"IT'S LIKE A THEME PARK WITHOUT A HEART"
Mike Figgis Interviewed by Carol Allen
Yes, I'm delighted and shocked for the film and a little bit kind of snowed under emotionally, because I made the film as a low budget picture, shot it on Super 16, everybody did it for scale and all that and I actually thought it would perform well at say Cannes and would probably get two cinemas in NY and one in LA and then do the college circuit and pretty much the same here so when it started to take off in America, which was during the summer, when they were doing little previews and things I was really amazed and have continued to be so and as we now lead up to the Oscars and so everybody asks; well, I suppose you're getting really excited about the Oscars and I say, no I'm not, I didn't expect any of this and I'm trying to keep a context of why we made the film, not wanting to be a boy scout or be too pious about it but, let me put it another way, I'm glad I'm here working on a low budged documentary while all this happens, rather than sitting in LA twiddling my thumbs and waiting for another accolade.
People do modestly say - awards don't matter - but certainly with all these nominations it is almost certainly Nicholas Cage is going to get nominated for an Oscar, the film may get other nominations as well. The thought of winning an Oscar must give you a buzz.
Somebody asked me this yesterday and I had to think about it so I've worked out an answer which is that you sort of set out to paint a horse, to do this painting of a horse and somebody says, by the way, we've entered the horse in a horse race so it's actually got legs now and you go, oh I just wanted the painting and go, but that's exciting, that's an exciting event and that's like what I say about being here, as long as you can keep your perspective, like, yeah, I'm going to go to the Golden Globes, I've never been to anything like that before, I'll enjoy it, because if it wins, that'll be terrific, if it loses it will have been an interesting event to be part of, and that's about it really.
But in fact this is likely to be the
film, certainly for the immediate future, that you will most be associated
with. Mike Figgis? Oh yes you mean the director of Leaving Las Vegas.
Yes.The thing is everything works from several levels. In terms of the result of the notoriety of the film, you're suddenly getting offered a lot of scripts and meetings with high powered people in the film industry which you haven't had since Internal Affairs came out, so I've been through this once before. On a much more practical and useful level the things that I want to do and that I've been working on for the last ten years, five, three years or whatever it is are suddenly becoming feasible, not as difficult to buy the book or set up the finance, whether it's medium, low or even bigger finance, so on a practical level it's very useful to me because as long I don't get hysterical and get things out of proportion this is quite a good time to do business.
I was talking a few weeks ago to Tom Dicillo of Living in Oblivion and he said, interviewers never ask him about the dead bits between films. Have you had those dead bits?
No because I didn't make a film until I was 38. Before that I'd done about 15 years non-stop touring in experimental theatre and then when I started to make films, and I'd trained as a musician so I have my music and I write and if I'm not directing a film I'll work on a script. I've never had a problem with ideas or filling my time but I do know - I read an article by Mike Radford in which he said that, the first time he met Bertolucci, Bertolucci said; you don't know what it's like to have five dead years between films, do you know what a tragedy that is for a filmmaker; and Michael then had five dead years and was writing about that. And for someone who is a director and that's their job I think that's a really really tough position to be in but I've never been in that position because I do other things as well.
So even though you might have difficulty as every filmmaker does in raising money for the next project, you just get on with something else?
The fact of the matter is that since I made Stormy Monday there's not really been a month when I haven't been involved literally in the making of a film at quite an advanced stage, either the final stages of fund-raising or writing or post production or whatever and some film's take a helluva long time to make. Mr Jones took two and a quarter years, that occupied my time.
If it hadn't been for the fact that Leaving Las Vegas has got all these nominations and the buzz is good, it might well have been regarded as one of the three Las Vegas films, we've got Showgirls opening around the same time and Casino coming up. Las Vegas seems to have grabbed filmmakers' imagination in some way.
Let's put this in perspective. Three films deal with Las Vegas, which is really the issue. I believe that Scorsese shot the bulk of his film in Las Vegas. I know that Paul Verhoeven shot very little of his film in Las Vegas. I was allowed to film there for three nights because of the restrictions on permissions and so on. They didn't like my script. I would say probably 30 or 40 films that we know of were shot in Los Angeles or about LA, no-one would even comment on that. I'm sure a huge number of films were shot in NY and certainly the bulk of all TV. I think it's a kind of convenient publicity thing to say; oh what's all this with Las Vegas, does this represent a cultural trend, should be looking at Las Vegas in cultural/socio/economic terms, it is the fastest growing city in the United States and are we seeing something, a grass roots artistic whatever? and I think it's bullshit, I really do. I found a book that happened to take place in Las Vegas and went there and tried to shoot it and I don't know of any other films that are filming there and I can understand why. It is the most deadly boring place on earth?
