The director uncut

Mike Figgis's new film was improvised by the cast and shot in one take, and it shows on a split screen. Has the director of Leaving Las Vegas lost the plot?
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The Independent Culture

Normally, the making of a feature film is divided into three distinct stages: writing the script, shooting, and editing. On his latest film Timecode, however, director Mike Figgis decided to do it all in one go. There was no script - instead the actors improvised around a basic story-line. The entire film was shot in one unbroken take, on four digital video cameras simultaneously - so there was no need for editing either. In the finished film, the screen is divided into four, and we watch in real time exactly what each camera filmed for 93 minutes - the length of a digital video cassette - from 3pm on the afternoon of 19 November 1999.

Normally, the making of a feature film is divided into three distinct stages: writing the script, shooting, and editing. On his latest film Timecode, however, director Mike Figgis decided to do it all in one go. There was no script - instead the actors improvised around a basic story-line. The entire film was shot in one unbroken take, on four digital video cameras simultaneously - so there was no need for editing either. In the finished film, the screen is divided into four, and we watch in real time exactly what each camera filmed for 93 minutes - the length of a digital video cassette - from 3pm on the afternoon of 19 November 1999.

This might make Timecode sound like the sort of performance-art experiment that belongs in a gallery rather than a cinema. But it also turns out to be a fascinating and - once your eyes adjust to coping with four screens - compulsively watchable way to tell a story. The four cameras track a rogue's gallery of movie producers, aspirant starlets and jealous lovers as they converge on the offices of a film company in Sunset Boulevard. The entire "event", closer to a stage performance than a conventional shoot, was filmed 15 times in all over a two-week period (the final "take" is the one being released), and the looseness of the set-up encourages wonderfully intimate and funny performances from the cast, which includes Holly Hunter, Salma Hayek, Stellan Skarsgard, Kyle MacLachlan, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Figgis's partner Saffron Burrows.

When he first watched the finished film with an audience, Figgis was surprised to find it played as a comedy, albeit a black one - "I'd never seen an audience at one of my films laughing so much and having such a good time." Hitherto, Figgis has been best known for his own lush brand of film noir - films such as Internal Affairs (1990), which infused the LA cop thriller with a line in torrid sexual jealousy worthy of Othello, and the suicidal lament Leaving Las Vegas (1995).

But he's always been a remarkably adventurous film-maker too, alternating between mainstream studio features, documentaries and more personal projects - the last film he made before Timecode (though it's released two weeks later) was a hothouse version of Strindberg's Miss Julie, shot on 16mm on a single set.

Figgis has something of a love-hate relationship with Hollywood. He has done his finest work there ( Timecode included), but also suffered his worst reverses, notably on 1993's ill-fated Mr Jones, when the studio famously demanded that Richard Gere's manic-depressive hero be manic all the time, because he was more fun that way. "Every story you ever hear about the film business is funny," Figgis sighs. "Unless you happen to be the subject of the story, in which case it's tragic."

Figgis's riposte to endless studio interference was Leaving Las Vegas, a low-budget indie shot on 16mm - and subsequently nominated for four Oscars (Nicolas Cage won Best Actor, relaunching his career in the process). Figgis says he never received his fee for writing and directing the film, or made a penny on the soundtrack CD, which subsequently spent months in the US Top 50. But without Leaving Las Vegas under his belt, he knows he could never have persuaded a studio - in this case Sony - to back a project as off the wall as Timecode.

"They admitted that they had no idea what we were doing," he recalls. "There was one horrific meeting on the lot where all the actors, all the crew and all the executives from Sony met in this one room and I then tried to explain - because there was no script - how the film was going to work. It was one of those things where after an hour and a half you just start to hear your own voice - you look around and everyone's completely blank."

One of the actors Figgis approached to take part in Timecode was Julian Sands, erstwhile star of A Room with a View and Boxing Helena, who has become something of a regular fixture in the director's films, in a bewildering variety of roles: a Latvian pimp in Leaving Las Vegas; a nurse on the Aids ward in One Night Stand (1997); Figgis's film-maker alter ego in last year's dreamlike experiment, The Loss of Sexual Innocence.

"All of us expressed great enthusiasm to Mike," Sands recalls, "and then called each other and said, 'What's he on about?' [ Timecode] sounded a little bit mystifying to us technophobes. And also there was the fear of serving an idea, serving a gimmick. But there was no hesitation about getting involved."

Other actors Figgis talked to - including Andy Garcia, Michael Keaton and, tantalisingly, Garry Shandling - though equally intrigued, ultimately proved unwilling to commit. As a result, two days before the shoot, Figgis was left without an actor to play the key role of a jealous gangster whose actress girlfriend (Salma Hayek) is screwing a producer (Stellan Skarsgard) in the hope of getting a role in his new film. His solution was to make the jealous lover a woman (Jeanne Tripplehorn, whom he had already cast in a different role) - one of those inspired last-minute changes which immeasurably enriches the mix.

When Figgis had already shot several entire "takes" of his movie, he happened to have dinner with Holly Hunter, and invited her along to join in the following day. "She turned up about an hour before we started shooting," Figgis recalls, "and I said, 'Look, I really don't have time to explain. You're a film executive and you sort of own the company. Just stick with the other executives and pick it up as you go along.' She went straight in and she was brilliant from day one, no idea of the plot or anything. Holly is bold as brass." In the finished film, Hunter seems perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown, as if her own bewilderment at being thrown in the deep end had gradually defined the character she was playing.

Figgis gave the rest of his cast similar leeway to create their own roles. Unhappy with the studio executive Figgis initially suggested he play, Sands instead came up with a character based on his brother Quentin who, while cycling round the world six years ago, had briefly worked as a peripatetic masseur in Hollywood. As "Quentin" worked his way into the story-line over the course of the 15 run-throughs, crashing executives' meetings and shamelessly muscling in on screen tests, he turned into the comic highlight of the movie. He also earned Sands what he calls "the best review I've had. At the wrap party the girlfriend of one of the cameramen came up to me and said, 'Did you have a brother who came to LA about six years ago?' She'd seen me play Quentin the character and recognised the guy she'd met at a party six years ago!"

Trying to describing the unorthodox way in which Timecode took shape, Figgis and Sands keep falling back on musical terminology. Sands talks of the actors "jamming", the director "conducting", and describes how Figgis mapped out the whole film on sheet music, to visualise what each actor should be doing at any one time.

"Mike's musicality," he says, "is a huge factor in his directing." Before Figgis made films, he was an accomplished jazz trumpeter and composer, and he still scores his own films, as integral a part of the process for him as writing or directing. Director-composers are a rare breed (there's Satyajit Ray and John Carpenter, and Charlie Chaplin occasionally had a go), but the combination of talents puts them in a unique position to mould the total audio-visual experience.

Now digital video has given Figgis another string to his bow. For a man into his fifties, when many Oscar-nominated directors would be resting on their laurels, he is infectiously enthused by its radical possibilities - he has a dream of how digital technology will put film production and distribution back in the hands of film-makers. As if in illustration of the point, the back room of his office just north of Soho is lined from floor to ceiling with the latest digital equipment, from computer editing systems to synthesisers. Everything, in other words, he requires to put a film together all by himself - barring, of course, those 93 minutes following the actors around with a video camera.

'Timecode' is released on 18 August, 'Miss Julie' on 1 September

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