"The poor dears!"

Director Mike Figgis talks about putting his troupe of actors through the rigors in his four-films-in-one marvel, "Time Code."


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Michael Sragow
May 11, 2000 8:00PM (UTC)

Mike Figgis' one unequivocal critical and financial success, "Leaving Las Vegas," was not the work of a play-it-safe temperament. This musician, composer and former stage director has always tried to bend his adopted medium to the beat of his distinctive, sometimes perverse drummer. Figgis has never gone farther out than he has in his new "Time Code," and not just because it's a Tinseltown tell-all comedy-drama.

Think of it as an avant-garde narrative version of "Hollywood Squares" -- or simply "Hollywood Rectangles." In its unique blend of a multitasking screen and ruthless, real-time storytelling, the movie is challenging in many ways: "Time Code" unspools as essentially four different movies -- the action is played out on a screen that's split into quadrants. Each of these quadrants tells a different part of the same story, with the shifts in the level of each screen's soundtrack nudging your attention from frame to frame. Making this all work put astonishing demands on the director, crew and cast: The action was recorded simultaneously in 93-minute takes on four digital video cameras and synched without editing. Figgis put his team through these rigors 15 times before he was satisfied.

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Add the theatrical daring of two dozen actors -- from Holly Hunter, Salma Hayek and Jeanne Tripplehorn to Stellan Skarsgerd and Saffron Burrows -- improvising within the director's outlines, and what you get is a project that doesn't lack for audacity.

Does it lack anything else? Maybe heft and affect. I found "Time Code" engaging from moment to moment, largely as a humorous game. But the spine is a satiric, off-the-cuff exaggeration of movie-world emotions that are either evanescent or overblown. Skarsgerd is the grandly self-pitying co-founder of a mini-major production company; Burrows, his down-in-the-mouth wife; the ever-alluring Hayek, an aspiring actress; Tripplehorn, her wealthy lover; and Hunter, one of the shallow top executives in a conference room that's loaded with them. Tripplehorn, playing the only character (as far as I can tell) not directly connected to Hollywood, delivers the most compelling performance: For me, the others function to put her genuine expressions of jealousy and rage into stark relief. About 15 years ago, a Los Angeles friend began referring to "contact anxiety." That's what most of these folks have, too.

The best continuing book series on filmmaking today (and perhaps ever) is "Projections," put out by Faber and Faber. Figgis, the guest editor of "Projections 10," makes a provocative, blessedly frank contribution to the series; after I read it, "Time Code" took on new and deeper meaning for me. In a way, it's a combination script and prospectus for Figgis' new movie: The bulk of it is 28 interviews (conducted also for Channel Four, the British TV network) with Hollywood filmmakers, performers and production executives -- and, yes, one critic, the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan.

Figgis' questions are full of sympathy for the plight of the artist in an age governed not by old-time gambling and personality, but by fear and calculation. They also convey the hope that new technologies will engender fresh possibilities. So peruse "Projections 10" and then see "Time Code." And read this talk with Figgis, conducted before a screening of his film at a San Francisco megaplex.

I would guess "Time Code" relates not just to your interest in new technology, but also in working as closely as you can with actors in filmed theater like "The Browning Version" and "Miss Julie."

I like to find musical analogies, and really, the state of cinema, up to the present, is almost like a 19th century idea of orchestras. There's the composer, and the benefactor -- that would be the studio -- and the filmmaking community, which is like a highly proficient orchestra of people whose job is to reproduce, as clinically accurately as possible, what has been written down.

But then you think about American music -- and obviously jazz -- and one of the great things about jazz, whether you like jazz or you don't like jazz, is that it represents the liberation of the musician as an individual, as an artist, away from the idea of repressing the individual into an ensemble, or an orchestra, under a conductor. To the point where some of the greatest figures in jazz, like Charlie Parker and Armstrong and Coltrane, emerge as the American artists of the 20th century. And yet, where we do revere our actors, they're almost like opera singers, in the sense that at their peak they do turn up and do very dependable jobs, of very high quality; they're divas, basically, and they get paid as divas.

So the idea is to liberate actors away from the diva system and away from the orchestra system. Finding techniques that support the concept that they would take more responsibility for their own work. Simple things like longer takes, and smaller crews, and lower production values -- all these things instinctively do liberate them, and then one becomes less like a conductor and more like a catalyst. And I'm always amazed by how, in my opinion, the quality goes up. And, for an audience, how exciting that is.

