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The Space Oddity

George Perry • The Sunday Times Magazine • 14 March 1976


A British film costing £1.75 million has its world premiere this week at the Leicester Square Theatre. Apart from its leading character, a non-singing David Bowie, who plays an alien from another planet, the cast is American but the talents behind it are all British lead by its remarkable director Nicolas Roeg. Yet The Man Who Fell To Earth was shot entirely in America – the first time for a complete British feature.

Report by George Perry; photographs by Duffy and David James
(Note: article is slightly abridged from original)

Bowie with Nic Roeg.

Bowie with Nic Roeg. Photo © Duffy Archive

“Whoever chose this lake should be hung, drawn and quartered, cut into many little pieces and fed to the trout that aren’t there!” said Tony Richmond, lighting cameraman, after several exasperating days waiting for weather consistent enough to shoot a sequence. The lake, high up in the mountains of New Mexico not far from the atomic energy establishment of Los Alamos, with its pine trees, grassy meadows and mountain slopes, looked more like the Grampians than the great American South West. The crew of The Man Who Fell to Earth, garbed in army ponchos, huddled inside trucks to escape the interminable drizzle, all except the gum-booted director, Nicolas Roeg, who sloshed around in the rain, an exultant expression on his face. “Come on out, everybody,” he explained, “it’s magical light! Why wait for the sunlight when it’s such beautiful rain?"

Bowie with writer George Perry

Bowie with writer George Perry. Photograph © Duffy Archive

The weary crew disturb themselves, enthusiasm miraculously intact although all have been up and out of the Hilton Inn, Albuquerque, 80 miles away, before 7am and will not be back until after midnight. “Well, it’s better than not working, isn’t it?” said a technician, commenting on the perennially dismal state of the British film industry.

British? What is this bunch of cockney groups and gaffers, sparks and chippies doing in the heart of the USA where the indigenous movie business has never encouraged interlopers? It is, in fact, the first time that a British film has been shot entirely on location in America. New Mexico is probably the only state in which such a thing could happen owing to peculiarity in the labour laws. Even so, the Limeys had to be discreet. The film unions exercise considerable power. Diplomatic incidents nearly occurred on Fourth of July, a revered public holiday.

Shooting the pool scene, featuring Bernie Casey

Photograph © David James

Roeg and screenwriter, the useful cinematic savant Paul Mayersberg, have been careful to lead the story away from what might have been a commonplace science fiction monster-from-outer-space story. They respond well together. “Paul’s someone,” says Roeg, “who can know who can know when a scene must be left alone. A lot of screenwriters think in literary terms; they think that screenplay is a final document. It’s a very curious relationship director and the writer, and I think that it is a very difficult one. There are very few who think of the film. But Paul has the visual imagination – he thinks in terms of films where an image can tell in a moment what three lines of dialogue can do.“

Roeg and Mayersberg have fashioned the film into a love story that has overtones of almost every known film genre from the detective chase to the musical. But their most intriguing trick has been to use the complexities of time in the storytelling. The action is spread over perhaps 25 years, but people happy to age at different rates, while fashion, objects and backgrounds remain resolutely constant. “Life,” says Roeg, “goes in fits and starts, it doesn’t just unravel. “He does not want his audience to be distracted by strange hardware or clothes, which he regards as far less important than the people. His method is the antithesis of the Kubrick 2001 style where puppet-like characters moved in the world of sophisticated gadgetry: Roeg wants his audience to concentrate on the interrelationship of the characters.

The casting of Bowie in the lead is bound to generate a certain amount of controversy, particularly with those only familiar with his various pop images and androgynous sexuality. Bowie has cultivated himself as a loner, unacceptable to to conventional society, and through his nature there runs a desperate streak of iconoclasm and restlessness pushing him in new directions. His acting in The Man Who Fell to Earth, in a role not only fraught with emotional difficulty and physical discomfort, has surprised many who have seen it. With his bright orange hair, slender frame, sheet white face, weasel teeth and probing stare — the result of an adolescent knuckle-dustering – his credibility as a space visitor is total.

Setting up the final scene at Butterfields, a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard

Setting up the final scene at Butterfields, a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. Photograph David James
(Copyright: © 1976 Studiocanal Films Ltd. All rights reserved)

Bowie already possesses a distinctive separateness. He always travels with a library of 1500 books, and enormous weight to cart around. He hates aircraft, so he mostly travels across the States by train, carrying his mobile biblioteque in special trunks which open out with all his books neatly displayed on shelves. In New Mexico the volumes dealt mainly with the occult, his current enthusiasm. He also paints and sculpts and says he has even been offered a show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York where he now lives. “I’d like to show. I did when I was younger before I started singing. I’ve not done it since I’ve been in the public eye. I wanted to submit them all under a different name, actually. To see if they stand up as art pieces. But I know the game too well and I know it doesn’t work like that, so I’ll use Bowie.” His real name is David Jones.

