Nicolas Roeg, a visionary filmmaker whose enrapturing, sensuous movies transformed the way audiences and his fellow directors understood cinematic language, has died at the age of 90, his family confirmed to the BBC.
More concerned with blazing his own trail than catering to commercial concerns, Roeg created dramas that played with chronology and offended small-minded viewers, resulting in a body of work full of cult classics that were often rejected upon release, only to be reevaluated far more favorably in subsequent years as their pioneering qualities influenced future artists. In films such as Performance, Walkabout, Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth, he captured the experimentation and rebellion swirling through youth culture during the 1960s and ‘70s, and their dismissive reception in the mainstream was, in a sense, appropriate for his stories of outsiders and lost souls. “I don’t look back on any film I’ve done with fondness or pride,” Roeg told The Telegraph in 2013. “I look back on my films, and on the past generally…” He then shook his head and added, “I can only use the phrase, ‘Well, I’m damned.’”
Nicolas Jack Roeg was born in August 1928 in London, joining the army when he was 17. He had loved movies since he was a boy watching Laurel and Hardy comedies, and after he got out of the military he took a job at a local studio to get a sense of how films were made. As he mentioned in his memoir The World Is Ever Changing, “[T]here weren’t any film schools and, of course, there weren’t any sort of ‘media studies’ courses at all as far as film was concerned. … And, certainly, in England, theatre was the dramatic medium at the time, not cinema — film was thought rather less of.”
Indifferent to his countrymen’s snobbery, Roeg set upon a career working on sets, starting out as a clapper boy and focus-puller before graduating to the job of camera operator. He was a second-unit photographer on Lawrence of Arabia and later served as cinematographer for revered directors like François Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451), John Schlesinger (Far From the Madding Crowd) and Richard Lester (Petulia).
By the end of the ‘60s, Roeg was ready to start shooting his own films, teaming up with fellow filmmaker Donald Cammell to co-direct Performance, about a gangster (James Fox) who goes into hiding at the home of a rock star (Mick Jagger). A portrait of a culture clash that also investigates the nature of identity, Performance drew from Ingman Bergman’s Persona to study how these two characters inexplicably start to bleed into one another. Featuring unconventional editing techniques and an enigmatic ending, Roeg’s debut set the stage for a career in which he’d often push against traditional storytelling styles.
His boldness would continue with 1971’s Walkabout, which told the story of two white English children who are left to fend for themselves in the Australian outback after their father tries to kill them before turning the gun on himself. Casting his own son Luc as the boy, Roeg spent months in the wilds filming this tale of survival and connection, which soon makes room for an aboriginal child the white siblings encounter on their journey. A primal reverie about freedom and the tension between nature and so-called “civilization,” Walkabout stands as one of cinema’s greatest travelogues — Roeg, who served as his own cinematographer, captured extraordinary images without necessarily knowing the story he would tell. As he later wrote, “[F]or myself, making the film was also a journey: we didn’t have a location manager, we simply got into the trucks each day and drove till we found a location I felt was right for the film. We found the film as we made it.”
Don’t Look Now furthered Roeg’s desire to take risks, crafting a psychological horror film about a grieving couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) who move to Venice to forget the death of their child, with tragic results. It was a piercing examination of love and loss, which featured one of cinema’s most vivid and powerful sex scenes, and he followed it up with The Man Who Fell to Earth, casting another rock star (David Bowie) to play Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who visits our planet in search of water to save his world. For Roeg, the film (based on the Walter Tevis novel) spoke to his core interest of what life looks like to the misfits. “That was something I felt very connected to in The Man Who Fell to Earth: the concept of this person who was sort of stuck out of time,” Roeg said in 2011. “Mr. Newton was this freaky alien who came here with very advanced notions of science and space travel, then the minute the world caught up to him … he was nobody, just another person who felt alienated from the world, stuck in his own neuroses.”
Roeg continued pursuing challenging subject matter in films such as 1980’s Bad Timing, about a disintegrating couple’s implosion told through flashbacks within flashbacks. Many of his later films featured actress Theresa Russell, whom he married in 1982, but he never again quite captured the imagination of cineastes as he had with his earlier work. Not that his first few films didn’t face immense obstacles. Performance’s release was delayed because the studio, Warner Bros., was so hostile to its experimental nature and the possibility that it might get an X rating. (Roeg claimed that Warners “were going to sue me … because directors have to sign up to a professional standard.”) Bad Timing’s own distributor disparaged the film’s depiction of rape and sexual perversity as “a sick film made by sick people for sick people.” Roeg may have grown accustomed to the hostile reactions to his films, but the outcry would sometimes still surprise him. After a test screening of Bad Timing, the director recalled, “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 three years.”
Into the ‘90s, Roeg was still going his own way, making The Witches, which starred Anjelica Huston in an adaptation of the Roald Dahl book, while his 1994 TV film Heart of Darkness turned Joseph Conrad’s book (which had previously been adapted for Apocalypse Now) into a meditative journey with Tim Roth and John Malkovich. But his greatest impact at the time was probably through the work of a new generation of filmmakers who’d grown up on his striking movies. Everyone from Danny Boyle to Stephen Soderbergh owes a debt to Roeg’s time-hopping, formally adventurous films, and modern-day classics such as Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin draw directly from The Man Who Fell to Earth’s cerebral, trippy brilliance.
Roeg was nominated for three BAFTA awards, including Best Director for Don’t Look Now, and in 1994 received the British Film Institute Fellowship for his contribution to film culture. But the career achievement awards he’s won belie the challenges his risk-taking films faced during his lifetime — and the uncompromising nature of the man who fought to bring them to the screen.
“I’ve been told my movies are difficult to market,” Roeg once said of his label-defying movies. “It isn’t a horror film, it isn’t a thriller. Yes, there’s a love story in it but it could hardly be called a romance. People love things in boxes, classified a genre. But it’s just life. Life and birth and sex and love — they don’t necessarily all go together.”