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Actors fall into categories, don't they? There are actors who are addicted to the kind of nourishment that comes from the studio system. They're pampered, highly paid, over-revered; they're led to believe that they somehow occupy a higher ground in the culture -- for what reason I don't know, other than physical affection. When given the opportunity to jump ship, some of them say yes, and some say no. Some of them definitely get nervous.

Often they're nervous because their support groups -- their managers, their agents -- get terrified. Ten percent of the money I offer actors is not something [a manager or an agent] can retire on. We can never get away from the reality that these are golden-egg-laying geese, who represent total financial security for their personal industries. Politically it's complex; often, you find an actor who says, "I didn't know you wanted me for this project." And I say, "Didn't your manager tell you?" Of course he didn't, because I'm asking the actor to work for scale -- that's of no interest for the manager.

In any kind of ensemble, you find there are certain performers whose ego will push them to the front -- "I'm a tenor saxophone player and I can solo on top of this." Others come to play bass or drums, or do riffs. In the process of shooting something 15 times, you come quickly to see who defines themselves in this way, you know? There are natural brilliant solo talents -- Holly Hunter, Steven Weber, Salma Hayek. Jeanne Tripplehorn does this amazing silent movie all by herself. And all these different personalities emerge.

I always thought an interesting and unique musician, in terms of what we are talking about, was Charles Mingus. He was a bass player, so he was at the back, driving everything, and he came up with these complex structures that had specific timing, and so on, and then, essentially, long periods of improvisation, I think "Time Code" is a little like that. There are complex technical things within it, but once you master those it's really up to each actor's talent to interpret.

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You're doing a real-time 93-minute film -- the entire story has to take place within that time, so you can't do things you usually do in a movie, like jump-cutting. That calls for a compressed story, and the story has to still obey the rules of storytelling. It still has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. It has to resolve in some way. It has to appear to have some kind of poetry, and a poetic sort of balance to it.

Until the last couple of days of shooting, this movie didn't have that symmetry. So much energy and creative energy had gone into making it work. One was in danger of being so pleased with the idea that it was working that one kind of neglected other things, like, well, what's the audience going to think? You don't want to create something that simply has its own secret language and its own internal jokes, which audiences are denied. Sometimes when I watch smart films, I think there's so much going on here that the audience is not privy to that I feel slightly insulted.

Each time I was shooting, I was shooting four movies that had to be linked together, so four times 15 [the number of times Figgis and his crew shot the entire film] is 60. And each film had to work on its own, so you're shooting the equivalent of four films a day. And as it got more heated, we were doing eight films a day. So you're sending eight units out to shoot the film, then putting it together. Of course, you can only choose one version, you are inexorably stuck to one take, you can't chop and change any take because the timings vary and the play varies.

So which version are we seeing?

Number 15. I would say each version pretty much got better than the version before, in a consummated learning curve. The techniques became more honed; the story line increased, moved on, in each outing; and then the improvisational techniques became more subtle and more understated. You get those sublime moments of accidents happening which lead to wonderful performances. It just restored my faith in actors' ability to be self-governing.

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I learned you could say to them, "We've got a non-negotiable situation here. We've got no script but we've got a tight structure. And there's no make-up, no transport, no catering; there are no dressing rooms, no trailers. And there are no personal assistants. There are no artists' chairs with your name on it. There is no favoritism at all."

Once you take away envy and a sort of "point system," it's as if you're in a lifeboat together, and it doesn't matter if you're rich -- what matters is, How strong can you swim? There's a wonderful thing that happens, when you make everybody temporarily equal. When you put unknown actors in with Holly Hunter, and she has to do a scene, there's no problem with that. And everyone has the right to jump in on everybody else's lines. Just because you're famous doesn't mean you're better.

For people used to having multiple screens open on their computer, this won't seem novel at all.

I think that anybody under 25 will find nothing unusual about the structure of this, I really don't. At the same time, I don't think they have any advantage, except that their surface assessment will be less extreme. My experience is that it takes audiences maybe five or 10 minutes to become comfortable, and then it just plays. And I think that although the under-25, or under-20, computer-savvy generation are used to multimedia imaging, with them it tends to be rather random, based on the culture of nervous remote-control usage and channel-hopping and MTV-style editing, where no image lingers for very long.

