The Man Who Fell To Earth
profile by Luke Ford
Si Litvinoff with Bowie in Los Angeles, April 1975
Si Litvinoff: I was in London when Maggie Abbott, a friend and an agent at ICM, campaigned for David Bowie to play the lead. Nic had been thinking about Peter O'Toole. I was enthusiastic about David in the music world and I loved his record Space Oddity. (Oddly enough, the first draft screenplay ended with some lyrics from Elton John's Rocket Man.) But it wasn't until Maggie provided us with the documentary Cracked Actor that we were both excited about David and knew that he was the only person to play the part. So now we had to convince him.
Nic and I returned to Los Angeles. I convinced Columbia to fly us to New York to talk to Robert Redford about Out of Africa. Maggie arranged that we could meet with David at a house he was renting in the East 20s. Maggie crashed at our hotel suite with us.
It was prearranged that Nic would go downtown to David Bowie. I would wait at Elaine's restaurant for Redford's call (he was shooting) and Nic's call. Redford ultimately had too many commitments lined up for years. After midnight, I got the call to go downtown, in the snow, to David's house. The door was opened by a lovely looking black girl with orange coloured short hair wearing a Clockwork Orange sweater. Her name was Ava Cherry. She was a fine singer and a good omen. Nic and David had had a lot of time together and David wanted to be in the picture. We were all ecstatic. Maggie had worked tirelessly on David's behalf. Nevertheless, she would ultimately be replaced by Michael Lippman, and he by the late Robert Littman, who had become Nic's agent upon the departure from agenting of Peter Witt, who appears in the picture. Eventually a deal was done. I intended that David compose the music soundtrack, which David would perform on his world tour following production.
The executives at Columbia, who thought we were after Redford for this picture, turned the project down, as did several others. But the two new owners of the London company British Lion, Michael Deeley and Barry Spikings, who'd had great success producing The Deer Hunter for EMI, were anxious to make their company more visible to the world. So they agreed to finance The Man Who Fell to Earth.
What resulted is an example of the modus operandi of Michael Deeley, or as the crew called him, "Devious Deeley" or "Wheeley Deeley."
I rented my friend Harry Joe "Cocoa" Brown's [his father was a famous Hollywood director] large house on North Roxbury Drive as an office and as a residence for Nic and other top personnel coming from London.
Nic's picture Don't Look Now had been a huge hit in London. Nic, David and Meyersberg were all English. I suggested we try to make it an Eady Plan movie, which means you get extra money from the United Kingdom box office receipts if you comply by having a major percentage of English personnel. This would require an English crew in New Mexico, where Brian Eatwell, our English production designer on Walkabout, had found our locations. Brian had done a picture in New Mexico for Dick Lester and knew the area. New Mexico had White Sands, a perfect location for representing space. My suggestion was accepted despite the potential immigration and labor union problems of bringing in the English. A great idea that would come back to haunt me later.
Additional casting was simple for me since Rip Torn and Terry Southern (I wanted Terry to do a promo piece for Esquire magazine and he wound up in the picture) had been clients of mine when I practiced law in New York City years earlier. I also cast friends like Buck Henry, Linda Hutton (Donald Cammel's girlfriend), Sabrina Guinness (who originally came along to look after my young sons who I had custody of that summer), Peter Witt (who had been my client and friend and later Nic's agent), and my then girlfriend Claudia Jennings* (a movie star and Playboy's 1970 Playmate of the Year). They all accepted miniscule fees of under $15,000.
Anthony Richmond's wife Linda de Vetta did makeup. Brian Eatwell's wife May Routh was the costume designer. It was the Walkabout family and the house on Roxbury Drive was our home.
Gerry O'Harra was the writer-director of the 1969 film All the Right Noises, which I produced in London with Olivia Hussey. Gerry's agent Howard Rubin became the head of the New Mexico Film Commission and he helped us get free use of the warehouse where Brian created the spacecraft.
