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By the time Nicolas Roeg turns 80 next year, he’ll be hard at work directing his 18th film. His films are an eccentric, unpredictable, fascinating mix, their lack of genre is something of a genre in itself: a “Nicolas Roeg film” ranges from a sci-fi love story starring David Bowie (The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1976) to an iconic Venice-set horror film (Don’t Look Now, 1973) and an intelligent, dark adaptation of a Roald Dahl book (The Witches, 1990). He’s been directing for nearly 40 years, but his work in cinema spans over half a century. Before co-directing Performance with Donald Cammell in 1970, London-born Roeg had already spent two decades in the film industry, working his way up from clapper-boy in the late 40s to become one of cinema’s most respected cinematographers by the 60s. In 2007, audiences can see his latest film, Puffball. An adaptation of Fay Weldon’s novel (scripted by the author’s son, Dan), the film is a supernatural thriller of sorts, starring Kelly Reilly as a pregnant young architect who runs into trouble when she moves into a new community. The film reunites Roeg with Donald Sutherland, with whom he made Don’t Look Now, and also stars Miranda Richardson and Rita Tushingham. For Another Man, the photographer and filmmaker Rankin visited Roeg at his home in west London.
Another Man: What really interests me is the method that you bring to filmmaking. You once said that, ‘What makes God laugh is people who make plans.’ Some people who direct films say that they have the entire film in their head before they even start to shoot it. After all these years, how do you go about making films? Has your method changed? Nicolas Roeg: It’s changed in as much as I’ve become less knowledgeable about what I do. You know, there’s a certain time, early in your life, when you learn things and then you put those things to use. Then, later, you find that they’re not enough. You start abandoning those rules. But you must know those rules first in order to be able to lose them. Gradually, they become subconscious. There’s a great line in John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre when Humphrey Bogart picks up a rock and thinks he’s found gold. The old man takes the rock and throws it away telling him it is fool’s gold. Later, on the way back down the mountain, they’re at the point of exhaustion when the old man starts leaping about and Bogart asks him why he is dancing. And the man replies, ‘You don’t see the gold beneath your feet!’ I think that’s a marvellous line. It’s true, if you make too many plans, you miss the gold that’s in front of you. As you get older, I think you become more innocent. You’re more open to what’s changing around you, and I think that’s true of many things in life. There’s always a fourth hand, I think, that guides any creative form, and in fact, almost anything that you’re doing – even if it’s just putting up shelves. AM: Did you find that your experiences from your early film career influenced the way you worked as a director? NR: If you don’t think about hierarchy, you don’t see things that way. I was quite friendly with everyone. I’ve been very lucky as well. I’ve feasted on people. Crews are terrifically interesting people; they probably love movies more than many producers. For instance, I had a wonderful prop man for years, he was an extraordinary guy and he was part of the movies, he was always a major part of the film. AM: The locations become almost like characters in your films too. NR: For The Man Who Fell To Earth, we were looking for a location for when Mr Newton arrives in town. I wanted a Midwestern town, a small place with one main street. We found somewhere suitable – just on the outskirts of a town – where there was a deserted fairground with a bullet-shaped spaceship children’s carousel. David Bowie walked past it, having just landed on earth, on his way into the town, when an old bum sat up from inside one of the little spaceships and let out a huge burp and then slid back down. You couldn’t have dreamt that up! That belch was the first noise that Mr Newton heard! One thing I’m really authoritarian about is not letting anybody say ‘Cut’, because you never know when something might happen. AM: Going back to the idea that someone can have a film in their head before they make it. Is that wrong?
NR: Maybe not if you think of film as a more literary medium; but I don’t think of it in a literary way. Film is a picture story. There is a plot, but it’s told with pictures, just like our lives. I’ve never done a telephone interview, I think you’ve got to look at someone, to check that you’re making sense. AM: Who else do you admire? Which other directors? NR: I admire the films of many, many directors. I don’t analyse them, because I could never do what they do. I’ll tell you what I do think though. I’ve noticed that we’re going through a period of time that’s isolating and separating. And that’s interesting. People don’t listen to each other because they’re on the phone or communicating with each on their computers, having less and less human contact. I notice it with people’s criticism of movies. The subtleties of performances are sometimes completely lost on people today. They can only read wild things, you know? Action. Even in quite personal dramas. AM: You were a cinematographer before you directed. Do you think that gave you a strong sense of film as a visual art? NR: Yes. Great screenwriters know that their script is just the tip of the iceberg, that it will be developed by actors and directors. For Walkabout with Edward Bond, the script was just 16-pages long. Edward told me that he was thinking of writing a play about a journey. We discussed scenes and he had a crack at it, and we talked. When I gave his script to the film studio that was originally going to make it, they said: ‘This isn’t a screenplay, you’re just giving us 16 pages.’ AM: Did you have to write more? NR: Yes, and just to get people to read it! Sandy Lieberson (who produced Performance) once said to me, ‘It’s great, I can’t think of one reason why any of your films were ever made!’ You can’t describe a painting. That’s it. You can’t describe how the painter’s going to paint. It’s a very curious and exciting thing. AM: Do you get as excited by stills as you do by the moving image? NR: Well, yeah. When I was a young assistant cameraman I worked with the great American cinematographer Joe Ruttenberg. ‘Nic,’ he said, ‘maybe one day, you’ll photograph a movie. When you’ve got my coffee, come back and I’ll tell you something...’ When I returned with his coffee, he told me, ‘Don’t think of cinematography as an entry to the Royal Photographic Society.’ It’s just the essence of the film. It must say something about what the film is, whether it’s overexposed, underexposed, it doesn’t matter as long as it tries to express the truth. AM: We’ve all seen rubbish films with great photography. NR: What Joe said seems quite simple now, but it wasn’t that simple to do. A lot of the directors at that time weren’t technically skilled at filming. They were much more used to the theatre or the written word. Then, just as people were learning to read the screen, sound arrived, and they didn’t look for screenwriters, because they didn’t exist so they looked to novelists – literary men. They added the words, and film itself, the understanding of film, took a big backward step. Abel Gance, with Napoleon (1927), was doing extraordinary things – he had cameras on rubber-bands and swings – and then sound came along, and bong! They put it in a solid box. It took years, until after World War II, with the handheld camera, for things to get better again. And, of course, colour changed things completely because it needed so much more light – you had all these lamps to lug about – and three-reel colour cameras were enormous, so inevitably things became constricted again. AM: Do you ever go back and visit a film again once it’s finished? NR: No, I don’t go and revisit it, no. AM: Ever? NR: Maybe by mistake. I love Verlaine’s quote, ‘I write stories then let them happen to me.’ I think that’s tremendous. The film is your life. This film, that I’ll finish in six weeks has taken three years. During that time, things happen, things come to a head – crises, happiness, it’s a nuisance... It’s like what John Huston said, ‘Filmmaking is like becoming the mayor of a small town.’ You bring the carpenters in, they build a house, people come, you have parties, people drift in, drift out, and then you’re left alone in a little room with the editor, and he asks, ‘That’s it?’ Really, taken all in all, filmmaking is rather a melancholy affair.
Film AnOtherMan 313