Mike Figgis is the first to admit the unveiling of his latest movie at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2001 was a disaster.
"Hotel," his experimental, improvisational movie shot on digital video was scheduled to screen Sept. 11. But the premiere was canceled due to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. When the screening finally was rescheduled, there were only 50 people in attendance because, Figgis learned, the festival hadn't posted the new time and date on the bulletin board or Internet.
"We also did have a screening on the next day," Figgis recalls. "But a lot of the journalists were so sickened by what had gone on in New York that they found the film unwatchable."
That the hotel staff are insatiable cannibals who lure guests into the basement where they are butchered and devoured may have had something to do with their reaction. Festival journalists, Figgis says, were appalled at seeing human body parts hanging up in the hotel cellar. "It is meant to be a black comedy," says the 55-year-old writer-director-composer of such films as "Leaving Las Vegas" and "Time Code."
"Clearly, I didn't make the film in 24 hours as a comment on 9/11; however, sometimes if you have the misfortune of timing, your film is somehow perceived as a sick comment on something. So it wasn't a great time to screen 'Hotel.' "
The film, financed by Channel 4 television in England, opened there to decidedly mixed reviews in spring 2002 and then aired on television. A full 22 months after "Hotel" premiered at Toronto, it has checked into Los Angeles and New York.
With its cannibalism themes, male and female nudity, provocative sex scenes and the fact it really doesn't make much sense, the film is going to be a bit of a hard sell.
"Hotel" revolves around a group of actors shooting a Dogma (a style that eschews makeup, sets, background music) version of John Webster's Jacobean revenge tragedy, "The Duchess of Malfi," in Venice. The actors and crew are staying at an offbeat, ancient, Art deco hotel in Venice where the staff (Julian Sands, Valentina Cervi, Chiara Mastroianni) just happen to be cannibals who feast on the guests.
The "Duchess of Malfi" is being directed by the temperamental Trent (Rhys Ifans) and produced by his good friend Jonathan (David Schwimmer). The two always greet each other by snarling and snapping at each other like two hungry wolves. Jonathan, though, ends up hiring an assassin to kill Trent so he can direct the film.
Salma Hayek stars as an obnoxious TV reporter, Figgis' ex-girlfriend Saffron Burrows plays Trent's girlfriend and the "Duchess" star, and Burt Reynolds and Ornella Muti are the managers of a Flamenco dancer.
The studio transition
The British filmmaker is desperately trying to keep cool on this sweltering, muggy day in his un-air-conditioned apartment in Beachwood Canyon. Figgis is in town doing the finishing touches on "Cold Creek Manor," a thriller for Disney starring Dennis Quaid and Sharon Stone set to open this fall.
Figgis acknowledges it requires a "conscious sort of adjusting of your own view" in making the transition from an independent film like "Hotel" to a studio film like "Cold Creek."
" 'Hotel' is going to open in two cinemas," he says. " 'Cold Creek Manor' is going to open in 2,000 cinemas. They have done 25,000 trailers. Their campaign is huge for it. But they are both films. They both end up on the screen somewhere, but they couldn't be more different in terms of how they were made, how they will be perceived and how they are sold. The two screens [for 'Hotel'] makes it something you really personally have to work much harder for and much more passionately. It's something, obviously, that you wouldn't have made it unless you really cared about it."
Technically, the film is an offshoot of his 2000 experimental, improvisational "Time Code," which was shot on digital video and told four stories at once with images shown in quadrants. With "Hotel," Figgis uses quadrants, split screen, wide-screen and full-screen formats to tell the episodic story. For the scenes shot in the cannibals' cellar, Figgis employed the use of state-of-the-art night-vision cameras to give it a more eerie, threatening feel.
A 'collective' effort
"Friends" star Schwimmer has been a big admirer of Figgis' ever since seeing his gritty 1990 police thriller, "Internal Affairs" with Richard Gere, Andy Garcia and Laurie Metcalfe. "It's one of my favorite movies of all time, and I think the performances he got from the three actors in the film [are] their best work ever."
A few years back, Schwimmer met Figgis and Burrows through his publicist. The actor recalls telling Figgis he'd love to work with him and was willing to do craft services just to be involved in one of his films. It just so happened Figgis was in pre-production on "Hotel" and invited the actor to join the ensemble.
Before the cast gathered at the hotel in Venice to begin filming, Figgis gave them a five-page treatment of the basic themes of the movie. The cannibalism aspect was part of his initial idea, but that aspect of the plot was enlarged, he says, "when it became clear that the night-vision cameras were picking up their eyes in a certain way."
On the first day of production, he assembled his actors and screened "Time Code." Some of the actors found Figgis' way of filmmaking intimidating and left immediately. "Of the 30-something actors that were assembled, I only had characters for half of them on day one. I said to them, 'Don't worry about it. If you don't have a character you're just a hotel guest and you have a reason to be in the hotel and in the film.' "
There were no rules about filming. "Sometimes we would quietly be shooting until 2 or 3 in the morning trying not to disturb the real guests who were staying in the hotel," Figgis says.
The morning after a day's shooting, Figgis would wake up early and edit what had been done and then add music "to make it feel like a film and to give it some sort of sexy feeling. Then I would convene all the actors. We would have this general meeting and screening of what we did before and then take a short break. Everyone would get a coffee, and we would sort have had an hour or two- or three-hour conversation about what we shot and the impact of what we had shot before in terms of where the story was going."
Schwimmer says his "Hotel" stay was the "most exhilarating time I have ever had in film or television. We had dinner every night together. It was just totally unlike anything I had ever worked on in film and television."
Figgis, Schwimmer adds, was "definitely the fearless leader. He had the final say. I loved working that way. It's so freeing, and more than anything it's so liberating as an actor. "
The group became such a collective, Figgis says, he and the cast soon forgot who came up with ideas, like Jonathan and Trent's primal snarling.
"I love the fact that in many instances I don't know the answer to whose idea things were," Figgis says, "which is an indication that the whole ensemble was working well as a collective."