by Neil Spencer / Uncut
Weird sex, paranoia and David Bowie as the original starman – The Man Who Fell To Earth is one of the most astonishing science fiction films ever made. Neil Spencer talks to director NIC ROEG
In early 1975, NIC ROEG was searching for aliens. The alien, in fact – the star of his forthcoming fourth feature, The Man Who Fell To Earth. Since the director had decided to film Walter Tevis’ novel of the same name, he had been considering options for the lead role of Thomas Jerome Newton, an extra-terrestrial marooned on earth, posing as a human being, and turned corporate tycoon to finance the return trip to rescue his dying planet and his family.
Roeg’s thinking was subtle. Little green men with ray guns didn’t interest him. He wanted his alien to be different from ordinary mortals, but not that different. After all, the focus of The Man Who Fell To Earth was to be inner rather than outer space., its sci-fi storyline ultimately a different cue for Roeg’s customary obsessions: intangibles such as time, perception, synchronicity and the impossibility of true communication.
Plus lashings of weird sex and the kind of visual assault that over the course of three movies had made Roeg one of the world’s most f^jted directors.
Michael Crichton had been Roeg’s first thought for Newton, a man marked out from the rest of the human race by his towering six-feet nine-inch stature as well as his diverse interests in haematology, writing and acting (Crichton would go on to write Westworld, Jurassic Park and Twister, and create ER). Peter O’Toole was another option. Then Roeg saw Cracked Actor, Alan Yentob’s unflinching BBC documentary about David Bowie’s triumphant American tour of 1974. Watching Bowie’s fey mannerisms and eccentric behaviour – the pallid face peering through tinted limo windows, the cocaine-fuelled paranoia beneath the brim of an over-sized fedora, the shifting, otherworldly stage personae – Roeg knew he had found his space oddity.
A meeting was set up at Bowie’s New York house, only for the director to arrive to find his prey had forgotten all about their appointment. Undaunted, and with the reluctant agreement of Bowie’s wife, Angie, he settled down to wait. It must have been an odd encounter when, nine hours later, Bowie at last showed up, but against the odds the two Englishmen hit it off. A deal was struck: filming would begin in New Mexico in a matter of months.
Eyebrows were raised by Roeg’s decision to hand his lead role to an untried pop star, but the 47-year-old director was certain. “After I met him, I could see no one else in the part, ” he said afterwards. After all, Roeg had already turned one pop star, Mick Jagger, into a convincing celluloid lead for Performance, a trick he would pull again a few years later when he transformed goody-two-shoes Art Garfunkel into a misogynous monster for Bad Timing. Like Jagger and Garfunkel, Bowie would prove the sceptics wrong with his performance as Newton, though he would likewise discover that success in a Nic Roeg film was a hard, if not impossible act to follow.
Roeg was undeniably taking a risk. That it was Bowie’s first screen role was perhaps less an issue than the singer’s perilous psychological state. Since taking up residence in the States two years previously. Bowie’s drug habits had taken a quantum leap in line with his American profile. The behemoth of the USA, nemesis of so many British rockers, had been conquered, but a $200 a day coke habit was the apparent price of US chart toppers like “Fame” and Young Americans”.
As Bowie’s public star ascended, his private life had sunk into darkness. Compulsive promiscuity had helped put his six-year marriage on the skids – while ensconced in his Beverly Hills home he had fallen prey to all manner of paranoid obsessions: his video adviser was a CIA agent, witches were casting spells on him. His necromantic fixations, fuelled by the eminence noir of film-maker and warlock Kenneth Anger, extended to having his house exorcised, while numerology in particular would obsess the singer for years to come.
For Bowie, Roeg’s offer must have appeared – ha, ha – heaven sent. Though he had rejected the numerous scripts that arrived on his agent’s desk – most of them imaging the moon-booted ex-choirboy from Beckenham as an antennaed space invade – his thoughts were increasingly turning towards cinema. At home, he composed speculative soundtracks for non-existent films. The previous year he had toyed with the idea of appearing onscreen alongside Elizabeth Taylor – an unlikely new admirer – and had enquired about taking the lead in a Frank Sinatra biopic. Old Blue Eyes himself had let it be known that “no English fag” would ever get that particular role. Almost as much as the career move, the money must have been tempting. Bowie’s relations with his management company, Mainman had just ended in a costly divorce settlement that awarded millions of dollars of future royalties to his ex-manager, Tony De Fries. Becoming Thomas Newton handed him a useful $50,000, plus the bonus of a complicated royalties contract which included a Bowie soundtrack for the film.
Why was Roeg making a science fiction film anyway? Cinematically, the genre had been in decline since the Fifties, when a combination of UFO flaps and Cold War paranoia (green men as red agents) made the likes of Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers parables of their time. Spy movies and Sixties modernism had almost swept sci-fi away, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey notwithstanding. Though Logan’s Run, Star Wars and Close Encounters… were shortly to beam down., Roeg’s enthusiasm for science fiction was, depending on your viewpoint, archaic or an act of premonition.
Perhaps both. Roeg seems to have had the idea for an adaptation of Tevis’1963 novel for some years – at least since 1966, when he had served as cinematographer on Fran^gois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 – an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel about a future society in which books are banned and burned. Among the tomes incinerated onscreen was The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Roeg and his screenwriter, Paul Mayersberg, took the central idea of Tevis’ book – a stranded star man, whose own planet is withering away from lack of water – and adapted freely. Newton became a Howard Hughes-like recluse, whose corporate success and privately funded space programme are monitored by the agents of the secret state. From the moment Newton splashes down in a New Mexico lake he is under surveillance by a mysterious and unexplained watcher. At the point where he is ready to return home, Newton is incarcerated by the men in black to become an object of scientific study.
