Skip to main content

Nicolas Roeg - His Own Timing, His Own Wisdom and Kindness

Theresa Russell and Art Garfunkel in Nicolas Roeg's Bad Timing
I look on British film director Nicolas Roeg as many things: a friend, a mentor, almost a second father to me, but also the filmmaker who had the greatest personal influence on opening my eyes to what film could do.

His films, not least Performance, Walkabout, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Don't Look Now and Bad Timing, had the greatest individual resonance for me, because they changed the way I looked at identity, sexuality, death, loss, attraction and both the nature of time and the nature of film - and how all of those are intertwined.

I was a fan of Nic's long before I met him and was lucky enough to work with him in the most astonishing way. Through Nic, I was able, as a young screenwriter and novelist who had never produced anything, to negotiate the screen rights to a remarkable play I had seen and loved, about Marilyn Monroe meeting Albert Einstein - and to become, with enormous help from the unique British film producer, Jeremy Thomas, the executive producer of Nic's film of Terry Johnson's play, Insignificance.

Long before I persuaded Nic to come see the play (ironically, neither of us is the greatest fan of theater) and consider directing it as a movie, my eyes had been opened - in more ways than one - by the extraordinary debut film that Nic had codirected with Donald Cammell: the quite literally mindblowing British gangster film, Performance.

With bizarre echoes of Sunset Boulevard (something I once started writing about as a young film critic but never finished), Performance pits a perfectly-cast Mick Jagger against an explosive and utterly subversive James Fox in the tale of a young British gangster on the run for his life, who holes up in the grand but run-down Notting Hill house of a fading and psychologically-lost rock star.

It's a locale every bit as claustrophobic, of its period and culture (in this case, the dying days of 1960s rock culture) and ultimately, to Fox's character, as deadly, as Gloria Swanson's fading film star's mansion was to William Holden in Sunset Boulevard.

The first time I saw Performance, at a late night screening in London, it was like taking a mescaline trip personally with Aldous Huxley. It stimulated every area of my brain, my emotions, my vision, my sense of myself as a young British man, my sense of what was possible in film, in time, in terms of masculinity and bravado and sexual confidence and even British humor.

Above all, even more so than Jean-Luc Godard's wonderful Breathless/A bout de souffle (still one of my absolute favorite love stories and radically-altering film experiences) or Alain Resnais' equally stunning Last Year at Marienbad, Performance awakened in me a sense that the world around me - *my* world, my life, my London, my Britain - was as alive and authentic and as startling as anything any American, French , Japanese or Italian filmmaker or writer or artist or musician could ever create.

Performance gave me my own personal touchstone - which I used many times when I wrote my most successful novel, The War Zone, about incest and morality and Margaret Thatcher's Britain. It altered how I saw the world around me and my place in it, making me realize that this was the unique stuff of my life: the unfolding drama that was and is my own existence.

Without overstating it, Performance made me feel alive - and excited and very happy to be alive.

Then there were the other cultural and personal connections with Nic, even before I met him - originally to interview him for a magazine article that I never finished writing, partly because our long conversation had morphed off into so many different, totally fascinating avenues that I never could complete it without securing that elusive second interview that, for reasons of its own never quite happened.

There could not have been a project, for instance, that intrigued and excited me more than Nic's highly personal adaptation of Walter Tevis' novel, The Man Who Fell To Earth - another astonishing work about identity, alienation (literally in this one, which concerns the trials of an "alien" who may or may not have come from another planet) and, again, sexuality and corporate gangsterism and death.

Set in an America I loved as much as Performance's Britain (I later moved here and became a US citizen!), The Man Who Fell To Earth starred the musician, rock legend, ingenious lyricist and radical genre-shifter of his own, David Bowie - the single greatest influence on my musical tastes, along with John Lennon and the Beatles (Joni Mitchell's lyrics and love of jazz, folk and rock would come next).

Theresa Russell in Insignificance. Photo collage by David Hockney.

Then there was my unforgettable encounter - a few years before I worked with Nic and got to know Theresa well - with Theresa Russell, the dynamic, no-holds-barred-beautiful young star of Nic's explosively unsettling film about sexuality and relationships, Bad Timing. This was at a film festival in San Sebastian, Spain - at a time when she and Nic were first together as a couple (they soon married and had two children together).

Through the strength of her own remarkable intelligence and qualities of character, Theresa - in the week that I met her in San Sebastian - reinforced in me many of the responses to life, to women, to courage, emotion and film, that Nic's films had both underlined and awakened, not least in Bad Timing itself - which is still one of the most beautifully edited (though not in its butchered US release print) and scored (especially the sequence using Keith Jarrett's exquisite jazz piano from The Koln Concert) films I have ever seen, and on a lighter level, the movie I always felt would form the perfect "human relationships" double bill with Woody Allen's Annie Hall.

