English director, screenwriter and composer Mike Figgis made his directorial debut in 1988 with Stormy Monday, a neo-noir thriller starring Sean Bean, Tommy Lee Jones, Sting and Melanie Griffith. Figgis’ next project was supposed to be The Hot Spot, a movie he had written the script to and one that Dennis Hopper was set to direct. But three days before production started, the script was discarded by the director and a new one was introduced. Somewhere around that time, Figgis’ agent sent him a screenplay by Henry Bean for a movie called Internal Affairs—as it turned out, Paramount Pictures was looking for a director. And although his English agent tried persuading him not to do it because she thought the script was horrible, Figgis took a liking to it. Even so, getting the job was not as easy as it seemed. In the director’s own words, he had to fight to get Paramount to agree to him, seeing as how several other directors, both American and more famous than he was, were lined up for the job. But Andy Garcia, whom Figgis had met while the actor was doing a stand-up show in South London, recommended the director, thereby enabling him to get the upper hand. After all, “the movie was originally commissioned as an Andy Garcia project”, as Figgis himself said, meaning that the actor’s opinion carried a considerable amount of weight. Having secured his job, the director had to fight Paramount yet again, but this time on the matter of casting.
More than two dozen actors were considered for the role of bad cop Dennis Peck, among them the likes of Tommy Lee Jones, Christopher Reeve, Ed Harris, Jeff Bridges, Al Pacino and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but every single one of them respectfully declined the offer. And while the studio very much wanted Kurt Russell to play opposite Garcia, Figgis was much more interested in Richard Gere. At that point, Gere was no longer as in demand as he once was, seeing as how he had spent the better part of the 1980s starring in movies that garnered neither critical acclaim nor commercial success. And although Garcia himself was not too keen on working with Gere, he trusted the director’s judgment. Unfortunately, the two actors ended up not getting along in the slightest, what with Gere’s left-wing sympathies and Garcia’s conservative affiliation standing in the way of them ever seeing eye-to-eye. The kicker is that the characters they were hired to portray were miles away from being on friendly terms. What is more, they even became sworn enemies.
Gere plays Dennis Peck, a charming, sweet-talking, married LAPD officer with three divorces behind him, eight kids to support and another one on its way. And although his love of children might suggest otherwise, Peck is far from being an upstanding citizen. In fact, he is as dirty as they get. Despite having been able to get away with it in the past, he suddenly finds himself the subject of an investigation led by Internal Affairs Division (IAD) newcomer Raymond Avilla portrayed by Garcia and Laurie Metcalf’s Sergeant Amy Wallace. Avilla is not aware of the fact that Peck is a master manipulator who knows exactly which buttons to push and at what moment to push them. Cleverly playing on the rough patch Avilla is currently going through in his marriage to Kathy (Nancy Travis), Peck enjoys watching him suffer and squirm. Allowing Peck to get to him, the IAD agent soon becomes obsessed with catching LAPD’s bad apple and bringing him to justice.
But Avilla does not count on getting in touch with his own dark side in the process. Because in order to beat Peck at his own game, he must rise to the occasion. And even though the good cop never breaks bad per se, the lines start becoming blurred, as he begins allowing his obsession to dictate his actions and his jealousy to take control over his emotions. The two are indeed very much alike, both of them ready to go to great lengths in order to get what they want, as well as manipulate any given situation and the people in it for the same purpose. Because deep down, Avilla and Peck share a similar drive, but have grown accustomed to using it for different intents and purposes. It is only after he begins investigating Peck that Avilla starts putting his objective before the means he uses to achieve it.
This game of cat and mouse comes to a close in the movie’s final moments that play out in Avilla’s house. But the scene we saw was actually reshot later on, due to the original ending not going over well with audiences during the movie’s test screening. In that first version, a severely wounded Avilla charges at Peck, sending them both flying out the window. The enemies crash straight into the swimming pool and Peck tries to drown Avilla. When he does not succeed, Avilla shoots him and almost drowns. Kathy saves her husband by reviving him and the two share an embrace over the sound of the ambulance. Certain parts of this very ending ultimately ended up in the movie’s trailers and are literally nowhere else to be found.
