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  MUSING ON MODERN FILM WITH MIKE FIGGIS, DIRECTOR OF HOTEL.  
   
   
 

Mike Figgis may best be remembered for winning Nick Cage an Oscar playing a man drinking himself to death, and for landing Oscar nominations for himself and Elizabeth Shue by convincing her to pour vodka on her breasts in the name of art. That was in Leaving Las Vegas, way back in 1996, and commercially speaking, he hasn't been heard from since. (Watching Cage immediately cash in on his Oscar with Con Air wasn't exactly inspiring.)

Instead, Figgis has spent the past seven years making experimental films that made it into theaters thanks to his clout, but probably grossed less than Gigli, combined. Some, like The Loss of Sexual Innocence, broke new ground in self-indulgence. But Timecode was simply groundbreaking.

While traditional 35mm cameras can shoot only seven minutes at a stretch, digital video cameras record to tapes anywhere from an hour to 90+ minutes long. Figgis realized that these cameras could now shoot an entire movie without a cut. And because they could, he decided he would. Timecode is ostensibly about Hollywood machinations and lesbian lovers and betrayal, but everyone who went to see it in 2000 really wanted to see how Figgis was able to tell a story in real time using four cameras -- each image was given a quarter of the screen -- that never cut away from their subjects. He shot the film more than a dozen times after elaborate rehearsals, and even used musical notation paper to keep a grip on the story.

 

 
 

Figgis's latest film, Hotel, once again combines his technical obsessions (DV, split screens, hand-held camerawork, and a ton of tricks like zero-light shooting) and his lyrical ones (deviant sexual behavior, betrayal, women with absurdly long legs, actress Saffran Burrows). The story is appropriately meta -- a film crew shacks up in a hotel in Venice while shooting a Dogme 95 version of the Duchess of Malfi; Salma Hayek is a fifth-rate TV jouranlist shooting a documentary of the film, and the hotel staff is... well, they're either vampires or cannibals. One or the other.

But that's different question.

THE FRIGGIN' FIGGIS FILMOGRAPHY.


Hotel

 
 

 

Below are the ones Greg Lindsay asked him while he was still putting the finishing touches on the film.

BT: What was the process for making Hotel? Did you improvise the script again, as you did in Timecode?

Figgis: I wrote a script, as with Timecode, and a character description, but I didn't actually write a script.

BT: Did you use the musical scoring technique that you used in Timecode to keep all the simultaneous action straight?

Figgis: I started off with the musical scoring technique, thinking how smart I was, and then I used that for the first three days, I think, and then I basically abandoned it. Because we were all living in the same hotel -- about 40 actors -- we were totally spending all our time together anyway. The musical manuscript paper was essential to Timecode because it was a 93 minute uninterrupted structure.

As the style of Hotel developed and was a clearly a much looser form of improvisation -- much more dangerous in some ways -- it became less essential to be quite so anal about controlling it, so I let it go and we stopped. I occasionally used the music system to kind of sum up where we were or to indicate to actors if it was multiscreen -- roughly, what was happening on the other screens as with Timecode. And I screened Timecode at the beginning of the process just to demonstrate that technique. But then I found they all kind of understood it and I didn't really need to have quite such control on this one because we were shooting in shorter increments -- a 10 minute scene, a five minute scene or whatever.

BT: What did you think of the technology you used this time, especially since you've slid down the cost scale from 35mm cameras ($100,000+) to DV cameras you could order online for $5,000 or less. And you finally got the chance to build your own camera rig, right?

Figgis: Oh, I much preferred it. It's far more flexible and obviously, the size of the camera is a huge, huge advantage. What I did on this film was what I really wanted to do on Timecode, but because of the stupid context of that film -- you know, it was a Sony studio film -- I was constrained technically and in terms of manpower and so on by certain conventions, so we shot on much bigger cameras. So, with the smaller cameras, I realized that for what I wanted, I needed to deconstruct them ane then kind of redesign them. So I set myself that fairly large task in preproduction and over quite a long period before we started shooting. One of the fundamental things I did was design a special rig for the camera -- which I've now patented -- and in fact, I think might have a commercial life of its own now.

After Timecode, one of the things I realized was that in order to really work with low end digital technology, you have to start designing equipment especially for it. Because, in a sense, the camera and so on are tools but they need to be dealt with in a very specific way because of the aesthetic of how they operate and so on. And you need to load them up with as many small things as possible; obviously things for recording sounds, and ways of controlling them without having to touch the camera -- remote controls and things like that. So I set myself that task. I did a sort of paper design of the idea for the technical setup that I would need to be a one-person camera unit that was also recording professional, usable, studio quality sound. That was a challenge with those cameras.

So that was a pretty interesting way to start the film. Pretty much the same way the music paper kind of informed the way that Timecode went, I think the camera rig design informed the way Hotel went. And I think we made fairly large leaps forward with it that I'm now kind of in the process of sharing it with other people and involving young filmmakers in the process.

BT: Speaking of younger filmmakers, where do you stand in the debate between the purists who think that too much exposure to DV degrades our appreciation of film, and those, like Wim Wenders (Buena Vista Social Club, Wings of Desire), think digital will replace film altogether? Is too much DV a bad thing?

