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British director Mike Figgis may have garnered two Oscar nominations — best director and best adapted screenplay for 1995’s “Leaving Las Vegas” — but in recent years he’s had very little to do with Hollywood. In fact, his latest project is based in New York’s SoHo, where he spent the last few weeks shooting the characters who make up Manhattan’s downtown scene at locations like the Prada store and Milk Gallery (the site of the resulting exhibition, “SoHo Composites #2,” until Feb. 7).
But Figgis is happier photographing the likes of Rachel Weisz, Leelee Sobieski, Aaron Young and Melissa Bent than barking orders on a massive movie set. “I don’t miss having to deal with 100 people,” says the 60-year-old, who favors a just-rolled-out-of-bed look. “Some people like being a general, ordering around their troops. But I was always more like a guerrilla. I like to have four or five cool people around me and move quickly.”
This latest project, done under the auspices of London’s Photographers Gallery, where the first “Soho” exhibit took place, was a herculean task even for someone accustomed to speedy work. Figgis only had about 15 minutes with each of the nearly 100 subjects, instead of the three hours he prefers. “Most of the people I don’t know, and I’ve never seen them before,” he says. “You have to jump in and connect with that person even if you are feeling kind of not that awake. It pushes you.”
“It was like he was trying to suck your soul out in 10 minutes,” jokes actress Monet Mazur, who sat for Figgis. “It was very intimate.”
But the spontaneous atmosphere appealed to the iconoclastic Figgis, who is somewhat of a hero in the digital world for envelope-pushing movies like 2000’s “Timecode” and has written a book extolling the virtues of digital filmmaking. “You can just blast away,” he explains. “Everything I do — music, film, photography — has undergone radical changes with technology, and I’ve had no choice but to go with it. But I’m a huge fan of using old-fashioned ideas with contemporary technology so we’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
Such experimental tendencies might not make him a favorite of Tinseltown suits, but it’s an attitude that has won him fans in the fashion universe, including Dazed & Confused founder Jefferson Hack, whom Figgis calls the “invisible sponsor” of this exhibit.
“I think it is absolutely brilliant that, having been nominated for an Oscar, having got the opportunity to do whatever he wants, he went off and has been making experimental, digital, non-narrative-based movies,” says Hack, who put Figgis in touch with Prada and Milk Gallery. “The fashion world loves eccentrics. He’s able to approach a project with a fresh point of view.”
It’s also landed him campaigns with fashion companies like LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, agnès b. and Agent Provocateur, for whom he created both print and film ads featuring Kate Moss in 2006. “Mike is open to experimenting with new technology and creating something between a commercial and an art-house film. Overall this made him an ideal fit for us,” says Joseph Corre, the lingerie company’s founder, who has continued to tap the director for branding projects.
“It’s kind of bliss. They commission me and I just get on with it,” says Figgis. “More and more I’m looking for that kind of work.”
In large part that’s because he’s found support for the kind of avant-garde work he couldn’t do with the movie world. “I was always deeply suspicious of the American independent film. It was just a stepping stone [to bigger projects],” he says. “The problem with American film culture is that there is so much money that it does lure people away from the independent world.”
As for his portrait project, which will be followed by a third series done in Beijing, Figgis has found he’s hooked on the speed. “I’m kind of addicted now,” he admits, grinning gleefully.