|» 08 Jul 2008
The film-maker who gave us Performance talks to Jason Wood about his new project and why one should never underestimate their audience - or David Bowie's acting skills
Jason Wood: The relationship between literature and your films has been a happy one. Puffball is adapted from Fay Weldon's novel ...
Nicolas Roeg: I'd been sent the script by Dan Weldon (Fay's son) but for some reason or other I never actually received it. About six months went by and then Dan phoned to ask whether the project was something that interested me and of course I had to tell him that I never got it. It eventually found its way to me. After reading the script I went back and read the book. It really had a heart to it and the heart of what would become the film too. When a book is just a plot, you know, two men fight for the love of a woman in a wild frontier, I immediately ask, "Why?" For me films of course have to have a premise, or a truth, but I like to then translate that to my own interpretation and my own reaction to a truth. Puffball had a lovely sense of life, and also a sense of new beginnings. One of the central characters is a foetus, and you don't get any "newer" than that. It meant a lot to me that when Fay saw the film she liked it. It's always good to get the thumbs-up from the writer. I was also happy that she accepted my interpretation; this is the mark of a really good writer. There was no obsession with detail, such as "Oh, you've made this character tall and she isn't tall at all."
JW: It has often taken people a while to catch up with your work. Both Bad Timing and Eureka, with their hostile reviews and distribution problems, are good examples. But the time seems to be right for a new Nicolas Roeg film, and with your recent Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tribute and the issue of your work on DVD there is a strong sense of anticipation surrounding Puffball.
NR: Hopefully to people that love film the climate is receptive to the work I do, but there is a sense of control from people within the industry that I have to constantly grapple with. Marketing is such a key issue; in fact the marketing department is often involved in the approval of scripts now. They really don't know how to market the films I make, but then I always exclaim that perhaps they shouldn't be in marketing! It's the basic job of the fairground showman going right back to when film started, you know: "Roll up, roll up, you've never seen anything quite like this in your life." Puffball hasn't been seen by many people yet and I'm really curious about it. A lot of my movies have come to be thought about only years after the fact and I'm sad about that but also happy about it in a way as it's given them longevity. Theresa Russell provided me with the title for Bad Timing, claiming that it was bad timing for the sort of film I'd made. This certainly proved to be the case.
JW: Your connection with film goes way back to your entering the industry as a tea-maker and clapper-boy at Marylebone Studios. Have you maintained the original fascination you felt for cinema?
NR: It's never gone away and it still drives me. It also doesn't go away because the enthusiasm of the people that I work with helps to keep it alive. One of the very first jobs I had in the industry was at De Lane Lea Studios, dubbing French films into English and I became fascinated with running these films backwards and forwards on the Editola. Cinematography and the cinema were always magical to me. Though things do change if you love something, you are always able to generate new thoughts and the ways in which we retain images is extraordinary. It is now so much a part of life; you can even make a movie on your cell phone. People are mistaken to view cinema as some sort of gimmick. It's very much ingrained in the ways in which we understand each other. It's actually quite a mystical entity and business doesn't like that very much. It likes to be in control. There are still some interesting film-makers but once they make something notable the tendency is for the corporations to take them and wring every ounce of originality from them. A lot of the really interesting movies also tend to just disappear; it's all quite conspiratorial. Bernard Rose's Snuff Movie (2005) for example.
JW: Through your approach to narrative and editing you've always accorded your viewer a sense of respect, crediting them with the intelligence to grasp complex allusions and ideas.
NR: I really believe that they are intelligent. I certainly feel this about Puffball in relation to audiences too. The film has so far had quite a difficult journey since we finished it. It's really quite painful because it's there and it is so much about life. The artists working on the film could not have been better and really understood; they became attuned to the material and in many cases drew parallels between what was happening in the film and their own lives. Remember that everyone makes a movie, there is no hierarchy and people in general - crew, audiences etc - can be extremely astute and understanding when you are being as truthful as you can.
JW: Location has always been important to you. In Walkabout, Don't Look Now, Bad Timing, Castaway and Heart of Darkness it almost acted as a character in itself. What role does it play in your new film?
NR: We shot in Ireland and without wishing to lean towards pretension or cliché there is a mysticism associated with the place. There is so much in the history of the country and it is undeniably an extraordinary and unusual place. The atmosphere and the locations were very important and yes, as with my other films, it does become something of a character in its own right.
JW: Puffball has a strong cast. Rita Tushingham, Kelly Reilly and Miranda Richardson. You also work with Donald Sutherland for the first time since Don't Look Now. You've always been very canny in terms of casting and drawing intelligent performances I feel.
NR: Perhaps I shouldn't judge performances. I still think that David Bowie is fantastic as Newton in The Man who Fell to Earth. When people criticised him I would ask: "Well how does an alien act? He's imitating being human." I think Bowie is astonishing in the film and certainly very unique. One is also bound into these schools of acting and the need to learn all the rules. By all means learn the rules but use them to advance the form. An actor must come in right and go out left, but you might want an actor to come in left and go out left. It's always good to know what rule you are breaking.
JW: I know that you have worked in between but your last theatrical features, Cold Heaven (1991) and Two Deaths (1995) feel a very long time ago. Was it simply a question of waiting for the right project?
NR: No, I've been trying to do the Martin Amis adaptation Night Train for some time and working on various scripts and other things for years. I did some commercials and shorts such as The Sound of Claudia Schiffer (2000) but when it comes to doing films I've always felt that it has to be something that I really respond to. This is especially true as I get on in years and for all kinds of reasons it gets more difficult. You can't stay in the game forever but I could never be out of it. It's too much in my system and I like to think that Puffball was always there, just lying in wait.