Advertisement

‘Monday’s’ Figgis and All That Jazz

Share via

Having played in the murky, wee-hours jazz clubs of Newcastle as an aspiring musician, Mike Figgis had always nurtured a vague idea about using that evocative milieu as a setting for a thriller.

Then lightning struck. The 40-year-old director’s first film, “The House,” made for Great Britain’s commercial Channel 4 TV, earned rave reviews--and won Figgis an audience with super-producer and ex-Columbia Pictures chief David Puttnam.

“He told me I was doing the sort of film he liked and immediately asked what I was developing next,” recalled Figgis, an engaging guy with a dry wit, a zest for ideas and a scruffy mop of curly hair. “Of course, I frantically dredged my mind, because the last thing I wanted to say was, ‘Well, no, I haven’t really thought of anything.’ ”

Advertisement

Figgis grinned. “So I began spinning this tale about a thriller in Newcastle, set in the jazz clubs, with a tough club owner and all sorts of shady characters. . . .”

Inspired, Figgis wrote, scored and directed “Stormy Monday,” a $4-million jazz noir that opened strong last week, grossing $80,000 in just seven theaters. He ultimately landed the financial backing of Atlantic Releasing Corp., though Puttnam helped out with what Figgis dubbed “a very charming” letter of recommendation.

Co-starring Sting, Melanie Griffith and Tommy Lee Jones, “Stormy Monday” is loaded with the kind of sultry performances and stylish atmosphere that can put a fledgling director on the map. New York Times critic Janet Maslin praised the film’s “haunting, deeply evocative mood,” calling Figgis’ direction “intensely stylish without any effort or strain.”

The Times’ Sheila Benson called it a “great-looking diversion.”

From Figgis’ point of view, it was the script that required real effort. “My original draft of the script made ‘Nashville’ look simple by comparison,” he said over breakfast at a West Hollywood hotel. “I had so much material that I’d always wanted to work into a film that it was totally self-indulgent and completely unworkable. Finally, I realized that I had enough good stories that I should narrow it down to just a couple of tales--and save the rest for another film.”

Of course in today’s film world, you need more than a good script to green-light a film. You also need a bankrollable cast. With that in mind, Figgis flew to L.A., where he wooed Sting--also a Newcastle native and graduate of the local jazz circuit--for the film’s key role of Finney, an ex-musician and tenacious club owner.

“We had quite a start,” Sting recalled. “I didn’t know Mike had parked his car by my garage, so when I drove out I bashed the whole car in and practically destroyed it!

Advertisement

“Of course, it was a great part for me. I’d grown up in Newcastle, working in the jazz clubs, so I knew the place and I knew the characters. In fact, my brother is a club owner there--I based a lot of my character on him. The club in the film is exactly like the ones there. They were the kind of places where you’d go see the owners at the end of the night and wonder whether you’d get paid or beat up.

“In fact, I used to go see Mike when he played in a local band called the Gas Board with (pop star) Brian Ferry. It was hard to forget Mike--he was the one wearing a caftan on stage.”

What impressed Sting the most about Figgis was how he freely collaborated with his actors. “My beef about directors, in my limited career as an actor, is that they rarely have time to really work with actors,” Sting said. “They’re too busy hustling money, dealing with studio executives and worrying about camera angles.

“Mike didn’t treat me like a coat hanger. I’ve always had control over my music, so I’m not used to giving control of my work over to someone else. So we discussed the scenes together and made working together a real partnership.”

Still, Sting’s presence on his hometown turf prompted a wave of minor hysteria. “It’s lucky that he’s wonderful with crowds,” Figgis said. “We’d be shooting outside on a Friday night, which is just an outrageous time in Newcastle. You have these gangs of drunken men--and loads of drunken women, all in tiny miniskirts. They’d stand across from the set, ogling Sting, singing ‘Roxanne,’ lifting their skirts and making rude gestures.

“Sting handled what could’ve been a nightmare very well. He got rid of his Winnebago on the first day of shooting, stopped worrying about whether the locals were going to punch him in the nose for being a phony and did the right thing--went off drinking with everyone in the local pubs.”

Advertisement

Figgis knows Newcastle’s pub circuit intimately. He played in bands throughout school, most notably the Gas Board, an R & B group that featured Brian Ferry, who asked Figgis to join him in London in a new band called Roxy Music. Instead, he concentrated on an acting career, spending most of the ‘70s in the People Show, a noted European experimental theater group. In 1980 he left to work on several individual theatrical productions.

“Stormy Monday” relies on much of Figgis’ memories from his club days. “The people in the film aren’t exaggerated at all,” he explained. “Sting’s character is sort of a charming version of a club owner who’d been around for years.”

Figgis said his musical and theater background has served him well in film. “The People Show was a perfect transition to film for me. Most of our cues in our shows came from a very dense sound track, which underscored the dramatic moments of the show. It was as if you were watching a movie, but live. So you had to learn--very precisely--about sound, lighting and performance. And that kind of artistic discipline lends itself very well to cinema, because now if I want an effect, I know technically how to achieve it.

“For me, cinema is the opera of the 20th Century. It’s everything Wagner wanted to do with his operas--light, sound, music and striking imagery, but all on celluloid.”

Like many British directors, Figgis is fascinated by American culture--and clearly enamored by the prospect of making films here.

“Movies are the ultimate American images,” he said. “If you’ve grown up here, it’s probably hard to appreciate how strong the American cultural influence is overseas. But for someone who comes from England, where the culture is so fossilized, America is incredibly attractive, in the sense that change can happen so fast.

Advertisement

“American culture is so dynamic. Look what’s happened just since the 1800s. You’ve come up with a new design and landscape--the skyscraper--for your cities. You’ve developed electricity and the gramophone, so that Louis Armstrong, a poor black man from New Orleans, can be canonized by rich British public schoolboys.

“In fact, jazz is a perfect microcosm for the rapidity of change in your society. In the space between 1925 and 1965, you’ve got a mirror image of what took 700 years to develop in European culture.”

He beamed: “In a lot of ways, America is just Europe on speed!”

Figgis’ theater training also helped him find the right psychological approach to use with his actors--especially Tommy Lee Jones.

“Once you get to know him he’s a real softie who’ll do anything for the film,” Figgis said. “But he’ll test you. When I first had lunch with him, he did his Tommy Lee (tough guy) impression.”

Figgis’ eyes became tiny slits as he fixed his visitor with a menacing glare.

“Let’s just say he really scared me.” Figgis offered a wry shrug. “But it was a good experience for me, because I had to know exactly what I wanted and be able to justify it to my actor. But you love working with an actor with his presence. When he walks into a scene, it’s as if they turned up the lights 20%.”

Figgis is planning to shoot his first American film this summer, a movie set in 1950s Texas called “Hot Spot.”

Advertisement

“If you’re interested in really good stories, with all sorts of bizarre plots and weird twists,” he said, pointing toward the Hollywood skyline, “then this is the place to be.”

Advertisement