Wilful Amateur

Film still for Wilful Amateur

Friendless after Leaving Las Vegas, Mike Figgis took the self-made route with The Loss of Sexual Innocence and Miss Julie. He talks to Geoffrey Macnab about passion versus money

"Three people in a room beating each other to death... it's right up my street." Mike Figgis

It's the final week of shooting on Mike Figgis' new film Miss Julie and the greenfinch is having a bad morning. At the end of each take Jean (Peter Mullan), the abrasive footman, plucks the bird from its cage and chops off its head with a cleaver while his mistress/lover Miss Julie (Saffron Burrows) looks on in horror. We don't actually see the finch die, but Miss Julie's shrieking at the loss of her beloved pet sounds real enough.

Figgis shoots the build-up to the bird's death using a variety of master shots. The scene is one of controlled frenzy. Jean's and Miss Julie's destructive relationship, built on lust, guilt and mutual animosity, is coming to a head. They are about to elope and have stolen money from Miss Julie's father. She is an aristocrat, he a servant. The fact that Mullan is much shorter than Burrows seems to add to the attrition between them. As she stands in statuesque fashion by the bird cage, he circles round her in a fury. In take after take the duo goad each other remorselessly - their viciousness makes the George and Martha of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? seem best of friends. They don't know whether they love or loathe each other. As Strindberg puts it in his preface to the play (1888): "Miss Julie dreams up the idea of love to lessen her guilt feelings, and Jean thinks he could love her only if his social position had changed. Love, it seems to me, is like the hyacinth: it has to root in darkness before it can flower in light. In this play, it shoots up, blossoms, and withers in an instant, which is why it dies."

Figgis has created his own enclosed world. His set - a vast nineteenth-century kitchen and larder which takes up most of the sound stage - is out of bounds to all but the actors and a handful of key technicians. Onlookers sit outside it, watching a black-and-white monitor. The length of the shots and the fact that Figgis is shooting in sequence deceive us into thinking this is a real piece of drama. "It's my version of Dogma - British amateur night!" he quips when asked why he turned his back on Hollywood to make a low-budget melodrama at Elstree Studios in little over a fortnight.

Miss Julie started shooting only two months after the world premiere of Figgis' previous feature, The Loss of Sexual Innocence, which has yet to be released. This latter project was conceived more than 17 years ago and the director originally planned to mount it in a warehouse as an eight-hour multimedia stage show. It offers a version of the Adam and Eve myth while charting key events in the life of Nic (played as a teenager by Jonathan Rhys Meyers and as an adult by Julian Sands). Here Figgis eschews conventional three-act narrative, pares down the dialogue to a minimum and tells Nic's story in a fractured, impressionistic style. Locations range from a drab-looking Newcastle to northern Africa, from London to Italy. Certain sequences - for instance the moment when the model (Saffron Burrows) locks eyes with her doppelgänger - could be straight out of a late Kie‡lowski film. Much of what happens to Nic is based on Figgis' own experiences and he claims that the 'Nick Adams' stories by Hemingway were a key inspiration for how he structured the film.

Both Miss Julie and The Loss of Sexual Innocence are relatively small-scale undertakings, but Figgis still had problems getting them made. One studio passed on the latter after discovering that Figgis wanted Adam to be played by a black actor. "The producers told me everything was fantastic," remembers Figgis. "But there's one tiny detail... it's just about Adam. It's much better if he's white. Eve can be black." The head of distribution at the studio claimed (as Figgis puts it) "that the world wasn't ready to see a black man fucking a white woman." Figgis refused to compromise, and the financing, all in place, quickly unravelled.

Having made nine features, Figgis says he's tired of conventional film-making. Both new films - one subjective and free-flowing, the other a relatively faithful stage adaptation - are reactions against the typical narrative feature. In their preoccupations, though, neither is far removed from the director's earlier work. Figgis' remark about The Loss of Sexual Innocence could just as well be made about Miss Julie: "Thematically, it's the same as any film I have ever made. It's about relationships between men and women. We film-makers have few ideas but our obsessions are very singular."

When Figgis first thought of adapting Miss Julie for the screen Nicolas Cage and Juliette Binoche agreed to star. Cage was paid around $200,000 to make Leaving Las Vegas, but by the time Miss Julie was ready to go the actor's asking price had shot up to $22 million and Binoche herself had won an Oscar - hence the switch to the lower-profile Peter Mullan and Saffron Burrows.

As soon as the Miss Julie shoot finishes Figgis starts pre-production on his next film, a European co-production of Alberto Moravia's novel 1934. He is also editing the next issue of Faber's film magazine Projections, which will be based on interviews he conducted in Hollywood with 20 or so leading producers, actors and directors. During lunch, the cast and crew leave the set. Figgis stays behind to be interviewed. He sits at the head of the table over which, a few minutes ago, Miss Julie and Jean were berating each other.

