A man distracted by his washing machine, that is Mike Figgis when I meet him in his North London flat on an overcast afternoon. He is sitting on a laundry bin in front of the machine, staring gloomily into its port hole, perhaps in the hope that it will feel sorry for him and start working again. Without much conviction he offers me a coffee and says he will be with me in a minute. I look around. There are deckchairs, bookshelves and, on the floor, a pair of knee-length, tan-and-black riding boots, which are what you might expect a Hollywood director from the silent era to wear, but not Mike Figgis.
On the wall hangs an acoustic guitar, which is more in keeping: Figgis is not only an Oscar-nominated director, he is also an accomplished jazz musician who scores his own movies and began his career playing trumpet in a band with Brian Ferry. I gaze out of the window next. There are extravagant views over a canal and, beyond them, can be heard the urban ambience of King’s Cross: sirens, pneumatic drills, Tannoys announcing departures. This is Figgis’ home when he is in his homeland — he was born in Carlisle and raised in Newcastle, with a few years in Africa in between — but he is often in America. Indeed he flew in from New York on the red eye this morning. He was hoping to get his washing done before flying off again to Prague but the soapy water, he explains over his shoulder, won’t drain away.
I don’t know much about washing machines but I do know that when they won’t drain it is probably because the filter is clogged up. I impart this information and his mood lightens. ‘Yes, yes, I remember now, someone did mention that when I bought it. The filter. Thank you. Did I offer you a coffee?’
The air of distraction suits him. He is 6ft tall and scruffy in an overcoat and white trainers, laces untied. At 59, his goatee is silvering. His electric fuzz of dove-grey hair is still distinctive — he doesn’t like it much, though, and would shave it all off, he says, were it not for his having a ‘big and lumpy’ head. We sit across from each other over a breakfast bar. There is a montage of family photographs here, as well as outsize novelty dollar bills and, I notice, some Rizla papers. For rolling joints? Yes, he confirms insouciantly. He likes to smoke with his sons — aged 32 and 26 — when they visit. He seems open and friendly then, though he has a reputation for being, shall we say, uncompromising. He always looses it, he tells me, when people drive badly. ‘I’m a tyrant. If someone is driving the crew and me I say: “Both hands on the wheel, please, and no phone calls.” I won’t tolerate sloppiness. The same with people using hand-held cameras — there is no direct energy, no dynamic. I cut the strap off straight away to force them to hold the camera properly.’
Though he is softly spoken — and well spoken — the lack of compromise can sometimes translate into volume and volatility. His first big success as a director was Internal Affairs in 1990. It not only revived Richard Gere’s career, it provided the actor with the gritty role of a lifetime, that of a corrupt policeman, an Iago to Andy Garcia’s Othello. ‘Richard says he finds it easier playing bad people than good,’ Figgis now says. ‘And certainly he is a perverse enough human being to understand perversity. When we started shooting he trusted me. I found him very easy to work with on that film. I then did another film with him — Mr Jones — and it was a disaster. It was about manic depression.’
Which other Hollywood director would so casually call Richard Gere a pervert? Either Figgis lacks the caution of more conventional Hollywood players, or he simply doesn’t care about making powerful adversaries. ‘I was really stitched up on Mr Jones,’ he continues with a thin, off-centre smile, ‘and unfortunately Richard was one of the producers. There was a certain point where he could have backed me up and trusted me, but he didn’t. He even approved Jon Ameil [the director of Entrapment] to come in and re-shoot, which was to me a terrible idea — because the film is now stupid.’ Figgis runs a hand through his wiry hair and sighs. ‘My version was beaten up, along with me. Despite the sniping of Ray Stark [the late Hollywood mogul] and the studio, Richard had put in a good performance on my version. Two films on, I made Leaving Las Vegas and everything that had been repressed in Mr Jones resurfaced unencumbered by the studio and, ironically, it was the most successful film I made. I would cite that as an example to studios that they should just fuck off and let directors do their thing. But they never learn.’
Oh, the suppressed anger beneath this calm surface. But it is understandable. Figgis was nominated for an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, the film that launched Nicholas Cage into the leading man first-division. Cage played a suicidal drunk, a role that won him an Oscar and upped his rate from $2 million to $20 million per film. Following an agreement between the two of them, Figgis wrote the lead role in his next film, One Night Stand, for Cage but the actor turned down the job [it went to Wesley Snipes] and left Figgis feeling disillusioned with Hollywood. ‘I was disappointed that I didn’t hear from Nick for about four years after he won the Oscar. I think he was suddenly getting offered all the parts that never came his way before. He turned my film down because he just wanted to fuck off and make a lot of money.’
