Improvisation" is one of the great bugaboos to understanding the creative process that goes into the industrial machinery of making movies. There's an old canard that audiences assume their favorite actors "make it up as they go along," and more sophisticated filmgoers sometimes want to believe that the last little thing, a gesture or an intonation, provided by a performer, has in fact been confected on the spot, made up while the infernal machine of filmmaking clanks along.
Despite a schematic shape, like three quite different European short films, the bittersweet romance of Mike Figgis' "One Night Stand" has a snappy vitality rare in contemporary movies. Each stage of its production reeks of leaving a great deal to fate, running with ideas and notions about how to construct a story, going against the great weapon that the moneymen wield against a filmmaker's' whims, that great weapon called the perfectly-crafted, "finished" script. (Peter Bogdanovich once asked Orson Welles if a director had to take advantage of accidents, to which Welles boomed, "My boy, a director presides over accidents!")
"One Night Stand" began as a one-page treatment by the notorious Joe Eszterhas, for which New Line ponied up $4 million (pretty close to the entire budget of Figgis' award-winning "Leaving Las Vegas"). When given the chance to direct Eszterhas' concept, Figgis asked permission to work out his own draft, which he did. Here's the basic story: Max (Wesley Snipes), a director of commercials stranded without a hotel room in New York, has an affair with a stranger, Karen (Nastassja Kinski); he loves his family, including his wife, Mimi (Ming-na Wen), but the new woman stirs something in him. On a visit to New York a year later to again visit his estranged best friend, Charlie (Robert Downey Jr.), who is dying of AIDS, Max discovers that Karen is much closer to him that he ever knew -- she's married to Charlie's brother, Vernon (Kyle MacLachlan). What will become of these five confused, fashionable people? Figgis does several terrific things, among them, attempting to make each character's dilemma sympathetic. Figgis departed far enough from the original that Eszterhas bowed out, cash in hand, and allowed the writer-director to become the official author of "One Night Stand." An early draft shares the loose structure of the film I've enjoyed twice, yet the witty, vibrant, fresh-sounding dialogue that fills the finished film is not yet in evidence. Figgis also composes his own score (a variety of jazz styles and classical citations), which is another of the diverse elements he marshals in making a mood piece like this.
Figgis' early draft describes the wife as "a stunning blonde... Cindy Crawford and [Mimi] came out of the same mold." The finished "One Night Stand" is admirably color-blind. While Figgis originally angled for Nicolas Cage to play Max, Wesley Snipes wound up being cast, and was pleased to take part in an ensemble drama with a director still simmering from post-Oscar heat.
"Yeah, yeah, I really wanted to work with an ensemble," the 35-year-old star says. "Hollywood looks for the buck and the dollar. They're interested in the hook, whatever the flavor is at the moment. The actor might give the film some stability, they think, but then it's all about the first weekend. The opportunity to have an ensemble of well-trained actors with bigger budgets is pushed away. It can make your craft, your tool kind of dull. You can pick up a lot of bad habits and become lackadaisical. It's like Michael Jordan playing a pickup game in Venice Beach. As an actor, you get tired working with people who are not as skilled or practiced in their craft. You want that call and response." Snipes says that Figgis gave his actors a lot of latitude while keeping control of the overall work. "In rehearsals, Mike gives you space to create and improvise. When we had dinner-party scenes, we had a basic floor plan to follow, but some of the stuff was added in then. Mike balances between the two."
There is a measure of homophobia expressed by Charlie's brother, but the race issue never arises. "I have to commend Mike on taking the chance of putting me in the role. It was written for a white male, a very European white male. Mike wanted Nic Cage first; he was busy. Mike and I had conversations about who my wife should be. We thought black, we thought white; I've done white relationships before, black relationships. Maybe a Spanish woman or an Asian woman. He thought using a Spanish woman was cheating, that would be trying to appease the American audience by going middle-of-the-road, and he decided, let's make her Asian. And that was the last conversation." There weren't any rewrites for race, either. "I think my character's issues, his demeanor, the way he talks and walks are very much more European than if he were a brother from the Bronx. And also the situations he finds himself in and the ways he deals with them go beyond those lines."
While Snipes has acted with black actresses, his roles, including "White Men Can't Jump" and "Jungle Fever," often have explored interracial relationships. "There are three ways of looking at it," Snipes says, smiling. "There are the Confederate-flag guys: 'Oh, that nigger is dating a white woman.' Then there are the people in the middle. They could care less. And then there's the ones who think, 'Oh, the brother is dating another white woman.' I'm most interested in the people in the middle." Still, Snipes, whose first movie as a producer opens in February, sees a reluctance by studios to portray black relationships. "I think some studio execs think if you have two black leading characters in it, it becomes quote-unquote, a 'black' film which they feel is not as marketable, and won't make as much money in the mainstream -- which means white. It'd be real interesting to get them all in a room one day and ask them what they really think. I'd like to sit in on that conversation myself!"