Why do you say that? Because everyone's just interested in gambling?
If that were the case, if everyone were interested in gambling, gamblers are interesting people, it probably would be one of the more fascinating towns on earth. I'm sure Monte Carlo in it's day was fascinating and Reno, and I think Vegas probably in the 50s was fascinating. Right now it's like a theme park without a heart that attracts...it's sort of like Benidorm. What Benidorm is for the UK, and the Americans don't want to travel outside of their country for a Benidorm so I think the way things become naturally what you need, lower middle America needs Vegas. There's nothing high about it. I thought it would be tough, sexy, glamorous and dangerous and would have a kind of smell of cordite in the air so to speak. It wasn't. It definitely has a smell of triple MacBurger, the biggest, fattest people I've ever seen in my life and the economy in fact revolves around not high rollers but people putting 25 cents into slots on such a scale so that one casino area would be size of a huge football field with as many slot machines as you can get in and allow people to walk around, given the bulk, the size of the people.
So the best thing you can do in Las Vegas is leave it, so let's talk about the film. How did the project come your way?
A friend of mine, Stuart Regen, who's a gallery owner, bought the book in a second hand book shop because he liked the graphics - he's interested in art basically and he was attracted to the graphics on the cover - read the book, liked it, met author John O'Brien and optioned it himself. He brought the book to me, I was in post-production on a film called Mr Jones at a major studio. About two years into this project of endless re-shoots and not the ideal thing for a filmmaker, and I found myself dreaming of low-budget, European style projects with a very small crew and people doing it for scale money, and so this book came, I read it, I said, I think it's really brilliant, there's not a studio in the world would give you the money for this, it's too dark, we might just about get away with it if we make it a really low budget picture and I said then and there, Super 16, I'll do it for nothing, for points and we'll try to get the kind of actors who'll do it for nothing as well.
Cut to about 18 months later and that's what we did. OK, Elisabeth Shue is not terribly well-known to the general public but she is established, Nicholas Cage is frankly a star, I'm coming to the rest of the cast in a minute.
How did you get such a high calibre cast?
The second major film I made was Internal Affairs and pretty consistently since then I've worked in America, I came back and did The Browning Version, I did a small film in France and I've made some documentaries here, but most of the features have been in America and in that time I've established, I say this modestly, a reputation of being an actor's director. I've met a lot of actors and even though my films haven't been dramatically financially successful other than Internal Affairs, they've had the kind of response from actors and certain critics that I don't have a problem getting actors to meet me for example any more and they also know that I give actors probably a lot more room than a lot of other directors do and I was an actor myself and I understand and am sympathetic to them as people. In that time if you work in Los Angeles, it is like a village and after about two years you've pretty much have met all of the actors, whether it's Michael Douglas or Jack Nicholson or Nick Cage or Elisabeth Shue, I'd met them all before. I decided on this film not to go through a standard casting agency, just to make phone calls myself, cos I didn't have the money for the film.
I didn't raise the money until I'd written the script, cast the film, done a schedule and done a budget. So I personally rang Nicholas's agent who's sort of a friend because he's also Richard Gere's agent, and said; please read this. I have no money but would you give it to Nicholas and he did that and Nicholas rang me straight away and said - I will make the film. I said - there's no money. I'll tell you right now, I told you it was low budget, but it's not even low budget, it's no budget. He said - it's ok, we don't have to talk about money, I'll do it, just let me know when and I'll clear some time. The other thing that was great for them was I said, it'll take probably just three weeks of your time. It's a four week shoot and I don't need you for the entire shoot and that was attractive to them as well. I rang Elisabeth personally, took her for a cup of coffee a year before we made the film and I said, I can't offer you the film, I'm not God and I can't guarantee the backers will go with you but I'll make it my business to make them go with you, which is eventually what I did. I said, here's my package, Nick Cage, Elisabeth Shue, me, a three and a half million dollar budget, four week shoot, I have final cut and I do the music and that's not negotiable - take it or leave it.
