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Hotel Press Conference

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

Director Mike Figgis sat alone on the stage at the press conference for his latest piece of aesthetic cinema, Hotel. Some of his cast members - including Salma Hayek, Julian Sands and David Schwimmer - are in Toronto and were meant to accompany Figgis to promote the film, but in light of yesterday's terrorist attacks are devastated and chose not to attend.

"My cast felt as a mark of respect that they didn't want to do it," Figgis said. "I myself had reservations, but there was also the relief of not having to sit in front of the television." Figgis then said he was happy to talk about the film, but felt it very strange at the same time.

Figgis spoke extensively about his use of digital cameras - on which Hotel is entirely shot, and of his avant-garde approach to filmmaking as well as the restraints imposed by the supposedly 'liberating' new technology.

"What I love about the new digital equipment?" Figgis answered, slowly. "Everyone is busting a gut trying to make it look like film. Low-end digital doesn't look like film, like television, or life - it looks not quite so precious. It throws the focus on the performances."

Hotel uses Venice as its principal setting, with four simultaneously projected images of prostitutes, tourists, a killer, a maid, a film crew and a tour guide as they travel through the city streets, piazzas and canals all the while progressing the story. Figgis also uses smaller images within a large, single frame and night vision shooting. Hotel - like Figgis' precious feature Time Code - is being called 'exciting', pushing the boundaries of cinema forward.

On shooting four images simultaneously, Figgis said that it provides such varied material of roughly the same time/scene. With his previous film, Miss Julie, Figgis found that shooting with two cameras, and getting two angles instead of two different shots, gave the film much more substance. When asked if he was being 'avant-garde' in Hotel - incorporating a split screen scene that divides the sound - Figgis replied, "You can call it avant-garde, or that the projector lead was the wrong way round."

Indeed, technical difficulties can prove to be the most challenging when using new technologies. "The main problems are stability of image, and recording good, usable sound," said Figgis. He explained that he built special equipment for the shoot, including a rig to steady the digital camera, but that there were still frustrations.

Digital cameras are very small, and Figgis was frequently pulling out reading glasses to be able to see the menu, then programming the shoot on what he described as 'tiny' buttons. "Digital was designed for ease of use, ironically it makes it more difficult. I spent lots of time pre-setting the camera, remembering to clean the camera so there wouldn't be spit marks on it." In the end, a lot of preparation went into the equipment used to film Hotel, but Figgis said he found this an interesting process.

Recording good, usable sound was another challenge. Figgis gave all his actors mini-disc recorders to have on their bodies at all times of shooting. The problem? "Often, they'd forget to turn them on, or they'd confuse the on and off button so I would get one and a half hours of them talking then none of the scene."

Figgis encountered further difficulty shooting the street scenes as actors such as Hayek and Schwimmer began to be recognized; in addition, the cast included many Italian actors whose natural method of acting includes drinking espresso and smoking between scenes. Much of the filming was described as rapid, fluid and experimental - a challenge to which Figgis is obviously accustomed.

To bring such a variety of actors to his film, he explained that he works with an "unofficial ensemble" cast that he calls upon. For Hotel, he worked each part around the availability of his actors - and clearly, the flexibility of their talents.

"Lucy Liu got off the plane and I said to her 'do this scene.' She looked at me and said, 'What's my character? What's the plot?' I told her we didn't have time for that. She was great, and the next day she had it - the process of osmosis."

-Erin Phelan

Toronto Film Festival Website September 2001

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