Egoyan, Sarossy think bigger on Ararat

If there has been one major development in the professional relationship between director Atom Egoyan and director of photography Paul Sarossy since their last picture, Felicia’s Journey (1999), it’s the launch of Sarossy’s own helming career. The Toronto-based cinematographer directed last year’s Mr. In-Between, a U.K.-produced drama about a killer-for-hire that struck audiences with its downbeat tone. So how does this experience alter the filmmakers’ on-set dynamic, starting with their latest, Ararat?

‘It means he physically pushes me aside on set and says ‘Let me take over,’ and I have to cower in the background and cry and hope the actors will still come over and talk to me,’ Egoyan jokes. ‘It’s great, actually. I think he directed a great first feature.’

The pair’s collaboration started with 1989’s Speaking Parts and includes Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter and Felicia’s Journey, each of which earned Sarossy a Genie Award. Beginning with 1991’s The Adjuster, Egoyan has entrusted Sarossy with more free rein over the lighting than most cameramen would enjoy – Egoyan articulates the look he wants and lets Sarossy set about to achieve it. By the same token, the DOP acknowledges framing as the director’s domain.

‘For me, cinematography has always been, to paraphrase Vittorio Storaro [The Last Emperor, Apocalypse Now], writing with light,’ he says. ‘It’s the light that is first and foremost.’

Ararat is the most ambitious production yet in the Egoyan/Sarossy canon. At the centre of the $12-million Alliance Atlantis drama is the Armenian Genocide of 1915 perpetrated by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The film details how that historical event continues to impact people in present-day Toronto, including an old Armenian director, played by French crooner Charles Aznavour, who is making a movie on the subject. The film also intercuts scenes of 1930s Armenian surrealist painter Arshile Gorky (Simon Abkarian) in his New York studio, agonizing over a portrait of himself and his mother, who perished in the Genocide.

Egoyan’s films are known for their meditative quality, and so Ararat shocks in being the first to include battle scenes. They are presented in the context of staged scenes in the film-within-the-film, but Egoyan and Sarossy decided to only subtly differentiate the look of these sequences from those of modern-day reality, thereby allowing the viewer to be drawn into the historical happenings.

One of the film’s largest-scale scenes involves the reenactment of a bold defense of the Turkish province of Van by a group of militant Armenians warding off encroaching Turks. Filmed in the vastness of Drumheller, AB, the sequence involves numerous soldiers and civilian guerillas firing upon each other in the mountainous terrain. Many army members were actually the CG creations of Toronto 3D animation and F/X house Mr. X, which also helped reconstruct a village in Van using digital matte paintings and 3D software.

The film was shot over the course of 45 days last summer. Considering that the Turkish government has never acknowledged the Genocide, shooting the film on location near Turkey’s actual Mount Ararat was out of the question. The village scenes were shot at Toronto’s Cherry Beach with a deliberately studio-bound style.

‘For the film-within-the-film, we wanted to have a slightly heightened feel, like an old-fashioned Hollywood approach, [with scenes] lit in an almost exaggerated, theatrical way,’ Egoyan notes. ‘And then for the modern stuff we decided to go with a more traditional ‘Paul’ kind of look, which is very careful attention to contrast and naturalism in the lighting.’

Having artistically grown up together in the world of low-budget Canadian filmmaking has trained the team to attack production with great efficiency.

‘Stylistically, very often scenes are shot in single takes or long masters, and over the years, the luxury of having time to go in for a close-up was almost novel,’ Sarossy says. ‘On Ararat, we would end up having more spare time, where we’d shot the scene by lunch and would start to think, ‘Should we invent other things to shoot?”

Even on Ararat’s bigger budget and scale, the filmmakers say they were as ‘obsessive’ and hands-on with the visuals as ever. If there were any areas where they had to rely more than usual on their collaborators, it was in Beth Pasternak’s costume design, which entailed numerous handmade period costumes, and the production design of Phillip Barker, both of whom worked on The Sweet Hereafter.

Sarossy, as usual, manned the camera himself. With Toronto having become a major production centre and adopting Hollywood crew protocol, the camera union expects bigger-budget films such as Ararat to use an operator in addition to a DOP. Sarossy acknowledges that deviating from the norm is usually frowned upon.

‘I respect the laws and regulations, but we’ve worked in that fashion for so many years it would be an enormous creative disruption to have somebody else operating the camera,’ says Sarossy, who is a member of the CSC and BSC. ‘There’s a shorthand we have that’s so lovely. So, in a sense, we have special dispensation when we’re working together where the union is happily permitting me to keep behind the camera.’

Format issues

Deciding on the right format for the film became a topic of much discussion between the director and DOP, who shot The Adjuster, The Sweet Hereafter and Felicia’s Journey in the 2.35:1 ratio. ‘We’re always torn about this issue,’ Egoyan says.

They originally had thought of shooting at the 1.85 frame size, expanding to wide screen during the film-within-the-film scenes and contracting back again, but as this was technically out of reach, they then decided to shoot the entire film at the rare 1.66:1. That format is taller than the North American theatrical standard, and its few recent champions include Stanley Kubrick, whose films from A Clockwork Orange to Full Metal Jacket come in this shape.

Also, considering the film depicts historical events from 1915 and wide-screen cinema wasn’t introduced until 1953, 1.66 seemed more artistically justifiable.

‘Atom was very concerned the wide screen might undermine attempts at creating a fairly authentic historical backdrop,’ Sarossy says. ‘1.66 is a very pleasing shape and I think it’s truer to the Golden Mean [the esthetically perfect rectangle] than 1.85, but the problem is nobody projects in it.’

And so Ararat will generally be projected at 1.85. It was originated on Eastman 5248 EXR 100T and Kodak 5279 Vision 500T color negative stocks.

Preproduction on the film began one year prior to principal photography, when Egoyan and Sarossy were shooting a commercial. The director showed his DOP historic photographs and materials relating to the time and place. For a cinematic take on the era, they screened America, America, director Elia Kazan’s 1963 black-and-white epic about a Greek boy who escapes Turkish oppression at the turn of the century and ultimately emigrates to the U.S.

‘We did not try to make a reference to any historical, archival look,’ Egoyan says.

The coverage in the film-within-the-film scenes consists predominantly of long shots, long takes and little camera movement.

‘The film-within-the-film is a very conventionally shot movie, made by a very conservative director. We were not trying to render the historical film as filmmakers would today. It’s a much more David Lean/Attenborough approach, as opposed to Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List.’