Victoria homecoming stirs memories for director Atom Egoyan

It seems fitting that Remember is the title of the Atom Egoyan film being showcased during two free homecoming events at the Fairmont Empress.

The Armenian, Cairo-born director’s return to the city where he grew up has stirred personal memories on the eve of National Canadian Film Day 150.

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The fabled Empress, when it was a Canadian Pacific hotel, was where Egoyan worked as a busboy and housekeeper during his teenage years.

He says he plans to wear his old CP Hotels badges at tonight’s 7 p.m. screening of Remember, his acclaimed thriller starring Christopher Plummer as an elderly Holocaust survivor seeking revenge on a Nazi war criminal. Egoyan will also participate in a post-screening Q&A session moderated by CBC broadcaster Gregor Craigie.

The filmmaker will return to the hotel Wednesday morning for another free event, a conversation with CineVic Society of Independent Filmmakers from 10-11 a.m.

His Empress memories, including a co-worker’s mysterious disappearance, have inspired sequences in Egoyan films, notably in Speaking Parts (1989), in which a hotel cleaner moonlights as a movie extra.

And in Where the Truth Lies, his 2005 showbiz mystery set in the mid-60s, a beautiful blonde’s naked body is discovered in a bathtub in a swanky hotel suite.

His hometown visit follows trips to Beijing to work on an ambitious new project, and to Armenia, where Egoyan and his wife, actor Arsinee Khanjian, observed the country’s parliamentary elections.

This is his first public homecoming since 2014, when he presented Devil’s Knot during the Victoria Film Festival at the Odeon, which triggers another Remember-related memory.

“I remember one of my fondest earliest memories was watching The Sound of Music there with my grandmother,” he said, recalling the first time he saw Plummer on screen.

“I’ll never forget that scene at the end when they’re escaping the Nazis. It was a big moment for me.”

While Egoyan is excited about being able to talk about Remember locally, he didn’t choose it personally.

Films are selected through Reel Canada, the non-profit organization presenting the nationwide celebration of Canadian cinema.

With more than 1,700 screenings online, on air and at cinemas, libraries, public squares and other venues nationwide, it has been verified as the world’s largest film festival, said Egoyan, a founding member.

He admits he was also surprised to learn The Sweet Hereafter was marking its 20th anniversary when Reel Canada scheduled a Wednesday night event in Vancouver, where he’ll be joined by Bruce Greenwood.

“It’s the only film I’ve ever set in B.C.,” said Egoyan.“And I’ll get to fly over on a seaplane, which I’ve never done.”

While The Sweet Hereafter, which earned two Oscar nominations — for best director and adapted screenplay — is widely regarded as his masterwork, he says he hasn’t felt pressured to duplicate it.

“I think it’s tough if it’s your first or second film, but this was my seventh film,” he points out. “I’m very proud of it. It was the last movie I cast myself and I felt connected to all those actors in a really particular way. I had seen them all onstage and it was wonderful to bring them together, and to have Ian Holm come to our country.”

Remember is another highly rated film he’s particularly proud of, he said.

The film marked Egoyan’s second collaboration with Plummer, who played a Canadian customs officer in his 2002 Armenian genocide drama Ararat.

They became close friends and artistic allies, and Egoyan recently presented Plummer with a lifetime achievement award during the Canadian Screen Awards.

“I was very honoured that he asked me,” said Egoyan. “He really is the greatest stage and screen actor this country has ever produced.”

Inspired by Plummer’s biography In Spite of Myself, Egoyan might soon be making a documentary about the actor.

“He is notoriously difficult to work with, but I really appreciate his clarity,” Egoyan said. “He doesn’t like to do more than one take. He’s very specific, and we have very detailed discussions beforehand.”

While Plummer delivers a superb performance as the Auschwitz survivor who discovers the Nazi guard who murdered his family is living in the U.S. under an assumed identity, it was challenging, Egoyan recalled.

“This was a tough role for him because he is very proud of how much vitality and vigour he has, so to play someone who looks and feels older than he really is, was difficult for him,” he said.

This won’t be the last time Egoyan will be seen around town this year. He’s scheduled to return this fall to begin rehearsals for Jenufa, the Leo Janacek opera he’s directing for Pacific Opera Victoria.

The former Mount Doug student said it will be the first piece of theatre he has presented here since 1977, when The End of Solomon Grundy, a play he wrote and staged, won a Victoria Drama Festival award.

mreid@timescolonist.com

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