Mike Figgis  by Bette Gordon

BOMB 54 Winter 1996
Issue 54 054  Winter 1996
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Nicolas Cage (bottom) as Ben and Elisabeth Shue as Sera in Mike Figgis’sLeaving Las Vegas, distributed by MGM/UA Distribution Company.

I had been haunted years ago by Stormy Monday, a film Mike Figgis wrote, directed, and scored about the steamy jazz club world in Newcastle, England. I couldn’t get the music out of my head. An accomplished composer and musician, his music score for Leaving Las Vegas, a film he also wrote and directed, is equally haunting and becomes the centerpiece of the film. Figgis plays trumpet, keyboards, and produced all the tracks in an evocative combination of instrumentals that provide the mood and emotional spine of the story. Leaving Las Vegas, based on the novel by John O’Brien, is an almost religious film. There is no redemption for its male hero, an alcoholic, played by Nicholas Cage, but redemption is at its core. Set against the backdrop of Las Vegas where day and night are indistinguishable and liquor is available around the clock, Cage plays a hero unlike any you’ve ever seen: tragic but funny, an alcoholic without the smallest regret, a man who has made peace with his demons. The chance meeting and love affair between Cage’s character, Ben, and Sera, played by Elisabeth Shue, is a testimony to the unconditional love of two souls who connect for a moment in time. The impressionistic visual style and aggressive editing give the narrative a disoriented and reckless feeling that is exhilarating and seductive.

Mike Figgis is a truly visionary filmmaker who thrives on artistic risks. Leaving Las Vegas is not simply directed, it’s conducted, and, like a musical score, composed and improvised into an experience that comes closest to the wails and jams of American jazz. Stormy Mondaymarked his emergence into feature film, Internal Affairs, starring Richard Gere and Andy Garcia, brought him mainstream acknowledgment. Leaving Las Vegas brings him close to a music of the soul. It soars, and crashes, and soars again.

Bette Gordon Darkness—have you worked it out of your system yet?

Mike Figgis No. Never. When you get into cinema you can become fascinated by how dark you can go and still see something. That’s a purely aesthetic choice, how something looks, which then emotionally colors the way people read a film. The late 20th century has produced a question that nobody in the 18th or 19th century would have doubted. Every great painting, every great novel, every piece of music by Beethoven or Wagner, they were tragic, dark, ponderous works about the soul. The news hasn’t gotten any lighter today. So I find it odd that more filmmakers don’t actually deal with the truth.

BG When I go to raise money, the comment on my work is: It’s too dark, you won’t be able to raise the money. Apparently your budget for Leaving Las Vegas was low enough that some of the bigger financing studios were afraid to touch it. Is that true?

MF It’s not a proper conspiracy—conspiracies very rarely are; they’re never that clever. It’s a pervading feeling, if you like. Look historically at who controlled the entertainment industry at any given point in the 20th century. There was a fortunate coincidence around the time of the Second World War, a huge influx of predominantly Jewish refugees of very highbrow status came through Hollywood. They were composers and writers … combined with and influencing the cream of American writers, Fitzgerald and Faulkner—suddenly all kinds of talent passed through Hollywood with no intention of really staying, but with the idea that they wouldn’t mind being paid every once in a while. That influx of highbrow talent hasn’t happened for awhile. I believe that now there is a lowbrow conspiracy, but it’s not a profit conspiracy, it’s more of a music hall influence, go for the quick schmaltz … Interestingly enough, when you had the influx of all those heavier talents there was a more tragic overtone to what was going on in the studios. But now there isn’t. I don’t feel threatened or paranoid about it—that’s just the way it is. We’re just not dealing with a very high intelligence at this time. That’s not a put down—well, it is actually. Anyway, you have to circumnavigate that. The key issue is that they mustn’t have a say in the end result of the film, they merely must buy it and sell it. Like carpets. That’s the end of the equation. I do not give a flying fuck about what they think of the content. Nor do I ever, ever want to be in a room with 25 yuppies telling me what tragedy is …

BG Your first film was Stormy Monday and then there’s Internal Affairs, which was more of a studio picture.

