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.
Sony Pictures at
a pittance by
(a couple of
2000," is one of
the first major
feature films shot
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
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 code2000.com) 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
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
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
Skarsgard put his hand on Figgis' shoulder and
smiled. "To be continued," the actor said. "Every day."