For the January, 1980 issue of High Times, Charles Frick and Harry Wasserman interviewed legendary director Nicolas Roeg (1928-2018). In conjunction with the anniversary of Roeg’s death on November 23, 2018, we’re republishing the interview below.
“My films are controversial because their underlying truth is almost pagan,” says Nicolas Roeg, the man who directed David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth and Mick Jagger in Performance. “The premise of my films makes people a bit uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable.”
Uncomfortable notions like Mick logger dressing in drag, David Bowie as an alien who ejaculates semen from every pore of his body, the disquieting occult terror haunting Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, the eerie mystic experience of proper bourgeois English children with the aborigine boy in Roeg’s Walkabout. Kinky, spooky, slimy, teetering over the edge of reality.
“I tend to reach the point of being close to crazy,’’ says Roeg. “I mean really intensely crazy, on the verge of madness in the tradition of Strindberg.”
Performance, Roeg’s debut directorial effort, also made a lot of important people mad prior to its American release. After its production in England, the finished film was confiscated by U.S. Customs, heavily censored by American distributors and blocked from release by its own producers for two years.
Roeg gets turned on by the controversy and excitement surrounding his films. But his greatest satisfaction is the filmmaking experience itself. And he admits that some actors he works with turn him on more than others. “It’s like a love affair. I wouldn’t make a comparison between Mick and David; at one time, they meant everything to me. Ever since Don’t Look Now, I think I would get jealous if I saw Julie Christie in somebody else’s film.”
Roeg was born in 1928 in England, where he went to school until he joined the military and became a pilot and parachutist. “I loved flying,” he recently confided. “Actually, you’re the first person I’ve ever told that I flew.” He parachuted for the incredible rush of the adrenalin high.
He started in films at Marylebone Studio (“my father knew the owner”), where he worked on dubbing French films into English; his first camera-crew job was for The Miniver Story (1950) at MGM’s Borehamwood Studios.
Roeg later became second-unit cameraman and helped film the train crash in the desert for Lawrence of Arabia. He was director of photography for Clive Dormer’s chilling The Caretaker, Roger Corman’s surrealistic, harrowing Poe opus The Masque of the Red Death, Truffaut’s arid parable Fahrenheit 451, Schlesinger’s explosive Far from the Madding Crowd and Richard Lester’s crazy Petulia.
Walkabout was Roeg’s first choice for his debut as director but had to be shelved due to lack of financial backing. So first came Performance, with money available on the strength of Jagger’s decision to accept the role of Turner. The idea for Performance evolved from an idea by co-director Donald Cammell about a gangster in London’s underworld. Cammell had previously done one screenplay, for a light thriller directed by Robert Parrish called Duffy, in which one of the leading actors was James Fox, who later played a major role in Performance. Roeg was an old friend of Cammell’s. “He’d been a painter, but he wanted a change from that. And he loved movies. We knew we both held the same attitudes, so there was no personality hang-up between us. Performance was really a fifty-fifty collaboration.” (Cammell has since directed the science fiction thriller Demon Seed with Julie Christie.)
Performance starred fames Fox as a gangster on the run named Chas who has the unfortunate luck to hide out at the home of Mick Jagger, an ambisexual eccentric rock-star recluse named Turner who plays surrealistic sex games with Chas’s mind. Off the set, says Roeg, “Jagger leads quite an extensive social life, and I think he sort of gets satisfaction from that.” Sex and dope? Roeg won’t say, but he admits, “I know quite a few heavy and great drug takers, you know, great ones who I know have had problems at times.”
Roeg’s next film was Walkabout, a Castanedaesque tale of the mystic experiences shared by two British children (Jenny Agutter and Lucien John) and an aborigine native (David Gumpilil) in the Australian outback. Roeg says Walkabout isn’t saying “that the noble savage’s life is better. That would be too elementary. Obviously there are better things in life than the noble savage ever experienced. It’s nicer to be indoors than outdoors when it’s pouring rain.”
Don’t Look Now was an occult thriller, although Roeg sees it as a love story, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a haunted couple. “I just make love stories, really,” says Roeg. “It’s more interesting to shoot people making love than to shoot them eating dinner.”
Roeg considers The Man Who Fell to Earth, of all his films, “the most demanding. I was trying to do something with the syntax of film that at the time was very difficult to explain to the crew.”
