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'Time' for a Change in Film

Time Code,' shot in one long take, divides screen into fourths
Daily News Staff Writer

It has no script, wasn't edited, was shot with hand-held digital video cameras in a continuous 93-minute take, and will be shown in movie theaters on a single screen split in four parts.

Is this any way to make a movie?

Director Mike Figgis is gambling on it. With "Time Code," opening next week, the Academy Award-nominated director of "Leaving Las Vegas" is out to break the rules of film making using state-of-the-art digital technology.

A black comedy centered around a married film producer's affair with an aspiring actress, "Time Code" was shot in one day in Los Angeles. Four digital cameras followed more than 20 characters interacting in real time and through several sets over a 93-minute span the length of a digital cassette.

While the cast was allowed to improvise within a tightly structured story line, they had to hit their marks at specific moments in order to keep all four onscreen images synchronized.

The result is a fascinating if sometimes disorienting movie. Viewers, in effect, edit the action themselves by scanning one quadrant of the screen and then another.

Still, Figgis does attempt to focus the audience's attention at times by raising the volume on one quadrant while lowering the sound on others. In other instances, he places music over all four scenes and allows the audience to decide which characters to follow.

"Time Code," says Figgis, "is playing a game with the audience in a sense, by slightly enticing them in one direction while the narrative is taking you to a different one.

"Is your eye a complete slave to your ear which I've always believed it is or are you capable of guiding your eye back even though your ear is telling you that you should be over there?"

While it's an innovative concept for a film though not unlike the work of Jean-Luc Godard Figgis insists his intentions were simply to make something "way too way out" using technology that was previously unavailable.

"This isn't about being at the forefront of the mainstream digital revolution," says Figgis, who manned one of the cameras. "I just wanted to extend the concept of the long take and do an entire performance film in one take. And for the first time ever, the technology actually exists to shoot for 90 minutes without ever having to stop the camera."

Going digital is also a cheaper and faster way to make a movie. Using hand-held cameras, existing sets and mostly natural lighting, "Time Code" was made for just over $3 million.

"It would have cost a fortune on celluloid," says Figgis. "Probably $35 or $40 million, with a shooting schedule of 10 weeks at least."

Figgis actually shot 15 versions of "Time Code" over a two-week period in November. The cast, which includes Salma Hayek, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Stellan Skarsgard and Saffron Burrows, wore synchronized digital watches during each shoot to help their timing. They were also instructed to alter their delivery and wear different clothes every day to give each taping a unique feel.

Although there were moments in other versions that Figgis calls "sublimely beautiful," he opted for the 15th and final taping for the theatrical release.

"It was very hard to choose," recalls Figgis. "Version 14 was really good, but we still hadn't quite solved it. With 15, I felt we sort of got it."

Filming four simultaneous stories in real time, with characters often overlapping into other scenes, was a daunting task made more so by adding an earthquake to the plot. "Suddenly, in the middle of these very naturalistic performances, there are four moments when [the actors] have got to fall over and stagger around," says Figgis.

There were a few other problems with the director's real-time technique. Actors' stumbling on lines was acceptable, given the improvisational nature of the performances. But Figgis says real life sometimes interceded: two traffic accidents were caught on tape, and real-life actors such as Whoopi Goldberg would inadvertently walk by the Hollywood building where most of "Time Code" takes place.

Another time, an overzealous traffic cop ordered Tripplehorn's limo driver to move the car in the middle of a scene. Yet Tripplehorn, who plays a female gangster in love with Hayek, stayed in character.

"Jeanne started dumping her fake cocaine out the window," says Figgis, who never once considered fixing problems in the editing room.

"If I ever wanted to find myself in a position to cheat, I wouldn't be able to anyway. Everything in the film is exactly as it was in that time. There isn't a single manipulation."

Pointing the Way Toward Film's Future

"Time Code" has the distinction of being the first feature filmed in one continuous take, thanks to digital video cameras that utilize 93-minute tapes.

But it isn't the first movie to take advantage of digital technology. Portions of last year's "The Blair Witch Project," the indie blockbuster, were filmed with a digital camera, as was 1998's "The Celebration," a Danish saga about a dysfunctional family.

Now, enticed by cheaper production costs, the greater mobility of hand-held cameras and faster postproduction time, several mainstream directors are going digital, too.

Spike Lee's next film, "Bamboozled," will be shot entirely on digital video, and George Lucas is reportedly making the next "Star Wars" episode in a digital format.

It's a trend that promises to revolutionize the film industry, allowing film makers with limited budgets to produce movies at a fraction of the cost of celluloid.

The high cost of film prints will also be eliminated, with movies eventually being downloaded from the Internet into homes or beamed to digital projectors in multiplexes via satellite.

But many of these innovations are far in the future. For now, celluloid rules a fact that "Time Code" director Mike Figgis reluctantly has to live with. Despite his cutting-edge, one-take concept, Figgis still had to transfer his digital movie to celluloid in order to screen it in theaters.