David Jenkins


RIP Nicolas Roeg: A career interview with the late British filmmaker

In memory of this British titan of cinema, who died at the age of 90, we resurface a fascinating archive interview.

You haven’t answered a telephone until you’ve answered a telephone and the voice at the end of the line says, “Hello, Nic Roeg here. Can you come to my house now?” This happened to me in the autumn of 2010, when I was working on the film desk for Time Out London magazine. We had conducted a poll to discover the best British film of all time and Roeg’s fractured grief opus Don’t Look Now won by a miniature landslide.

We wanted to talk to Roeg about his victory, so I had supplied my contact details to his son, Luc, who had promised he’d pass them on. All I had at this point in my career was a deep love of Nic Roeg’s aggressively idiosyncratic and impressionistic film work, and the prospect of interviewing this towering maestro of the seventh art was daunting to say the least.

To his brusque question, posed on the telephone, I naturally answered in the affirmative, dusted off my dictaphone and hopped on the Tube from Tottenham Court Road direct to Holland Park. En route to his house I bought him a bottle of Beefeater Gin, for which he seemed surprisingly grateful. He asked, on the spot, if I’d like a gin and tonic (I declined due to nerves, and I’m certain he chuckled in a way which inferred, ‘Aww, bless’ rather than, ‘Hmm, lightweight.’).

He invited me up to his study, a magical cove of alternative cinephile history situated at the front of his handsome terrace. Through trembling nerves, I managed to articulate a few questions, though I can definitely recall that, at the time, his answers were something of a blur as my focus was diverted entirely to being ready with the next prompt. Yet it was an exciting encounter which, like his films, switched back and forth in chronology and packed in thoughts and ideas.

It was deeply saddening to hear of his death at the age of 90, and even though he hadn’t made a film since 2007’s divisive Puffball, it feels that he’s never been disconnected from the public consciousness. So many of his films have now assumed classic status, it’s hard to know if there are any left which now haven’t been ordained as such. With kind permission from Time Out, below is the full transcript of that interview, as we felt it is certainly preferable for us to remember this one-of-a-kind film artist through his own words, musings, speculations and remembrances than it is to lament his passing through subjective recollection. He was and very much still is one of the absolute best.

Do you recall the last time you watched Don’t Look Now?

Roeg: Golly, it was some time ago. I’ve seen clips and things, and I’ve introduced it at festivals. It’s quite interesting seeing it in clips, as it gives you these little hints that remind you where you were going at that time. Funnily enough, I don’t really like watching a movie I’ve finished. I mean, I do, but it’s very difficult because, I guess, this film became part of your life. Movies are very curious: making them is not just a case of going in to work then going out again. For everyone on the crew, it becomes his or her life, especially when you’re on location. You’re there and you can’t stop it. It’s not nine to five: a film is there the whole time. The only thing revisiting a film can do is make you see the things you think you could improve upon. It also makes you remember where you were, personally speaking.

Don’t Look Now is an extremely atmospheric movie. Would you encourage people to see it on a big screen?

It’s very funny that. I recently saw The Diving Bell and the Butterfly on my own, very privately, on a charter plane. I had the whole cabin to myself. Had a couple of Martinis. I thought it was an extraordinary piece of work, and I was deeply involved in it, and I couldn’t have got that deeply involved if I’d seen it on the big screen with other people. I just thought, thank goodness I’ve seen this film in this way.

Do you watch a film like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and think that the director may have been influenced by you?

No. But I’m very flattered you think so. Maybe my films should have an audience of one too!

Do you remember the period of making Don’t Look Now as being a positive one?

Film is a curious thing: you’re preparing it, working on it and thinking about it for a long time before you get to shoot the thing. Suddenly you give birth to this piece. Filmmaking is like being a jockey. After the race, interviews with jockeys are very interesting. One interview stuck in my mind – and I’m aware it sounds a little mad making the connection between moviemaking and horse racing – when they said to a jockey, ‘you were lying third, did you know you were going to come through?’ and then, ‘I was third, but I wanted to hold him back until he wanted to go. I just felt him: HE wanted to go’. The horse is the one who’s directing the jockey. It’s the same relationship between a film and a director. Sounds a bit airy-fairy, but it’s true.

