[Part One] Part Two - Nicolas Roeg Interview - SFX Magazine August 1999
So is Roeg forever facing people hell-bent on telling him just
what his films are about? "If it has a truth in it, then there are
many aspects or sides to that truth. It's the most important
but at the same time the least edifying question. With Don't
Look Now it's about making you aware of danger, trying to
make you aware that life is very short. A story is nothing
without a premise, and the premise of Don't Look Now is
nothing is what it seems."
Sutherland glimpses his own funeral, though. Surely this is
predestination? "No, it's about nothing is what it seems,"
reiterates Roeg, unshakably, as someone tells him just what
his film is about. "The premise allows us to ask 'What makes
God laugh?'. On the way to that predestined place, you think
you're in control.
"All knowledge and all things are connected. We know that.
We accept scientific chain reactions, but the human chain
reaction is enormous. I think the furthest we can be from any
other human being on this earth is the 40th cousin - of
anyone, Bushman, Aboriginal, Laplanderů That's pretty
amazing. So everything has to have a chain reaction."
Does it unsettle him that he cannot see the whole plan or
pattern? "People go to fortune tellers for that," says the film
maker, gently contemptuous. "Frightened people. I wouldn't
want to know the plan, would you?"
Trace Roeg's own timeline and you will find ample evidence of
personal cause and effect. As a boy, a shot of a feather
floating upwards in a Laurel and Hardy feature showed him
that movies were the finest way to unspool reality. Is film his
way of curbing and controlling time, re-ordering moments with
the stitch of a frame?
Roeg nods. "Yes, because we know very little about time.
We've made up stuff about time to try and control it, but we
really know so little. We divide it up between linear and lateral
time and bang, maybe it all goes sideways - who knows?
We're locked into it. We're always saying 'God, is that the
time?' That's how rooted this thing is in our lives, this fucking
mechanical clock that controls us. With The Man Who Fell to
Earth I wanted to get rid of any sense of time, because it's
surprising how often we mention it in our lives. One thing got
by me until the cutting - I suddenly heard someone saying
'I've been here three months already.' I thought, 'How did
that get in?' I had to dub it. It slips by you.
"Time is fascinating," declares Roeg, his neurons racing with
passion. "We have no concept of what it means. We're coming
up to the Millennium, but it's not very much - it might have
been in a less literary and aware era, but what's the big deal?
It has nothing to do with the Judaic calendar, or the Chinese.
I think that the computer and the internet will change our
whole idea of time, as much as the sprung watch did. The
watch changed the world terrifically, altered our entire
consciousness of time. It changed everything. It changed
imagination. Computers can put you in touch with people
whether its night-time or daytime."
Does Roeg keep pace with quantum physics? "Yeah, I do, but
in a very, very lay way. Around the turn of the century art and
science divided - before that science was mixed in with
religion and the arts, and then it split. Scientists didn't believe
in faith. It became very pragmatic and mechanical and a lot of
wonder left the scientists, except for people like Einstein. Now
people are realising that science needs art. It needs an
"I believe whatever you think of will happen. It may not be
you who will make it happen, but there's some sort of
universal unconscious. On The Man Who Fell to Earth we
asked ourselves 'How would Mister Newton make money?'.
Would he go into armaments? And then we thought 'Why
don't we have him doing software?' He could slide in unnoticed
- there are two ways to approach power, either from the
outside, battering it, or slyly, from the inside.
"And so we had him creating patents. And we said 'What can
he invent?' What about a disposable camera, where you buy
it, use the film and chuck the camera away? I promise you
this wasn't in the air when we were shooting it. I thought it
would take 25 years. Within five years I was at LA airport and
Fuji were there - buy the camera, throw it away. Some guys in
Japan were obviously imagining it too. I like to think that
they'd watched The Man Who Fell to Earth!"
How much else is prophecy, then? David Bowie, frail and lost,
barricaded away from humanity behind endless banks of
television screens? Is this a glimpse of our twentyfour-seven
future, ever more dependent on cable, digital, the internet,
ever more hungry for the next visual fix? Was Roeg warning
"Now they sell televisions where you can have four different
programmes in the corner, just so you don't miss anything,"
he says, with quiet amazement. "When we first thought of
using television in The Man Who Fell to Earth we asked
ourselves 'What does it actually do?' You are outside it. It's a
passive medium. I mean, the number of households that
have television on with the sound off. That's why Mister
Newton says 'I don't want to miss anything'. He can't stop
watching it. And I felt it was so seductive. It's like a terrible
siren call, isn't it? Television shows you everything and tells
you nothing. Nothing."
Too soon Roeg must go, and you feel the loss of a billion
conversations. "Make it up," he offers, with a handshake.