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Profile: Mike Figgis: Leaving Las Newcastle

Paul Mungo meets the British film director who has taken on the Hollywood system - and beaten it
SOME years ago, Mike Figgis wrote in his notebook, "Learn your lesson! You cannot continue to make films in this way. You have to follow a different route!" He was reacting to the age-old conflict between art and commerce - in which, at least in Hollywood, commerce generally wins.

Not, however, all the time. Figgis is in a rare position of power in the film industry; he can do the work he wants in the way that he wants. Not bad for anyone - let alone an Englishman who started out 30 years ago playing in rhythm and blues bands on Tyneside.

Figgis's latest film has its British premiere tonight in the closing gala slot at the London Film Festival, and goes on general release on Friday. Already One Night Stand has created waves in America for its arresting portrayal of a businessman's adulterous fling. Though it was made for a studio, Figgis did it his way. Coming after Leaving Las Vegas - his devastating and highly acclaimed portrait of one man's descent into alcoholic oblivion - it continues the sort of non-conformist, individual film-making that is rapidly becoming Figgis's trademark.

Figgis made his name as a director in 1990 with Internal Affairs, a slick thriller starring Richard Gere, but his subsequent Hollywood movies were plagued by studio interference and the sort of blanding-down that tends to characterise Hollywood movie-making. "You have a choice," Figgis said when we met recently in Newcastle, where he has been shooting his next film. "You can go and take a shitload of money and make the films they want from the scripts they've approved. Or you can choose to make other sorts of films."

With the low-budget Leaving Las Vegas, Figgis chose to turn his back on the studio system. It was a movie that had "art house" written all over it, except that it swept into the mainstream and received four Academy Award nominations, including two (directing and screenplay) for Figgis himself. The film put him in the top league of British directors - if not as commercially hot as Ridley Scott (director of Alien, Thelma and Louise, and GI Jane, among others) then certainly on a par with Anthony Minghella, director of The English Patient.

Figgis is 47, though he manages to look younger. He is dressed theatrically - perhaps this is his bohemian director uniform, who knows? - in a black suit and an unbuttoned blue shirt with a red and white scarf knotted breezily around his neck. All he lacks is the floppy hat. His first movie, in 1987, was Stormy Monday, a low-budget psychological thriller (which, nonetheless, starred Melanie Griffith and Sting) that attracted little business and some unkind reviews. The film trade magazine Variety, Figgis recalls, "said the film sucks, the director sucks and Mike Figgis should go back to rock and roll". Alexander Walker in the Evening Standard called it a blatant calling-card for Hollywood, presumably because of the presence of Griffith.

Whether or not it was a calling-card, Hollywood rang anyway. Figgis established his reputation in the US with Internal Affairs, then followed it up with an idiosyncratic black comedy called Liebenstraum, which sank without trace. Figgis says the film is still his personal favourite, but by then his relationship with Hollywood was already in trouble. His next film was Mr Jones; conceived as a dark love story between a therapist and a manic-depressive, it was brightened up by Hollywood and became a bland love story instead. Figgis disowned it. His 1994 remake of The Browning Version was well received but poorly distributed - perhaps deliberately so.

"It was an incredible learning experience," Figgis says now of his Hollywood tribulations. "Because of it I decided to go back to low-budget filmmaking. I wouldn't have done it if it had been a pleasant experience." The result was Leaving Las Vegas. Made for $3.5m, it charts the disintegration of an alcoholic screenwriter, played by Nicolas Cage, who gives up on Hollywood and moves to Las Vegas to drink himself to death. It's not hard to see a metaphor here, that of Hollywood's habit of eating up talent and spitting it out again.

Figgis has his own take on the studios. They were led up the path of terminal blandness and special effects-led blockbusters, he says, by the advent of corporate management and its adjunct, test marketing. "That really was catastrophic for the film industry," he argues. "It led to a certain sort of film, with a certain sort of ending. You can just smell that influence in mainstream studio filmmaking. They insult their audiences all the time."

