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Nicolas Roeg's Insignificance - The New Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray

Insignificance: the new Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray
I am very excited by the release of the beautiful new Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray transfer of Nicolas Roeg's Insignificance, a film I was lucky enough to executive produce...without ever really having intended to be a producer.

The film, which is about a remarkable (and entirely imagined) meeting between Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Joe DiMaggio and Senator Joe McCarthy (the characters are never named, other than "The Actress," "The Professor," etc) one hot summer night in New York in 1954, was based on a play by British playwright and director, Terry Johnson.

I happened to see the play at London's remarkable - and fairly radical - Royal Court Theatre while I was working on a series of video musicals. I had just finished writing my first novel, Glory B. (a little-known confection, much inspired by Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get The Blues; it came before my more controversial "first novel," The War Zone) and I was full of energy to do something new.

Ironically, I am not the biggest theater-goer and seeing Insignificance was a fairly rare event for me. But I still remember how incredibly smart and funny and effortlessly profound I thought it was (and how good Judy Davis was as Marilyn Monroe) - and in particular I remember the astonishing neutron-bomb blast that came at the end of the play (the details of which I won't reveal, so as not to give too much of a spoiler). I was sitting in the third or fourth row and the blinding flash of light and powerful ripple of wind that blew out over the audience was quite devastating in its dramatic impact.

The remarkable almost timeless extended blast in the film.
I thought, even as I left the theater with my first wife, Ann, that the play was remarkably cinematic and would make a great movie. That thought stayed with me and - I think it was the very next day - I set about finding if there were a way that I could be involved in turning it into a film.

I called my literary agent at that time, Jenne Casarotto, and asked her where to begin. She told me to try calling the playwright, Terry Johnson's agent (and provided the number) and be totally honest with her: tell her that I had never produced anything in my life, but that I had seen Insignificance and had a huge passion for it and that I would like to try and turn it into a film.

So I called - and remarkably my honesty seemed to connect. Within days, I was meeting with Terry Johnson (who at that time was not the biggest fan of cinema and was very wary of his play being turned into anything) and beginning the long process of gaining his trust, becoming a friend, and slowly negotiating an option agreement on the film rights to the play. (My agent Jenne's other advice had been that I would need a good entertainment lawyer, and she recommended one of London's best, Bob Storer, who also became a good friend.)

My first thought as director was Nicolas Roeg, of whose work (Performance, Walkabout, Don't Look Now, The Man Who Fell To Earth) I was a huge fan and whom I thought would ensure that the film was more than simply a filmed play.

I had only met Nic once as a film journalist, several years before, but I had also met Theresa Russell, his wife at the time, at a film festival in Spain, and I thought she would make a remarkable Marilyn Monroe.

Theresa Russell as Marilyn Monroe.

So I tracked down a number for Nic, who was in the editing room finishing up his latest, wonderful but vastly overlooked movie, Eureka - and I called him.

I had nothing to offer: no experience as a producer, no financing, not even at that point an option on the play. But remarkably Nic was extremely friendly (to someone he barely knew) and obviously responded to my enthusiasm. He admitted that he wasn't the greatest theater-goer either, but he agreed to try to make it to the last night of the play, the following Saturday.

I met him at the Royal Court, we saw it, he liked it - and astonishingly, he said he would be interested in directing a film! I told him I was becoming quite friendly with the playwright, and Nic's rather darkly-delivered (but wholly accurate) words of advice were, "Get it on paper!"

So began about six months of negotiating an option, to be followed by a feeling of elation once it had been agreed and signed and paid for (Terry and his agent very generously agreed to an extremely modest sum, since I did not have vast riches at my disposal) - and then a sense of: What next?  I had no experience of raising funding for a movie nor of setting up preproduction.

Nic came to the rescue with a suggestion that I talk to his longtime producing partner, Jeremy Thomas, who had already forged a reputation as one of Britain's most individual film producers - a producer whose tastes were as fascinating and unique as the best directors'.

Jeremy had already produced films such as The Shout, the Sex Pistols movie, The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle, Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and Nic's own Bad Timing (known as Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession in the States and usually seen a badly mauled version with its more erotic scenes cut out) and Eureka.  He would go on to make multiple-Oscar-winning movies such as Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky and David Cronenberg's upcoming A Dangerous Method.

