Four Screens Capture Four Points of View ; Mike Figgis's Roots in Experimental Theater Inspired Radical, Improvisational 'Time Code'

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Mike Figgis has always been an artistic experimenter, but with "Time Code" he broke his own record for boldness.

Released to theaters last year and now available on video and DVD, it's one of the most radical films ever to come from a major studio (Sony) and a filmmaker known primarily for mainstream pictures. Figgis's earlier productions include "Stormy Monday," with Melanie Griffith and Tommy Lee Jones, and the Oscar-winning "Leaving Las Vegas," with Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue.

What sets "Time Code" apart from these movies is less its story than its style. Instead of a finished screenplay, Figgis gave his cast a plot outline and asked them to improvise their dialogue. Then he photographed their performances in "real time" with four digital-video cameras, using four side-by-side versions in the final film.

It's an unprecedented way to make a movie, and Figgis didn't dream it up in one inspired moment.

"It's something I've been fascinated with for a long time, even before I started making films," he told me in a phone interview from Red Mullet Productions, his London-based company. "I did experimental theater for about 15 years. Toward the end of that period, I was [interested in] parallel storytelling - dividing the stage up into different areas where the actors couldn't see each other ... and using film as another element."

Figgis began his movie career in the early '90s with pictures like "Internal Affairs" and "Mr. Jones," both starring Richard Gere and both using traditional styles. As a fledgling filmmaker, he says, "one gets absorbed by the technical aspects of conventional techniques." Feeling his creativity was being stifled, he thought about returning to live theater or moving to noncommercial cinema.

Then he decided to make a movie version of August Strindberg's classic play "Miss Julie," shooting it with two cameras on inexpensive 16-mm film and using a minimum of shot-to-shot editing as a way of preserving the immediacy of a live theater production.

"I was saving time by reviewing the [shots] from both cameras at the same time," he recalls. "I became more and more fascinated by the amount of information you get from two cameras. It's much more than twice the information you get from one camera, and watching two screens is invigorating for the eye and the brain ... so I made a decision to actually show one of the scenes on a split screen."

This led him to revive a "what if" idea he had considered in the past: the notion of making an entire film in one shot, using video equipment that can photograph much longer than standard movie cameras. "I was going to do it as a performance-art piece on very low-end video," he says, "shooting it on a Friday morning, say, and having the world premiere that evening." The project acquired a bigger budget and a famous cast - Salma Hayek, Stellan Skarsgard, Kyle MacLachlan, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Holly Hunter, Julian Sands, Richard Edson - when a Sony executive liked the plan and agreed to back it.

In addition to theater and video, Figgis has been strongly influenced by his training as a musician. "Time Code" is basically a string quartet, he says. "It's literally written on music paper," he explains, "and each bar line represents exactly one minute of screen time. I used a musical structure to write the piece, in terms of the timings and the dynamics of the characters."

This method allowed his actors to work as if they were jazz musicians improvising on a theme. They could "shoot in the morning, break for lunch, then come back and view the entire film . …