David Bowie starred in a role not unlike those he often takes on in his music, an alien on a mission who gets wrapped up in earthbound relations and becomes a recluse billionaire media wizard.
In the scene most representative of the alien’s multilayered, obsessive persona, Bowie scans a wall full of television screens, rapidly clicking his remote-control device, sublimely comprehending a multitude of simultaneous images.
A bold cinematic innovator, Nicolas Roeg has also achieved something that has eluded most of his European contemporaries—acceptance and popularity in America.
Success keeps him on the move, but contributing editors Harry Wasserman and Charlie Frick caught up with Roeg during a short break in New York as he was finishing work on his latest film, Bad Timing, starring Art Garfunkel and Theresa Russell. He had flown in the day before on the Concorde. “At one point they told us that the temperature of the outer skin of the plane was just below boiling,” he laughed. “I was more distressed than impressed.” He sat smoking cigarettes in an ebony holder, dressed in a blue blazer, white shirt and red cravat over joints and drinks. Our reporters were quickly caught up in his naturally high energy as he filled them in on his life and work.
High Times: Art Garfunkel, who stars in your next movie, Bad Timing, is the third rock star you’ve directed—you previously worked with Mick Jagger in Performance and David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Did their experience of performing in front of rock audiences help them as movie actors?
Roeg: I found Bowie fascinating. This man can hold 40,000 people spellbound just by sticking a finger in the top of his trousers. I’m drawn to rock performers more than to what you’d call “standard” actors. Actors have become so accepted as a profession that they’re almost like lawyers—there’s an accepted way of doing things. British and American theater has become so standardized, so ritualized, it’s almost become like the Kabuki theater in Japan. Rock performers are actors, but their persona comes out more.
High Times: How was Jagger to work with?
Roeg: Jagger was highly professional, he has style. But he’s got other things that give him satisfaction, to quote one of his songs. Off the set, Jagger leads quite an extensive social life, and I think he sort of gets satisfaction from that.
High Times: Who was more fun to make a movie with, Jagger or Bowie?
Roeg: I wouldn’t want to make a comparison between Mick and David. It’s like a love affair—at one time they meant everything to me.
High Times: Your new movie was filmed partly in Morocco. Was there any good dope over there?
Roeg: There was a curious potion we got over there, distilled from the leaf of a North African tree. I’d like to find out what it is. It’s a wonderful thing, it excites and raises the senses as much as anything I have ever taken. I must rediscover that fascinating, mysterious elixir.
Drugs are marvelous if you are under control from the start. When Aldous Huxley was writing his book The Doors of Perception, he realized that there was another state of consciousness that he wanted to be in, and that mescaline could take him there. But he didn’t write the book on mescaline. He took the mescaline beforehand. Afterward, he realized, “My God, I’ve seen that my mind can go into another place, I don’t have to think this way.” That’s the marvelous thing: Human beings can realize that the mind is boundless, endless. Every human being is a microcosm of the whole universe inside his skull. We use only a millionth part—who knows, maybe a billionth part—of the mind.
High Times: Do you get a rush off making a film?
Roeg: Right now, working on Bad Timing, I’m as high as I’ve ever been. This group of traveling players has driven me to a state of high that I’ve never reached before. I’m really frightened of it because it has to end, inevitably, like life. I have a few days left on the film, a few days to get higher. I don’t know whether this film will be a success or a bomb, but I know it’s given Art, Theresa and me a big high. I think the highest I’ll ever be will be the very last time I actually shoot those two people, Art and Theresa. They get me off, the actors and what they have made of their characters in the past three or four months.
High Times: Does the euphoria of filmmaking continue when you go in to edit? Are you still living that movie?
Roeg: Absolutely, totally.
High Times: Are there any dream sequences in your new movie?
Roeg: I don’t like dream sequences, really. I don’t think any of my movies have a “dream sequence” at all. My movies deal with the split between what is accepted as the conscious, and another state of consciousness that is more than a dreamlike state. I like to feel that although the sequence might appear to be a dream sequence, the mind is in control—the person is acutely conscious of another state of reality. A dream sequence is when you’re out of control, when something is imposing itself on you.
High Times: Let me rephrase that: Are there any sequences in the new movie that could be going on just in the character’s mind, and not in reality?
Roeg: Yes, I like dealing with that. It’s that sort of state that I like to actually see happen on the screen.
High Times: Why is your new film called Bad Timing?
