"Once I had it all. Now I just have everything": Nicolas Roeg Remembered

A look back on the career of the great director of "Performance" and "The Man Who Fell to Earth."
Jason Wood

Nicolas Roeg

It has become a cliché to quote the age-old maxim that you should never meet your heroes. I am also of the belief that you should never write about meeting them either. But I am going to make an exception for Nicolas Roeg, who passed away aged 90 on November 26, 2018. It’s commonly accepted, and certainly in the tributes that have flowed since his death, that Roeg was a genius of the cinema. In his lifetime he was not always held in such lofty regard, as his longtime friend and producing associate Jeremy Thomas was swift to point out when he chastised the U.K. film establishment for its neglect of one of its most visionary talents. “Roeg was one of the major figures but he wasn’t supported by the British Film Industry. There is something about our culture that we don’t revere our greatest filmmakers, especially if they remain at home and are very English as well as unusual.”1 As with the status of Roeg’s genius, Thomas’s view is one I endorse. 

This piece is intended to act as a brisk overview of Roeg’s career, but it is also a more personal act of remembrance. I first encountered Nicolas Roeg in 2005 when having written a book with Nick Broomfield for Faber I was invited to The Hay Festival to present it. Nic Roeg was also appearing, and the plan was that Nick Broomfield would conduct an onstage interview with him. A day before the event, it transpired that Nick would be unavailable and so knowing that I was a Roeg fan my name was kindly offered as a replacement. Short of other options and with nobody else called Nick or Nic coming forward, the festival accepted.

I had come to the work of Nicolas Roeg from my brother and his coterie of cinephile friends. Performance (1968), co-directed with Donald Cammell and which Nic was known to be loathe to talk about due to a debate about authorship, was one of the first films I ever saw. It undoubtedly inspired my love of cinema. I had also worn out an old VHS tape of The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) as a teenager, drawn initially to the appearance of David Bowie but increasingly intoxicated by the film’s melancholy and portrait of alcoholism and consumerism. Roeg’s posters adorned my walls. I was nervous about meeting him, but his wife Harriet and son Luc made the introduction so much easier. Nic was not starry or standoffish. He was kind and generous and seemed touched by my unbridled enthusiasm and appreciation for his work. About an hour before we were due to go on stage we had a stiff drink and I ran through the clips I had selected. I also gingerly broached all the subjects I had been warned he would be reluctant to talk about, Performance included. He brushed them all off and confirmed that he would be most happy to go with the ebb and flow of the conversation.  

On our way to the venue Nic spotted a queue of around 300 people snaking its way into the pop-up cinema. “I wonder what they are all going to see?” he innocently remarked. “They’re going to see you” I replied. “Really? Are you sure? I don’t believe you.” Nic had no idea how much his work was cherished and it obviously heartened him. It certainly made for a very sympathetic Q&A, one which transpired to be one of the most in-depth interviews Roeg, whose responses can be as elliptical as his films, had given. The Guardian printed the interview in full.

Nicolas Roeg entered the British film industry in 1947, initially working as a gopher at De Lane Lea dubbing studios in London’s Wardour Street. He scraped his way up from clapper boy to focus puller, slowly moving towards a career as a cinematographer. Roeg’s first break came as Freddie Young's assistant on George Cukor's Bhowani Junction (1956). As the angry young late-'50s began to morph into the swinging '60s, Roeg went from prestigious gigs as a camera operator on Fred Zinnemann's The Sundowners (1960), Ken Hughes' The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960), and the train explosion sequence in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962), to director of photography on two Clive Donner films: The Caretaker (1963) and Nothing But the Best (1964). Roeg won praise for his color camerawork on Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966). Both films were to exert a significant visual influence on Roeg’s subsequent efforts as a director, with The Masque of the Red Death being particularly notable in Don’t Look Now (1973) and the director’s interest in the connotations of color.

