The Director's Chair Interviews
Mike Figgis details the creation of his acclaimed new film, Leaving Las Vegas
by Scott Roesch
How do you get an A-list actor--say, Nicolas Cage--to headline your B-budget movie? It's easy, according to British director Mike Figgis, whose entire ($3.5 million) budget for Leaving Las Vegas was less than Cage's typical per-picture payday. "When there's so little money it's easier to negotiate, because the ego doesn't get involved," explains Figgis, whose earlier works include Internal Affairs and Stormy Monday. "Say an actor's fee is five million dollars. If you offer him two million, he's insulted. If you offer him a hundred thousand dollars, it's such a joke that it's almost flattering."
And sometimes, money isn't an issue at all. Cage said he was "haunted" by the Leaving Las Vegas script, which Figgis adapted from John O'Brien's grim semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. When the director first read O'Brien's book--about a luckless writer named Ben who goes to Vegas to drink himself to death, and falls for a hooker--it left him in tears. It's easy to see why he never even considered another actor for the lead. The role of Ben, undoubtedly the most off-beat in a career full of off-beat romantic leads for Cage, is perfectly suited to the actor's dark comic gifts.
Despite its harsh, unflinching portrayal of alcoholism, Figgis insists that his film is really an existential love story. "We're born, we become adults, and then we die," says the director, "I don't think that's going to change. If you're lucky, somewhere along that moving line, you may connect with someone for a period of time with whom you can share something special."
Figgis never set out to make a standard-issue Hollywood romance. Love isn't a cure for what ails Ben; in fact, the one demand he places on his lover is that she never ask him to stop drinking. Figgis bristles at the conceit, currently pervasive in literature and film, that "simply because someone is in love or hurtin' real bad, their story is of any interest to you. I mean, who gives a fuck whether someone's hurting real bad? Tell me more! What's special about your case?
With that in mind, Figgis altered O'Brien's plot line a bit, so that Ben's relationship with the hooker became as central to the story as his gruesome decline. The tension between the two story arcs is what makes the movie memorable. "Somebody recently said to me," Figgis recalls, "'Isn't it ironic that in the twentieth century, in order to have a love story, you take a terminal alcoholic and a prostitute in a nonsexual relationship, and that's true love.' I said, 'Well, if that's what it takes in the nineties, fine.'"
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