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Split-screen 'Time Code' attracts critics' undivided attention Figgis' actors improvise dialogue as 4 tales unfold

By Stephen Schaefer
Special for USA TODAY

LOS ANGELES -- Mike Figgis wasn't trying to make some new kind of 21st century cinema when he devised Time Code. Yet that may be exactly what he has done with the audacious dark comedy that tells its four story lines on screen simultaneously.

Multi-frame imagery, which peaked more than 30 years ago with hits such as Woodstock, The Thomas Crown Affair and Grand Prix, has been staging a mini-comeback of sorts. But no one has tried what Figgis has managed: Each of the four panels on the big screen features one continuous 93-minute take, and all were shot simultaneously in real time with hand-held digital cameras.

To further complicate the filming, the cast improvised all the dialogue from Figgis' minutely detailed scenario. All wore digital wristwatches to ensure they would be in sync, no matter how outlandish the circumstances.

''If you're trying something as experimental as four screens,'' Figgis figures, ''it should have sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll in it. If it takes itself too seriously, it sinks itself, and you can kind of smell the pretension.''

The story does, however, attempt to capture the sometimes surreal world of show business. ''Pretty much everyone knows how Hollywood conducts its business and how downright wacky and crazy it is sometimes,'' he says. ''The sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll is always going to be a continuing issue here. I'm always deeply shocked by how much goes on.''

One of the most provocative film experiments in memory, Time Code, which opens Friday in a few cities before expanding nationwide in May, seems almost a natural evolution for Figgis. The British director came to filmmaking as a musician, and his intense and intensely personal movies include the Oscar-winning Leaving Las Vegas, The Loss of Sexual Innocence and last season's Miss Julie, a reconsideration of a 19th century classic.

It was during the filming of Julie that Figgis formulated the notion of Time Code. ''I was using two hand-held cameras to record the action at the same time, and as I was replaying the two images at the same time, just to save time, I was intrigued by the possibilities of using that as a narrative device. I got intrigued by that idea, but it was never a big-time idea, just a little experiment I'd do with friends'' in London.

''Only one of the facets of the digital revolution is things happen quickly,'' he says. When Sony Pictures chief John Calley heard about Figgis' idea, ''he invited me to do it in Hollywood.''

Figgis wrote out the four simultaneous stories on music paper, ''like a string quartet,'' and set about casting actors who not only could cope with 93-minute takes and improvised dialogue, but also would be no-frills kind of troupers.

He wound up with an offbeat mixture of indie and mainstream regulars, including Salma Hayek as a desperately ambitious actress; Oscar winner Holly Hunter and sitcom veteran Steven Weber (Wings) as supportive studio execs; Stellan Skarsgard (Good Will Hunting) as a libidinous studio chief in the midst of a nervous breakdown; Saffron Burrows (Figgis' Miss Julie and real-life companion) as Skarsgard's estranged wife; and Jeanne Tripplehorn (Mickey Blue Eyes) as a paranoid lover who, it turns out, has good reason to be paranoid.

''There was a favored-nation agreement: alphabetical billing and equal money,'' Figgis says. ''Everybody did it for their version of (Screen Actors Guild) minimum and were paid nothing like they'd remotely expect. There was no makeup trailer or even wardrobe. They all wore their own clothes. There was no transportation or catering. We shot in the middle of Hollywood (on Sunset Boulevard across from the original Spago's). Everyone went and got their own food.''

With no script, no rehearsal and no retakes, Figgis began filming the movie at 11 a.m. one September day. Because it was digital, he could play back the entire film for the crew and actors with a sound and music mix. ''That established the basis of a learning curve. I'd give notes, and we'd shoot again at 3 p.m. Ultimately, we shot the film 15 times in its entirety. The Time Code in theaters is that last, 15th version.''

His little experiment turned out good enough for the big screen, but that doesn't mean he has sworn off ''conventional'' films.

''I just adore making films and trying things out and pushing the envelope and the actors and pushing myself,'' he says. ''If I got offered a wonderful script to be shot on conventional 35mm, I'd do it tomorrow. If I'm not being offered something interesting, I'll do it myself.''