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Time Code-ing

Hollywood Confidential by Jeffrey Wells

I paid a brief visit last Friday to a seriously cool location shoot. Cool because of the utter lack of pretension or pomposity that you sometimes find around a movie set. This one had the vibe of an experimental theatre workshop in a garage somewhere in lower Manhattan.

That’s because Time Code 2000, the all-digital movie that director Mike Figgis is shooting in “live,” unbroken 93-minute takes, is probably the closest thing to a garage-theatre experience that a major studio — SONY Pictures, in this instance — has ever funded.

On this day, November 12, Figgis and his cast — Salma Hayek, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Kyle MacLachlan, Saffron Burrows, Julian Sands, Danny Huston, Holly Hunter, Stellan Skarsgard, Richard Edson, Steven Weber — had been taping over and over what amounted to a live “play” in and around the Ticketmaster building on Sunset Boulevard, the eight-story brick structure right next to Book Soup and across the street from Tower Records.

The story has something to do with a movie called Bird Out of Louisiana being cast inside the offices of Red Mullet productions, by a director named Lester Moore (played by Edson). All kinds of weird stuff happens between Edson, the actors he meets, and his staff, including a drug-copping security guard played by Danny Huston.

There were four locations being used. The fictitious casting office for Bird Out of Louisiana, located off the main lobby of the Ticketmaster building. Up the street a couple of blocks is an office of a therapist, played by Laurie Metcalf. Nearby is a house shared by Hayek and Tripplehorn, who play lesbian lovers. And nearby also is a drug house where Huston goes to score.

Time Code 2000 was using no script — just an outline. Four digital cameras were following the actors from location to location, with the actors — armed with synchronized stop-watches — being careful to hit certain marks and say certain lines at certain precise points. When the movie is finally seen, the audience will see a widescreen image with the footage from the four cameras shown simultaneously, in synchronized time.

Sometimes Figgis and the cast would shoot the play once; sometimes twice. Figgis told me last weekend that he was planning to shoot at least another five or six times this week before wrapping. “If I had my druthers we’d keep shooting forever,” he said.

At the end of each day they gathered at the production office to look at the day’s footage on four linked video monitors. The version that audiences will see won’t be comprised of this and that take, from this or that camera. It will be the single best version — the one Figgis likes the best — that happened “live” at the same time, and was captured simultaneously by all four cameras.

Is this a cool way to make a movie or what?

I was there with my kids, Jett and Dylan, on day #7. Figgis had shot a version that morning and was getting ready to go again. Hayek and Tripplehorn and Skarsgard and the rest were walking around, coming back from lunch, making cell-phone calls, etc. The atmosphere felt informal but slightly tense.

“This is the most energetic and exciting shoot I’ve ever been on,” said unit publicist Frank Lomento, who knows Figgis from having promoted Leaving Las Vegas when he was a publicist at MGM. “There are more actors than crew on this shoot,” he told me. “And everyone is doing their own wardrobe and makeup."

There are three earthquakes that happen during the film. Three aftershocks, to be exact.

Director Paul Mazursky (Down and Out in Beverly Hills) sauntered by during our chat. He’s not cast in the movie, as far as Lomento knew. Just a friendly visit, probably. Aimee Graham, the sister of Heather, is in the film. Today she was dressed in what looked like white Middle Eastern garments, with a white turban on her head.

Figgis said in a New York Times story out today (11.19) he’d like “to have the film released, at least in a couple of theaters, before the end of the year." The Times’ Rick Lyman wrote that SONY — i.e., Columbia Pictures — has not decided whether to release Time Code 2000 late this year or early next year.

"I think it would be nice to have this look at the cinema of the next century come out in the last week of this century,” Figgis told Lyman.

Without the usual studio-shoot trappings (no Winnebagos, cable, lights, property trucks), it looked like one of those super low-budget shoots you see around town occasionally. But because it has "name" actors and a union crew, and because SONY is paying, Time Code's budget is around $2 million.

C’mon, admit it — a movie like this sounds fascinating as hell. Audiences may not find the novelty endlessly interesting, but how can it not attract the hip and the curious at least this one time? I can’t wait, personally.