On the afternoon of November 19, 1999, Mike Figgis, one of cinema's most unabashedly experimental directors, made an entire movie in 93 minutes, the likes of which had never before been seen in the 100-year history of filmmaking.
Shooting with four hand-held digital video cameras in four uninterrupted takes that would run simultaneously on the screen in the finished movie, Figgis orchestrated a synchronized, improvised, real-time drama called "Time Code" that follows a sampling of misanthropic, self-absorbed Hollywood denizens through an afternoon of coincidences, earthquakes and crossed paths.
On April 18, 2000, Figgis sat in a state-of-the-art multiplex in San Francisco, preparing to do something even more unique with this fascinating foray into 21st Century filmmaking.
"Time Code's" labyrinth chronology is split into quadrants on the screen -- like a security camera monitor -- and the director uses volume levels and other audio cues to draw the eye toward whichever frame he chose to emphasize at any given point while in post-production, which created a particular course to the narrative.
But while standard prints being released to theaters this week feature one predetermined version of the crisscrossing events in the film, Figgis' dream was to be able to interact with an audience by mixing the picture's audio tracks live in the theater, and that's just what he's here to try today.
Sitting toward the back of the arena-style auditorium as I arrive to watch him work and talk about the making of this most uncommon film, the soft-spoken Englishman with famously unmanageable hair sits before a small mixing board and a pair of CD players (for incidental music) connected to the theater's digital projection system, which is currently casting television tone bars on the 20-foot screen.
This night's screening will be his second "performance" of the live mix "Time Code," after having done the same thing in Toronto one week before. He has planed three more showings like this one in Washington, D.C. in a few days, then two shows on the movie's opening day in Los Angeles, and it's readily apparent the artistic thrill he gets from this newfound technological ability to customize his movie based on what he perceives from an audience.
|Contactmusic.com: So the live mix, this has to be a lot of fun for you because you get to continue to tinker with the movie.|
Mike Figgis: You get to continue, but you also get to do something which I've always wanted to do -- and in straight cinema I've never been able to do it -- which is actually interact with the audience.
Because, you know, when you're doing a play, right, and it's got funny lines in it or whatever, some nights the audience is just not going to laugh, but maybe they are responding to the more serious elements. As an actor, as an ensemble, you can push those live. In exactly the same way, this (live) mix is a very organic thing. Depending on how the audience is going, you can push certain things. (In this film) you always have the four choices, and then, as it were, the 16 permutations of those four choices, because you can mix anything with anything. You can chose to not have score, to add score, or go with the original score -- or whatever.
So I have two CD players, I have four channels -- which represent the four screens -- I've got a premix of everything, which is what goes on in the standard (print of the) film. I've got the music as a separate channel. I've got effects as a separate channel, so if I wanted to push things like...
|...if you wanted to crank up the earthquakes, for instance...|
Exactly. Yeah. Just boost it each time a little bit. I can also EQ it differently, I could take all the bass out or something, really thin the mix down, or take the tension out by making it go very quiet and thin. I did it in Toronto last week, and it was fascinating.
|That was the first time you'd done it with a live audience?|
Yeah, with a big, live audience.
|With a non-industry audience.|
Exactly...An entire generation now is very used to the idea of remixes on tracks and the idea of a live DJ at a gig being treated with the same respect as you would give a musician now. That's how this feels.
|And this whole project is something that five years ago would have been impossible. Just shooting it -- just the use of digital video. Ninety minutes of film in a continuous take, you couldn't do it. This is leading edge experimentation.|
Sure. Part of the deal here is to prove a point, that you can shoot a low production value film and it can assume the same high production values with this technology. These images can be blown up as big as any 35mm image in the world. You can go to the largest cinema screen in the world and it's going to hold up and look strong.
|The last three films you've made ("Time Code," "Miss Julie" and "The Loss of Sexual Innocence") have been experimental in one way or another. Obviously you enjoy having this kind of freedom.|
I never want to again be in a situation where I am hindered or restrained or inhibited by a committee of executives. I don't want to do that because often they don't understand (my films). I have no interest in that kind of relationship. Life's too short. Filmmaking's too interesting. The only upside of doing it through a studio is that you're guaranteed a very large paycheck. But you're selling your soul -- not even to the devil, it's not as interesting as that -- you're selling your soul to a bunch of executives.
