“I’ve always thought, having come from theatre and performance art, how incredibly conformist most film narratives are,” offers Mike Figgis, the writer/director/composer
“I’ve always thought, having come from theater and performance art, howincredibly conformist most film narratives are,” offers Mike Figgis, the writer/director/composer of the 1995 Oscar winner Leaving Las Vegas and the upcoming Time Code 2000. “Here was something that Wagner would have given his testicles to have—this fantastic marriage of performance and music and painting and literature that’s called cinema. And what do we do? Basically cartoons—always with the same kind of clunky editing style and appalling use of music.”
Of all the features Figgis has done, beginning with 1988’s Stormy Monday and including 1990’s Internal Affairs and 1997’s One Night Stand, none could be called a cartoon. Often edgy, with ambitious structures, Figgis’ films are as close to experimental cinema as major theatrical releases get. Because he first began shooting film for multimedia theater pieces, Figgis has never been averse to filming in Super 16mm and blowing his footage upto 35mm, as he did for Leaving Las Vegas. So it hardly seemed surprising when he chose digital video cameras to shoot Time Code 2000, which Columbia Pictures will release early this year.
What’s revolutionary about Time Code 2000 is how Figgis has exploited the unique properties of digital technology to tell his tale. Shot by four synchronized digital cameras in one 93-minute take, the movie simultaneously follows four key characters as their lives intersect in a single day. Figgis, who manned one of the cameras himself, explains, “It’sa black comedy that has to do with the irony of the four cameras, of being able to show the audience everybody’s lies.” What Figgis calls “ironic synchronicity” will be readily apparent because footage from all four cameras will run concurrently on a single screen divided into quadrants. “It plays out almost like a Feydeau farce,” says Figgis, “except it’s about Hollywood. You could never tell this story with linear editing.”
Describing how he conceived this real-time ensemble experiment, Figgis says: “Its parents are Altman’s Nashville and Cassavetes’ Killing of A Chinese Bookie. It was purely improvisation. There was no script.” But he stresses that “the structure was tight in terms of timing; it wasn’t improv-til-you-drop.” Flipping open a bound notebook, Figgis points to a hand-drawn, color-coded schematic showing the positions of his four cameras. Looking uncannily like a music score comprising words instead of notes, the schematic represents “approximately five minutes a stanza,” explains Figgis. “I was making these charts when I suddenly thought, ‘You know what? Somebody’s already made these bar lines—it’s called music paper!'”
When Figgis gathered his cast, which includes Saffron Burrows, Salma Hayek, Stellan Skarsgard, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Holly Hunter, he gave them blank music paper and said, “I’ll go through the structure. Make notes in the appropriate bars so you can see exactly where you are at any point in the film.” While the first day’s shoot was chaotic, everyone “got it” when they saw the complete film play back that night. “When we all saw how the choreography of the synchronized movement made sense across the four quadrants,” says Figgis, “there was joy in the room.”
Figgis shot Time Code 2000 in its entirety 15 times before he had a versiont hat worked as a continuous piece—no cuts allowed. “To discourage any attempt at cross-editing,” he says, “I encouraged the actors to wear different clothes every day.” Consequently, “post” production was just a multi-track audio mix of the live sound and a music score that Figgis co-wrote.
Sound is crucial to tracking the action, he explains. “Say somebody in the top right-hand screen is pouring whiskey into a glass. You’d swear you’re hearing that high-end sound coming from that source even though it’s actually coming from two bass-heavy speakers on the ground, because the minute your eye registers the sound-and-visual coordination, it takes you straight there. You’re led by your ear everywhere. You don’t need much sound, if it’s dynamic enough, to lead you to the appropriate screen. And sometimes, when I just play music, you’re totally liberated because you can watch anything you want —all four without bias. You could watch this 20 times and never see the same film.”