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Lost Issue: Mike Figgis Interview Part 2 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!

DS: Your main theme of One Night Stand really helps to gives the film a romantic quality.

MF: I temped the film with a couple of different things for the love theme, and none of them were quite right. Then one day we had a preview that I needed music for. So I improvised this thing with keyboard, strings and horns, and it worked beautifully. I really wanted to hang onto that music, so I kept the horn parts and used 90 musicians to play my improvisation. Then I added base and piano, and it became an incredibly elaborate theme. That fact that you can even do something like that is a wonder of modern musical technology. You get an actual score out of an improvisation.

DS: Do you think there's a comparison to the way your music depicts Aids in One Night Stand and alcoholism in Leaving Las Vegas ?

MS: Both films have tragic characters, who are dying because of something that was brought on by their love of life. But you could argue that it was not the character's choice to die in any way, shape or form in One Night Stand. The strength of Robert Downey Jr.'s and Nicholas Cage's performances also allowed me to go that much further with the music, because the counterpoint between their humorous stoicism gives the scores a bit more latitude.

DS: You use voices in a particularly mournful way. The climactic sex scene between Wesley Snipes and Nastassia Kinski uses wailing vocals that continue to build until they overwhelm the soundtrack. It's almost the same "fuck of death" music that you used for the ending of Leaving Las Vegas .

MS: I use female voices a lot, because it's the most emotive sound you'll ever hear. The range of the female voice is close to the range of musical instruments that you'd use in a filmc score. And if you don't have them sing words, then you can abstract their vocals. For example, you have the choice of not using vibrato, recording the voices dry, or recording them wet. So there's an incredible range of choice with the female voice, and I've used them on everything I've done.

DS: But the voices always used in a tragic way. They're never quite "happy."

MF: I think "happy" music is a lie for the most part. "Happy" music is like prozak. The world is an infinitely fascinating, tragic and humorous place. There's a sadness to the human condition that I think music is good for. It gives a counterpoint to the visual beauty, and adds depth to pictures that they wouldn't have if the music wasn't there.

DS: During one scene in a Japanese restaurant, the flute music is played so aggressively that it changes from "source" to underscore.

MF: Years ago when I started listening to different kinds of music, I bought a series of Nonesuch albums called "World Explorer," which had Japanese flutes in it. I used that in the temp, and it added a lot of tension. When you listen to it, you suddenly feel that you're in a Japanese film. And with Ming-Na Wen being half-Chinese, it added to the edge of her character. And then I discovered that the flutes made total sense in a weirdly atonal way when I crossed them into the next sequence's music. The changeover was just incredible. So rather than fading out the Japanese music as soon as possible, I just kept it running.

DS: But source music usually isn't supposed to call attention to itself.

MF: I've spent my life hearing people trying to apologize for music. They say "A great movie doesn't need music," and "You should hear the actors when they're trying to speak." But I don't agree with those opinions. I think I'm much more interested in using cinema as a contemporary version of opera. I want the score to have a really big voice. What's unique about the cinema, and what separates it from the theater is the way we use audio technology to amplify the actors' voices. That's a "musical" approach to dialogue. Shouldn't the approach to film music be the same? So in a sense, I've decided to come out of the closet as a composer and say that the music is as important as everything else. Because of that, I think I've turned a corner on One Night Stand.

DS: You could say that your first picture was a jazz film, since much of Stormy Monday 's mob intrigue centered around a Polish band that had just arrived in England.

MF: Stormy Monday came from the experience and knowledge I had of the music scene in Northern England. Because it was a low-budget feature, no one ever argued if I was going to do the score or not. They didn't have the money to bring in an outside composer. I was very happy with that situation, and did the music I could with the money I had.

DS: You really feel that the musicians are jamming on screen. How did you get that improvisatory feel?

MF: My use of jazz players hasn't changed much since Stormy Monday, and it all starts before you get your principal musicians in. You make sure that there's a structure that's interesting for them to play on top of, then do temp versions and try it on the film. By the time the players come to the recording session, I've found what works. So I'm not wasting their time. They know I've brought them in because I like their playing. They blow with the picture. Sometimes they'll do a version that's great for an album track, but we'll have to pull their playing back for the actual film version so that the actors' dialogue can come through. When music's too busy, the whole mix becomes too rich. The boring thing that I repeat time and time again to the actors and musicians is "do less," "do less."

