'One take, no script, no catering. I love it'

It took Mike Figgis just days to shoot his two new low-budget films. In an interview with himself, the maverick director explains why he's happy to remain a small fish in a pool of sharks
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The Independent Culture

QUESTION: Was there an event in your career that influenced the way you think about the film business?

QUESTION: Was there an event in your career that influenced the way you think about the film business?

ANSWER: Years ago, at a village fête in Devon, I had my fortune read by an Eastern European lady. She looked me in the eye and said: "You are a fish and you have a tendency to swim into obstacles - you must learn to wriggle your way between the reeds at the bottom of the pond ..."

Q: You have two films coming out just weeks apart - is that deliberate?

A: Not at all. Different companies are distributing Miss Julie and Time Code. And this is the time that alternative films are released, before the blockbusters gobble up all the screens. The films were made six months apart.

Miss Julie is an adaptation of the Strindberg classic, with Peter Mullan and Saffron Burrows playing the leads. It's a very tight reworking of the play, and we shot it in sequence on one set in 16 days. Two cameras ran all the time, and there's a love scene that utilises a split screen. This is what got me thinking about the possibilities of shooting an entire film (what eventually became Time Code) in one take, using four cameras and 27 actors, with no script, everything improvised. I wrote a plot and suggested characters. There was no make-up, no trailers, no wardrobe, no catering. It was shot on digital cameras and then transferred on to 35mm film. With its four-way split screen, Time Code is a bit of an attention-grabber, but I think Miss Julie is just as ballsy.

Q: What are your ambitions in the UK film industry? Would you like to do what the Scott brothers, Tony and Ridley, did: try to buy a studio?

A: Not even remotely. The great temptation in the film biz is the idea that bigger is always better. Part of the problem is the phrase "The British Film Industry", with its connotations of mass employment and large studios booked for years ahead. We get nervous when the pound is strong, because the Americans might take their dollars elsewhere.

Q: What is your relationship with Hollywood and the studios?

A: I think it's good, but I have no idea what they think of me. Some of them like me, perhaps; some of them dislike me, definitely. I almost did a Brad Pitt film earlier this year with Warners, but it just seemed to evaporate into the LA smog. The more interesting the script got, the harder it seemed to get anyone on the phone. It ended with them offering me half what we agreed for writing the script and me accepting.

Q: Why half?

A: I refuse to write long scripts any more; I just write the ideas down using short sentences. Consequently, my scripts run to about 50 or 60 pages - the average Hollywood script is about 110 pages. They felt I'd only turned in half a script, hence half the fee.

Q: Are you against the studio system?

A: I've worked within large film studios and I've yet to meet an executive at peace with the world, an executive with the courage to go out on a limb for a film. (Those that do seldom survive - I have lots of examples.) In my opinion, it's not possible to be happy and courageous and work for a studio. But you can get very rich.

This is not so good for film-makers, however. Directors can earn plenty of money without needing to be rich and powerful. The minute you take the big studios' money, you have tacitly agreed to take their process seriously - which includes having to listen to some 33-year-old junior executive giving you his ideas about plot development and "character arc".

Q: So, what did you do about it?

A: A few years ago, I set up my company, Red Mullet, and decided to stay as small as possible. The company has two full-time employees: one assistant in London and one in LA (this allows me to use the word "international" when referring to Mullet business). It's based in one small room in a part of London that is not Soho.

Q: Is Red Mullet technically equipped to compete with a big studio such as, say, Disney?

A: Mullet has enough equipment to make and edit films: two Super 16 cameras (Super 16 is so good I don't feel the need to go into the 35mm business at all) and three video cameras; two digital edit systems; also a recording studio in which much of the last three films' soundtracks were recorded and mixed.

I hate using rental stuff; you never know anything about the cameras. It's just not personal enough for me. Godard once said that one should own one's own camera, and I agree.

Q: Wouldn't you like to have more money to fund the films you make?

A: It's possible to make films for small amounts of money - The Loss of Sexual Innocence, Miss Julie and Time Code were each made for less than $4 million (£2.5 million) - a generic studio picture currently averages out at $40-50 million. And I am very happy to share this philosophy with younger film-makers. (This is not the prevailing attitude in an industry where technical information is guarded like top-secret missile plans.)

Q: Are you saying it's easy to make a film on a small budget now?

A: Yes. And the technology has now arrived to back up the point. The success of the Dogme movement and also films like The Blair Witch Project have made the idea not only workable but, more importantly, hip, acceptable, desirable. I cannot deny that I am enjoying the sight of big studio folk trying to second-guess which way their gravy train is going to turn next.

This new technology means that all kinds of new things are possible. Like a distribution system that shows interesting films, on digital format, to audiences who care about good cinema. The new digital projectors are quite remarkable; a cinema could be any space with seats and a blackout - which in turn means that the film-makers need no longer be in the stranglehold of a small number of distributors who have a monopoly on international cinema.

Q: You get well-known actors to appear in your films - it's not for the money, presumably?

A: Mullet films are made very quickly, and actors get to act. I don't tie them up for half a year. Miss Julie took 16 days to shoot, Time Code took a couple of weeks, Leaving Las Vegas took four weeks. Mr Jones [a 1994 big studio film that Figgis subsequently disowned], on the other hand took over two years to (in-) complete. They come and do a bit of thesping for me and then go off and earn lots of dough elsewhere. In the future, I will try to find some way of giving them a profit share as well.

Q: Why don't other directors do it this way?

A: I think you'll find that they do. The internet has proved to be a serious incentive to many young film-makers and they are forming co-ops to help each other.

Q: What do you think of the way British films are being financed right now?

A: The Film Council is going to put more money into fewer films (where have I heard that before?). And these films will have to prove, at script level, that they have the potential to compete with studio products such as The Perfect Storm or Mission Impossible: 2. Hmmm! Who is clever enough to make these kinds of decisions? At the moment, there's a lack of direction. I think a lot of it is to do with film folk standing around waiting for a bus with a clear sign on the front that says where the bus is going. That will come soon, I think, in a way that's organic and interesting. It will have very little to do with funding or the lottery.

Q: What are your favourite films of recent years?

A: My Name is Joe, Festen, Show Me Love and Man Bites Dog. I've liked a couple of studio films - but they don't stick in the mind.

'Time Code' (15) is released on 18 August; 'Miss Julie' (15) on 1 September