Before we left for New Mexico, I had The Man Who Fell to Earth T-shirts printed up and distributed all over town. With Bowie as the star, there was great buzz. RCA Records agreed to do the Bowie soundtrack for $250,000, which covered Bowie's fee.
British Lion's man John Peverall got the English crew into the USA through Chicago. That obstacle was cleared. The UK crew worked hard despite not being used to the New Mexico weather. The heat was stifling. I paid for an open bar after the shooting which made the crew feel better. Several weeks later, Michael Deeley arrived in New Mexico and the atmosphere changed.
After the day's shooting, David, his manager Coco, his son Zowie and his entourage were in one place. Nic and Candy were together. Deeley and his wife Spikings, Kip Gowans (the first AD) and his beautiful wife Lee Remick hung together. Since my girlfriend Claudia Jennings only came up on weekends, I hung out with our many visitors like our PR man Steve Jaffe (now married to Susan Blakely), the photographers Catherine Millinaire and Steve Shapiro, as well as Terry Duffy [sic], Bob Rafelson, Jenny Agutter, and Marjorie Gortner. Whenever possible, I hung out with David Bowie.
Claudia Jennings was immediately recognized and drew more attention than David Bowie. David knew her before I did, because she was a friend of Ava Cherry.
David worked like a professional. Despite staying up late at night composing music for the soundtrack, he was always on time with his lines ready.
When Rip Torn arrived to do his first scene with David in the spacecraft, it became clear to me that Rip was wound up like a caged animal. David was not only tense, but exhausted from staying up all night. I quickly got Tequila for Rip and I ground up No Doze for David to snort. He had kept his promise to do no cocaine on the shoot but snorting worked better for him than pills. The scene was ultimately shot despite Deeley's tirade. He believed the powder was cocaine.
Slowly the money men exercised their money-based power and I lost control of the picture. It was not collaboration all the way like Walkabout. Editing is my favourite stage after development. But in this movie, Deeley and Spikings replaced me in London. They had promised Nic that nobody would recut his cut. As my lawyer described it politely, Deeley tried to outsmart Paramount, which pulled out of the deal. The rights to the picture were then sold to an exhibitor, not a studio. And the exhibitor had the picture recut.
To make matters worse, Deeley tried to outsmart David on the music rights. David turned him down. Thus, the great music Bowie wrote for the picture couldn't be used. The soundtrack is a meaningless last minute replacement for what was superb.
What David wrote became his album Low. On the album cover, David wears his anorak from the film. David played the music he intended for the film on his tour. The night he played the Forum in Los Angeles, he held a party at Ma Maison. David provided limos for all of us. The guests included Nic Roeg, Alan Bates, Bette Midler, Jacqueline Bisset, Tom Waits and Mark Rydell.
When we set up the film for the Eady Plan, I placed my rights in Nic's UK company. Mine had been closed down. Consequently I could not sue because I did not have what the court calls, "privity of contract." As far as I know, other than what Nic gets from the European director's organization, no profit participations or statements have ever been sent to David, Candy or me. And we thought the number of presales we saw showed us in profit before we started.
Nic, Candy, Brian, Tony, May, Buck and Rip are still my friends. Claudia*, Terry and Peter are gone. I have not been in touch with David Bowie the last few years but I would love to see him again. I remember his visits to me way out in Malibu. He came, not to go on the beach, but to sit and talk and listen to music. I cherish the lithographs he made and gave me. Like Thomas Newton, he is extraordinary. He gave an extraordinary performance in a great original film that will stand the test of time.
*According to Imdb.com: "After narrowly missing the role of Kate Jackson's replacement on Charlie's Angels to Shelley Hack in May 1979, Claudia Jennings began a tumultuous relationship with Beverly Hills realtor Stan Herman. Following their split later that summer, Jennings turned her life around, but sadly fell asleep at the wheel of her VW convertible on her way to pick up her things from Herman's home in Malibu on the morning of October 3, 1979. She was 29."
The Man Who Fell to Earth
Cinema release and promotion