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Figgis’ Own Idea of ‘One Night Stand’ : Story of Chance Romantic Encounter Is Ripped From Pages of Eszterhas Script

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Standing in the film-set doorway of a chic hotel room, Nastassja Kinski is trying to decide how to say goodbye to a handsome stranger. “I feel like I’m thinking two different things,” the actress purrs softly to director Mike Figgis. “I want to send him away, but I also want to. . . .”

She stretches out her arm longingly, as if trying to touch something that’s just out of reach.

Kinski and Wesley Snipes are the stars of Figgis’ new film, “One Night Stand,” which focuses on two people whose lives are transformed by a chance romantic encounter. The couple have met just moments before in a hotel lobby. Noticing that Snipes’ pen has leaked ink on his shirt, Kinski has invited him back to her room to change. When Kinski shows Snipes to the door, she holds his hand for what seems like an eternity before saying goodbye.

“Look at the way they’re holding hands,” says the 48-year-old British director, who is completing his first film since being nominated for a pair of Oscars for his edgy drama “Leaving Las Vegas.” “It must go on for 10 seconds before they look down and notice that they haven’t let go. I think that says all that needs to be said about how they feel.”

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To hear Figgis talk about “One Night Stand,” you’d almost imagine that this $23-million movie is a model of Jane Austen-style propriety. As it turns out, it’s a film with a notorious past, offering an intriguing glimpse into the topsy-turvy nature of Hollywood deal-making.

The movie originated as a raunchy tale of marathon sex penned by Joe Eszterhas, whose recent scripts (“Basic Instinct,” “Jade” and “Showgirls”) have been widely derided for their ham-handed sexist excess. Eszterhas sold a four-page outline of the script to New Line Pictures in 1994 for an astounding $4 million, with an additional $7 million slated for Adrian Lyne, who was attached to the project as a possible director. The purchase produced a spasm of hand-wringing by industry executives outraged by such free spending. But Lyne’s presence gave the package a commercial boost, since his films about sexual encounters, most notably “Fatal Attraction” and “Indecent Proposal,” had been worldwide box-office hits.

Eszterhas’ first draft certainly wasn’t the sort of script you’d want to give Bob Dole for bedtime reading. Its first 65 pages are given over to an Olympic decathlon-style sexual encounter between the couple, with almost as much trash talk about sex as sex itself.

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When Eszterhas submitted the script in early 1995, Lyne backed off from the deal, opting instead to make a new version of “Lolita.” New Line eventually approached Figgis, who by his own admission, was nearly broke after making “Leaving Las Vegas.” In return for a healthy fee (said to be around $2.5 million) Figgis agreed to direct the film if he could rewrite the script and shoot the movie in his informal, Robert Altman style, using several cameras and allowing space for ample improvisation.

“Mike wanted to do a major rewrite, which was fine with us, because he has a vision of how to bring the most to the material,” New Line President Mike DeLuca says. “We wanted an American ‘Last Tango in Paris,’ a film that explores sexual politics and hypocrisy. Joe’s script was about the couple’s relationship. Mike’s version focuses more on the consequences.”

Figgis and Eszterhas make quite an odd Hollywood couple, even though Eszterhas announced Wednesday that after having read Figgis’ final shooting script, he is asking New Line to remove his name from the film’s writing and producer credits. “The final screenplay isn’t mine--it’s Mike Figgis’.”

Of course, Eszterhas will keep his $4-million writer’s fee. And he takes credit for suggesting Figgis as a director for the film after Lyne departed. “Mike came to my house for lunch and said that it was a really intriguing script, but as a writer-director he’d want to work on it himself,” Eszterhas said in a recent interview. “What began as a polish grew into a rewrite, but I have a lot of respect for Mike, so I’m very curious to see how the film will turn out.”

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Later this year, New Line will submit a credit to the Writers Guild of America, which makes the final decision on credit issues.

After being lionized for his uncompromising work in “Leaving Las Vegas,” Figgis realizes that his involvement in an Eszterhas project may tarnish his reputation as a fearless independent. “I expect people will look at me like I’ve defected to the Fascist Party,” he says one day while filming on a Van Nuys sound stage that once housed a cluster bomb factory. “But I’m not going to be swayed by popular opinion. Joe’s script had something that was a lot less formulaic than the other scripts I was seeing.”

