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Lost Issue: Mike Figgis Interview Part 1 of 2

Blowing His Own Horn

For director Mike Figgis, composing is more than a One Night Stand

by Daniel Schweiger


This Lost Issue interview took place all the way back in late 1997!

There are indelible images and attitudes that we associate with film noir; the smoke of a femme fatale's cigarette, a city's wet streets, a corpse hidden in the past's closet, the feeling of morality thrown to the wind in favor of sexual heat. But film noir also has an indelible sound -- the strains of jazz. The notes of a horn wafting in the air like so much smoke, the music as cool and as ice, or as sizzling as the flush before a murder. And no one plays this sound for the movies like Mike Figgis.

In Figgis' atmosphere-drenched world, female voices wail with impending doom. Trumpets dance with ethereal synthesizers. Sometimes the music is a funkadelic blast, and at other times its dark rumble can barely be heard above a gust of wind. Figgis' work is a hypnotic wall of sound, possessing the kind of originality and brilliance that can only come from a composer with the chutzpah to counter the sound-alike quality of many Hollywood scores. The fact that Figgis the musician answers to himself as a director is no small factor in the success his soundtracks.

Like such director-composers auteurs Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven), John Carpenter (Halloween) and Charlie Chaplin (City Lights), Mike Figgis has more than proven that he carry a tune. Beginning with the sensual jazz of Stormy Monday, Figgis has tried to be a committee of one on his scores. And he's succeeded brilliantly with the Latin beat of Internal Affairs (co-written by Brian Banks and Anthony Marinelli), the haunted melodies of Liebestraum, his use of Sting's jazz standards for Leaving Las Vegas and now the psychological darkness of One Night Stand (available on Verve Records).

With a love of jazz instilled by his journalist father, Figgis had originally intended to be a music teacher. But studying classical composition and harmony at Trent Park was not "particularly hip," especially in late 1960's in England. With the trumpet as his main instrument, Figgis dropped the teaching idea to play in jazz and rock bands, joining Bryan Ferry's earliest gigs as well as forming his own group The People Band. Experimental theater soon followed, and for the next 10 years, Figgis toured the world as an actor, writer and musician. By 1980, he'd formed The Mike Figgis Group, a theater company widely acclaimed for incorporating celluloid into its stage shows. While film school had proven a bust for Figgis, theater ultimately lead to a career rebirth as a director, Making his first pictures for Channel Four, it wasn't long before Figgis became the next hot thing in film noir with 1988's Stormy Monday.

Independence is the key to Figgis' beautifully textured work, and the director takes pride in the "cool control" of his distinctive jazz sound. The exceptions are his removal from Mr. Jones, and his vacating of his composing duties to Mark Isham for The Browning Version, a film which necessitated the kind of dramatic orchestral score that Figgis would rather leave to other composers.

Ever the iconoclast, the acclaim of Leaving Las Vegas has now given Figgis the power to transform Joe Esterhaz's reportedly exploitative script for One Night Stand into his own brand of noir. Thankfully, this is the furthest thing you can imagine from Basic Instinct. No bondage. No murder. Not even that much sex. What this flawed and memorable picture delivers is an eccentric morality play on sex and love in the age of Aids. The music is psychological in tone, a grab bag of styles from jazz funk to Beethoven and Japanese flutes. The female voices are back as well, mournfully building with the throes of passion and death, all hinging on a character's realization that the woman of his dreams comes at the cost of his family.

While Mike Figgis had played the trumpet and keyboards for his scores out of love and financial necessity, Figgis now gets to do a "studio" picture on his own musical terms. Vegas ' success has bred an 90-piece orchestra, not that Figgis uses it in the conventional way. Their strings intermingle with his keyboards and trumpet, deepening his wall of sound with a classical touch and a gorgeous love theme. Figgis' music for One Night Stand is a complex work of beauty, the next step in the evolution of jazz scoring where film noir doesn't have to be murder.


DS: What appeals to you about jazz?

