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
Although there were moments in other versions that Figgis calls
"sublimely beautiful," he opted for the 15th and final taping for the
"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
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
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
"Jeanne started dumping her fake cocaine out the window," says
Figgis, who never once considered fixing problems in the editing
"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
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.