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.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Scott Cresswell on Flickr via Creative Commons
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Podcasting Down Under: Tom Wright on how Australia is innovating with audio

The ABC producer, formerly of the Times and The Bugle, makes the case for Australian podcasting.

In September last year, Ken Doctor wrote that “We can mark 2016 as the year the podcast business came of age.” Statements like this have been coming thick and fast since the first series of Serial dropped in October 2014. We’re either living through a golden age of podcasting, or the great podcast advertising boom, or the point when podcasting comes of age, or some combination thereof. For the first time, everyone seems to agree, podcasts are finally having their moment.

Except this isn’t the first podcasting gold rush. Tom Wright, now a producer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), was there the first time media organisations rushed to build podcasting teams and advertisers were keen to part with their cash. Speaking to me over Skype from Australia, he said that seeing podcasts attain “hot” status again is “very strange”. “The first iteration had similar levels of excitement and stupidity,” he added.

In 2006, Wright left BBC Radio 1 to join the Times newspaper in London as a multimedia producer. The paper was “very gung ho” about using podcasts, he explained, particularly comedy and sport shows, as a way of reaching new audiences. There, he launched The Bugle with comedians Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver, The Game with football writer Gabriele Marcotti, and a number of different business shows. “This was ahead of the crash of 2008,” Wright noted.

The shows found large audiences almost immediately – “in my time, The Bugle had 100,000 weekly listeners,” Wright said – and The Game (plus periodic special podcasts pegged to the football, rugby and cricket world cups) brought in good sponsorships. Both podcasts and the videos that Wright also worked on were seen by the Times as “an add-on to the main deal” – ie, the paper’s news stories and features.

“Podcasts, especially in comedy, are still kind of seen as a marketing exercise for something else. . . My feeling is that a lot of comics – let's just pick on one country – in America, say, do a podcast and it's not particularly funny or good, but they flog their tickets for their tour relentlessly so you come and see the really good stuff.” Wright, however, saw the podcast form as something more than a marketing exercise. “My feeling was that we had this opportunity to do comedy, and maybe make it a bit more ambitious, you know?”

It all changed after the financial crisis of 2008, when the advertising money dried up. A new boss came in at the Times and Wright said the focus shifted to online videos and a greater emphasis on hard news. “Amazingly, they let The Bugle continue, which is fantastic,” he said.

(For long-term listeners of The Bugleof which I am one – Wright is a much loved presence from the first 100 episodes. He is referred to solely as “Tom the Producer” and used to chip in regularly to try and keep Zaltzman and Oliver to time, and to express his disgust for the former’s love of puns. Listeners used to write emails for the show straight to “Tom”, and he has his own section on the slightly bonkers Bugle wiki.)

Wright left the Times and moved to Australia in 2010. That year, the paper had introduced a hard paywall, and Wright said that he and other colleagues felt strongly that this wasn’t a good idea. “Who wants to be writing or making stuff for 5,000 subscribers?” he said. “It was also a cost of living decision for me,” he added. “I'd been living in London for ten years with my wife, and we did the sums and just realised we couldn't afford to live in London if we wanted to have kids.”

Wright tried to keep producing The Bugle from Melbourne, a decision which he now describes as “insane”. “It was around 2am [Australian time] when they started recording,” he explained. “I was using my in laws’ Australian-speed wifi, and because I was uploading huge reams of data to the Times, they got stung with an enormous bill. I thought maybe this is a message that I should seek some local employment.”

Wright joined the ABC and went back to live radio, producing for a call-in programme on a local Melbourne station, before moving over to triple j – a station he describes as a bit like BBC Radio 1 in the UK. It was hard work, but a great introduction to life in his new country. “The best way to learn about Australian culture and the way of life was being at the ABC,” he said. “It's the most trusted organisation the country has, even more so I think than the BBC in relation to Britain, given all the scandals recently.”

After the success of Serial, he said he remembers thinking “are podcasts back now?”. “The Nieman Lab in America came out with a journalism survey about reader engagement, and it said the average interaction with a video is one minute, the interaction with a page is almost ten seconds, and with podcasts it's 20 minutes. That was just this eureka moment – all these people thought wow, that's an aeon in online time, let's try doing this.”

In Australia, Wright explained, as in the UK and elsewhere podcasts had been “just the best radio shows cut up to a vast extent”. But in 2014 publications and broadcasters quickly moved to take advantage of the renewed interesting in podcasting. He is now part of a department at the ABC developing online-only podcasts “that will hopefully feed into the radio schedule later on”. It’s a moment of unprecedented creative freedom, Wright said. “That sense of risk has been missing from radio, well media, for a long time. . . Like at the Times, we’re told ‘just go do it and come back with some good ideas’, and it's fantastic.”

Wright is focusing on developing comedy podcasts – as “Australian comedy is great and criminally underrepresented,” he said. One show that has come out of his department already is The Tokyo Hotel, an eight-part series following the inhabitants of an eccentric hotel in Los Angeles. It’s a great listen: there’s a lot of original music, and the fast-paced, surreal script feels at times reminiscent of Welcome to Night Vale. “It was hugely gratifying but immensely hard work,” Wright said. “It had its own score, numerous actors, a narrator who was Madge from Neighbours. It was quite literally a big production.”

The plan for 2017 is to bring out another, similarly ambitious production, as well as “a couple more standard ‘comedians chatting’ things”. Australians are already big podcast fans, and Wright reckons that enthusiasm for the form is only growing. “I think that Australia is a place that's not afraid to embrace the new in any way,” he said. “Podcasts are a new thing for a lot of people and they're really lapping it up. . . It's very curious because I think in Britain anything old is seen as valued, and the new is sometimes seen with suspicion. It's almost the exact opposite here.”

Five Australian podcasts to try

Little Dum Dum Club

Comedians Tommy Dassalo and Karl Chandler run a charming weekly interview show.

Free to a Good Home

Michael Hing and Ben Jenkins, plus guests, chat through the weird and wonderful world of Australian classified ads.

Let’s Make Billions

Simon Cumming and his guests aim to launch a new billion-dollar startup every week.

Meshal Laurie’s Nitty Gritty Committee

The commercial radio host shares the stories she’s been most surprised and moved by.

Bowraville

Dan Box, the crime reporter at the Australian newspaper, investigates the unsolved serial killings of three Aboriginal children.

Do you have ideas for podcasts I should listen to or people I should interview? Email me or talk to me on Twitter. For the next instalment of the New Statesman’s podcast column, visit newstatesman.com/podcasts next Thursday. You can read the introduction to the column here.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.