MF Stormy Monday was a low budget British thriller, about the same budget as Leaving Las VegasInternal Affairs was a freak event, where Paramount thought I was making a fairly small budget, Europeanish, art house thriller. Then, it had an audience response, which took them by surprise. And it was a financially successful film. Then I did Liebestraum—which I love—which got slaughtered, died within weeks due to lack of oxygen. They cut the best scene out of it, then put it back in in video release because it was a sex scene, to boost sales—and didn’t even ask me. And then I did a film for HBO, Mara, then Mr. Jones, then The Browning Version with Ridley Scott as producer, all of which were very unhappy experiences. Because at that point reality came in.

BG In what way?

MF The deal is, with HBO you get paid basically no money, but they let you be “creative.” So everybody does it for nothing, Juliette Binoche and Scott Glenn come in for nothing. I did the script, the score, and directed it. And they wept, said it was lovely, flew me to New York a couple of times on the Concorde …

BG (laughter) That’s your reward.

MF And then I deliver the film, and I get a phone call two weeks later saying, “We’ve taken the score off and we’ve re-cut the movie … ” The score, bits of the flavor of it, became Leaving Las Vegas.

BG You wouldn’t expect that from HBO …

MF Well the trick is, “Oh come and sleep with us, because we’re artists,” and then suddenly, “No, it’s HBO, it’s business, you have no rights!” Well, they’re not paying me enough to do this. So that was devastating. I loved the film. Juliette Binoche is outstanding. The last shot is in the alleyway: she’s howling like a dog. And they cut her howling out—I just wanted to kill them. I’ve never spoken to them since. They took her voice away! She’d moved out of camera, and all you could see was this vague shape of her in the distance, and this howling in the dark. (pause)

BG Leaving Las Vegas is tragic. But in this case, two things add another level to the tragedy: humor, and the unapologetic way you approach alcoholism. There’s this bleak view of a man at the end of his rope, an alcoholic, but it’s also humorous and very matter-of-fact. Not overly emotional.

MF The two stories that I’ve been drawn to were this one and another, which I could never get off the ground—Art Pepper’s autobiography, which is about heroin addiction. There was something blissfully unapologetic about his heroin habit. He said, “The first time I got fixed was in a toilet, on tour.” The singer had taken him into the toilet to blow him. And fixed him as well. And he said, “For the first time, I looked in the mirror and I recognized myself. And for the first time in my life I liked myself, I liked what I saw. And I realized, in a moment of inspiration, what I was. All my life I thought I was a jazz musician. I realized I was a junkie. That was my destiny. The music was an expression of something, but what I actually was was a junkie. And at that moment I knew I’d die as a junkie, and I didn’t mind. I liked myself, for the first time in my life.” So while I would never, ever recommend people go and find salvation in heroin—people sometimes go out and have that revelation, they’re very unique individuals, and have that rare thing when people can be honest about what they are—I think Elisabeth’s character in Leaving Las Vegas, Sera, tries to be honest about being a hooker. In her performance this very fragile thing emerges which is somehow more complex than the part was before she did it. I like it when films become an amalgam of the strength of the personalities—in this case Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue—who so utterly change the characters without losing who those characters were in the script. I could not conceive of anyone but those two actors doing those roles, which is not true of all films I’ve done. Obviously Nic is a humorous actor. But he’s deeply serious. The writing was funny, but it takes someone like Nicolas to carry it off, because it can become buried and submerged in the darker stuff. But what was always there was this honesty and matter-of-factness about the alcoholism, in the sense that the decision has been made, you’re not witnessing the struggle.

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Elisabeth Shue as Sera in Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas.

BG Nicolas Cage said that he understood the character to be so free because he accepted that destiny, he chose it, and that acceptance made him free.

MF The fact that it has to be about alcoholism or drug addiction or prostitution in order to get to the point now is a little sad. Philosophically, 19th century literature and Existentialism are full of stories of these kinds of people, and it’s about acceptance, a very pure, almost religious overtone. If it was about a man suffering from terminal cancer it would be the same. This is a man suffering from terminal alcoholism. It’s an illness. Going back to the darkness we were talking about, the studio people can’t accept that. What it reflects is a kind of real, dark terror within themselves of dying. They say that filmmaking should be a celebration of life; I think their reaction is a celebration of cowardice. There’s nothing wrong in dying. I love what Leary said in the English Papers (he has terminal cancer): “No, I’m really looking forward to it. Wow, I mean, I spent my entire life working towards this point.” And Dennis Potter said the same thing: “Every leaf on the tree, I just relish it.” And the way Nic is performing this, he’s not blind, he sees Sera. He demonstrates that he still has the ability to connect with beauty and all kinds of … life. He’s not the blind man in the gutter, crawling towards the grave, waiting to drop in.

