INTERVIEW: Mike Figgis, Our New Digital God -- How He Did It and Why
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/4.28.2000) — “It’s time to move forward,” says a character in Mike Figgis‘ groundbreaking paean to the cinema of the future, “Time Code.” The character happens to be a pretentious film director speaking to a group of dumbfounded executives and pitching a film project that is not unlike the one we are seeing: “Drama is music,” she declares, calling for a new sort of cinema with “dilations” and “contractions,” following a “paradigm of collage.” Though the movie mocks her self-important pitch and maintains a wink, wink sense of humor throughout (i.e. the executives work for Red Mullett — the name of Figgis’ own company — and are casting a movie called “Bitch from Louisiana” in the backroom), Figgis is not joking around here.
Shooting four different, interconnecting storylines with Sony DSR-1 digital video cameras for 93 minutes (the length of one tape), Figgis and his cast and crew wore digital watches with their own time code to keep in-sync. They made some 60 separate movies before they were done. The film’s four stories were then transferred to one four-quadrant frame with each story unfolding side by side by side by side in the final print. Think experimental video project, but with stars like Salma Hayek, Saffron Burrows, Holly Hunter, Stellan Skarsgård and Kyle MacLachlan.
“Time Code” marks the beginning of Hollywood’s entrance into the DV arena and quite possibly the first mainstream acceptance of a new mode of visual storytelling for the movies. Perhaps, most startling, is that it works. After confounding critics and audiences alike with his 1998 experiment “The Loss of Sexual Innocence,” Figgis — the director, writer, musician and most of all, it seems, conductor — proves he’s onto something.
In this lengthy interview with indieWIRE‘s Anthony Kaufman, the British-born Figgis, whose prior claim to fame was Nicholas Cage‘s Oscar-winning performance in his 1996 hit “Leaving Las Vegas,” explains how “Time Code” came about, how plot is a waste of time, how to destroy voyeurism, and how he’s ready to usher in a filmmaking revolution.
“Time Code” opens today in limited release.
indieWIRE: Do people realize the logistical miracle that you pulled off?
Mike Figgis: I think as people watch it, and it’s one of the nice things about the experience of being with people watching the film, is the realization that slowly emerges when they start to see the synchronicity. And so part of the experience is that they are following the plot, and going with the story, but they are also really enjoying technically what’s going on as well. And I’m hoping there will be this big word of mouth where people might say, “I have no clue what the story is about, but you have to check this out. Because I don’t know how they did it.”
iW: It’s funny, because in the advance press, there’s really little mention of the story. Is that what you want?
Figgis: I don’t mind. I’m the first person to recognize that selling a film is not easy these days. And there are millions of films out there, and in your pre-publicity, in order to just get people to see the film, you have to suggest what’s different about the film. And plot-wise, you know, all films are the same now. And if you just describe the plot in this film, it’s pretty straightforward.
iW: You seem to be suggesting that plot is incidental.
Figgis: I made a decision a couple years ago that I’d start inventing my own golden rules. One is that all film is science fiction, all film is black comedy, and character is plot. And the over-emphasis on plot is a waste of time. Because at the end of the day, people don’t really give a fuck about plot. They want it to work, they want to believe that it’s believable, but outside of that, what they really want to identify with is character. And they enjoy seeing character development, and a really great actor portraying a really great character can mesmerize an audience for an entire movie, with virtually very little happening: could be just going fishing, telling a few stories, that’s what we love.
“I made a decision a couple years ago that I’d start inventing my own golden rules. One is that all film is science fiction, all film is black comedy, and character is plot. And the over-emphasis on plot is a waste of time. Because at the end of day, people don’t really give a fuck about plot.”
iW: But here, it is of course, about the characters, but then there’s this technological, visual uniqueness about it. Where does your primary interest lie in making this film?
Figgis: The reason for making the film sprang from a real joy at what is technically possible to do with film. And I’ve always felt that way.
iW: Should we even use the term “film” anymore?
Figgis: It’s almost like, we still use the word “record.” It sort of has a generic meaning. So what we know it means is moving visual imagery — cinema. It’s still cinema. So my ongoing love affair with cinema has always been partly informed by the huge technical possibilities that can be incorporated into storytelling. The same way, musically, if you had an orchestra, and you go, ‘No one has explored this color by putting trombones, percussions, and violins together.’ So when you hear something like “Rites of Spring” at the time, it’s pretty outrageous because of the colors and scoring that Stravinsky employed. So at the end of the day, it’s a beautiful piece of music, but part of the quickening of the pulse has to do with the innovation. I feel the same way about cinema. When I see the revitalization of an old technique or something radically new, there is that experience of being energized by the freshness of it. So, yeah, I always like to push things technically in each film and I realize in this one, it is a bit of huge push. I say with confidence audiences have never ever seen a film like this before.
iW: So, first, how did the idea come about: four screens unfolding stories simultaneously, no cuts — did this come to you all at once?
