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

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum