Creative leaders: Mike Figgis

The Oscar-nominated film-maker and commercials director tells James Swift how the Government is killing creativity, why agencies are not always needed and why advertising must become more intelligent.

Creative leaders: Mike Figgis

Read this on the 15 August Campaign iPad edition and watch app-exclusive video of the interview with Mike Figgis.

The director, composer and writer Mike Figgis might seem an odd choice to interview about commercial creativity. Certainly, no-one is going to question his creative credentials, but Figgis’ CV doesn’t read like it belongs to a man who is hugely concerned with commerciality. This is no backhanded compliment about box-office sales. It is just that if there were a camp for directors who make technical or artistically challenging films and one for those who want to entertain the masses for 80 minutes, Figgis would be pitching a teepee in the former. The lazy shorthand for this must be that he is a director’s director.

Figgis earned commercial success as well as critical plaudits for Internal Affairs and Leaving Las Vegas, but neither of those films could have looked like sure-fire hits on paper. Indeed, Figgis has something of a tempestuous relationship with the studio system, particularly in the UK. His latest film, The Suspension Of Disbelief (which opened in selected cinemas in July and is released on digital formats on 9 September), had its première in Rome rather than London.

Given this leaning towards the experimental, Figgis’ interest and engagement in the world of advertising came as something of a surprise. But if there is one thing that you can learn about Figgis from an hour or so of conversation, it is that he abhors narrowness. Film-making, painting, literature: it all becomes wallpaper if the creator never looks beyond his or her own medium. The best art comes from those who are interested in how genres intersect.

The hordes of creative directors who lament the streams of graduates leaving college or university with identikit portfolios that draw only on other ads for inspiration would probably agree that this is an apt lesson for adland too.

What led you to work in the creative industries?
When I was six months old, my parents took me to Kenya. I was eight when I came back for various dramatic reasons – my father was bankrupt. We came to live with my mother’s parents in the north of England and so I went from a middle-class colonial background to a working-class council estate. I wasn’t a great soccer player at school and so I realised the power of entertainment at the age of ten or 11. If I could make people laugh, or draw cartoons, it could be my kind of entrée into the gangs and to making friends. That was my way of surviving, but I also enjoyed it.

My other outlet was music. I went to music school at 18 after having played in bands [one with the Roxy Music star Bryan Ferry]. When I left college, I taught for a couple of months but then I got a call from a musician who said he needed a horn section for a band in Biarritz. I did that and then I joined a performance art group called The People Show, and I toured with them for ten years. I’ve never really had a real job, even though, on his deathbed, my father begged me to get one.

Who or what has inspired your ideas about creativity?
I always found that the people who were interesting to hang out with tended to be older. You can always learn more from the previous generation. I hope that’s not dying out as we become obsessed with youth culture. And I was always struck by the fact that if you spoke to a jazz musician, he would talk about painting, or literature and film, because he was interested in how all those things hung together. I was never interested in just film or music or painting. I find them all to be narrow clubs. You try to avoid the narrowness of what you do. If you’re in advertising, it’s very easy to become obsessed with that world and with figures, and it’s the same in mainstream film-making.

You’ve said that you could never have achieved what you have in film-making if you had stayed in the UK. Why?
Speaking as a film-maker, the UK doesn’t really nurture; it exports. You can either stay to make the export product here – for the US market, primarily – or you can just export yourself, go to America and probably make a better film.

Do you think the Government does enough to help the creative industries?
No. I don’t think they give a flying fuck. For them, a budget cut is the point of least resistance and it’s going to be the arts. In Newcastle, the Government just cuts all of the arts funding. All of it. Historically, that has always been the way. There have been moments when Labour governments do increase arts funding, but that usually comes with such a PC, box-ticking overload that it defeats the issue anyway. Ad Reinhardt said something like: "No government funding is bad; government funding is bad."

How do you deal with, and get the best work out of, creative people? Is it different from dealing with others?
They’re no different from other people. The truth is that when someone is really successful and in control of their destiny, and their success is reflected in other people’s treatment of them (that’s what we are: the sum total of people’s reaction to us), they will probably be more difficult to work with. It’s hard to deflect them from a fixed idea they have about themselves. On the other hand, if someone has fallen and had some bruising (I can think of two actors in particular here: Nic Cage and Richard Gere), they are more interesting to work with because they have learned that, once you are up, there’s no guarantee you will stay up there, unless you’re someone like Steven Spielberg and can control your own world, economically.

