Film: Look back in anguish

Nic Roeg's Don't Look Now has become one of the key works of modern British cinema. As the film is re-released on video, the director, now 71, reflects on the connections between his life and his work. By Charlotte O'Sullivan
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The Independent Culture
Some people attract flies: Nicolas Roeg attracts honesty. Entering his hotel room, I'm greeted by a shaggy form demanding in panicky fashion: "Have you seen it?"

Roeg is referring to his cult thriller, Don't Look Now, which is re-released on video on 4 July. "The last one hadn't," Roeg continues breathlessly. "Fellow from SFX [the sci-fi glossy]. He said: `I'll be quite honest, I haven't actually seen it.'" The PR confirms this with a wince.

I assure the 71-year-old director he needn't worry, and he shambles back to the couch. He doesn't seem angry, just determined to meet indignity head on.

You'd imagine Nicolas Roeg would be protected from such low blows. A humble cinematographer for the likes of Corman and Truffaut, Roeg went on to co-direct Performance with Donald Cammell. After that he directed Walkabout, Don't Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Bad Timing.

You'd think he'd earned a little reverence, but no. The press biography which accompanies the new video is as blunt as that "fellow" from SFX. Namechecking Roeg's later work it concludes that: "Insignificance (1985), Castaway (1987), Track 29 (1988) and The Witches (1990) pale in comparison to his early ground-breaking films."

It's the generally held view - that Roeg is not the man he was. But poor Roeg: what did he do to deserve an honest press kit?

Pity is beside the point, though. Having lit up a Gitane, Roeg now seems more composed and waves me to my seat. He says it's no use fretting over failure: "Oh, the hell of showing your films to the distributor..." He does a little mime, staring straight before him, holding his nose and declaring: "It bombed!" in a sing-song voice.

"But that's the very premise of Don't Look Now," he says. "We humans want order don't we? But there's this immense chaos. I can't do anything about lots of things..." With a big laugh he points to the wispy threads atop his bald dome: "Like my hair."

He's right. Acceptance is at the murky heart of Don't Look Now, the atmospheric tale (based on a Daphne du Maurier short story) of a couple who, having lost their daughter in a drowning accident, wander round a doomed and uncanny Venice. The flaky wife (Julie Christie) opens herself to mystery and survives, but the rational, defiant husband (Donald Sutherland) is overwhelmed.

And it's what Roeg has been famous for ever since: for letting things take their natural course in that hazy, consciously lazy Sixties way. As the film critic Pauline Kael once wrote: "Roeg captures the sexiness of passivity."

But this must surely make day-to-day life a little difficult? Roeg nods carefully as he listens to the question, as if in preparation for passing the message on to someone who'll understand it.

Then he tells a story: "I was working with this actor. He was very big in theatre. All I wanted was a little look from him but it was all wrong. Wrong! Not his fault..."

Roeg sighs heavily: "We got off on the wrong foot and it got worse. But - and this isn't meant in any prejudicial way - you don't ask a one- legged man to run faster." He retreats, like the Fast Show's Rowley Birkin QC, into a profound ponder: "Wrong place at the wrong time..."

Suddenly his gloomy expression is replaced by an ecstatic, childlike beam: "We have no control, we live on threads." But surely he could have fired this man? Roeg tips his head to one side and considers this: "Not at that moment. What I wanted had to go." I check to see if my tape recorder is still working. Roeg gives a little spring of astonishment: "Going already?"

It's hard not to be swept along by Roeg's tumbleweed flow, but it gets me nowhere. In no time at all, we're three-quarters into the interview and my list of questions has gone by the board. I remember all the warnings I received before doing Roeg.

One journalist yowled in horror at the mention of his name: "I had to interview him! He seemed bonkers, the connections he made. I couldn't follow his logic. I think he was on acid or something!"

Only this morning, a journalist emerged from his interview with Roeg hissing: "I'm not going to be able to use any of it. That man's full of shit." A close friend of his tells me that when she first met him she was terrified and that phone conversations are the worst.

I ask him if he appreciates the effect he has on people. He does. He says he can't tune out distraction. And he admits that phones are "impossible" because "you're taking in other things".

"Someone on the phone will say: `Did you ask her to do that because...'" He mimes gesturing at someone: GO AWAY, CAN'T YOU SEE I'M BUSY, then goes back to the phone call. "`Yes, I think I did. Hold on a minute, will you?' THE DOG'S GOT OUT! `Oh nothing.' CAN'T YOU FUCK OFF, CAN'T YOU SEE WHAT I'M DOING?"

It's a brilliant portrait of benevolent, impenetrable confusion, linearity forever undone by a childlike refusal to stick to the point. (Roeg does indeed squeal at one moment that he's "half a child".)

