Perspectives: Mike Figgis

Mike Figgis, director, on the future of film

Digital equipment that allows you to shoot a film and edit it on your own computer to professional standard is the biggest innovation since the beginning of the history of cinema. The medium becomes accessible to people who cannot raise the funds usually associated with making a film.

I find myself less and less interested in the idea of “world domination” as an artist and more interested in just working. This new technology allows me to express myself as a photographer, or as a film-maker, or as a musician. Occasionally this work comes out and sees an audience, but often it just forms part of my “notebook”.

Film-making is now more like writing a novel or like painting than it ever has been. And I’m surprised at how few people have risen to that challenge so far. Film remains a very mainstream form of expression. Most people are still very interested in the basic story cliché – plus a few somewhat precious video artists who work in quite a limited way on gallery-type installations.

Narrative films aren’t necessarily inferior, but the wider your spectrum of art, the more you realise that the story is not the only thing happening on the screen. It is maybe only a device, in the same way as a great painter will paint a portrait as a device with which to articulate lots of other ideas about light, or politics, or the painter’s own philosophy. Most of the films you see don’t reflect any of that; they merely reflect the story. Or they reflect the deadening committee system of mainstream Hollywood film-making, where not only have too many cooks spoiled the broth, they’ve turned it into a bland piece of pap.

That’s why Hollywood is in decline. The problem in America is that young independent film-makers who win the audience award at Sundance have already got their eye on the big bucks. We also have to ask ourselves: are we any longer that interested in the American story? Whether it’s “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do”, or a couple of dissatisfied college kids who maybe want to kill everybody else, or some yuppies living in New York, we’ve been overexposed to American ideas.

I’m more enthusiastic about films from the third world, which is the large part of the planet where they’re only just starting to have access to the technology. A lot of this is not cinema in the sense of a feature film of 95 minutes. In Africa, for example, where there are limited resources, soap operas that are entirely specific to the area and language where they’re filmed are made on very basic video cameras, and then distributed through a completely alternative network as cinema. There’s an immediacy and a really wonderful use of economy in these films. And they’re very good stories, human stories with the specifics of the area they’re set in. These are really vibrant forms of film-making.

I say to film-makers here in the UK who want to find that vibrancy, “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?

Interview by Daniel Trilling
Mike Figgis’s films include “Leaving Las Vegas” and “Timecode”. He is making a series of shorts about sculpture that will be screened by Tate Liverpool and on Channel 4 later in the year.
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This article first appeared in the 20 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, King and Country