Still crazy: Director Mike Figgis reveals the stories behind his favourite shots

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Mike Figgis is better known for his films than for taking photographs. But now some of the director's sexually charged images of women, including blindfolded girls, an abstract nude and Kate Moss descending a staircase in suspenders, are going on show in "Best of British", at London's Little Black Gallery, alongside pictures by Terence Donovan, Terry O'Neill, Patrick Lichfield and Bob Carlos Clarke.

It's a busy time for Figgis, who arrives this morning at his London studio, Red Mullet, looking rather dishevelled, with a wild mop of hair. He's in the middle of directing his first opera, Lucrezia Borgia for the ENO, which will open at the London Coliseum at the end of January. He's also preparing to shoot a new thriller, Suspension of Disbelief, about a writer's troubled relationship with reality.

As a rule, the director prefers to work with a small film crew and a hand-held camera to avoid the stress of big-budget Hollywood movies, where, he says: "Feelings of over-responsibility can lead to creative death". Photography is his stress reliever. He started snapping aged 11, on his first camera, a cheap Kodak. Once he moved to Los Angeles to direct films in the 1990s, he treated himself to Hasselblad and Leica cameras and started taking pictures seriously.

He pulls out two small personal photographs and lays them on top of a cabinet. One is of Nastassja Kinski on the set of his 1997 film One Night Stand. The other is of his old friend Uma Thurman, whom he first met when she was 16 years old, taken at her apartment in New York. "It's my first ever nude", he says. He's photographed the actress again and again over the years.

These are just two of his favourites. He's taken many, many more over the years. The Leaving Las Vegas star Elisabeth Shue is snapped on set, looking "drop-dead sexy", says Figgis, preparing for her role as Sera, the prostitute who falls for Nicolas Cage's hopeless alcoholic. From the set of Internal Affairs there are pictures of extras sleeping in a park, and one of Nancy Travis. There's also a photograph of a threesome on a ferry, which inspired a scene (later cut) in his film One Night Stand.

"Actors are terrified of having a single image taken of them, which used to puzzle me. It's because they feel they can't control it and if they can keep moving it will divert you away from some truth. But if you take a good photograph you can reveal something that a movie can't expose," says Figgis. "I found I had a real resistance to taking photographs on film sets, because it was already fake. Unless I could find an interesting angle and go behind the set. Then, of course, I was working with very good-looking actors and I started to ask people to sit for me."

His off-set works include a portrait of an old man in Cuba, ballerinas practising at a school in Prague, even a view of an LA pavement taken from his hotel window. A photograph of Muhammad Ali was taken when the film director bumped into him in the street, on the same day that John Lennon was shot.

Figgis was born in Carlisle, but his family moved to Nairobi, Kenya, when he was a baby and he lived there until he was eight, when he and his five siblings returned to Newcastle. Taking up the trumpet and guitar as a teenager, his first dream was to become a musician. At 18 he moved to London and joined the band the Gas Board with Bryan Ferry. Then, in the early 1970s, he joined the avant-garde theatre group the People Show and toured the world as a performer for the next decade – until he discovered film.

He was motivated to make his first film – Redheugh, about his father, a pilot in the Second World War – in 1980, after he was rejected by the National Film School. It caught the attention of Channel 4 who financed his first TV film, 1984's The House, starring Stephen Rea. His debut feature followed in 1988: Stormy Monday starred Melanie Griffith and Tommy Lee Jones. Figgis not only wrote and directed it, but provided the jazz score, too. It got him an agent in America, and Hollywood's attention. "Clint Eastwood offered me a cop film with Charlie Sheen, which I turned down. He has never spoken to me again – literally to this very day," says Figgis. "It would have been a big fat pay cheque, but I was looking for something much edgier."

Figgis's career since has been a rollercoaster. There were hits, such as the Richard Gere vehicle Internal Affairs – "I spent nine months convincing the studio that I could direct it" – The Loss of Sexual Innocence and Miss Julie. And there was a series of flops, including the erotic thriller Liebestraum, starring Kim Novak, and Mr Jones. "Two and a half years of sheer torture" says Figgis. The Browning Version, with Albert Finney and Greta Scacchi, was dumped by Paramount he says. His section of the HBO film Women & Men 2 with Juliette Binoche was "butchered".

His career was revived by the low-budget Leaving Las Vegas in 1996, which was nominated for four Academy Awards, and won the Best Actor prize for Cage. "I'd reverted to shooting on easier-to-operate Super 16mm, willingly, because there wasn't a big budget," says Figgis. "Actors relate to you more if you pick up a camera and physically engage with them. I could do that with a smaller camera. It's also quicker. The actors are happy because they spend more time acting and less time waiting around drinking coffee."

Always pushing at the boundaries, he shot 2000's Timecode entirely on digital camera, in real time, and says that being back on a full-blown Hollywood set for Cold Creek Manor in 2003 was "cumbersome". Somewhere in the middle, his relationship with Saffron Burrows, who starred in several of his films, foundered and she left him for the actor Fiona Shaw.

Most recently, Figgis made four short movies with Kate Moss for an Agent Provocateur campaign. The Four Dreams of Miss X and a set of stills were shot in one night before being put online where they caused the website to crash. "She is very shy and was very nervous about being in her first film," says Figgis.

Photography has always been a fruitful sideline. Two years ago he showed a series of pictures of London's Soho taken over one week. He expanded the project to New York and Hong Kong and is currently working on a Moscow edition."I've gone full circle. I've started making small films using stills. Being a film-maker and a photographer, I find I'm never quite satisfied with one image. I'm always looking for more information about the subject," says Figgis. "My fascination with making films was a fascination with portraiture. A face still remains the most interesting thing I can think of."

'Best of British', The Little Black Gallery, London SW10 (www.thelittleblackgallery.com) to 18 December

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