He got the eponymous part in The Man Who Fell to Earth because both Roeg and Mayersberg separately happened to see an Omnibus program featuring him. The following day they agreed he fitted the requirements. Roeg went to see him. “When he came into the room," said Roeg, “he was dressed in almost the same clothes we had already planned to use in the opening sequence. Curious."

“I was eight hours late for that appointment,” says Bowie. “I stayed out the whole day. An hour after I was due to meet Nic I thought ‘Oh God, I’ve missed on that. Oh well, he’s probably gone now.’ And I stayed out for the rest of the day and came back about 11 or 12 at night and he was still there, sitting in the kitchen talking to a couple of people at my house. He had been there the entire eight hours, just sitting in the kitchen, wouldn’t go upstairs, and soon as I came in he said “oh good evening. Have you read the script yet?” No comment about me being eight hours late for his appointment. I felt terrible. And then he stayed a further five or six hours and just trotted out the whole thing. I still haven’t read the script in its entirety to this day. I need Nic to explain it to me.

“We have never had any kind of argument whatsoever, Nic and I. We’ve been on immaculate terms. I little bit over-polite to one another at times. I think it’s because if one of us cracks the whole thing is over. Visually I’m the pivot, and technically Nic’s the pivot. If either of us cracks – forget it – because the morale of the whole crew would go."

Candy Clark, the heroine of the pace, is also entranced by Nic who in any case is one of those men highly regarded by women. Early suffering seems to have given her acting an intensity which Roeg carefully nurtured. There were intimate scenes, some without clothes, where he made her remove her contact lenses as well so that she would be less conscious of the camera and forced to listen much harder. “He’d tell me what a line can mean, how it can have a double meaning. This seems go up and down – we have one that’s like 10 on the Richter scale — nice and smooth — and it goes up! He spoiled me – I don’t know whether I could trust any other director.”

Buck Henry, renowned for his appearances on American TV chat shows, met Roeg a few years ago at Cannes. Rapport developed, and when the invitation came to play the callous attorney in The Man Who Fell To Earth, there was no hesitation, Buck Henry accepting without waiting to read the script.

“Aside from the fact that I like Nic, in spite of his hideous personality and grotesque behaviour, or perhaps because of them, I like his films. First time I saw them I had a kind of suspended judgement. I don’t know whether they were incredibly pretty pretentious, or trying for something so difficult and unique they just jangled one’s ordinary sensibilities of what films are about. I’ve now seen them several times and I like them more each time. And of course I’ve always wanted to spend time in Albuquerque.”

The Man Who Fell To Earth opens next Thursday, an important day for Britain. There's a confidence about it that scorns the gloom of the British film industry over the past year. There has scarcely ever been a time when some desperate crisis was not crushing British films, but recently it is been particularly rough with American investment dried up and other financing hard to find.

British Lion, a company with one of the most troublesome histories of recent years is, under its new management, attempting an audacious coup. Deeley and Spikings look firmly to America, where the biggest market for English language films exists. Without an American deal it is difficult for major British films to regain their outlay. In order to secure American distribution, Lion have established a West Coast office, headed by Marion Rosenberg who worked for 10 years in Britain with Elliot Kastner. They will be in a good position to catch some spin-off from the euphoric post-Jaws Hollywood, which is now in a boom period, and among the big films of 1976 they are backing Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon, currently shooting.

Nicolas Roeg can now call himself, as he has wanted to, an international director. Columbia want him to make his next film in Hollywood, the screen version of Irving Wallace sex-novel The Fan Club — on the face of it a strange choice, but one that would be bound to yield amazing results. But it seems more likely that he will be back with British Lion to make The Last Shot, screenplay again by Paul Mayersberg.

Will Roeg follow Schlesinger, Yates, Clayton, Winner and now Ken Russell into the semi-permanent exile forced on many of the most talented British film directors by the working conditions here and punitive taxation for high earners? It is not something Roeg would particularly want to happen as he prefers to work within the climate of the British industry. As long as he does so we have a national cinema that amounts to something more than the Carry Ons and Confessions of… and tired film versions of well-worn TV situation comedies.

The Space Oddity

George Perry

The Sunday Times (London, England), Sunday, March 14, 1976; pg. 44[S]-45[S]; Issue 7970. (2235 words)

Category: Arts, Literature and Entertainment

© Times Newspapers Limited



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