Following his dazzling co-directorial debut with Performance (1969), Nic Roeg established himself as a cinematic visionary. As with European art-house auteurs such as Antonioni, Roeg's films are marked by aesthetics of alienation, experimental editing, as well as the use of fluid and frequent flashbacks (and forwards). As with other experimental directors, these works also juxtapose differing film styles (particularly scenes of visual flamboyance and verité realism), in a jagged and disorientating manner. They also manipulate the cinematic apparatus and its performers in a self-reflexive fashion. These avant-garde leanings have frequently been attributed to Roeg's prior work as a cinematographer for directors such as Trauffaut. However, his 'pulp' dues were also paid on horror movies such as The Masque of the Red Death (1964). Here, he provided Roger Corman's lush vision of decadent evil with its distinctive look, as well servicing other penny dreadful movies such as Dr Blood's Coffin (1962) and Dr Crippin (1963).
This training indicates that rather than circulating exclusively within the realms of high art, there is a tension between the experimental and the populist in Roeg's work. As with all great genre showman, Roeg is no stranger to controversy, with his sensationalist images often overwhelming their aesthetic sensibilities. For instance, the phenomenon that was Performance hinged on the much-discussed and censored scenes of sadomasochistic sex and 'gay' gangland violence. Equally, Don't Look Now (1973), is as much remembered for that torrid sex scene and the final grisly shots of John Baxter's death as for its complex cross-cutting and convoluted narrative. While a penchant for liberal doses of sex and violence has always been deemed 'acceptable' for the (male) art auteur, there still remain boundaries of decency, which Roeg is more than willing to cross. For instance, his much-cherished project Bad Timing (1980) was a complex examination of obsessive desire and social dislocation, whose harrowing rape scene effectively destroyed his reputation with many major studios.
One of the most surprising features of Roeg's work remains the uncharacteristic and interesting performances that he succeeded in coaxing from the pop stars he frequently cast. In Bad Timing, Art Garfunkel was provided with a disturbing psychosexual space for introspection where 'Mrs Robinson' was the least of his worries. Performance found Mick Jagger replacing the rock and roll lifestyle in favour of living as a recluse, while The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) gave David Bowie the opportunity to create the sympathetic character of Newton: an alien struggling to comprehend the arid American landscape of the 1970s.
In many respects, the use of these non-traditional, non-cinematic icons stands for a greater significance in Roeg's films. As all of his work deals with characters that are 'alien', or alienated from their surrounding and sense of self, it seems appropriate to rely on figures ill at ease with cinematic conventions. Beyond an eye for the splitting of film narrative, it is a focus on the split self that remains at the core of Roeg's cinema. Here, doubles abound, and mirrors, water and even crosscutting cinematic devices are used to indicate the human mind as ultimately fissured.
For many critics, Nic Roeg's interviews are like his movies: complex affairs where the unexpected emerges and singular lines of examination are often juxtaposed and suddenly intercut with other thoughts, encounters and recollections. For some, this makes Roeg a wild card best left alone, for kamera.co.uk this makes him a fascinating figure.
Xavier Mendik: Although we associate your work with art cinema, you have also repeatedly brought an experimental edge to genre cinema. Would you agree?
Nic Roeg: Yes, but I don't think I have ever consciously worked out a formula for myself. I think it is more for other people to assess if I have done that. I have always been interested when people say "you always seem to have this angle or that aspect in your work". I have to look back and think, "Oh yes, they're right!".
Critical interpretations aside, what do you feel is the focus of your films?
Well, I know that I have always been interested in certain things such as time and identity and the fact that such elements are very broad. Time and space have no fixed cinematic identity.
Identity does seem to be a very fluid state in your films. Characters frequently disguise or reinvent themselves. Would you agree?
Yes, because these things have no fixed truth, no fixed identity. Identity, for instance is quite a secretive and emotional affair. It's a kind of emotional exposure, and we are often very frightened of that.
Your work also has a marked juxtaposition of fantastic and realistic scenes. Is this unusual mixing of styles conscious or once again an intuitive thing?
Well, more a mixture of the two. At times I've consciously wanted to get within the 'mind' of the story, which has meant getting away from realism. In other times it has happened unconsciously, evolving from the situation, location or the direction of the performances, all of which have taken on an unreal state.
Do you bring any influences to bear when creating these juxtapositions?
I really liked the work of Michael Powell, and in particular films such as A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and Peeping Tom (1960). When you think of his work, it was also a mixture of realism and extravagance. I thought he was an extraordinary figure and a very daring director.
When you began experimenting with this gap between fantasy and reality, was 'realism' still deemed to be the 'accepted' form of British filmmaking?
Well, there was this idea of 'naturalistic' cinema, but it was very falsely realistic. It wasn't that true to the outside world because it was very controlled. You must remember that a film production is a living thing, as it is being shot it begins to have a life of its own. The director's role then is more like a jockey who is impatient to start the race; he just wants to go. But a film can never fully be controlled in any sense. Too much control kills anything!
