Atom Egoyan

Atom Egoyan, Professor of Film at The European Graduate School / EGS.


Atom Egoyan (b. 1960) is a critically acclaimed Armenian-Canadian filmmaker who has directed fifteen feature films that have won five prizes at the Cannes Film Festival, two Academy Award nominations, and four awards at the Toronto International Film Festival. His work often explores the way human relationships are corrupted by the omnipresence of technology. In addition to teaching at The European Graduate School / EGS, he has taught at the University of Toronto and is Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Ryerson University. In 1999, he received Canada's highest civilian recognition when he was named an Officer of the Order of Canada. In 2008, he received the Dan David Prize for Creative Rendering of the Past.

Egoyan’s life story had a clear influence on his artistic development. He was born in Cairo, Egypt, to Joseph and Shushan Yeghoyan, who were of Armenian descent and ran a furniture store in Cairo. They chose his first name to mark the construction of Egypt's first nuclear reactor. Both parents were artistically inclined, and his father studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. After their daughter was born, the family moved to Victoria, British Columbia, in 1963. There they changed their last name to Egoyan and opened a new furniture store. Atom Egoyan’s interest in reading and writing began during his early teenage years. As a young reader, he was influenced greatly by Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. In his later years he worked as a housekeeper at the Empress Hotel in Victoria, an experience that later influenced his filmmaking and creative vision, as demonstrated in Speaking Parts (1989).

At the age of eighteen, Atom Egoyan enrolled at Trinity College at the University of Toronto where he studied International Relations. There he began to rediscover his Armenian roots, joining an Armenian society on campus and learning the language. During this time he also shot his first short film, Howard in Particular (1979), which was funded by the Hart House Program and was screened at the Canadian National Exhibition film festival. This early film already showed certain characteristics that were to become a common thread in Egoyan’s work, specifically the theme of technology and the distortion of human communication. The story centers on an older man attending his own retirement party where he plays an audiotape of his former employer listing different events in his career. Shot in black and white, the film focuses on three visual images: the old man’s face, a speaker, and a tape machine.

While Atom Egoyan's early work was based on his own screenplays, and he received acclaim for the film Exotica (1994), it was his first adaptation that resulted in his best-known work, The Sweet Hereafter (1997), which won him an Academy Award nomination for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. The film is based on a novel of the same name by Russell Banks, and stars Ian Holm and Sarah Polley. The Sweet Hereafter documents the effects of a tragic bus accident on the inhabitants of a small town and deals with the complex struggles of grief and the inability to accept the chaos of the world. An existential anxiety weaves through this beautiful film, with its delicate narrative structure and aesthetic clarity, that defined Egoyan as one of the greatest filmmakers of our day.

Next, Egoyan directed Sarabande (1997), starring Lori Singer and Khanjian, a drama based around cellist Yo-Yo Ma's performance of Bach's Fourth Suite for Unaccompanied Cello. The film Ararat (2002) generated considerable publicity for Atom Egoyan. After Henri Verneuil's French-language film Mayrig (1991), it was the first major motion picture to deal directly with the Armenian Genocide. As a result, he is widely considered to be the most famous Armenian filmmaker since Sergei Parajanov. Ararat later won the Best Picture prize at the Genie Awards.

His film Chloe (2009), a psychological drama about jealousy and sexuality starring Julianne Moore, Liam Neeson and Amanda Seyfried, was a remake of Anne Fontaine's French film Nathalie…. (2003). The story deals with a complicated love triangle and grapples with questions surrounding feminine sexuality, a theme from earlier works such as Exotica and Where the Truth Lies (2005). In other ways, Chloe represented a noticeable departure in Egoyan’s career as it was far more mainstream, featured Hollywood actors, and was the first feature for which he did not write the screenplay. Since then, he has made Devil's Knot (2013), a crime film about the West Memphis Three starring Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon, and The Captive (2014), a crime thriller starring Ryan Reynolds and Rosario Dawson.

In a 2014 interview with Movie Maker magazine, Atom Egoyan revealed his golden rules for happiness: "Don’t get depressed about not being where you want to be. This nagging feeling of anxiety is actually called ambition. Ambition is your friend. Nothing will ever turn out the way you want it to. It may be better. It may be worse. It will never be exactly what you imagined."

Atom Egoyan's films include: Next of Kin (1984), Family Viewing (1987), Speaking Parts (1989), The Adjuster (1991), Calendar (1993), Exotica (1994), The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Felicia's Journey (1999), Ararat (2002), Where the Truth Lies (2005), Adoration (2008), Seven Wonders (2008), Chloe (2009), Devil's Knot (2013), The Captive (2014), and Remember (2015). He has also published many books, including: Atom Egoyan: Interviews (2010), Stephen Andrews (2004), In Other Words: Poetic Licence and the Incarnation of History (2004), Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film (2004), Ararat: The Shooting Script (2002), The Event Horizon (1998), Exotica (1995), Atom Egoyan (1994), and Speaking Parts (1993). He has published articles in Movie Maker, Travel + Leisure, University of Toronto Quarterly, Granta, BOMB, and Cinema Canada.