The thing about "Time Code" is that the four screens are very related to each other and you have to concentrate, otherwise the story is not going to function for you. You are being very politely asked to participate in the understanding of the film. And there was not a single interpretation that would be identical to anyone else's, because there will be minute variances in what you watch at any given time, precisely because you have four choices. You still come out with the same story. But the way it comes out is a reflection of the way it is in life when you put 10 people on a street corner -- a crime takes place and the police start taking notes, and the police will get a completely different account from each witness of what they saw, what the emphasis was, and everything.

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Of course, on the part of the filmmaker, choices have to be made, and then you have to live with them. For example, in America, I'm doing four special events. The film is projected in a digital format and all of the sound tracks of the four separate films, including the music and all of the effects, are contained on separate tracks of a multitrack recorder, and I do a live mix of the film. So these four screenings will be entirely different from each other and I'm going to have to make decisions literally, on the moment, in front of 500 people, about what could be interesting. The fact is, it's never the same. When I did the so-called film mix, I had to make certain decisions intellectually: OK, I feel for an audience this is the most important bit of dialogue to put across this point, so I have to feature this. That was tough, it was one of the toughest mixes I've had to do in my life.

Wouldn't you be concerned about playing farce in one panel and melodrama in another?

One of the bad things, one of the dull things that is happening in cinema is that the house style of mainstream filmmaking has become very fixed. The word "genre" has become the most abused word in cinema language. People are always asking, what is the genre? Is it romantic comedy? Is it broad comedy? Is it a sci-fi comedy? A sci-fi thriller? And so on. So few films you see go from one to the other. And certainly not [as in "Time Code"] at the same moment, where you're being invited to feel, My God, this is tragic, and at the same time there's this broad comedy taking place on another screen.

I've always been fascinated by that in all -- genres. [Laughter.] One of my favorite artists is America's genius, Charles Ives, a man who completely played around with the expectation of what music should do. He was one of the most serious composers of all time, one of the greats. He wrote some of the most sublimely spiritual pieces of music, but at the same time he would employ what are thought of as broad comedic devices within a symphony, with instruments playing in different keys, four different marching bands going at the same time. But I find it very moving when he does that, as well as funny, and I don't think humor is a bad thing.

My gut feeling was that underneath you found nearly everything funny -- I mean, when the agony-ridden executive played by Stellan Skarsgerd talks about shucking it all, he dreams of escaping to Tuscany, a howling romantic clichi.

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Of the four screenings I attended, the one I enjoyed the most was one in New York. For reasons of mass-audience psychology an audience may go this way or that way, and that night the audience elected within two or three minutes to see the broad comedic possibilities of the film. The entire film then played through as a good mix of comedy and tragedy and all the rest of it. The element of happy laughter was very strong in the screening and I loved that.

To get an idea of how you want the film to work, let me admit one of my confusions: When Saffron Burrows' character meets up with Leslie Mann's in a ladies room, and Leslie Mann says hello to her, I didn't think they shared a prior history.

There is a prior history, and unfortunately one of the sacrifices made in that particular mix is at the expense of them as characters -- the dialogue does [say], "My God, I haven't seen you in ages, you know ..." And later, "I thought you dropped me as a friend," "No, I didn't drop you, but your boyfriend freaked me out." But also from my perverse point of view, I like going to a movie where you drop in on the dialogue and you know there's a back story, but no one ever alludes to it.

Could I have picked up on the history of their friendship?

At that point, the "air traffic" becomes very dense -- there's so much going on, so much information. The character of the super-brat director is about to make her entrance. I felt when I did the mix that she's a new important character, and we can't underplay her arrival. Certain sacrifices had to be made to other characters at that point. And that's always going to be the way. I like the fact that you have to go, "What's happening there?" I like that you have an approximation of information overload, but you're always being led, in I hope a subtle and sophisticated manner, down a specific garden path. At the same time your interest is being piqued by so much other information that you always have the sense that you're missing something somewhere else -- the idea being that the mix is rich enough so you're not simply confused.

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Quentin Tarantino came to the opening night and said, "I really wanted to stay in the limo, with Jeanne Tripplehorn, when she was in the middle of a speech. We went into a pitch meeting, but I've been in pitch meetings so many times, I'm bored with those; I wanted to know what was going on in the limo." Everyone's going to have their own idea of where they want to be. And the answer to that is, if you buy the DVD, there is an interactive version where you can listen to any one of the four movies in isolation.