Roeg: “Bad Timing” has a double meaning: one, “Are you bad-timing me?” (as in you’re “bad-timing” a girl, or she’s “bad-timing” you); and two, your affair can just be a case of bad timing.
High Times: Or bad times.
Roeg: I hope you’ll like this new one. It’s a strange story, an extraordinary love story. It’s a love story of betrayal, of possession, of going totally out of balance, beyond jealousy to the abyss of obsession.
And it’s about this fulfillment craze. There’s one scene where Art, the young clinical psychologist, says, “What do you want to do?” And Theresa answers, “I don’t want to do anything. I don’t want to be a fucking painter. I don’t want to be a poet. I don’t want to be a revolutionary. I don’t want to do anything. Why must I do?” People get frightened of not doing anything that’s worthwhile anyway, so they might as well end up doing nothing.
There are two stories, one traveling at eight or nine months, the other taking four and a half to five hours, and they both start at the beginning; one travels faster than the other, but they end at the same time on screen.
I know that lovers have candle-lit dinners and they are nice to each other, but I’ve taken all that out. Each scene starts either on its way to being a happy time or at the end of a happy time; that middle area that is like a commercial of a young couple running through a field hand in hand is eighty-sixed. I hope it has an extraordinary, unsettling effect—the tough side of a love affair is difficult to enjoy. But when you can enjoy the tough side, then you are hooked. These two get stuck with each other and it wipes away all of the sexual role playing—of being super macho or super feminist—all of that is by the boards; they are just lovers, and demanding of each other as lovers often are. They constantly wrestle to possess and be possessed.
High Times: Did the characters’ love affair translate to a relationship between Art and Theresa in real life?
Roeg: Art and Theresa’s characters, Alex and Milena, are shadows up on the screen. They have a love affair on the screen. I don’t know whether Art and Theresa translated it to real life. As far as I know, they didn’t.
High Times: Have you ever worked on a movie where the actors were relating as lovers for the cameras, and it carried on into real life?
Roeg: You mean, from screwing on the screen to screwing in real life?
High Times: Where they lose their own personalities so much that these two actors continue to play the role offscreen?
Roeg: It doesn’t happen that often. It hasn’t happened with me. Obviously there are affairs on movie sets. But it’s a dangerous game, to actually translate your onscreen character to real life. I have found that on the screen I can generally see when it’s turned into an actual love affair offscreen, because they look at each other in their own personal way and not with the characters’ persona, which can destroy that moment on film.
High Times: Do you cast your movies yourself?
Roeg: I do, but it’s not always a director’s choice. Sometimes the studio goes, “Here is a script, and so-and-so has to star in it,” and they come to an agreement on it. But I like to think that actors are destined for their roles. We hadn’t cast one major role in the new movie until two days before we started. We were nervous about it, but I tried to reassure my producer Jeremy Thomas: “We will get our Inspector Muller. He will come to us. And he did—Harvey Keitel. The actors who turned the role down did so because it was not destined to be their role.
High Times: At that time, although the movie had not been completed yet, you felt it had a life of its own. Does this happen with all the movies you do? At what point does the movie take on a life of its own?
Roeg: I don’t know when it happens, but it happens. This is the first time that Jeremy and I have worked together. During the first six weeks of production he seemed rather withdrawn from it, but at a certain point he realized it had become a living organism.
High Times: Certain movies can totally suck the viewer into the screen: The life you have no longer exists, you have become part of the movie. Does that happen on the other side of the camera, too?
Roeg: Absolutely. I said the other day to Art Garfunkel, ‘‘It’s our film.” And I meant it. Without those two, Art and his costar Theresa, I could never have made it. It wouldn’t exist. We were all around, and the lights went on, and everybody was revealed, and it was us.
High Times: How were they to work with?
Roeg: Art’s extraordinary. Theresa is wonderful. She’s frightening, she’s only 22.
High Times: What do you mean, ‘‘frightening”?
Roeg: She breathes life into this person, Milena Flaherty. It’s almost like a split, like something peeled off her; it’s not like a performance, it’s not like acting.
High Times: Do your actors ever change their lines during filming?
Roeg: Yeah, I feel that since the script is not literature, it’s not something that exists on its own anyway; I mean, nobody goes on a holiday with a movie script in their hands to read on the beach. I even have trouble reading scripts.
High Times: In Performance, the scene when Jagger and Fox switched identities began with girls chopping up psychedelic mushrooms in the kitchen.
