Movies involve looking at people. Sometimes those people are doing some pretty intimate things, too. No wonder then that voyeurism remains about the single most pervasive and discussed theme in the movies and, no matter how often the particularly cinematic obsession of voyeurism has been recycled, there’s always room for a new angle.
In the case of “Chloe,” which is hitting about three hundred theaters nationwide today, voyeurism in the form of morbid curiosity threatens not only the desiccated relationship of an affluent middle-aged couple played by Julianne Moore and Liam Neeson, but also the woman’s familial ties with her son (Max Theiriot) and possibly her entire life. The vehicle for all of this is a young woman Dr. Catherine Stewart bumps into who turns out to be a high-end sex worker named Chloe (Amanda Seyfried). The sex work in question here is that Dr. Stewart has some pretty good reasons to worry that her professor husband may be cheating, and so she asks Chloe to test her husband’s fidelity in the most direct way possible.
As for the results, all you really need to know right now is that this is an erotic thriller, that it’s directed by the elliptical art-house master Atom Egoyan at his most Hitchcockian, and adapted with some definite cunning by writer Erin Cressida Wilson from a relatively banal French import (2003’s “Nathalie”). Interestingly, “Chloe” is also produced by Ivan Reitman. Reitman is, of course, the famed director and producer far better known for broad comedies like “Meatballs” and “Ghostbusters” than for stylish melodramas. These days, he’s perhaps even better known as the father of “Up in the Air” co-writer and director Jason Reitman.
Sadly, “Chloe” will likely also be remembered as the movie that was interrupted when leading man Liam Neeson got the horrific news that his wife, Natasha Richardson, had died as the result of what appeared to be a minor skiing accident. Even a year later, it’s obviously a sensitive topic that was not broached at the first of two press days I attended at the L.A. Four Seasons to promote the film with Amanda Seyfried, a burgeoning film star after the success of such films as “Dear John” and “Momma Mia!,” and Erin Cressida Wilson, who is probably best known for her screenplay for the kinky romantic comedy-drama, “Secretary” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader.
Things got off to what I suppose is an appropriate start given the kind of movie “Chloe” is. Asked about a word tattooed on her ankle, Seyfried volunteered it was crude British slang word for “vagina” — it’s apparently a kind of joking term of endearment used by her and friends. And then there was the European journalist who was clearly tasked with getting material as gossip-rich as he could manage. As the inevitably top-of-mind topic of the film’s somewhat explicit nude sex scenes came up, as well as the inherent difficulty of doing those scenes, his felt the need to ask which of the cast members was the best kisser. Seyfried, somewhat outspoken and girlish, but also clearly a pro at 24 years of age, sidestepped the icky question. Fortunately, someone came up a query that was more germane if no less sensational: Did she meet with any real-life prostitutes to research the role?
“No. Atom actually met with some working ladies in New York and I believe in Toronto as well…It was interesting what he had to say and how he approached it. He was very open about the information that he needed and they were very willing to share. And that’s the same with Chloe; she’s very willing to share that part of her life because she feels like it and in a way it’s being justified by [the fact that] someone’s asking you about your job.”
Finally, screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson was allowed to jump into discussion. She had some thoughts on the film as a whole, and Julianne Moore’s central character in particular, that definitely sounded like they came from the screenwriter of “Secretary” as well as some high profile literary erotica.
“This is a film, so it’s a fantasy, an exaggeration of reality in many ways and a fable. It’s taking maybe an instinct that we might have and playing it out. I think that [Catherine] is in such a place where her desire has been so squelched and so eradicated, not only by herself and her aging and society but by the calcification of her marriage. Bringing in this fantasy, this beauty, this fountain of youth [i.e., Chloe] energizes their relationship through jealousy but also through eroticism and finally looking at each other and [saying] ‘I love you. You’re the one I love.'”
Lest things got too intelligent, the European journo followed that by immediately asking about Seyfried’s recent Oscar appearance presenting Best Song alongside Miley Cyrus and noting that the actress was named “Best Dressed” by Entertainment Tonight. “Do you dream about ever getting that Oscar?” he asked.
Seyfried gave the question about the respect it deserved. “Uhm. It doesn’t seem that great,” she said as several of us laughed. She did, however, admit to enjoying escorting winning singer-songwriter Ryan Bingham afterwards through the backstage, post-award gauntlet.
“He’s adorable!” Wilson chimed in.