And this was to the guys who were putting up the money?
This was to everyone in Hollywood, one at a time, all of them basically said "Nice to meet you. Goodbye."
Who put up the money in the end?
The French. Lumiere.
So Hollywood really had nothing to do with this one.
Absolutely nothing to do with it. Only in retrospect in that MGM/United Artists picked it up and they did a highly intelligent marketing job, the best marketing job I've ever seen on anything I've ever been involved with.
Coming back to the other actors, Julian Sands, who's had a very up and down career, gives a first class performance in this.
I have very special feelings about him. I look at Julian and I think, this is not a conventional actor, this is not Gary Oldman, this is not one of the other young Brit packers who's doing American or whatever. People either like him or they don't like him. I've known him for a long time from the old performance art days he used to hang around at the Oval and there was a connection there through workshops and things like that. I've done two films with him now, he was in The Browning Version in which I thought he had the most thankless role probably, a good role but so unsympathetic and odd and angular and I thought he was fantastic, I thought he was really brilliant in the film and people, said, "Oh no," and I said, "you mustn't confuse the fact that you don't like the character with a fine assessment of acting ability" which is what Julian Sands gave us in that film and he and his wife became really good friends of mine, and the part that he does was actually written for an Arab and doing a low budget picture in Hollywood there aren't that many Arabic actors and I was having a bit of problem. I also wanted the film to proceed very very quickly if possible through my own connections - I could just pick up a phone, as I did, and say, "Julian I've got a part of an Arab, I've changed him to a Latvian Mafia with you in mind, because of your colouring, do you want to do it?" and he just said, "yes", and I said, "Ok I'll send you the script" and that was the end of that.
As you say, you've made a lot of friends, met a lot of people in Hollywood. There are a number of guest artists in this film, mates, Bob Rafelson, Julian Lennon, Laurie Metcalf. They'll come and do it for fun as it were?
For nothing, yeah. I paid them scale, whatever that is, the bus fare. I've discovered that musicians and actors, more than anything else, although we'd all like to be very rich and have a nice car and a house or two, but what we all want to do is good work. Musicians want to play and play really well with other good musicians and actors are exactly the same and on a picture like this where your pretension is quite clear, you're trying to a big gang busting film, you're just doing - you're heart is definitely on your sleeve, so for me to ring up Laurie Metcalf and she's doing Roseanne at the time and she said "I'd love to do it," but I've got this quite busy schedule so I said, tell me when your days off are, and she told me and I went back to the line producer and said, "OK, these are her days off so let's schedule it round her for this part," and that's what we did with everybody. I just said, "look I'll make it work for you, let me know when you're available and I'll try and fit it in."
All this money watching, flexibility whatever, sounds like making a low budget British film rather than our perception of an American movie.
There is no difference, absolutely, nor should there be.
But there obviously was for example with Mr Jones - that was big budget, went on for two and a half years...
Groans from Mike. Yeah, sure and with a flexi budget - starts at 18 million and I think ended up at about 45 by the time the re-shoots and publicity had finished. Where that kind of money is involved, you know, by definition you're going to have to deal with "the money men" - you have to, you'd be foolish to assume otherwise, I realise now, and once you cross a certain barrier with money, there's no way in the world that you can really, other than by being grossly naive, that you can expect the kind of artistic controls that you'd like to have on a film and what I wanted to do with this was to prove that - let's find the bottom line for a budget, where the film still looks fantastic i.e. nothing has suffered on the screen, it looks delicious you know.The acting's fantastic, the post production is completely professional, it doesn't sound like a television film, it's in stereo, the film goes through the gate the way it's supposed to and it looks like you - that thing low budget pictures sometimes have when you know they didn't have enough footage and they've gone to stock shots and things like that and you suddenly become aware of the poverty of the film I wanted it not quite hit that point - and prove a point to other filmmakers as well as myself.
Don't want to go on about budgets too much but is this effectively in real terms the lowest budget film you've shot?
