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.
FUNCTION FOLLOWS FORM
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
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