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Viva, “Las Vegas!” – Interviewing Director Mike Figgis

I couldn’t be more nervous on the elevator up to Mike’s suite. The brooding pictures of the multi-talented writer/director/actor/composer always make Mike Figgis look like a gangster instead of a Hollywood star. To my surprise, Figgis is neither. When I sat down with him to discuss the wild and unpredictable success of has latest effort, Leaving Las Vegas, I discovered one of the most genuine and enthralling people working in cinema today. He also turned out to be a really nice guy, paying compliments to not only our magazine and art director Ursula Coyote’s photography, but also to me…for my nice shoes.

Figgis, born in Carlisle, England and raised in Kenya, has roots in music (has jazz ensemble appeared in his own first film, Stormy Monday), avant-garde theatre, and multimedia. Figgis entered the film biz in 1988 and has gone on to direct seven features, working with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, among them Richard Gere, Melanie Griffith, Tommy Lee Jones, Sting, Andy Garcia, Albert Finney, and Juliette Binoche. 1995 brought us Figgis’s masterpiece-to-date, Leaving Las Vegas, a film which has received a glut of critics’ awards in addition to its 4 Oscar nominations (2 of which are for Figgis himself: Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay).

If you haven’t seen it (and you should), Leaving Las Vegas tells the tragic love story of Ben (Nicholas Cage) and Sera (Elizabeth Shue). Ben, a once lofty Hollywood executive who has fallen from grace, takes the last of his money and decides to move to Las Vegas for a singular purpose: to drink himself to death. Sera herself is no bastion of good cheer either: she’s a prostitute regularly beaten by her pimp (Julian Sands) and her clients. Closely following the semi-autobiographical novel by John O’Brien, who killed himself shortly after the film deal was announced, this is not your typical romance, by any means.

Misery Loves Company

Despite its tragic nature, Leaving Las Vegas somehow concludes with an uplifting message, and I ask Figgis for his take on why. ‘I’ve never been depressed by bad news,’ he says. ‘I’ve been moved by it. I have been depressed by bad news when it’s fascism or something like that, when you’re dealing with something that’s non-negotiable, when there’s nothing you can do about it–that is depressing. But when you have a bit of a struggle–where people are outsiders and they’re dealing with a problem in some way–I don’t find it depressing, I find it uplifting.’

Describing Leaving Las Vegas as ‘the happiest, most high-energy filmmaking experience I’ve ever had,’ Figgis credits the actors for making his uplifting vision come through on the screen. ‘Nick Cage is a genius, and Elizabeth Shue is really, really extraordinary.’

For those who don’t know, Shue has been typecast as the goodie-goodie in films like Adventures in Babysitting and The Karate Kid since 1984. Leaving Las Vegas marks her breakthrough role as an A-list actress. Figgis expands, ‘It’s great for me to now be able to say, ‘I always knew she could act.’ But when I started making the film, people would say, ‘Is that the Elizabeth Shue who was in that movie…’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s that Elizabeth Shue. What’s your problem?’ And they’d look at me like, ‘You’ve lost your marbles,’ and it pissed me off. I felt really good about, more than anything else, when the reviews started coming in saying, ‘Elizabeth Shue can act!’ But it’s also true about 15 or 20 other actors in Hollywood that people write off as being this commodity or that commodity and they’re not. They’re pigeon-holed, and they can only get employment doing the one thing that the studios have decided they do.’

An Actor Prepares

Figgis describes the preparation for the film as more like coffee klatch than a job, saying, ‘It was just a week and a half of rehearsal. A lot of conversations. A lot of communication in the year before we made the film. Reading the book. I encouraged them [Cage and Shue] to do their own research, which they wanted to do anyway, and then ultimately the three of us got together and just started talking…talking about anything, not necessarily about the film or the script, about anything that came up. I felt it was important just for us to get to know each other, so that by the time we went to shoot, we hadn’t actually done the film, we hadn’t rehearsed the film to death, but we had tacitly come to an agreement about what the film was about. That’s the best kind of rehearsal, just so we’re all starting on the same point of view. And then I trust they will do what they have to do, because that’s their job, and my job is to watch them and say, ‘No. Yes. Faster. Slower.’ Whatever.’

Mike also credits the studio (MGM) with a large portion of the success of the film, the rights to which it acquired for a paltry $1.5 million. ‘It’s actually pretty well-marketed. It would never ever do what it did unless somebody was very, very, actively, intelligently thinking about marketing. I know that. I’ve made other films that didn’t get any help from the studio, and then they just vanished without a trace, because no one saw them. And MGM has done a really clever release with Leaving Las Vegas. (the film very slowly picked up good reviews) and they’d leave the prints in cinemas long enough for word of mouth to kick in,’ something, he says, a less patient distributor would never be willing to do. Additionally, MGM spent all of $4 million on promotion and advertising.