“He’s, uh, married,” Seyfried responded to more laughter and some more brief discussion between Wilson and Seyfried of Bingham’s highly attractive, though unavailable, qualities.
But back, eventually, to the rigors of actually playing Chloe. “I knew this was something I could easily fuck up if I didn’t prepare. I haven’t had to prepare as much for anything else because everything’s kind of based on me.”
How did she prepare, exactly?
“Just hours and hours and hours and hours of discussing [with director Egoyan] the character’s motivation — scene by scene, the evolution of the relationship of Chloe’s thoughts and perceptions of everything that’s going on.”
Then Seyfried asked Wilson if she had similar discussions with Egoyan. The answer was no. “I didn’t have to say anything to him. We got each other immediately. We met a long time ago during ‘Secretary’ when it opened. I gave him a book of erotica that I wrote and we started to talk about how we could do something…Coincidentally, years later, Ivan Reitman said ‘How about Atom Egoyan to direct this?’ and I’m like ‘yeah!’ Because, in a weird way this script is a book of erotica. It’s about erotic storytelling and how it can grab you and change you and heal you and ruin you.”
That led to a question from yours truly about “Nathalie,” which at that point I hadn’t seen and had barely heard about prior to seeing “Chloe.” Just how similar were the two ? Was the original script a simple jumping off place or was the two films telling essentially the same story. (Having seen it now, I can tell you that the though both films start out largely the same in terms of storytelling, “Chloe” ends up in a very different place indeed and is, I think, the far more interesting and entertaining film.)
“It’s such a hard question for me to answer for some reason for me because it’s ‘yes’ and ‘no.’…The set-up is exactly the same, really….The other day I was watching our ‘Chloe’ and I was watching Julie talking to Amanda as Amanda’s telling her about having sex with her husband…I remembered that when I was 36 my boyfriend slept with a 21 year-old. We were actually just broken up, but even then, it’s not right,” Wilson said with a smile.
“It killed me…I felt terrible, I felt ugly, I felt old and then I felt jealous. And then I felt a little aroused…I wrote a piece in The Erotica Project about how the situation was really complex, it wasn’t cut and dried. It’s not a good thing…It was a turning point and I had to find myself again and [say] ‘Well, now I’m not 21 and I am okay. I am desirable and I do desire.’ I had to reincarnate myself.”
After more gossipy questions directed toward Seyfried , I was able to ask her if she thought Chloe’s situation was in some way analogous to a performer who gets overly involved in a role. “I don’t know…Her job is to act and be sexual and act just completely aroused by every man she works with. I feel that all just comes away when she meets Catherine. She’s still acting but it kind of breaks down slowly.”
This leads to another personal question from one of the other writers regarding possible shared traits between traits between Chloe and Seyfried. “Yeah. There’s a rawness to her; there’s a neediness to her,” Seyfried answered.
Erin Cressida Wilson chimed in with more. “There’s a Puck quality to Chloe…at least I think so, to Chloe and certainly to Amanda. There’s a trickster.”
A week later it was time for another gang-interview, this time with filmmaker Atom Egoyan, best known for his highly acclaimed films as a writer-director, 1997’s “The Sweet Hereafter” and, more to the point regarding “Chloe,” 1994’s “Exotica,” a typically languorous, emotional, and elliptical film written and directed by Egoyan. It centers on a Toronto strip club and a number of characters associated with it in various ways. (It’s also the subject of one of Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” essays.)
This time, however, your writer made an unforgivably wrong traffic calculation and arrived late to the event. Still, with typical Canadian politeness, I was allowed to enter late and even given a brief moment or two to ask questions of Egoyan afterwards. Missing the delicious pre-interview snacks, it appears, was punishment enough.
When I arrived, it was clear this was a very different gathering from last week’s group. For one thing, no one was asking Egoyan who the best kisser on the “Chloe” set was. Also, as you might expect, the cerebral director was in the middle of an in-depth discussion about the characters in his latest. He had some interesting thoughts about his protagonist.
“Catherine is a particular type of woman. She is very controlling. We see that in terms of her relationship with her son and certainly we see that in terms of even her relationship with her patients. [There’s] the woman who can’t climax and [she says] ‘Orgasm is a series of muscular contractions; nothing mysterious about it. Here’s a pamphlet.’ Because it’s Julianne Moore and she does it so pleasantly, you think it’s actually very nice but it’s actually kind of demonic really. Only Julianne can pull of that kind of role where you feel it’s all normal, but it’s not, really.”
