'Only a fool could assume that death is THE END'

As Halloween approaches, Rebecca Wallersteiner talks to visionary film director Nicolas Roeg about the uncanny experiences that have shaped his life and inspired his terrifying supernatural thriller, Don't Look Now
Nicolas Roeg is one of the most influential and inventive film directors of the past century. His masterpieces include such cult fi lms as Performance (1970) and Don’t Look Now (1973), with darkly romantic imagery and macabre scenes.

Roeg rarely gives interviews, but he was willing to make an exception for The Lady and invited me to his home in London’s Westbourne Grove. Throughout his life Roeg, now 86, has had uncanny experiences, which he has explored in his films, in particular Don’t Look Now. ‘They would sound crazy if you tried to explain them,’ he admits. He has written about his brushes with the supernatural and over half a century of film-making in his compelling memoir, The World Is Ever Changing.

When I arrive for drinks at Roeg’s house he welcomes me warmly and leads me into his living room adorned with original artworks. In person he is charming and witty, and looks much younger than his years. There is something of the magician about him and his eyes glitter with intelligence. His beautiful actress wife, Harriet, offers me a glass of wine. They first met on the set of Far From The Madding Crowd, starring Julie Christie and Terence Stamp, in 1967. Their house is a stone’s throw from Powis Square, where Roeg filmed Performance with gangster Chas (James Fox) swapping clothes, identities and sexual partners with former rock star Turner (Mick Jagger).

Having queued at cinemas to watch Roeg’s haunting fi lms during my teens, I feel rather in awe of him. Even today I get flashbacks of the tiny red-clad figure scuttling around Venetian alleyways in Don’t Look Now.

I ask him, with some trepidation, if he believes that death is the end. ‘Only a fool could assume that death is the end. All things are connected in ways as yet unknown to us – events, people, trees… everything,’ he answers cryptically. He is dismissive when I mention that I write obituaries for The Times.

‘Who reads them?’ he asks.

‘Almost everyone,’ I answer.

What was the inspiration behind Don’t Look Now, his eerie psychological thriller set in mist-shrouded, out-of-season Venice? ‘Much of the fi lm happened by chance. I took the title from Daphne du Maurier’s novella, upon which it was based. If I hadn’t bumped into an Italian fi lm crew in a Venetian bar I would never have shot the movie in the way that I did,’ he explains.

At first Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, who played the leads, were tied up with other fi lms, yet they suddenly became available. But had Roeg always planned to shoot the fi lm’s famously frank love scene between them?

‘Originally this wasn’t in the script. Desire is very difficult to portray on screen. As the film developed, the characters played by Donald and Julie seemed to be arguing all the time owing to the death of their child and stress. To create a pause, a breath for the film, it was necessary to have some kind of intimacy between them. The couple are going out to dinner, and I thought it would be nice to see them getting ready, kiss, make love, then go out to eat.’

Nicolas-Roeg-Oct24-02-5901. Nicolas Roeg was director of photography from Far From The Madding Crowd (1967) 2. Roeg was director of photography on Francois Truffaut's sci-fi film Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

As far as the scene was concerned, the studio’s view was: ‘We can’t have that’, and the censor slapped an ‘X’ certifi cate on the film.

Shortly after Daphne du Maurier saw Don’t Look Now, she wrote to Roeg telling him that the husband and wife had reminded her of a young couple she had once seen on Torcello who had ‘looked still very much in love, but with a terrible problem’. Venice, rather like an accomplished mistress, cast its decadent spell over both du Maurier and Roeg: ‘Venice became my friend… I gave myself to it and Venice opened the door to secrets more personal and sensual than the familiar grand, “man-made” surface beauty that acts as its protective shell. It is diffi cult to explain the reason why, but I think of Venice a lot in a fond and intimate way,’ writes Roeg.

I ask him about his own most peculiar experience. He takes a sip of wine. ‘About 10 years ago, I was sitting at home on my own enjoying a martini and watching TV when there was a knock at the door. When I answered it, standing there was an elderly woman, smartly dressed, and with an embarrassed, smiling expression on her face. She said that she would love to talk to me for a few minutes about “our past”.

‘Although it was an odd situation I had a good feeling about her and invited her in. She admitted that she had followed me home from the supermarket after feeling an urgent need to speak to me.’

The woman went on to explain that she was a medium and that Roeg had died giving birth to her, as a young woman, in a past life. All she wanted from him was to hold his hand and look into his eyes. By the end of her visit Roeg was convinced that she had been telling the truth. He never saw her again.

When he was shooting The Man Who Fell To Earth in 1976, starring David Bowie as an alien, he thought it would be wonderful to have a real astronaut in the film and James Lovell, who had fl own to the moon twice, agreed to take part.

‘Jim had such an aura – people followed him around and stared at him. Everyone seemed to be aware that he had been to places that they would never go and seen things they would never see. Even David Bowie felt quite strange meeting him,’ says Roeg.

The universe is much stranger than we can begin to imagine. ‘Twice in my life, mothers have told me that they thought their baby was an “old soul”. One mother was quite convinced that the child she was nursing was a reborn spirit and had an aura of old wisdom about him,’ recalls Roeg.

He believes that chance has played an important role in his life. An extraordinary thing once happened to him in London restaurant Le Caprice as a young man in the early 1950s.

He was washing his hands in the gents and found he was standing next to the sculptor Jacob Epstein, who at the time was almost as famous as his erstwhile son-in-law, the late Lucian Freud, is today.


‘I couldn’t believe it. I loved his work… the fury of life in it.’

In a state of shock at meeting his hero, Roeg found a scrap of paper and asked Epstein to autograph it. This set off a tirade.

‘What! Have I no privacy anywhere?’ shouted Epstein furiously. He then stomped upstairs and complained to a waiter, pointing at Roeg – ‘He’s the one.’

The waiter asked Roeg to leave, although he hadn’t eaten his dinner, as Epstein was ‘too crazed to calm down’. Roeg went home feeling rather crushed – but fate is a curious thing.

A couple of years later, Epstein died, and Roeg happened to be in Marylebone taking some clothes to the cleaners.

‘Suddenly there was a big buzz outside the shop – police cars and motorcycles went by – and I went to the door of the cleaners and said, “What’s happening?” and just at that moment his coffin passed me in a hearse – I was stunned – and I waved goodbye to him, thinking how strange that I should be here at this moment.’

It is the magic of fi lm that fuels Roeg’s passion. ‘At fi rst movies were only thought of as an unsophisticated form of “circus-like” entertainment.’ One of the very fi rst fi lms made by the Lumière brothers featured a train coming into a station.

‘As the train came hurtling towards the audience, they recoiled! Nowadays they can’t have enough explosions to make people jump in their seat. The motion picture is still such a magical and mysterious combination of reality, art, science and the supernatural – as well as a gateway to the nature of Time, and perhaps even the first clue in solving the puzzle of what we’re doing here on this world,’ remarks Roeg.

‘Who knows? Maybe future space travellers will simply find the Earth inhabited by shadows from what we call our past.’ The only certainty is that the world is ever changing.

The World Is Ever Changing, by Nicolas Roeg (Faber & Faber, £17.99).