November 24, 2018
Influential British director behind run of acclaimed movies in 1970s and early 80s dies
Nicolas Roeg, director of Dont Look Now and Walkabout, dies aged 90
Nicolas Roeg, one of Britain’s most admired and influential film-makers, has died aged 90, his family has announced.
Roeg is best known for a run of acclaimed movies in the 1970s and early 80s, including horror Don’t Look Now, Australian outback drama Walkabout, The Man who Fell to Earth (starring David Bowie), and Performance (starring Mick Jagger). He developed his own distinctive film-making style, usually involving puzzle-like, non-linear storytelling, lyrical visual imagery and challenging themes such as sex, death, horror and mental breakdown.
His films rarely appealed to mass audiences, but often received critical acclaim, and went on to become cult classics. His influence has been acknowledged by film-makers including Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh and Danny Boyle.
“I’ve been told my movies are difficult to market,” Roeg told the Guardian in 2007. “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.”
Before he took up directing, Roeg was a prominent cinematographer, working on features such as David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, Roger Corman’s The Masque of Red Death, Richard Lester’s Petulia and François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451.
With no formal training, he worked his way up from the bottom. Born and raised in London, Roeg claimed he only entered the film industry because there was a studio across the road from his childhood home in Marylebone. After leaving school and completing his national service, he got a casual job at the studio in 1947, starting as a tea-maker and rising through the ranks from clapper-boy to focus-puller to camera operator.
Nicolas Roeg, director of Dont Look Now and Walkabout, dies aged 90
In 1968, having established himself as a cinematographer, Roeg paired with film-maker Donald Cammell for their joint directorial debut, Performance. The film was originally intended as a vehicle for Mick Jagger, who was at the height of his fame, but between Cammell’s mystical gangster-meets-rock star story and Roeg’s visual inventiveness, the end product was deemed too unconventional for release by the studio, and was shelved for two years, but became a counterculture hit.
Roeg’s follow-up was equally unconventional: Walkabout, set in the Australian outback and starring a teenage Jenny Agutter and Indigenous Australian actor David Gulpilil (his screen debut). As with Performance, Walkabout was a commercial flop on release, but steadily grew in status and acclaim.
It was 1973’s Don’t Look Now that gave Roeg his first genuine hit. A supernatural horror set in gloomy, off-season Venice, with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as grieving parents, it is a regular fixture in lists of the greatest British movies ever made.
Nicolas Roeg, director of Dont Look Now and Walkabout, dies aged 90
Roeg continued with a steady succession of unorthodox features, including sci-fi The Man Who Fell To Earth (which capitalised on Bowie’s otherworldly pop persona), psychological thriller Bad Timing (starring Art Garfunkel and Theresa Russell, the latter of whom Roeg married and cast in five more of his films), Eureka (starring Gene Hackman), Insignificance, and desert-island tale Castaway.
After 1990’s uncharacteristic The Witches, based on Roald Dahl’s story and made with Jim Henson’s creature workshop, Roeg’s output became more scattershot and sporadic: minor erotic thrillers, short films and one final feature, Puffball: The Devil’s Eyeball, in 2007, and a memoir, The World is Ever Changing, in 2013.
Having risen through the ranks and devised his own, unique film language, Roeg held firm convictions in cinema as a distinct art form. “Movies are not scripts – movies are films,” he said in a 2006 interview. “They’re not books, they’re not the theatre. It’s a completely different discipline, it exists on its own. I would say that the beauty of it is, it’s not the theatre, it’s not done over again. It’s done in bits and pieces. Things are happening which you can’t get again.”
Roeg is survived by his wife, Harriet Harper, and his six children, Waldo, Nico, Sholto, Luc, Maximilian and Statten.
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