BG Yeah, a celebration of whatever is left.

MF I think it’s a metaphor.

BG Nic Cage’s hand movements … What you did with the music and his hands together, I felt like he was an orchestra conductor.

MF You know the famous Bloomsbury painting of Strachey? It’s the same long hands, what we think of as artistic hands. So aesthetic. The way he opens the presents. I’ve never ever been in a situation where you do a close-up for the editor and have all the drama continue in the hand movement. The waving, obviously, which he does consistently …

BG When we see him in the bedroom getting a blow-job—what we see is his hand up, fluttering. It’s so natural; it’s so evocative. He’s a bit Christ-like, the way he’s constantly on the couch or on the bed, spread in this sprawled position.

MF An actor of inestimable value—remember where Sera comes in and says, “Okay, for 500 bucks … ”? We were dreading that scene, because there’s that dialogue: “You can fuck my ass and come on my face.”

BG Did you write that dialogue, or was that from the book?

MF It was book dialogue. I’ve been really faithful to John. Nic is very old fashioned, he’s not vulgar and he’s not crude, and he’s not trying to be like this guy, he’s quite feminine. I say it as a compliment. And he started doing that fluttering with his hand, I said, “Stay with that, that’s wonderful.”

BG The scene in the bank where he recites his poem/performance to the teller, is that improv?

MF Yes. He’s the best session musician we’ve ever worked with. That was the fifth take. It’s a tragic poem; the final line is, “I’d lick you clean so you could go away and fuck someone else.” There’s nothing crude or pornographic about it. I said, “Maybe we’re going to want something more up, Nic, more West Coast—like hip—Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg … Corso?” And he just went, “Okay,” and he got into this whole thing …

BG Very Beat.

MF I said to him, “I think I’m going to have bass and drums behind this.” I didn’t sing it, and I didn’t tell him how the beat went, he just did it. And when I put the music on, I was just laughing my head off in the recording session, because his timing was incredible.

BG. There’s always an underlying innocence to his character. I don’t think I’ve seen him do anything I’ve loved as much since Moonstruck.

MF A lot of actors have forgotten charm. All the people I admire, musicians and actors and such, have it.

BG Nicolas Cage isn’t traditionally good looking but …

MF He’s devastatingly attractive sometimes, when he illuminates. And he can also look dreadful. And he doesn’t mind. What’s intelligent about the man is his realization that your range is your ability, ego-wise, to let yourself go and come back. You know what you can come back to. So how far you’re prepared to go and come back and loop—

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Nicolas Cage as Ben in Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vagas.

BG You said you were faithful to the book. Did Nicolas Cage add to John O’Brien, the writer’s, character?

MF Only in as much as you’d want him to, in that: Here’s the character, and this is what we all bought. Nic is more faithful to the script than I am. But there were points when he would come in with an interpretation that was brilliant. In the way that I always like musicians to improvise, in very small details; here’s the tune, but how you deal with the timing on this phrase may be a stroke of brilliance, rather than having to display that you’re a creative genius and don’t even need a script. So he was faithful to the book, but in terms of nuance and small additions, timing, one-liners, like, “Sexy, sexy,” when he walks by Laurie Metcalf, is completely his. “Love that dress … ”

BG The love interest, Sera—were her psychotherapy scenes in the book?

MF The principle difficulty in making a book like Leaving Las Vegas—which I think is a brilliant book—into a film is that it is existential. A lot of it is in his head, stream of consciousness stuff. You really have to study it to work out, Is this past tense? Is this a fantasy? Is this happening now? It really doesn’t help much when you come to translating it into sequential film narrative—which is a bit stupid compared to the freedom of a novel. She had all the stream of consciousness stuff as well, O’Brien wrote it from Sera’s and Ben’s points of view …

BG Ah, interesting, so it oscillates between the two points of views.

