Iconoclastic British director Nicolas Roeg has died at the age of 90, his family announced on Saturday. The director’s credits include some of cinema’s most cherished titles, including Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). He is survived by his third wife, Harriet Harper, and his six children, Waldo, Nico, Sholto, Luc, Maximilian and Statten.
Roeg was born on August 15, 1928, in London. Among his early jobs was “making tea and operating the clapper board at Marylebone Studios, where he worked on a number of minor films”, the BBC said in its obituary. His early training was in cinematography, and he was a part of the camera unit on David Lean’s period film Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Roeg was to have shot Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965) before falling out with the filmmaker.
Roeg made his feature debut in 1970. He co-directed with Donald Cammell the Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger in Performance. The film traces the hallucinatory encounter between a gangster (James Fox) and a pop star (Jagger). The film was completed in 1968, but was delayed until 1970 because of its graphic scenes of sex and violence.
Jagger’s lack of acting experience made him perfect for the role, Roeg said in his 2013 autobiography The World is Ever Changing. “In the Hollywood Bowl there were something like 60,000 people for Mick Jagger,” he observed. “How many straight actors have had 60,000 people turn up for a single performance? Mick gives a performance unlike anyone else. It’s an extraordinary piece of acting art.”
Roeg set his next movie, Walkabout (1971), in Australia. Based on James Vance Marshall’s novel of the same name, the acclaimed film follows a pair of siblings who get lost in the Australian Outback and meet an Aboriginal boy. David Gulpilil, who played the native boy, went on to become one of Australia’s best-known indigenous actors.
In 1973, Roeg directed what is acknowledged as his masterpiece: Don’t Look Now, set in Venice and starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. An adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story of the same name, Don’t Look Now follows a couple who are haunted by the tragic death of their daughter. The tragedy follows them to Venice, where they see ghosts and encounter a pair of psychic sisters. The movie’s talking point is a sensual lovemaking scene, but it is the stunning visuals, the depiction of Venice as a city of beauty and foreboding, and non-linear editing that have endured.
In 1976, Roeg directed shape-shifting pop star David Bowie in another of his best-known films. In the science-fiction film The Man Who Fell to Earth, adapted from a 1963 novel by Walter Tevis, Bowie plays an alien who flees his drought-ravaged planet and lands on Earth in search of water. Novelist Michael Crichton and actor Peter O’Toole were considered for the role that became one of Bowie’s best-known screen appearances.
Roeg’s next film, Bad Timing (1980), was disowned by its distributor as “a sick film made by sick people for sick people” for its graphic scenes, including a moment that suggests necrophilia. Singer Art Garfunkel plays a psychiatrist whose affair with Theresa Russell’s character has tragic consequences. The film has since been recognised as a cult classic for its unusual narrative style and Tom Waits’s musical score.
In a 2000 interview with the Guardian, Roeg commented, “At the first test screening in America, I was going to meet a friend, a quite well-known actor. Afterwards, he got into his car, drove it at me, and swerved off. He wouldn’t speak to me for 3 years.”
Bad Timing was a commercial failure for Roeg, as was his next film, Eureka (1983), starring Gene Hackman as a wealthy prospector who becomes paranoid that his daughter and son-law are trying to steal his money.
Insignificance (1985) revolved around four influential figures of the 1950s confined to a hotel room – Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joseph McCarthy and Joe DiMaggio. Among Roeg’s subsequent films over the 1980s and ’90s were The Witches, an adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel of the same name. Roald Dahl reportedly dismissed the film as “utterly appalling”, especially since the ending was different from his book.
Roeg also directed a handful of shows for television. His final film was the supernatural thriller Puffball in 2007.
In 2010, the British band Big Audio Dynamite paid tribute to Roeg in their song E=mc2. The music video was directed by Luc Roeg, who starred in his father’s film Walkabout in 1971.
Several filmmakers paid tribute to Roeg’s singular vision on Twitter, including David Bowie’s son, filmmaker Duncan Jones, and Edgar Wright.