DS: So how much improvisation do you really think goes on in your scores?

MF: I think there's a lot of controlled improvisation. I'd call it "cool control." I'm not interested in people showing me that they can jump with their instruments, because I know that 5,000 background players can do that. What I'm interested in is tone, and the ability to articulate in a very minimal way. That's the sign of a mature musician, and that's what I look for.

DS: What was it like for you to deal with a Hollywood studio on Internal Affairs, and to try and convince them you could composer music as well as direct?

MF: It was frustrating. Since I'd scored my first film, I didn't understand why they didn't want me to do the same thing for Internal Affairs. There's an ongoing, uneasy suspicion of someone who composes music who isn't a "legitimate" composer. It's always "why don't you get someone else to score this," "Is it a hobby," or "Do you just need the extra cash?" Until the time of Leaving Las Vegas, I'd always had to fight and justify why someone else shouldn't do the music. Studio executives know as much about music as I know about being a studio executive, and have as much interest as I do at being an executive. They might know what they like, but they actually know nothing about music. Explain to them the psychological difference between a minor chord and a major chord, and they wouldn't know what the fuck I was talking about! Music is a highly evolved art form, and then you have a cartel of composers who basically have the favor of the studios. They control most of the soundtracks that come out of major studio productions. Therefore, the kinds of musical sounds you're going to hear in "Hollywood" movies are very limited. It's a frustrating situation, because those composers are capable of much more interesting work, and they don't necessarily do it, because at the end of the day they've been hired to do a specific kind of job.

DS: Did you have to go through living hell to get Paramount to finally buy you as a composer for Internal Affairs ?

MF: They didn't "buy" me. They indulged me by only allowing me to do the score if I worked with two other guys. Fortunately, Brian Banks and Anthony Marinelli had a great studio in Hollywood, and were very open to the way that I wanted to work. So even though there are three music credits on Internal Affairs, I felt that I got exactly what I wanted from that film. It's a very good collaborative score. In the end, Paramount thought they contained me. But even though the soundtrack worked well, they never came up to me and said "we really liked this music." They never thought about it again.

DS: The interesting thing about the sound of Internal Affairs was how you combined a Latin groove with your jazz approach.

MF: Brian and Anthony had a tight collection of musicians that they called upon, and I was able to work the way that I normally do with incredible players, which is to improvise the score and talk about the film on a scene-by-scene basis. And I felt that overlaying of percussion and guitar sounds were appropriate musical colors, since Internal Affairs was set in Los Angeles and starred Andy Garcia and Richard Gere.

DS: Tell me about Liebestraum.

MF: Given the nature of the film, and the bizarreness of its story, I didn't want to go into the kind of shocking imagery that David Lynch specialized in. I wanted to do something more subversive. Yet If there was anyone that I felt some kind of musical kinship with at the time, it was David Lynch's composer Angelo Badalamenti. He uses slow rising fifth techniques, low frequencies, and a clarinet for some sweetness. I decided to go for something with a lot of low frequency, that would be present all the way though the film. I worked at pitch-bending low frequencies and then taking them down four octaves. I built up textures and samples that were so "cloud-like" that harmony wasn't even a consideration. It was deep tonal clusterings and intense base movements. You can do that very effectively in modern cinema, because of the base units in movie theaters. But I had huge problems when I mixed the score in England, because the Dolby system would not read some of the low frequencies. And they never solved that particular problem. We just had to put a lot of noise reduction on some cues because they sounded like eggs frying!

DS: Liebestraum has a beautiful piano theme.

MF: That was just something I came up with in the studio. I'd written another cue for it, which didn't work. So I sat down and played something, and it seemed to work. That's the nice thing about being the composer and the director. You can make executive decisions on the spot, and if you work on something for a couple of weeks, you can throw it out by saying "That was nice, but this is better because it's simpler."