Roeg: Amanita muscaria.
High Times: How did you prepare yourself to direct a psychedelic sequence where the characters would switch identities?
Roeg: That mushroom was not widely known as a psychedelic then. That’s one reason it interested me—because it wasn’t used—but it’s a traditional thing. I don’t know if you noticed, but in the early editions of fairy tales, like Hans Christian Andersen, in the corner of the page there was always a red-and-white-spotted mushroom.
High Times: Disney’s movie Fantasia had dancing mushrooms.
Roeg: Fairy tales began that way. The original authors were eating bits of mushroom. Especially in Scandinavia. The word berserk comes from that. Berserk is a mushroom root, and when the Vikings took it they went berserk. Fairy tales began when Scandinavians started eating mushrooms.
High Times: But did you ever eat psychedelic mushrooms?
Roeg: Not the kind in the movie.
High Times: So you had a feeling of what the experience of eating mushrooms would be like when you made the movie?
Roeg: You can never really translate your own experience into cinema. It’s wrong to put one’s own experiences onto a character. They have an existence of their own. You can’t put much imagination into it.
High Times: But there’s the tradition of mushrooms in South America. The shamans take mushrooms to lose that consciousness and slip into another world.
Roeg: That’s what they do in the movie, but it wasn’t from my experiences. To translate an experience to different characters is to change it beyond recognition.
High Times: Is it difficult to translate a drug experience to the screen?
Roeg: It is. Extremely difficult. The less one does with a drug scene, if it’s rooted in truth, the more startling the effect. That sequence, if you analyze it, is very simply put together, the secrets unlocked are not visually extraordinary, there’s no flashing lights; but because it has a root in truth, and the audience can relate it to themselves, the scene becomes bigger than it really is through an exchange between the film and the audience. Flashing lights may not relate to the experiences of certain people in the audience.
We tried to keep Performance as much rooted in truth as possible. We had a scene where we rented a real Magritte painting. It created a tension on the set. We rented real diamonds for Anita Pallenberg to put on. It gives the scene a different tone when someone feels their weight and authority as opposed to painted paste. It changes the performance.
High Times: To advertise Performance in America, they were using the tag line “The only performance that achieves greatness is madness.” By taking the mushrooms they opened the door to that madness.
Roeg: That’s not the only way to achieve madness. You can achieve madness in many different ways. I tend to reach the point of being close to crazy when I work. I mean really intensely crazy—on the verge of madness in the tradition of Strindberg.
High Times: Jagger as a rock star achieves that madness whenever he goes out there in front of an audience. He plays a rock star in the film.
Roeg: I like to think the word madness means when someone reaches a point when he’s no longer able to identify where the thought originated, or where the action originated—when one asks, “How did I find myself in this situation?” Through the pressures of role playing, people achieve all kinds of madness. I guess that that comes out of society itself with the gradual breakdown of fascination with material things.
High Times: Do you think that people taking a lot of dope can change from being material oriented to being more spiritual?
Roeg: I don’t know about that. I think it’s because we are so enclosed by society that we do need some other stimuli like religion or drugs or booze or horse racing or whatever to shift us out of the rut. But once out of it, it’s a matter of control. If you can get out of it, then you can get into a great state of consciousness without that aid. I think drugs are fine as an aid. They’re especially wonderful if you know where you want to go or hope to go—if you look forward to going. They’re especially not wonderful if you don’t want to go anywhere.
High Times: Like James Fox in Performance, when he didn’t know he was going on a mind trip. Fox was the only one in that scene who didn’t know he had eaten psychedelic mushrooms. All the others did.
Roeg: Right, he didn’t know. It’s rather sad, actually.
High Times: The Man Who Fell to Earth is about an alien who crashes to earth in a saucer. Have you ever seen a UFO?
Roeg: I haven’t. I’d love to. I’ve seen strange things that have turned out to be explainable. I know people who have seen flying saucers. I’m not the least bit skeptical. I believe in flying saucers totally; I think you’d be mad not to. My son goes to school in England, and he had an American astronaut come and lecture. All of the boys asked him if he had seen a flying saucer and he said he’d seen one. That comes from an astronaut.
High Times: Are you interested in actual space exploration?
