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With his roots in experimental theater and music, it is perhaps surprising that Kenyan-born writer-director Mike Figgis started out as such a conventional filmmaker, but his dissatisfaction with the Hollywood studio system eventually led to his true calling as one of the most innovative auteurs working in contemporary cinema. After studying music in London, he became a member of Gas Board, an English rhythm-and-blues band (which also featured a pre-fame Bryan Ferry), and later went on tour for nearly a decade with an experimental theater group The People Show first as a musician, then also as an actor. Undaunted by his unsuccessful application to London's National Film School, Figgis began writing and directing his own stage productions, visually striking works like "Redheugh", "Slow Fade" and "Animals of the City", which combined music with filmed segments and live performance. He developed "Slow Fade" into a one-hour piece ("The House") for Britain's Channel 4, capturing the attention of producer David Puttnam, for whom he wrote a treatment that would become his feature writing-directing debut, "Stormy Monday" (1988)".Although Puttnam would pass on the project, Figgis did finally get backing for...
With his roots in experimental theater and music, it is perhaps surprising that Kenyan-born writer-director Mike Figgis started out as such a conventional filmmaker, but his dissatisfaction with the Hollywood studio system eventually led to his true calling as one of the most innovative auteurs working in contemporary cinema. After studying music in London, he became a member of Gas Board, an English rhythm-and-blues band (which also featured a pre-fame Bryan Ferry), and later went on tour for nearly a decade with an experimental theater group The People Show first as a musician, then also as an actor. Undaunted by his unsuccessful application to London's National Film School, Figgis began writing and directing his own stage productions, visually striking works like "Redheugh", "Slow Fade" and "Animals of the City", which combined music with filmed segments and live performance. He developed "Slow Fade" into a one-hour piece ("The House") for Britain's Channel 4, capturing the attention of producer David Puttnam, for whom he wrote a treatment that would become his feature writing-directing debut, "Stormy Monday" (1988)".
Although Puttnam would pass on the project, Figgis did finally get backing for his tale set in the seamy world of Newcastle jazz clubs. The atmospheric homage to Hollywood film noir featured a score by the director, who also persuaded B.B. King to record the title track, a career first for the great bluesman. His impressive American debut, "Internal Affairs" (1990), was a striking portrait of police corruption featuring powerhouse performances by a creepy silver-haired Richard Gere and a seething Andy Garcia. The studio demanded control over the music and chose two composers to help execute Figgis' vision, even though he had already done a temporary track to accompany the film. His follow up, "Liebestraum" (1991), made precious little sense--something about a 40-year-old sex scandal, corruption, and family madness--but had style to spare, and with Brit backing, he was able to write his own score, a more or less "wall-to-wall" affair, often almost inaudible but always a presence. Figgis then tangled with the studio and producers who insisted that "Mr. Jones" (1993), a change-of-pace romance with Gere as a manic depressive charmer who gets involved with his psychiatrist (Lena Olin), be more upbeat. "I thought it was a ludicrous idea," he told The New York Times (November 1, 1995). "Manic-depression isn't something to dismiss lightly."
Once again a hired gun on the well-mounted, though stodgy remake of "The Browning Version" (1994), Figgis was at the creative center of his next project, "Leaving Las Vegas" (1995), and acquired foreign financing to protect the integrity of his noirish character study of an alcoholic, suicidal screenwriter (Nicolas Cage in an Oscar-winning turn) and his relationship with an abused prostitute (Elisabeth Shue). The actors and director took virtually no money, and Figgis began his love affair with the cheaper, grittier, "more impressionistic" Super 16 film (later blown up to 35 mm) normally used in documentaries, perfectly capturing the seamy trappings of the powerful love story. He also composed the score, and Sting, who had starred in "Stormy Monday", volunteered to sing on the soundtrack. When the movie opened, he had no expectations for commercial success, but "Leaving Las Vegas" became a critical darling, earning him the best reviews of his career as well as two Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.
After serving as executive producer of Annette Haywood-Carter's "Foxfire" (1996), Figgis then produced his own "One Night Stand" (1997), which he extensively rewrote from a Joe Eszterhas script (so much so that Eszterhas took no credit). Despite a too pat ending, it continued to show him as a filmmaker firmly in control, expertly matching his moody score to his complex take on relationships and reassessing life choices. His next film, "The Loss of Sexual Innocence" (1999), may have completed a trilogy of sexual obsession and human frailty begun with "Leaving Las Vegas", but it was also a labor of love 17 years in the making. Rejecting the linear three-act structure ("the filmmaker's Bible"), Figgis presented a fragmented narrative relying more on music and images than dialogue, intercutting a coming-of-age tale with the Adam and Eve story. His ambitious attempt to restore art to the medium was his most personal film yet and, despite its problems, successfully demanded audience participation in a way few pictures can. Like the preceding two films, it featured improvisation, energetic camera work and a fearlessness to delve into the human psyche that had become the director's trademark.