Leaving Las Vegas‘s meager $3.5 million budget led to some difficult tradeoffs in the production of the film, but Figgis says that actually worked to their benefit. ‘We didn’t have any money, and we weren’t pretending to be something we weren’t.’ For example, the film couldn’t afford to shut down the Vegas Strip to shoot, so Figgis shot there with the traffic in full force. ‘That was brilliant,’ he says. ‘I’ve always hated the convention of shooting on a street, and then having to stop the traffic, and then having to tell the actors, ‘Well, there’s meant to be traffic here, so you’re going to have to shout.’ And they’re shouting, but it’s quiet and they feel really stupid, because it’s unnatural. You put them up against a couple of trucks, with it all happening around them, and their voices become great. As long as you have a good sound recording system, it’s so much better. So I liked that. As soon as they said I couldn’t have a traffic closure I said, ‘Great!” Plus, he adds later, all that neon in the Strip amounted to ‘a whole lot of free electricity.’

Less Is More

Figgis turns to a topic that weighs heavy on him: the bastardization of film from big budgets and high-tech fakery. ‘Do you know how many films now are dubbed now? I mean, very well-dubbed, but there’s this surrealist thing where their lips are moving, and yes, the words are coming out, but you know it’s not what they’re saying at the time. It’s too clean. Everything’s too clean. Too perfectly finished.

‘The most intense films I’ve seen in the last five years have been documentaries, without a doubt. Sarajevo, Afghanistan, shooting on Hi-8, often on a hand-held camera–a shitty little Nikon with a built-in microphone, and you know it’s real. That kind of reality is just stunning. I’d like to get that kind of smell back into film.’

Figgis points to our modern masters, saying Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Oliver Stone ‘haven’t quite hit the mark lately. I think they’ve done it in a way in which they should be shooting smaller. I think Scorsese should be shooting on Super 16. I think After Hours was great. I think his short in New York Stories was great. And I’d love to see him go back to Mean Streets. And I’d like Francis to go back to Rumble Fish, wouldn’t you?
I know that, from my own experience, the minute you get onto a big set, there’s just millions of people standing around eating stuff. That’s all it is: the food service table takes over the set, and it’s like watching paint dry.’

Mr. Jones and Mike

Figgis claims a personal link with Leaving Las Vegas and with all his films. ‘Anything I would do would be because I had a sympathetic feeling towards it. That’s why I did Mr. Jones, because I think manic-depression is a fascinating, sad, and amazing phenomenon. It’s not a coincidence that some of the greatest artists have been manic-depressives. That made it, to me, a fascinating subject that, alas, did not come out in the film.’

And in response to my question as to whether Leaving Las Vegas is his attempt at remaking Mr. Jones the way he wanted, Mike replies, ‘That’s retrospective. I’ve never acknowledged that to myself until afterwards, but clearly there are parallels. And having failed in the big attempt [with Mr. Jones], when [Leaving Las Vegas] was presented to me, I just responded to it. Then afterwards, someone pointed out to me there’s a similarity, and I said, ‘Yes, that’s right. There is.’ But I wasn’t looking for it at the time.’

Wearer of Many Hats

What may not be so-common knowledge is that not only does Figgis write and direct, but he’s also composed the score for 4 of his films, including Leaving Las Vegas, and he is an actor as well (his cameos in Leaving Las Vegas are as a mobster and as a lounge singer on a taxicab’s roof advertisement).

Figgis discusses the dearth of multi-talented individuals, saying, ‘Very few musicians end up making films, although I know a lot would like to. It’s very, very hard to jump over, and I’ve had the good fortune to crossover from music into theater into performance art and then into cinema–and that took 15 years. But it’s very hard, and I think mainly that’s the reason why no one else does it. But, if you look back to pre-20th century art and the whole definition of the Renaissance Man, people did paint and write…and architects would compose music. So it’s kind of a recent phenomenon that people don’t crossover.

‘The music [in Leaving Las Vegas] is more theatrical. It’s much more present. It has a much more personal voice than film music is expected to have. Film music is expected to be polite, it’s meant to hit buttons on cue, to let you know that you should cry, or be frightened, and when your heart should beat faster, and it has a very limited functional value. It’s very sentimental. It’s never meant to crossover into the narrative, but I think it should.’

Listen to the score closely, and you’ll see — or hear — what he means.

Hopeful At Last

All was not bliss on the set of Leaving Las Vegas, as the family of then-deceased John O’Brien came to watch a day of the shoot. Figgis describes it compassionately. ‘It was heartbreaking. It was terrible, because I didn’t know what they looked like but I recognized who they must be. I remembered they were going to come, but I didn’t know they were going to come today. We were filming one of the very beautifully sad scenes, and they turned up, and it was instantly very quiet. What could it be like if your beloved son suddenly committed suicide?

‘They said the film gave them something to hold on to, and it also gave them closure in a way. It gave them a funeral, which is a dark idea, but they never had one, because when people commit suicide it’s such a punch–there isn’t proper closure. It’s just a shock.’

The film’s recent honors seem a fitting epitaph for O’Brien and his work. And when Leaving Las Vegas goes up for its Oscars on March 25th, the film will hopefully find its rightful place among the classics.

Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas.

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