"I think this is the liberation of filmmaking. I think such interesting things will come out of people's laptops now I can't wait. I think it is a brilliant time to be making films." -Mike Figgis Interview March 27, 2000.
We have entered a new era of filmmaking. It has created the excitement that I read about in film theory classes wishing I could have been a part of such as the French New Wave, Italian neo-realism, or the German film noir. In March 2000, I felt that historical moment of a new filmmaking movement happening right before my eyes. Mike Figgis' Time Code has broken from traditional filmmaking and utilizes the tools that are shaking up the studio system.
"On a quadruple-split screen, four separate stories unfold simultaneously in real time, building to a final, climatic moment in which they all unexpectedly come together." The film features an ensemble cast including Holly Hunter, Selma Hayek, Kyle MacLachlan, and many more. "This is quadraphonic cinema, multiple stories stripped to their purest essence, each mysteriously effecting the other as in real life."
Mike Figgis foresees the new era of cinema, precipitated by advances in digital technology. He has stated that renowned filmmakers can make films on their own terms, without creative interference from investors with a lot of money at stake.
TV: Let's talk about the basic production essentials. How did you shoot Time Code?
MF: We shot on the DSR 130 DV Cam and then upgraded to Digibeta and finally HD. It was shown digitally at the Yahoo Internet Film Festival at the DGA (Directors Guild of America) on March22, 2000. It looks amazing.
It is quite funny that a lot of interviewers that saw it have said "the film we saw looked great and the transfer was terrific." "No," I say you're looking at video". They didn't realize it has not been transferred because it looks like film now. I always ask people, "were you aware of what you were watching." They say, "what do you mean" because I shoot a lot on Super 16mm. People for the most part have no clue and they don't care, as long as the story is working and most importantly that the sound is interesting. Sound is the most important element.
I'd say to all filmmakers don't worry about your visual medium what you should worry about is your sound medium. Make sure you get good sound and get a really interesting mix. I'd watch something on pixels as long as the sound is good. By good I don't mean high fidelity art, I just mean interesting. Sometimes disintegrating sound is wonderful as long as you know that is what you want.
TV: Breaking away from tradition now technology is accessible to regular people. Filmmakers no longer have to rent an Avid for weeks on end when they can't afford it. Now with this new technology filmmakers can now afford the time they need to make their film. I feel this is going to dramatically change filmmaking.
MF: Yes, let's compare it to two things. One is the music industry with the advent of the port-o-studio and garage music. In other words, the idea of being able to have your own world class recording studio. I have one in my office in London in the room that is an office by day. I can use it after 7 o'clock when it gets quiet enough. I have one really superb microphone and ProTools. I did the Time Code soundtrack in my front room. It can only be liberating. I mean to be honest the only thing standing in the way of the creative process of filmmaking is the studios and the crews...It's almost like let's kidnap filmmaking back into that which it is. Filmmaking is an art form in a way you can say with pride. Some of the best things that have ever happened in the world have been as a result of art as opposed to the army or big business.
Did you follow any rules like Dogme 95 and the Vow of Chastity directors did?
MF: Festen [Celebration]one of my favorite films of all time. I think it is genius. I also loved the Scandinavian film that has just come out Show Me Love.
There were a couple of really strong rules.
- It is a movie with four simultaneous takes and no cuts. There is no negotiating. That is the rule.
- I told the actors to never wear exactly the same outfit everyday over our two-week shooting period. This way there could never ever be the possibility of stealing a scene from another day's shoot and cheating it in the edit. That was kind of a golden rule. [Actors were responsible for their own costumes, hair, and make-up.]
Then, what we did with the movie I didn't hold to any of the Dogme rules.
TV: Viewing Time Code is surprisingly similar to watching a musical symphony or perhaps a garage band. Each quadrant seems to represent its own instrument. It is like watching a performance where the entire feature film was shot in one fluid take. There are no cuts. To make this possible each of the 28 actors had to wear synchronized watches. How did this feeling come about?
MF: The movie is like a string quartet. This movie is music. They [each quadrant] are also relating to the other instruments. It is all about harmony. This film's got an entirely musical structure.
I wrote it like music. I wrote it on music paper. The script is on manuscript. Do you know what a string quartet looks like? It is written exactly like a string quartet. Each bar line represents a minute.
I figured the only way to have any control over the way it was going was to come up with some sort of notation system. It looked just like a piece of music and I could literally say go to Bar 63 which would be 63 minutes into the film. I could say to the cast, "Selma [Hayek] you're talking there and Saffron [Burrows] is talking on that other camera. Stellan [Skarsgard] is talking on the other camera so I am going to have a real problem in the mix dealing with all three of you at the same time because you are all saying really cool things. Would you mind going two minutes earlier with your dialogue?"
I love music. Music is really powerful. There was a period of jazz when Jerry Mulligan suddenly said I'm not going to use the piano. It was like the death of the piano dictating the chord sequence [and saying] I don't want the piano player always telling me where the structure is. He went through a whole period where there is no piano. It is kind of interesting but you miss the piano, but I understand why he did it. I understand why Dogme is saying enough already of John Williams and enough already of big lighting.
I was on a train when I started to write it out. I thought I needed a slightly more scientific way of doing it. I experimented with graph paper and then I said fuck it this is ridiculous and I suddenly realized that music paper would be perfect.
I wrote it like a score and so I could literally open it up into 6 pages and I copied that out. In fact when we started rehearsing I gave each member of the cast a whole bunch of music paper and explained the system to them. I said "now write it out yourself so you understand what I am doing." It was like a class where I was telling Selma and everyone, "go to Bar 23. There is a change there. Get your rubbers out. I want you to come in two bars earlier." They were looking at each other and asking to borrow each other's colored pencils. It was a trip.