There’s a marvellous line in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre when the old man stops at the foot of the mountain, and the old man picks up a rock and says, ‘Nahh, that’s fool’s gold!’. But suddenly, in another scene he starts dancing. ‘What’re you dancing for you old ass?!’ and he says, ‘You don’t see the gold beneath your feet!’ In filmmaking, the gold is often located in the most unlikely places. The world is full of theories, but nine out of ten, if not ten out of ten begin to change. Our creativity is bound by our experience.

For a film like Don’t Look No, there are segments at the beginning and end that are cut and edited in mosaic pattern.

I find them in the edit. I like it to surprise me, and I shoot a lot. I like shooting a lot because the urgency is essential to the opening of the work. Some people like to take a long time to do scenes, but I like to get a lot of shots and get involved with, say, characters sitting in a room. Making a shot of two people in a room interesting, you have to create distractions and suggestions: the characters are looking at one another and thinking, ‘I know you’re not just thinking of me…’.

I’ve read the word “Hitchcockian” when people were writing about Don’t Look Now at the time of its release. Are you happy with that?

Yes, very flattered. He was a wonderful filmmaker and had an amazing attitude towards film. When people say that one director is influenced by another, I always just think that everyone is influenced by everyone and everything. How could we not be? If you’ve enjoyed something, that’s probably because that’s the way you think of it. It’s more about the person than the subject. When someone says, ‘I find that disgusting!’, I just think, ‘Oh you do, do you? How interesting.’ It works for attitudes, politics, sex – everything.

You’ve had trouble with censorship in the past, especially with films like Performance and Bad Timing. Does that side of the business worry you?

Censorship is an ever-changing thing. It’s all about timing, as far as the artist is concerned. What would’ve never been allowed or terrible back then – politically, certainly sexually – is okay now. The ability of retaining the image: in Shakespearean terms. What’s in fashion is a case in point. It’s not more fashionable to get in to a chic restaurant without a tie than it is with a tie.

In a film like Bad Timing, were you aware when you were making it that it was going to cause trouble?

No, I was excited by it, because it is a situation that had no particularly social structure to it. It didn’t matter whether someone was a professor, or else a milkman. Going back to Don’t Look Now, it is movie was about people discussing with one another, who they were and what they did. I really like the fact that it was an American man – Donald Sutherland – with an British woman – Julie Christie. It was extra interesting because Sutherland is actually Canadian. It was pure, physical and mental exchange, and not because of background or nationality. They were still British.

For me, Don’t Look Now is about expressing love in a different way. I remember that I wanted to show something at the end – I can tell you now because it’s been out for 30 years! – in a scene where Julie’s on the funeral barge, and the two older sisters are with her. We arrived at the set and Julie had a lot of make-up on and a veil. She also had this little tube with an acidic substance in it, and when you blow it, it makes you cry. Make-up wanted to see a stained cheek. I saw this scene and just thought, they had a wonderful family life, and the sisters were weeping in the background, and I thought, that’s fine from them. But I’d really like to have something step up, and finish on a moment that was beyond the obvious. You see something that would be a secret in Julie Christie’s head. So I said, ‘put the vale up, and when you’re stood on the bow of the boat. I want you to smile. Undefeated, like Queen Christina!’ I remember Julie said, ‘Oh God, Nic! Are you crazy?’ I think it’s fantastic. It’s a big fuck you to fate. It’s saying that the love they had couldn’t be topped. Fantastic.

In the Daphne du Maurier novel, isn’t Donald Sutherland’s final line after he’s been slashed by the dwarf, ‘Oh what a bloody silly way to die!’

Oh no, we couldn’t have used that! When you’re adapting a book, it’s in a different place. The premise of the whole piece becomes more important than the moment. I liked this book because it was a place you could see a happy family.

The infamous sex scene in the film: some people see it as this moment of pure bliss, others read it as an outburst of anguish.

Sex, whether you like it or not, we all know that it’s the prime force of life. There is no other reason to be here. It’s quite curious in many films you only see the meeting, the flowering of sex. You hear all the intrigue about how, ‘oh, she loved the other guy at the party’. It’s not about a happy marriage. The first stage of recovery – here, from the loss of a child, who was made by you-know-what – would only be a reminder, and that’s why it’s wonderful when Donald smiles at the end of it. It was an affirmation of their love. For me, sex is very rarely rude. It’s a fresh thing. I think that people secretly connected to Don’t Look Now for that reason.