In terms of films that have been released to a mainstream audience, yes, probably because allowing for inflation and the scope of the film Stormy Monday was after all shot in Newcastle, it was a contained location, I knew virtually everybody in Newcastle and could through friendships or whatever persuade them to give us things for nothing. I didn't know anyone in Las Vegas and so we shot in Los Angeles and Las Vegas and the desert and in cars and underwater and I think there was something like 38 locations, so yeah, it was the lowest budget.
You are yourself an ex actor. You pop up in this movie as a mobster and as Red Mullet, a performer on a poster. Do you usually do this Hitchcock thing?
I was in Internal Affairs, played an art dealer. I got beaten up by Andy Garcia. I made the bomb in Stormy Monday and did the weather forecast on the car radio. I was in Liebestraum but I cut myself out to show willing, when they asked for reductions. I wasn't in Mr Jones or The Browning Version.
But were your nuns, another of your trademarks.
Always have nuns, I don't know why. I find the costume so mystical and it's the one thing that you never question, wherever you are in the world, if you see a nun it wouldn't be a problem. If it were in Zaire, Calcutta, Brazil, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, there always are nuns. There's always this point where the first assistant says, with your extras, what do you want - policemen, firemen? And I always say, nuns, give me three nuns.Then what is beautiful is the variety of outfits that nuns wear.There's grey ones, the wimples are different, there's the cheesy type ones, the ones that Sister George talks about that are like bats with the huge headpieces. Shorter skirts, longer skirts, black shoes.
Where were they in your other movies?
I can't remember, but they are there. They got cut out of Mr Jones unfortunately. There was a very nice scene where the set's first aid person, the medic and quite a character and he dressed up as a nun - and that's another thing, because they're so asexual you can't tell, if there's not a beard.
What about the book and the author, John O'Brien? Semi-autobiographical so presumably the main character and O'Brien are part of the same person almost?
Well they seem to have become that. It was quite a mysterious process, because John O'Brien killed himself as we went into pre-production, because his particular path had come to an end. He was a serious alcoholic and a brilliant writer and he went completely sober while he wrote the book and then went right back into the booze, his wife left him and he went downhill very quickly and I think he had an accident which involved a pedestrian, who wasn't killed or particularly maimed or anything but in American the litigation is so serious I think that contributed in a way to his mental anguish and he basically tidied up his apartment and put his affairs in order.
I actually met a lawyer whom he'd met in a bar the Friday before he killed himself and he'd asked the lawyer if he wouldn't mind coming in on his day off on Saturday to do a will and the guy said, no I'll come in on Monday, and he killed himself on the Sunday. He'd signed off on the book. We'd never met. We communicated though Stuart Regen and he said, I have no problem, I like Mike's work, no problem with him doing the script, I don't want to do the script. I'd like to meet Mike afterwards, we were about to meet, so it's very very sad and it was an event which stopped me in my tracks but by then definitely the wheels were turning but it made me realise as if I didn't know already, how serious the story was.
Then we made the film and during the filming his family, his father, mother, sister and his wife came to visit me from Ohio on the set while we were actually shooting one of the difficult scenes. It was really an incredibly emotional day because they came on the set, I saw these people and I immediately realised who they were although I hadn't known they were coming on that day and we were watching a take on a monitor, it was in a very small room, and I was outside the room, the set of the room, watching the thing on headphones and a monitor, so we did sign language and I gave them seats, and I was still watching the monitor and I said, give them some headphones and the mother put headphones on and she started crying, she took the headphones off, gave them to the daughter, his sister, she started crying and then suddenly we were all standing there bawling and apparently Nicholas spoke exactly like their son, John O'Brien, and also physically looked very like him and I think they must have been fairly devastated, because they hadn't had a proper funeral and they hadn't said goodbye to him and they wrote to me afterwards and said that the visit had in a way been incredibly painful and emotional but at the same time had given them a kind of closure to the whole thing which they'd felt had been lacking up to that point.
Was he roughly the same age as Nicholas Cage?
Yes, he was about 34 I think.
If you tell somebody the story in a line it sounds really sordid, about an alcoholic who's drinking himself to death in Las Vegas and who has a relationship with a prostitute. The film is not sordid, not even always downbeat, it's very tragic and moving, it's also quite funny in places and basically very life-enhancing.