Happy endings, he adds categorically, "are crap. You know the idea is to get the audience out of the cinema whistling and happy and not thinking too much about the movie."

When he was working in Hollywood, Figgis relates, he used to sit in the studio canteen and look around at the other diners. "I'd try to work out what they did. No one looked like a film-maker: they looked like accountants and lawyers. Which they were."

One Night Stand was made for New Line, an American mini-studio which had been stuck with an expensive script written by Joe Eszterhas - the writer of Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, the Las Vegas-themed Show Girls - and no director.

Given the potential for disaster all round, New Line was willing to consider a rewrite. "It was a unique situation. Joe Eszterhas had been the most successful scriptwriter in Hollywood. But his star had faded after Show Girls and he became the sacrificial lamb of the week. The reality was that New Line had bought the script and their $3 million investment was sitting there with nowhere to go. I rewrote it from the first line to the last line. Eszterhas said the new script was wonderful, but he said it wasn't his and he took his name off it."

In Hollywood, the news that Mike Figgis - the Mike Figgis - who had directed the uncompromisingly independent Leaving Las Vegas - was to direct a Joe Eszterhas movie (which is how it was presented in the trade press) was proof he was selling out. Some people were shocked, Figgis recalls: "They were saying things like 'Well, no doubt you'll be really well paid' and 'We understand.' The contempt with which it was greeted was almost enough to make me turn it down."

One Night Stand may not be pure Eszterhas, but it retains his classic three-act structure. In the film, Jack (played by Wesley Snipes) is on a business trip to New York, where he meets Karen (Nastassja Kinski). They have a one-night stand, and as they are both married, agree to pretend the affair never happened. Inevitably Jack ends up back in New York and equally inevitably he meets Karen again, with the sort of consequences you might expect.

Figgis says One Night Stand is "about adultery. And therefore it's about the very heart of male-female, or physical relationships." The fact that Snipes and Kinski are an inter-racial couple is incidental. The part of Jack, Figgis says, was originally written for Nicolas Cage; when Cage begged off ("He'd just got married and he didn't want to get into a film about adultery," Figgis explains cryptically) he offered the role to Snipes.

Now Figgis is back in Newcastle, where he made Stormy Monday, directing another lowish-budget ($4m) independent film, the exquisitely titled Death And The Loss Of Sexual Innocence. Newcastle is where Figgis grew up - he was born in Carlisle and spent eight years in Kenya before his parents relocated to the north-east. He had two careers before he turned to film- making. As a musician whose idol was Louis Armstrong, he played in a band with Bryan Ferry and in another that had an album produced by Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones drummer. Then Figgis spent 10 years touring with The People Show, an avant garde performance group.

If Death And The Loss Of Sexual Innocence isn't quite autobiographical, it is certainly based on his own experiences. "It's not a huge autobiographical piece," he says. "I'm just ripping off some memories I had." The film was originally titled Short Stories, and was conceived as a series of vignettes.

It concerns, very briefly, a documentary film-maker named Nicolas (played by Julian Sands), his wife and family, and his search for his own identity. It is shooting in Newcastle, Italy and North Africa, and is clearly a very complex film. Johanna Torrel, the Swedish actress who plays Nic's wife, says despairingly, "I've tried to explain it to cab drivers and things and aaargh ..."

It will also be unusual. Figgis will be "defying conventional structure" and will "weave together memories and dreams". Either one of those phrases would have a Hollywood studio executive reaching for his Prozac, but then this is clearly not a Hollywood picture. Figgis retains an avant-garde theatre director's taste for improvisation, allowing the actors to explore their characters and extemporise dialogue, even actions, while rehearsing. "It makes actors work harder, but the good ones will rise to the challenge." Julian Sands says: "It's a far freer way to work. It's a very good process."

Figgis's attitude to film-making is straightforward. "I want to exploit the medium," he says. "I want to use ambiguity and nuance in the story. I think the audience should be kept alert throughout the film, not just eating buckets of popcorn."

One accepts that "popcorn", in this case, may well be yet another metaphor for Hollywood.

'One Night Stand' is released on Friday