With Don't Look Now out on Blu-ray this week, the legendary British director reflects on his most iconic work.
Ask many critics, filmmakers and cineastes and they'll tell you that visionary British director Nicolas Roeg changed the face of cinema. Favouring heavily-symbolic fragmented narratives over conventional linear plotlines, Roeg’s landmark classics Performance, Walkabout, Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth are all cerebral and emotional studies of the human condition. Following the recent BFI retrospective of his work, Roeg sat down with LWLies to discuss the latter two masterpieces, digitally restored and available on Blu-ray for the first time.
LWLies: Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth continue to be held as classics. How did you feel when you heard the former had been voted Number 1 in Time Out’s 100 Best British Films?
Roeg: Well, it was quite a high compliment, certainly extraordinary and exciting.
You have long enjoyed the reputation of being one of British film’s true visionary mavericks. How strong was your iconoclastic intent when making Don’t Look Now? Was it your ambition to radically re-shape film grammar?
In your life, in one’s work, one must try to be truthful to the task at hand, to realise and respond to what the work itself demands. Sometimes this calls for established rules to be broken, but that’s life isn’t it? Rule-breaking applies to many things, not just filmmaking. I certainly don’t think there’s a right or a wrong way to make a film, I’ve often discovered a right way and another right way – nothing is definitive. Admittedly, many people prefer the safety of the known road, but I found situations regularly required me to take a different path and I was happy and ready to do so.
Were you interested in the psychic and paranormal prior to making Don’t Look Now?
Yes, definitely. It deals with the unknown, so it’s fertile ground for a filmmaker because nobody can say how it must be done, how another reality should be rendered. I feel I must be open to the chance that there is an alternate reality. Always remain alert to chance, it’s an extraordinary thing. The chance of winning the lottery is amazingly slight, something like a billion to one, yet people have won it twice! I’ve certainly always been fascinated by the inexplicable.
Venice, a city of beauty and decay, is the perfect setting for Don’t Look Now. How difficult was it to find shooting locations?
Well, we didn’t shoot in any of the Venetian tourist hot spots, there’s not a shot of St Mark’s Square in it. In another example of fortuitous chance the church which architect John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) is restoring was actually undergoing a restoration when we were scouting locations, there is a sign visible on the church which reads 'Venice in Peril'. Completely by chance, the restoration was being financed by the Venice in Peril fund from England. To get permission to shoot in one of the grander churches we would have had to go through Rome and let them scrutinise the script. However, this little English-supported church in a suburb gave us permission straight away. The mosaic restoration works as a symbolic representation of the film’s shattered narrative structure, but this wasn’t something created for the film, all the scaffolding you see and the restoration work was going on. It’s all true.
Were Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie your first choices for the roles of John and Laura Baxter?
Absolutely, again all by chance, Julie Christie was working on something else but it fell through as we were casting.
In Don’t Look Now the married couple consists of an American husband and an English wife; whereas The Man Who Fell to Earth focuses on a relationship between an extra-terrestrial who claims to be an Englishman and an American woman. Is there something in particular about the Anglo-American dynamic that interests you?
Yes, I think there definitely is something. As George Bernard Shaw said: 'England and America are two countries separated by a common language'; which I think is terrific, the different emphases that change the whole thing. It’s marvellous and not thrashed out in translation, we simply go down different paths and have different values, fooled by the same words.
I think the two cultures are much closer now.
Yes, France tried to stop it.
Are you more interested in the poetic, the symbolic, than the narrative?
Yes, well you see I think the straight narrative account cannot give the final answer. Although we’re bound by it, stumbling on and on and finding out more and more, striving to fit our experiences into a linear narrative explanation of the realities that surround us. However, the sheer abundance of new things overwhelms us, even during my lifetime the life-altering innovations have been immense and in such a short time.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is extremely prescient with some of its predictions concerning future technological advancements such as self-developing film and our claustrophobic CCTV surveillance society. Did this surprise you?
The rate of innovation surprises me. Well, take your digital Dictaphone for example, no one would have thought that possible a few years ago. Everybody now walks around like sci-fi characters, all with mobile phone technology, interconnected with one another – they don’t even hold them anymore, they wander around talking to themselves!
Newton (David Bowie) appears to be both Prometheus and Icarus. He becomes a successful tycoon, unsettling the US Government with his brilliant inventions. However, he falls into a curious ennui, submersing himself in earthly stimulants like sex, alcohol and TV and abandoning his personal mission to return to his drought-ridden planet and dying family. Were you criticising the negative effects of a burgeoning consumerist culture?
I wouldn’t say criticising. I think that it was beginning to become his truth that he couldn’t go home. We see his memories of his dying planet and his need to leave his family for Earth and I think it portrays a very human situation. Years ago I had a friend who had to leave his country during a crisis and leave his wife and son there. He headed to New York and wrote letters to his family over the course of five or six years as he could not send for them. When he eventually was able to send for them he was in a suspended state. He had had a relationship with someone else and now had two distinct realities. He would have to go back to his past life and bring it forward, somehow bridging the gap of all those years and two separate realities.
Is it correct to say Newton is entranced by America? The first human life he encounters after plummeting to Earth is a drunk at a fairground, which adumbrates his future life. He seems vulnerable to all the attractions open to him.
Again, that was thanks to chance. Someone had set up the fairground so we decided to shoot and suddenly an inebriated old man just sat up from one of the ride’s carriages and belched loudly. Another director not open to chance would have yelled 'Cut!' and told his crew to get the drunk the hell out of there. For me it was like another hand dictating and directing, it was telling me something, so the first human contact that Newton has is with a drunk in a fairground. That chance sort of thing has happened on a lot of films I’ve made and I’ve just trusted it. Again, I can’t say, it doesn’t make sense to say, that something like that is the wrong thing or right thing to do, it’s just instinct really and being alert to chance.
Do you ever go back and watch your own films?
It’s very difficult. It’s a time and an attitude over and in the past. For myself, while watching the new Blu-ray transfer of The Man Who Fell to Earth later today, I won’t be able to think of it as a movie. It will be talking to me in a different way, as part of my own life. I’ll probably be picking out an extra from the background and thinking "Oh yes, I remember having a drink with that guy!" It will be evoking memories from my life, more than drawing me into the fictional narrative.
You know, I once watched an excerpt from an episode of This Is Your Life or some such programme featuring an actress being given an award. Unbeknown to her there was a film sequence running behind her. The presenter then announced to her "Well, we have a special person here tonight to see you, who has just arrived, please turn around to see who!" Now, the video sequence timing was out and when the actress turned round it was showing Errol Flynn. She gasped loudly reeling back, but that very moment the video cut to another actor, the true guest, and the whole thing was fucked, because he came out of the wings and her face fell. Who do you think she knew intimately? And Flynn had been dead years!
The Man Who Fell to Earth is out now on Blu-ray and Don’t Look Now is released on Blu-ray June 27.