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Thursday, September 4, 1997

An Atom of pleasure

Sweet Hereafter director basks in festival hoopla

Toronto Sun

 On the day of what promises to be Atom Egoyan's greatest Canadian triumph, the Toronto filmmaker is finally allowing himself the pleasures of success.
 Egoyan's elegiac drama The Sweet Hereafter, already a triple award winner including the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May, officially opens the Toronto festival tonight.
 He has just signed on with Mel Gibson's production house, Icon, to adapt and film Irish author William Trevor's novel, Felicia's Journey. He is just finishing a one-hour TV film, Yo-Yo Ma: Inspired By Bach, for Rhombus Media. He has another opera lined up after the wild popularity of Salome.
 And he took five weeks of semi-vacation in Europe this summer, four of the weeks at an idyllic writers' retreat in Italy, which was his first long break from filmmaking in years.
 "It's a really great time," the 37-year-old Egoyan says as he gets excited, with typical understatement, about tonight: "I love this time of year here. It's when the city comes alive. I think it's the premier cultural event in the city. It's the time of year when we all fall in love with film. To be a filmmaker now, it's kind of euphoric. It's a romance."
 Egoyan once covered the festival for a school newspaper, later became a director and anguished when fest officials turned down all his shorts. "I remembered being so devastated and excluded." In 1984, the first year of the Perspective Canada series, his debut feature, Next Of Kin, was selected and the Egoyan romance had two participants -- the filmmaker and festival officials who now lionize him.
 "It was all so heady," he remembers about 1984. "It was my first taste of glamor and it was all a very special time."
 So is 1997, even though at Cannes Egoyan still didn't have the confidence that The Sweet Hereafter is his career's most significant accomplishment, his most mature film. Now, after a summer off, he sees it with fresh eyes.
 "I'm so proud of the film," he says of his complex, emotionally taut adaptation of Russell Banks' novel about a town's social fabric being ripped apart by a schoolbus tragedy.
 "It's so emotionally available," says Egoyan, with confidence. "It's so challenging and I think it's the perfect opening night film." Egoyan has gone this route before with something less than perfect: His feature The Adjuster opened the film fest and left many in the blacktie and ballgown crowd restless and disgusted. It was the wrong place and wrong time for that very obscure film. Not so with The Sweet Hereafter.
 The new work has even been mentioned as a possible Oscar candidate this year. Fine Line, which bought the U.S. rights from Canada's Alliance Communications, is mounting an expensive Oscar campaign and holding the film for a late-year debut, even though it is being released here in October.
 "It's funny, there's a side of me that wants to tell them it's being too optimistic," he says of Fine Line's plans. "But then, of course, they just blame me for being 'too Canadian' and too humble. That style of distributing films is all about bluster and aggression and you just have to let that be."