Roeg: The Man Behind ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’

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August 22, 1976, Page 75Buy Reprints
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In the large book‐lined study in Nicolas Roeg's North London apartment there is a well ‐ thumbed copy of Georges Polti's “The ThirtySix Dramatic Situations,” a voluble that reduces all the world's plots to three dozen. It is one of Mr. Roeg's favorite books. Polti's seventh situation, “Falling Prey to Cruelty or Misfortune” might be illustrated by the story of a man who falls to earth from outer space and is corrupted by civilization. It could also be illustrated by this variation: a movie director has his film taken away from him and the work is recut against his will. The first example is actually the story enacted by David Bowie in “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” The second is the story of Nicolas Roeg himself. But, like all stories, nothing is quite as simple as it seems.

Discussing the cut version of “The Man Who Fell to Earth” that Donald Rugoff is distributing in the United States, Mr. Roeg said that he was “totally distressed and upset.” How could you have a film by Nicolas Roeg, without the director being completely resonnsible for what is seen on screen? Mr. Rugoff, who was interviewed in New York, said the decision to trim the picture was “painful” but necessary.

Mr. Rugoff insisted that this was the first time he had cut a director's film and suggested that he was so pained by the decision that before he made it he sought outside advice from a screenwriter, a film editor, some students at Dartmouth College, and, perhaps most influentially, from Dr. Richard C. Simons, a member of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado Medical Center. According to Mr. Rugoff, Dr. Simons was hired to analyze the film, but Dr. Simons shrinks from that charge. He said that it would have been “presumptuous,” though he did offer his “opinion” about the film an the audience's probable reaction to it. He said that he was asked to give his advice “in the context of someone who loves film and knows something about Roeg's work.” Dr. Simons, a great movie buff, has seen all four of Mr. Roeg's films, “Walkabout,” “Performance” “Don't Look Now” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and he is particularly admiring of “Walkabout.” But, obviously, if Dr. Simons had not been a psychiatrist, his opinion would have had no weight than that of any one of those Dartmouth students.

When Mr. Rugoff purchased the American distribution rights to the film for $800,000—“more money than we ever put up before”—he took a print to Dartmouth and showed it to a group of students, After the screening, the students were asked if they would recommend the film to a friend. Half of them said yes, half said no. From that point on, Mr. Rugoff began to worry about his investment. Since, as he said, “We bought it with the right to cut it, subject to the approval of the producers,” he asked Robert Young who wrote the screenplay for “Nothing But a Man” and Ed Beyer, a film editor, to cut the film. He liked the new version (which was about 20 minutes shorter), but Mr. Roeg didn't. Then Mr. Rugoff called in Dr. Simons. He had been recommended to him by a New York psychiatrist. Dr. Simons happened to be in Baltimore at a convention. He came to New York, saw the full film and liked it up until the end.

“I felt the whole thing began to deterioriate,” said Dr. Simons. “I couldn't grasp where it was going. I told Rugoff I thought it was a disaster.” Mr. Rugoff then showed him the cut version. “It was ainazIng. I had a completely different reaction. All the scenes I had trouble with had been eliminated.” Mr. Rugoff released the shortened film in America. The film, which had already received mixed but strong notices in London in the Roeg version, opened in New York in the Rugoff version and drew a similar response.

I have seen both versions of the film, which makes me a member of a small, not entirely compatible, club. Basically the film is the same in each version, following the fall and decline of a space man on earth. Mr. Newton (David Bowie) is an electronics wizard and mysterious tycoon, somewhat on the order of Howard Hughes. The film shows the Impact of Earth on him and his effect on earthlings, especially his mistress, Mary Lou (Candy Clark), a disillusioned scientist named Dr. Bryce (Rip Torn) and a lawyer (Buck Henry) who becomes head of Newton's corporate empire.

There are four principal cuts in the Rugoff version of the film. Mr. Torn's character is still depicted as a ravaging womanizer but his sexual exploits have been pruned. Also deleted is a scene in which Mary Lou is so terrified by seeing Newton change back into a space man that she urinates. In the Roeg version Mary‐Lou visits Newton in a hospital‐hotel where he is a prisoner and he threatens her with a revolver, and then makes love to her. The Rugoff version simply cuts the gun and the love‐making and skips to a ping pong game between Newton and Mary Lou.

The first two trims seem’ justified, a toning down of overstatement. The fourth scene which was trimmed—a glimpse of Mr. Torn dressed as Santa Claus—seems irrelevant, The only questionable cut is the gun scene. Mr. Rugoff and his advisers felt that in that sequence, one “lost sympathy” for the two principals, that Newton seemed jaded. That is precisely Mr. Roeg's point: “They aren't young people any more. As they get older, the likelihood of extra aids to eroticism is brought in. Newton has become totally human.” The scene is jarring, but no more so than much that has preceded it in a film that tries to be disasscciative. It adds an edge to Newton's character but it does not change the essential nature of the film. The story leads—more quickly in the Rugoff version—to the final confrontation between a worn‐out Newton and a disconsolate Bryce, who apologizes to the space man for the cruel treatment he has suffered on Earth. Newton brushes off the apology. If Bryce had visited his planet, he says, he would have been treated the same way. The stranger abused in an alien land (see Polti's “Plots”) is the real subject of both versions of the film.