The censors saw things that didn’t happen in the sex scene. Did this happen? Did that happen? It’s not unusual. The wonder of film is that because we relate to moments and emotions so deeply, we often see things that aren’t there. That there was no passionate stripping off beforehand – he just wanders in from the bathroom. It was a step towards getting back to normal and getting rid of a terrible sadness that can strike again. Maybe that’s a reason why, after all this time when it’s looked at, people see that more clearly. When it came out, audiences were probably less used to it. Back then I imagine that scene would’ve been like someone bursting out of a cupboard and shouting ‘boo!’

I get the impression from watching your films that you like to have a say in all the cinematic elements – sound, sets, performances, costume, camerawork.

Yes, of course.

Do you see yourself as an auteur?

Well, I don’t know. I don’t want to get in to what I see myself as.

One of my favourite scenes of yours is from Insignificance where Marylyn Monroe is explaining the theory of relativity to Albert Einstein.

I’m always surprised that that hasn’t been picked up on more. It’s a marvellous situation. Both talked by strangers in a completely opposite way to how they’re behaving. And what she says is all true! So it’s the best lesson you’ll get in cinema. And from Marylyn! In real life, they’re both inventions of other people. They adorn that invention. They put it on. I knew a man who was involved in film – I won’t say who it was or even hint at it because of privacy – I know part of his extraordinariness and extravagant behaviour was born of tremendous shyness and nervousness. And he had this extraordinary eccentric manner, and people misread it. I got to know him quite well. He was quite a public figure in certain circles. We all dress up externally and internally to match the situation.

Do you find that with yourself? Are you a different person on set than to how you are now?

I like being that. I think that happens with lots of work situations. I know that I’ve had tussles with artists, actors and producers – everyone! – but to get someone on to the same wavelength is really not to do with the subject or the work, it’s getting to know someone better. You may even find that what they’re saying could help what you’re going to do more than just doing what you’re going to do in defiance. That happens in politics, doesn’t it.

This may be a little off the beaten track…

Ah, you’ve seen a lot of my movies!

Reading some reviews of Performance…

Richard Schickel called it ‘The worst movie ever made’.

…can you talk about David Litvinov? I saw he’s credited as technical advisor on the film.

I don’t talk about him so much, but David Litvinov was a strange character. He was highly intelligent. Very, very… I guess he was also quite academic in a curious way. He was in revolt against it, and against himself. A lot of attitudes of the generation were understood by him. He was a very good person – as far as Donald Cammell and I were concerned – that we could talk to privately. But he was a unique personality. Fortunately, he was excited at the event of making a film and he wanted to be around and first to it.’

Is he still alive?

No. He’s dead.

Aside from Performance, a lot of your films are shot in other countries and cities. What’s the appeal for you in making films in strange lands?

I like being a stranger in a strange land. We don’t go to all the sites in London, because they’re there and we can always go to them tomorrow. When you’ve got someone staying with you in London, it’s awful when you’re driving them around and they say, ‘what’s that building over there?’. You’d just have to keep saying, ‘I don’t know!’ You’d just end up lying and saying, ‘Well, that building was a spy network and it had a working rifle range in it.’ It might be true! I like that fact that things stand out, and then making the decision of whether to show the tour guide’s view of another city. Some times it’s very inviting not to show those place.

In Don’t Look Now, Donald Sutherland is a church restorer and he’s working there, so there’d be no reason that we’d need to see any tourist landmarks. Before that, it’s very difficult for me to see London in the way that a stranger sees it. Stories seem to stand out more when you’re shooting them in a place you don’t know. Especially Venice. I don’t think I’ve been to a city where you can walk down a narrow street and you can hear footsteps getting louder and louder and louder. It as if someone’s always behind you. The maze of those little alleyways was a fantastic thing for me, but Venetians just don’t notice it. Coming back from location at two in the morning is very strange. It’s set there for a lot of those reasons.

In a film like Castaway, did you spend a long time looking for that island?

Those islands are just outside the Seychelles. It comes out of conversations with people. You talk to them about what you want and the availability: they’ve been taken there to be castaway, they’re not wrecked. The wreck comes of them not being able to get off. They’re not unknown, they’re visiting. The crew of the film, a lot of people stand rather aloof from them, but they all make the film. Prop man, is very important. I had a wonderful prop man who would be inside the scene, know how to dress the desk of this person and he would be able to tell when it’s been dressed well by the art department. When there are shelves of books done correctly. I don’t want it to just be a big block of books from the prop house. I like to think the character would read those books.

An edited version of this interview appeared in Time Out London magazine. It has been reprinted here with kind permission.

Published 27 Nov 2018

Tags: Nicolas Roeg

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