Nicolas Roeg, The Witches and The Man Who Fell to Earth director, dies at 90
Nicolas Roeg, the acclaimed British director behind titles like Roald Dahl adaptation The Witches, The Man Who Fell to Earth with David Bowie, and the provocative Don’t Look Now, died Friday night at the age of 90.
His son, Nicolas Roeg Jr., confirmed the news to the BBC. “He was a genuine dad. He just had his 90th birthday in August,” he said.
Roeg wasn’t trying to be ahead of his time. “This is my time,” he told The Guardian in 2011. But he still became respected as one of Britain’s most original filmmakers.
Before ascending to the director’s chair, Roeg made a name for himself as a cinematographer, working on films like Band of Thieves and Fahrenheit 451. He also gained experience working on the second unit of Lawrence of Arabia.
Roeg sent ripples throughout the Hollywood industry with his directorial feature debut, 1970’s Performance, which he co-directed with Donald Cammell. Marking the acting debut of Mick Jagger, the gangster thriller took a dark turn from its original drafts with a story about a vicious London gangster who hides out at the home of a rock star after executing an unordered killing. The film, which would go on to influence the likes of Quentin Tarantino, was too provocative for Warner Bros. and, therefore, almost shelved entirely.
Roeg’s follow-up was Walkabout, continuing his streak of unconventionality. The story centered on two siblings stranded in the Australian outback who came across another boy in the midst of a spiritual walkabout. Like many of Roeg’s films, this wouldn’t earn initial success, but would receive more notoriety with age.
In paying tribute to the filmmaker, Baby Driver and Shaun of the Dead helmer Edgar Wright put a spotlight on Don’t Look Now, Roeg’s Venice-set supernatural horror starring Donald Sutherland. “His films hypnotized me for years and still continue to intrigue,” Wright tweeted. “Along with classics like Performance & Walkabout, I could watch Don’t Look Now on a loop & never tire of its intricacies. A master of the art.”
“A filmography that is dazzling and fascinating,” he added.
Roeg famously worked with the late David Bowie on 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, about an alien descending to earth in search of water to save his planet. Looking back on the title, Roeg told The Guardian, “I stopped in the lay-by, and it turned out to be a producer I knew. He said, ‘I saw The Man Who Fell to Earth last night. I always thought it was a piece of s—. And I suddenly got it — it’s you, isn’t it? That Newton fella [Bowie’s character]. He’s you! Well, I just wanted to say I was wrong. And it takes a lot for me to say that.’ That was seven years after the film was released. Of course, The Man Who Fell to Earth was bad timing, too. Came out around the same time as the George Lucas one.”
Bowie’s son, Warcraft and Mute director Duncan Jones, also wrote a response to Roeg’s death on social media, accompanied by a behind-the-scenes photo of his father with the filmmaker.
“What an incredible body of work he’s left us with!” Jones tweeted. “All my love to his family. Thank you for making so many brave choices, & giving this strange little lad in pajamas an ongoing love of filmmaking.”
For those unfamiliar with Roeg’s larger filmography, The Witches, starring Anjelica Huston as the deliciously wicked Dahl character, is probably his most known work. Responding to news of a modern Hollywood remake, Huston remarked to EW that Roeg “made the ultimate Witches.”
The filmmaker famously shot two endings to the film, one that honored the original ending of the book and one that took liberties by introducing a good witch to change Luke back into a boy. Dahl disdained the ending that ultimately made it into the film, according to his widow, Felicity.
“Nic Roeg showed us the first ending, and Roald had tears running down his cheeks, he was so pleased,” she told The Telegraph. “But then he showed us the other one, and Roald said, ‘Take my name off this thing. You’ve missed the whole point of the book.’ I’d never seen him so upset.” That film, too, earned a large following overtime.
Over the course of his career, Roeg also directed Cold Heaven, Two Deaths, Puffball: The Devil’s Eyeball, the documentary The Film That Buys the Cinema, and a portion of The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Demons of Deception.
“I don’t look back on any film I’ve done with fondness or pride,” he said in 2013. “I look back on my films, and on the past generally… I can only use the phrase, ‘Well, I’m damned’.”