MOVIES : Playing the Cards as They're Dealt : Director Mike Figgis takes a gamble adapting a difficult tale of love, loss in 'Las Vegas.'

Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

Sometimes art and life get so tangled up together that it becomes impossible to distinguish one from the other. That's pretty much the case with Mike Figgis' new film, "Leaving Las Vegas." A chronicle of the final days of an alcoholic who goes to Las Vegas to drink himself to death, "Leaving Las Vegas" is based on the largely autobiographical novel of the same name by John O'Brien.

Like the film's central character, Ben (played by Nicolas Cage), O'Brien was an alcoholic who spent lots of time in Las Vegas. Unlike Ben, however, he didn't drink himself to death in that grim city of lights. What he did instead was end his life at the age of 33 with a self-inflicted gunshot wound, just as Figgis' film was about to start shooting. Needless to say, this turn of events had a profound effect on Figgis and his cast.

"I was in pre-production on the film in April of last year when I got the call that John had committed suicide," says Figgis, who was named best director at this year's San Sebastian Film Festival for his work on the film. "Obviously, I was quite upset and considered not making the film, but eventually I decided that John wrote a great book, and the most I could do for him was to go ahead and make the film."

Adds Cage: "This book is clearly John O'Brien's suicide letter, and I really felt the weight of portraying a dead man's suicide note. In order to play Ben I knew I had to keep myself in the zone of meditating on death--and I figured I could do it, because it was a short shoot. But believe me, I didn't like it because I'm a pro-life guy, and I had to go to a crummy little corner of my head in order to deliver my lines with any authenticity. I recently saw the film again and for the next three nights I had bad dreams about death--I knew it was a reaction to the movie."

Death does hover like a dark angel over this film, which was budgeted at $3.6 million and shot largely on location last September. That theme is tempered, though, by the love affair that comprises the core of the story; on arriving in Vegas, Ben meets a prostitute and the two fall deeply in love. Does this great love deliver them from their demons? Probably not to the degree that many viewers might want.

Figgis hopes, however, that audiences will look beyond surface plot points and see the film's deeper themes. "There's a repressed emotional core to John's book that he went to great lengths to obscure," says Figgis of O'Brien, who followed "Leaving Las Vegas" with two more novels--"Better" and "Stripper Lessons"--and was working on a fourth, "Assault on Tony's," at the time of his death. "John didn't want to be thought of as romantic, but this is a deeply romantic story."

Like Figgis, Elisabeth Shue--whose performance as the prostitute, Sera, has netted her the best reviews of her career--finds this "a devastating story, but not a depressing one. I'm sure some people will see the film and wonder how my character could fall in love with such a loser, but I don't see Ben as a loser. I see him as someone who's come to terms with his life and isn't afraid of dying.

"As for Sera," she continues, "she's a woman who's struggling to find a ray of hope in a life rapidly going downhill. I got to know some call girls in preparing for the part, but I didn't approach the performance as if I were playing a hooker because I don't see that as her defining quality. I see her as someone who's been damaged by life, and the fact that she's a hooker is secondary."

While O'Brien obviously based the character of Ben on himself, it remains a mystery as to whether there actually was a Sera. Says Lisa O'Brien, who met John O'Brien while both were attending high school in Cleveland, Ohio, and married him in 1979: "John made frequent trips to Las Vegas alone to research the book, but we never talked about what went on there because I didn't want to know. As to whether there was a Sera, I think she was a composite of several people, and was essentially John's fantasy woman: someone who would love him and let him drink."

The filming of O'Brien's hard-boiled novel got rolling, oddly enough, when L.A. art dealer Stuart Regen stumbled across it in 1991, a year after it was published.

"I was really moved by the book so I tracked John down and we met for coffee in December of 1991," Regen recalls. "I told him I was interested in making his book into a film and he said he didn't want it turned into a Hollywood movie with a happy ending because that's not what it was about. He seemed skeptical about the prospect of the movie, but sold me the option on the book anyhow, in January of 1992. He told me we should feel free to contact him if we had questions about the characters--but I'm sure he thought the movie would never be made."

Regen, however, was sure it would be and in fairly short order he'd recruited Figgis, who set to work on an adaptation of the book. "I didn't ask John to write the script because I'd been told he didn't want to be involved with that," Figgis says. "I had a pretty clear idea of what did and didn't work in the book in terms of film, so I decided to write it myself and spent three days doing a cut up of the book.