DS: The soundtrack of Leaving Las Vegas received a lot of praise for Sting's jazz standards. What was it like to record them live?

MF: Sting has a recording studio at his house, and we worked together for a day with a pianist and a base player. I'd chosen the songs, and Sting had to learn them. So we just recorded them one after the other, in a very simple fashion. There were no instrumental overdubs at all on those songs. Sting just lit his fireplace, which kind of upset me at the time. I thought that the microphone was surely going to pick up this log fire, which it did from time to time. But it was Sting's house, and he was doing these songs for nothing. So I couldn't really argue!
DS: What do you think about the state of film scores?

MF: I think film scores are going through a very bad state. Albums have become product placements, where you condescend to a lot of last-minute and arbitrary decisions made about what music will end up on the soundtrack. They're based on product deals, which have had a disastrous effect on the use of music in films. The songs are usually an afterthought, and have nothing to do with the understanding of the psychology or power of music. Secondly, there's the psychology that music can be used to "rescue" an action movie. If a director has a wall-to-wall pounding score, then he can get away with murder. That's why there's such a lack of marriage now between the score and the film. They're in combat with each other. But a great score can make a film really come to life. You hear about the debate of colorizing old movies. I always thought there should be a parallel debate about "rescuing" some of these old films by re-scoring them. Often, a period score can date a film in a way which is unnecessary, because the style of acting and directing are contemporary. But the music gives the film a shelf life. So I'm troubled by a lot of film composing right now.

DS: But what about film scoring in the "old school" orchestral sense, like the kind of movie music that Jerry Goldsmith or Elmer Bernstein would write?

MF: What you're hearing is very competent musicianship from people who know what they're doing, and can create very crisp, very clever music. But I've often thought the best film music wasn't so competent. Perhaps it's a bit more naive, like Miles Davis' score for Elevator to the Scaffold. It's a minimalist, jazz approach that worked very well for the film.

DS: Would you every compose a traditional score for one of your films?

MF: No. The requirements of a film are always very specific. There are moments in a picture where you go for a traditional approach. I endorse that, and did it for One Night Stand. Yes, there's the "love theme." But within the context of an overall movie, there should never be the idea that there's a musical "feel" for an entire film, because your characters can change throughout it.

DS: But wouldn't you do a traditional score if you were directing a historical epic?

MF: Particularly in that instance I'd say no to a traditional score. If you're going to do a epic, the first question I'm going to ask is what kind of "spin" I can put on the music to separate it from every other generic epic? And the answer to me would lie in the cinematography and the score.

DS: How do you think your work stands with other jazz composers like Miles Davis or Mark Isham?

MF: My work is a purely individual thing, and the music seals the individuality of the film. The responses I've gotten to my music have been very healthy, and I think more people would use jazz scores if they felt secure about them. Some composers are afraid the music is going to get out of control, and turn into a "blow" on top of their film. I think people get nervous about jazz in terms of being able to contain it. I have a unique relationship with the film in terms of being the director and the composer, and that's what separates my work from other films. The delicate final stage of the underscore is left unassaulted in that way. The films I've directed, but haven't done the scores for have been incomplete from my point of view.

DS: Do you think you'll ever attempt to do a big studio film again?

MF: If I do another one, it will be on the basis that I get to control the music. Whether it's by choosing the composer, or by doing it myself. It's not an ego thing, because you lose a year of your life each time you make a film. I don't want to be in a position again where I have to abdicate the final psychological judgment of the film and its score to someone else. As a filmmaker, I find that irresponsible.

DS: How does One Night Stand stand out among your jazz scores?

MF: I think it's the live quality of the music. One Night Stand is the most ambitious score I've done. It's given me the ability to experiment with live musicians, and use a classical approach with a jazz approach. The combination of the two is very successful, and I'm very happy with it. You can never second-guess how a lot of people playing something you've written is going to sound like. You know what it will be like harmonically, but it's emotionally new to you, particularly as these pieces of music accompany very large and tragic scenes. But I'm very happy with the way my music for One Night Stand has come together. I've loved all of my scores, but this one to me has the biggest dynamic range.

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