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Mike Figgis, Taking a Shot in the Dark

Mike Figgis, Taking a Shot in the Dark

Articles - Directing

Figgis: Personally, he likes it dirty. (With Nicolas
Cage and Elizabeth Shue on the Leaving Las Vegas set).

Super
16mm is the independent’s favorite celluloid: the stock of choice
for hand-held, low-light, usually no-budget feature films. Director
Mike Figgis, whose filmography includes Story Monday, Internal
Affairs, Liebestraum, Mr. Jones and The Browning Version as well
as big money stars like Richard Gere, Tommy Lee Jones, Melanie
Griffith, Sting, Greta Scacchi and Lena Olin, took his much-loved
second-hand (previously used on The Draughtsman’s Contract) Aaton
Super 16mm camera and shot the kind of Super 16mm camera that
screams "art house" and "success" in the
same breath.

Spurred by a combination of forces,
not the least of which was a bad experience with a major studio,
Figgis optioned the semi-autobiographical novel Leaving Las Vegas
by John O’Brien, wrote the screenplay, attracted Elizabeth Shue
and Nicolas Cage; sold the script at Cannes and went on his merry
way to making the film he, at first, thought no one in America
would want to see.

Dark, soft and intrusive, Leaving
Las Vegas is a story of unconditional love set in the dim, flickering
light of the seediest side of Las Vegas. Nicolas Cage is Ben,
the alcoholic determined to drink himself to death, a job he
guesses will take about four weeks. He meets a streetwalker named
Sera (Elizabeth Shue) whose uncompromising acceptance of Ben’s
self-destructive journey creates a moment of oddly satisfying
romantic proportions during Ben’s descent into oblivion.

Figgis fought for the film to
be shot in Super 16, enforcing his will and desire to go back
to his early days as an artist.

"Personally, I like it dirty," he
said when talking about his choice of formats. "At a certain
point you start to question reality in the sense of how you record
an image. "For example, use a Hasselblad and get this wonderful
depth of field where every hair is in focus, or use something
else and shoot from the hip.

"I felt that mainstream filmmaking
has become more and more about that kind of clarity and image." A
still photographer, performance artist, actor and filmmaker,
Figgis finds a causality between the arts when describing his
work in film. "It’s certainly a little bizarre that painting,
once it was liberated by photography, went immediately to impressionism
and abstract impressionism. Cinema– restrained by the fact that
it’s a narrative art form for the most part–emerges toward this
crystal clear, brightly lit kind of image-making. Meanwhile,
technical advances give us fast stock and fast lenses…we can
virtually shoot in the dark if we wanted to, with no light at
all. And nobody does that. It’s very hard when you are making
a studio picture because they want that clarity, but personally
I like it dirty."

A 3.8 million finance deal with
a French company gave Figgis 28 days to shoot. Las Vegas gave
him everything but cooperation, and didn’t permit him for the
street scenes he needed. To avoid wasting time, Figgis simply
shot around the wild sound, the scheduling conflicts and the
real life female passersby screaming ‘Nic!’ ‘Nic!’ He achieved
an unheard of 20 minutes between set-ups by banishing all film
equipment from the set. No dollies, no tracks, no cranes. Very
little was in the film truck other than cameras, lenses and film
stock.

All of the camera work in Leaving
Las Vegas is hand-held and tripod. Any time the camera moves,
it’s on a shoulder or held like a baby. The thing about the Aaton,
confided Figgis, is "while it’s not feather-light, it is
appreciably lighter than a 35mm camerea and it’s got a handle
on top. You can run along with it six inches from the gutter
if you want to and then bring it up to a portrait. I’ve done
that in the past. In that sequence where he (Nicolas Cage) is
freaked out in the casino, wakes up on the sofa and then goes
off to the fridge? It’s an amazine sequence to watch being filmed
because it’s all hand-held. I cut out some of the shots, but
some of them started under the sofa and then crawled. Declan
(Quinn, the D.P.) was just literally holding the camera like
a vacuum.

When he first saw the blow-up,
Figgis flipped at the beauty of what he had. "It’s how I
would like films to look. A little bit of grain; a little bit
soft, not out of focus, just soft. Not quite as forgiving as
35mm, not quite as unrelenting." Processed in America, the
blow-up of the film was done in England. It was a lucky bit of
serendipity, as it turned out. "Because the blow-up in America
is an aberration, not the norm, they’re not used to handling
16mm stock. What you’re getting is somebody spare from the 35mm
department. You’re not actually dealing with an expert. Whereas
in Europe, you are. There is enough turnover in 16, because all
the TV is shot in 16mm (in America only slightly hip TV or MTV
stuff is shot in 16mm). There are guys whose job is nothing but
16mm. So they know how the bath should be, they know that when
you neg. cut you need to be extra careful; you’re supposed to
go to your inter-pos. and inter-neg. ASAP because you don’t want
to be handling the 16mm master very much."

In love with the dramatic impact
of the dark scene, the signature of his style, Figgis acknowledges
the manipulation of his work."I always wanted to shoot in
the dark. Really be bold. Push the stock. Say using 400 ASA,
push it to 3200 so it really starts to disintegrate. Shoot it,
shoot a love scene in the dark. With no help at all. The great
thing about movies is that in a one-minute sequence, even with
the tiniest amout of light, there is a moment where something
is revealed. Which is very sexy. Sensual is a better word. Particularly
if you are dealing with a dark subject, as most things are."

Even Nicolas Cage found himself
surprised by the uniqueness of shooting Super 16. "Nic said
a very interesting thing at a screening last week about the Super
16 format, " remarked Figgis. "He said from an actor’s
point of view, and I’d not heard this before, so it was really
good, that because the camera is smaller and less significant,
it took a huge amount of pressure off him–sort of like the worship
focus is taken off the actor. With a 35mm camera, on a dolly
with five surgeons around it–there’s almost a medical reverence
that goes on. Sixteen mm is a bit of a joke. It designifies the
process, technically, in a wonderful way. And he said he found
it an incredible advantage. Initially, as he admitted himself,
he was terrified of 16 and offered me his own money to go into
35 if my financial problems couldn’t be solved. And I said no!
I want 16! For both of us, there was a lagging nervousness. It
made it very exciting."

Figgis created a pivotal sequence
which may become considered Elizabeth Shue’s finest piece of
work. It’s also a scene which generates pockets of audience laughter:
an uncomfortable reaction for Figgis. "I was really shocked," he
said. "The scene where Elizabeth says ‘You seem prepared
for accidents,’ and the motel manager says ‘Yeah, we get a lot
of fuck-ups here’ is so sinister. The body language of that woman,
and the lightning, are so sinister–I think it’s like the angel
of death. Elizabeth’s reaction shot has the chill." Figgis
shrugs and says one should remember never to presume the audience.

"Sometimes the laughter in
a big audience seems inappropriate. Pockets of it. But it is
the final test. What is pretentious in a film will become very
clear. Even if the audience doesn’t realize it, there is a sort
of squirming–a nakedness–which gives it away."

In Leaving Las Vegas, the nakedness
exists as a lingering moment, a Figgis-inspired revelation of
humor, pathos and brutal honesty. No squirming allowed. MM

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