Roeg’s superlative cinematography on these iconic '60s films culminated in his collaboration with Richard Lester on Petulia (1968), a film whose fondness for juxtaposition and predilection for bold and jarring designs that contrast natural settings with the confusion of technological progress would also anticipate Roeg’s later work as a director. As a cinematographer, Roeg was rarely content to be a craftsman. While directors like Lester relished his collaborative style, others like Lean (who fired Roeg during pre-production on 1966’s Dr. Zhivago) stifled the future director's instinct towards expressionism. 

Don't Look Now

Roeg’s first feature as director was Performance, the notorious collaboration with 60s’ London scenester and former painter Donald Cammell. Hugely influenced by the writing of Jorge Luis Borges, the kaleidoscopic editing style and rejection of linearity was to serve as the foundation for the future solo endeavors of Roeg. Questions of authorship regarding the film abound, but the film undoubtedly contains numerous persistent visual and thematic motifs later seen in Roeg’s films, including notions of identity, concepts of alienation, and the divided self. James Fox, who later underwent a religious conversion, plays Chas, a petty gangster on the run from his gangland colleagues who takes refuge in the basement of aging rock legend Turner (a perfectly cast Mick Jagger, the first of Roeg’s cross-cultural castings), and his two girlfriends Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michele Breton). The reclusive Turner recognizes something of his younger, daring self in the violent criminal and pushes open the boundaries of the villain’s experience with a mixture of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Performance begins as a straight thriller before deviating into more interesting and largely unexplored terrain; it’s a visually astonishing work (with Roeg handling photographic duties) and one of the most challenging, influential, intelligent and thematically provocative British films of all time. The score—overseen by Jack Nitzsche and featuring Jagger’s phenomenal Memo From Turner—sets the mood perfectly.  

Funded by Warner Bros, Performance remained unreleased for two years as they made little secret of their loathing for it. The eventual release was half-hearted at best, the studio bridling at the film’s bravura cocktail of sex and violence. But the reputation of the film steadily grew and as the decades passed it graduated from cult status to feature regularly in national and international polls of top ten films of all time.

Roeg followed Performance with Walkabout (1971), adapted from the novel by James Vance Marshall and scripted by Edward Bond. Characteristically Roeg used Bond’s script as the catalyst on which to hang his imagination, famously exclaiming “It’s perfect” when confronted with Bond’s handwritten fourteen-page script. A look at a thwarted love affair between a cultivated city dweller (played by Jenny Agutter) and an aborigine on an initiation ceremony that will take him into adulthood (David Gulpilil), the film examines cross cultural barriers and the deadening effects of consumer society on human nature. Edited, Roeg later claimed, to reflect the way that children see the world (footage of animals being killed is played backwards so show them springing back up to life to suggest an innocence concerning mortality), Walkabout also draws attention to the very conventions of film narrative and story trajectory, with one stunning sequence unfolding as a series of pages turning as if the spectator is watching a book come to life.

The Venice set Don’t Look Now remains one of Roeg’s most admired and influential works, and one of the few to be warmly received on arrival. An intelligent, harrowing and provocative adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s supernatural thriller in which a married couple (movingly portrayed by Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland) use a working assignment in a wintry Venice as an attempt to overcome a recent tragedy in which their young daughter has drowned, the film hints at the horrors that underlie domesticity in Roeg’s characteristically imagistic style. Again dealing with the notion of dislocation in time (Fragile Geometry, Joseph Lanza’s book on Roeg, feels so very perfectly titled.2), the film’s most celebrated scene—apart from the resolutely chilling denouement—involves a tender, moving moment in which the young couple make love for the first time since the tragedy in their Venice hotel room. Perhaps the foremost example of Roeg’s non-sequential editing style, the moment was self-confessedly borrowed wholesale by Steven Soderbergh for Out of Sight (1998). Don’t Look Now is also important in the Roeg canon for its use of location, with the director regularly questioning the notion of how can we claim to understand ourselves, or the ones we love, when we feel so ill at ease in the places we live in.  

