|Nic Roeg On His Greatest Films – And The Future|
The legendary director’s Roeg’s gallery (sorry)
Danny Boyle counts him as his favourite filmmaker; Christopher Nolan says that without him there’d no Memento, while Steven Soderbergh admits that shorn of his influence, Out Of Sight would lack its dazzling, syncopated love scene. Last year, BAFTA held an event in his honour that drew enough revered moviemakers to launch a film industry all by itself: Boyle, Terry Gilliam and Guillermo del Toro among them.
He’s Nicolas Roeg, one of Britain’s most influential, innovative directors. A man who, during a ‘70s purple patch, practically reinvented British cinema, filling the screen with indelible outsiders (The Man Who Fell To Earth), strangers in hostile lands (Walkabout), and James Fox going la-la on acid (Performance). He brought an artist’s eye to cinematography and a pioneer’s approach to editing. His greatest work, Don’t Look Now, flaunted both in a chilling, grief-ridden journey through the echoing, slate grey alleys of Venice, and provides arguably cinema’s greatest sex scene. Four minutes long, chopped and reassembled by Roeg and his editor Graeme Clifford, it distilled a couple’s fragile love and grief more eloquently than a thousand pulp romances.
In person, Roeg speaks with a laconic, deliberate delivery that belies a still sharp mind, albeit one that’s not always the easiest to pin down. Sweater-clad on a warm summer’s evening at Somerset House, where’s he’s been introducing a special screening of Don’t Look Now, there’s something of the kindly uncle about him when we meet, albeit a kindly uncle who also happens to be an acclaimed auteur. When you talk to Roeg, you enter a world every bit as labyrinthine as Venice’s wintry passageways, as he tackles concepts way more elemental than Empire is used to on a weekday evening.
In between talk of love, death, sex and little red duffle coats, he’s eager to stress that there are still films to be made, even at 81. His last, supernatural drama Puffball, was released to a muted reception two year ago, but he’s on to the next project – an adaptation of Martin Amis’ Night Train which is in the pipeline with Sigourney Weaver rumoured to be playing the lead, a detective called Mike. In short, the passion still burns. “Film is a magical thing, totally magical…”
How do you look back on Performance, Don't Look Now, Walkabout and The Man Who Fell To Earth?
If I’m honest, all my films have had a very strange reception, even The Witches in America, and that’s OK. Some films, like some works of literature or paintings, are instantly successful, but some leaving you thinking, “Wait a minute, something's happening here…” Some of my films, Performance in particular, have had vitriolic abuse. God, I was threatened by the studios. “You’ll never work again,” they said. And yet it lived longer than the ones that were favourably received – that didn’t offend or stir a sense of guilt. The Man Who Fell To Earth too. That’s why I don't like talking about the past, because they’re alive still.
Your last film Puffball got a mixed reception…
I don’t use the Internet but I know film can have a violent, violent reception; sometimes you want to say, “Wait a minute! Take it easy!”. Something must have struck some chord to have had that kind of reaction; it’s fantastic! I get messages from strangers who’ve seen the DVD but say that there were cinemas in America threatened by their owners to stop them showing it. That sort of attack is quite strange. I keep my fingers crossed, because I want Puffball to live. Today, coincidentally, there was an article in the Times about sexism and attitudes towards women, talking about how we’re going through a period of sexist attitudes and how feminism is under threat. Curiously enough, Puffball is a mirror on womanhood and attitudes towards procreation. Critics used a word I hate, they said it couldn’t find its “genre”. Our lives are full of all the genres. Fear and hope and sadness. Puffball is a love story… no, it’s a life story.
Is that a reflection of the way films are marketed? Don't Look Now, for example, is a film some people describe as a horror and others a thriller, but you’d describe it as something different altogether…
I think it's about life. Tennessee Williams – not that I’m making any comparison – he thought that the arts had an almost cannibalistic attitude toward reality, and I rather liked that idea. And the unknown, that’s what our lives are, you know. Yeats said sex and death are the only two things that engage the human mind.
Lars Von Trier tackled some of the same themes in Antichrist as you did in Don’t Look Now – grief, sex, damaged relationships – and received a pretty polarised reception. Did you see it? What did you think of it?
I enjoyed it and was involved in it because, as you said, it was going down a very similar path - people drawn to each other by love. But love and sex don't necessarily go together, and I think it dealt very well with that. Men and women’s needs and desires overlap but go in different directions as well.
The sex scene between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now has become iconic. How did that evolve?
I find it very flattering that it’s described as iconic, because it was connected to the rest of the film. It wasn't, you know, “Come up and have a cup of coffee”. They were married, they had two children. In grief there’s a subconscious need for that kind of beauty. Grief is an emotion that’s almost unplayable, because you’re in a separate emotional state, it's an inconsolable emotion. I think that’s what von Trier did so well.
Night Train is still your next project, is that right?
I'm so superstitious, I even cross my legs.
Martin Amis’ novel is a kind of noir detective story. What are the challenges of adapting a book?
I wanted Martin to see the script, obviously, and I’m very flattered with the comments he made. He said in his way, after his fashion, “I think it’s captured what I was trying to say,” which is the best you can do. In some sense with Don’t Look Now, we moved into the cinematic atmosphere of the book. I had a very nice letter from Daphne du Maurier telling me that she’d seen the film of my book, and that John and Laura reminded her so much of a young couple she once saw – so much love but with terrible problems, the very essence of where she began her story. Don’t Look Now didn't betray it; I changed some details – in the book the child died of meningitis and the couple go on holiday to Venice – but it was still the heart of it.
Are you filming in the US?
Well, we’re not filming anywhere right now. [laughs]
Is Night Train at the financing stage?
Yes. As I keep it in my head the script seems to shift and move and a lot of things change. When you are waiting for a project to happen, things change.
Will you embrace new technology? Are you planning shoot Night Train in digital?
Yes, absolutely. I love film, but my great grandchildren will ask their parents “Why was it called film?”
Do you think you’d ever consider going 3-D?
Yes, of course I will. You’re a young man and you don’t understand the coming of sound. People actually didn’t like the coming of sound.
Danny Boyle has compared your movies to a claret that improves with age. Do you see your films as ahead of their time?
[Laughs] No, I don't want to be too pretentious. You can only be truthful to yourself. I was in a bar in Los Angeles and I bumped into a director - who’ll remain nameless - and asked him what he was working on, and he said, “Oh, this piece of shit.” I’d hate to do that. It’s a job for me, but it's been my life and I’m very grateful to it, because to be in a job you hate is an awful thing. People can get very artsy-fartsy, but if you are feel that you’re expressing your life, whether you’re collecting tickets or you’re the greatest playwright in the world, it satisfies you.
Interview by Phil de Semlyen