Where new writing finds its voice
The Interview

Mike Figgis

Helen Lewis-Hasteley


Mike Figgis is a film writer, director and composer who has made both ‘Hollywood movies’ – including 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas, for which he was nominated for two Oscars – and more experimental works.

A passionate technophile and early advocate of digital technology, he has helmed several groundbreaking projects, such as 1999’s Timecode, which featured four largely improvised stories told simultaneously in split-screen and recorded in continuous takes. His most recent film was last year’s Live Love Long, which was filmed in just a week using two actors and three crew.

Pen Pusher caught up with Figgis at his airy studio near Old Street, to talk about inspiration, screenwriting ‘theory’, studio interference and the beauty of The Wire...


Pen Pusher: In your book, you talk about all great art being the result of a single creative voice, so it seems strange that you have worked in film, which is such a collaborative medium.

Mike Figgis: It might be the reason I haven’t made a film since 2003 – well, I have made a film since then, but with a crew of three people. I’m about to make a film again, actually, and that is giving me a slight sense of foreboding because I’ll have to deal with a lot of people. The problem really is the amount of energy that gets diverted into dealing with administrative things.

Screenwriting is a process of simplification. I regard a script as being like a verbal comic book, a working scenario, which you know you are going to change later on in terms of sequencing. The most successful film that I’ve done on that level was Internal Affairs, because it was about police and they wore uniforms all the way through which meant I didn’t have a problem changing sequences.

The best scripts are very, very simplified documents, the worst scripts are the ones that are over-written, that have too much instruction in them. The problem is that when you create a simple document like that, which is easy to read, then you allow a lot more people in who think they understand the script.

PP: Who has ownership of the meaning of a scene, then – is the director God?

MF: No, the director becomes a temporary God when you start shooting. Executives can’t direct – if they thought they could, they would – but at that point they become terribly mystified. The really worrying bit is the delivery of the script... you sit round a table with six, seven executives who have all read the script and think it’s wonderful – but then they start giving notes. At that point, it becomes difficult because it’s quickly apparent they don’t understand the script, they don’t understand nuance, they don’t understand story...

PP: That makes me wonder how you feel about screenwriting theory, like Robert McKee’s Story. Has that become a shorthand for people who don’t make films to think they know what films should be like?

MF: It’s all part of the problem. A lot of Robert McKee’s income comes from executives who are sent to his three-day course to ‘totally understand scriptwriting’. My question is: if he’s such a great screenwriter, how come he hasn’t written a great screenplay? If it was that easy, you would have thought his calling card would be ‘here are the Oscar nominations I’ve received’, that being the coinage of Hollywood.

PP: When you’re writing, do you do outlines or scene-by-scenes, or do you plunge straight in with an idea?

MF: Funnily enough, I’ve just brought in a large bag of notebooks because I’ve been revamping my studio. [His assistant produces dozens of leather notebooks and exercise books full of scribbles, photos, magazine clippings and pages of longhand.] Until recently, scriptwriting was a very quick process. I’d have an idea and I would let it gestate in the notebooks, but then when I needed to get down to it I would put my head down. I wrote the first draft of Leaving Las Vegas in about five days, put it away for a couple of months, then wrote a second draft very, very quickly. I find writing quite painful, because I can’t type quick enough and my head is well ahead of what my fingers are doing. Before that physical process starts, I usually tidy the house so everything is ready – and so I can put off starting for as long as possible. I have always tried to get through it as quickly as possible, until my last script, which has taken three years – for many reasons, one which is that psychologically, I didn’t want to go and make another film.

Oh, and when I rewrite, I do properly rewrite, not cut and paste. I think you have to physically go through and write it again otherwise it looks like a cut and paste script.

PP: Do you have an internal critic gnawing at you as you write?

MF: No, I get emotionally involved as the story unfolds and that allows me to go on a fantasy journey. Then maybe when you reread it later, you see what’s derivative – even what’s derivative of your own work. [Spanish film-maker Luis] Buñuel said you have three good ideas and you just rework them. I think that’s true.

PP: What would you say your themes were? There seems to be a lot about film-making, you seem quite self-reflexive.

MF: Working with film, you’re physically re-creating things and trying to summon up similar feelings to the original idea. You get unintentional psychological spin-offs from the process – and the new script I’m doing is entirely about that. It’s called Suspension of Disbelief. It’s about the writing process; the closest film would be Adaptation – it’s nothing like that, but there’s the same interest in the process itself.

PP: Which of your roles – writing, directing, composing, editing – do you most enjoy?

MF: I enjoy all of them, but you have to be quite ruthless as you move from one to the other, to let the other one go. It’s a long process – by the time you get to the editing process you have a long time ago left behind the juicy bit of actually writing it, the boring bit of trying to get it made, the sometimes-interesting part of making it, the wrap party (which for you isn’t a wrap party at all)… And then there’s the interminable process of editing it. 

The joyful part is putting the music back on, because music is physically very gratifying. But the patience that’s required to wait until you put the music on… which if we go back to the script, I might have written ‘a very strange piece of music is heard’. Now, when I write that I know exactly what that piece of music is going to do, but an executive in Hollywood goes: ‘A strange piece of music? Like whaaaaat?’ That means nothing to them. So at that point, the script as a piece of information is redundant. It’s a secret language for me.

PP: So was it useful for you to have such a huge film early on in your career, so that people gave you a bit more leeway to do what you wanted?

