Last week on a busy stretch of Sunset Boulevard, director Mike Figgis set out to shoot a movie that challenges every tenet of Hollywood filmmaking. The project has no script. It's being shot in real time on four hand-held cameras at once. And what's in the cameras isn't even celluloid, but digital video.
Funded by Sony Pictures at a pittance by studio standards (a couple of million dollars), the film, tentatively titled "Time Code 2000," is one of the first major feature films shot entirely using digital technology. More than that breakthrough, though, the real story is the way Figgis is using the flexibility of digital shooting--which is cheaper, requires less artificial lighting and can be played back almost instantly--to transform not just the filmmaking process but the resulting film itself.
Consider this: Without a script, the actors--who all wear synchronized digital watches--are improvising within the parameters of a minute-by-minute outline that requires them to hit certain marks at certain moments. There are no cuts in the action--once filming begins each day, the four cameras shoot for 93 minutes. Then, just a few hours later, cast and crew gather to watch and see how well they hit their cues.
Precise timing is crucial, Figgis explained last week to his cast--which includes Salma Hayek, Stellan Skarsgard and Jeanne Tripplehorn. That's because instead of editing the footage from his four cameras into one linear film, he plans to show all four perspectives concurrently on the screen. When a supposed earthquake rocks the actors on camera A, therefore, those on cameras B, C and D need to look shaken too.
"It's like cinematic cubism--or a string quartet," said Figgis, who has gone so far as to map the four strands of the film (a black comedy set in Los Angeles) on musical note paper. "It bypasses the whole idea of script development and the usual studio [habit] of watching paint dry as a spectator sport," he said referring to the industry's usual time lines.
Figgis and Sony Pictures Chairman John Calley see "Time Code 2000" as part of a revolution in digital filmmaking. Particularly after the success of "The Blair Witch Project," this year's micro-budgeted horror flick that lured young people with a fresh approach, an interactive marketing campaign on the Internet and a raw look, they are betting that "Time Code 2000" will appeal to a public weary of slick Hollywood formulas.
"It's like punk in the '70s, which came out of a kind of real dissatisfaction with the overproduction of the Beach Boys and everybody talking about 48 tracks and taking two years to make an album," Figgis said. "Someone said, 'Let's go back to mono and record the album in one take in two days.' Every movement has those moments where people [say], 'Enough of the high end.' "
Calley said the project is designed "to say, 'Something new is happening now, guys. If you have a video camera and you have an idea, you can make a movie.' There has always seemed to me to be a bizarre internal contradiction in trying to do the adventuresome in a conventional way. Figgis wanted to make a film that's never been done before."
"Time Code 2000" is not the only studio film to leave celluloid behind. George Lucas has committed to shooting "Star Wars: Episode II," which will be distributed by 20th Century Fox, using digital cameras being created by Sony. Spike Lee is currently shooting a movie called "Bamboozled" for New Line Cinema the same way. And other established directors--lured as much by the flexibility digital allows as by its cost savings--are considering taking the plunge.
For sheer audacity, however, "Time Code 2000" has no rival. The filmmaking process is designed to be "organized chaos," said Figgis, whose plan is to shoot the entire film seven times over seven days, and then release the version that works best. (He can't mix takes from different days because they aren't in sync.)
The interactive possibilities are intriguing. For example, Figgis wants to make the dialogue tracks from all four cameras available on the eventual DVD version, so fans can adjust the sound levels to mix their own movie. And a continually evolving Web site (htp://www.timecode2000.com) is already following the production as it progresses.
Meanwhile, since the film will not be edited, post-production will be unusually brief. While shooting only began last week, Sony Pictures could conceivably release "Time Code 2000" as early as the end of the year.
For the more than two dozen actors who have signed on to work for scale, "Time Code 2000" is an opportunity to do the kind of ensemble acting that many feel is stifled by the typical Hollywood filmmaking process. The conditions are no-frills--actors do their own hair and makeup, wear mostly their own clothes and are responsible for their own props. Even the best known have no dressing rooms or trailers. But they don't seem to mind.