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Luke Wilson and Atom Egoyan on the set of Guest of Honour.

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It’s November, 2018, and I’m in Hamilton visiting the set of Atom Egoyan’s new film, Guest of Honour, which is about to have a gala screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. In today’s scenes, a secret is being revealed. But that could describe any day on an Egoyan film.

From Next of Kin in 1984, through Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter in the 1990s to Remember in 2015, Egoyan’s work is dense with people hiding things, then being ambushed by them. He creates characters who seem ordinary – until he drills a keyhole into them. We peer in, but we never see the whole picture, and that gives his work its otherworldly quality. But how does that happen on a set? I’m here on Day 14 of his 23-day shoot to find out.

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In Guest of Honour, David Thewlis plays Jim, a food inspector who believes that order must be maintained, standards kept. He likes to think he’s protecting society from contamination. But Jim’s story, to use a food metaphor, is an onion. Delicately, through five different time periods, Egoyan peels back layers: Jim’s relationship with his late wife, with his grown daughter, Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira), and with the restaurateurs he enjoys intimidating (Arsinée Khanjian, Egoyan’s wife and frequent collaborator, plays one); Veronica’s relationship with her high-school music students, with a bus driver (Rossif Sutherland) who betrays her and with a priest (Luke Wilson) who may finally tell her what she needs to know. Oh, and a pet rabbit, fluffy white, plays a significant role.

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The script calls for 15 different restaurant locations – Italian, German, Chinese, Indian – mostly careworn, family owned joints of the kind popular in the 1960s, with brown panelled walls, orange booths and names such as Trocadero and Germania Club. Hamilton is full of them.

In today’s scene, an Armenian restaurant is closed for a private party, and Jim believes – drunkenly, mistakenly, shamefully, poignantly – that he’s the titular guest. Thewlis’s long, Ichabod Crane figure sticks out among the crowd of extras. “Playing Jim, I keep three adjectives handy,” Thewlis tells me. “Fastidious, delusional and bewildered.”

Props people carry trays of glasses filled with fake wine and beer. A buffet table is piled high with food, including a platter of deep-fried rabbit ears (closer inspection reveals they’re plastic). Little red battery-powered candles dot the tables and candy-coloured paper lights hang in the corners of Egoyan’s framing.

As his long-time cinematographer, Paul Sarossy, shoots, Egoyan stands right by the camera. Most directors watch the monitors; Egoyan looks into the actors’ faces. “That flips out the young actors,” he tells me later. “But I’m there because I have this unwavering trust that the camera is recording my feeling of what is happening in the moment, the energy and complexity of what’s being shot. There’s an incredible, direct transmission there.”

The filmmakers who inspired him – Bergman, Bresson, Bunuel – effected that same transmission. “The way Coppola’s camera observes Gene Hackman’s performance in The Conversation is so inspiring every time I watch it,” Egoyan says. “When he moved away from the camera to his weird metal trailer to make One from the Heart, I can feel that, too. It feels removed.”

As Jim makes a toast that transmogrifies into a confession, Egoyan allows the takes to run long. A bravura one lasts 10 minutes. But Egoyan knows there’s something more to be mined. He asks Thewlis to add anger to his line readings, and the resulting intensity is subtle yet startling.

David Thewlis plays a food inspector named Jim in Egoyan's latest film.

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On other shooting days, I watch Egoyan ask Wilson to enter a room more slowly, so he can catch the “wonderful reflection of light” on a desk. I hear him say to De Oliveira, “Do that line again, but discover it,” and the room goes so quiet we can hear her swallow. I watch him cut in midscene a line about rabbits being killed in cemeteries with special knives under full moons. I also see him pose for a picture Thewlis takes, with a spring roll sticking out of his mouth like a tongue and his hands splayed like antlers at his ears.

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Between takes, the talk inevitably turns to food. “I’ve eaten rattlesnake,” Wilson says.

