INTERVIEW: Mike Figgis, Our New Digital God -- How He Did It and Why

by Anthony Kaufman

indieWIRE's conversation with Mike Figgis continues....

iW: I read you used musical sheets to write the script?

Figgis: I hadn't invented the musical idea yet, but I'd come up with writing four parallel scenes with lines connecting to them, so that you knew where your time line was. In a sense, line video film editing or like four soundtracks. Then I thought, notation paper would be perfect for this, so I bought some composer's score paper, wrote out the 90 bar lines. I am slightly obsessed with pen and ink. And then started filling it in. And I actually wrote the story, then, on the music stays. Which is deeply satisfying, because you can see it evolving in quads.

iW: People talk about the beats in screenwriting and directing and you literally had them there.

Figgis: It's so liberating that I've been asked to do another film, which could be interesting. It's studio-based, but they claim that they would let me shoot it the way I want to shoot it. But I got back on to my script program on my computer and I found it so limiting. Cut to, transition, from character to character . . . the most adventurous thing they have to offer is dual dialogue.

iW: So I wanted to know if the pitch session in "Time Code" was anything like pitching the project in real life. Did you go to anyone for the money?

Figgis: No, I had no intention of pitching this to anybody. What I was originally going to do was advertise in Time Out and get the press on my side and go "Mike Figgis is going to shoot a movie on Friday, the 23rd, the shoot is going to start at 10 in the morning, it's going to wrap at 11:30 and the world premiere will be that evening in such and such a gallery. We'll show it in four monitors, with live musicians, and make a film performance art event of it." That was as far as I wanted to go with it.

Then I had lunch with Jon Calley from Sony. They had given me a housekeeping deal at Sony; I've been there for a couple of years developing ideas. And I really love John Calley; he comes from an interesting background and we were talking about various ideas. And I told him about it, and he said, "That sounds amazing. Sony would be the perfect place to do this, because they make the cameras. Why don't we do this in-house as a studio picture, because Sony is looking for something digital to explore the digital medium." So we worked out a budget and then he took me to a pitch meeting.

And he said, "Mike has this great idea, but there can be no script." So I brought a 7 page document and stamped on it in "Top Secret," because I was also terrified that these executives who talk all the time to agents, that once the cat got out of the bag, that some very savvy little digi-filmmaker from fuck knows where would rush off the next week and take the idea, because it's very stealable. So I said, "You can not talk to anybody about this and do not circulate this document or copy it." Because I had laid down everything there, all the techniques and everything. So John said, "Just pitch the film." So I started: four cameras, simultaneous action, no edits, improvised dialogue, no script, no hair/make-up. . . . It was very like the scene in the film, but there was nobody who started taking coke and laughing at me and saying, you're full of crap. But a couple people loved it and there were a lot of people who thought there is no way that this is going to happen.

"I was also terrified that these executives who talk all the time to agents, that once the cat got out of the bag, that some very savvy little digi-filmmaker from fuck knows where would rush off the next week and take the idea, because it's very stealable."

And I also told them I wanted to shoot this in October and release the film in December. And someone said, "December 2000?" And I was like no, December. I'd love this to be in a cinema, on New Year's Eve and playing as we go into the year 2000. That would be my wish. What happened after we finished the film and they decided they liked it was they said they needed more time, because there was a glut of films coming out at that time. Which I agreed with. But the idea of shooting a film and having it released 8 weeks later to them was like heresy.

iW: You know the Dogme guys did their D-Day thing on New Millennium's Eve -- four cameras, four TV networks broadcasting simultaneously. . .

Figgis: In fact, Stellan knows all those guys. He was in conversation with Lars von Trier and saying, "I think you'd really love what we're doing here." I think all those ideas are not springing up in isolation. I don't feel, for the first time in many years, like I'm on my own. I do feel like there is a very receptive audience for this that will totally get it.

iW: And the filmmakers out there, too, who are trying to do something new. Do you really think this digital revolution is here -- everyone has been talking about it for the last year or so. Is it going to be entrenched in the mainstream?

Figgis: Without a doubt. Just because those phenomena that have to do with computers and to do with the Net and to do with the capitalistic focus has gone on to it and there's a gold rush going on right now. A fool's gold rush, in my opinion. And money being invested in smoke. I'm enjoying it in a way, because it's almost like a panic wave that's coming from the establishment. Realizing that all the weight has shifted to the other side of the boat. And the trouble is, everyone is running to that side of the boat and it's going to capsize. But the lifeboat will be filled with interesting people. But a lot of people are going to get burned, because they don't understand what they're investing in. Already, people are investing so much money into advancing the technology of downloading speeds, for example. That it is going to be part of the reality. Then also what's going to happen is that mainstream filmmaking is not just going to lie down and commit suicide.

iW: The question is how willing will the film establishment be. They brought you on, but . . .

"The great thing is that it doesn't matter a fuck whether they're willing or they're not willing. The revolution doesn't need to consult them. It's a bypass."

Figgis: The great thing is that it doesn't matter a fuck whether they're willing or they're not willing. The revolution doesn't need to consult them. It's a bypass. That's what really interesting about it, because most revolutions require the storming of the castle. And I made an analogy last year at some conference that there is all this build-up of the armed guards at the gates, but the irony and beautifully sublime humor of this is that the revolution is going to charge straight past the gates. Who wants to inherit a castle? Those kinds of structures are of absolutely no use to contemporary technology. They're outdated, they're too big and they're way too overpopulated with overpaid executives -- all of whom are just eating away unnecessarily at profit. And they are a self-fulfilling prophecy. The price of movies and Tom Cruise's salary is a fabrication designed to hide the truth, which is that far too many executives are paid way too much money to do nothing, except pretend and slow down processes that otherwise could be speedy.

iW: The fun that you describe this experience with, you said that will continue to work in this way. . .

Figgis: The issue is not what can you think of, but it's like every time you stop and think about the technology, ten ideas emerge of how you could have fun and push the creative barriers, because of this amazing sudden appearance of this availability of transmission. Anyone who opens a website has their TV studio like that [Snaps]. It's amazing. Your investment may be $10,000, a decent digital camera and some form of digital editing. So I can go to Moscow, made a film in 5 days, transmit it on the 6th night on the Net and I may do that.

iW: Do you have a new project?

Figgis: I have that studio thing I've been asked to do, which may or may not happen -- I don't mind one way or another. And I have a number of documentary projects, and I'm supposedly doing an album.

iW: So our time is running short, but I wanted to ask you what camera were you?

Figgis: I was the bottom right-hand camera with all the executives. I knew that was the place where the highest number of actors were going to accumulate, therefore I would have a modicum of control in terms of being there while they said it, so I was directing from the camera. So if someone did something that was off-camera, sometimes I would swing around and say, "Say that again" and I knew I could cut my voice out later. Or I'd say "Push that, push that." Or "Pissed off." So I was also able to direct camera-wise with three cameramen who'd never shot a feature before, and sort of go without a doubt, you're camera work is 100 times better than mine, but what I want is your camera to be as bad as mine. Because you need to have four techniques that by the end of the 2-week run will look like we're all operating from the same kind of zone.