MF You’re in both of their heads. The device of him being a drunk gives him artistic license to tell his back story poetically, or talk to other people, ’cause he’s a drunk he can say whatever he wants. She doesn’t have that voice, and yet she has internal thoughts. I had wrestled with three drafts, got it pared down to the bone stuff, and was about to go into production, but I had this nagging fear that she didn’t have enough of a voice away from talking to him. In order for a love story to be two-handed, she needed this voice. So I went back to all the outtakes in the novel of her stream of consciousness stuff. The therapy was the only way I could think of to include it other than voice-over, which I don’t like. The idea of her talking, as it happens, to her shrink, makes sense because it’s an American film. And I like the idea that a prostitute would go to a shrink anyway. When you work through the logic, if you’re earning five, six, seven thousand a week, you buy a lot of quick things. You probably go to a gym, and why not go to a shrink? You’ve got a lot to get rid of. It is a way of keeping yourself together if you aren’t religious. So I shot her therapy scenes as a camera test before we even started shooting the film. Elisabeth and I, the camera man and sound man set up—she changed her clothes every twenty minutes, and it took us about two hours. I asked her questions off-camera, and didn’t overlap her dialogue, just played the shrink, which was not that difficult. When we got to the end of the actual shoot I thought, I’d better look at that footage again, because I suspect it’s going to end up in the film. She hadn’t even shot her first scene with Nic yet when we did it. She knew intellectually how tragic the story is, but she hadn’t gotten into it. And I thought we might have to spend another two hours one evening shooting more stuff. So I went back to the editing table and put it up, and I was just blown away with how fluently on the button she was, pre-having met Ben, and saying, “I don’t know if I should see him again but I looked for him on the street last night.” That was completely from Elisabeth. I said to her, “Are you going to see him again?” She got that catch in her voice and said, “I found myself looking for him on the street last night.” I was in tears and I thought, she doesn’t have to reshoot anything. So that was all a camera test. Everything. Including the section after his death.

BG Remember Klute?

MF I do. Great footage. Having made that decision there was a little nag and I thought—I’ve seen this before somewhere. And Elate is one of my favorite films. But I hadn’t seen it for a long time. I do remember that she goes to the shrink and I purposely didn’t go and check it out again.

BG I liked the way you added the dissolves. The only shrink scene that bothered me somewhat was the one at the end after his death. I felt the film needed to end before that.

MF Well, then you’re tougher than most people. It was my choice. I screened it without that scene. The original ending in the book is that she’s walking down the main drag. It’s about six in the morning, they’re cleaning the streets; she’s walking along, she’s bruised, it’s in that sort of bluish dawn light, and an ambulance goes screaming past with the siren on. She just stops, the camera moves into a close up, she puts the glasses on, walks up—it’s so devastating. It’s like, Oh my God …

BG And the audience goes limping out. I also understand why you did it.

MF I did it to let people get out and to frame it, ‘cause she is ultimately in the past tense. So we know moving down the line six months later she’s gonna still be in therapy, but she’s alive and she hasn’t got track marks on her arms … I don’t know what she’s doing, but morally speaking I don’t care. If she’s hooking and she’s come to terms with it and she’s fine about it, I don’t care.

BG I couldn’t stand having her be saved by anyone.

MF Oh no, I don’t want her to be saved, only by herself. There was a suggestion, once people saw the power of her talking to the camera, that it would only cost like ten dollars to put her in front of the camera again and say, “I’ve given up prostitution … ”

BG Thank God you didn’t do that.

MF I said, Personally I don’t think she has; I think she’s fucking her brains out and being paid pretty well. And I think there’s nothing wrong with that.

BG Klute included a melodic female voice on the soundtrack—haunting.

MF Jane Fonda’s performance was so modern and ballsy. I use female voice all the time, because I think it hits an emotional chord that people find uncomfortable.

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Elisabeth Shue on the set of Leaving Las Vegas.

BG I know that you’re a musician and have a very active role in all the scores—do you see yourself using music differently than other directors? (Um hmmm.) How so?

