Nicolas Roeg, director of The Man Who Fell To Earth and Don't Look Now, dies at 90

Nicolas Roeg speaking to the media during a press conference in November 2009.
Nicolas Roeg speaking to the media during a press conference in November 2009.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON (NYTIMES) - Nicolas Roeg, a British director acclaimed for a string of films in the 1970s that included the rite-of-passage tale Walkabout, the psychological thriller Don't Look Now and the David Bowie vehicle The Man Who Fell To Earth, died on Friday (Nov 23). He was 90.

A son, Nicholas Jr, confirmed the death to Britain's Press Association. The cause and location were not given.

Roeg came up through the filmmaking 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 in 1976 and Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing in 1980. Roeg maintained that the seeming challenge wasn't 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 the 1973 film Don't Look Now, about a grieving couple played by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. The scene, which featured lots of crosscutting, 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 and then cinematographer, receiving the director of photography credit on films like François 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, released in 1971, 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.

"Roeg uses the camera - wide shots, close-ups, colours and textures - to create a sense of unmediated perception," AO Scott of The Times said of the film in a 2010 reassessment, "as if we were seeing the world for the very first time."

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).

"This tale about a witches' plot to turn every child in England into a mouse is based on the novel by Roald Dahl, who does not write sugarcoated books," Caryn James wrote in her review in The Times.

"It was directed by Nicolas Roeg, best known for the wonderfully terrifying Don't Look Now and the deeply strange The Man Who Fell To Earth, with David Bowie as an alien. As it turns out, Roeg is just the right match for this macabre and funny idea."

Roeg's marriage to Russell ended in divorce.

In 2005, he married Harriet Harper, who survives him. In addition to her and Nicholas Jr, he is survived by several other children. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

In 1988, Jay Carr, film critic for The Boston Globe, summarised Roeg's style.

"The characters in Nicolas Roeg's films live in their fantasies, and so does Roeg's camera," he wrote. "He delights in juxtaposing their imaginings with so-called real life, sharing the confusion, making it universal."

Among the directors Roeg influenced was Edgar Wright (Baby Driver).

"His films hypnotised me for years and still continue to intrigue," Wright wrote on Twitter. "Along with classics like Performance and Walkabout, I could watch Don't Look Now on a loop and never tire of its intricacies."