By Joe Utichi
Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth is the next film in the Made in Britain season. Joe Utichi interviews writer Paul Mayersberg.
You were working with Nic Roeg on other projects; how did The Man Who Fell to Earth come up?
Nic had a deal, after the success of Don’t Look Now (1973), to develop three pictures for Columbia in America. The first he wanted to do was Out of Africa, the second was Julia, and the third and littlest was The Man Who Fell to Earth. He’d been shown it by a friend; we hadn’t read it before. It was a paperback original which came and went in the 1960s. I think somebody did own it before; they thought of making it into a TV series like The Fugitive. Each week they’d be hunting for the alien. It never got made that way. The other two films didn’t work out for Nic, and so the runt of the litter was this one. That’s how it started.
The book is hugely political; you wouldn’t imagine it getting far in today’s filmmaking climate.
We decided early on to dump that particular politics, because we thought it would be the thing that dated first. If you’re making a film about the workings of time, then something that seems dated is dangerous. We took the aspects of the novel that seemed to be predictions and we added a couple of our own. Among the predictions we added was the idea of the black guy becoming an army officer, and everybody laughed at that; they said it was completely impossible.
But it wasn’t just prediction. It has been said of the film that it was ahead of its time, but there’s no such thing in my opinion. There is such a thing, though, as spotting things in the present that have eluded others. That’s really what we did; and I don’t think particularly consciously. The film is very observant. Particularly in the David Bowie character, Newton; he sees things, literally, that others don’t see. And that was really our benchmark, if you like.
Were you interested in the allegorical power of science fiction?
I didn’t really think of it as science fiction. There’s no science in it, really. There are inventions, but it’s not scientific. Of course, most science fiction doesn’t have any science; what it has is a proposition of some state of mind or new invention or way of perceiving things. HG Wells used to write scientific romances, and I think it’s much more like that, in a way. Not particularly like Wells, but that idea that you take what amounts to a real story and mix it with a proposition. Most of the science fiction of my era, growing up in the 50s with It Came From Outer Space (1953) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), was not character-driven. What we had was a story you could tell without science fiction. An emotional tale, really. It covers 24 years, during which one character does not age at all, and you watch the others ageing in pieces and that’s how you know that time has passed.
Did you feel a good amount of freedom to be bold?
We did absolutely anything we wanted, and we started with that premise. Nic was very keen on that; the idea that if you’re going into it you might as well go for it. Anything in the story that occurred to us we dealt with. Not everything stayed, but most did. If you’re coming to a planet and you can magic your way around, then you can put anything into it, and so there are scenes that look as though they come from a Western, and then there’s a Christmassy atmosphere. And then there’s the growing influence of Japanese culture, which I’d always been very keen on from my days of going to the Academy and seeing Kurosawa, which was another world. We took from everywhere.
The title is almost an oxymoron, The Man Who Fell to Earth, because he is, of course, an alien. John Carpenter made quite a nice little film called Starman (1984), with Jeff Bridges, some years later, which took our theme and developed it in another, slightly more sentimental way. But we were very concerned about the environment and the idea that the planet was in some way decaying. The thing that holds everything together, insofar as there is something, is the growth of corporate America. If you have an amazing invention then you are in line for corporate America.
The idea of non-linear time is fascinating; how did that come about?
What we did was we built bit-by-bit from the book and created a tapestry that moves back and forth. The film is progressive; the narrative progression is of course straightforward. But, what Newton can see is not straightforward, so that he remembers the planet he came from, but then he’ll be driving along one day in the country and he’ll suddenly see the pioneer family from the days the West was opening up. It’s one thing that he sees them – and his girlfriend can’t – but the marvellous thing that Nic did was that they could see him. So you see this reverse shot of this pioneer family seeing a Lincoln Continental – which would have been like seeing a spaceship – cutting across the landscape. Nic had done something similar before, in Don’t Look Now (1973) and Walkabout (1971), but this was a more advanced form of that, because it was purely to do with character.
How does it feel that The Man Who Fell to Earth is still resonating with audiences?
It’s amazing that it still resonates. Perhaps even more so now than it did back then, except in some people’s memories. A few months ago there was a showing at the NFT, during a Nic Roeg season, and I did a Q&A. I was suddenly keen to know whether anyone in the audience had seen the film before, so I asked them to raise their hand if they had. Ninety percent of them put up their hands, which was amazing. There are not many films you can really say that about.