Geoffrey Macnab: You originally planned to make 'Miss Julie' with Nic Cage and Juliette Binoche. How did that come about?

Mike Figgis: Juliette Binoche and I did a film for HBO in 1991, adapted from Henry Miller's Quiet Days at Clichy. It was a very nice half-hour film which HBO then fucked up, but the experience of working together was very strong, so we talked about finding another film. That was where the idea of doing Strindberg's Miss Julie came from. Helen Cooper had done a new translation which I read and liked. I encouraged her to be fairly radical in turning it into a screenplay. After Leaving Las Vegas I suggested it would be interesting for Nic Cage to do a relatively straight role. At that point, in order to deal with their accents, I wanted to set the film in Minnesota, in a Scandinavian community there, but during the same period.

How much did you know about the play?

I'd spent 15 years in theatre, but I never went to see things like Miss Julie or Shakespeare. So when I tackled Miss Julie I was starting more or less from scratch. Admittedly, I'd seen Bergman's stage production in Swedish, which I thought was hammy, not understanding the words. I found it very stagy - that kind of physical acting. And that was a production with Lena Olin and Peter Stormare (the actor from Fargo). I was shocked by how melodramatic it was.

What happened to Cage and Binoche?

Cage dropped out because he became so successful, so expensive, we could hardly even get hold of him or speak to his people. Then Binoche took on three projects back to back. She rang me up and said she'd bitten off more than she could chew and she didn't think she could do it. At that point the funding disappeared - New Line, who were supporting us, backed away with the charming speed of a retreating tank. It was an object lesson: you find out who your friends are. And at that point I didn't seem to have any. Everybody had said to me after Leaving Las Vegas that they would give me the money even if I wanted to direct the phone book. But suddenly they weren't interested. They said Miss Julie was too theatrical, too dramatic.

You're using a single set and shooting in sequence. Why did you place these constrictions on yourself?

I never wanted to 'open it up' - one can be cinematic in a defined space. And while I have no reverence for the text for its own sake, I have a real love affair with text as something that's an equal to visual imagery.

At one point, when the funding fell through, I thought I'd make the film for $200,000. I own my own camera, lenses and lights, and I thought I could call on favours and shoot it in ten days. In the light of Dogma, I felt that would have been no detraction. I almost feel a mission to go back to fundamental techniques - I'm appalled by the way people move cameras and by the debasement of the language of editing, which have had a horribly derogatory effect on storytelling. Everything is arbitrary - people feel like doing something, so they do it.

Why did you cast Peter Mullan?

After Cage dropped out I was looking around for a male lead when I saw My Name Is Joe. I'd obviously seen Peter before in very small roles, Trainspotting and things like that, but I wasn't aware of his power as a leading man. He was a godsend - he's not 22, but he's just dropped in from Mars in terms of his potential. I saw the film and rang Peter the same day. About three days later I had lunch with him and offered him the part - that was just before Christmas. I was going to drop the project, but then I reread it and had the feeling that if I didn't do it now, I would never do it. So I decided to go ahead.

What's your attitude towards the sexual politics of 'Miss Julie'?

Strindberg was clearly very hurt by his wife leaving him for another woman - he suffered from that. Perversely, he's a card-carrying misogynist who wrote the best plays about women. Miss Julie is as interestingly written a part as Jean. And the play is very well balanced and honest, complex and non-judgmental. My theory is that it's not misogynist.

One of the contradictions of sexual politics when it comes to art is the desire for women to be treated equally in terms of storytelling, but at the same time not to be treated badly. That's just not representative of how women are treated and male attitudes towards them. It almost takes a self-confessed misogynist to write honestly about how men feel about women. That spate of American films about 'guys speaking honestly' - films such as In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors - are theatrically and psychologically simplistic. Miss Julie is a bit more sophisticated.

Is 'Miss Julie' relevant to modern audiences?

The play was so far ahead of its time it still feels contemporary. Strindberg nails so many things about class which are appropriate to the British class system and the Thatcher era. Jean is a Thatcherite - he's happy to climb over the heads of his inferiors and equals but also detests Julie and her kind. Both sides have this love/hate in them that's almost impossible to transcend.

How do you deal with the suicide which ends the play?

