English director Mike Figgis chats to us about his life’s work, scripts, music, shooting in Hong Kong and the state of the film industry.
At his canal-side North London studio, film director, musician, and composer Mike Figgis talks about the universal requirement for a good narrative, the two faces of Hollywood and filming in Hong Kong.
British Film Director Mike Figgis
Filmmaker Mike Figgis’s polymath reputation is all too clear as soon as you get to know him. As we meet in his split-level North London studio, the sometime-Hollywood director of ’90s hits Leaving Las Vegas and Internal Affairs is painting over his photographic nude art prints with varnish, the gloss adding a film of light on the surface.
There are other experimentations at play and we’re staring down a visual rabbit hole of possibilities. A drum kit, several guitars and other instruments are scattered on the ground floor, a nod to his longest-lasting passion: music.
Reels of film are stacked on one shelf, a record of an utterly eclectic back catalogue of art-house, experimental, low-budget and Hollywood hitmakers, tracing a career that marked him out as a pioneer (film buffs will reference his split-screen Timecode). He’s just returned from shooting his first feature-length film in more than a decade, the upcoming Josie Ho thriller Mother Tongue, filmed in Hong Kong with an entirely local Cantonese-speaking crew.
“I had no previous relationship with Hong Kong cinema – and unlike Quentin Tarantino, I never worked in a video store. I was never obsessed [with] cinema, I was much more obsessed with music and painters and writers,” he says. “I just was really excited about going to Hong Kong and filming an Asian film, in an Asian culture with an Asian crew, with no preconception or expectation of what it would be like.
Enamoured with the city’s energy at night, Figgis sees Hong Kong as a perfect backdrop for certain genres, the “kind of romantic gangsterism … and sexy violence” that defines some traditions of local film. Mother Tongue is supposed to take place in Los Angeles, “so faking the look of LA in Hong Kong was challenging … [but] there’s a certain kind of vulgarity to Hong Kong that I’m quite fascinated with, as in money is everything,” he says. “That creates a kind of frisson. And they’re kind of honest about that. The kind of blatant capitalism from a storytelling point of view is fascinating.”
At his core, Figgis is a skilled psychologist, able to extract surprising performances from his actors. Getting under their skin and into their minds meant that he directed career-changing roles for the likes of Richard Gere, Elisabeth Shue, Wesley Snipes, Robert Downey Jr and, of course, his most famous collaborator, Nicolas Cage.
“I mean, Nick Cage has an energy level that’s – a bit like mine actually, but different because he’s an actor. He’s brilliant and it was really a question of choreographing because he would give you 20 options. He needs a director to say that’s the right one, otherwise, he’s firing a machine gun in 360 degrees,” says Figgis.
The concept of a mind never at rest is one equally familiar to Figgis. Before his career was dominated by film, the young artist worked as an experimental theatre performer and musician, playing in bands such as the Gas Board – the first band of Roxy Music’s Brian Ferry. Today he plays a mind-boggling array of instruments – guitar, bass, trumpet, keyboard, drums and, most recently, flute, which he picked up during his Hong Kong quarantine.
It was his father’s love for jazz, that led to Figgis’s musical experimentations, which he later crossed with cinema, having bought himself an 8mm camera at the ripe age of 35.
“Being rejected from the National Film School was probably the best thing ever happened to me,” Figgis says with a laugh. “I was so angry at the time that I just went ahead and made my first film – a semi-autobiographical, surrealist performance art piece.”
Its relative success led to his feature-film break in 1998 with Stormy Monday, an American-funded neo-noir film set in the English city of Newcastle that featured an all-star cast of Melanie Griffith, Sean Bean, Sting and Tommy Lee Jones. “I got shitty, snidey reviews in England for Stormy Monday, but brilliant reviews in The New York Times and LA Times, so on the strength of that I got an agent,” he recalls.
Experimental music and British theatre paired with rejection by a prestigious film institution wasn’t your typical formula for Hollywood success in the late ’90s. But after the critical success of Stormy Monday, Hollywood offers suddenly started coming in. “There was one from Clint Eastwood to direct his movie, which I turned down,” says Figgis.
Instead, he chose to take on an obscure script about duelling corrupt cops – Internal Affairs. Soon Figgis was living large at the Chateau Marmont and convincing the studio to cast Richard Gere over Kurt Russell. A real-life fight on set between Gere and co-star Andy Garcia translated beautifully to their onscreen chemistry as enemies, the director recalls.
It was his first major success, elevating Figgis to Hollywood-insider stardom – and to his next film, the magnum opus with soul-wrenching power, Leaving Las Vegas. A pivotal whirlwind romance amid destructive alcohol addiction, the film left both critics and audiences blown away, earning four Oscar nominations in the process – Best Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor, which its lead, Nicolas Cage won. Further nominations and wins flooded in from the BAFTAs, the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Golden Globes, among others.
“It was a hit because it did all those things that dealt with the pain of love, the pain of loss. That battle with yourself, your own demons,” Figgis says of his greatest career achievement. “And the idea that two people could come together despite that, and somehow have a meaningful, emotional relationship that touched the audience … I remember watching it with an audience and just seeing how devastated people were.”