Ultimately, Newton is both seduced and broken by the planet Earth, while his colleagues (notably Rip Torn as Nathan Bryce, a wayward professor recruited by Newton’s company) and his lover (Candy Clark as the trusting Mary-Lou) are either compromised or killed by their association with Newton.
Into this comparatively simple plot Roeg and Mayersberg wove a multiplicity of themes and allusions. The numerous time slips, the abrupt shifts between Earth and Newton’s home planet, the allusions to Japanese culture, the trains which haunt the film, the sparse beauty of the New Mexico landscapes, the unearthly hermaphroditic look of Bowie himself, all conspire to make Roeg’s film a more disquieting and convincing account of extra-terrestrial encounter than anything conjured up by the SFX departments of the Nineties.
The scene where Newton reveals himself to Mary-Lou as he really is, a revelation that makes her piss her pants, is a case in point (and considered so unnerving that it was cut from the film’s American release), while only Roeg has so far dared to imagine alien sex – scenes memorably described by film critic Alexander Walker as “like watching a stick insect at work.”
Roeg’s kaleidoscopic approach to film-making is neatly caught by the image of Bowie, remote control in hand, sat before a bank of TV screens, absorbing a simultaneous barrage of old movies, pop songs, nature documentaries and news flashes. The post-modern age, one feels, started right here.
This, like so many other images culled from the film would add an enduring strand to Bowie’s personal mythology as rock’s premier alien over the next few years. The soundtrack he’d been contracted to write never materialised – or was rejected. Roeg himself remains vague about the subject even now. Bowie, “an extraordinary person”, was going through “a difficult time in his life”, he says today, citing material on Low (1977) as an example of what eventually became of Bowie’s projected soundtrack.
Bowie, who spent he shoot living in a trailer in preference to the offers of a suite at the Albuquerque Hilton, impressed everyone with his professionalism during filming. He was surely in his element. He’d been obsessed with aliens since childhood, had spent his hippie years spotting UFOs from the roof of his south London home (a hobby he resumed under the starry, mystical skies of New Mexico), and had built a career as a Martian rock star. Playing Newton, in or out of alien drag, was second nature.
The film may have helped Bowie in his subsequent removal from the hell of his Los Angeles life back to Berlin and the recording of Low, though it didn’t cure him of his occult obsessions – the grail legends in particular – which would lead him to the infamous seig heil salute at Victoria Station the following year. Still, Dave could always say the aliens made him do it.
The fecundity of themes in The Man Who Fell To Earth, and the unsparing barrage in which they are expressed, was always a problem for some, not least the executives who wanted the film to have a linear narrative. Some audiences in America were even handed summaries of the plot so they could pick their way through the maze of allusions. “There are enough ideas for six films here, and too many by far,” complained one critic, provoking a tart retort from Roeg: “If you go and look at a Bosch painting, you don’t say, “Oh, he’s put too many devils in it.”
Twenty years on, the film remains a tour de force of innovatory film-making, while the old allegations of obscurantism will surely puzzle a generation raised on the paranoid convolutions of The X Files.
“I don’t know whether it’s bullshit or brilliant,” says Roeg bluntly when I asked him about the film’s reputation in the alien-infested present, when pixie-like, almond eyed faces peer from the sleeves of drum’n bass albums and men in black have graduated from spooks to kooks.
“What I liked about the story is that it gave me a means to start again, because in science fiction there are no rules. If it’s the unknown, then all systems are up for grabs. Nonetheless, our imaginations bound by our experience – if you see a spaceship, you expect it to look like it’s been built by General Motors.”
Roeg is unsurprised by the current boom in science fiction cinema, a genre he considers “a wonderful medium for the release of the imagination. Like all great things, it has simplicity to it – it appeals to a child, for example – and less sophistry of the mind. In good science fiction, not everything is as it appears to be.”
What about the uncanny way in which the photographic technology on which Newton’s empire is built – self-developing film, for example – was quickly caught up by reality?
“Why things come true in science fiction is that there’s some universal consciousness in the air. When Paul Mayersberg and I wrote the screenplay I wondered what you would do to keep yourself hidden and make money. Obviously, Newton’s knowledge would ruin everything – a lot of the corporations are 50 years ahead, but they can’t release their information and technology because it would destroy the economy. The camera crew thought that what I was showing was some mad, science fiction thought, but it was somewhere in the ether, because within three years of making the film Fuji had it out.”
Isn’t there a sense in which all Nic Roeg movies have been about alien experience, whether it’s Jagger’s rock star submerged in Jagger’s rock star lair in Performance, the schoolchildren lost in the outback in Walkabout, or Oliver Reed on the desert island of Castaway? Newton is just another one out of his depth.
“I was trying to make a link between the alien from another planet and the alien within our own culture. That’s why I like Newton being an Englishman in America.
“I also wanted the form of the film and the way it’s shot to have an alien sense. You hope that the effect will be one of discomfort and loss.”
Roeg’s canon is also invariably about English people, I point out, though rarely shot in the UK. They almost seem to be asking what, if anything, Englishness actually is.
“I can’t answer that, yet I like what you say about Englishness. Without being patriotic I’m close to being English, and those attitudes stand out against an alien background rather than a parochial setting, which in any case carries with it assumptions. Truffaut once said to me, “I suppose I make the same film over and over again.” Finally, it’s the impossibility of communication – I suppose in some way you never get it right.
“My parents brought me up to recognise an inner life, and I think film is a wonderful way to express that. Words don’t do it. Words are a code, not a great way to comment on our real self, our needs and desires, which are lived on another level. That’s what interests me.”