Mike Figgis has always been an artistic experimenter, but with "Time Code" he broke his own record for boldness.
Released to theaters last year and now available on video and DVD, it's one of the most radical films ever to come from a major studio (Sony) and a filmmaker known primarily for mainstream pictures. Figgis's earlier productions include "Stormy Monday," with Melanie Griffith and Tommy Lee Jones, and the Oscar-winning "Leaving Las Vegas," with Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue.
What sets "Time Code" apart from these movies is less its story than its style. Instead of a finished screenplay, Figgis gave his cast a plot outline and asked them to improvise their dialogue. Then he photographed their performances in "real time" with four digital-video cameras, using four side-by-side versions in the final film.
It's an unprecedented way to make a movie, and Figgis didn't dream it up in one inspired moment.
"It's something I've been fascinated with for a long time, even before I started making films," he told me in a phone interview from Red Mullet Productions, his London-based company. "I did experimental theater for about 15 years. Toward the end of that period, I was [interested in] parallel storytelling - dividing the stage up into different areas where the actors couldn't see each other ... and using film as another element."
Figgis began his movie career in the early '90s with pictures like "Internal Affairs" and "Mr. Jones," both starring Richard Gere and both using traditional styles. As a fledgling filmmaker, he says, "one gets absorbed by the technical aspects of conventional techniques." Feeling his creativity was being stifled, he thought about returning to live theater or moving to noncommercial cinema.
Then he decided to make a movie version of August Strindberg's classic play "Miss Julie," shooting it with two cameras on inexpensive 16-mm film and using a minimum of shot-to-shot editing as a way of preserving the immediacy of a live theater production.
"I was saving time by reviewing the [shots] from both cameras at the same time," he recalls. "I became more and more fascinated by the amount of information you get from two cameras. It's much more than twice the information you get from one camera, and watching two screens is invigorating for the eye and the brain ... so I made a decision to actually show one of the scenes on a split screen."
This led him to revive a "what if" idea he had considered in the past: the notion of making an entire film in one shot, using video equipment that can photograph much longer than standard movie cameras. "I was going to do it as a performance-art piece on very low-end video," he says, "shooting it on a Friday morning, say, and having the world premiere that evening." The project acquired a bigger budget and a famous cast - Salma Hayek, Stellan Skarsgard, Kyle MacLachlan, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Holly Hunter, Julian Sands, Richard Edson - when a Sony executive liked the plan and agreed to back it.
In addition to theater and video, Figgis has been strongly influenced by his training as a musician. "Time Code" is basically a string quartet, he says. "It's literally written on music paper," he explains, "and each bar line represents exactly one minute of screen time. I used a musical structure to write the piece, in terms of the timings and the dynamics of the characters."
This method allowed his actors to work as if they were jazz musicians improvising on a theme. They could "shoot in the morning, break for lunch, then come back and view the entire film ... in the afternoon," he recalls. "We would have a meeting of two or three hours when we'd go through the film and discover what did or didn't work, then ... come back the next day and shoot [it] again with all of that accumulated information." They repeated this process 15 times.
Although the lack of shot-to-shot editing is one of the film's most unusual traits, Figgis says it's one of his most important breakthroughs, since it mirrors the way we experience real life - as a continuous flow, not a series of different views spliced together in an arbitrary order.
"The minute you take away the edit," he says, "the audience quickly falls into an acceptance of the narrative.... I find it very hard watching edited films now. I'm very aware of jumps from close-ups to wide shots and so on. I wanted to create an environment where the visual stimulation is coming from your own ability to move your eye up, down, left, or right, because there's always plenty to look at."
This flies in the face of current movie styles, which use constant cuts to keep audiences from getting restless. Not surprisingly, Figgis disapproves of that ploy.
"One of the reasons why editing has become so frantic is that everyone's become addicted to it," he says emphatically. "The editor's job has become more and more difficult, as he or she has to supply this visual [drug] that we've all gotten used to. For once, I wanted that not to be an issue."
Figgis hopes to continue his experiments with split screens and uninterrupted shots, exploring these through different types of stories. "Time Code" is a combination of "black comedy and farce," he says, so it would be fun to try a suspense picture next.
"Thrillers are supercharged," he explains. "People get very tense watching them, and therefore you can make a far more experimental film. As long as you obey the rule of keeping the tension going, the audience is very open to new techniques. Some of Alfred Hitchcock's most experimental work has been in very frightening sequences."
The one thing Figgis knows for certain is that his experiments will always be rooted in storytelling, which he sees as a basic necessity of art. "Even music is saturated with emotional narrative," he says. "Stories utilize or release certain frameworks that allow us to examine ourselves, ask fundamental questions, and speculate about the meaning of our lives."
Unlocking the code
'Time Code" follows the activities of several film-industry players - from an ambitious actress and her jealous lover to a lecherous executive and a drug-abusing director - as they interact personally and professionally while dodging the aftershocks of a Los Angeles earthquake. It has an R rating for violence, sex, and four-letter words.
The story lasts 93 minutes, and director Mike Figgis photographed it with four video cameras taking continuous 93-minute shots. Then he transferred the video images to film - not as a single wide-screen image, but a mosaic of four pictures that show the action from four different perspectives.
Since each of the four images was recorded in a single shot, all the "editing" of the movie takes place in the mind of the viewer. Spectators are free to move their eyes from frame to frame any time they want, guided only by the development of the story and the switching of the sound from one picture to another. Even more freedom is available from the DVD edition, which allows the viewer to control the sound track.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society