Dark tales of destruction, sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, have largely fallen out of favour in today’s mainstream Hollywood repertoire. For Figgis, we’re firmly into “the most prudish period of our recent history”, where the body has become something dirty again and “hair, sexual organs are treated as pornographic objects”.
“Our culture goes through those periods,” he says. “And I think, what can you do? It’s like, historically, there are periods of oppression and then liberation. But I do wonder whether we can ever return to something more open because the way it’s controlled has definitely shifted from groups of individuals into much larger bodies of controllers.”
A Childhood of Storytelling
“I’m one of five and was bought up in a quite affluent colonial African situation in Nairobi until I was eight years old. My grandparents had emigrated to Kenya, where my grandfather founded a successful legal practice. I grew up with servants and all that sort of stuff. But then my father went bankrupt — he’d been a pilot and, I mean, basically he was an alcoholic and liked to party. He’d actually wanted to be a DJ and jazz musician. So we ended up being really broke, and having to go back to the UK.
“That move to a working-class part of Northern England couldn’t have been a more extreme climate change. Soon our family — a total of seven of us — was living in a three-bedroom flat in a tough council estate in Newcastle.
“The storytelling really came from my mother. She was great at it and quite exaggerated. I used to spend a lot of time with her. She’d been a radar operator in the war — that’s how she met my dad, who was a pilot. As a working-class girl, she’d joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. They were bombed, there were air-raid shelters in London, some friends were killed and she even got a telegram one day saying that my dad was dead because all the planes had crashed — it wasn’t true though. They also had these adventures with Jamaicans and black jazz musicians.
“She was the most amazing genuine storyteller in the way that, as Melvyn Bragg once said, for a story to be true, it doesn’t have to be technically true, it just has to be emotionally true. If it wasn’t an interesting story, she’d make it interesting. I’m sure she’d embellish. She also told ghost stories to terrify us; we’d literally say up until midnight drinking coffee (I was addicted by the time I was 13) listening to her while she worked through this colossal pile of ironing. My dad was a very talented artist and played the jazz piano, so his narrative was more musical. Between the two of them, there was a diverse creative environment at home with lots of bases being covered.
“Being able to tell a good story was a way into this foreign culture, as an outsider with a weird accent. I was also a fat kid who didn’t play football, so the only way I could get into a gang and get friends was this. I was the joker, I used to tell funny stories, but I could also invent stories really quickly, and see the reaction. I loved that. In a nutshell, that’s where my idea of narrative and story came from. Telling stories and then with that came writing stories down.”
An altogether far more sanitised affair, the modern box office is dominated by the likes of Marvel, action franchises and big-budget CGI. “It’s just silly. We’ve been heading towards that for quite some years now, the infantile analysation of our storytelling,” Figgis says. “I think certainly my generation kind of loves the kind of dirty, screwed-up mess of life … The Marvel universe and so on – that’s the domain of special effects.”
Figgis has been sitting it all out – his last major Hollywood film was 2003’s Cold Creek Manor. He’s directed an episode of The Sopranos (perhaps his favourite TV series) and Showtime’s The Affair, as well as the documentary Somebody Up There Likes Me about the Rolling Stones’ Ronnie Wood. Pre-pandemic, the artist was keeping busy between Europe and Asia, teaching master classes and film at Busan Asian Film School while nurturing a fixation on Korean TV and cinema. During our conversation, there’s even a call from Korea about a triptych of films he’s working on.
“I’ve very quickly realised that making a film there is actually not straightforward at all,” he says later. “It’s quite a closed culture. And sadly, very quickly, the cosmetics industry had basically become the main controller, so it was a bit of a rude awakening for me.” But it does beg the question, after decades of cinematic experience across Hollywood, the UK, Korea and now Hong Kong, what has Figgis garnered about storytelling around the world?
“The nuance of the culture does come out in situations, like in a love story. If you’re in a male-dominated or paternalistic culture versus a hippie, liberal environment, like San Francisco, that’s going to be a different kind of story with a different kind of angst or ennui,” Figgis explains.
“But universal truths will always be the same, which is, you know, how do you deal with death, first of all, other people’s and then your own? How do you deal with love? How do you deal with the rejection of love? Do you become very sad, and leave the country and become a missionary and decide to save the world and never have a relationship again?”
Although radical by nature, Figgis is also attracted to traditional cinema with good-looking guys and attractive women in an idealised narrative context. He’s aware that this new world of mainstream film and the cult of youth has largely left directors like him behind; their penchant for “the dirty, screwed-up mess of life” deemed just a little too unpredictable and dangerous for younger, more-woke generations. But isn’t “mess” right at the red-hot core of human existence?
The question is, are they all missing out? And, if so, how would they even find out? We might never know, but Figgis is content replaying the “hits”, his own taste in cinema still very much centring around those directors who continue to capture his heart and head – names such as Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Karel Reisz and John Cassavetes.
“Those films I’ll watch over and over again,” he says. “The rest, I feel is a bit like pop music. I do like pop music, but life is short so I’d rather listen to Stravinsky if I’m going to spend time listening to music.”