TV: It was probably the most fun they ever had making a movie.
MF: It was like watching schoolboys and girls. It really was like they were back in school loving it and hating it.
TV: Tell me about your music and jazz background.
MF: I grew up in Africa until I was 8. My dad was an upper middle class Irish man. A lot of people in his peer group at that time were obsessed with black jazz. Posh English people love jazz and adored Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith. He was obsessed with jazz and as a kid I grew up wanting to be a jazz musician
I started playing trumpet when I was 11. I started playing guitar when I was 14. I started playing piano when I was 18. Started playing drums when I was 9 and I have played those instruments ever since and I play everyday now.
TV: You have done performance pieces before, and although I felt this was more like a song, how did Time Code come out of the idea for a performance piece?
MF: I was going to do this as a video performance piece. I was going to shoot it in exactly the same way. I was going to shoot it on four MiniDV cameras. I wanted to put an ad in the paper and say I am shooting a feature on Friday morning the 12th of October and the world premiere will be in the evening of October 12th at the gallery. I was going to put the 4 images on 4 monitors in different parts of the gallery space and have them slowly come together on trolleys. I would have a live string quartet or jazz musicians and do a happening and have them watch the movie that way. I thought maybe there is more potential to this and maybe it could actually be a feature. Naively at that point I didn't realize they only ran 60 minutes. I needed them to run 90 to qualify as a feature.
There is something disposable about it [the performance piece] and at the same time it has this kind of interactive element with the audience. I like the audience to be less than passive.
TV: I was amazed you were willing to show the project before it was transferred to film. Many directors these days are afraid of projecting this way - regardless of the high quality image. What made you go for it?
MF: I did not want to go to film at all. This is a digital film and there are no cuts in it and the irony is that when I go to film it will have three edits imposed on me by doing reel changes. If the projectionist fucks up the splicing there is going to suddenly be a jump cut. It's really lovely to have a unconscious state of no edits. The thing about edits is that you are watching an approximation of real time. The minute you put an edit in you have imposed a jump cut on your reality and that really pissed me off. I know there will be slight color temperature variations on each reel because there always are. I find that so frustrating. I want this to stay on High-Def but there aren't enough digital cinemas yet. When you project digitally you never have to watch the awful disintegration and abuse of the film that takes place in a projector.
TV: As you were trying to get the movie made in studio system, did you find support or resistance?
MF: I had both. The good news is that they had zero understanding of what I was doing with the exception of Calley and a couple of other people.
When I pitched this to John Calley, he loved it. The pitch meeting was a trip. I'd love to put that in a film. Jaws were dropping open. I said, "this will be a one take shoot and I will do this four times. I'll choose which one of the four is the best. We could release this as a digital film about two weeks later." I said I could release this by December. This guy said, "you mean December 2000?" I said, "No, I'm talking about December 1999. I would like it to be in the cinemas for New Years Eve 2000 the beginning of the millennium because I think it is an interesting statement to be making as we enter the new century about where we might go with cinemas." My ego was running wild at that time. He said, "there is no way we can get the publicity machine running." I said you don't need to. You can just put it in a few cinemas and let people start talking. Word of mouth is the best weapon that you have and put it on the Internet. I was saying let's follow The Blair Witch Project and do this thing entirely as an Internet venture. Let's not use any conventional P&A at all.
But the fact is that it got made by a studio and was out there and we screened on March 22, 2000, and that in itself is remarkable.
Half way through the shoot Calley asked for a VHS. After he saw it he said, "I have no idea what this is about, but clearly you do and I am intrigued to see what happens."
TV: If you could have shot on any camera if you were not confined by tape length, what would you have chosen?
MF: I would of shot on a Sony MiniDV camera. I have bought one since - the VX1000. It is really amazing. I am trying to redesign it with Sony right now for filmmakers so that it actually functions as a really good digital audio recorder, as well. It has the potential digital recorder of any DAT machine.
TV: I have noticed after watching a lot of DV and film projected digitally that video shows more where film slightly hides things. When I saw "Mission To Mars" projected digitally (which was shot on 35mm) I felt I could see the actors make-up very clearly. Did actresses in Time Code have hesitations about how they would look?
MF: Sure. I had cameramen coming to me saying this actor or actress has asked that we add an extra light in. I said, "look, by normal standards you are all super gorgeous, so get real. You're going to look good because your acting is good because it's the real thing. It is bold acting and no one is going to look ugly. You aren't going to look airbrush gorgeous and perfect, but it is not about that kind of control. If you have that kind of control then it will be apparent in your acting and inhibit it, so forget it." I think they all look fantastic.
TV: I am very interested in your layout plans for the DVD. What are some things you will be doing with this medium?
MF: It is changing every week.
We are doing one interactive version that will have the ability to separate all four soundtracks and do your own mix. We are doing version 1, which will be like controlled anarchy, and version 15.
TV: Recently, I have had the opportunity to put my short film "Sidewalkers" on DVD for Quickband's Short Cinema Journal. They asked me if they could put both the 35mm version and the original Digibeta version. I think this is tremendously exciting to be able to show the difference. Do you have any exciting new media projects planned for Time Code?
MF: On my new website I want to open a kind of store and put everything I have ever done onto DVD and start doing direct sales. I'd like to do sell DVD's and not do any kind of distribution at all, but just website distribution. I think everyone is going to do this anyway. That's going to be like boutique filmmaking. That's so interesting to me. You know fuck you [to distributors] it's over it's over.