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

articles & interviews

The Daredevils of Digital Filmmaking

Movies: Winging it without a conventional script, director Mike Figgis and his excited actors are breaking creative and technical ground.

By AMY WALLACE, Times Staff Writer

Last week on a busy stretch of Sunset Boulevard, director Mike Figgis set out to shoot a movie that challenges every tenet of Hollywood filmmaking. The project has no script. It's being shot in real time on four hand-held cameras at once. And what's in the cameras isn't even celluloid, but digital video.

Funded by Sony Pictures at a pittance by studio standards (a couple of million dollars), the film, tentatively titled "Time Code 2000," is one of the first major feature films shot entirely using digital technology. More than that breakthrough, though, the real story is the way Figgis is using the flexibility of digital shooting--which is cheaper, requires less artificial lighting and can be played back almost instantly--to transform not just the filmmaking process but the resulting film itself.

Consider this: Without a script, the actors--who all wear synchronized digital watches--are improvising within the parameters of a minute-by-minute outline that requires them to hit certain marks at certain moments. There are no cuts in the action--once filming begins each day, the four cameras shoot for 93 minutes. Then, just a few hours later, cast and crew gather to watch and see how well they hit their cues.

Precise timing is crucial, Figgis explained last week to his cast--which includes Salma Hayek, Stellan Skarsgard and Jeanne Tripplehorn. That's because instead of editing the footage from his four cameras into one linear film, he plans to show all four perspectives concurrently on the screen. When a supposed earthquake rocks the actors on camera A, therefore, those on cameras B, C and D need to look shaken too. "It's like cinematic cubism--or a string quartet," said Figgis, who has gone so far as to map the four strands of the film (a black comedy set in Los Angeles) on musical note paper. "It bypasses the whole idea of script development and the usual studio [habit] of watching paint dry as a spectator sport," he said referring to the industry's usual time lines.

Figgis and Sony Pictures Chairman John Calley see "Time Code 2000" as part of a revolution in digital filmmaking. Particularly after the success of "The Blair Witch Project," this year's micro-budgeted horror flick that lured young people with a fresh approach, an interactive marketing campaign on the Internet and a raw look, they are betting that "Time Code 2000" will appeal to a public weary of slick Hollywood formulas. "It's like punk in the '70s, which came out of a kind of real dissatisfaction with the overproduction of the Beach Boys and everybody talking about 48 tracks and taking two years to make an album," Figgis said. "Someone said, 'Let's go back to mono and record the album in one take in two days.' Every movement has those moments where people [say], 'Enough of the high end.' "

Calley said the project is designed "to say, 'Something new is happening now, guys. If you have a video camera and you have an idea, you can make a movie.' There has always seemed to me to be a bizarre internal contradiction in trying to do the adventuresome in a conventional way. Figgis wanted to make a film that's never been done before." "Time Code 2000" is not the only studio film to leave celluloid behind. George Lucas has committed to shooting "Star Wars: Episode II," which will be distributed by 20th Century Fox, using digital cameras being created by Sony. Spike Lee is currently shooting a movie called "Bamboozled" for New Line Cinema the same way. And other established directors--lured as much by the flexibility digital allows as by its cost savings--are considering taking the plunge.

For sheer audacity, however, "Time Code 2000" has no rival. The filmmaking process is designed to be "organized chaos," said Figgis, whose plan is to shoot the entire film seven times over seven days, and then release the version that works best. (He can't mix takes from different days because they aren't in sync.) The interactive possibilities are intriguing. For example, Figgis wants to make the dialogue tracks from all four cameras available on the eventual DVD version, so fans can adjust the sound levels to mix their own movie. And a continually evolving Web site (htp://www.time is already following the production as it progresses. Meanwhile, since the film will not be edited, post-production will be unusually brief. While shooting only began last week, Sony Pictures could conceivably release "Time Code 2000" as early as the end of the year.

For the more than two dozen actors who have signed on to work for scale, "Time Code 2000" is an opportunity to do the kind of ensemble acting that many feel is stifled by the typical Hollywood filmmaking process. The conditions are no-frills--actors do their own hair and makeup, wear mostly their own clothes and are responsible for their own props. Even the best known have no dressing rooms or trailers. But they don't seem to mind.