MF I use the Ennio Morricone principle: Don’t change key. He said don’t modulate unless you’ve got a really good reason to do it. Keep your instrumentation simple but unusual; hence a jew’s harp or electric guitar with a string orchestra or a banjo—weird combos of things. But keep it simple. So I try and do that, it is the most effective thing to do. That and your choice of key, which next to your choice of actors is the most important thing you’ll do. No one understands what key is doing to them. On this film on the first mix, I became embarrassed by the number of times, as it were, my name was appearing on the credits, so I tried to become a shyer musician. And in the mix I buried the music a lot. The editor looked at it and said, “Your temporary music track was far more effective, the emotions were flowing much better. I think you’ve been too cautious in the mix.” So I went back and said, Aw fuck it, it’s a low budget movie and no one’s going to like it anyway, so I’ll do what I feel is correct. In the last two reels I really pushed the score, and brought out that woman’s voice. It’s the way I make films … What I was reacting to is the fact that I’d been fired on three movies as a composer, and it does affect you when it happens three times. You think, Well maybe they’ve got a point. But the films that have worked are the ones where I’ve made the film the way I felt I wanted to make the film, and the ones that haven’t are where compromises have taken place and it’s become nutty.

BG You slide between jazz, R&B or blues, but it’s very unemotional, and distancing. You play the music loud. I don’t see that very much. In fact, I only see it in Scorsese.

MF I like jazz, the way it speaks. One of the best soundtracks of all time has to be Miles Davis’s Lift of the Scaffold, which he improvised. He saw the film twice and then they ran the movie and Miles and his quartet, a pick-up band in Paris, played to the film. That’s the way I do it. I choose my musicians, I do all my backing tracks so the key is established, and there’s this great texture for them to blow on—usually without too much rhythmic interference—so the phrasing is theirs. And I make them listen on head-phones to the dialogue, and they improvise in the key that I’ve chosen, and then we’ll do a pass and we’ll talk, and I’ll say, “It’s too busy.” I always say it’s too busy, “Don’t swamp the dialogue, use the dialogue.” There’s this one exquisite moment, a musician saw it in San Diego and he picked up on it.

BG Yes, that’s the spot where you bring the score in and you marry it to the dialogue track. You know there’s nothing arbitrary about it. Nic Cage is humming a tune and the music score picks up on it and plays it.

MF Yes! You picked it up. It’s a riff on John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.”

BG There’s another moment where there are three types of music. Nic goes into the casino, the other girl picks him up, they go back to Sera’s home, and then Sera returns and finds them in bed. The music becomes operatic.

MF I wanted to go through the Vivaldi changes, like a rising fifth where the music seems to be building all the time. Maggie Nicols, who I’ve known about 25 years, a performance art free-singer, militant gay—she’s been everything, one of the pillars of good performance. She discovered one day this weird break in her voice, and she uses this high range as well, two octaves higher than anyone I’ve ever met. I used her in the first movie I ever made, and I brought her in for a session on this one. And I showed her clips from the film and she started to get more and more upset as I showed her what was going on. She was getting really involved, and she went straight into the booth, put the headphones on, did a couple of takes just to give me stuff to mix with. Her ear is so good that she heard the changes once, and then her line that she sings on top, that yodeling line—her phrasing is phenomenal.

BG What it does to the image and how you’re feeling is explosive. When Sera slides down the wall …

MF And the next bit, the rape scene … my son is a DJ and I got him to design that track. That awful sort of techno thing that’s going on in there.

BG Perfect for those boys’ characters.

MF We mixed it, we recorded it, and then re-recorded it again off a ghetto blaster’s plastic speakers. The break-up is really good.

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Director Mike Figgis on the set of Leaving Las Vegas.

BG You introduce that scene in such a bizarre way: the boys are videoing their encounter with her, the image goes to their camera, black and white, and you hear that music, and you keep replaying it, and flash back to it later. Was the video camera planned?

MF I wrote it in. I didn’t realize how powerful it would be. The actor had the video camera running and a bit of the footage is from his camera. It’s actually what he sees. And then Declan Quinn did a pass with the video camera as well. The black and white stuff is authentic video footage that’s been transferred.

BG You shot the rest in Super 16?

MF Yes. But I’ve no apology. I fell in love with it.

BG You’ve convinced me to shoot my next film in Super 16.