Dipping into the pop star pool again, Roeg adapted The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis into an intricate and puzzle-like fable about the deadening effects of contemporary American society and the destructive nature of consumer culture. Drawing a career-best performance from David Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton, Roeg’s English eye offered a singular take on the expansive American landscape, both fetishizing and undermining its mythical qualities. A visually dizzying tour de force that rejects narrative in favor of thematic juxtapositions, The Man Who Fell to Earth also corresponds to Roeg’s filmography in its interest in the correlation between sex and violence and its frequently graphic presentation of both.  

Bad Timing

Bad Timing

Vienna is used to startling effect in the masterful and initially much maligned Bad Timing (1980), one of the director’s most elusive and complex pictures, which examines in flashback the consuming relationship between two Americans in Venice (Art Garfunkel and Theresa Russell, later to become Roeg’s muse and wife). Roeg has described Bad Timing as an apt summation of his career, believing himself to have often been ahead of time, instead of simply of it. Treated with disdain by its distributors, with one Rank executive describing it as “a sick film made by sick people for sick people,” the film, which journeys into Klimt, obsession, and psychoanalysis, was released minus the Rank logo and led to the diminishing of Roeg as a commercial force. The director’s refusal to dilute his vision, pander to populism or “join the club”3 similarly led to restricted opportunities. Projects would come and go, often at Roeg’s behest in adherence to his mistrust of compromise, and its worth noting that a filmography incorporating films he developed before leaving them abandoned is often of more interest than the completed CVs of many other British film directors. The Shout, High Rise, Flash Gordon and a film about amateur yachtsman Donald Crowhurst are just four examples.

Another composition much cherished by its creator, Eureka (1984), offered a return to the cosmic concerns of The Man who Fell to Earth and the nefarious “business” interests covered in Performance. Scripted by Roeg’s regular writer Paul Mayersberg, Eureka is a tale that unpicks the life of a gold prospector (Gene Hackman) who after finding immense wealth in 1920s Canada is forced to live out the rest of his life in a luxurious exile polluted by his increasingly vicious battles with business competitors, a number of whom are members of his immediate family or emissaries thereof. Comparable to Citizen Kane (1941) in scope and in its presentation of a man who attains huge wealth but at a great personal cost, the film also evokes Roeg’s fellow sensualist John Boorman in its concern with ecology and the punishing of those who have plundered the earth’s riches for personal gain. In places extremely and uncomfortably violent, Eureka was again publicly loathed by its distributors (MGM/UA), who much to Roeg’s personal and professional cost sabotaged its cursory release. “Eureka was a child which was born which the parents didn’t want.”4 The opening of the film provided the template for the beginning of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will be Blood (2007), as did the central character’s potent proclamation, “I never earned a nickle of another man’s sweat.” 

There was then what was popularly perceived as a dip in quality in Roeg’s work, but it is a mistake to view the director’s post-Eureka years as one of inexorable decline. A meditation on love, hate, fame and jealousy, Insignificance (1985) gathers together Monroe, Einstein, DiMaggio and McCarthy for a series of intense discussions in anonymous hotel rooms. A modern fable of post-World War II America, the film again showcases the director’s unique approach to the elements that connect us while also highlighting a natural affinity for his performers. Tony Curtis excels in a later career turn.

Having toned down the ellipticism a degree and perhaps satisfied with having consistently challenged audiences throughout his pervious two decades (Roeg maintains the highest regard for his spectators, encouraging them to react to his cinema, whether that reaction be positive or negative), Roeg headed in a more mainstream direction with Castaway (1986), an enjoyable adaptation of Lucy Irvine’s biography in which a woman answers an ad to be a desert island castaway wife for a year. There swiftly followed a segment of the portmanteau Aria (1987) and engrossingly Oedipal Gary Oldman starring drama Track 29 (1988). The film was scripted by Dennis Potter, affirming Roeg’s talent for working with the very best British writers. Roeg’s commercial zenith was reached with his deliciously dark and wholly delightful tilt at Roald Dahl’s The Witches (1990). Featuring a compelling Anjelica Huston, the film is evocative of the work of Guillermo del Toro in its belief that if a child is in a horror film then the child should be seriously imperiled.