And then came the question, finally, about just what it was like dealing with the fall-out of Natasha Richardson’s death. “There isn’t much to tell. It was just a terrible tragedy. It happened. [Liam Neeson] had some days left to shoot and he came back eventually and finished. It was really a heroic sort of thing that he did. We were all so devastated by this.”
Moving on quickly, someone asked about the decision to cast Amanda Seyfried, a relative unknown at the time. “She came into the room and she was it. She had this incredible energy. There was something unpredictable and very touching about her. She was just playing with the role in a very interesting way. I think a lot of people had a preconception of what Chloe’s sexual persona was about. It was great to see that challenged by something so specific to who Amanda is…There’s something very unprotected about her [as Chloe] which is not characteristic about what you would think a woman in that job would be about.” Egoyan went on praising Seyfried for staying true to her commitment to the film even after her star began rising after the release of “Momma Mia.” He noted that she has said that “Chloe” is probably the last film where she will ever be cast as an actress instead of as a star.
Then came a question about the involvement of how Egoyan wound up in a film produced by Ivan Reitman who, apart from being a fellow Canadian, seems like an unusual collaborator for the rather serious-minded director. Egoyan, however, sees a deeper connection. “On the one hand it seems unlikely. But, looking at Ivan’s filmography, the film where the worlds kind of come together a little bit is a film called ‘Dave.'”
The hit politically themed comedy from 1993 starred Kevin Kline as a presidential lookalike who winds up substituting for an actual U.S. President. “‘Dave’ is also about a marriage, it’s also about a surrogate. Sigourney Weaver [playing the first lady] loses her husband and then there’s this surrogate and she falls back in love with him, though it’s not him. Actually, it’s a similar parallel to ‘Chloe’ in a way. It’s also an interesting film to look at in terms of examining the relationship between Jason [Reitman]’s work and Ivan’s work. I think it’s kind of the meeting point of their two sensibilities.”
Then came an interesting question that, since this is an unusual film in Egoyan’s career in that it’s not written by him and didn’t originate with him, about how he went about trying to “make it his own.” “
“I consciously tried to avoid ‘making it mine.’ I just wanted to do the best job I could directing it, given what Erin’s intentions were, given what Ivan’s ambitions were, and also finding the best cast and being able to concentrate on performance. And knowing, I suppose, that working with the same team, it couldn’t help but have a similar feel [to earlier films]. I actually think it’s not like one of my own screenplays.”
At this point, and as he joyfully listened to some speculations about what is “really” happening in “Chloe,” it became clear that Egoyan is another director who is also very much a film fan and who is not afraid to engage in a bit geekery. Ironically, he said that hearing viewers discuss the film that way made him want to do a DVD less, since he didn’t want to quash viewers’ thoughts by putting too specific interpretation on them.
He also mentioned that, as he’s contemplated previously, he is working on his first comedy, though Ivan Reitman might not get the chance to become involved in this one. “I am writing something now. I don’t know if I’ll ever make it but it’s been really fun writing it, I must say.”
Then comes a question about what keeps him excited about making films after decades as a noted independent creator and working director. “It’s like this — talking about [films and their meaning]. It can be read at so many different levels. It’s a great form….It’s getting tougher to make drama, that’s for sure in feature films, but I consider it a privilege and it’s wonderful to have this conversation.”
And with that he wrapped it up, but then it was time for my bonus questions. I noted that, watching “Chloe,” I kept finding myself thinking about Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”
“That was one of the reasons I didn’t want to shoot it in San Francisco.”
So, the Alfred Hitchcock classic was on Egoyan’s mind while shooting the film?
“It’s always on my mind. It’s my favorite film. There are a number of things which are not conscious references but are pretty [obvious] right down to the coiled hair [that Chloe wears].”
And, finally, I threw at him my earlier question to Amanda Seyfreid. Even if she doesn’t see it that way, does Egoyan look at Chloe as a performer whose fallen too deeply into a role.
“Yes. In a lot of the movies [I’ve made] there are people who get too involved. Professionally, they go outside the parameters of what the job they’re supposed to do, from insurance adjustors [1991’s “The Adjustor”] to custom officers [in “Exotica”]…It’s about trying to figure out what someone else wants you to do and be and react accordingly.”