Why Nicolas Roeg (1928-2018) was my film hero

“I don’t want to be ahead of my time. This is my time,” said the legendary film director, who died on 23 November 2018. 

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Few directors have enjoyed consecutive runs as mighty as that of Nicolas Roeg, who died on Friday night. Five perfect and perfectly daring movies straight out of the gate. The innovations in editing and storytelling catch the eye first – these are films in which past, present and future are unravelling at the same time. “Life isn’t linear,” he told me in 2011. “It’s sideways.” But there are also the performances he encouraged, in some cases drawing fresh complexities from established actors (Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland), in others teasing out or distilling an essence (he had a knack for getting great work from pop stars: Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Art Garfunkel). His films are searching, inquisitive, philosophical and perplexing. You might say that he based his career on the pet name his sister gave him during their childhood trips to the flicks: “Come on, Mr Arty-Farty,” she’d say. But that would be to miss the core of his cinema, which is intensely, ineluctably human.

The picture that marked his transition in 1968 from director of photography to director was the psychological thriller Performance, in which a gangster goes to ground in a pop star’s pad in Powis Square. That’s a lot of “p”s. And you can add another – the influence of Bergman’s Persona – as the identities of thug and singer start to merge. Roeg co-directed Performance with Donald Cammell but he was on his own for Walkabout, in which an English brother and sister are stranded in the Outback, having survived their father’s attempts to kill them; Don’t Look Now, about a couple recovering in Venice from the death of their daughter; The Man Who Fell to Earth, starring Bowie as an alien corroded and corrupted by life on earth; and Bad Timing, the remorseless catalogue of a passionate and destructive relationship. Anyone who has seen those films will be on their way to understanding the profound imaginative leaps, the transformative montage, of which cinema is capable.

There was greatness later in his career, too. The ambitious Eureka, starring Gene Hackman as a gold prospector, remains stubbornly underrated, though a whole generation of children got an early taste of Roeg when he adapted Roald Dahl’s The Witches in 1991 (superbly, it has to be said, save for the studio-imposed happy ending). And Insignificance, his film of Terry Johnson’s play about an imaginary meeting between Marilyn Monroe and Einstein, seemed to gain some new fans once word came to light of its influence on Christopher Nolan’s Inception. But it is in those first five films that Roeg’s alchemy is at its most potent.

He was a hero of mine. I was fortunate enough to meet him three times. The first was in 1996 on the occasion of Two Deaths starring Sônia Braga and Michael Gambon, which transpired to be his penultimate film for cinema. Having adored his work since I was 13 or 14, ripping it off shamelessly in my own camcorder efforts, I had so much to ask him. Was it true, as I had read, that he liked to see films at the cinema and then leave halfway through, imagining for himself how the second half might play out? It wasn’t. But what a very Roeg-like rumour. I don’t recall much else about that meeting except that it gave me my first taste of his unique conversational style – on and on his thoughts unspooled in a bewitched whisper, the route to meaning circuitous and sometimes elusive, but always producing riches along the way. His assistant kept appearing to point out that we should be wrapping up. There was a car waiting, a plane to catch. Roeg talked on, unhurried and unperturbed.

Our second encounter was less happy. I was writing a piece about Performance and he was in a grumpy mood. I had some questions about its production but he insisted he had no interest in talking about what happened off screen in any films, least of all his own. Sandy Lieberson, who produced Performance, was sitting beside him, but when I asked Lieberson to describe the on-set dynamic between the two directors, Roeg leant forward to silence his colleague. “Actually, I’d rather he didn't talk about it,” he said, softly but sternly. My questions about whether Roeg had a hand in the sexually-charged lyrics of “Memo from Turner”, the electrifying song delivered in character by Jagger in Performance, were also stonewalled, Lieberson’s attempts to explain cut short once more by a wave of the director’s hand.

But in 2011, Roeg received me in his study in west London, not far from where Performance was set, for a warmly expansive conversation that I will always cherish. One of the most admirable things about him in person was his impatience with any kind of praise or approbation. Don’t Look Now had recently come out top in a poll of the best of British cinema but he couldn’t have cared less. “How can you judge one film against another?” he asked, shaking his head. He was also dismissive of the idea of influence. “I don’t think about it. We’re all influenced by everything unless we’re locked in an empty room.” Perhaps that’s why he looked suspiciously at the DVD I had brought him: a copy of Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, which has a very Roeg-like editing style, and owes much to Bad Timing in particular. Of course, many directors have tried to make their own Roeg film. Alan Parker had a go with Angel Heart, Denis Villeneuve with Arrival, Ben Wheatley with Kill List. Nolan did it best with Memento, in which the story of a man with no short term memory is told backwards; he said that film would have been “pretty unthinkable” without Roeg’s influence. But still: Roeg did it first.

That conversation in 2011 was the last time I saw Roeg though we did chat on the phone a few years ago when I was writing a celebration of David Bowie’s screen performances. He told me about the studio executives who visited him during the making of The Man Who Fell to Earth. “They came on set one day after seeing the rushes and said, ‘We’re a little concerned about David’s performance.’ I said: ‘Well, how should an alien act?’ I felt he was perfect – the inflections, everything, so original. He wasn’t inventing it, he was being it.” After that phone call, he remembered some other things he wanted to tell me, which he sent in the form of an email attachment. I opened it. It began: “èíhtG¹5 LLc… A¦“7 ीdÎ||e yèÆzACÜ) b‘ä±)ªxsÂœS’³ˆªéÚˆ cj‹Br –¯4òd –ó–C Ø—VYƒ{SáÒ ú”

Which seemed very Nic Roeg to me.

On that morning at his home in 2011, we had spoken about how long it took for people to come around to some of his films, and I’d made the mistake of asking if he ever felt he was simply ahead of his time. “I hate that expression,” he said, suddenly sulky. “I don’t want to be ahead of my time. This is my time.” And he was right. It was. It is.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.