Mr. Roeg is as disturbed by the fact of the cutting as he is by the specific cuts. Throughout his career, he says, “I've been dogged with different versions. Before, everything was cut on grounds of censorship. That's a dying cause, so now things are cut on cultural grounds; certain things accepted in Europe are not considered acceptable for Americans. Having tried to push the structure of film grammar into a different area, I find myself explaining it, the reason why certain things are in. Whenever one plays with film grammar, it offends people.”

Asked how he changed the film grammar, he said, “Basically, by taking away the crutch of time, which the audience usually holds onto. Some movies will say an event is taking place now, and then, three months later there is another event. But time is much more instant. I think the film is rather like a lifetime which goes in fits and starts. At the end of people's lives, it is difficult to find what the actual story is. Life is not as simple as ‘The Foryte Saga.’ Things happen, time goes by, and nothing happens — then, a crucial moment! With saga movies, every event seems to link to another event.” Mr. Roeg asks the audience to relax, to “read the screen,” and to let the movie “work on them.” Clearly, Mr. Rugoff felt that the audience needed help; at one point he even considered adding a prologue asking for their indulgence.

Despite the disjointed style and bizarre subject matter, Mr. Roeg thinks that his picture is telling a traditional story: Five years ago, when he first read the novel by Walter Tevis on which the movie is based, he was attracted by the central character, “a person alone outside society . . . and the people who become attached to him.” Although the movie is science‐fiction, it is not about “little green men and lots of dials and apparatuses.” The idea was “to set a human drama against a fantastic background.” On one level, it is a “love story,” one not so far removed from “Love in the Afternoon,” the Gary Cooper ‐ Audrey Hepburn movie which Mr. Newton watches on television. In fact, the dialogue in that movie is echoed in the conversations between Newton and Mary Lou. Mr. Newton need not be a space man. He could, in fact, be an “hallucinating” Howard Hughes.

“You in the audience think perhaps he's from outer space. I don't think that's definite. Perhaps he's from inner space. All we see is what's in his mind.” Repeatedly, Newton's mind drifts back to his previous life—to his wife and two children, strange, plasticized creatures he left behind when he fell to Earth. He is a time, as well as space, traveler, and occasionally his mind darts back to the past; driving through the American West, suddenly he sees a pioneer family. These scenes, theorizes Mr. Roeg, could be imagined. The only presumably conclusive evidence that he is extraterrestrial is that he cannot be photographed by an X‐ray camera. But even that, according to Mr. Roeg is “not beyond the realm of possibility.” The point is that, space man or not, Mr. Newton is a traveler, an outsider. “If you forget the fantastical side of the story, you can draw a parallel to a man emigrating to America.”

To play the stranger, Mr. Roeg chose a man from outside movies, David Bowie. “There is a difficult line between who is an actor and who is not. One third of the shows on television come from the audience, people acting out some kind of thing on game shows. Bowie has a totally uninfluenced originality — uninfluenced by previous roles, or by fear. That's the great hallmark of his originality and I think that's the quality I saw in Mr. Newton, too.”

Mr. Roeg seems drawn to strange situations and exotic locations, such as the Australian outback of “Walkabout” and the occult mysteries of “Don't Look Now.” “The things one is drawn to,” he said, “might appear alien to a lot of people,” but from his point of view they're simply themes that concern him, themes that can be made more interesting if they are set in odd places.

Though each of the films is very individual, they are all, he said, a reflection of him. “Everyone has things he wants to get out of his mind. I suppose I've always been interested in the idea of the time machine. The closest to the time machine we have is the movies. I always wanted to make movies.”

Mr. Roeg's first movie job, in 1947, was working in the cutting room for a documentary film maker. He thought this might lead to a job with M‐G‐M, but it only led to an M‐G‐M of the mind; he began plotting movies in his head. Then he became a cameraman, working on “Petulia,” “Far From the Madding Crowd” and “Fahrenheit 451.” Soon he found himself pigeonholed—behind a camera. To himself, he was always a director.

With his fourth movie finally bringing him a degree of international recognition, he now has a greater freedom in choosing properties. Among his future possibilities is a disaster movie, but he says that whatever he chooses to do next, “I'd like to think it will be something about obsession.” He smiled. “Obsession and fear go hand in hand.”

It was late in the afternoon and he got up from his chair to pour a sherry. Looking around his study, I noticed that in addition to Poitt's plots, he had numerous books on myths, and I asked him if they had any relevance to his work. “You've put your finger on it!” he said, brightening. “I like myth very much. I like to get as close to dramatic reality as possible, and I also like the Show that myth can give.”