Atom Egoyan digs into the world of restaurant food inspectors
In his new film Guest of Honour, the Canadian director looks at power imbalances — and carefully held secrets
It was 2004 when Atom Egoyan decided to step into the restaurant business.
The famed Canadian director, writer, producer and actor already had several hit films to his name, among them Exotica, Felicia's Journey, Ararat and The Sweet Hereafter — which garnered two Oscar nominations.
When he and film distributor friend Hussain Amarshi opened Camera Bar on Queen Street in Toronto, the pair imagined a cinema lounge where film lovers could eat, drink and watch great movies.
But along the way, Egoyan ended up crossing paths with a completely different subset of people: food inspectors.
"It was just really fascinating to see the relationships that we were developing with these people because of course they would just ask questions — not only by the bar, but about your life," says Egoyan in an interview with q host Tom Power.
Egoyan had experienced other types of inspectors — customs officers, insurance adjusters, tax auditors — and many had inspired characters in his films.
But he found the food inspectors were especially intriguing, in part because his son was working at an exclusive French restaurant where the inspector was making the chef's life hell.
"And I just thought, 'This is an interesting job — someone who goes from one restaurant to another, trying to keep codes, trying to regulate things, trying to make sure that everyone is observing certain laws, and obviously carrying their own agenda," says Egoyan.
"I think we all have that situation where we're dealing with someone in a position of power and we're wondering, 'What are you bringing from your own life into this conversation we're having right now? Why are you behaving this way with me?'"
Guest of Honour
Those questions, in turn, inspired Egoyan's latest film Guest of Honour, which gradually reveals the tangled histories of a power-wielding food inspector (Jim) and his troubled daughter (Veronica), a schoolteacher who has landed in jail.
Played by David Thewlis, Jim is consumed by the idea of reputation — and at some point owned his own restaurant.
"We gather he was quite a successful restaurateur, but something in his life has changed and he's in a really different phase. His daughter is in prison for a crime that he doesn't understand if she even committed," explains Egoyan.
"So he's trying to kind of work things out as he's going through these inspections. And so he's using the inspections as a place to meditate on his life, but also to try and gain control over something that he has no control over in his own day-to-day life."
In the film, Luke Wilson also plays a priest tasked with writing a eulogy for Jim (at the beginning of the film he has already died), a man he has never met.
In an interview with Power last fall, Wilson explained that he was used to shooting on tight schedules, and that Egoyan kept on having to slow him down.
"We would have a set and it would be lit and we'd be ready to shoot. And he would sit down and start kind of having a very calm conversation with me," remembers Wilson.
"And I'd be kind of looking around thinking, 'We should probably get shooting,'" he says. "I had to make that adjustment to really listen and be thoughtful. It was definitely a new way to work for me."
Egoyan says when directing, if you can keep the lines of communication open, and keep actors' comfort levels up, it gives them a chance to really explore the characters — even if you can't do it all the time.
"As a director, you have to know which scenes you're going to allow that space because they're so important for the spine of the movie," he says, pointing to the interview between the priest and the daughter (Laysla De Oliveira) that winds through the film.
"You're thinking, 'Dramatically, what are the scenes that you want to really mold?' and give yourself the time to mold those scenes so that they're going to really take on a very important part of the movie. The actor has to feel comfortable."
'They're terrified of him'
Guest of Honour was shot in Hamilton, which has many Middle Eastern restaurants, and Egoyan — who was born to Armenian parents in Egypt — focuses on the power imbalance between the zealous inspector, who is English, and the owners of the restaurants who are forced to please him out of fear.
Along the way, it touches on colonialism and exposes racial and ethnic divides.
"He keeps saying to these people, 'I know what it's like to be from somewhere else. I know how tough it is.' And he doesn't, really. He has a position of privilege," says Egoyan.
"He thinks he understands other people's experience, but they're terrified of him. They want to satisfy his needs, right? So there's this odd imbalance. And he luxuriates in that."
Of course now, most restaurants in Canada remain closed because of COVID-19, or are operating in a very limited capacity.
"A lot of our restaurant culture is closed and we miss that. It's a huge part of what makes this country so amazing — all these different food cultures that are being brought into the fabric," says Egoyan.
"The idea of someone regulating that and bringing an agenda and having issues of power I think is really relevant. And it really talks about how we think of ourselves as a society."
— Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Produced by Vanessa Greco.