Nicolas Roeg set to film Heavy Water
[An excerpt from "The Man Who Fell Out of Sight," by Geoffrey Macnab (The Times (London), 17 June 1999)].
He's 70 now, but Nicolas Roeg still talks a great film: Don't Look Now, in this case. Geoffrey Macnab listened.
Nicolas Roeg is making a comeback of sorts. It was announced at the Cannes Film Festival that he is to direct a $ 10 million adaptation of the Martin Amis novel Night Train. He also hopes to make a sci-fi romance with Robert Altman's producer Etchie Stroh, but won't talk about it in case the project never happens. "Every time I mention something like that, it always falls through," he says.
"Comeback" isn't the most tactful way of describing Roeg's re-emergence into the mainstream. He has been as busy as ever over the past decade, it is just that his films haven't been much seen in British cinemas. There was his version of Samson and Delilah, with Elizabeth Hurley as the sandal-wearing femme fatale. There was Two Deaths, a low-budget tale of sexual obsession set in Romania, Cold Heaven, his adaptation of Brian Moore's novel about infidelity and religious guilt, a straight-to-cable effort called Full Body Massage, and Roeg's version of Heart of Darkness. None made anything like the same impression as his earlier work. You have to go back to 1990, to his adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Witches to find his last real success.
Wearing an open-necked shirt and smoking Gitanes, he looks and sounds like a slightly bulkier version of Rex Harrison. It is strange to think that this dapper septuagenarian once had a knack of provoking outrage like no other British director of his generation. ("A sick film made by sick people for sick audiences," was how a Rank executive characterised his 1980 necrophilia-based classic, Bad Timing.)
It is symbolic of the downturn his career has taken in recent years that he is not even plugging a new project. The old magus has been lured out to meet the press to talk instead about his 1973 classic, Don't Look Now (to be re released on video by Warner Bros on July 5.)
Like all his films, he says with a sigh, Don't Look Now took an almighty struggle to complete. As always, he had to deal with meddlesome producers and paranoid censors. "That's the thing about a movie. Once it has started, everyone can make it. And once it's over, everybody could have made it better. There's no shortage of opinions. Even under the best circumstances, there's always interference."
The advantage to Don't Look Now was that most of it was shot in Venice, "and the producers were a long way away". In depicting the city, Roeg went out of his way to avoid picture postcard cliches. He filmed in the dead of winter. Under his quizzical eye, Venice became a grey, labyrinth-like mausoleum. "It's a curious place to shoot," he says. "It's mainly alleyways that burst out into squares. It's a big city, but because there is no breadth, you find yourself looking up all the time."
Venice, he adds, used to be known as the most beautiful prison in the world. As for the rank smell rising up over the canals, that didn't bother him. "People who live next to gasworks get used to it. It even becomes enjoyable."
Roeg and his screenwriters, Allan Scott and Chris Bryant, were not entirely faithful to the plot of the original Daphne du Maurier short story. The producers, who organised a screening for her, were terrified that she would disapprove. In the event, she wrote Roeg a letter acknowledging that he had been true to the emotions and the characters. "She realised that writers, like directors, have to be generous, not possessive."
There is one pivotal scene which doesn't appear in du Maurier's story. When the mother (Julie Christie) learns that her daughter has drowned, her hand goes to her head. She is so startled and grief-stricken that, without even noticing she is doing so, she rips out a clump of her hair.
"When you see grief suddenly injected into the body," Roeg observes, "it's like a shock, a blow." This involuntary gesture was borrowed from a real-life incident. Many years before, one of Roeg's oldest friends was killed in an accident. The friend's wife had no idea what had happened. She was in bed, just getting ready to get up, when she heard the news. The telephone rang. The first thing she was asked was "How old was your husband?" and then: "I'm sorry, didn't you know he was killed last night?"
When everything seems calm, Roeg elaborates, when you're totally unprepared, "at that moment, the finger of fate will point directly at you". . . .
Ironically, when Roeg first cut Don't Look Now, he left out what is now the film's most famous sequence: the lovemaking between Christie and Donald Sutherland, the bereaved parents. "That particular scene wasn't written into the script," he says. "You can only put so much into a script. A film has a life after that. It goes on living until the first print comes out of the lab and it's changing all the time."
Roeg shot the sequence not out of any desire to titillate or shock, or to embarrass the actors. "They were a married couple. They were going through grief and pain, but they loved each other. It's not a seduction, it's part of life. They go to bed and make love. They want to be close and that's the closest you can be to any human being. We needed an act to confirm that. That makes the tragedy at the end."
Roeg realised that without the scene (which he insists is far less explicit that some audiences imagine) the story would be lopsided. During the rest of the film, the couple seemed to be having rows all the time: he needed to show the tenderness and affection which existed between them. The distributors were alarmed, the Daily Mail suggested that the scene was likely to "provoke the biggest censorship row since Last Tango in Paris", but the fuss very quickly died down. The only protests came when the BBC broadcast the film without the scene.
What of the gargoyle-like, knife-wielding dwarf in the red anorak who turns on Sutherland at the end of the film? Roeg seems offended at the idea that anyone should consider her ugly. "I wanted, not a macabre person, but somebody you would see in a different light. The actress, Adelina Peoria, was actually a charming woman, very nice-looking."
Roeg entered the industry during the early 1950s, at a time when British cinema specialised in cosy comedies and stiff-upper-lipped war films. His career trajectory sounds familiar enough: he started as clapper-boy, became a cameraman a decade later, and graduated to directing ten years after that. What no one could have guessed, though, was the kind of movies he would end up making. The cinematographer who cut his teeth on such conventional middlebrow fare as Bhowani Junction and Lawrence of Arabia (both admittedly films about outsiders) somehow blossomed as the director of Performance (sex, gangsters, gender-bending and rock'n'roll in Swinging London), Eureka (sex, wealth, murder in the Caribbean) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (David Bowie as the extra-planetary androgyne.)
Roeg's films seldom offer tidy, reductive narratives. Whether rambling epics like Walkabout, set deep in the Australian Outback, or stage adaptations like Insignificance, in which Marilyn Monroe (played by Roeg's wife, Theresa Russell) ponders the meaning of relativity with Einstein, they never yield their secrets in a single viewing.
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