"By the time I finished the screenplay I'd spent so much time immersed in John's book that I wanted to know him because I thought I'd like him," Figgis adds. "I'd heard he'd come into my lawyer's office, and when I asked what he was like I was told he was nice but that some kind of dark agenda was going on--apparently he'd just been beaten up and was badly bruised."

There was indeed a dark agenda at work, Lisa O'Brien reports.

"Beginning in 1982 John's drinking began to steadily escalate and by 1986 he'd begun bouncing in and out of rehab," she recalls. "That went on until 1990 when he finally got sober and wrote the book.

"John never wrote drunk, but while he was working on the book he told me he planned to start drinking again in January of 1991, and that's what he did. Things turned quickly after that. Early in 1992 I started spending a lot of time in Cleveland because my mother was ill, and he began to withdraw from me, then that November he left me for another woman. He wanted to drink and I was getting in the way of that."

Without the stabilizing influence of his marriage, O'Brien's downward spiral accelerated at a dizzying pace, and in March, 1994, his father, Bill O'Brien, was summoned from Ohio to L.A. by a doctor in a detox clinic.

"I went the next day and got John out of the hospital and tried to talk him into going into a long-term facility--to which he replied, 'Nobody's gonna make me stop drinking,' " Bill O'Brien recalls. "He told me he wasn't a social drinker, and that he preferred to sit alone in a silent, dark room with a case of whiskey and just pour it down.

"There was nothing I could do, so I returned to Cleveland," he adds. "I cried on the plane because I knew we were in for something--there were just too many things piled up against John. The doctors had told him that physiologically he had to stop drinking. He had a court date coming up for a DUI he'd gotten and was facing the prospect of no driver's license and hundreds of AA meetings. He'd lost his job at a coffeehouse, couldn't afford the apartment he was in, and was alone for the first time in his alcoholic life. So what he did--as Ben does in the book--was get rid of everything he loved, then take his own life."

John and Lisa O'Brien had left Cleveland for the West Coast shortly after their marriage, so O'Brien's family remains mystified by his death.

"I didn't even know John had a problem until I got that call from the doctor because he always hid his drinking from us," Bill O'Brien says. Lisa O'Brien, however, was along for the duration of John's rocky ride, and his death was something she'd been anticipating with dread for years.

"As with all of us, I'm sure there were things in John's family background that created problems for him," she says.

"I don't know if his childhood traumas were any worse than anyone else's, but whatever they were, he obviously couldn't handle them.

"I think John was manic depressive--he was deeply affected by weather, for instance--and like all alcoholics, he was selfish, extremely insecure and naive in that he romanticized the alcoholic lifestyle. But the older he got and the more he drank, the more he got in touch with the pain he'd spent his whole life desperately trying to blot out. I don't think he expected that to happen."

The prospect of telegraphing the degree of pain that O'Brien--and his alter ego, Ben--were in is a daunting one, and it spurred Cage to do extensive preparation. "For starters, I looked at what I consider the four great alcoholic performances: Ray Milland in 'The Lost Weekend,' Jack Lemmon in 'The Days of Wine and Roses,' Albert Finney in 'Under the Volcano' and Dudley Moore in 'Arthur,' " he recalls. "I also talked to drunks, studied their movements and read lots of literature on it. I couldn't find any film of someone experiencing delirium tremens, so I had to use my imagination for that.

"This is a man who's jettisoned himself from his problems by hitting such an all-time low that he no longer even feels pain," he says. "He's going down the river and has completely let go. A man who's not afraid to die can do anything he wants, so I thought there should be a certain buoyancy to the performance, that he should be able to smile and be childlike--and that's how I tried to play him.

"I knew I'd have to demand a lot of myself to play this character, and that it would probably wreak havoc on my personal life, which it did. By the end of the shoot my former girlfriend and I had broken up," adds Cage, who recently married actress Patricia Arquette.

In staying true to O'Brien's book to the degree that "Leaving Las Vegas" does, Figgis knew he was crafting a defiantly uncommercial film. "I've been told I'm gonna get lots of flak for the fact that the film makes no attempt to reform these characters, but not everyone gets to get well in this life," Figgis says. "Some people spend their entire lives treading water in an attempt to avoid being swept away by a particular current. This is the story of a man who simply decided to go with the current."

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