In November 2002, I went to a screening of Atom Egoyan’s Ararat (2002) in Glendale with my family.
The film was the talk of our town and the theatre was filled with Armenians from all around, who had long anticipated a film on the topic of the Armenian Genocide. I remember discussing the complex narrative structure of the film with my mother afterward, curious about the filmmaker’s storytelling techniques.
It’s now ten years later, and after having seen Atom Egoyan speak in person during a number of lectures and discussions and having studied his “complex narrative structures” both inside and outside of film school, I have been provided with a rare opportunity. It’s an opportunity that I feel as if I have created for myself over the past few years.
I am on set with Atom Egoyan during the production of his latest film, Devil’s Knot, in Atlanta, Georgia.
The film is based on Mara Leveritt’s book Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three. The basis for the story is the actual controversial trial of three teenagers who became known as the West Memphis Three. Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin were tried and convicted of the 1993 murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, despite the lack of physical evidence. The film will focus on their prosecution and their story of injustice.
The film stars Oscar winners Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon. Colin Firth appears in the role of Ron Lax, a private investigator, who was the among the first supporters of the defendants, and Reese Witherspoon appears in the role of Pam Hobbs, the mother of one of the murder victims who was eventually persuaded that the three suspected murders were wrongly accused.
This is his first film shot completely in the United States. It’s also his first film being shot on digital.
I am visiting the production during its final days of shooting. The film has a tight schedule of 26 days. I am keeping a daily diary of my experiences during these final days, shadowing Atom Egoyan and observing the way he exercises his vision as a director.
Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself. I hope you will follow me along on this journey.
I arrive in Atlanta, Georgia after a four and a half hour flight from Los Angeles. The weather is unbearable; it’s much too humid to be outside for more than a few minutes.
I arrive onto the production. I begin looking for key crew members while waiting in a hall. I peak inside a room and catch a quick glimpse of Atom Egoyan rushing from one side of the room to the other.
The scene being filmed is an early one from the film and serves as an introduction to the protagonist. The location is a charity auction; an auctioneer stands in front of a crowd of dozens of people and describes a rare piece. I can see them from where I’m standing, but I also have a good look of the monitor. It’s a wide shot of the crowd. In the scene, excessive bids are placed on a specific item.
The camera moves in slow on the crowd, take after take, and it’s undoubtedly an Atom Egoyan picture. I notice after a few moments that the man in the crowd, sitting in the back, is Colin Firth; even in real life, his introduction is memorable.
The crew readjusts for a closer shot, which takes a few minutes. Atom Egoyan approaches me and welcomes me to the production — in Armenian. It’s surreal to stand there and chat with him on the production of his film.
I discover that production will wrap early tonight, which means he’ll have time to chat afterward over a drink and dinner. The early wrap time doesn’t apply to many other days. It’s one of the first times during the production they have shot indoors in a building. The unbearable heat has exhausted everyone and the next few days will not be as glamorous as today.
The make-up team shows Atom Egoyan two samples of their work – on a forearm, the word “Domini” is carved. The difference between the two is that one is much more subtle with the blood. I’m called over to see him make this decision – naturally, he goes for the much more subtle option.
The next few shots are closer shots of the same scene. The closer shots are of Colin Firth, and the nuances of his performance, in this scene alone, showcase his subtle approach to the art of acting.
I walk outside of the room we’re shooting in and become acquainted with the crew members. Atom Egoyan sees me standing there and grabs my attention, calling me inside.
I’m introduced to the gaffer of the film, a native of Atlanta, who just so happens to be an Armenian. The majority of the crew has moved outside of the room as another shot goes up. It’s the scene that immediately follows; Ron Lax leaves the auction. I’m inside, with very few crew members, as I finally see the man behind the camera – Paul Sarossy, Atom Egoyan’s loyal director of photography. The scene requires a total of 15 takes, after which production on the day is wrapped — we all applaud