Think of a British hipster, circa the late '50s, beamed into the '90s almost intact. He's crazy about the blues, about Elvis, about Muddy Waters and the Everly Brothers. He's got what might be called a white Afro, a penumbra of frizzy hair teased out from his skull like a brother's, and, de rigueur, the jazzman's symbol, the goatee, a little tuft of blond hair sprouting defiantly from his chin. He's otherwise unshaven and he looks as if he hasn't bought a new piece of clothing since the Bird died.
And what would you expect from such a man? Certainly not conventionality or sentimentality. He would hear sounds no one else would hear and dare go places few else would care to accompany him. The demands of the market would be meaningless to him; he would do things by his own rhythms and to his own lights, and if you didn't like it, that wouldn't bother him a bit. He just does it his own way.
With director Mike Figgis, that's exactly what you get.
What he looks like, he is. What he does, he does. And what he's done this time is astounding: "Leaving Las Vegas," possibly the most corrosive, depressing, uncompromising film in years, a celebration of man's inexhaustible attraction to self-destruction. (It opens Friday at the Charles, ho ho ho!) It follows in excruciating detail as a writer finally gives up to the demon of alcoholism, sells everything he owns, goes to Vegas and proceeds to cheerily drink himself to death.
Not only that, the movie isn't some dark obscurity released by the Nobody-Will-Ever-See-This art-house distribution network; it's a bona fide big American movie, from United Artists, with big stars Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue.
"A friend gave me the book," reports Figgis, the most disreputably dressed (and totally oblivious) bloke in a fancy-schmancy Washington restaurant, "and it was one of those things where you feel obliged to read it." But he didn't for the longest time, until finally, for no other reason than to discharge that obligation and because he liked "the Mondrianesque graphics" of the cover (Figgis talks this way), he took it up.
"It was a bit of a fancy story," he reports, imparting an obscure English meaning to the word "fancy."
The book is anything but, by callow American standards. Written by one John O'Brien, a thinly disguised memoir from hell of his own largely unsuccessful life, it had been published in a small edition of a thousand or so. And it was something else: a suicide note disguised as a novel. O'Brien killed himself before the film went into production.
Naturally, Figgis loved it.
But there was something else, too.
"I was in a bad studio situation," he recalls bitterly, "and really [angry]. The book seemed fresh, a way to get away from what I was doing. So I thought it would be interesting to do as a very low-budget, nonstudio film."
But in spite of himself, he ended up with major stars and a major studio. He shot it in 16 mm for ultra-realism, on money raised by a European producer, with stars willing to take a chance for big, image-changing parts. But in the end United Artists picked it up and is giving it the big-ticket send-off.
Figgis had broken through a few years earlier with a jazzy film noir called "Stormy Monday" and consolidated with a big American hit -- his first American picture -- called "Internal Affairs," with Richard Gere (whose career it resuscitated) and Andy Garcia. Other work of interest followed, including the well-received drama "The Browning Version" and a thriller titled "Liebestraum." But the film Figgis does not name or claim is "Mr. Jones," another collaboration with Gere, this time as a manic-depressive, which got universally dismal reviews and died at the box office. There was also "Hot Spot," another film noir, which he developed but had such acrimony with the studio over that he left the project. The film was made by Dennis Hopper with Don Johnson; it was not a success either.
So Figgis wanted to make an unconventional film, dark and depressing and without the encumbrances of the studio system.
That meant without Winnebagos.
"When Hollywood makes a movie, everybody has to have a Winnebago. I had one and I was in it three times, to pee. It's not necessary. I can pee in a public bathroom like anyone else. On 'Leaving Las Vegas' I swapped my Winnebago for an extra focus puller."
But walking out on all this wasn't easy, he admits.
"When you've been poor all your life, and they're offering $3-to- $4 million a picture, it becomes very confusing. It's a very corrupt influence. The best thing that can happen to you is that they hate you and throw you out. I won't do studio again, at least in the sense of a studio-controlled, committee-driven film."
So he walked away -- freed from, as much as anything, the hated "backstory."
What's the backstory?
That's the question that has driven Figgis the maddest in his on-again, off-again relationship with Hollywood.
"I remember pitching 'Hot Spots' to four [studio] guys in monkey suits," he says. "And someone asked, 'What's the backstory?' Well, there was no backstory. The main character robbed banks. He was a bank robber, that's what he did. But they couldn't understand it without a 'backstory,' an elaborate explanation of how he got to where he got and why he got there. And more and more, that's what American movies are about: endless backstory, endless justification. If I'd wanted to make the backstory the movie, I would have!"
So "Leaving Las Vegas" has no backstory. We don't know what it is that compels Nick Cage's Ben to destroy his life in alcohol, or Elisabeth Shue's Sera, the prostitute, to spin her life out on the streets. Nobody knows, least of all Ben or Sera. They do what they do because that's who they are.
It is, one must say, an unusual project for someone who was born in Carlisle, England, grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, and then as a teen-ager moved to Newcastle, England.
But the ever-surprising Figgis is hostile to England, and says with complete passion, "I became an American when I heard Elvis Presley. And when I directed 'Internal Affairs' [about nasty L.A. cops], it was like I'd come home. I went to it like a fish to water. I never felt that way in England, where in fact nobody had been crazy about 'Stormy Monday.' "
In fact, his real profession was music; he traveled Europe for years with a group called the People Band and soon enough had segued into avant-garde theater with an outgrowth of that called the People Theater. He got into film in an odd way: As an avant-garde stage director and playwright, he began incorporating film imagery into his stage productions and soon found himself directing the films that would appear in the shows. Ultimately, the shows themselves dropped away as he became more and more consumed with the filmmaking itself.
Yet with such a background, wouldn't one expect a more adventurous format than the rugged, straight-ahead storytelling that has marked his professional film work?
"The advantage of 19 years of experimental theater," he says, "is that you can have every experience in form. If you do that, you come back to narrative, but with a heightened idiom. It should be cut to the bone so that you can do the other thing, which is texture."
Figgis says that his attraction to the demimonde may go back to the blues.
"Music colors everything for me. I embraced the romantic jazz myth totally. It is the basis of my films. I'm like a British blues guy taking something American and riffing with it."