Author Archives: helmatt

Alexander McCall Smith and a good cuppa

Meant to blog at the time, but completely forgot. So apologies for being a little late with the news.

I recently went to a breakfast at Racine to launch a new tea, ‘Lost Malawi’, by Rare Tea Company.

Henrietta Lovell, the ‘tea lady’ behind the company, is an all-round good egg, doing great work to ensure that growers get a fair wage and consumers get a damn good cuppa.

The interest for Pen Pusher readers is that Lost Malawi has been named by Alexander McCall Smith, the blockbuster novelist behind The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and dozens of other books (he writes four to five a year – horrifying news for anyone with writer’s block!). What’s more, he’s written a set of exclusive short stories to go inside the tin. ‘He Loved The View’ is my favourite, although all of them show that gently lilting prose that makes reading McCall Smith’s work such a calming experience. Rather like a good cup of tea, in fact.

Mike Figgis talks to Pen Pusher…

Mike Figgis in his studio

Photo by Nick Scott: nickscottphotography.com

If there’s one thing that really gets Mike Figgis going, it’s talking about cameras. As readers of his guide to digital film-making will know, he’s an authority on the latest innovations in the field, and he’s not shy of using them in his work.

When Pen Pusher visited Figgis in his studio to interview him for the latest issue, the evidence of his passion was everywhere. There were stills photos from various productions on the bare brick walls, as well as a giant print of Kate Moss from the recent Agent Provocateur campaign (shot by Figgis on a night-vision camera). There’s even Fig Rig – his gizmo for stabilizing handheld cameras – casually thrown on the sofa.

He said he’d been taking photos on the sets of his films for many years now, although he was always mindful of the adage: “If your stills photographer is getting good pictures, your cameraman is in the wrong place.”

Before interviewing Figgis, I didn’t realize quite how much of an innovator he’s been. He’s experimented with split-screen to show one event (the rape in Miss Julie) from two perspectives; shot long continuous takes (in TimeCode); allowed his actors to improvise using a script that looked more like a musical score (TimeCode again); and mixed up the sequencing of scenes (in pretty much everything, including ‘mainstream’ works such as Internal Affairs and Leaving Las Vegas).

At the heart of all this is Figgis’s love of telling stories – a deep, instinctual affinity with drama, and its ability to reflect and re-imagine the real world. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, he doesn’t have a lot of time for screenwriting gurus, with their insistence on sticking rigidly to three-act structure and well-worn character archetypes. In fact, he doesn’t have a lot of time for the whole film industry, where the money men and the ‘talent’ seemed locked in a perpetual struggle for control. ‘I love the quality of film – I just don’t like what it stands for,’ Figgis says. ‘If your budget goes up, there’s a different mentality to how you shoot the film.’

Surprisingly for someone who’s spent much of the last two decades making 90-minute features, he revealed that he considers TV shows such as The Sopranos and The Wire, to be more successful forms of story-telling than many recent films. ‘The ongoing quality of [those shows] is like a complex novel,’ he says.

In the course of our chat, we also covered the rituals of writing (he always cleans his house from top to bottom before starting a screenplay) the best cheap cameras for amateur film-makers and why ‘all films are science fiction’…

To read all about it – and find out which of Figgis’s film ‘makes him cringe the least’ – see the next issue of Pen Pusher.