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Despite those kind words, Figgis has rewritten virtually the entire script, eliminating most of the raunchy sex patter and erotic gamesmanship. The story still portrays a married man’s fling with an exotic, alluring woman. But the two scripts steer the story in radically different directions. In Figgis’ rewrite, Eszterhas’ foul-mouthed Midwestern go-getter has been transformed into an ironic, Armani-clad hipster. It’s no wonder Eszterhas wants his credit removed. Reading the scripts is like hearing two different versions of the same song, one by Eddie Van Halen, the other by Wynton Marsalis.

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Figgis has also added a major subplot: Snipes’ character has an estranged friend who is dying of AIDS, played in the film by Robert Downey Jr. “A good friend of mine died of AIDS and it had a powerful effect on me,” says Figgis, who putters around the set with the distracted air of a math professor at work plotting final-exam equations. “To me, the character was a catalyst, someone who’d influence the other people in the film.”

Despite Downey’s much-publicized drug problems--he was arrested three times over the summer, once for possession of heroin, crack cocaine and an unloaded .357 Magnum--Figgis says the actor handled himself in a professional manner during filming. Figgis has acknowledged that Downey told him about his drug problems before he was hired, but Figgis gave him the job anyway, “out of respect” for his talent.

In an era when even a major Hollywood star like Denzel Washington is never cast in a romantic part with a white actress, the film’s casting of Snipes and Kinski as lovers (as well as actress Ming-Na Wen as his wife) seems relatively daring. (The same could be said, from a box-office standpoint, for the casting of Kinski, who Figgis says was his first choice even though she has not been in a successful film in more than a decade.)

Snipes’ role involves a considerable number of graphic sex scenes with both women. But New Line executives insist the film’s casting doesn’t create any serious marketing hurdles.

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“We asked ourselves how middle America would respond to the casting,” says New Line executive vice president Richard Saperstein. “But we felt this wasn’t a black and white issue. It’s not a film like ‘Jungle Fever’ [which also starred Snipes] that was about interracial love. It’s a story about the impact of extramarital love on a relationship.”

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For Snipes, who took a hefty pay cut from his $10-million action-movie fee to play a dramatic role, the challenge wasn’t so much handling the sex scenes as playing a character so foreign from himself.

“It’s a real British white male part--I almost used an English accent,” he explains, having a beer in his trailer one night after finishing his scenes. “But that’s what makes it a challenge. There are things in the script that are completely implausible to me. But it’s Mike’s movie and I respect him, so I don’t interject my own perspective.”

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From his perspective, Snipes finds it hard to relate to a situation in which two people would, as he puts it, “meet, have sex and then want to get back together” a year later. “If it was a brother writing that story,” he says with gleeful laughter, “that [stuff] would not be happening.”

When filming, Figgis works in an instinctual fashion, shooting scenes with several hand-held cameras going simultaneously, one which he operates himself. “I don’t like films that are tightly structured,” he says. “I’d rather shoot the whole film without a script, as long as I know the story. It keeps the adrenaline pumping on the set.”

Figgis bounces around so much while filming that when he and cinematographer Declan Quinn watch replays on the video monitor, Figgis’ crown of frizzy auburn hair is often visible in the shot. “It’s like Altman or Cassavetes--we gather footage as we go,” Figgis says. “Our dailies are constantly full of scenes with steadicams in the shot. I keep telling Declan--follow your instincts. Wonderful things come from chance.”

The director is determined to film his sex scenes in an equally unconventional manner. During rehearsals, he told his actors that he wasn’t going to shoot their sex scenes as if they were marathons of athletic prowess. “Extended sex scenes can be very embarrassing,” says Figgis, whose contract requires him to deliver an R-rated film. “What you end up with is 40 minutes of what Truffaut called ‘the asthma attack expression.’

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“When people have sex in films, they do an impersonation of bad porno films, not actual sex. Watching TV one night, I found myself watching an expression of ecstasy on an actor’s face and it suddenly hit me--it was the exact expression Tweetie Bird has after he’s been hit over the head with a frying pan and sees stars all around.”

Figgis smiles. “I guess that’s a roundabout way of saying that whatever you think about this film, our sex scenes aren’t going to look like that.”


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