Director of visually adventurous films

Nicolas Roeg
Nicolas Roeg

NEW YORK • Nicolas Roeg, a British director acclaimed for a string of films in the 1970s that included the rite-of-passage tale, Walkabout (1971), psychological thriller Don't Look Now (1973) and the David Bowie vehicle, The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), died last Friday. He was 90.

Roeg came up through the film-making ranks, spending 20 years as a camera operator and cinematographer before serving as one of two directors (along with Donald Cammell) of Performance, a 1970 drama about the London rock world.

It starred Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones and Roeg would go on to feature other singers in acting roles - Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth and Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing in 1980. Roeg maintained that the seeming challenge was not all that formidable.

"The fact is that Jagger, Bowie and Garfunkel are all extremely bright, intelligent and well-educated," he told The New York Times in 1980. "A long way from the public stereotype."

If Roeg was known for casting rock stars, he also made an impression with one particular sex scene, in Don't Look Now, a film about a grieving couple played by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie.

The scene, which featured lots of cross-cutting, was graphic for the time - so much so that as recently as this year, Sutherland still felt compelled to deny persistent rumours that the sex in it was not simulated.

"The takes were 15 seconds long, maximum," he told The Daily News.

Nicolas Jack Roeg was born on Aug 15, 1928, in London to Jack and Mabel (Silk) Roeg.

He did not attend film school, instead entering the business at the bottom in 1947, making tea and operating the clapperboard at Marylebone Studios in London.

He worked his way up to camera operator, then cinematographer, receiving the director of photography credit on films such as Francois Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 and Richard Lester's A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, both in 1966. He also shot Lester's Petulia (1968), which featured the jump cuts and leaps in time that would be among Roeg's signatures.

Performance, his first directing credit, was completed in the late 1960s, but shelved because Warner Bros had misgivings about it.

Some critics savaged it when it was finally released, but its reputation grew over time. In 1999, it made the British Film Institute's list of the 100 best British movies ever made, as did Don't Look Now.

Walkabout, Roeg's first solo directing credit, told the story of a teenage girl and her brother who were abandoned in the Australian desert and are befriended by a young Aborigine. Roeg was his own cinematographer on the film.

The Man Who Fell To Earth further enhanced Roeg's reputation for making challenging, visually adventurous films.

"You could call Roeg a pretentious director, but he is a gifted one and many of his pretensions pay off in beauty, tension and a mysterious, unsettling power," Jack Kroll wrote in reviewing the movie in Newsweek.

"The Man Who Fell To Earth has enough of these qualities to offset a sometimes maddeningly oblique style."

Roeg, whose first marriage to Susan Stephen in 1957 ended in divorce, married his lead actress from Bad Timing, Theresa Russell, in 1982. She also appeared in several of his other films, including Eureka (1983), Insignificance (1985) and Track 29 (1988).

Also among his later films was The Witches (1990), based on the children's fantasy novel by British writer Roald Dahl.

Roeg's marriage to Russell ended in divorce. In 2005, he married Harriet Harper, who survives him.

In addition to her and son Nicolas Jr, he is survived by several other children.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 26, 2018, with the headline 'Director of visually adventurous films'. Print Edition | Subscribe