INTERVIEW: Mike Figgis' "Loss of Sexual Innocence"
by Anthony Kaufman
From Academy Award nods for “Leaving Las Vegas” to one of the most
audacious, experimental films in recent years, the cinema of Mike Figgis
is eclectic to say the least. A musician, a screenwriter, an
avant-garde theater director — Figgis’ multiple talents coalesce in his
latest feature, a non-linear narrative of intersecting stories
concerning the life of a British documentary director (played by Julian
Sands) and the fable of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Based on a
script called “Short Stories,” which Figgis wrote 17 years ago, “The
Loss of Sexual Innocence” is the kind of difficult film that falls
somewhere between masterpiece and indulgence. With its enigmatic plot
and hypnotic imagery — beautifully lensed by French cinematographer
Benoit Delhomme (“Artemisia,” “The Scent of Green Papaya“) — one
wonders how it ever got made? Figgis recently spoke to indieWIRE about
the difficulties of raising money without a standard script and the
tensions between vision and reality, independent and studio.
indieWIRE: This seems to be a very personal film, obviously not made for
commercial reasons. Have you kept track of the reactions to the film?
Festival audiences seem like they don’t know what to make of it.
Mike Figgis: When you’ve worked on a project so long, it seems totally
normal. I don’t see it being that far off any beaten track. But then I
see other films, and think that maybe it is, for some people.
Intellectually, I was prepared for the idea that people might have a
problem following that kind of narrative. But I do think if you are
prepared to invest in watching the film, there is nothing that is
iW: Is the film an indulgence?
Figgis: Not even remotely. As a director, I can indulge in certain
scenes just in the way that as a musician when your favorite tune comes
up and you go “ahhh, I love playing this.” Because this is not like
work, this is like pleasure.
iW: How did you conceive of the film? As it’s mostly visual, how much
was envisioned beforehand?
Figgis: That’s a tricky one to answer. I always find when you actually
go to location, and you start to deal with reality rather than what’s in
your head, you are restricted by that. Which is the good news and the
bad news. Like with the opening sequence, we clearly didn’t have the
money to go to East Africa. So the African sequence was shot near the
Scottish border in late October by buying a truck load of red soil and
finding the one maize field that seemed to exist in the North of
England. And getting some local students from Zimbabwe — who were
studying in Newcastle — and just being very inventive.
iW: How much was coming from your imagination verses getting onto the
Figgis: The starting point in every single story was what was written
down and then trying to find locations that somehow could be adapted or
would work as an alternative, so that my visions remained consistent.
For example, the Garden of Eden I’d always envisioned as an overgrown,
decadent, Italian garden with lots of statues. And that proved to be
very difficult to find. To find really, overgrown gardens, I just
couldn’t find any in Italy. But on that search, I then found this funny
little lake that looks like the kind of lake that you’d find on the rim
of a volcano. I though that was more interesting in a way, because it
was much more desolate. Then I found a garden nearby that I could cut
to, so I adapted the vision in that way.
iW: What did your script look like, physically, the one you used to
shoot with, because there is so little dialogue? Just an outline?
Figgis: One of the problems in raising money was the script was only 60
pages long. Because there was very terse descriptive statements about
what the locations look like and what the actors do. I don’t go in for
that internal psychology stuff. So it was a document for me to direct
the film, and not for somebody else. I did a kind of fluffed up version
of the script, just so that the language wasn’t quite as secret. So
people might read it and give money, I let them in on a bit more on the
plot stuff. But it wasn’t for my benefit.
iW: Tell me more about getting financing for a script that wasn’t really
a script. Certainly, it would have been impossible before “Leaving Las
Figgis: It was almost financed before “Las Vegas,” almost. . .
iW: On the basis of. . . ?
Figgis: On the basis that somebody read it and said, “I don’t entirely
understand it, but I think it’s fascinating.” That fell through.
[Press notes indicated that these producers wanted to change one detail
about the script. They wanted Adam to be white and Eve to be black
while Figgis’ script called for the reverse. Figgis explained, “What it
boiled down to was the head of distribution was a white South African
and he felt the world was not ready to see a white woman being rogered
by a black man. . . Over coffee I refused to change the script and they
regretfully said that the issue was a deal breaker and that was the end
Figgis: I met a German producer who was talking about the way Wim
Wenders financed his films. And what he did was hold the rights to the
negative and just do pre-sales for limited time periods for
territories. I decided to go that route. Then I got a sales agent, a
company called Summit to do a pre-sales deal with a back end. Which
left me final cut and eventual ownership of the film. Because you’re
dealing with smaller sums of money, those conversations are kind of
blissfully limited; they do their sums and they say, “it’s quite a sexy
film, with video rights, we think it’s worth this much money.’ And then
you just add it up and you go, that will give us our basic budget. . .
which was about $3 million.
iW: Your last film “One Night Stand” had a pretty big budget. You’ve
gone back and forth between more Hollywood films and personal work, is
it as simple to say that there is a greater freedom working
independently — what else is there besides that?
Figgis: Ultimately, it’s that. I don’t really notice any other
differences. The freedom comes from having fewer people around. With
the mechanics of moving a large production unit around, I find the use
of the time doesn’t really help the filmmaking process. When you allow
each unit in the film crew to indulge in the mechanics that are
available to them, let the camera crew have all their equipment, I find
that slows everything down colossally. The bigger the budget, the more
you feel the pressure that you ought to light more, use more cranes and
use more equipment and each time that happens, that’s another truck.
Very quickly, it gets things out of proportion. I think it just renders
the process into a very dull one. You don’t feel like a director, you
feel like a major. You’re a unit manager in a way. I find it dull.
iW: Could you talk about the different stylistic methods you use to
separate the interweaving stories in “Loss of Sexual Innocence”?
Figgis: A lot of it had to do with the film stock that was used. I
made a choice in all the childhood stories and the dreams and the Adam
and Eve story, to use Ektachrome cross process. What you do is shoot on
a film stock that would normally give you an immediate positive, and in
order to create a negative, you cross process it. But you have no real
control of what’s going to happen with the color except you know it’s
going to get more saturated and you get some strange effects. But I
like the fact that you didn’t have that much control over it.
iW: Why those scenes with that special effect?
Figgis: Because they deal with memory in a very subjective way. I
wanted to be surprised. I didn’t want to use sepia or black and white; I
wanted to use a more saturated feel. I thought it was necessary in the
collection to have some differentiation for the eye. I would say to the
costume designer, I’m not worried about the stitching. Give me an
overall effect, rather than any specific details. In this kind of
filmmaking, which is fast and low-budget, you have to find shorthand