Totally. It's a tragic love story but it is ultimately a love story and I think although the genre is Vegas and the time is the 90s I think it - that's what I liked about the book, it has all the characteristics of say a late 19th Century romantic novel that you would expect to be set in Moscow or Paris or something, or let's say, in my opinion, the best of American writing from the 20s, the sort of existential Hemingway or Fitzgerald kind of quality and that's what I liked in the book and I thought it would be really nice to do a contemporary story like that, because you don't see them any more and if you did a four line precis of many of those books they would also sound very sordid now.
And the main character and indeed the character of the alcoholic per se, there is something fascinating and charismatic about self destruction, particularly as in this case when it's without self pity.
Again that was the element in his character that I thought was fantastic, very like a European character if you like, not typical of an American character who would be full of a) remorse, b) contrition, c) self-awareness and self piety or whatever. A lot of scriptwriting for central characters has become rather priggish and pompous I think and with all kinds of buttons built in so that audiences get A, B, C and D, payoffs in sequential and obvious kind of format and this didn't obey any of those things. He sailed through, there isn't a particularly explicitly back story about what he was, there are just indications of what he was and that's all you need in a film I think.
Do you find you have an attraction to a character like this. Like other alcoholic characters - Brendan Behan, Dylan Thomas, Falstaff/Robert Stephens - there is something very charismatic.
I'm not attracted to those characters because I always feel that if I met them in a bar I'd end up with my mouth shut in a corner being bombarded by the shell of a once great man with all the compensatory alcoholic attributes. It actually gives me the hab dabs, I run a mile - my antenna is very finely tuned. On the other hand a character like Albert Finney's in the Browning Version, who's not dissimilar to this, there's a sort of stoicism and stoicism has a huge range and I think stoicism is an immensely attractive and manly or womanly characteristic.
There's something very heroic and brave about it, the idea that you will deal with your own shit in your way and you will not inflict it on other people. The choice of the character to go to Las Vegas, which is the armpit of America, and die there by himself is actually ultimately a very heroic choice. It's very unpublic. And by accident meets someone who seems determined to fall in love with him against all of his plans. That's what makes the story interesting, the combination of the stoicism in the main character and then that kind of Maupassant type coincidence that derails your resolve for the moment - those two elements alone are under used now in story telling.
As he says at one point, you mustn't try and save me, you can't save me, and she has to accept that, so she has to learn a sort of stoicism as well.
And she's already in a way stoic, but she's never had to focus it in terms of somebody else. He's already been through a relationship, she hasn't had a real relationship that we know of. Are you stoic?
Yeah I think so. Perhaps it's an unstoic thing to say. The stoic answer would be - I don't know. But I admire that, I would aim at being one, sure.
Because all your theatrical features apart from Browning Version have been made in the States I thought you'd relocated to the States. Were you living there for a long time?
No, I worked there and given that filmmaking is a peripatetic occupation.There's only Mike Leigh who would choose to say "I live in North London, I'm going to make my films in North London, I'm not even going to Newcastle" - although he did venture out say to Manchester for Naked or a bit of it, but ultimately he brings his characters back to his home area. Most of us really go wherever the script says we should go. And I've made one in Los Angeles, upstate New York, Dorset, Newcastle and now I've made one in Las Vegas. I plan to make one in Sweden and so on but in answer to your question I've constantly lived in North London for the last 20 years. I just happen to work over there.
Are you dug in with the establishment in Hollywood or are you a visiting fireman?
No there's an interesting thing about the establishment there. Like all highly evolved working cultures there are unspoken and unwritten rules. In order to be fully accepted by that culture you have to demonstrate by buying a house within the city walls basically and joining a few appropriate clubs and saying, I am now here, I am now an honorary film maker of the Los Angeles school, and if you do that then you sort of in a way have joined a club, an old boys' network. If you don't do that it's notlike you won't get a job or anything. It's just your not quite thought of as being there. The British community thought that I lived there. The L.A. community thought I lived here. So I was sort of somewhere in jet between the two of them.
Talking about the music which is a very important part of the film and you did the score yourself. Does this go back to your theatrical background, the importance of music as an element in the storytelling?
My training is as a musician, my ambition was always musical initially and then I sort of, probably as a coincidence of the time, this being the early 70s, fell into experimental theatre because I initially liked the possibilities of what I could do with music and then I almost by accident became a performer, actor, whatever you call it. I carried on doing my music and I never separated the two, they were to me the same thing, just different facets, so when I started making films it never even crossed my mind that there was anything unusual in carrying on doing the music as it was the same thing.
