R.I.P. Nicolas Roeg, director of “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “Performance” & other great films

By on November 24, 2018

We’ve just learned of the death of one of Night Flight’s favorite filmmakers, the acclaimed British film director & cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, who passed away on Friday, November 23, 2018, at age 90.

Although he often exasperated his film’s critics and earned a reputation for being particularly hard on his actors, Nicolas Roeg was a true original whose stunningly beautiful films of the ’70s and ’80s still mesmerize all these decades later.

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Before lensing distinctive original films throughout his career and becoming a hugely influential masterful director himself, noted for his penetrating visual acuity and idiosyncratic flair, Roeg worked for many years as a cameraman and cinematographer.

Many of his films starred real-life rock stars-turned-actors, including David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, Mick Jagger in Performance, and Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession.

His filmography also includes highly original films like Don’t Look Back, Walkabout, and Eureka.

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Nicolas Jack Roeg was born in St John’s Wood in northern London, England, on August 15, 1928.

His interest in films came early in life, but his path to directing was fraught with complications and difficulties.

Roeg’s first job in the British film industry actually involved making tea and snapping a clapperboard — considered the bottom rung of the camera department — on a number of minor films shot at London’s Marylebone Studios.

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Eventually, Roeg — who was by now in his early thirties — began working as a camera operator, notably working on two films released in 1960, Fred Zinneman’s The Sundowners and Ken Hughes’ The Trials of Oscar Wilde.

He worked with David Lean on the legendary director’s second unit camera crew, shooting scenic parts of the classic 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia.

Lean later fired Roeg from his job as director of photography on Doctor Zhivago because they constantly argued with each other (Freddie Young received sole credit when the film was released in 1965).

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In 1964, his camerawork on Roger Corman’s adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death earned him accolades from his colleagues.

He also did the cinematography on François Truffaut 1966 film Farenheit 451, John Schlesinger‘s 1967 adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel, Far From the Madding Crowd, and Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968).

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Roeg’s first real opportunity to direct involved him sharing those duties with Donald Cammell, who had written an original screenplay for his psychological mind-fuck film Performance but later determined he needed to collaborate with someone with an intense visual style.

Performance — which chronicled a confrontation in a hippie enclave of Notting Hill between a reclusive former rock star “Turner” (Mick Jagger) and brutal gangster “Chas” (James Fox) — was deemed so graphic in its depiction of bloody violence and so outrageous in its casual and very late sixties-style drugs and sex scenes that its release was delayed for two years.

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By the time Performance finally opened in England, Roeg was making his directorial debut in Australia with the coming-of-age classic Walkabout.

Walkabout stars beautiful actress Jenny Agutter and Roeg’s own young son, Luc Roeg, as two young British orphans escaping from their murderous and suicidal father. They’re befriended by an aboriginal teenager on a “walkabout” in the Australian Outback.

Censors were troubled by Roeg’s use of full-frontal nudity by 17-year old Agutter, but those scenes were eventually allowed to remain in the film.

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In early June of 1971, Roeg took a break from working on Walkabout to film what was happening at the Glastonbury Fair festival, a concert featuring David Bowie, Melanie, Hawkwind, Terry Reid, Family, Fairport Convention, Traffic and other music acts.

Roeg’s film — which captures the flower-powery essence of the festival in all its peaceful glory, with scenes of pot smoking, naked dancing and concertgoers rolling around in the mud — was released in 1972 as Glastonbury Fayre.

Yesterday, on the same day that Roeg died, we coincidentally added MVD’s newly-released DVD of Roeg’s film Glastonbury Fayre: 1971, The True Spirit Of Glastonbury to our Music Documentary section on Night Flight Plus.

Roeg’s 1973 thriller Don’t Look Now — based on a short story by author Daphne Du Maurier — showed a married couple in Venice, Italy, who are still mourning the death by drowning of their daughter, while their lives continually spin out of control.

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The film — one of Roeg’s best — starred Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in their prime, but it’s Roeg’s non-linear narrative and twisted chronology that elevates the status of Don’t Look Now.

Don’t Look Now received an R-rating in the U.S. and an “X” in the UK for its graphic depiction of sexual intercourse, but don’t let that put you off from seeing this unique film, a must-see ’70s horror classic.

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David Bowie, Zowie/Duncan and Nicolas Roeg during the filming of The Man Who Fell To Earth (1975)

Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth — based on a sci-fi novel by Walter Tevis — is another of his great films, and probably his true masterpiece.

The film stars David Bowie as “Thomas Jerome Newton,” an alien who has crash-landed on Earth because he’s looking for water for his dying planet.

Bowie’s alien meets up with delightful Candy Clark (“Mary-Lou”), who accompanies him on a journey that finds him being seduced by uniquely human (and very American) vices, including drinking alcohol, watching television, having sex (the film is notable for its explicitness) and the pursuit of the almighty dollar.

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From the Eighties onward, Roeg’s subsequent work varied in quality, although there are certainly some great films to be re-discovered, including Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession (1980), Eureka (1983), Insignificance (1985), Castaway (1986), Track 29 (1988), and The Witches (1990).

Several of these films starred actress Theresa Russell who Roeg would marry in 1982.

They had two children, Max and Statten Roeg (following their divorce, Roeg married Harriet Harper in 2005).

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In 1999, the British Film Institute acknowledged Roeg’s importance in the British film industry by naming Don’t Look Now and Performance the 8th and 48th greatest British films of all time respectively in its Top 100 British films poll.

Roeg’s filmic memoirs, The World is Ever Changing (Faber & Faber), was published in 2013.

R.I.P. Nicolas Roeg.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.