Roeg’s touch could arguably be considered less sure throughout the 1990s though there was still the occasional glimmer. Adapted from the novel by Brian Moore and scripted by long time collaborator Allan Scott, Cold Heaven (1991) marked the last of the director’s collaborations with Theresa Russell. An ambitious supernatural tale that offered an original take on the director’s interest in faith and adultery, it was followed by the made-for-television Heart of Darkness (1993). Featuring Tim Roth, John Malkovich and James Fox, it’s a faithful Conrad adaptation that feels ripe for revival. Cast asunder by the U.K. film industry, Roeg worked subsequently in American television in rather negligible assignments before returning to familiar shores with Puffball (2007), another supernatural fable taken from a novel by Fay Weldon. A spirited endeavor, the film was perhaps most notable for reuniting Roeg and Donald Sutherland, who had remained a longtime supporter and friend, even naming a son Roeg.

Puffball may have suffered all too familiar distribution problems but it did bring Roeg back to public consciousness. It also helped precipitate an appreciation of the director’s remarkable achievements just as the shadow cast by his absence from the screen looked to have become permanent.

Credited with one of the greatest creative runs in cinema from 1968–1983 (a run that has parallels with David Bowie’s imperious 71–80 period), Roeg was suddenly rewarded with tributes from The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Societies for his Outstanding Contribution to Cinema , awarded a BAFTA (also for his Outstanding Contribution), been the recipient of a BFI retrospective and seen both Performance and Don’t Look Now (voted by Time Out as the greatest British film of all time) restored and reissued theatrically. Boutique label the Criterion Collection lovingly presented the bulk of the director’s catalogue on Blu-ray and DVD. There was also David Thompson’s affectionate 1985 BBC Arena documentary It’s About Time and Roeg’s own highly and characteristically unconventional The World Is Ever Changing, the Faber-published anti-memoir in which Roeg shares some of the lessons he has learned from a career behind the lens. Written when he was eighty, the book’s intention was to pass on all his wisdom and experience, sometimes bitter, though recounted entirely without rancor, to the next generation of filmmakers. Christopher Nolan, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Ben Wheatley, Danny Boyle and Guillermo del Toro were all quick to come forward in their acknowledgment of the influence of Nicolas Roeg. Next March will see the release of Carol Morley’s Out of Blue. A loose adaptation of Night Train by Martin Amis, to which Roeg was once attached to direct, the film carries a citation to Nic and is produced by his son, Luc.

Roeg was undoubtedly a visionary and a genius, even if it took a while for this to be widely recognized,  but perhaps more importantly he was a warm, generous and exceptionally kind human being. I think back fondly to our first meeting at Hay, and quite frankly marvel at my good fortune that we stayed in touch. We’d while away the hours in his study, discussing art and culture and the perfect silk scarf. Time became an artificial construct in his company, its passing like something Roeg would have depicted in his films. Hours became minutes which upon his passing I realized had then become years. The day Nic Roeg died I picked up the paperback copy of Walkabout that I had bought for my two children and later asked Roeg to sign. The inscription read, “To Felix and Rudy. From a friend of your dad.” It moves me still.

1. “Nicolas Roeg was the greatest director I ever worked with,” says producer Jeremy Thomas. Geoffrey Macnab, Screen Daily, 27th November 2018.

2. Fragile Geometry: The Films, Philosophy and Misadventures of Nicolas Roeg, PAJ Books, 1989.

3. Nicolas Roeg obituary, Brian Baxter, The Guardian, Sun 25th November, 2018.

4. Jeremy Thomas, Ibid. 

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