by Ruth McCormick / American Film Magazine
David Bowie is one of the most durable and certainly the most versatile figure in modern pop music. His rock concert are as painstakingly directed and choreographed as operas, and the characters he’s created for them are as varied as his influences, which range from Dylan to Coltrane, from Brecht to Burroughs, from Kabuki to Kraftwerk. He has been a pioneer in rock video; his stunning visual presentations of his songs have set the standard for excellence in the medium. As an actor he’s probably best known for his work as the alien in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, but he also received critical acclaim for his portrayal of John Merrick in the Broadwtv production of The Elephant Man, and as Brecht’s Baal in a BBC television presentation. Earlier this year, writer-critic Ruth McCormick interviewed Bowie in New York about his work with Oshima, a director he has ilways admired and whose ability to change styles and directions is verv much like his own.
How do you choose your acting jobs?
I always choose directors. So far, I’ve been lucky enough to work with two of my very fivorites – Roeg and Oshima. They arc completely different in their ways of approaching film, but there is a parallel. As I see it, I’ve got a luxurious position of being asked to do movies – to take study courses with directors and be paid for doing it, and to enjoy myself thoroughly in the process.
When Oshima asked you to do Merrv Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, were you already familiar with his work?
Yes, The Ceremony, Boy, and In the Realm of the Senses were the three major things of his I’d seen at the time: they were so totally different in many ways. I think Oshiina has a really international outlook. I was totally intrigued when he came backstage after he saw The Elephant Man and asked me if I’d be interested in working with him. I jumped at the chance. But it took fully another two years before the thing finally got started.
….He had asked me if I’d wait for him, and I agreed-and, indeed, two years later he called me and said, “We start in three weeks.” I’d just finished The Hunger, so, really, the last thing I wanted to do was make a movie! I just wanted to have a holiday, because it was quite a fatiguing role, with the makeup and all that. So I took advantage of the situation and took my holiday in the South Pacific. I got to know the islands pretty well before Oshima got there with the crew, so by the time everyone arrived I felt pretty much as if I’d been on the island for some time, which, in fact, I was supposed to have been in my role. I felt quite at home, and as if I could have been in a camp all that time, because the island’s kind of small and you begin to feel cut off after a bit.
It must have been quite beautiful.
Well, after two weeks, the beauty starts to wear off. You just feel confined, which was all right, because that was the whole point of my character anyway: It was the right mood to be in. But I’ve never worked on anything where the momentum gathered such speed-I mean, he works so quickly! The lighting seemed almost simplistic, to the point where you couldn’t believe it could look any good. But then you see the rushes, and it’s fantastic.
Wasn’t the cameraman Toichito Narushima’?
Indeed. My father! I was given the right to call him “father.” What a tremendous eye he has; he’s so quick with his decisions. And then, from scene to scene, we weren’t allowed by Oshima to have an overview of what the film was going to be like. We were subjected to so many fast scene changes, because he would accomplish so many scenes in one day, that we were fully preoccupied with strengthening and stretching our individual characters in relationship to the immediate people around us.
….After the first couple of days, we realized it was going to be one-take stuff-one take, two takes. And that really fired us up; I think that got us through the movie more than anything else, this terrific momentum. You’d go through a scene, you’d be done, and then you’d be moving on to the next scene immediately, so you were always your character, with no chance to see the overall thing. You were continually redefining what your character was undergoing, what stresses were involved in his relationships with his own men and with the enemy.
But isn’t that like real life?
Yes, exactly, and that’s how he shoots. It was like real life-you only get one shot at it. He doesn’t believe in a thousand takes. He’ll do two takes, sometimes three, and he’s got it ‘ It’s a miracle; he edits in the camera. And the whole editing thing, I believe, was finished about five or six days after the last day of shooting. He’d already assembled a rough cut of the movie – I mean, it was that quick. I asked him how he could do this all so quickly, and he told me, “I’ve been five years waiting for this, so I’ve filmed it a million times in my head.”
Until now Oshima’s usually had to work with such small budgets.
Absolutely-he was forced to be disciplined. For this film, Toda-san, the set designer, was given all the money. He built this enormous set in the middle of thejungle, this fantastic camp. It wasjust quite beautifully put together, with bamboo and twine, Japanese-style, and then he hid the whole thing with tents, so you didn’t see any of the camp; you’d see part of the camp, an odd bit of a corner coming out from behind the tent, but it was mostly covered by the tent, so actually, everything to the west of that point needn’t have been built at all, but he did build the whole thing. He said it doesn’t matter-you never show the whole thing, because there’s no such thing as perfection in life-you can never make a thing perfect by showing it all and saying: “This is perfection.” You just show a little bit of it, and your mind will give you the perfection that’s needed to say that this is a perfect shot. An American would shoot everything, let’s have the money out there on the screen!
What about the character you play-without giving away the movie?
Well, the great thing about the movie is that there’s nothing to give away in those terms. You could give the ostensible story line, but it isn’t going to help at all, because the thing is the impact of the confrontation between Japanese civilization and English civilization, and how they so totally misunderstand one another. And one man, played by Tom Conti, who does understand both sides, is completely disowned by each side.
