Director Mike Figgis won widespread acclaim for his harrowing portrayal of alcoholism in Leaving Las Vegas, garnering a handful of Academy Award nominations in the process. But that movie, with its Hollywood stars, reveals only one facet of his work. Figgis' latest is the largely plotless The Loss Of Sexual Innocence, a frank and frankly impenetrable semi-autobiographical tale of innocence and experience in the Biblical (and Blakean) mode. Filmed in fewer than five weeks on location in England, Italy, and Tunisia, the movie was shot on 16mm and given a hyper-saturated, almost surreal style: If anything, The Loss Of Sexual Innocence is both a return to Figgis' days as a photographer and a return to experimental filmmaking. The Onion recently spoke to the writer-director about the nature of his film and the artistry of pornography.
The Onion: Your star, Julian Sands, has said that people either love or hate this film. Which side is winning?
Mike Figgis: I guess the law of natural selection means that most people who have volunteered to come and talk to me have liked the movie, for the most part.
O: Is it better to have a negative reaction than no reaction?
MF: Yeah, a negative reaction is in fact a reaction, and it's interesting what that brings up. I know that there have been a couple of movies I've seen this year that I've reacted very negatively to, though most movies I'm indifferent to. You know, I've seen a couple that I thought were brilliant, and a couple that I thought were vastly overrated. Of course, that made me very angry, and it has provoked a lot of conversation. I am interested in the fact that a film should have people talking about it afterwards, and if it promotes some kind of dialogue, that's good.
O: Are films challenging enough these days?
MF: No. I think that, for the most part, the product that comes out of the cinema industry is banal and lacking dignity. I think with certainty that cinema is potentially the most potent and powerful art form that anyone's ever thought of. And I think it's at about five percent of its capacity.
O: Do you think the success of Leaving Las Vegas may have done more harm than good, in the sense that it raises the expectation that all your films should aim for that "Oscar-caliber" quality?
MF: I personally don't think in those terms. I see it as positive, because it actually allowed me to go out and convince a whole bunch of investors to put up the cash to make [The Loss Of Sexual Innocence]. Which, to be honest, was a priority, because I had tried so many times without success. So, for me, it's only positive.
O: How did you go about pitching this film? There's not much dialogue, so the script couldn't have been too long.
MF: Sixty pages. It was hard. I tended to have to go and pitch with it. I used to have to talk about the eroticism of the film. In a way, I'm fairly certain that the sex was the only thing in this film that was salable.
O: You have said before that you came close to having the film made before, but the backers balked at having the Adam figure portrayed as a black man. With all the other stuff going on in the movie, why did that specifically hold things up?
MF: I don't know. They themselves, the people involved, were fine. But then they talked to their distributors, and the distributors basically said, "I don't like the idea of a black man fucking a white woman." I guess they could deal with it the other way around, so they asked me to make the film with the ethnicity of the two characters reversed. And I said no.
O: Why did you specifically want Adam to be black and Eve to be this Aryan white woman in the first place?
MF: There are two things: One, I wasn't about to make a film like this—which clearly is not a mainstream film—and for whatever reason have someone else dictate who is black and who is white. It made me aggressively defensive. And the reason I did it in the first place is not such a big deal. I thought it was sort of like a cartoon, a parable. Anthropologically speaking, we seem to think the first man was a black man; therefore, it's appropriate that Adam be black. Let's give a black actor this first-man-on-the-planet role. Why should we stick to a white-supremacist point of view? Then I also wanted a contrast with Eve, because this is supposed to be the mother and the father of the world, so the variations in color would come from mixing permutations of black and white. So I wanted an extreme contrast of skin tone for the camera.
O: English views on sexuality in cinema have always been a lot more liberal than American views. Did you take into consideration how far you could go with the film? Did you want to go farther?
MF: Oh, I could have gone farther. In the script, I had described the sexual resolution of the Adam-and-Eve story, and it was far more graphic. I was interested in a sort of sub-documentary of how cinema basically loses its innocence when it deals with pornography. Pornography [is] subjective, but there are certain images and certain camera techniques. So I was almost prepared to go to a much more graphic love scene. In the script, it actually said, "We see an erect penis." When it came down to doing the story, the filmmaker part of me that's less of an emotional character said, "This feels like I'm making some kind of post-Godardian academic statement." I was actually more involved in the storyline, and I didn't think it needed to go that far. I didn't want to shock for the sake of shocking: What is there is graphic enough. So I had to abandon certain ideas. The script is a far more intellectual process, and it was more emotionally charged.
O: Is there a way to portray graphic sexuality on screen without shocking?
MF: I intend to do it at some point. I think the way to do it would be to use an extreme wide shot, where the couple—it would have to be two people; I don't care what their gender is—are relatively small in the frame. It's the close-up that's the problem. The close-up by nature then starts to make psychological judgments. The close-up of the face, or the close-up of the breast, or of the hand. You're then in the realm of such voyeurism, which is highly effective sometimes, as a tool that a filmmaker must use. But I'd have to think about how I was going to use it. From a still-photographer's perspective—because that's what I used to do—I'd always found that the eye and the pleasure part of your brain would always be attracted to the telephoto lens. The close-up. Then I bought a parallax system, where you don't see through the lens and you can't use a zoom, because there's no way of monitoring where the zoom is. And I became interested in that Bresson school of photography, which is to always use a fixed lens. If you want to get a close-up, you have to walk close to the character. You can't have the safety of a telephoto lens. That changed my point of view about cinematography, as well, although I do use zooms all the time. But I don't necessarily feel the desire to go tight all the time, and that's got a lot to do with how sexuality is portrayed. I think the mainstream film industry is so embarrassed by sexuality that it turns into a sort of bullshit: dissolves, pop songs, mushy sentimentality. That's anything but sex. Truffaut once said that asking actors to have an orgasm is like asking them to have an asthma attack. There's this kind of "asthma attack" lyricism to portraying sex, as opposed to just turning the camera on and not getting too close. Unless it's a threesome, there's just no reason to be that close to two lovers. Part of the philosophy of shooting a [sexually explicit film] is doing it like an anthropological documentary.
O: But if you made an effort to sort of distance the act from the viewer, don't you think a viewer might find the effect somewhat disturbing?
MF: I don't think you need to necessarily take the personal out of it. You have to ask yourself a question in the first place: Why am I in the room? Why am I in a room with two people who only have eyes for each other, and are doing the ultimate intimate act? They're copulating, and that is something that they've decided to do in private. We don't fall in love with someone and say, "Let's go into a soundproof bedroom where we control the elements," and you certainly don't invite someone in. So if you're making a film where that's happening, you have to find a way of doing it where it doesn't seem as if you're intruding. You also have to deal with the context, what happened before and what will happen afterwards. You can't be there just for the thrill of watching naked bodies. That's the other thing about pornography: It often has no emotion other than anger—male anger. I think you just have to think very carefully about why you're there, and if you can answer the question—there's a reason why I'm there and it's valid—then have the strength to proceed. Don't be perverse, and don't hide in the closet. Sex has sort of become related to the voyeuristic perversity of the serial killer: watching them undress, then jumping out and cutting them up.