Roeg: I thought the moon landing was a marvelous thing. I was in Los Angeles when the first man stepped on the moon. I was watching it on television and I looked out my window and I swear to you, around the pool were the same group of people who had been there all week sunbathing with their little reflectors under their chins. I thought, “This is the strangest thing. I’m watching the first man’s foot on the moon and they are lying in the sun.” It’s like the difference between the sun and the moon.
High Times: Have any of your films been censored?
Roeg: The Man Who Fell to Earth was cut by 22 minutes by its American distributors, including a scene in which Candy Clark peed down her leg when David Bowie revealed himself as an alien. I don’t think they liked it, but it’s something that happens. “I peed myself with fright.” It’s a phrase that has its roots in truth. It was a charming thing as she just—phizzz—did it wonderfully! And it really was a moment of absolute truth.
High Times: She freaks out after having sex with Bowie when his entire body comes as he reaches orgasm. How does one begin to direct a sex scene with a man from outer space?
Roeg: I really was thinking not in terms of alien but as if it were a plain love affair between two humans, say an American woman and an Englishman who had lived in America and had left a family behind. After a few years, he’s living with a woman and he’s never actually been in love, but she’s taken care of his needs, and he’s taken care of hers, and they worked something out together. They’re just a couple, and one day he says, “I’ve got to go now. I must leave. I can’t live this life; it isn’t me. I love the apartment, we had a delightful thing, but you’ve never really known me.’’ And she says, “I’ll go with you, I don’t love it here, I’ll go anywhere you like.’’ And he says, “You don’t know. I’ve been living a false existence. This isn’t my life.’’ She says, “I don’t mind what you are, who you are, just tell me.’’ And he says, “Are you sure?” She says, “Yes. I don’t mind if you don’t love me, just tell me what it is.’’ And he says, “I don’t love you. You have served my purpose,” then reveals his true self and she screams.
High Times: He’s just a strange man with a mysterious past who really has to go.
High Times: Was the story based on the life of Howard Hughes, or on power and corruption in general?
Roeg: Oddly enough it wasn’t based on Hughes, but I found it working that way on its own. When you work closely and intensely on something you let it take its own head. We did a movie about this man who found himself in that state, gigantic wealth, and in seclusion, and then Hughes died and the connections were extraordinary, though it wasn’t planned. Hughes lived at the top of a hotel, and the hotel we shot the movie in was once owned by Howard Hughes. There’s a TWA sign outside, and when Bowie left the hotel, like Hughes, he left without his shoes on.
High Times: Hughes was fascinated with the media, and he liked to watch a lot of TV sets at once. And he, too, was taken over by his employees.
Roeg: That wasn’t intended. Hughes wasn’t even thought of, but the reality imposed itself on the movie. I’m interested in the split senses, in engaging people’s attention on more than one surface at a given time. There’ll be more of this in the coming generations. Already people watch television and read a magazine at the same time. Kids are accustomed to doing two or three things at the same time now. If you seek hard enough to put yourself in a situation, somehow the truth will come out of it. I hope it doesn’t sound too airy-fairy, but I believe it. Things have happened with this new film that have related to me in an extraordinary way.
High Times: There was a lot of talk about this kind of thing when The China Syndrome was released, and two weeks later at Three Mile Island the same thing happened in real life. The funny thing was that all of a sudden the movie studio’s stock shot up the boards like a rocket.
Roeg: Bad news is good news.
High Times: It’s life imitating art.
Roeg: Life imitates art more than art imitates life. Art senses that cycle happening first. Once the thought is out, once the word is out, it happens.
High Times: Do you regard the movie industry as a huge corporate monolith?
Roeg: I don’t like the movie industry anymore because it’s become corporate now that the banks run it. Still, I’ve been very lucky. The corporations actually give me money to make movies. I don’t like the American film business, the German film business, the English film business. I don’t want to be in the film business because it’s very inhibiting. I get financed from studios. Why or how I’ll never know. By some fluke…
High Times: Do you feel that the corporations trust you with their money?
Roeg: No, I don’t feel that at all. I don’t know what it is. I’m not a producer, I don’t have that power, but it is a corporate industry now.
High Times: Do you have any guilt that your films make a lot of money for the corporate film industry?
Roeg: No, I don’t. I’m not a politician, I don’t care what they do with their money. I personally find politics utterly boring because they center around only one aspect of life: power. If you can reduce politics to a single word, it’s power. One lust for power fighting another lust for power. There is no art in politics. Nobody reads last year’s political speeches: It’s like reading an old timetable. You don’t say, “Oh, what a wonderful speech Mr. Hobbenbottom made in 1924 on the bus crisis.’’ It’s boring.