But there was one moment in that final scene (the one that ended up in the final cut) that serves as a testament to the magnitude of the animosity between the film’s two main actors. The part where Avilla busts through the glass was a reshoot—production had to be closed down for two weeks due to an unexpected incident that had Gere wearing a plaster over his arm. The story goes as follows: Figgis was doing a shot of Gere through the shattered glass. Garcia was not needed there because his character was not in the shot and Gere was, in the director’s words, “perfectly capable of doing his own lines”. But Garcia was purposefully going off script, calling Gere all sorts of unflattering names and waving his gun around. Feeling provoked, Gere leaned forward to grab his gun, but Garcia pulled it back, which resulted in the former accidentally cutting his wrist on the broken glass. Needless to say, Figgis was furious with Garcia and deemed his behavior unprofessional. But this was not the only instance where the actor went off-script. According to the director, the scene where Avilla smashes the furniture in his office was also improvised. “So much of the set was broken by Andy”, Figgis admitted in a 2019 Q&A.
Needless to say, Internal Affairs is a fairly violent film. But according to the director, the original script was two to three times more violent than what we got to see on screen. For example, there was a scene where, as Figgis so viscerally described, “teeth were exploding out of a head”, which was something he just did not want to film. Screenwriter Henry Bean was in no way happy with Figgis’ suggestion to decrease the body count, but he did so nonetheless. Putting aside the numerous deaths, the portrayal of violence against women was something that would later on be criticized, for the majority of male characters are portrayed as macho men who see no problem in hitting a woman. And although painful to watch, one such depiction is very much realistic, showing us the rhetoric used to justify that type of behavior, as well as the extent to which it was normalized in that particular time period (with it still being a major societal issue in this day and age).
Apart from its daring script and superb acting that insured a palpable tension throughout the entire movie, John A. Alonzo’s cinematography is also considered one of Internal Affairs’ many strengths. The DOP behind films such as Chinatown (1974) and Scarface (1983) was a pioneer of handheld work, so it should come as no surprise that this was his go-to technique for Figgis’ film. When asked during the 2019 Q&A why he wanted to go hand-held, the director responded: “It felt right. It gave a kind of immediacy to the movement and it meant that the camera was in there, rather than the classic thing of being on the support system. Having operated a lot since then, I'm blown away by how steady his hand-held stuff is. It really looks like steady cam a lot of the time. We never once used steady cam.”
And if all of that was not enough, the proverbial cherry on top proved to be the film’s music. Figgis, having made the score for his directorial debut, very much wanted to act as composer on Internal Affairs as well. But both Paramount and producer Frank Mancuso Jr. resisted that idea profusely. Figgis’ luck changed when he and Mancuso Jr. attended a birthday party where they talked to director and screenwriter Robert Towne, who praised Figgis’ score for Stormy Monday. So, Mancuso allowed for a compromise and agreed to have Figgis write the music, but only if he collaborated with composers Brian Banks and Anthony Marinelli. The filmmaker agreed and later stated the following: “It was exciting to work on a film in Los Angeles. It was twice as exciting to work on music in Los Angeles, ‘cause you suddenly realize there is this vast pool of, like, the best jazz musicians in the world and they're all coming and doing sessions for you”.
The director also proclaimed: “I think the essence of a good film is storytelling. Full stop”. And while Internal Affairs is, first and foremost, an example of good storytelling, the narrative itself would only be half as interesting were it not for the intense atmosphere provided by Alonzo’s camerawork, Figgis’ score and the performances of a cast that went all in. The picture is, in essence, one of the finest crime thrillers of the 1990s, a film that not only jump-started Richard Gere’s career, but also managed to stand the test of time—even thirty years after its original release, it still manages to hold its own.
Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Henry Bean’s screenplay for Internal Affairs [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
As part of the Craft of Film: Academy of Motion Picture at Ciné Lumière, Academy Award nominated director Mike Figgis presented his film Internal Affairs.