Mike Figgis: I inherited my love of jazz from my father, who was absolutely crazy about it. I grew up with jazz from the day I was born. The improvisational element of it appealed to me, as well as the fact that it's a musical form which is exclusive to the 20th century. In a way, the history of jazz's development is a small mirror of classical music's development through the centuries. Now jazz is a living form of original music, while classical music has gotten to the end of its cycle in terms of exploring its form.

DS: Your films come across as visual jazz. They almost seem to be improvised, especially in One Night Stand when you have Wesley Snipes talking to the camera. It's an off-the-cuff feeling that reminds me of the work of Alan Rudolph and Robert Altman, two directors who are also very influenced by jazz. Do you think your style has anything in common with theirs'?

MF: We don't have that much in common, except an appreciation of that music form. It gives us a certain kind of energy that's important to a film. Jazz colors the way that we edit. It keeps various themes going, and lets them jibe together in a way that's not strictly academic. It doesn't let the narrative doesn't grind to a halt.

DS: How would you describe the piece that opens One Night Stand ?

MF: I'd describe it as "film funk." It's got a lot of holes in it, which allow for Wesley Snipes' dialogue. When I do the music, I make the musicians listen to what's happening in the film. That way they treat the dialogue as if it was a singer. They're playing with that, instead of a separate track. So the music gives the opening a good energy and lightness for his character. But there's a lot of heavy stuff in the film as well, so I needed a lot of contrasting kinds of music that had the ability to change color and combine from time to time. So there's this tight "funk" sound, and then a heavy string sound. That comes from 90 musicians playing live, and is really featured in the third act.

DS: But you don't give the strings a traditional, "film score" sound.

MF: I tried to get a sound that wasn't classically string-dominated, so I used a 50-50 combination of voice and strings, which are often playing in parallel.

DS: Yet classical music plays an important part in One Night Stand.

MF: I used the Cavantina from a Beethoven String Quartet, which was played live in the film by the Juilliard Sting Quartet. I also did a jazz version of a Bach piece that I've known for 20-odd years. It worked so well in the temp that I wanted to have it in the film.

DS: Do you compose the themes before you shoot the film?

MF: Sometimes, but not on this one particularly. It all depends on what's in my bag. I've held onto little musical sketches that I thought could be useful, and the more time that I spend doing them for each film, then the more I have to draw on.

DS: Do you play your music on the set for the actors?

MF: I might have a guitar or a piano on set to play something for the actors. While I was on pre-production for Leaving Las Vegas, I played Nick and Elizabeth the theme I'd be using on the piano. But I don't feel it's necessary to play music when I'm shooting. I can usually talk actors through the music pretty well.

DS: Who usually plays on your scores?

MF: It depends on the music budget. If I can't afford strings, then I'll "keyboard" it a lot, and color it with the trumpet or Fluegelhorn. On Leaving Las Vegas, everything was keyboard originated. The only live music was the jazz musicians and myself. But on One Night Stand there are no keyboard sounds at all. Everything's live.

DS: How does music influence your direction?

MF: I like to work my camera as if it were a musical instrument. You can do really slow movements with it, like zooming in for a minute and a half. The audience isn't aware that the camera has moved, but there's subconscious tension there. I'll use that to creep very low base and string movement in, which is designed to go with the camera movement. Then I'll make that music so low in the mix that it sits there like a soft texture, underneath the sound effects. I find that really maximizes the psychological tension in a scene without ramming the score down anyone's throat. The power of sound to put an audience in a certain psychological state is vastly undervalued. And the more you know about music and harmony, the more you can do with that.

DS: What mood do you want people to be in for One Night Stand?

MF: The film has three acts, which are all very different. Because the movie is basically a love story, I wanted the first act to have a certain kind of energy and humor. The second act has a "New York" feel, which is a ballet story with dark humor. And the third act is touching. So you've got three opportunities to use music in different ways.


To be Continued in the next Lost Issue...

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