Working with Nic for the two or more years it took to take Insignificance from a sudden flash in my head that maybe I could somehow get this play made as a movie, to the completed and very accomplished feature film that premiered at the Cannes Festival was an honor and a huge pleasure.

The fact that Christopher Nolan now credits the stunning - and literally - explosive ending of Insignificance (in which Einstein, with Monroe's help, imagines something "worse" than an atomic bomb) with influencing some of his own remarkably original dream-shifts in Inception, is like contemporary icing on the cake.

The "neutron bomb" explosion in Insignificance.
But for me, the most extraordinary, and painful yet deeply resonating, personal experience of Nic come from two distinct and unforgettable moments in my life - or perhaps more accurately, three.

The first was when I saw Nic's exceptionally beautiful, emotionally and psychologically complex and terrifying film, Don't Look Now, and witnessed Donald Sutherland (with whom I would later work as a writer) "anticipating" the drowning death of his young daughter - and then running to wade desperately through water to salvage her body as he let out what for me is the most haunting and horrifically memorable moan in cinema.

More than a decade after seeing that astonishing film, I would sit in a hospital room in London and learn that my then three year old son had cancer (it would prove to be terminal) - and one of the first thoughts that penetrated my brain was the memory of that soul-shattering extended moan.

Donald Sutherland in Don't Look Now

On a far more positive and equally memorable note, after my first son, Joe Buffalo, had died, I recall sitting in a car outside an English film studio with Nic (strangely, I don't remember the physical location, only the emotional geography), and Nic telling me that Joe's life had meaning because he had touched everyone he had ever come into contact with. (Nic's two son's with Theresa were born just before and after Joe, and they had all shared birthday parties and play dates.)

Nic's words then made a huge difference in my life - and there is other advice he gave me that has helped anchor the emotional and psychological route of my existence.

He is an extraordinary and very complex man. His films have explored subjects that few other directors have ever dared even to consider - perhaps not so strangely, since they are countrymen and almost of a generation, I think Alfred Hitchcock may come closest to Nic in his askance view of the world, his dark humor, his explorations of sexuality (more slyly disguised in Hitchcock's case) and his perverse humor.

I love Nic. He changed my life both as a friend and a filmmaker. Please read Ryan Gilbey's excellent interview with Nic below (I know just how challenging it can be to pin Nic down on paper, to communicate the multi-headed snake of his thoughts). Ryan also is a friend - the world has its own connections of the type Nic loves to explore - and I thank him for his permission to reproduce it here:

Nicolas Roeg: 'I don't want to be ahead of my time'

Once audiences make sense of his work, Nicolas Roeg has usually moved on. As the film world rushes to canonise him, he tells Ryan Gilbey about the curse of bad timing

Ryan Gilbey

Nicolas Roeg and David Bowie on the set of The Man Who Fell to Earth in 1975. Photograph: Duffy/Hulton Archive

The mid-morning sun is creeping into the cluttered study of Nicolas Roeg's London home, not far from the bohemian hideout where a gangster and a pop star merged identities in his 1968 debut, Performance.

Roeg, who is 82, is enthusing in his skittish way about the viewing habits of his teenage stepdaughter. "She lies on the sofa watching television and texting at the same time," he says, marvelling. "She'll look up at the screen and say, 'Yeah, it's quite good.' Fantastic! And she's taking it all in. That's the medium: six plots, all at the same time. You see a film now that's critically acclaimed and well-made but you think, 'Where are we going?' Youth is so exciting. It'll take over. I don't want to be swept away. I want to be with the taking-over people, right to the end."

We are only halfway through our allotted hour together but already I have set aside my notebook, bidding farewell to the subjects I naively thought we might cover. Make no mistake: no one steers Nicolas Roeg. A conversation with him is a dot-to-dot puzzle in verbal form, with the interviewer left to fathom the far-flung connections between disjointed words and phrases. In the course of our meeting, he ranges over the Rockefellers, Anne Boleyn, the silent-movie era, Wild Strawberries and in-flight entertainment, among other things. But as with the higgledy-piggledy structures of his films – including Walkabout (1971), Don't Look Now (1973), Bad Timing (1980) and Eureka (1983) – there is every likelihood that an internal logic persists, even if it's not immediately accessible to the conscious mind.

