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Figgis, Mike (1948-)

Director, Writer, Composer, Actor

Main image of Figgis, Mike (1948-)

Born in Carlisle on 28 February 1948, Michael Lawrence Dundus Figgis was brought up in Nairobi until the age of eight, when his family's return to England took him to Newcastle. He didn't start directing for the cinema until he was in his forties, coming to film-making after working as a musician and in the theatre. He played alongside Bryan Ferry in an R & B band, Gas Board, moved to London to study music, then became involved in the fringe theatre group, The People Show, before forming his own company, The Mike Figgis Group, in 1980. As a film director he has continued to draw upon his musical and theatrical background: writing the scores for almost all his films; adapting August Strindberg's Miss Julie (UK/US, 1999) and Terence Rattigan's Browning Version (1994) and filming The Loss of Sexual Innocence (UK/US, 1999), a work originally conceived as a theatre performance piece; .

Figgis started using film in multi-media theatre productions such as Slow Fade (1982), where live music and performance was supplemented by the use of film and slides. That production provided the basis for The House (1984), a television film commissioned by Channel Four. Despite encouraging reviews, it did not immediately lead to further screen work, though Film Four eventually provided some of the finance for Figgis' cinema debut, Stormy Monday (1988). Set in Newcastle during 'America Week', the strength of this story of inner city romance, crime and corruption lay in the use of music and evocation of mood. Music, cast (which included Melanie Griffith and Tommy Lee Jones), storyline, and Edward Hopper-influenced mise-en-scène clearly signalled Figgis as a director looking across the Atlantic. But his viewpoint - epitomised by the scene in which the 'Krakow Jazz Ensemble' play a free jazz version of 'Star Spangled Banner', to the evident bemusement of Tommy Lee Jones' businessman/gangster - is a complex and by no means uncritical one. His next film, Internal Affairs (1990), an exploration of corruption in the LAPD, was made in the United States.

Figgis' American work has included significant critical and commercial successes, particularly Internal Affairs and the relatively low-budget Leaving Las Vegas (1995). The dark, convoluted melodrama, Liebestraum (1991), and Mr Jones (1993), transformed by the studio from a sombre psychodrama into something more feel-good, were commercially less successful. While attracted by Hollywood, his experience has clearly also led him to treat the place with suspicion, a perspective made apparent in the series of interviews with actors and others working in the industry that Figgis did for Projections 10. His films have revealed an increasing desire to escape from conventional narrative structure and to exploit the potential that technological developments offer for smaller scale productions. He used Super-16mm to shoot Leaving Las Vegas -- a film made for far less than it cost to promote -- while his most notable experiment came in the use of digital cameras for Timecode (2000), his satire on the movie business, which abandoned editing and split the screen into four quarters.

Maintaining a certain distance from Hollywood has also led Figgis to work as a documentary film-maker, continuing his relationship with Channel Four with films on the fashion-designer Vivienne Westwood (On Liberty, (1994)); the avant-garde ballet choreographer William Forsythe (Just Dancing Around, (1995)), and his dramatic reconstruction: Artangel: the Battle of Orgreave (2002), set during the 1984-85 miners' strike.

Figgis has also continued to make occasional feature films in Britain. The Browning Version was the most conventional of these. Terence Rattigan's play had previously been filmed in 1951; for the second screen version the story of a public school classics teacher facing enforced retirement and the break-up of his marriage was given only a superficial update. The Loss of Sexual Innocence is an example of the director's more experimental side. Filmed in England, Italy and Africa, after Figgis had completed the $25 million One Night Stand (US, 1997) in New York, it represented a move away from both big budgets and conventional narrative form. Inter-cutting an inter-racial retelling of the story of Adam and Eve with a series of autobiographical fragments, the film is centred around the character of Nic (Figgis regular Julian Sands), at the beginning seen as a voyeuristic five year-old in Kenya, at the close as a documentary film-maker looking for locations in Tunisia, whose brief liaison with the girlfriend of his sound-recordist leads to a tragic (and genuinely shocking) finale.

Figgis's concern with exploring the tensions within sexual relationships was evident also in Miss Julie. But where The Loss of Sexual Innocence moved freely across time and countries, Miss Julie -- set in late nineteenth nineteenth-century Sweden but filmed at Pinewood -- remained positively claustrophobic in the way it restricted the action to a single set. The use of handheld cameras and occasional split-screen framings also revealed a director experimenting with the limitations and potentials of film and intent on a Dogme-like return to film-making at its most raw.

Having explored these more systematically in Timecode, Figgis continued his experimentation with digital cinematography and dividing the frame in Hotel (2001), a British-Italian co-production set in a Venetian hotel whose residents include assorted vampires, a film crew making a Dogme version of The Duchess of Malfi, and a television crew making a film about the Dogme film. Lacking the tight, real-time structure of Timecode, Hotel was a sign of how uneven Figgis's work can be. Yet his strength can be found in that very variable quality. Not a director who has been content to restrict himself to home ground, nor one fitting neatly into that group of British directors who have made Hollywood their home, Mike Figgis has continued to cross borders, to experiment, and on occasions to extend the very language of film.

Guy Barefoot, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Thumbnail image of Stormy Monday (1988)Stormy Monday (1988)

Mike Figgis' feature debut: a moody thriller set in rainswept Newcastle

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Thumbnail image of Burrows, Saffron (1972-)Burrows, Saffron (1972-)