And it was only when I got to Hollywood.....Stormy Monday was a low budgeted picture so it was convenient for everyone that I did the music and everybody liked it. I then did Internal Affairs - after a bit of a struggle did the music for that, everybody loved it and then I made, first of all a film for HBO with Juliette Binoche Mara and then Mr Jones in which I came up against a total brick wall from the studio who said No we categorically don't want you to do the music, not because we like or dislike you as a musician, just because that is our function and our right and we control the music, so I wrote a score for Mara. It was just ripped off and replaced without consultation, I'd negotiated the right to do the score for Mr Jones. I was fired on first available date as composer and replaced and I'd negotiated the right to do the music on The Browning Version and was fired on the first available date on that as well, so when I made Leaving Las Vegas, probably the most crucial issue, along with final cut, was I do the music, it's not negotiable and I don't have to consult with anybody else. It is to me psychologically the most important factor in a film, once you've made the film, in post production is the colour of the film.
If you see a film before the music's been put on and then afterwards, you realise what a difference it makes.
Night and day. And it can go one way or it can go another way. And most people in studios know absolutely nothing about film there's a Freudian slip! - about music one can argue they know very little about film either. The study of music compared to the study of film, again, film is an art form in its infancy, it's relatively technically a very simple art form. It's not as complex as painting for example. Personally I don't need as much skill as a film director as I would do if I was a portrait painter. Or if I was a musician, so the ability to create music is far more complex than the ability to create a film and yet an arbitrary will be made by a studio about; Oh John Williams will do the score.There's never a question about is John Williams the appropriate psychological person to understand this material. He's just a successful composer.To me this was the biggest stumbling block in my entire life and it was the thing that sort of drove me mad eventually.
What was your musical aim on Las Vegas?
My musical aim was to support the character of Ben, basically. I felt there were certain key conversations I had with Nick Cage about Miles Davis, particularly an album called Kind of Blue as being in a way the thing that Ben listened to in the car.
Another track, the Michael Macdonald track, 'Lonely Teardrops', I said that's his character and I'd written a theme for the Browning Version which got thrown out and I was very fond of it, it was very evocative and I tried it very early on, I played it to Nick and Elisabeth and I said, I'm thinking of this as a theme for the two of you, as a kind of as your love for each other and they both said, Oh that explains something to us and a couple of times they said, would you play that again on the piano and I played it for them, made a tape, The Miles Davis idea, I couldn't afford Miles Davis and I didn't particularly want to use him because we talked about the idea but in the use of the trumpet and the keys and things like that it was very much a kind of nod at the feeling of Miles Davis and I just wanted to keep - I know how powerful music is and I wanted to keep that intensity going with his character, which for an actor is very useful if you know that you're doing that or he knows that I'm doing that because it means that he can lay back sometimes, he doesn't have to be doing the thing that often British actors do which is demonstrating all the skills of emotion all the time on the sleeve. He can lay back.
You use Sting a lot on this soundtrack. Were you friends from your rock'n'roll days in Newcastle or was that because of Stormy Monday.
Sting and I didn't know each other although we knew of each other because I played in a band up there with Bryan Ferry as Sting was coming up. We became very very good friends after Stormy Monday and have kept in touch and we see each other a couple of times a year and socially and I know his wife very well and he knows my wife and so I was at his birthday party just after I'd finished shooting and he said, "Tell me about your new film" and I told him about it and he said, "Are you doing the music?" and I said "Yes I am and I've got an idea, I'd like to use 30s ballads, 40s ballads with that very sophisticated sort of lyric, a couple I have in mind," and I said, "you know, and do them very very simply, just with piano maybe" and I casually said, "would you be interested" and he said, "I'd love to, I love that stuff" and he rang me a week later and said, "if you're serious about that, we have to do it this week, because I'm going on tour and I won't be available for another six months", so I went to his house, I got a pianist and a bass player and we recorded them all in an afternoon in his front room basically and he gave them to me and it's about 1.2 million dollars worth of Sting if I were going shopping on the market, and he just said, "you can have them."
Fact checking. Born 1948 so presumably 47, born in Kenya.
No born in Carlisle, went to Kenya immediately at about three months.
