I’ve never storyboarded anything. I like the idea of chance. What makes God laugh is people who make plans.
Nicolas Roeg leaves the world his persuasive, provocative and original films filled with stunning imagery.
From his start as a production assistant in the late 1940s, and before making his directorial debut 23 years later, Roeg was a world-class cinematographer, and by the late 1960s, he wanted to direct. He followed with four dazzling films.
Performance, with Roeg serving as cinematographer and director, starring James Fox and Mick Jagger, so shocked its studio, Warner Bros, that they held it up for two years, re-edited it then half-heartedly released it in 1970 to mixed reviews. It is a brilliant look at the London drug scene and sexual ambivalence that was way too potent for the period; and it went from failure to cult classic and is now considered a masterpiece.
Roeg also served as his own cameraman for his haunting Walkabout (1971), a more accessible film from a fine screenplay by Edward Bond. It tells of a young girl (Jenny Agutter) marooned with her brother (Luc Roeg) in the Australian outback after their father attempts to kill them and then shoots himself. They encounter a handsome Indigenous Australian boy. The film is a journey of spiritual and sexual awakening. It freaked people out with its full frontal nudity.
Don’t Look Now (1973) is in my Top Ten Films of All Time. Adapted by from a Daphne du Maurier story, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, it blended a horror story with a compelling portrait of a couple’s trauma following the accidental drowning of their daughter. With themes of loss, fear and communication, it is his most admired film. It is the creepiest, scariest thing I have ever seen on the screen.
The commercial and critical success of Don’t Look Now allowed Roeg to make ambitious The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), starring David Bowie as an alien with phenomenal powers who arrives on earth, it either baffled or thrilled film fans and Bowie fanatics.
Roeg’s dark and disturbing follow-up was Bad Timing (1980). It stars Theresa Russell and Art Garfunkel as two Americans in an obsessive relationship leading to horrifying results, due in large part to very bad timing. Russell’s lingering suicide attempt, watched by her psychoanalyst lover, proved to be just too much for many audiences. It was so controversial upon its release, it was branded “a sick film made by sick people for sick people” by its own distributor and was given an X rating in America. It went unreleased on video until 2005 when The Criterion Collection released a DVD edition.
Roeg was a an insanely inventive, vivid cinematographer. His work in Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and on John Schlesinger‘s Far From the Madding Crowd (1967), and Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968) foreshadow his own directing style, with its disjunctive and semi-coherent ways that make full sense only in a film’s final moments. A major theme in Roeg’s films is characters who are out of their natural setting: the young people in the Outback in Walkabout, the married couple in Venice in Don’t Look Now, the alien on Earth in The Man Who Fell To Earth, and the Americans in Vienna in Bad Timing.
After his run of brilliant films in the 1970s, the audience distaste for his experimentation, and films lacking conventional narrative-based realism, resulted in neglect of Roeg, even though he was one of the most original filmmakers ever. He exasperated the critics. He took a delight in jumbling scenes and sense of time to bewitch, bother and bewilder audiences.
Roeg’s foreboding sense of atmosphere influenced later such filmmakers as Steven Soderbergh, Tony Scott, Ridley Scott, François Ozon, and Danny Boyle. Christopher Nolan stated that his film Memento (2000) would have been “pretty unthinkable” without Roeg. Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight (1998) features a sex scene that is visibly influenced by the extremely graphic sex scene between the two main characters in Don’t Look Now which Roeg deliberately intercut with scenes of the couple getting ready to go out after their tryst.
The decidedly more amusing Insignificance (1985) depicts a slice of Americana via the convergence of several iconic figures in an anonymous hotel. The film is set in 1954, it revolves around the interplay of four characters who represent iconic figures of the era: Marilyn Monroe, Joseph McCarthy, Joe DiMaggio, and Albert Einstein billed as The Actress, The Senator, The Ballplayer, and The Professor. Russell plays Monroe, who encounters Einstein and engagingly explains the theory of relativity to the great man, with a forlorn DiMaggio and a noxious McCarthy hovering in the background.
In Castaway (1986), a slob played by Oliver Reed advertises for a companion (Amanda Donohoe) to spend a year on a desert island in an uneasy version of a marriage. Marriage was treated even less kindly in Track 29 (1988), from a Dennis Potter screenplay with Russell and Gary Oldman.
He made excellent films for television: Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird Of Youth (1989), starring Elizabeth Taylor, and The Witches (1990), a dark fantasy with Anjelica Huston based on a novel by Roald Dahl, and Heart Of Darkness (1993) adapted from Joseph Conrad’s famous novella starring Tim Roth and John Malkovich.
Roeg was an important filmmaker, who will be remembered for his hallucinatory images, the sinister power of his perception, and an erotic obsessional quality that marked his best work. His height as a filmmaker didn’t last long, yet it should, by all rights, have lasted longer. I want to go back and watch all his work.
Roeg was 90-years-old when his final credits rolled.