Do you think that awards are important for the creative industries?
I think it’s just something that groups have always done. The Oscars are like the Guild Awards. It’s just a collection of like-functional people who work in the film business. For the most part, it’s an award for creative excellence and economic recognition, or sometimes a long-overdue acknowledgement. Certainly, they’re very confusing because they play hell with your ego and people’s perception of you.

Does receiving awards beget greater creative success?
No. Most people think it stops you in your tracks for a while. You can see the people who are humbled by the awards and people who think, yes, this is my right.

Do you think it’s a bad thing that advertising is increasingly finding its way into film content?
Yeah, I do. Advertising, like film itself, needs to morph into something more interesting and there are aspects where it has done that. The whole brand association thing is brilliant. The idea that brands can sponsor culture and benefit by having their name on the credits is great. But when it comes into actual content, it’s so blatant and everybody knows what’s going on. There’s a certain cynicism to that.

What do you think of the advertising industry?
There are interesting parallels between advertising and mainstream film-making in the way they’re set up. Advertising was always set up like a mainstream studio system, with agencies acting like studios. The digital revolution has wiped out the need for that studio system, but it’s so entrenched that it will continue to stagger on for a while just because it’s like a jetliner with enough fuel in its reserves. And I’d say that’s the same with advertising.

Advertising in its heyday was working in television, cinema and magazines in an incredibly creative way. Now it feels a little bit desperate. I feel like I’m seeing the same images over and over again and they’re getting safer. I’m seeing less humour and they’re not as sexy as they used to be.

I also think that, in the same way that no-one believes in traditional film stories, no-one believes in the ads any more. So advertising needs to morph into something more intelligent.

What do you think about the ads you are seeing?
I think we are into a much cruder, hard sell, which is reflected in the stand-up of the time. If you go back to Hamlet ads and look at the comedians of the time – Morecambe and Wise, and Tony Hancock – humour was a lot gentler. Now it is viciously crude and cruel, and I think advertising mirrors that.

You directed a campaign for Agent Provocateur, saying you did it to prove that you don’t need agencies. What did you mean and how successful were you?
Don’t misinterpret this as knocking agencies but, sometimes when I worked on a mainstream commercial, there were people duplicating stuff that didn’t need to be duplicated, and that becomes counterproductive. As new technology came in, I thought that, since I had a studio, I had no need of another organisation.

The first thing I made was something called Tied Up At The Office. They put it on their website and it crashed within the first 48 hours. After that, they said they wanted to do something with Kate [Moss], called "dreams of Miss X". I did a photo campaign, a book and four movies, for a price that, if they went through an agency, would have been ten times bigger. Everyone worked in a guerrilla sort of way and it just went nuts. I kind of proved my point: you can do these things without an agency.

But if you’re someone like Ford, you need a corporate relationship with an agency. That system is based on having enough of those kinds of people in your pocket to pay all the wages. That’s not my ambition. I quite like making ads and commercials but would rather make them in an off-the-hip way.

I've never really had a real job, even though, on his deathbed my father begged me to get one

What is your experience of working with agencies?
I’ve done mainstream campaigns for Ford, Lynx and the AA, which have been through agencies. Some are better than others. First, I wonder why they ask me. But let’s say it’s a perfume or fashion item. Initially, they’ll be fascinated and creative but, when it comes to the shoot and post-production, they can never agree and they’re constantly changing a cut for the sake of three frames. This pointless exercise, which is about appeasing whoever is highest in the food chain, is the nature of the beast.

How does your approach to directing an ad differ from shooting a feature film?
It’s radically different. When you make an ad, they’ll tell you it’s 30 seconds, but you can cut a one-minute version if you like. You do that and then think "this is going to be so awful when they cut it down to 30 seconds", but then you work with someone who’s really good, like John Smith at the Whitehouse, to whom I gave his first feature film. They will cut a 30-second ad that makes the one-minute version look so slow and boring, and it’s because they understand this condensing of images and making it flow. If they’re good, you want it to be 30 seconds. The art of making a 30-second film is radically different from a 90-minute film. I know how to make a 90-minute film but, if I’m making a 30-second film, I need help from a John Smith.

Can a director successfully do both?
I know that commercial directors want to make a feature and sometimes they can and you can see the curse that they are stuck with, which is a certain kind of lighting and set-up, and a love of certain cinema genres that they can beautifully incorporate into 30 seconds, but they labour a little when it comes to long-form. Both media suffer from the ambition to do both. There are exceptions, such as David Fincher, who started very successfully in commercials and clearly is a good features director, although he sometimes gets hung up by the ghost of advertising a little bit.