There is an entertaining chapter about actors in Digital Film Making, a new book by Mike Figgis, published by Faber and Faber next week. ‘As I warn in the book,’ Figgis says, ‘actors can be temperamental. But who can blame them? They are expected to just turn up and start acting whether they are in the mood or not. The best advice I would give a budding film maker is: try acting yourself before you ask someone else to do it. It’s hard. I know, I tried it. You feel self conscious. Everything can affect your mood, from the time of day to what you had for breakfast. When you don’t have the answer for why something isn’t working, your nervousness increases along with your insecurity. The actors’ nerves increase too — you’ve made them feel inadequate because they can’t seem to give you what you want — but it sometimes takes the form of arrogance because they’re actors and they can impersonate confidence. As the director, you’re the one who ends up looking nervous. I think a lot of directors are frightened by actors, intimidated by them. I was when I first tried direction. It was like having to perform. Actors want to be directed though. They don’t want Hitler exactly, but they do want a firm hand and a clear vision. You do have to judge it. Even Richard Gere wanted to be directed, so as he didn’t look foolish.’
Actors like to test directors, it seems. Give them a trial period. This happened on Canterbury’s Law, the pilot Figgis has just been shooting in New York [starring Julianna Margulies from ER]. On this occasion, honour was served on both sides — but it isn’t always the case. For his last foray into television, Figgis shot an episode of the Sopranos. ‘I came in on season four and I was the only person on the set who wasn’t dug in. A lot of the crew were just phoning it in. Coasting. Being sloppy. I made the mistake half way through that shoot of getting firm with the crew. I made a lot of noise and told everyone to shut the fuck up. That was it. After that, they withdrew humour and good will. There were no big hugs at the end. But so what? As a director there is not point in trying to be everyone’s friend.’
It’s tough talk, but then he has had to deal with James Gandolfini, who plays Tony Soprano. When Figgis suggested he try acting in a certain way he turned on him and, in front of the whole cast, said: ‘Why the fuck would I do that? Tony Soprano wouldn’t do that.’ A silence fell. ‘I don’t think it was planned,’ Figgis says now. ‘It was spontaneous. He was in a grumpy mood. It was scary.’ The director backed down and allowed the actor to try it his way. ‘It didn’t work so then Gandolfini said he had had an idea and would try it another way: the way I had suggested in the first place.’
We talk about how actors manipulate emotions away from the screen — and it brings us to Figgis’s own experiences of dating actresses. ‘It’s every cliché. They are such high maintenance. At the time you don’t mind it but only later do you realise you worked quite hard. The root to being an actor or actress is that you have some kind of identity crisis. They all do. They have to have big egos because they are exposing themselves. They are expansive characters.’
He says ‘all’ but you know he is talking about Saffron Burrows, the actress with whom he had a five year relationship. Gossip blamed their bust up in 2002 on her close friendship with the actress Fiona Shaw — though Figgis himself dismissed this speculation as ‘crude’. At the time he observed: ‘It is painful to lose the everyday presence of someone in your life; but if you really love them, you just love them.’
Is he in a relationship now? ‘I am.’ Another off-centre smile. ‘But filmmaking is not a user-friendly profession in that respect. Too much time on location. Never in the same place.’
One of the more memorable scenes in Leaving Last Vegas is a sex scene. Figgis is known for them – a broad narrative sweep and a core of sexual obsession characterise his best work. In his experimental film Hotel, for example, he used a dizzying montage of erotic glossy, lesbian, sex scenes. I ask if digital filmmaking makes sex scenes easier because it is more low key. ‘Yes, but certain rules still apply. The director’s job is to create the ambience and maintain it. You have to be 100% there for the actors, not be in their eye line, and as soon as you cut a scene get straight in there — huddle with them and say this is great. Keep the energy going. It is seductive management. The crew have to understand they are part of that energy and if they stand there chewing gum in the eye line of the actors, bellies hanging out, it won’t work. I’ve seen people eating sandwiches in the eye line.’
