Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) Talks TV as “The New Cinema”

TELEVISION IS THE NEW CINEMA – is something many of us have been saying for over 10 years now.

TELEVISION IS THE NEW CINEMA – is something many of us have been saying for over 10 years now. (Of course we mean the local Western version, i.e. Hollywood and its satellites; the Third World has its own challenges, like just getting hold of a camera). The move away from the studio feature to cable TV was spearheaded initially by two extraordinary series, The Sopranos and The Wire and then subsequently by another two, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. All four series are given fascinating scrutiny in a newish book, Difficult Men – Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” to “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” by Brett Martin, which is well worth a read.

I am writing from an entirely subjective point of view. I am a fairly seasoned Director/Writer with experience in the Hollywood mainstream of features and, to a lesser extent, TV. I directed one episode of The Sopranos. Right now I am writing a book about film drama and the process of writing for the screen. Process is something that has fascinated me all my working life. How do you make a good drama? What is the function of drama? How effective is cinema? It is, after all, the dominant medium for storytelling. And I want to inject a note of caution into the debate about the wonderful new world of TV.

In 2000 Steven Soderbergh and I were invited to talk at the Directors Guild in L.A. – the subject was “the future of film versus digital.” Steven prophesied that in 10 years time there would be twice as many bad films on the market as there were then. I did the “glass half full” version and hoped there would twice as many good ‘uns, but I don’t think anyone anticipated the huge impact that digital technology would make and what a different world has been spawned as a result. For sure, the structure of filmmaking and distribution has changed and there does seem to be a saturation, a glut of low-end material out there. But perhaps we delude ourselves. I came across a stack of the British Film Institute’s Monthly Film Bulletin magazines the other day, reviewing every film released in the U.K. in the period 1962 – 1965. Aside from the odd little gem, there was a lot of crap. It would seem that the studio system has been dying since it came into being, its survival having more to do with the absence of a sexy alternative as much as any revival in the standard of the generic product.

The studio system has always suffered from corporate shilly-shallyness but undoubtedly this went into plague format after the ’80s (I believe Fatal Attraction was a turning point). Faceless studio geeks, from CEOs to execs, come and go at an alarming rate as the accountants try and calculate fool’s gold, turning creativity into a predictable system of profit. The result of this foolishness was a plethora of committees. My friend Agnieszka Holland once said that the best training for Hollywood was to grow up in a Communist state.

Within the mainstream film community, the two sections that suffer the most under this politburo are the Writers and the Composers. Writers are already crippled by the infantile doctrine of the 3-Act Structure (as preached by all the gurus) and are employed by the studios (on behalf of the directors). The script will be the first and last thing to be changed and each draft may be from a different writer. Writers are “FOR HIRE” and then “FOR FIRE.” They know this going into a project; even their own original screenplay, once bought, is no longer their property. Writers within the system are the bitch of the producers, they know it and over time this has created a real cynicism, a “take the money and run” attitude, not so different from the Advertising industry.

And then along came HBO. Difficult Men does a good job of describing the circumstances which led HBO’s birth and early growth creating a spawning ground for The Sopranos and other series. I’ve been re-watching The Sopranos and The Wire, wanting to see if they hold up. They certainly do. I believe the reason is simple. HBO was a young company, originally geared towards sports and without a traditional corporate structure. In those early years creativity could flourish, particularly for writers who could take time to develop characters and story lines episode to episode, series to series under strong assertive leaders like David Chase and David Simon who were able, because of the success of their ideas, to hold back any creative “help” from the executives. I’m confident that both of these series will hold their position as the pinnacle of a genre of filmmaking that has yet to be equalled.

As the success of these two (and other HBO-type projects) began to speak the common language of Hollywood (success is terribly attractive), the writing community must have seen Divine Intervention as a possible scenario. Certainly those of them who went into the business wanting to create.

But I fear it is too late.

Jerry Bruckheimer is fond of saying “It’s called Show Business for a reason”, and it would be unrealistic to expect Hollywood to be able to jump over its own shadow. Where there’s a dollar to be made, a corporate infrastructure will spring up quickly, and that has been the case with cable. Cable is big business now. Stars who formerly would not be seen dead on the telly now line up for the honor and the mode we all love is binge watching – six hours of Thrones, six hours of Breaking Bad etc, etc.

Kevin Spacey pronounced at the Edinburgh Television Festival that Telly is the new cinema, and Soderbergh headlined “Leaving Film – off to Telly,” this because HBO was willing to make the Candelabra flick after he was turned down by the studios. It seems like every week now I am reading something in the Guardian along the lines of the Spacey speech and it concerns me because shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad are not quite what they say on the package. Once you take away the obvious – the naked women and the the cuss words – the cable product seems indistinguishable from its network cousins.

Breaking Bad and Mad Men both had very strong opening series but then, subsequently became “product,” to my mind clearly the result of a typical studio mentality. The result of the success of earlier series like The Wire and The Sopranos which had created a high benchmark in terms of viewers and awards, etc., in other words a competition. The success or failure of a series would be translated into the old Hollywood system of reward and punishment, hiring and firing, a bunch of executives making more and more creative/corporate decisions. And to my cynical eye this translates in storylines, plot and character arcs.

In Breaking Bad, Walt starts out as an interesting character, a family man diagnosed with a terminal disease who turns to crime to pay for his treatment and look after his family. The weakness of the story is that he should have died at the end of season one. Having to stretch it so much meant having to abandon the first idea early on and make a version of Batman. It was a smart, well-written, well-photographed, well-acted piece of entertainment, morally vacuous and (as ever) overly masculine. Made by very smart people trained in the mainstream art of commercial filmmaking.

Mad Men also started well and then quickly began to parody itself, caught in a very small bubble of time with characters so utterly trapped by their own chain smokin’, drinkin’ clichés that it began to resemble a MAD magazine parody of its own parody. The only character I liked was Betty, played by January Jones; she seemed unpredictable and functioned outside of the house rules, but they killed her off by making her fat. (Can somebody explain the logic?)

The two benchmarks (The Sopranos, The Wire) both created an environment within which a multitude of smaller dramas could co-exist, much in the same way as Dostoevsky or Balzac did. Both had very strong characters who served as the glue for the totality. This was dramatic writing in its highest form and one is aware of the restraint also, the conscious decision not to exploit characters in a clichéd fashion but to allow them to breathe. This, to me, was avant-garde filmmaking. (The great jazz wit Duke Ellington asked what he thought of the avant garde, replied, “Do we really have to go that far back?”)

I would say this – The patient was extremely sick, we tried a new untested drug and the patient showed immediate signs of recovery. However, recent tests reveal that the disease may have returned.

I’m hoping that this mass migration away from film and towards TV, so over-announced by the chattering classes, will leave a very large void in the film biz that can be exploited by….filmmakers.

Mike Figgis is the renowned film-maker and musician whose career began with the People Show in the 1970s. His film credits include Stormy Monday, Internal Affairs, Miss Julie, Timecode and Hotel. He received Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay for Leaving Las Vegas. His photographs have been displayed at galleries throughout the world, and he has created installations for gallery spaces.