He’s able to see both sides because he’s something of an intellectual?
Absolutely. But in that situation, you can’t be in the middle or you’re going to be disowned by both sides. Your own side is going to wonder why you’re messing around with the Japanese, and the Japanese are going to think, This man is of no real nobility, because he’s moving away from his own men-therefore, he’s a bad man.
On the other hand, your character is a man of action.
Yes. I embrace the idea of war, because of my guilt about my dealings with my family, specifically my younger brother, who was a hunchback from birth – which reflects badly, as far as I’m concerned, upon my own being, and so I disown him. I disown all responsibility for looking after him to an extent that leads him into terrible social situations, but I just stand there in the wings and watch him undergo terrible humiliations, without ever running to his defense. All this starts to work on me over the years, and comes to a point where my life becomes meaningless because of the dishonorable way I’ve treated my brother, so when the war comes, I throw myself into it, looking for salvation, but really it’s that now I can die, can die honorably doing something. This is what produces this so-called iron will that I’ve got; it’s just this enforced feeling that I’ve got to throw myself into the most dangerous situations so that I can redeem myself. So the Japanese see in me this iron-willed, noble figure, but I, of course, see myself as the antithesis of this-which is again complete misunderstanding on their part.
You’ve spent a lot of time in Japan. There’s always been an element of Kabukiin your shows.
Yes, a very strong one. You know, duringthe shooting, they had so many lovely Japanese traditions, like on the first day of shooting, everybody wore their best suits, and then again, on the last day: white suits, white gloves. And during the five years Oshima had to wait to make the movie, his three main peers on his crew didn’t work either. They refused to work with any other people until Oshima was able to make his film. That’s such an incredible thing, the way loyalty permeates their whole society, into their arts as well. If he couldn’t work, then they shouldn’t either.
Are there any other Japanese directors you’d be interested in working with?
I must admit, I think that film was about the only one I would have done. You know, there’s a rumor-I don’t know whether it will come off, but it would be tremendous-that he may do the Mishima story.
Paul Schrader wants to do the Mishima biography.
Yes. Paul told me that. You know, he’s a superlative writer, but I feel uneasy about his filmmaking at the moment. I think there are a lot of inherently good things about his filmmaking, but perhaps he needs to make a lot more movies. Cat People doesn’t have the impact, say, of a Cocteau movie, but then, Cocteau shot in black and white, and that had a lot to do with it. Color is hard in a twilight movie. With black and white, you can read so many colors into it. You color it your own way. That’s where rock ‘n’ roll is quite interesting, because recently there’s been a great resurgence in wanting to make promo movies in black and white again. It’s not seen as an outdated way of filming things, which is what seems to have happened in the cinema, where color is seen as new and black and white as oldfashioned, which is ridiculous. We seem to have overcome that kind of elitism in rock. In fact, I myself did a couple of things a few years back because I thought you could say much more in black and white. Everything’s dealing in terms of denseness, shadowing, light and dark, and shading. You can create another, alternative universe. If you’re after a particular effect which has an unreal kind of quality, you can really portray that in black and white.
Didn’t you live for quite a while in Germany?
I lived in Berlin for about three years. It’s paradise for a writer because there are such frictionalized attitudes to life there there’s such danger there all the time. The whole zeitgeist of the place is this overbearing feeling that there’s only a couple of years to go. The longer you live there the more you feel the Wall; it’s one of those nightmare things where all the time, the Wall’s moving in. And it has produced, I think, some incredible writers and filmmakers. I like their attitudes there.
John Heartfield once wrote a very funny piece taking off on the Nazis for policing culture at the same time they ripped it off and recycled it for their own purposes.
Fascist culture was such a secondhand culture! It had the same pretensions as Roman culture, which stole everything from the Greeks. They had absolutely nothing original. Imagine being around at the time of the Degenerate Art exhibition, when all that stuff went to Switzerland to be sold off for two, three francs – incredible paintings by people like Emil Nolde, who, it’s quite funny, turned out to be a Nazi himself. I wonder how he coped with that. There he was, a selfprofessed Nazi, and his art was called degenerate by the very regime he supported.
Look at Leni Riefenstahl, who ran into trouble with Goebbels. It’s a strange contradiction.
Well, I think that’s what made Mephisto such an enlightening movie. It was very interesting to see how one could become morally bankrupt in that particular period how easy it was to be artistically “booed over” to convince yourself that you had to remain an artist. It’s very scary.
Are there any German directors you’d be interested in working with? Herzog, for instance?
Well, he’s the kind of director, like Roeg, Oshima, that I tend to gravitate towards – less-known filmmakers.
Who do the kind of adventurous things you would do yourself.
Exactly. I really don’t think I need the Hollywood bit. I’m not ready to go back there. It all gets too predictable.
What are your plans after your tour?
It’s hard for me to think past the tour, because it’s going to take up so much of the year. My immediate future will be designing the set, working out the landscaping for the songs, how I wish to present them, how much character will be involved, whether I’ll do the whole thing myself, whit the premise, the concept of the tour will be – that’s sort of the fun thing to do.
That’s when you get to be creative rather thin just interpretative.
That’s when I get my first camera!