Mike Figgis on How Procrastination Led Him to a Screenwriting Epiphany (and to Write His New Book)

The Oscar-nominated writer-director explains how finding an old book while decluttering changed the way he approached his creative process.

To coincide with the recent publication of his new book, The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations (out now through Faber & Faber), Mike Figgis is currently running a Kickstarter campaign for the set of 36 cards which he designed to accompany the book. Below, in an exclusive excerpt, Figgis explains the way in which he stumbled across the idea for the book, and how it has already changed his creative process.

Earlier this year I had a productive meeting with a Hollywood studio and agreed to write an original script based upon a few ideas: namely, a contemporary L.A. story, a thriller with a female protagonist. I’d always enjoyed the blank canvas of L.A. for film, and the thriller is a very malleable genre for writers.

The first stage was to deliver a treatment that put these basic notions into a plot structure. A deadline was agreed that gave me about seven days to come up with something. The quick timing was my idea: I wanted to see just how the studio would react to something a bit more concrete than a pitch.

All writers have their own systems for writing. Mine is very simple: I do nothing until the very last moment. The word “nothing” is, in this context, misleading. I fill my time with menial tasks: I iron shirts, rearrange the furniture – anything that allows the imagination to float unhindered.

I try to fake a dream state where the brain actually knows what it has to do and can get on with it. It works for me because my brain is working on the ideas unfettered by the limitations of the formal writing process.

And so, as my deadline got ever closer as I decided to tidy up all my bookshelves and get rid of the books which no longer deserved space and would thus make room for the piles of newer books on the floor. I came across a slim green paperback entitled The 36 Dramatic Situations by Georges Polti. A distant bell rang in the memory department: maybe a student gave the book to me? I did remember having resolved to read the book (long forgotten, obviously), so I began flicking through the pages and then reading the book from cover to cover. It appealed to my belief in serendipity and the Jungian idea of chance: I was about to write a story and here was a book on dramatic-writing technique. (I was also tickled by the fact that anagrams of POLTI are I PLOT and PILOT.)

I began looking up some of the references that accompany each of Polti’s “situations.” The Internet was a vital tool, and it became clear that the majority of the examples in the book were from long-forgotten writers (aside from obvious authors like Shakespeare and Dumas) and that therefore it was difficult to understand the references. I wondered how Polti’s ideas would hold up within the genre of cinema. I started to make notes.

As my writing became more detailed, my interest blossomed. I made a graph of the 36 situations and then began adding selected films to see how the Polti method would react to cinema. It was immediately fascinating. I submitted all of my own films (those which I had been the writer of) and could see how very few of the 36 situations I had used repeatedly.

This proved to be the case with the work of other directors too. Which, of course, makes complete sense. It was the maestro Luis Buñuel who, in his book My Last Breath, talked about the few childhood experiences that shaped his creative thought and how he (and all of us) revisited those images and ideas time and time again. But Buñuel and the other greats of cinema would wrap these ideas in bizarre plot twists. In order to be able to do this, we writers need to be reminded periodically of the bigger picture of drama.

P.S. This book began with me putting off the moment of having to write a treatment. That moment inevitably arrived, and I’d left myself eight hours to come up with a good plot. I sat down with my pen and notebook and the ideas flowed easily and quickly. I found (of course) that I was using situations that were definitely outside of my usual landscape. For me The 36 Dramatic Situations were already proving to be an amazing tool.

P.P.S. I have just returned from another trip to L.A., where I proposed a TV series based entirely upon the use of the cards. The network has accepted the proposal, and I am in the process of writing it. It seems there is life in the cards. Good luck.

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.