But it's a confusion, I begin to suspect, that acts as a form of protection. In so many interviews the issue of secrecy comes up - Roeg's desire to spy on others but remain hidden himself.

"It costs me to reveal things," he admits stiffly, "but I hate not to be honest. Probably if you want to see how nutty I am, or stupid, or infantile, you should watch the films, because we all of us reveal ourselves in our work."

His face lights up. "The producer who worked on The Man Who Fell to Earth - he hated it! Why not?" he counters with an agreeable shrug. "Pretty nice guy... Kind of liked him... He said to me at a party eight years after we made the film: `Hey Nic, I was thinking about you two days ago, driving along a freeway and I had to pull over. I know who the man who fell to earth is. It's you!'

"Of course it isn't," Roeg says, giving a little pat to his generous belly. "But some of me is in in there."

I'm still desperate for facts about who "me" is, though. All one can say for sure is that Roeg has the air of a "half-way" person (his phrase), a non-insider. After much grilling, he reveals that his father was born in Holland, coming over to England to fight in the First World War. Here he met Roeg's mother, who was much younger (a pattern repeated in Roeg's marriage to the 42-year-old American actress, Theresa Russell).

The only thing he will reveal about these two people is that they "were not really interested in film". It was his older sisters who'd drag him to the cinema, where he used to get terrible migraines.

He'd say: "I've got a headache." They'd say: "Shut up!"

Listening to all this, I say that Roeg reminds me, not of David Bowie's alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth, but of little Johnny, the Baxter's other child in Don't Look Now. Johnny's the cherished but neglected child who, because he's not dead, somehow seems to fall outside the loop of his family: we scarcely see the boy at his father's grand funeral in Venice.

Roeg frowns at this: "Well, that's rather odd you should say that. Many families break up when people are alive still. The family is no longer a family. It's separated. There's an awful sense of it, maybe later in life, the pretence of it... "

I wonder if he's thinking, not just about his own upbringing, but also about the children he had with his first wife. In fact, Roeg is on another track entirely, thinking about the child actor who played Johnny, Nicholas Salter.

"Now was he in Venice?" Roeg muses. "Or did we get a double? Did he fly out? No, he didn't. We got [another] boy... "

That's so fitting and sad, I say, half in jest, that the actor playing Johnny was literally displaced. Roeg looks agitated. "Sad ending," he says, in a whisper. "He's dead now. Yes, he died as a young man. In prison." He gestures at his neck: "Hung himself." There's nothing comic about Roeg now. He shoots me a look: "Please don't mention that. You know, the parents... "

This sounds like a reasonable request. It's only later, after the interview, that I decide not to comply. I don't doubt Roeg's concern about Nicholas Salter's parents, but there's more to it than that. I think it's Roeg's own guilt that's the issue here.

His career has been dogged by uncanny incidents - James Fox's breakdown after Performance; the drowning of a child in the same pond used in Don't Look Now, the suicide of Art Garfunkel's girlfriend during Bad Timing (which features the attempted suicide of a girlfriend). And Roeg is infamously touchy on the subject.

It's not that he thinks such connections are nonsense: he's too "superstitious" (his own word) for that. The link between Johnny and Nicholas is there in his own head, a link that makes Roeg both powerful and culpable. A few minutes later he shoots me another anxious look: "You won't mention that will you..." But why did that bit of information erupt in the first place?

Roeg refers twice to his "madnesses". I'm packing up my things and he says: "It's become one of my madnesses: `Don't touch anything! Leave it alone!' I won't let my PA throw anything away, especially photographs, I've got so many of the kids [Roeg has six sons, four with his first wife, two with Russell], boxes and boxes."

He's always been that way. There's a scene in Don't Look Now where Sutherland picks up a crumpled photo of Christie she's thrown in the bin. "I've done that myself," he says excitedly. "I'm married to an actress." He does a little mime, "`I hate that!' she says, or: `I look too fat!' She's always ripping them up." He chuckles like a schoolboy: "I sneak back and get them. Never mind if they're all covered in tea... "

I have a mental picture of Roeg's home, full of unflattering photos. Oppressive but also impressive. You might describe his spiritually skewed films in the same way: a cut-and-paste record of tainted glamour, of human imperfection. Our sad side. Maybe that's why he puts up with sloppy young journalists. And allows those press releases to be so damning. And says things he doesn't mean to say. His is an honesty that works both ways.

That's what makes an encounter with Nic Roeg - for all its maddening aspects - special.

`Don't Look Now' is available to buy from 5 July as part of Warner Home Video's `Maverick Directors III' collection, priced pounds 12.99