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MOVIES : Playing the Cards as They're Dealt : Director Mike Figgis takes a gamble adapting a difficult tale of love, loss in 'Las Vegas.'

October 29, 1995|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

Sometimes art and life get so tangled up together that it becomes impossible to distinguish one from the other. That's pretty much the case with Mike Figgis' new film, "Leaving Las Vegas." A chronicle of the final days of an alcoholic who goes to Las Vegas to drink himself to death, "Leaving Las Vegas" is based on the largely autobiographical novel of the same name by John O'Brien.

Like the film's central character, Ben (played by Nicolas Cage), O'Brien was an alcoholic who spent lots of time in Las Vegas. Unlike Ben, however, he didn't drink himself to death in that grim city of lights. What he did instead was end his life at the age of 33 with a self-inflicted gunshot wound, just as Figgis' film was about to start shooting. Needless to say, this turn of events had a profound effect on Figgis and his cast.

"I was in pre-production on the film in April of last year when I got the call that John had committed suicide," says Figgis, who was named best director at this year's San Sebastian Film Festival for his work on the film. "Obviously, I was quite upset and considered not making the film, but eventually I decided that John wrote a great book, and the most I could do for him was to go ahead and make the film."

Adds Cage: "This book is clearly John O'Brien's suicide letter, and I really felt the weight of portraying a dead man's suicide note. In order to play Ben I knew I had to keep myself in the zone of meditating on death--and I figured I could do it, because it was a short shoot. But believe me, I didn't like it because I'm a pro-life guy, and I had to go to a crummy little corner of my head in order to deliver my lines with any authenticity. I recently saw the film again and for the next three nights I had bad dreams about death--I knew it was a reaction to the movie."

Death does hover like a dark angel over this film, which was budgeted at $3.6 million and shot largely on location last September. That theme is tempered, though, by the love affair that comprises the core of the story; on arriving in Vegas, Ben meets a prostitute and the two fall deeply in love. Does this great love deliver them from their demons? Probably not to the degree that many viewers might want.

Figgis hopes, however, that audiences will look beyond surface plot points and see the film's deeper themes. "There's a repressed emotional core to John's book that he went to great lengths to obscure," says Figgis of O'Brien, who followed "Leaving Las Vegas" with two more novels--"Better" and "Stripper Lessons"--and was working on a fourth, "Assault on Tony's," at the time of his death. "John didn't want to be thought of as romantic, but this is a deeply romantic story."

Like Figgis, Elisabeth Shue--whose performance as the prostitute, Sera, has netted her the best reviews of her career--finds this "a devastating story, but not a depressing one. I'm sure some people will see the film and wonder how my character could fall in love with such a loser, but I don't see Ben as a loser. I see him as someone who's come to terms with his life and isn't afraid of dying.

"As for Sera," she continues, "she's a woman who's struggling to find a ray of hope in a life rapidly going downhill. I got to know some call girls in preparing for the part, but I didn't approach the performance as if I were playing a hooker because I don't see that as her defining quality. I see her as someone who's been damaged by life, and the fact that she's a hooker is secondary."

While O'Brien obviously based the character of Ben on himself, it remains a mystery as to whether there actually was a Sera. Says Lisa O'Brien, who met John O'Brien while both were attending high school in Cleveland, Ohio, and married him in 1979: "John made frequent trips to Las Vegas alone to research the book, but we never talked about what went on there because I didn't want to know. As to whether there was a Sera, I think she was a composite of several people, and was essentially John's fantasy woman: someone who would love him and let him drink."

The filming of O'Brien's hard-boiled novel got rolling, oddly enough, when L.A. art dealer Stuart Regen stumbled across it in 1991, a year after it was published.

"I was really moved by the book so I tracked John down and we met for coffee in December of 1991," Regen recalls. "I told him I was interested in making his book into a film and he said he didn't want it turned into a Hollywood movie with a happy ending because that's not what it was about. He seemed skeptical about the prospect of the movie, but sold me the option on the book anyhow, in January of 1992. He told me we should feel free to contact him if we had questions about the characters--but I'm sure he thought the movie would never be made."

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