MF The thing is to shoot it and develop it here, and then blow it up in England. The lab we used in London was religiously reverent and treated it with such delicacy. I don’t think you’d get that kind of care and attention here. I know you wouldn’t. Declan was so unhappy with our dailies, so depressed by the control of the daily printing that eventually I rang up the lab and said, “I’m just ringing to offer you my condolences,” and they said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “Well, clearly, someone really important has died, or you’re being bought out by the Japanese—there’s got to be a reason for this low quality that you’re giving us. And I’m just ringing up to say whatever it is, I’m sorry.” And there was this silence, and I said, “If it’s not any of those, you better have a fucking good reason, because I’m liable to kill somebody.” From then on we had a timer, the same guy, which is something we never had. Because they don’t do 16, so there is no timer.

BG We talked about the sense of humor in character and dialogue, there is also a playfulness in the way you treat the image—the prostitute sucking the wedding ring off his finger is very funny—all of the filmic things that you play with: slow motion, fast motion … you took risks like I haven’t seen anybody do in so long. You must have thought very carefully about how you wanted those to work—or were they an afterthought?

MF Fast motion was an afterthought, we had to get there quicker. Everybody’s seen a driving shot in the desert before. I knew Michael McDonald’s “Lonely Teardrops” would be playing over the image. We were spinning through everything on the Steenbeck … I said, “Why don’t we just do the whole thing really fast like this?” And then everyone had such a ball, the guy doing the sound effects going “Vroom! Vroom!” I think Marty did it in After Hours, he speeded up the taxi ride footage, which was totally appropriate to New York taxis. You remember when Griffin Dunne’s going downtown, and ends up with the money floating out the window?

BG Yes, it worked. Let’s talk about your editing. It’s very aggressive—and it doesn’t maintain traditional space continuity. It’s very controlled.

MF We ran two cameras on the action all the time.

BG You did?

MF Yes. I shot B camera and Declan shot A camera. He was a bit reluctant, he said, “Actors will always look at you, because you’re the director.” I said, “Believe me I will be away from you, I’ll be on a long lens; anything I can get on my lens I will steal for the editor. We haven’t got time in 28 days to get coverage on this.” I didn’t want to do wide, medium, and over-the-shoulder shots on everything, that’s so boring—so we didn’t. And that’s how we got through the schedule. The rule was camera on the tripod or on the shoulder.

BG The impressionistic fuzzy look through the long lens is interesting for the performance aspect. You feel like they’re in a world all their own. The stylization is very natural. That’s probably to do with the fact that you are using a longer lens and natural light. I know Las Vegas, it’s this little warm bulb of light in the midst of nothing.

MF We used some sot boxes, for faces. That’s all we had. We didn’t even have to have a generator truck.

BG The performance aspect—you have experimental theater in your background.

MF Most of those actors I worked with in performance art, I cast in character parts in my film.

BG I noticed the writer, Heathcote Williams, in Stormy Monday.

MF It’s like a wonderful ensemble that you can draw from.

BG What about Lou Rawls driving the cab!

MF And musicians, sure. It was the happiest shoot I’ve ever been on. The crew said that they got up early every morning and were looking forward to going to work.

BG The atmosphere that you helped to create must come from your theater background.

MF I think so. I didn’t make a film till I was 39; I always felt everything up until that point had been an apprenticeship, learning the craft of music and then being a performer for 15 years. So I learned directing in a softer but more responsible way.

Steven Shainberg by Andrew Fierberg
Steven Shainberg 01
Lawrence Michael Levine by Gary M. Kramer
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The fine art of the romantic-comedy-thriller-mystery.

Kelly Reichardt by Gus Van Sant
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Director Kelly Reichardt first gained widespread notice with her 2006 film Old Joy, a paean to post–9/11 political and personal miasma played out in the campfire conversations and road-trip recollections of two longtime friends in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon.

Harmony Korine by Richard Bishop
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“I want the movie to be a living thing. I like the mistakes. I encourage the actors to go off and improvise and improve upon their characters. I like it when it’s a bit chaotic.”

Originally published in

BOMB 54, Winter 1996

Featuring interviews with Patti Smith, Peter Carey, Mike Figgis, Lawrence Weiner, Sharon Olds, Kiki Smith, Ridge Theater, Oliver Herring, Adrienne Kennedy, and Shu Lea Cheang.

Read the issue
Issue 54 054  Winter 1996