Mike Figgis is a Hollywood freak. In a town based on conformity, it's amazing he hasn't been shot, as an example to the others. When he had his first American hit, with Richard Gere as a coldy malicious cop in Internal Affairs (1990), its thriller plot must have taken the eyes of the studios from the sadistic sexuality he gave Gere in his night-black uniform. Its follow-up, Liebestraum (1991), should have tipped them the wink. It was a film noir in which time and identity were as fragile as glass, its plot a web so thinly spread you couldn't grip it. In Britain, no less than America, critics treated it as if it wasn't a film at all, its elliptical, sensual pull too strange to pass off as entertainment. It's Figgis's favourite.
His years of purgatory afterwards are well-known. Mr Jones (1994), with Richard Gere's manic depressive, was re-edited by nervous executives so he'd just be manic; The Browning Version (1994) was simply buried. Leaving Las Vegas brought him back to favour which its tiny budget ensured he didn't need. Line these films up, though, and the dips and swells of a career fade away. The films conceal where they should reveal, thwart expectations, deflate climaxes. They're also charged with sexuality, sensual slices from an unlikely contender for Britain's most erotic director.
One Night Stand, out today, is made from pieces of Figgis's disaffection with Hollywood. In it, Wesley Snipes and Nastassja Kinski, both married, have their lives slowly shaken by a night's sex. Its original script, by Basic Instinct's Joe Eszterhas, was sex-filled. Figgis rewrote it utterly, cutting the sex till it bled into the film's fabric. In one of its most powerful strands, Robert Downey Jnr plays a man dying of Aids. Figgis visited a friend dying of the disease when Mr Jones was being ruined. It gave him the perspective to see the film's fate as unimportant. Wesley Snipes's need to dig at LA vacuity is Figgis's own.
Sitting in Soho, Figgis, a frizzy-haired man of 47, seems every inch the outsider. His voice tells you a lot. Quiet and considered, it ends some sentences with a slight hardening, a flicker of steel as an antagonist is dispatched. His humour is dead-dry. Everything he says is unafraid. He's kept his humanity, but has been through a fight. Sometimes, almost literally.
"I grew up in Newcastle," he recalls, "which is quite a violent town. There'd be moments listening to very young male executives giving me their wisdom on character arc, or story structure, when I would envisage a more Newcastle scenario, which is you lean across, you grab someone by the throat, and you headbutt them. That's a very quick way of stopping conversation sometimes. There were a couple of really satisfying times with a studio chief where I told him to get lost, knowing that it was suicidal, but still finding huge enjoyment from just hearing the words."
Were those his best instincts at work? "I think so. I think if you suppress those instincts, you make yourself ill. You also lose your manhood. And Los Angeles is full of big men who've lost their balls, because in order to make the money, to put it bluntly, they've had to eat shit as well. The expression there's no such thing as a free lunch - in Los Angeles there's no free anything. It's a deal. If you want to be there, you make a deal."
Figgis still moves in the Hollywood stream. But his films muddy it in any number of ways. Most obviously, his characters often exist in the murk, at the death-daring edge. The shape of his films, too, without climaxes, is a resistant act. But the bloodiest front in Figgis's aesthetic war with Hollywood can be glimpsed in the chasm between the One Night Stand Joe Eszterhas wrote, and the one the director filmed.
When Figgis runs the original screenplay through his mind, he sounds almost numb. "From about page 5 to about page 50 was the one-night stand. He had a phonecall with his children while she was having oral sex with him. I found that deeply disturbing, because it was realistic. Hollywood sexually is a very cold place. I think there are lots of psychological reasons why the blow-job is the favoured sexual practice. It's got a lot to do with power."
Figgis's films, by contrast, are about desire, eroticism not quite expressed, but charging the very air around his characters. In Liebestraum, every woman crackles with sex, but it's the female lead's suppressed lust for it which burns; in Leaving Las Vegas, Elizabeth Shue's desire for sex with Cage only nears release once, smashing him through a glass table with its clumsy force; even in The Browning Version, a film about the dignity of repression, Albert Finney faces his estranged wife Greta Scacchi's slip-clad breast for a full minute, before saying "No."
In One Night Stand, too, the eponymous act is almost a reproach to Eszterhas's brutal world. It takes a long time to happen, as mental barriers are slowly downed; it's almost an accident, and then it's inevitable. More even than such moments, what makes Figgis's films erotic is the way he films women. From Melanie Griffith in his very first film, Stormy Monday (1987) to Kinski in One Night Stand, Figgis's camera revels in actresses' faces, in their bodies, as if trying to coax out their secrets. It's a process Figgis is nervous of.
"I have a problem with, as film-makers, our voyeuristic tendencies," he says seriously. "You have to be incredibly careful, and sensitive to the potential for abuse. I have an ongoing dialogue with female friends, and male friends. It's delicate, it's fascinating, it's potentially a minefield. One hopes that one's honourable. Women are very comfortable with their own eroticism. What they have a problem with is when that eroticism is isolated and used objectively, when its context is stripped away."
Could he ever make a film that wasn't erotic ? Could he film a woman and not make her erotic? "No. Because I think that they are. It's not even just sexual," he says, struggling to express something he's clearly sure of. "There's a certain psychological charge that women have, to do with being female and, ultimately, to do with childbirth, with the cyclic nature of being a woman, which gives them a certain preserve. There's a certain feeling about the way women respond and exist that is erotic."
It makes Figgis sound almost primitive. But his women get more complex with each film. When his camera looks at Kinski, she's strong enough to look back. "Somebody pointed out to me that I had a tendency to put women on pedestals, to make them sexually charged saints," he admits. "I enjoy the fact that I'm now able to recognise women as having the potential to be bad, as well as good." He pauses. "What's happening in my career now is what I hoped would happen. As I get older, my experience compounds itself in the most amazing ways. I've just made a new film, and it"s experimental," he concludes with satisfaction. "Very experimental indeed."Reuse content