These would seem to be happy days for Roeg. His workrate may have decelerated (his most recent picture, the Irish voodoo horror Puffball, was made four years ago) but his stock is higher than ever. A retrospective is underway at the BFI in London, stretching back to his early work as a cinematographer, which includes credits as varied as the Roger Corman-directed The Masque of the Red Death and François Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451. A recent poll by Time Out magazine to find the best British films of all time settled on Roeg's psychological horror Don't Look Now as the winner, with three more of his movies in the top 100 (alongside Lawrence of Arabia, on which he shot second unit). His influence is everywhere. Among those who have taken their cue from his complex editing patterns and narrative conundrums are Todd Haynes, Steven Soderbergh, Wong Kar-Wai and Charlie Kaufman. Christopher Nolan has said Memento would have been "pretty unthinkable" without Roeg, and drew on the explosive ending of Roeg's 1985 film Insignificance when making Inception.

Not that Roeg gives a hoot about any of this. "I don't think about it," he says, sniffily. "We're all influenced by everything unless we're locked in an empty room." Retrospectives are neither here nor there, since he doesn't watch his old movies; awards merely leave him bemused. "How can you judge one film against another?" he asks, shaking his head. Shockingly, he has never had to clear much shelf-space for prizes, but when he received an honorary Bafta in 2009, he looked distinctly nonplussed, telling the audience: "I'm not dead yet."

This is the bind in which Roeg now finds himself. On one hand, the industry is keen to honour the work that has made him British cinema's fiercest imaginative force, as well as the heir to Powell and Pressburger. On the other, that sort of treatment is usually a way of encouraging a director to hang up his megaphone. Whether or not you think Roeg's later work can hold a candle to the blistering first decade of his directing career, there is no shortage of unruly energy left in him. Puffball was not widely liked ("It got mauled," Roeg admits), though no one could have made it but him. The problem has always been that it takes everyone else an age to cotton on to his innovative experiments. Performance was shelved for two years by twitchy distributors; the same equivocation sealed the commercial failure of Bad Timing and Eureka. Having any kind of theatrical distributor, even a negligent one, had become a longed-for luxury by the time he made his eerie, overlooked 1990 thriller Cold Heaven.

"Well, one of my films was called Bad Timing, after all," he says. "Eureka was very bad timing. The early 1980s: Reagan and Thatcher were in, greed was good, and here was a film about the richest man in the world who still couldn't be happy. Politically and sociologically, it was out of step."

Around the same time, Roeg was driving near LA when a vehicle came up behind him, the driver blasting the horn. "I stopped in the lay-by, and it turned out to be a producer I knew. He said, 'I saw The Man Who Fell to Earth last night. I always thought it was a piece of shit. And I suddenly got it – it's you, isn't it? That Newton fella [the homesick alien entrepreneur played by David Bowie]. He's you! Well, I just wanted to say I was wrong. And it takes a lot for me to say that.' That was seven years after the film was released." He chortles at the memory. "Of course, The Man Who Fell to Earth was bad timing, too. Came out around the same time as the George Lucas one."

It's enough to make a fellow feel he was ahead of his time, I say. Roeg's disapproval is instantaneous. "I hate that expression," he says, coming over sulky. "I don't want to be ahead of my time. This is my time. It's Marmite, isn't it? You like it or you don't."

He drifts on to the subject of Last Year at Marienbad, which must have been vital in his development, what with its wealth of spatial and temporal ambiguities. "I saw it when it came out. I thought: 'This is fantastic!' In the lobby, people were saying, 'What was that about?' The same people 18 months later would see nothing unusual in it. Same thing now, you see? I'm not out of time. They're out of time. Even the word 'film' is obsolete. 'Grandpa, why is it called film?' 'Well, there were strips of transparent celluloid through which light was shone … ' 'OK Grandpa, we gotta go … ' The retention of the image … All the subtleties in a poem, all the things you put in the rhythm of words, can be destroyed in one look."

We seem to have arrived circuitously at the core of Roeg's film-making: the supremacy of the image over the word, the eloquence of juxtaposition, the primal power of montage. His films have never been linear or literary. "Life isn't linear," he says. "It's sideways." For all that his work penetrates the mysteries of human communication – and it's my belief that Bad Timing is fit to be mentioned in the same breath as Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage – words come a distant third to the image and the edit. "Words have the tiniest importance. Half of what we say we don't mean. I love that American expression: 'Sure, I hear you. But what are you saying?'" He was first gripped as a child by the power of the image. "Going to the cinema was a treat. I was always a bit arty-farty as a boy. That's what my sister called me. 'Come on, Mr Arty-Farty.' I was hypnotised by it. And I believed it all. I sound like a complete ignoramus but I knew nothing about acting."