Figgis: All of those statements are true, and they're all so limited... I didn't use a still photo (camera) on the film on purpose because I'd begun to work with digital imagery in Photoshop (which I spend a considerable amount of time with because I'm a photographer) and looking at the way digital still imagery is being processed now. And I found an infinity of aesthetic choices -- in terms of color and density and the look of the film and so on -- and realized that the way we've been looking at the way of transferring video onto film, for example, and the final look of a digital-based film has been very limited.

And I think limited in the sense that the aesthetic has always been to make it look as kind if it were bright and cheerful and as close to film as possible -- the "film look" and so on that people talk about -- and that's really not the point. And there's a completely different aesthetic which is just as complex as film or asoil painting or as watercolors. And I'm talking about naturalism too. I'm not talking about just going off into the world of wacky, digi-impressionism. And it's something that requires just as much care and as aesthetic thought and process as any other facet of filmmaking. Except



Timecode


Miss Julie


The Loss of Sexual Innocence


One Night Stand


Leaving Las Vegas


The Browning Version


Mr. Jones


Liebestraum


Internal Affairs


Stormy Monday

 

 

that -- and this is the delightful part -- if you're prepared to put in the hours, it's something that you can control yourself instead of having to use a lab.

So what I did was maybe download 300 stills from the film into Adobe and created the stills book purely from things that were originated on DVCAM tape. And that was a voyage of discovery because I found all kinds of pleasant surprises about where on can go aesthetically with the look of the film. That, in my opinion, deals with the aesthetic of the digital end of it. I found things in there that are as beautiful as 35mm, which I will always remain a huge fan of.

I would never, ever advocate the disappearance of 35mm or 16mm or celluloid because that source of imagery is so beautiful. It's not an either/or except on a budget level, when filmmakers are first starting up. In my opinion, they need not feel embarrassed or limited in any way by working within low budget digital. And I would add to that, I find it far more interesting than the high end of the digital world. That would seem to be for people who like to manipulate special effects, which I have no interest in.

BT: What will digital film making do to narrative? Now that we have non-linear ways to edit films, will we also develop a way to make non-linear films to watch? And will we develop a taste for them?

Figgis: I think at the end of the day, people are interested in linear storytelling.

We get more and more sophisticated as each generation moves on because of the speed with which we absorb technology, and also we get very tired of the cliche of storytelling if it's too exploited by a studio system, which it is. I would agree partially with what Wim said, but I have moderated my view. I think the use of digital technology creates a freshness and brings in a new generation who may discover the same kind of passion for linear storytelling with new clothes. The history of cinema is always marked by moments when a new approach to linear storytelling is arrived at, which is quickly absorbed into the mainstream and is tired. We owe it to ourselves as creative people to rethink that mode so it has a freshness.

Personally, I'm only interested in stories about people and how they relate to each other. I can't see a healthy way forward where one abandons linear storytelling completely and just goes into abstraction. I don't think that ever appealed to anybody, really.

BT: What are your thoughts on the future of film distribution, particularly in light of the meltdown of cinema on the Web? Was that just a technology problem? Will the Web rise again as an alternative to the traditional film route?

Figgis: It seems to me that was always inevitable. I always thought it was dodgy -- I have no desire to sit by myself in front of a computer and watch a story. It seems very masturbatory to me.

I love being in a cinema with as many people as possible or being turned on by variations of the same idea -- whether it's music or anything else. I like to get information off the Net; it's sort of designed itself as being the most amazingly useful backup tool to anything we want to do and the greatest information idea probably ever. I'm sounding very old fashioned, but I like variations on many themes viewed in the company of as many people as possible. Therefore, it would define what the problem is.

The problem is distribution. The problem is to see new, refreshing ideas with those people without those motherfuckers the thought police -- or the mindless police, actually -- who makes these decisions about what brainless crap gets put out there. It's like politics. The time comes when all good men and women have to cop to the fact that it's also your responsibility, so if you really want to change things, don't just bleat on about 'how do I make a digital film and how will anyone see it?' The answer is: do something about how people see it.

That same revolution that allows people to make films can also allow people to see them. It's not difficult, it just requires organization. It requires the organization of the people who use the Net to connect themselves together. They can make money with it; they can work within the capitalist system very comfortably. But it does require a bit of boring groundwork. There's never been a better time in the history of cinema to set up alternate digital cinema. Because the fact is, the conventional distribution world is still reeling from the amount of money they've had to pay on sound systems, so they really don't want to buy a digital projector.

Now, if they're reluctant to do that, we have to say "Hallejuah," because it actually has created an entreprenurial gap in the market, which is more than we deserve probably. But for anyone who wants to get their act together and step in now, there's never been a better time to set up an alternate distribution network on a fairly big scale with let's say, mainstream type films which are better than the ones offered.... The studios need a model before they can conspire.

Something's happening and they don't know what it is. Nor does anyone else particularly. They're wondering what to do next and they won't decide until someone else decides what it is they're going to have to bash or compete with. it hasn't really come up as a model yet. There's a kind of inertia -- people treading water and everyone going 'Well, what do we do next?' and waiting for leaders to emerge to say 'This is what we're going to do.'

 

*BT*