navigate @ newsstand
latest news & archive
articles & interviews
magazine rack
rewind 2001 2000
tv schedule

articles & interviews

FEATURE-Director Figgis' "Time Code" breaks rules

By Bob Tourtellotte

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - British director Mike Figgis has done it all -- big-budget movies, indie films, critical flops and Oscar-nominated "Leaving Las Vegas" -- but his new movie, "Time Code," is his boldest yet: four versions of one story shown at one time on one screen.

"Time Code" portrays a day in the life of people at a Los Angeles film production company, but it is not the plot that is making it a must-see event for film fans since it opened a few weeks ago in a handful of cities around the country.

What makes the movie unique is that it was produced using inexpensive digital cameras, shot in one long take and unfolds on a screen divided into four cells so audiences see "Time Code" from four perspectives at once.

"From 'Leaving Las Vegas' onward, I've kind of been pulling away, making small films -- fairly experimental -- and trying things out," Figgis said in a recent interview. "I'm really interested in how far I can push the envelope."

At its most basic "Time Code" tells a good story and, because of that, it has garnered generally positive reviews. But on a deeper level the movie offers a glimpse at how a veteran filmmaker builds a movie using story development, character interaction and the timing of events.

For low-budget moviemakers, it offers hope that they can use the new, relatively cheap digital cameras and make a film without having to raise millions of dollars. And it shows there is more than one way to make a movie.


"Time Code" is an often satirical and sometimes serious look at the inside story behind Hollywood filmmaking. Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard portrays the producing genius behind several blockbusters who has not had a hit in years.

He is addicted to booze and drugs and is cheating on his wife. In the film, he and his staff must decide whether to develop an idea by a red hot rock star who does not have the faintest idea how to make a movie.

An aspiring actress (Salma Hayek) heads to his office to confront him about an acting job, while his wife (Saffron Burrows) ponders life without him. A series of earthquakes add to the anxiety running through the office and a Beverly Hills socialite (Jeanne Tripplehorne) has her own agenda that could shatter the executive's world.

In a traditional movie, the audiences would see the plot unfold scene-by-scene on one large screen. But in "Time Code" they see and hear the story develop in one quarter-section of the screen, and at the same time watch characters react, think, plot and scheme in each of three others.

Sometimes the action in two or three cells intersects so that audiences can watch the same event from two or three different points-of-view. The dialogue moves from one section to the others so that all 27 actors can be heard.

Audiences can follow the plot and see how characters who are not on screen behave throughout the story, a standard thought process for screenwriters.

"People have said they are pleased with themselves that after 10 minutes of confusion they are suddenly, completely comfortable with the structure and the technique, and they say, 'Well, this is much easier than I thought,"' Figgis said.


To put it together, he did not so much write a script as outline a series of events occurring at specific times, using pieces of sheet music to chart the events. He cooked up a story with detailed plot points and invited the cast, including Oscar winner Holly Hunter, Julian Sands and Laurie Metcalf, to work out the dialogue.

"I said: 'You are going to be on this camera in this room at minute 22. At minute 30 there is an earthquake, so wherever your character is they have to be in an earthquake ... you can say whatever you like, as long as it adds up to this."'

Over a period of about two weeks, using four different camera and sound crews -- one for each cell onscreen -- he shot the movie 15 times from start to finish. Each time a slightly different story emerged. Audiences see the 15th version.

"In some ways it was very much like doing a piece of theater. As you rehearsed you absorbed the moments when you had to be exact and the moments when you could be more free," said Sands, whose credits include other Figgis films.

But Figgis preferred to think of the production as more of a work in progress that was perfected as actors and filmmakers ironed kinks from the story. He still looks at "Time Code" as a dynamic story that can be told differently each time it is shown. At the Los Angeles premiere and in some previews, he adjusted the audio mix during screenings, changing the film depending on which character's dialogue he raised or lowered.

In a way, he was like a conductor leading an orchestra, he said. "It's amazing, just amazing. The film is still a very organic, living thing that is open for negotiation. That's unbelievable."

He credits the process to the low cost of making movies with digital cameras, computers and software that can be bought off retail shelves for as little as $10,000. A typical movie camera alone can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"Time Code" cost about $3.5 million, he said, but it uses expensive talent and editing facilities needed to produce the caliber of film theaters require before they will play it.

If he had had his way, Figgis said, he would have shot the film in one day, in one take, in London, where he could have made it for about $30,000. He said he was so enthusiastic about the collaboration and the freedom the process allowed him that he will continue to use it, with two cells, three or four.

"The whole idea has aroused issues and there are some things that could be refined," he said. "I now have an audience who knows they are going to see a Mike Figgis film and I'll try and give them something new. I'll try and push it a bit more."