High Times: Society today is pushing people more into the normal and not giving them a chance to get that far out.
Roeg: That’s very right. That’s where politics come in, along with a large society. In the Middle Ages, society was small villages and hamlets, tiny places. But a large society must be controlled by a power group. The more regimented the society is, the more in line, the more control, the better. That’s surely the reason why drugs are so fiercely banned.
I don’t believe that it has anything to do with “Oh, I’m worried about poor Barney’s health.’’ We’ve only had one messiah so far, so I don’t believe that all of those other people are really that concerned with the whole of society.
High Times: Which other people?
Roeg: The politicians, the leaders of society. When they are home sitting on the pot taking a crap, I don’t believe they’re saying, “Oh, those poor people out there. I’d give my soul for them.’’ That’s bullshit. Their concern is only to perpetuate their power.
High Times: In The Man Who Fell to Earth you seem to be playing around with the illusion of time.
Roeg: One of the things that film gives you is an ability to switch between periods of time. Audiences can follow that because most people are living in all kinds of time sequences—they’re thinking of their past, and what’s going to happen to them in the future, and today. But in The Man Who Fell to Earth we didn’t use any time—there was no length of time ever described. It’s more difficult to handle that. Bowie’s character never aged, but the people around him aged. But you could never tell how long a period it had been. When you cut time completely out of your frame of reference, it’s very odd. I became very disoriented during the making of the film, and the others became curiously disoriented. They all wanted to know how long a sequence was supposed to represent; they kept checking their watches. The movie never mentions time. When I was cutting it, I made that specific point. Rip Torn had a line that got past the rushes, which I noticed when I was cutting it. Rip says, “I’ve been here three months already.’’ I dubbed it so he ended up saying, “I’ve been here so long already.” Three months made it too specific. Candy Clark never wore a watch in the movie, which was quite odd for the character—but Candy actually never wore a watch in her life, never owned one. At the end of the movie I gave her a watch as a gift and I thought, “What have I done?” I was trying to do something with the syntax of film that at the same time was very difficult to explain.
High Times: For you, filmmaking seems to be a mystical art. In your movies you often break the laws of time and space or change them to fit the reality that you are creating. This also happens when people smoke grass or take psychedelics, their perception of time becomes different. When you are behind the camera, do you feel that you can travel forward and backward in time?
Roeg: I do. It’s a curious thing, film. It’s followed in the steps of literature, the storytelling tradition, because that was the way it could become instantly commercialized. But I think you’ve got something in the moving picture that is more mystical. I don’t think we’ve examined its depth at all. In fact, when you sit in front of a Moviola and run a film forward and backward, and you see film actors who are dead, people talking and moving, there’s something more mysterious to it than just another imprinting. Some commission was being set up to save some old nitrate film—the newsreel clipping of the Hindenburg disaster. That airship keeps falling out of the sky all the time. Those images are here: There’s just shadows. Without light, we don’t exist; with light, we suddenly become a reality ourselves. Cover this room with darkness, nothing is here.
High Times: Was there a point in your career that you discovered this? Because some directors just tell a story, but when I go to a movie I want to be taken somewhere else.
Roeg: I don’t know when it started. It happened overnight. For many years, though, it was something that preyed on my mind. I think it started somewhere at the back of my mind when I wasn’t able to express it when I was much younger. Too many people approach film without a sense of awe at the fact of the movie camera. I approach the making of a movie with a high degree of nervousness—not nervous about how to do a shot, but nervous that something is going to happen. Something will be captured in the camera that can’t be changed.
Making a movie has that mystical sense that something strange is happening all the time. It encapsulates a piece of your life separate from the rest of your existence. John Huston has said about filmmaking that “it’s rather melancholy at the end of it all.” Filmmaking is actually a melancholy affair because you live a lifetime in a few moments, and at the end it’s like a death in the family. It’s like a traveling group of players with a mad impresario. I don’t like to be called a “director.” Obviously I am a director—that’s what it says on my passport—but it conjures up the idea of someone who can definitely earn his living doing that job. Directing movies for me is touch and go, it doesn’t conform to what you’d call a “living.”
High Times: Do you have certain people that you like to work with all of the time?