Nicolas Roeg's Eureka.
Fortunately I knew Jeremy a little and when we met to discuss Insignificance, he was very open to taking over the option with me remaining on the project as executive producer and being involved at every stage, so I could learn.

We signed our agreement and then...nothing happened for at least a year. Sadly Nic's film, Eureka, did not open well - despite having major stars of the time in it: Gene Hackman, Theresa Russell and Rutger Hauer - and in fact became embroiled in a court case.

I would call Nic and Jeremy from time to time to see what was happening, but it seemed to be proving very difficult (as it always is) to raise any financing for Insignificance.

Finally - I think it was almost eighteen months after I had first seen Terry's play - I was mulling over the idea of calling Nic one Monday morning, worrying that I might be annoying him to death, when instead he called me and said, "It looks like we might have Insignificance going."

A new TV-financed British film company, Zenith, had recently been formed and was helping take British cinema, which has always survived in fits and starts, in new, more adventurous directions. The subject matter of Insignificance was American, but its playwright (and soon-to-be screenwriter), director and producers were all British. We would shoot all the interiors at Lee Studios in London and do only very limited filming on location in New York.

The British poster for Insignificance.
And so, fairly rapidly, preproduction began. I was already in production on an Agatha Christie film I had adapted, Ordeal By Innocence, an attempt (by no means an entirely successful one) to turn Agatha Christie's strangest book into a kind of British film noir - with Dartsmouth, Devon, hopefully echoing a foggy and bleak San Francisco.

I was excited to be working with the likes of Donald Sutherland, Faye Dunaway and Michael Elphick on that, and even more thrilled to have only a two-week break between shooting in Devon and the start of serious preproduction on Insignificance in London.

It began to feel very real when, with Theresa Russell already in place to play Marilyn Monroe, we heard that we had secured Tony Curtis to play the Senator Joe McCarthy role. Then came Michael Emil as Albert Einstein (Emil was independent filmmaker Henry Jaglom's brother and proved to be an extraordinarily convincing Professor) - and Gary Busey, star of one of my all-time favorite movies, John Milius' surf epic, Big Wednesday, to play the Joe DiMaggio character.

When Nic told me he was adding a character not in the play, an elevator attendant to be played by Native American actor Will Sampson - who had been so remarkably powerful in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest - I felt that Insignificance could turn out to be a truly unique movie.

The French poster for Insignificance.
The shooting of Insignificance, in the studio in London and on location in New York, was an extraordinary experience for me. I was on set every day and, like everyone else, was driven crazy after several weeks of shooting in the same hotel room with the same wallpaper!

But the performances of our cast, and the chance to watch Nic and Jeremy at work, and to witness the groundbreaking special effects sequences (Marilyn "on fire" from the neutron blast; the extended and quite lyrical sequence Nic and editor Tony Lawson constructed of the blast itself), was hugely rewarding. (I was also thrilled recently to learn that Christopher Nolan credits Insignificance with inspiring aspects of his remarkable movie, Inception.)

I began to count Nic and Theresa as friends - and that was the most wonderful thing of all.  They had two young children, and I had a one year old son, Joe Buffalo, and as the next few years passed, they would all share each other's birthday parties. As I have detailed elsewhere on this blog, when Joe was diagnosed with cancer and ultimately died at the age of five, Nic was not only immensely comforting but said some of the kindest and most helpful words that anyone could.

Joe Buffalo on my shoulders on set in London.
And now there is the crisp new Criterion release of the film on DVD and Blu-Ray, complete with fresh new artwork, inspired by the David Hockney, Monroe-calendar photo-collage of Theresa in the film, and with new video interviews with Nicolas Roeg, Jeremy Thomas and editor Tony Lawson. There is also a fine booklet, with an essay about the film by film critic Chuck Stephens and observations on its process by both playwright Terry Johnson and Nic himself.

(If you really want to track down something obscure, hunt for the book about Insignificance, titled simply Insignificance: The Book by Neil Norman and Jon Barraclough and published by Sidgwick & Jackson in London in 1985. It includes a multitude of period images, a foreword by Nicolas Roeg and the full screenplay of the film.)

I am excited to see the film afresh. I hope you will be, too.

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