Figgis continued his experimentation with "Miss Julie" (also 1999), an adaptation of August Strindberg's 19th-century play about sexual obsession, filming in 16mm in 16 days on one set with two hand-held cameras. His decision to split the screen and show the love scene from both camera perspectives prefigured the four-camera point-of-view he would employ on "Time Code" (2000), arguably his most innovative picture to date. Working only from an outline, he equipped his actors with digital watches, and as they hit their prescribed marks at the prearranged times, he followed the action with four hand-held digital video cameras, shooting the entire 93-minute movie in one complete take. Though there were multiple takes, Figgis eschewed editing, opting to simultaneously show the images from all four cameras of what he deemed the best take. The director drew inspiration from the Dogma '95 movement and from the success of "The Blair Witch Project" (1999) to come up with this seminal work of the digital revolution, and the actors involved embraced its guerilla aspect. "This is the most incredible experience I've ever had--and the most stressful," Selma Hayek told the Los Angeles Times (November 8, 1999). "Nothing is really set. And there is no room for mistake. The danger of it, the experimental quality of it, really turned me on."
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"I was in pre-production on the film ["Leaving Las Vegas"] when I got a call that John [O'Brien, author of the source material] had committed suicide. Obviously, I was quite upset and considered not making the film, but eventually I decided that John wrote a great book, and the most I could do for him was to go ahead and make the film." --Mike Figgis to the Los Angeles Times, October 29, 1995
On the nightmare of "Mr. Jones": "I've never experienced anything so degrading, so humiliating, so completely lacking in respect. Had it been anywhere but a film studio, people would have been on the floor bleeding." --Figgis quoted in The New York Times, November 1, 1995
"I'm not disgusted with working with Hollywood, just realistic . . . The problem isn't Hollywood or the independent market--it's about how much money you're expecting to earn. There's the potential for a successful director to earn between $1 million and $7 million per film . . . So directors coming out of film schools or commercials or going to Hollywood having made a moderately successful British film have in their minds the mathematical possibility of becoming a very rich person very quickly. It's the oldest temptation in the book. How hard is it to say no to that? How easy is it to delude yourself you're doing good work in the studio system?
"The answer is, why bother? If you want to do good work . . . as the 'Dogma' people have also proved, you can make a film for virtually nothing if you're passionately interested in film-making as opposed to passionately interested in becoming a rich film-maker . . ." --Figgis quoted in Sight and Sound, May 1999
About working in Hollywood: "It was something I was excited to fall into because I was suddenly in a position of such power, and I was suddenly earning such money and meeting world-famous actors on a casual basis. And it feels terribly cool. You start regarding yourself as a very special individual. But then at a certain point you suddenly feel: 'I am so frustrated and bored by this', and you see the British people who have gone there and become so homogenised. And I guess I had a fear of that.
"Hollywood destroys people and ages people and throws them out on a weekly basis." --Figgis quoted in The Guardian, January 8, 2000
"I have a theory that film has replaced religion, because it's projected in temples, basically, and seems the ultimate corruption of a pure religious ideal in that it's about excessive sensuality on a cheap level . . . My hope is that these new [technical] developments will dignify the temple and turn film into an amateur thing. The idea that anyone can make a movie is healthy. You don't have to have a mark from God." --Figgis in The Guardian, January 8, 2000
"I prefer small films and rarely get excited by big expensive films. I feel shut out of big films, as if I am not being asked to participate in the event. It would be true to say that I feel the same about big theatre and big music. There comes a point where you know you are being manipulated by tricks rather than connecting with emotions and ideas and truths. It is much harder to tell the truth to a lot of people than a few. Glenn Gould retreated to the recording studio rather than play the big concert halls. It is a bald fact that bigger means more expensive to produce--as soon as you cross that line, you have to make compromises."
" . . . the biggest problem with studio films is that they are not good enough any more. And the reason they are not good enough is because they cannot trust the individual vision of the film-maker. There is simply too much money at stake. An interesting date is the day 'Fatal Attraction' was tested in front of an invited audience. As a result of the test the ending was re-shot amd the film was a huge hit. This proved . . . whatever the studio wanted it to prove. The theory now is that any film can be fixed by spending money on it. And very few execs will have the courage to back a film that is not right in the middle of the taste-buds of an average audience. It is far simpler to say no to an idea than to say yes to an idea." --Figgis quoted in The Guardian, February 25, 2000
"I never wanted to be an epic filmmaker. I never get jealous when I see hugely extravagant vistas and all that. It's like a different world to me. I like it very, very simple--where all the focus goes into the psychology of the acting." --Figgis to the Chicago Sun-Times, March 6, 2000
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