In a movie like Performance, there almost seems to be two worlds: there is an exterior world of realistic scenes, which is very different from what happens inside Tanner's house. It is almost as if the characters in this film literally shut the door on realism.
I think that is absolutely right. I think that we do we that with our lives. Just as we are born and die daily in a number of different ways, we also reinvent ourselves all the time. People are always adjusting to every different situation. I think this idea is in a lot of my films, not just Performance, because I have always been fascinated by the idea of people who just disappear. In fact I did a small programme about this once, many years ago for the BBC. It was about people who just vanish, most of the time it's because they have gone off with the Christmas club money or something! A lot of the time, they just go through a door and shut that door on the reality they know and create a new one.
To just shut the door on the reality we know ultimately means breaking the rules.
Yes, I remember that I once had a conversation with someone who had been in prison for many years. He was telling me that his last stretch was in an open prison and he ended up sharing a cell with a fellow who had been an accountant with the same firm for about thirty eight years. Anyway, about eighteen months before he was due to retire, he put his hand in the till and was caught. I was quite surprised by this and told this chap that he must have been suffering from depression or something. However, he replied, "No, you just don't get it. He has been a thief all his life, up here in his head." It occurred to me then, that what he had done up to then is what we all do, contain these urges.
It seems that the repression of the sexual urge is something that you are particularly interested in exploring.
We are living in very sensitive times. We are very much living in a police state, which hides under the guide of democratic attitudes. The policing of desire is part of a more extraordinary form of censorship: that is to make everything without conflict. You see it in politics today, where a vague notion of political correctness is used as a wonderful cover and a wonderful cudgel. Now that is a real censorship of peoples' behaviour! So instead of getting release, our desires fester inside us and then burst out in a high school shootout, road rage, theft or whatever.
How does this repression translate into the images you have created?
There is a scene in Don't Look Now, where Donald Sutherland goes to the detective concerned about his missing wife. The detective says, "Do you have a picture of your wife?" Sutherland takes out a crumpled Polaroid picture that he has previously found in a waste paper bin. However the detective sees this crumpled picture as potential evidence and he asks him, "Did you have a row?" In many ways that is what we do with our own lives, with our desires we build a case against ourselves.
I guess that what this also points to, is the fact that we are all so alienated from our true desires and wishes. This idea of alienation seems very important to you.
Yes, I have never been quite sure where I fit in. A lot of people are happy joining clubs such as rugby clubs or whatever, but I have never even joined a club. It's only recently that I have even drunk at my local pub. I have never been a joiner of things.
One of your classic 'alienated' figures is Newton from The Man Who Fell to Earth. Is this character a thinly veiled version of you, wandering through the American landscape and not feeling part of it?
Well, obviously the idea of a stranger in a strange land, a being that doesn't fit in, that has to take on disguises in order to get by could well be me. In many ways that is exactly how you have to go about getting movies going, you have to put on a different self and appear to have a different set of rules. But once again, I did not set out to say "I shall disguise myself in this character." Though, funnily enough, a man I knew many years ago and someone who I was very friendly with saw The Man Who Fell to Earth, he hated it! He said, "That's the biggest load of shit I have ever seen in my life! What is it all about, I just don't get it?" I didn't really mind what he said; he was a very funny and amusing person. Anyway, I didn't see him again for about four or five years and I was in Los Angeles at a party and he was there. He came up to me and said, "It's so strange seeing you tonight, because two days ago I was driving along on the San- Diego freeway and I had to pull over at the side of the road. And it suddenly struck me, I know who that Newton is - its Nic Roeg!" He then asked me if he was right and I replied "Do you like it any better if it is me?" And he actually said "...Yes I do!"
The Man Who Fell to Earth seems very critical of the sinister side of Seventies American corporate capitalism. It seems as though the wider social upheavals of the period allowed filmmakers the chance to be quite dangerous.
Yes, it was a wonderful period whose sentiment has long disappeared. It was a radical time that has been suppressed. Perhaps it will surface again, when Britain next enters recession! Recently I have seen some rather wonderful work that has been subject to censorship, self-censorship or giving in to pressure from studio-heads, which is another form of censorship. So these days you find that films are being very cautious. Yet, this is not to criticise individual films or artists, it is very difficult to fight it, especially when it is so socially pervasive.
Don't Look Now was recently reissued. What do you think is the basis of its sustained appeal?
Possibly because it was close to some idea of the 'truth'. Not a lot of people interfered with it and it didn't get stained with a lot of different people's opinions or compromises.
What about some concluding comments about its sexual depictions? They were seen as very controversial at the time.
(Smiling) They were alright!
I wish to offer my sincere thanks to Nicolas Roeg for his time as well as the staff of the Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film for organising the above interview.
My thanks also to Charlie Blake of the Cult Film Archive and John Atkinson at kamera.co.uk for their assistance with the research for this interview.