A Master of Visuals and Atmosphere

In this clip, a BBC interview that Mark Kermode did with director Nicolas Roeg in 2008, they talk about one of his most memorable movies, Don’t Look Now (1973), and how Roeg caught our attention right from the start, shaping our understanding of the family that dominates the horrifying story. Two days ago, Roeg, this master of visuals and atmosphere, died at the age of 90.

Born in London, Nicolas Roeg lived close to a movie studio in the city and was employed there in 1947, performing various chores and working his way up. After serving as a camera operator, Roeg became a cinematographer and was hired for what must have been one of the most promising jobs in the British film business in the mid-1960s – shooting Doctor Zhivago. Unfortunately, he clashed with David Lean and was fired. Still, he was hired for many other films, including Richard Lester’s Petulia, which provided a hint of how he would be working as a director.

His feature debut in that role was Performance (1970), co-directed by Donald Cammell. His first film (but far from last) to star a musician, this was a a crime drama with Mick Jagger in the role of a rock star. Controversial at first, it became increasingly influential over the years. The clip above is quite a music video from that movie.

Roeg followed up with a trip to Australia and the mysterious survival drama Walkabout (1971). As in Don’t Look Now, he created a haunting feeling and his way of telling the story out of chronological order adds to the lasting impact – these are movies that make you think about what’s going on, and as always the music (by John Barry and Pino Donaggio) is as unforgettable as the visuals.

Both films have disturbing elements, especially Don’t Look Now (the clip above is an inferno of wildly different emotions), and the locations play a crucial part – the Australian outback in Walkabout, Venice in Don’t Look Now.

Musicians were hired for the leads in Nicolas Roeg’s next two movies, David Bowie for The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Art Garfunkel for Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession (1980). As expected, the soundtracks were very important for both projects and the films are widely admired. After Bowie’s death, the cult status of The Man Who Fell to Earth has grown stronger; the clip above shows a classic scene with Bowie as the alien visitor. And Roeg met his future wife, Theresa Russell, on Bad Timing

The 1980s were not as successful for Roeg, but his Road Dahl adaptation The Witches (1990) is certainly worth a look; it was his last studio film. His last movie was a supernatural drama, Puffball (2007), where he reunited with his Don’t Look Now star Donald Sutherland.

Roeg was honored this weekend by among others Bowie’s son, filmmaker Duncan Jones, and directors Brad Bird and Edgar Wright:

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