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Mike Figgis uncut

Digital democracy and the death of Hollywood

Mike Figgis

You might have missed it (it was only a little thing, after all) but the director Mike Figgis gave an interview to the NS two weeks ago about the future of film. It ends with what is perhaps my single favourite quote from the arts pages - if not ever, then certainly of the last year or so:

Simple question: what's a cinema? Is it the Rex or the Odeon, with bad sugar-laden food on sale in the lobby, a place you don't really want to hang out in for long afterwards? Or is it a club, an interesting space you've converted to show films?" All you need now is a half-decent projector, a couple of decent Bose speakers and whatever you want for your source. It can be a Quicktime film. It can be a tape, or a DVD, depending on how high your quality needs to be. Or it can come off your hard disk. So, what's a cinema? And do you have to own it?

Figgis, if you don't know, directed a few (just about) conventional Hollwood films - including Leaving Las Vegas and Miss Julie - before delving into all manner of forward thinking projects; experiments in digital film, setting up the industry website Shooting People and generally working to turn cinema into an everyday, democratic art form rather than a product we're supposed to just sit back and consume. When I spoke to him, he talked about way more than I could fit into the NS pages, so here is a choice extract from the transcript:

NS: Does the current economic crisis present an opportunity for film-makers?

Figgis: I know that most artists I've spoken to in all genres recently have all welcomed it. There's an attitude that maybe we can clear out some of the detritus. It's quite interesting recently, in a number of newspaper articles, critics have started to express real dismay at the latest crop of films. It's like lines have been crossed, in terms of bad taste and the desire to shock for the sake of shocking.

NS: What films in particular do you mean?

F: This trend of, let's say, juvenile American male fart-wank-and-sex-obsessed films.

NS: Films in the vein of American Pie, that sort of thing?

F: Yes, that used to be a mildly amusing offshoot of what was on offer. It's now become the mainstream. And when you talk to studio executives, you can see that it also reflects their taste, which tells us something about the kind of people who are running the studios and writing - when someone like Judd Apatow is described as "the smartest guy in Hollywood", by which they mean the richest, then you know things are not in great shape.

NS: Perhaps this is why Hollywood is now reported to be in decline?

F: The buzzword in Hollywood is "3D" - like that's going to save the planet from extinction. Like that's going to save the industry! Why don't you consider just making a decent film for an option?

Hollywood has sadly never been capable of seeing innovation as anything but an aberration from the norm. When I made Leaving Las Vegas and shot it on 16mm, no-one inside the industry was prepared to take that as an option. Now of course they're all bitching "we're going to lose film, we're going to lose film". And now finally they're looking at super 16 as a viable way of saving some aspect of film making on celluloid.

NS: Does the Hollywood system act as a barrier to democracy - both in the art and the ideas expressed?

F: It's interesting what's happened, it's almost like the way pollution takes place. There's always some form of pollution, you can have good pollution or bad pollution, so let's say somewhere around the 1940s you suddenly have this really interesting pollution of eastern European refugees, who were so often members of the avant-garde, turning up in Hollywood doing a bit of writing, a bit of composing, a bit of directing, and you get pretty highbrow mainstream culture coming out of films. I mean, those avant garde ideas taking place within the Hollywood system would be unthinkable now. For the last 15 years, slowly the eyebrow has been descending.

You could do an interesting thesis, starting with Fatal Attraction, where for the first time, what the audience said was taken seriously. And not just seriously but in terms of statistics - and you can bend any statistics. And I remember being party to these kind of audience comment screenings.

NS: But defenders of Hollywood would say taking comments from the audience is democracy. Is it?

F: But it's dumb, because they ask the wrong kind of questions. Eg, "did you like this scene?" and the audience say "no I didn't like that scene", so the studio takes take it out. But of course you wouldn't like a scene where someone is dying, for example, because it's really uncomfortable.

If you re-phrased that to ask "were you uncomfortable in this scene but do you think it's important to the film?" you might get a different answer. But the speed at which these naysayers always interpret the evidence means you end up making bad films.

NS: Is there a movement in film that gives you a particular hope for the future?

F: Yeah I would say the Third World, which is the large part of the planet where they're only just starting to have access to the stuff now. There are all kinds of interesting ideas about how it can be made part of an educational and learning and teaching tool as well. And how if people were truly innovative, people like Google and Mac and so on, that access to education through these tools is really not such a huge challenge.

It's something I'm now actively concerning myself with. So I would say there are hopes for an unsullied new approach to film making, which like many things in our culture is going to come from China, or it's going to come from the Third World, it's not going to come from the phoenix of the Hollywood ashes.

The problem in America is that it's so corrupted that young independent film-makers who win the audience award at Sundance have already got their eye on the Hollywood big bucks. And the independent film movement in America is like the poor cousin to the mainstream. Everyone sees it as a stepping stone to get into the mainstream and the big bucks.