weeks later–late at night–he drove back to Cherry Beach for a look around. "I was actually surprised," he says in a disappointed voice–"to see that Van was gone."


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