You shot with one camera yourself; were you in communication with the three others in any way? If not, where did the directing kick in?

About three hours after we wrapped each day, when we played back the entire film on four monitors together, as you see it now. I would do a live mix, like I'm doing tonight, of the four camera mikes; I would also add music, so it would feel like a movie, and I would show it to all the actors, all the technicians, everybody. We'd climb into this viewing room and watch the entire movie with no break. Then afterwards, we would sit down to coffee and start analyzing what we had just done. I would then become the director and say, "Hey, this worked fantastically; this was too rich, Salma; you're talking at the same time as Saffron and Stellan, at a minute-43 seconds, so you should pull back and do yours five minutes later. Just tread water for another four minutes and start dialogue there. Make a note on your charts."

I started to stretch things out, like notes in music, so it was more like a string quartet. There was texture and it was interesting all the time, and you didn't just have these logjams of information. And then just talk about their acting, which is great, because you're looking at a monitor. You can actually say, "Look, there, wouldn't it be better if you did that, but also if your camera guy went into a close-up of that point." I could say, "Wouldn't it be gorgeous, visually, if at one minute-26 [seconds] all four cameras were in a wide shot and then over the next minute went very slowly into a close-up on eyes; three of us did it, in fact, so that you have three very extreme close-ups of eyes. Having the luxury of being able to watch it and talk about it as a whole.

Was it exhausting for the actors?

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The poor dears! I think they were put on earth for this moment, to do what theater actors have been doing for centuries. Get into a performance, like musicians, and stay on for a whole set. I found them to be so invigorated, energized and delighted by the process, that when we were shooting twice a day, they said, "Why don't you shoot it three times?" -- because they were all getting into their stride. I shot for two weeks -- 10 days, shot [the] movie 15 times; twice a day for four days, eight done in four days; then once a day, or two days off entirely to take a break from the technique of filming.

Almost two-thirds of the way through, I got nervous that the structure wasn't working. It was interesting, funny, but it wasn't working as a film. So I stayed up all night and completely re-drew what I called the score of the script. The complicated thing was that if you made a dynamic change in one of the characters, by the nature of it being tied to four cameras, you then had to change everything. There was a domino effect. Up to a point, you can patch; but then it's blank paper, start again.

The character of the super-brat director, who wants to do a digital movie like this one and comes up with these clotted, dialectical justifications for it, was hilarious. Was she intended as a comic release for those who are suspicious of your own movie?

A lot of people have said over the years, "Why don't you do more comedy -- you're a funny guy." One time I really wanted to do a movie at a studio, a very good script, and I got turned down because the head of the studio said "Mike Figgis has no sense of humor." On this one it came through -- I think because of the nature of improvising, and keeping the humor going as an energy thing. Most situations potentially are funny.

This girl is also the enfant terrible of characters: the child prodigy. I remember there's a story about André Previn conducting a piece of Beethoven at the Hollywood Bowl when he was 11 or something, and as a joke one of the musicians said, "Why don't we all transpose everything down a semitone." And at a certain point not long into the piece, Previn stopped the orchestra and said, "Gentlemen, I believe we need to tune up."

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I love the idea -- dramatically, and visually too -- of a very young face going up against Skarsgerd's weary authority. Their exchange is my favorite part of the film: It is funny, she is pretentious, but within the pretension I agree with everything she says; it's just that she says it in such a pretentious way you don't want to agree with it. So Skarsgerd articulates something for the audience there, but there is some absorbing of her information there, because he doesn't totally kill her -- he just says you're young and pretentious, but probably very talented.

Will you return to more traditional forms after "Time Code"?

Oh, there's nothing anti-celluloid or anti-script about this. This is just one film made in a certain way for a certain reason. I'd like to think about these techniques and absorb them into a more mainstream approach; after all, there is an audience now that is open to new techniques. Look at the films of the last 12 months -- "Three Kings," "Being John Malkovich," "The Blair Witch Project," and a lot of the "Dogma" stuff. You're talking about, within the mainstream, a younger audience and a whole slew of techniques that would have been unthinkable five years ago.

Or "The Straight Story," which is so straight that it seems new.

Well, yes! When I was doing theater, at a certain point I realized the most avant-garde thing I could do was do a text-based play on a proscenium arch, so we could see the proscenium arch for the very avant-garde idea it was when it was first thought of.


Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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