Roeg: I work with people I feel comfortable with. I like to use the same camera operator, Tony Richmond. I’ve worked with him three times. He shot Walkabout, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Don’t Look Now and now the new one, Bad Timing. I like working with Donald Cammell. We directed Performance together.
High Times: Your movie Walkabout was about mystical experiences in the Australian outback. What was working on that like?
Roeg: Well, as usual, I didn’t have that aborigine boy until ten days before we were to start the movie. I kept saying, “I will find that boy.” I found him up in the Northern Territory. He was at a mission.
High Times: He’s also in Last Wave.
Roeg: Yes, but Walkabout was his first film. He was a true aborigine. When we went to South Australia, he found it difficult to walk without shoes, but when we got back up to Darwin, where the ground was much more flinty, he felt more at home.
High Times: Do the aborigines have any native ways of getting high?
Roeg: They burn eucalyptus leaves—get stoned on eucalyptus. They use a lot of it at their circumcision ceremonies.
High Times: Did the aborigine talk about any mystical experiences he had?
Roeg: Not at that time—he didn’t have the vocabulary. He spoke sort of pidgin English.
High Times: When you went to work with him, were there a lot of your own judgments that you had to suspend? Did you vibe with him well?
Roeg: Yes, very much so. At first it was quite interesting. He didn’t really follow the association between being in the outback and finally being on the screen in a cinema—it was a pretty big leap of the mind.
It was quite fascinating when he did the dance for his bride Jenny outside the hut. That was his marriage dance, and by the time we reached that part of the film where he performs for her, by the end of the dance, he had a tremendous hard-on, because that was his proposal. It took a long time for him to come down, to realize that he wasn’t going to go to bed with her, because that dance was something sacred he had saved for marriage. It didn’t stop for him when the scene was over. He brooded, because what was that for? He didn’t understand what the story was. Even now, he’s never seen the movie. Walkabout isn’t saying that the noble savage’s life is better. That would be too elementary. Obviously there are better things in life than the noble savage ever experienced. It’s nicer to be indoors than outdoors when it’s pouring rain.
I went crazy alone in the desert while filming Walkabout. I had to be helicoptered into an aborigine territory. We got permission to go in with the three children in the movie, but we couldn’t get the equipment and myself and the kids onto the helicopter. So I went in first with the gear, and then the helicopter went back to get the kids and he was gone for four hours. I watched him go away. If he had crashed there was no possible way I would have ever been found. First of all I took all of my clothes off. That’s the first thing one does: It’s a kind of madness.
High Times: You have made a lot of eerie movies, and now it seems the Hollywood trend is scare flicks: Alien, Prophecy and others. It seems people want to be scared, frightened, as an escapist kind of thing. Do you see this as a lasting trend?
Roeg: I don’t really think in terms of trends. Everything kind of goes in cycles. All life has to do with cycles: the moon, the tides, the oceans, emotions….
High Times: Do you have other projects pending now? New films?
Roeg: After you have spilled your guts out, you have to wait for a while to see what attitudes you have left, if any. Maybe I don’t have any attitudes left at all. I’ll recover, and get back and hold other beliefs, then I’ll change my mind and want to get that out of my system. That’s the sort of cycle that I go in. That’s why it takes me so long.
High Times: Who are your favorite directors? Your influences?
Roeg: I love Jean-Luc Godard, John Huston, Ingmar Bergman—they’re tremendous. Obviously John Ford because he had the chance to do so much. There were hundreds of directors who had that chance and didn’t make anything of it. I directed photography on Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. It was about a future of government-ordered book burning. We burned hundreds of books, getting those black curls at the edges of the pages and the writing seen through the burning. It was meant to look like leaves from the trees in autumn, the dying of the leaves, the dying of the ideas in the books. Roger Corman was great to work with, too. We did Masque of the Red Death in an amazing three weeks. I loved his attack. He’s got a tremendous go to him. He’s like a great jockey and seems to think of the film as his horse—he’s giving it its head.
High Times: Do you have any advice for young directors?
Roeg: The trouble is that very often young directors have to take stories that are given to them by the film producers and try to make something out of them, put a little of themselves into them. I’m talking about young directors who want to be moviemakers, not just an employee of a film company who is directing a film, which is a different thing altogether. Advice? God knows! I’m just barely keeping alive myself. Just keep hope and faith, hope and faith. Carry a good-luck charm. Join every religion you possibly can. Whenever a new one comes up, join it.