He can still lose himself just as easily in what he's watching. "One moment of truth in a film can be seen instantly. 'Two men fought for the love of one woman across a wild frontier.' Yes – but why?" I ask if it isn't difficult, given his clearly insatiable passion for cinema, to be out of the game for such long periods. He squints at me, not quite comprehending, so I point out that his last cinema film before Puffball had been Two Deaths, back in 1996.

"I've done a lot of work!" he protests. "What difference does it make whether it's cinema? So old-fashioned. Hopefully I've got another two, three, four films left in me. But I won't be sitting here like a frozen Norwegian dog turd. With a 'Go' it takes you 18 months, two years, to get a film made. I'm doing installation pieces and I don't even want to be credited." Why not? "I rather like the idea of anonymity." So people won't know they're by you? "No." Then we won't – "... be able to criticise!" he interrupts, laughing. They're just going to appear unheralded? He goes quiet. "I've said too much now. I should never have told you."

Wait, I say, I'm confused. And he gives what might be the perfect Nicolas Roeg response to my bewilderment: "Good."

The Nicolas Roeg season is at London's BFI Southbank until 30 March. Roeg will be appearing at the Borderlines film festival, Hereford, on 5 April.


  1. paul kendallJune 23, 2011

    one of my most cherished memories was meeting nic at the launch of your first book, cheers alexander. paul

  2. Hi Paul, thanks for that memory! That was another example of Nic's kindness. I'd only met him a few times at that point and he was a major director and was kind enough to come to my first book launch (for Glory B. - a little-known novel that came before The War Zone). He even read the book and said nice things about it:) But having him there at that party was wonderful and meant a lot to did having you there. Great that we're still in touch. Very best wishes, Alexander


Post a Comment

Please note that for reasons I have not been able to solve yet, I have enormous difficulty posting replies to comments - so I apologize if you ask a question or just make some wonderful remarks and I am not able to respond. I am working on this, because it is very frustrating, but apparently it involves rewriting some of the code of the template! So do not hold your breath...

Thank you for taking the time to comment, and for reading my blog - Alexander

Popular posts from this blog

The High Tower Apartments and The Long Goodbye

Photograph by Dwayne Moser. This beautiful apartment complex in Los Angeles is called the Hightower or High Tower Complex (the High Tower name refers to the central elevator, I believe), and was designed in 1935-1936 by architect  Carl Kay - and made famous in 1973 by my favorite film, Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (see Why I Love Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye ). Although Altman used the building as Philip Marlowe's apartment in his somewhat post-modern Long Goodbye (the film plays with references to Old Hollywood and opens and closes with the song, Hooray For Hollywood ), the building has another direct connection to Raymond Chandler. It was apparently the inspiration for Chandler in his book, The High Window (the first Chandler novel I ever read), in which Chandler describes the residence of Philip Marlowe as being on the cliffs above High Tower Drive in a building with a fancy elevator tower. (Thanks to the Society of Architectural Historians Southern

Please Sign Up For Email Updates To This Blog And My Writing Workshops

The Malteste Falcon, 1941. For those of you wishing to keep up to date on my writing workshops at the Central Sierra Arts Council , the most efficient way is to sign up in the "Follow This Blog By Email" box in the right sidebar beneath the Buddha. You will then receive an email update every time I post to the blog, including any changes in times or dates or other details of the workshops (although I shall try not to mix things around). I would also greatly appreciate it if you would "Like" this blog on Facebook , by clicking on the "Like" button also beneath the Buddha. This lets you follow the Facebook page associated with this wesbite, , which frequently has additional content not included in the blog. Blade Runner, 1982, courtesy of artist Gavin J Rothery. In the meantime, the first Writing Workshop of the New Year will be on Saturday January 21st 2012 , at the Central Sierra Arts Council, 193 S. Washington Str

2012 Writing Workshops - From Pixar To Noir

WALL-E photograph: Copyright Pixar/Disney. Many thanks to everyone who came to The Magic of Pixar Writing Workshop today. I hope you enjoyed it - and I wish we'd had more time to explore the many themes of Pixar's films, not least a deeper examination of the Hero's Journey and how it relates to such movies as WALL-E and Finding Nemo.  I think, given the tremendous response - and requests - I will be presenting a second Magic of Pixar Wr iting Workshop, probably in February 2012.  We will look at different films - Up, especially, and Monsters, Inc - and how they relate to themes of childhood, aging and our deepest fears and emotions, as well as the sheer fun and excitement of the Cars movies. In the meantime, the first Writing Workshop of the New Year will be on Saturday January 21st and will have a Noir theme, exploring one of the most powerful and enduring genres of literature and movies - the heightened emotions, vivid characters, crackling dialogue