Figgis: Truthfully, it happened in about a three-hour period on a train. And it came about for a couple of reasons. One is I’d just shot a film, “Ms. Julie,” using two cameras and very long takes in 16 days on a very small budget. And it was an intensely wonderful experience.
In order to save time, I kept thinking, ‘Can we do two things at the same time?’ ‘Can we play both cameras on video assist at the same time.’ Because if it’s a 60-minute take, I don’t want to spend half an hour just reviewing what we just did. The D.P. needs to see my shot, and I need to see his; so I said to the video playback guy — who happened to be my son — just roughly synchronize those two video machines on the clapperboard and then run back the takes together. So we got into this stereo playback mode and every time I looked at it, I thought this is so gorgeous. Obviously one harkens to the split screen techniques particularly in something like “Woodstock.” Which is really effective. Quite gorgeous, revolutionary and ballsy.
And I realized sort of like cubism that you’re getting more than twice the information from two screens. Psychologically, you’re getting a vast amount of information. And what you’re also doing to the audience is liberating them from a solo masturbatory voyeur role. Which is very uncomfortable and we’ve gotten used to it, but you can’t get away from the fact that cinema is the ultimate form of voyeurism, sexual or otherwise. And by having two eyes (or views), there’s two of you there, so it’s not perverse anymore. One person is perverse; two people are not perverse. So that was something that I was intrigued by.
“what you’re also doing to the audience is liberating them from a solo masturbatory voyeur role. Which is very uncomfortable and we’ve got used to it, but you can’t get away from the fact that cinema is the ultimate form of voyeurism.”
I was then on this train and I was playing with ideas. And someone had asked me to do an erotic film — basically a porn movie — for this German arthouse chain. And I was thinking about this very interesting interview I had with Paul Thomas Anderson for Projections — and I had said to him that maybe all filmmakers should actually do a sex film, and try to do a good one, because there are millions of them out there and they’re all pretty bad. And I was thinking about how do you portray sexuality on the screen?
iW: And sexuality is often quite prevalent in your work, from “Leaving Las Vegas,” “One Night Stand,” “Loss of Sexual Innocence” . . . ?
Figgis: It’s very interesting. But what’s fascinating is the psychology, not the genitalia. The sexual act is very, very interesting. But I have less interest in seeing the components. And I felt the best way to deal with this is stereo — two cameras with no cuts. Because you’d enter into a form of reality there and you’d be seeing it from two viewpoints and you’d have eradicated the voyeurism and perversity of the singular wanker — and you’d be observing the phenomenon in a way that had far wider ramifications.
So I started writing a scenario that ended up being the scene in “Time Code” with Salma Hayek and Stellan Skarsgård making love behind the projection screen. And then I suddenly thought, ‘What if we use three cameras — wouldn’t that be fascinating?’ And then I went ‘Why stop at three, what if you had four?’ As an exercise, if you were telling a story and it was designed to be filmed on 4 cameras simultaneously, how different would that story be from a conventional story? You immediately realize that you have taken the entire signification away from linear, three-act plot development. And you have thrown everything onto character nuance and the irony of multiple viewing, because no one can escape in a cutaway. So you’re on screen all the time, there is a scrutiny there that is merciless. Which means if you tell a lie, it’s immediately apparent. There is no rock to hide under.
There’s that wonderful moment in Wim Wenders‘ “American Friend,” where I think he has to execute someone on the subway, but then you discover he’s on all these monitors, but the security guards are playing guards, so no one is watching. But you see him run from one monitor to another in real time. I always thought that was quite superb. All these ideas, in fact, were sitting around in the Nouvelle Vague. On the same train journey, I had a copy of this fantastic book of Godard interviews from the 60s to the present day. You can open that book anywhere and you’ll find something mind-blowing as an idea, which Godard just discards. So probably this whole thing was about thinking, ‘My god, we’ve taken so many giant leaps backwards since the 60s, since the Nouvelle Vague, in terms of our ballsiness in our approach to filmmaking, so wouldn’t it be wonderful to make what used to be called an experimental film — and just love it.’ I really felt that this would tap into the prospective enjoyment of audiences. Because they are fascinated by these techniques, and by revolutionary ideas of filmmaking.
So back on that train — I’m stuck on this train and I love trains; they’re very creative. I had abandoned my laptop some months earlier, because I got so pissed off at it, crashing and running out of batteries at times of intellectual orgasm. So I had gone back to my favorite system of fountain pen and huge notebooks. And so I started using this notebook and it’s all there on about 4 pages on this train journey — the entire story structure, what kinds of notation to write the script and so on.
The conversation continues on page 2….