MF: (emphatically) No. That’s not how it works. I was looking through my notebooks, and I found a Sunday Times review of my first film, which it described as a ‘turgid piece of self-indulgence’, something like that. Then I did Stormy Monday, then Internal Affairs, then I did Liebestraum, which having gone up the hill a bit went right down again; then I did Mr Jones, which was even further down; The Browning Version, which struggled a bit and then fell down the hill; then I did Leaving Las Vegas which was way up again; then I did what I thought was a beautiful film, One Night Stand – right down again. Then I did a bunch of independent films here – Miss Julie, The Loss of Sexual Innocence – and some documentaries, which did OK critically but certainly didn’t set the world on fire. 

So I’ve had a couple of pinnacles where people have noticed, but for the most part not. And as far as the film industry’s concerned, because I haven’t made a film since 2003, I’m finding that it’s been a little too long for them. I think you can make unsuccessful films as long as you consistently do it. Luckily, technology has arrived in the last ten years that allows people like me to carry on making films anyway.

PP: I wanted to ask you about this – I find your attitude to digital film-making really empowering, considering that you read about writers in the Hollywood system being told they don’t know anything about their own scripts – with executives saying, ‘Great, but why don’t you set it on a submarine’? ‘Why don’t you make them Nazis?’ Will your next film be a digital film, or a ‘studio’ one?

MF: Well, I’ll need some millions rather than thousands, so it’ll be European cross-financing. I’ve agreed to shoot half the film in Luxembourg because they do really good tax deals. The film takes place in Hampstead in a very large house, so I’ll just build the house in a studio and shoot all the interiors in the studio. I’ll probably shoot it on Super-16, because aesthetically I like it and I own a Super-16 camera which I haven’t used for a long time. I love the quality of film – I just don’t like what it stands for. If your budget goes up, there’s a different mentality to how you shoot. 

PP: Your book is quite technically focused. Are all directors like that, or are you exceptional?

MF: I think I’m unique in that what I’m interested in is cheap cameras. A lot of directors talk your head off about Super-35 or 3D, which I would rather stick needles in my eyes than bother with, because they represent ten men in overalls having to open up expensive flight cases with super--gleaming equipment in. I’ve just bought a new iPod for $140, which is a widescreen video camera as well. I don’t know what the quality is like, but it also records sound. And over there on the Fig Rig [a steering wheel-like support invented by Figgis to help stabilise handheld cameras] is the new Nikon stills camera, which shoots high-definition video of an amazingly high quality – so you could now shoot a film on a stills camera. You’re limited to five-minute takes, but who wants to shoot more than five minutes?

PP: Do your technical choices ever make you feel constrained in terms of genre? I’m trying to write a period film…

MF: And that immediately says budget!

PP: … and my other favourite genre is sci-fi/fantasy.

MF: Well, sci-fi you can shoot in the present-day – I think Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a great example of sci-fi writing, where you take the everyday and subvert it. My two rules of screenwriting are, first, that because it’s film it will be sci-fi, whatever it is – because it’s a suspension of disbelief, a fucked-up reality – and that it should also be a comedy, whatever it is. Maybe a black comedy, but every film I love would fall into those categories. Film has to have an element of sci-fi about it, even if it’s period, because we’re taking someone back in a fake time machine. We’re also taking huge liberties with what the true reality of that period is. 

PP: Of your own films, which has been the most successful realisation of what you originally wanted?

MF: Probably Leaving Las Vegas, but it’s really hard because once you start casting and shooting, you’ve already abandoned pretty much all the ideas you had. The quantum leap from literature to film is painfully obvious. It’s almost like moving from childhood into the responsibilities of adulthood. What you’re really asking is: what film do you cringe the least about?

PP: I found Leaving Las Vegas very subtly, almost stealthily subversive – the montages, the music, the odd sequencing at the start…

MF: That’s because I did change my mind about the sequence. There’s a huge continuity problem with his wedding ring – a young prostitute sucks it off and then in the next scene he’s wearing it in the bank. That’s because the bank scene worked so much better the next day, as a kind of ‘I’m going to draw some money out, I’m going to get the fuck out of here…’ as opposed to ‘I just happened to be going to the bank’. Had I solved that problem in script form, of course, the continuity would have been better. I didn’t have the money to optically take out the ring, having spent all that part of the budget taking out a Smirnoff vodka label after they threatened to sue us because they didn’t want to be associated with alcoholism. That became ‘Burnoff’ or something.

PP: Finally, how much do you think cinemagoers are willing to put up with formal experimentation? How far can you push the boundaries?

MF: You have to acknowledge the audience in the opening moments of what you are doing. Then don’t colossally betray the rules that you’ve established – and betray their trust – because the moment you do that, part of them leaves…  

My experience has taught me that film is very, very unforgiving because unlike a book you can’t put it down. Episodic television of the HBO variety is actually the most successful form of cinema – it’s an interesting evolution. So something like The Wire, or The Sopranos is far more successful than most recent cinema. You get a one-hour episode which ends on a cliffhanger, but doesn’t have to resolve. The ongoing quality of that is like a complex novel. 

Whereas the biggest problem with cinema is that we’ve arrived at the idea that ninety minutes is the length we deal with, so we know instinctively that around minute eighty we have to artificially resolve this scenario. It spoils the last minutes for you. And as a writer, you know you’re going to have to deal with these issues.

I think film writing is a series of trade-offs: if I give you this, will you indulge me in that? But you can’t just say, ‘I’m an artist. Fuck you. I’m going to make a three-hour film about paint drying and if you don’t get it, you’re a moron.’ Fine, get five people to come round to your house and watch it, but then don’t bitch about how you can’t get distribution. Film is film, and it’s very unforgiving, and it’s a popular medium.