|You operated one of the four cameras used in the film yourself, so as a director was it hard for you to let go of what was going on with the other three cameras? Did you rehearse a lot?|
No, no. Not a single rehearsal. There was a lot of talking so that the actors and the technicians all understood exactly what the concept was, exactly what the technical plan was that had to be achieved -- I mean the timing thing, the technical design. I'm a musician and I've always loved the orchestral score because it is, somehow, one of the highest achievements of mankind to be able to create something like a symphony.
|To lay all those sounds on top of each other in harmony?|
Yes. To have paper and ink and an eraser and you can write something like Beethoven wrote the Ninth Symphony. A couple hundred years later, that same document is reproduced note for note. A hundred people sit down and literally play exactly what he wrote. That is a remarkable achievement. Like (a piece of) music, my script -- or score if you like -- had specific moments. At a one minute-20 there's an earthquake. It's not negotiable. It's not even negotiable to the nearest second. It is exactly at that point and (like a musician) if your one second late, you're f**ked.
|...Because in the finished film each of the frames has to sync up.|
(Nodding.) The script was actually on music paper, using the four staves, like a string quartet. Everybody had the same document, everybody (had to) hit every cue to the second. I think what was what the most sublime, joyful experience -- collectively -- was everyone realizing that if everyone does follow the plan, we would get there. There were some amazing things that were conceptual ideas the day before that are realities on the day (of filming). And then three hours later you get to watch the movie -- because you can play it back. It's video. And I did the same thing I'm doing tonight -- the live mix. I had some CDs (for incidental music), and they saw the entire movie.
|Before the day was even out.|
We started at 11 o'clock and by 6 o'clock we were all sitting down, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and talking about how we could make it better for the next morning. And that's never, ever happened in the history of cinema, I don't think, with 27 actors improvising. And the buzz off them when they saw the whole thing working!
|That's as close to instant gratification as you could ever get as a film actor. So you didn't rehearse but you shot it more than once?|
Did it 15 times over a two week period. This (the theatrical print) is version 15. The first week we shot the film once a day and reviewed it once a day. Then we took two days off the filming, during which time I had individual time with each camera group, with each group of actors. I broke it down into four separate films and I just worked on the acting and the camera techniques and the individual things about each film.
Then we started again, and now the pressure is on, because...to be fair to the studio, they haven't seen a script -- there isn't one! -- there's 27 actors improvising, I'm shooting four movies a day, and there's no results to show them because it's too complicated. They've only got my word for it.
So we had to step the pace up. We started shooting the movie twice a day and reviewing just one of the movies, selecting which one we thought was the most successful and reviewing that one. The other thing we did about half way through -- which I've just remembered actually -- on one of the days we had a very long session and I showed the movie four times, each time favoring just one of the films (quadrants).
|You'd have the audio turned on in one frame.|
The audio would only be turned on in the top left, then the next time only in the top right, and so on, until everybody saw exactly what everyone else was doing. All of the actors said that was the most useful day for them.
|Now, how much of the film was improvised? The script was not so much the dialogue, but just the occurrences, is that it?|
The script never contained but kind of indications of what dialogue should be. (In the script) I would write some dialogue and say, for example you could say something like this. This is what I need you to convey.
|So as long as they were hitting their emotional marks...|
As long as they were hitting their emotional marks, and this information must come out.
|I got a big kick out of the multimedia presentation by the haughty German filmmaker in which she pitches, essentially, the movie we're watching -- and you play it as something a little absurd.|
I love that scene. (Grinning and affecting a feminine voice with an accent) "Deegital video hass arrived!"
|Was that a bit of self-mockery for your critics who think you take yourself to seriously?|
Sure. But also I wanted the film to explain itself. It's kind of a radical concept, this film. So I thought if somebody talked about the concept within character, it would be a joke within a joke, but it would also be information for the audience. And then the (studio) executives become the audience. The (theater) audience can sympathize with the executives, going "what is she talking about?!?" And then the concept sounds so pretentious that Stellan (Skarsgard, who plays a producer), starts laughing at her (and saying) "what a bunch of crap!"
|But by that time, you're totally wrapped up in the movie the way it is.|
To arrive at a point where dramatically that works was a huge challenge. I put it in the first outings -- the first three or four -- and I went, "No, no, no, that's too much like an in-joke." And I hate in-jokes in films, so I took it out. Then about three or four days later someone said they really missed it because it was nice to get that explanation. So I said, let's put it back in but let's take the reverence out of it and make it more satirical. And I'm glad I did because it's kind of a keystone in the film now.