It's amazing that a film like Leaving Las Vegas (1995) was made at all. The 1990 novel by John O'Brien was a semi-autobiographical project by an author who struggled with alcoholism. In a period of sobriety, he poured his own struggles and depression into the fictional story of Hollywood screenwriter who chooses to drink himself to death. The largely unknown novel was out-of-print when art gallery owner and aspiring producer Stuart Regen stumbled across it in a used bookstore. He passed the book to his friend, director Mike Figgis, who thought that the subject matter was so uncommercial that he could try out ideas and techniques without studio interference. "I made that movie saying to myself I'm never gonna win an Academy Award," recalled actor Nicolas Cage in 2018. "I said I don't care, let's just make the movie. Let's be down and dirty."
Figgis was at a low point in his career when he received the book from Regen. He immediately latched on to it, writing a first draft in under week, and committed to making the film on a small budget. Nicolas Cage, not yet a major star, had made his mark as a talented actor who delivered quirky, unexpected performances in such films as Raising Arizona (1987), Moonstruck (1987), and Wild at Heart (1990), when he was cast in the starring role of Ben. Figgis had auditioned Elisabeth Shue for an earlier film and immediately thought of her for the role of Sera, the Las Vegas prostitute who takes care of Ben. All of them worked for little money to get it made.
Figgis encouraged Cage and Shue to conduct their own research for the roles. Cage spoke with alcoholics and with people who ran programs for problem drinkers, and he hired poet Tony Dingman to be his "drinking coach." "He would say the most poetic, drunken things like, 'You do not kick the bar, you lean into the bar because it's not vino veritas, it's in vino veritas.' He would just spout these things out and of course I'd put them all in the movie." Cage also explored the physiological aspects of alcoholism. "The stomach shrinks and contracts like a fist, and the alcohol's like this injection that goes into the body and relaxes the stomach," he explained to Roger Ebert. "So the performance really largely came from the stomach for me."
Shue talked with Las Vegas prostitutes on the strip. "What the women in Vegas explained to me is that you can turn somebody on and feel nothing for them, nothing. That's how you have power over them." Shue channeled her research into improvised scenes with Sera talking to an unseen, unnamed therapist. Figgis filmed the conversations, which he conducted with Shue in character, on the first day of production without knowing if they would even be in the film. "We spent all day long, just sitting there, talking," Shue recalled. "I was so thankful those scenes were in there because it really gives her a voice which she wouldn't have had otherwise."
The film was made independently for $4 million on a 28-day schedule, a small production by Hollywood standards, and shot on location in Las Vegas with a small crew. Figgis shot on super 16mm film, a format widely used by independent filmmakers, rather than 35mm, because "It was lighter, it was cheaper, it was grittier, and it was a little more impressionistic." In the pre-digital days, the camera gave the filmmaker more mobility and flexibility. "There was this kind of a guerrilla nature about it," Shue explained. "There was an intensity in the pace that really helped the intensity of the feelings." It also enabled the crew to work quickly, to shoot scenes on the Vegas strip in the midst of crowds and traffic, sometimes without permits.
A musician and composer in his own right, director Figgis wrote the film's score and was part of the jazz ensemble that performed it. Sting, who costarred in Figgis' debut feature Stormy Monday (1988), volunteered his services to sing three songs on the soundtrack. Figgis also cast friends and fellow filmmakers in bit parts—Valeria Golino as woman in a bar, Danny Huston and Julian Lennon as bartenders, New Zealand director Vincent Ward as a businessman—and stepped out from behind the camera to play an Eastern European mobster alongside the film's production designer, Waldemar Kalinowski. Mariska Hargitay has a small but important role as a hooker and, in the final minutes of the film, Lou Rawls appears as a sympathetic cab driver.
In a tragic real-life twist, John O'Brien killed himself soon after selling the film rights. He had been in and out of rehab for years and was drinking again when he sold the book. The film was still in preproduction when he shot himself. His father called the novel his "suicide note." But while he never lived to see the film go into production, his family was invited to the set. They were moved by the commitment of the production to honor the vision of novel. And the film's success brought literary recognition to O'Brien, something he never achieved in life. The novel was brought back into print and his unpublished novels were published posthumously.
Released to glowing reviews, Leaving Las Vegas was a hit with audiences and critics alike. Roger Ebert gave the film his highest rating, writing: "The story is about two wounded, desperate, marginal people, and how they create for each other a measure of grace." Janet Maslin wrote that the film is "Passionate and furiously alive… This film simply works as a character study, pitilessly well observed and intimately familiar with its terrain."
It nominated for numerous awards around the world, including Academy Awards nominations for best actor Nicolas Cage, actress Elisabeth Shue, and for Figgis for direction and screenplay. Nicolas Cage took home the Best Actor award (as well as awards from the Golden Globes, National Society of Film Critics, Los Angeles Film Critics, New York Film Critics Circle, and other groups) and was elevated into the realm of Hollywood's most sought-after movie stars. The film also took home Film Independent Spirit Awards for best feature, director Figgis, female lead Shue, and Declan Quinn's cinematography.
"Nicolas Cage Revisits His Most Iconic Characters," video interview. GQ, September 18, 2018.
"Cage relishes operatic role in tragic `Leaving Las Vegas'," Roger Ebert. Chicago Sun-Times, November 5, 1995.
"Leaving Las Vegas" film review, Roger Ebert. Chicago Sun-Times, November 10, 1995.
"Shue finds outlet for her darker side," Roger Ebert. Chicago Sun-Times, November 5, 1995.
"Mike Figgis," radio interview with Terri Grosse. Fresh Air, December 5, 1995.
"Lurching Through a Life of Alcoholic Abandon," Janet Maslin. The New York Times, October 27, 1995.
"John O'Brien's bittersweet departure," Chris Nashawaty. Entertainment Weekly, November 10, 1995.
"Viva, "Las Vegas!" - Interviewing Director Mike Figgis," Christopher Null. Filmcritic.com, February 18, 1996.
"Leaving Las Vegas and the Writer Who Didn't Live to See It," Garin Pirnia. Esquire, October 28, 2015.
"Mike Figgis: A Not So Innocent Abroad," Alex Simon. Venice Magazine, June 1999.
"Mike Figgis Reconsiders his Divorce from Hollywood," Bernard Weinraub. The New York Times, November 1, 1995.