But came back to Newcastle when you were a small child, about 8. Got very heavily into Rock n roll...
Well I was really a jazz musician. My father was crazy about Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong and that was my education basically. My musical education was totally saturated traditional jazz, mainstream jazz background and that's why I started playing the trumpet. What I wanted to be was Louis Armstrong, and when I was about 16 jazz was not happening but rock and roll and blues was and in a very good way and I started hanging out with young musicians and I ended up playing in rock'n'roll bands and then blues bands, Bryan Ferry and so on. I did that for a couple of years while I was going to college and learning music and then I worked in a free jazz ensemble doing very experimental music as well so I didn't really - those things are being played up, the Bryan Ferry, but in fact it was quite a small period.
The largest period was actually touring theatre, the People Show and that was experimental theatre.
Totally, really really experimental, very very good. Actually incredible work.
As you said earlier, you were about 34 when you made your first film?
No much more, I was in my late 30s. Stormy Monday was only '88 or something, '87.
So you were around 40 then?
Yes it's nine years ago, I was in my late 30s.
Because you never had a formal training in film, in fact all those who've been rejected by the National Film School take comfort, Mike was one of them. So how did you learn film - on the job?
I remember coming out of the interview for the National Film School and this will be heartening for students who have been rejected. I'd thought I was the ideal student to be in the sense that I'd done at that point 10 years of absolutely intense touring and I was an actor, I'd directed, I'd done lighting, props, I knew all of the nuts and bolts of practical theatre making and just wanted to extend and go into film because I was technically very interested.
Came up against this very hostile panel at the time who I think were very nervous about the fact that I came from experimental theatre and possibly even felt a little threatened by - they said things like, "what makes you think there's a connection between the kind of theatre you've been doing and mainstream filmmaking?" and I said, "I think it's the same thing, it's all drama, it's all theatre". No, no, no, you just don't understand.
And I'd sent them a home movie that I'd done on Super 8 of my family, They'd said "anything you've shot show us." And they basically tore it to pieces. I remember one very famous cameraman, whom I shan't mention, saying very cynically, "You seem to think filmmaking's all about zoom in close ups of roses dripping with rain and children running around" and I thought, wait a minute, you asked me to send you, that's the only thing I've shot. And as I left the interview, they hadn't said "no," but I had the feeling that it had gone badly and I think David Puttnam said to me, "well if you don't get in what are you going to do?" I said, "oh I'll make a film anyway," and somebody said, "but you've just told us you've never used a 16 mm camera" and I made the fatal mistake of saying, "it can't be that difficult," which I think probably clinched any idea they had. And I then did, I raised £5,000 from a Dutch theatre called the Nickory(?) theatre and I shot a 40 minute 16 mm which I incorporated into a theatre piece, but that was the first practical film I'd ever shot.
You did make a film for Channel 4 but your first theatrical feature was Stormy Monday in 1988. That did better in US than here. It was set in Newcastle, had Sting in it, also Tommy Lee Jones, Melanie Griffith and a very strong American story element. Did you have your eye on the States when you made that?
Not at all. In fact I would counter that by saying it actually had a very very strong English story in it, a realistic story and this actually happened after I made the film that a large section of the waterfront area of central Newcastle was bought up by an American conglomerate and a local Englishman, Sting, who owned a night-club was a thorn in their side.
And so then it created the possibility of having a little thriller. But the issues were completely English.The lady mayoress, played by Alison Steadman, was a Thatcherite who ended up talking to a gangster who was a Reaganite. I thought it was a very funny appropriately British cynical comedy which happened to be a thriller, and was pretty much seen that way in America.They didn't buy it as an American film for a moment, they thought it was a science fiction, because these American elements were completely wrong of course and rather cartoon like, and I was really dismayed and not ultimately surprised that the reviews in this country picked up on the fact, oh trying to make an American film, Alexander Walker "The most blatant calling card to Hollywood in the history of contemporary British cinema" - I was very hurt by all of that, really hurt, because I felt I'd actually made quite a gritty English film and there were two actors in it who were Americans and the whole point was they were misplaced, they were grafted in in a very crude way in the story as the characters were and I thought that was appropriate and if anyone who knows Glasgow and Newcastle or Liverpool, not so much London, certainly recognised the Americanisation of those cities and thought it was appropriate.