“I’ve eaten raw lamb brains,” Egoyan replies.

“You win,” De Oliveira says. “Was it all in one piece or in little pieces?” It could be dialogue for an unshot, black-comedy version.

“Atom is wonderful at giving notes,” Thewlis says during a break. “Not all directors are. He’s enormously articulate, intellectual, sensitive, passionate and concise. After we’ve got one or two takes, he’ll see if there’s another way of looking at things. In that sense of relaxation and collaboration, something ‘other’ then appears.”

“Atom sees you,” De Oliveira says. “When we first talked about Veronica, I said, ‘She’s so comfortable with stillness.’ He said, ‘You’re not.’ I felt, ‘Game on, I’m going to do this for you.’”

Wilson agrees: “Atom will say, ‘Something might have happened between you and this other character,’ and then he’ll move right on to the next idea. That ‘might have,’ I think that’s great.”

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“This script is a thoroughly organic piece of writing – it’s growing all the time,” Thewlis says. “I’m still discovering layers, though we’re nearly finished. Sometimes, in the middle of a take, I think, ‘Oh! That’s what this is also about.’ The other day, I said one word differently to how I’d said it before, based on a note from Atom. As the word left my mouth, I realized something entirely different about my character that hadn’t been there before. That’s quite unusual.”

It’s typical for Egoyan, however. “My films are budgeted in a way that I have the freedom to keep adding layers through the writing, shooting and editing processes,” he says by phone in August. Guest of Honour is long finished, but he still finds his characters mysterious and is still asking questions about them. Unlike many directors, who need to know everything about every moment they shoot, Egoyan thrives in the process of not knowing.

A story centred on a food inspector first occurred to him in 2007, when he was opening a bar, Camera, on Toronto’s Queen Street West. He read a piece in The New York Times about a famous chef, Jean-Jacques Rachou, who was so devastated when a health inspector temporarily shuttered his French restaurant, Brasserie La Cote Basque, that he fell into a depression. “I don’t deserve it. Maybe I deserve it. I don’t know,” Rachou said, sounding a lot like an Egoyan character.

“I thought about someone who has this temporary moment of power,” Egoyan says. He originally saw it as a limited series, a thriller about a food inspector who stumbles into a crime-family meeting. When he gave the food inspector a daughter, the story shifted to a family drama, the mystery of how our adult children become unknown to us.

“I’m fascinated by the information within families that people have access to or don’t,” Egoyan says. “How does that inform our behaviour?”

Then he layered in the other characters, all from somewhere else, all struggling to understand “the rules” – Jim from England, his wife from Brazil, the priest from the United States, the restaurateurs from everywhere. He loves how Canadian that is.

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Egoyan is currently working on his next two projects: a miniseries based on a Great American Novel (he can’t say more) and a music/multimedia collaboration scheduled for March at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. But a mystery remains: In our era of fragmented attention, how does he have faith that audiences will give themselves over to his slowly expanding dreamscapes?

“Dramas are being shifted to excellent miniseries like Olive Kitteridge,” he says. “People are learning to absorb drama in long form. The only way for feature films to respond is to deploy all the elements of the craft – cinematography, music, production design, editing – in a concentrated, pristine, almost short-story form. In short stories, the choice of words, the placement of things, there’s a reverberation. It takes your breath away. A 90-minute film has to be concentrated like that.

“In a medium that’s so full of formulas and characters that are supposed to be ‘likeable,’ to create people who are wrestling with things they don’t understand, as you yourself are trying to figure them out, is a tall order. I need to have the highest expectations of my viewers. And they need to feel they will be rewarded for their commitment and trust they’ll emerge from it and understand something they didn’t understand before.”

And sometimes, you need to throw in some rabbit’s feet.

Guest of Honour premieres at TIFF on Sept. 10 at 5 p.m., at the Elgin Theatre, with an additional screening Sept. 11 at 3 p.m. at the Scotiabank Theatre Toronto (tiff.net).

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