"This is the most incredible experience I've ever had--and the most stressful," said Hayek, who plays an aspiring actress in the film. "Because you have to make decisions on the dot and improvise to fix the problems that come to you. Nothing is really set. And there is no room for a mistake. The danger of it, the experimental quality of it, really turned me on." "There's a guerrilla aspect to it," said Steven Weber, a former star of the TV series "Wings," who plays a Gucci-wearing Hollywood production executive. "Everybody has to check their egos at the door." Agreed Tripplehorn, who plays Hayek's jealous lover: "Mike is really letting us go. Once the cameras are rolling, I can be anyone I want to be."

All this creates a surreal, through-the-looking-glass quality on the cramped set. At times, it's not clear what's real and what's not--as when the actor Julian Sands, who plays a masseur, offered to rub an extra's neck. From the extra's comments--"I really need an alignment, can't you tell?"--it was clear that she didn't know Sands was an actor who was only pretending. It's easy to get confused when everyone in sight looks vaguely familiar. Actress Leslie Mann was in "The Cable Guy." Alessandro Nivola was Nicolas Cage's brother in "Face/Off." And then there are the players Figgis has hired before: Sands was in this year's "The Loss of Sexual Innocence." Kyle MacLachlan was in 1997's "One Night Stand." Weber was in "Leaving Las Vegas" in 1995. Laurie Metcalf starred in the 1990 thriller "Internal Affairs." And Saffron Burrows, who recently starred in Renny Harlin's "Deep Blue Sea," is in Figgis' "Miss Julie," which hits theaters Dec. 10. For the past week, all these folks, and many more, have been milling around a very busy corner of Sunset Boulevard, with cameras following their every move. Which has added another layer of weirdness. The other day, director Brett Rattner ("Rush Hour") happened to walk by, spotted Hayek and ended up in the movie. "He's like, 'Hey, what's up?'" recalled the actress, who was rushing to hit one of her cues and had no time to talk. "I was running because I could see him coming after me."

Figgis became intrigued with the power of multiple perspectives while making "Miss Julie," which he shot on two cameras simultaneously just to save time. When the 51-year-old British director, actor and composer watched the footage from both cameras at once, he was struck by the way one informed the other. "I couldn't quite explain why, but I thought it was more than twice as strong," he said--a realization that led him in one key lovemaking scene in "Miss Julie" to put both images on the screen.

"Time Code 2000" will have four instead of two images on-screen at once, but making it has been more than twice as complicated. Each day, at Figgis' urging, the plot changes. The actors try on different personas--playing muted one day, vampy the next. The nonstop shooting schedule is exhausting (after the first 93-minute take wrapped, Figgis--who mans one of the cameras--was completely soaked in sweat). "If someone pulled the plug today, any of the [films] we've shot would work," Figgis told cast and crew late last week, as the fourth day of shooting began and fatigue was setting in.

The giddiness of being allowed to improvise was giving way, a bit, to the realization that it's hard to be fresh and different day after day. Some of the acting was becoming exaggerated--what Figgis called "seriously lurching towards ham-on-rye." He urged everyone to underplay their parts, reminding them that they will occupy, at most, one-quarter of the screen, so they don't have to carry the film. Some of the actors admitted to being rattled. "I don't really know what the tone is of the film that I'm in," said Nivola, who plays a hip-hop musician from Iowa. "It's hard for me to make choices."

Figgis reassured Nivola that he was doing fine. "I don't care whether people are serious or farcical," said the director, "as long as they are consistent." What kind of movie will "Time Code 2000" make? Hayek predicts it will be less cinematic than voyeuristic, "where people feel like they're peeking into different realities." She believes younger movie-goers, who already watch multiple images on their computer screens, will eat it up. Burrows predicted that adults will be drawn in too, because the lack of cuts in the action "makes for a much more truthful story. The audience won't feel tricked into thinking certain events have occurred. They'll feel they must have occurred."

Figgis, meanwhile, mischievously suggested that "Time Code 2000" will be a different movie every time you watch it. "This is for people who want to work a little harder at the cinema," he said. "If you want to go on the journey, I think you'll really be rewarded." One afternoon last week, cast and crew crammed into a darkened room to watch the day's work on four large television monitors. With Figgis at the mixing board, the four stories unfolded together, offering juxtapositions that were fascinating in part because they could never have been planned. When it was over, the general feeling was that "Time Code 2000" was working, even though nobody could put their finger on why. Skarsgard put his hand on Figgis' shoulder and smiled. "To be continued," the actor said. "Every day."