More recently, Figgis directed Kate Moss in her film debut: a four-minute dream sequence for the lingerie brand Agent Provocateur. She stripped down to her knickers for him, take after take. Tough assignment that, one imagines. ‘The trickiest part was the first 10 minutes. It was just us in the room, and pitch black, because I was using night vision. I tried to create a comfort zone by telling her I was nervous, too.’ That film was an homage to a Jean-Luc Goddard, apparently. ‘With digital you don’t have to give anything to a laboratory,’ Figgis adds. ‘I could just shoot whatever I liked. Whereas when you’re making a traditional celluloid film, you always have to go through the committee stages. If you’re doing something quite edgy or sexual, it can feel like you’re showing your parents.’
Though he finds black stockings, suspenders and high heels erotic, he is keen to point out that there is a burlesque element to lingerie. ‘The sensuality diminishes. Sexiness is really about light or the absence of it. For example, the Agent Provocateur shorts were shot without artificial lights. The implied is ten times stronger than the explicit. Sexuality is an interestingly dark area of our psychology — so that’s how you want to portray it.’
Figgis is a great innovator, and indeed an inventor, having designed the Fig Rig, which artificially makes the camera ‘big’, and impossible to use with one hand, thereby producing better picture quality. But in the film world he is best known as a champion of digital film making. In 2000, with his film Timecode, he pioneered a technique using digital, real-time editing and filming on quadruple-screens — four segments could be watched in any order and still make sense. This has been much imitated, most notably by 24. Figgis believes that the digital revolution is democratising filmmaking, and that everyone with a digital camera and a laptop can and should have a go at making a film. His new book is intended as a steer to those who are planning to do just that, but without any of the conventional film school training. I suggest to him that it is asking for trouble to encourage everyone to think they have a film in them — after all, people often claim they have a good novel in them, when usually they don’t. ‘Yes there is the danger that there will now be ten times as many bad films made, but there will also be more good ones. It doesn’t really matter either way because distribution is still the problem.’
Figgis has had his fair share of failure as well as success in the film world; how has he coped? ‘Well ultimately that is what weeds out everyone who shouldn’t be there. To survive more than a few years and make more than one good film is how you prove yourself. When the struggling comes, some give up, or modify their ambition. The truth is, the last time I made a feature was 2002 for Disney — Cold Creek Manor with Sharon Stone and Dennis Quaid. Huge crew. Horrible responsibility. It didn’t do very well and since that time I have thrown myself into making much smaller digital films, as well as writing, teaching, and photography — all the things I love — and I have never been happier.’
But happiness is relative; is he happy now? He crunches on an apple. ‘Sooo happy. I’ve had periods of great misery but it has always been happy misery. I’ve never been able to not get out of bed without the feeling that something interesting might happen today.’
Even so, he admits he cries easily. ‘I’m especially susceptible on transatlantic flights — the corniest film will work on me.’ His father, a journalist and PR consultant, cried easily, too. He was also a worrier. ‘He died quite young, 56, so he had no experience of me making films. The last thing he said to me was: “I hope you get a real job because I’m worried about you.” I wish I could have said to him it worked out OK; I did OK; it was worth it. Initially I was desperate to impress my dad who was obsessed with jazz — he was a frustrated jazz pianist. That was the great bond between us. I wanted to be a jazz trumpet player to impress him. He understood emotional playing.’
For all the affection with which he speaks of his father, his childhood was not happy — it was happy misery at best. He was brought up in colonial Africa until the age of 10 — when his expat parents, faced by ‘debt and disgrace’, decamped to Newcastle. Overweight, with frizzy curls and fine elocution, Figgis was never going to have an easy time with his northern peers. As a schoolboy he found an escape in photography, and he still does as an adult. ‘I don’t even like going to a party unless I have a camera on me. I get frustrated. It’s not that I’m experiencing life second hand, I think it is more a way of understanding life. You can have a more hedonistic approach and live it or, like me, you can record it. It is a compulsion with me.’
Though Figgis is unassuming and lacking in vanity, you suspect this lack is tinged with a certain self loathing. He doesn’t find himself ‘attractive’, he says. And for all his good manners and mellow voice, he nevertheless seems to misread social signals and unintentionally cause offence, especially on a film set. He is, you suspect, not as in control of his emotions as he likes to think he is. He’s likable, though. And I see none of the prickliness associated with him — and anyway the prickles may be simply a matter of his being exacting and professional.
He seems willing, out of politeness, to continue, but I can see he is tired and so I say goodbye and leave him in his flat overlooking the canal — with his jetlag, with his dirty laundry, with his demonss