What's interesting is how you arrive at the death. If that is over-simplified then the sacrificial ending, the suicide, doesn't work. To me, part of the ending is that Jean is the victim, not Miss Julie. One interpretation is that Miss Julie is on a suicide jag - she has already made up her mind and this is merely an interlude. Suicides don't decide on the spur of the moment to kill themselves because they shagged the footman. They shag the footman because they're suicidal and no longer care - that gives them the freedom to behave in a wider manner.

Given your own relationship with her, did you have any reservations about casting Saffron Burrows?

People would assume that if you're involved with someone it changes everything. So you've got to be seen to be above any kind of personal relationship. It's something all directors approach with caution - it's a minefield. Sometimes, when I'm having lunch, I think that if I'd been doing the film with Binoche and Cage, both Oscar-winners, it would have been a totally different thing. To me, it's a huge bonus to find actors who aren't really known, who don't come with a persona attached. You don't ask if Nic Cage is going to eat the cockroach or how he's going to kill the greenfinch.

What advantages does Super 16 - which you use on both your latest projects - give you?

I don't care for that clinical sharpness some people strive for - I actually like a bit of impressionism. Beyond that, the weight of the camera makes it a delight to use. I've just done a shot where I had the camera on a pad on my head - I wanted to look down on my two actors and I also wanted to move. You couldn't do a steadicam shot like that and otherwise you'd have to build a tower and put a dolly track on the tower, which would take about four hours to set up. Here I stood on the table, using it as the camera platform, and worked out a way of bracing my arms so there was no wobble - the camera was supported at three points, sitting on my head with two grips. You couldn't do that with 35mm - it would break your neck. I tried using a lightweight 35mm camera on One Night Stand and approaching it as if it was Super 16, but it didn't work.

You seem to have been shooting very long takes.

That's the joy of using Super 16, particularly the Aaton camera. We've been doing 14-minute takes and getting wonderful performances, proper performances, built up, not a series of set-ups. If you shoot long masters, varying it every time, the energy you get in the camera movement far outweighs the awkwardness. I think the audience would rather have the awkwardness, the energy and the reality of the performance than the sterility of a series of perfectly executed cuts.

A chamber piece like 'Miss Julie' seems a departure after something as experimental as 'The Loss of Sexual Innocence'. You claim Hemingway as a major influence on that film. What was your connection with him?

Hemingway crashed in Nairobi twice. The first time everybody thought he was dead and all his obituaries came out. The second time he burned his hands and ended up convalescing in a Nairobi hotel. He couldn't type and he was behind on his deadline to deliver an article to Life magazine. My mother was running an agency in Nairobi at the time and she worked as his assistant for two or three weeks. One of her jobs was to collate all his obituaries and put them in a scrapbook. She had a flirtatious relationship with him - he wrote to her from Havana, beautiful letters, even when he was quite ill, right until the end. He was my younger sister's godfather.

I grew up reading Hemingway. His early work was a huge influence, in particular the 'Nick Adams' stories, which are divided into reportage and stories. Fifteen years ago, at the time I was writing Short Stories - as The Loss of Sexual Innocence was then called - I remember thinking how boring film narrative seemed. Everything was based on the novel. There was a formulaic approach to storytelling, which may have been successful on a commercial level, but was incredibly limiting in other ways. Cinema had become a slave to the three-act structure, but the films I liked were the ones that didn't obey that kind of thing. So I decided to go ahead and write a piece based on the loose idea of a collection of stories by one author.

The through-line would have been a common psychology, with some characters, thinly disguised, coming and going, making it a sort of cheated autobiography - some of the stories were definitively autobiographical and others weren't. The original script was far more complex too - some of the stories were to be half filmed, half performed. It was very nice 15 years later to be in possession of this script which had been written by myself as a young person. Although it was naïve in some ways, there was a freshness you can't duplicate now.

Given your previous experiences with films such as 'Mr Jones' and the resistance you encountered from the studios to both 'Miss Julie' and 'The Loss of Sexual Innocence', how do you regard present-day Hollywood?

I'm not disgusted with Hollywood, just realistic about what it is. The problem isn't Hollywood or the independent market - it's about how much money you're expecting to earn. There's the potential as a successful film director to earn between $1 million and $7 million per film. Directors are becoming stars now - I shudder to think what somebody like Michael Bay is earning. So directors coming out of film schools or commercials or going to Hollywood having made a moderately successful British film have in their minds the mathematical possibility of becoming a very rich person very quickly. It's the oldest temptation in the book. How hard is it to say no to that? How easy is it to delude yourself you're doing good work in the studio system?

The answer is, why bother? If you want to do good work, why give yourself all those heartaches when actually, as the Dogma people have also proved, you can make a film for virtually nothing if you're passionately interested in film-making as opposed to passionately interested in becoming a rich film-maker. I don't think it gets any simpler than that.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012