Was that how Internal Affairs came about, because the Americans liked it and said, yeah get this guy.
No, initially I was offered a low budget noir film set in Texas, which I got as far as pre-production and then it collapsed for various sad reasons. I then read the script for Internal Affairs and thought, wow, there's a great story, I don't care where it's set, there's an honest Shakespearean story there of jealousy and sexual tension and greed and corruption.
Those scripts do not grow on trees. I have not read another one like that since. I've read a lot of imitations of Internal Affairs but nothing as good as that. And I went in and fought tooth and nail. There were three other American directors in line for that film, all of whom thought they had it sewn up and I went in and they'd seen Stormy Monday but they made no mistake about the fact that this was a low budget first time English director who'd not really cut his teeth on anything serious and I had to go into Paramount five times they flew me over to go in and take really tough meetings and prove to senior executives, who humiliated me in certain ways, basically to see if I had the strength to stand up to them and if I would falter under fire I think. And I fought tooth and nail to get that, there was nothing easy about it.
Since then your main theatrical features like Liebestraum, Mr Jones, Browning Version, the critics haven't been terribly kind to them. Now this film Leaving Las Vegas, we can be pretty sure it's going to be like, the perception of you is going to have changed. What sort of view do you have on all that?
Completely detached on the one hand and completely emotional on the other. I'm now 47 so one can say for 27 years I've studied like an A student the workings of the British critical faculty and I find it very lacking, I find it wanting. It's time they changed the water and I don't think it represents a) what an audience thinks, not that it necessarily needs to pander to an audience but I think it's out of touch.
Of course for every bad review you also get a good review, maybe the proportions change, maybe you get 10 bad ones and one good one and I've got to the point now where I try not to read any of them because Polanski's quite right, if you believe the good ones you have to believe the bad ones too, but I find them very unconstructive.
I feel that critics have a function which is that they are part of the process, they're not detached, they're not outsiders, they are responsive.You look at the history of art.The role of the critic, whatever one called it at any given time has always been a very very strong and important one. The ability to recognise things as they emerge and so on. So in answer to your question I've already seen for example in America a very graphic way the response to this film and I've seen a very graphic way the response to the other films and I don't know what I think anymore. I know that this is a good film, I know that the story's very appealing and that the actors are very warm and that therefore one can get into the story in a very graphic way and that helps but sometimes I've felt a little bit lonely I must say trying to be a film maker and trying to develop and often having to read, sometimes accidentally on a plane or something something that is so hurtfully personal and unnecessarily cruel and beyond the remit of just intellectual criticism.
Does what you say about British critics apply to American critics too?
Of course it does, but not in the same way to me because I'm not American and they treat me differently because I'm an outsider to them and whether you like it or not I am British and it's a bit like having parents, you know, you have a child and you would like them to like your child, your parents and one feels the same way about the establishment here, I'd like to be proud of being British. I don't want to be a comfortable member of the middle class of the art establishment, I don't think that's healthy for anybody, but at the same time - I'll give you an example. The film, as you pointed out, has just won in very quick succession a rather phenomenal number of awards in America. Emma Thompson's also done very very well. If it's an Emma Thompson story there's "Brits sweep awards" and if it's not Emma Thompson they either say nothing or there's a photograph of a pig and in very small print at the bottom they may happen to mention Nicholas Cage in passing or me in passing.
In fact I rang up Jonathan (publicity man) the other day and said, I'm just asking as a point of information really, people do know I'm English do they? Or do they think I'm an American now, or do they assume I've always been an American because I made Internal Affairs or something. Not that it's the end of the world or one thing or another it's just that sometimes it's almost, what do you have to do here to get the kind of recognition that other people get and then get dumped on.
Kenneth Branagh being an example of, poor bugger, of having to go from being Orson Welles please move over to suddenly being not a newsbite any more.
Currently in post production on TV documentary about American choreographer William Forsythe of the Frankfurt Ballet His next film is being made for New Line. It's based on a Joe Eszterhas script which Mike is currently "polishing", is called One Night Stand and he hopes to start shooting in the US in April. After that he is planning a film of Miss Julie starring Juliette Binoche and possibly Nicholas Cage. It may be made in Sweden, but if he uses Cage he is considering transferring the story to Milwaukee.
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