Director Nicolas Roeg, best known for the hypnotic and formally ambitious films he made in the 1970s like Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, and The Man Who Fell to Earth, has died at the age of 90, the New York Times reports. No cause of death has been given.
Roeg, who spent decades in the film industry before directing his own movies, started his career as a tea boy at Marleybone Studios in 1947. By the 1950s, he’d worked his way into the camera department and climbed the ranks over the decade as a clapper loader, focus puller and camera operator, making the jump to director of photography after doing second unit work for David Lean’s 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. In the 1960s, he shot movies for directors as varied as Roger Corman (The Masque of the Red Death), François Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451) and Richard Lester (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; Petulia).
In a 1974 interview, Roeg discussed the difficulty he had breaking into directing:
When I started out I wanted to be a movie-maker, and it seemed to me that the way to movie-making was to handle a camera. Then suddenly you realize you are inside a business; and that to make films you have to have a job. It was all very departmentalized and very like an industry: it was an industry. Then, by the time I’d served my apprenticeship and wanted to make my own films, the industry itself had entered another stage. “Do it! It doesn’t matter whether you know anything about it or not!” Which is marvelous. But that didn’t exist earlier, and I’d been stuck at a point where the reaction was, “Oh, well, he couldn’t do it because he’s a cameraman.”
Roeg finally made the leap in 1968, co-directing Performance with Donald Cammell. The film, starring Mick Jagger and James Fox in a script by Cammell, was shelved by Warner Bros. brass before finally getting sent to theaters by a new studio regime after what Variety described as “a long history of delays, shelving, rescheduling, relooping, reediting, and just plain despair.” Derided by the critical establishment of its time, Performance gradually grew in stature through repertory screenings in the 1980s and 1990s and today is recognized as a landmark in British film.
Roeg’s solo directorial efforts went through the same process considerably faster. Walkabout, an Australian film about a trek across the outback, screened in competition at Cannes in 1971 and was savaged in newspapers and simultaneously lionized in film journals on its way to classic status. A few weeks after Vincent Canby panned 1973’s Don’t Look Now in the New York Times, Stephen Farber published an assessment of Roeg in those same pages calling it “possibly the most subtle and sophisticated horror film ever made.” Starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie—and featuring the two in an explicit sex scene that was a minor scandal in its day—Don’t Look Now filters a Daphne du Maurier thriller through Roeg’s trademark non-linear editing to explore grief, memory, and the color red.
Don’t Look Now was probably Roeg’s single most influential film, and its echoes can be found everywhere from Out of Sight to Flatliners and Casino Royale. (That’s the 2006 Casino Royale; Roeg had a more direct influence on the 1967 spoof version as one of its cinematographers.) In 1976, Roeg released The Man Who Fell to Earth, a visually striking film starring David Bowie as an alien, which quickly achieved the same cult status as Performance, his earlier collaboration with a rock star. It was not his last: 1980’s Bad Timing paired Art Garfunkel with Theresa Russell, Roeg’s second wife. Throughout the 1980s, Roeg collaborated with Russell on several films before their marriage ended in divorce. Somewhat unexpetedly for a director known for horror, explicit sex, and non-linear editing, his last major studio film was a 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches for Warner Bros., the same studio that had shelved Performance decades earlier:
On Twitter, filmmakers expressed their appreciation for Roeg’s work:
David Bowie’s son Duncan Jones, a director in his own right, shared a photo from the production of The Man Who Fell to Earth, crediting Roeg with sparking his own interest in film:
Roeg is survived by his third wife, Harriet Harper, and several children.