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For writer John O’Brien, Leaving Las Vegas was a last testament; the author of the semi-autobiographical novel about a man who intentionally drowns in a pool of alcohol ended his own life last year, shooting himself while the movie based on his book was in pre-production.
For Mike Figgis, however, Vegas is a chance at rebirth. After watching his last two films, Mr. Jones and The Browning Version, be second-guessed into mush by meddling producers, the British director was ready to abandon movie-making altogether. Instead, he decided to make Vegas on anti-Hollywood terms.
His first decision, Figgis explained during a recent promotional visit to Washington, was to shoot in super- 16mm, which “to most Americans is an amateur stock.” As a veteran of British TV, he was familiar and even fond of the format. “I love the whole feel of it,” says the director, whose shock of tight curls suggests perhaps a former member of Foghat. (Actually, he once played in the Gas Board, a Newcastle R&B band that also featured Bryan Ferry.) “Everything’s a little softer. It’s like shooting the film on a much longer lens,” which gives a very limited depth of field.
The format, he notes, “is pretty common in Europe. A lot of television is shot in it.” And, as the finished Vegas demonstrates, “the blowup from 16mm doesn’t have to be embarrassing.”
Shooting in 16, Figgis argues, actually made actors more comfortable. A 35mm camera, he explains, “is awesome. It looks like space technology. You get the feeling that you’re dealing with eight geniuses. And you’re just an actor.”
Having already lined up stars Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue, Figgis attempted to arrange financing for a $2.5-million film, only to find that the low number frightened movie-biz veterans. “People don’t care about the script,” one producer told him. “But they get really frightened when you say 2.5.” Eventually, he added another million to the budget, and got the money from Lumière, a French distribution company with a recently opened American office.
Though he lauds the contributions of Cage, Shue, and “brilliant first assistant director” Gary Marcus, Vegas was Figgis’ show; in addition to directing, he wrote the score and the script. “If you’re going to direct, it’s a lot quicker” to write the screenplay, he says. “I think of scripts as a very disposable thing. My scripts are pretty minimal.”
While the tawdry Showgirls and the violent Casino were accepted in Vegas, Figgis’ film was not. “I couldn’t get permission to shoot in any of the casinos,” he says. “It was interesting from my point of view that they wouldn’t let me shoot in any casinos because of a moral judgment.”
First, he marvels, he had to get the approval of the city’s police department. “I’ve never been in a town where the police have a veto,” he notes. It turned out that Vegas cops were only concerned about references to the mob and heroin, neither of which feature in Vegas, so he was allowed to shoot on the street. The casino scenes were filmed in Laughlin, Nev., while the rest was shot on locations and sets in L.A.
There’s a sense of camaraderie that results “when you publicly announce you’re doing a film with no money,” Figgis notes. “Actors started hanging out on the set, dropping in for coffee. I think word got around that it was a fun set.”
The director called on people who worked in his previous films, notably Julian Sands, who appeared in The Browning Version, and Laurie Metcalf, who starred in Internal Affairs; Sting, who’s heard on the soundtrack, acted in the director’s first feature, Stormy Monday. Also seen briefly in the film are Valeria Golino, Richard Lewis, Steven Weber, Julian Lennon, Lou Rawls, and directors Bob Rafelson, Vincent Ward, and Danny Huston, as well as Figgis himself.
Vegas is the director’s first movie in several years with one of his own jazz and ballad scores, but that’s not the way he wanted it. His music was wiped from both Mr. Jones and Browning; on the latter, a remake of a 1951 film, it was replaced with just the sort of fake-classical music he had intended to avoid.
“I wanted to get as far away from the original as I could. I did not want to make a Merchant-Ivory film,” he explains. “When I screened the film for the studio, they all wept. And when they cry, they instantly say, “Oscar.’ ”
Then, he notes, the studio head said, “That score is horrible”—not knowing that Figgis had written it.
“People are magnetically attached to an original. If you’re going to do a remake, you have to be bold,” Figgis says. By the time the studio tinkerers were finished with Browning, however, critics dismissed it as a pale imitation. The director didn’t get credit, for example, for challenging the earlier movie’s misogyny.
The original’s wife “was portrayed as a complete cunt,” he accurately notes. Figgis gave the character a point of view and some motivation, and “suddenly [the film] was about a marriage, not just about a man.”
“In a way, The Browning Version was a bigger challenge for me” than Vegas, he recalls. “It was almost like making an experimental film, dealing with the English upper class.”
“I think British culture is pretty boring. It has become a museum culture.” Britain, the director reflects, creates artists because it’s so “repressed. Mrs. Thatcher in her perverted way created [many] artists.”
Figgis, of course, has a problem with authority figures. During the post-production period that led to the adulterated Jones and Browning, he claims he sometimes contemplated violence. “In retrospect, I don’t know how I controlled myself physically. I don’t think I’ve ever had conversations with so many stupid people,” he says. When talking to studio hacks, “the part of your brain that’s free is thinking, “Why don’t you just hit this person, and he’ll get the point.’ ”
No wonder the director found it liberating to make a no-budget film about a hooker’s romance with an alcoholic indulging a death wish. While he admits that “I’ve heard, secondhand” that some people find Vegas depressing, Figgis found it exhilarating. “Despite the subject matter,” he says, “it was the most fun I’ve had making a movie.”