The legendary cinematographer-turned-director on the art of cinema and avoiding God’s mirth.
A decade has passed since Nicolas Roeg last directed a film, and it’s been decades since he’s made a great one. He’s never been nominated for an Oscar (though his work has technically been honored if you account for his second-unit photography on Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago contributing to their overall cinematographic achievement). And he’s hardly a household name these days. Yet the director of such classics as Don’t Look Now, Walkabout, and The Man Who Fell to Earth continues to be revered as a master of cinema and looked up to by filmmakers of younger generations.
Roeg never went to film school. He came up through the ranks of the old industrial system where he pulled focus then worked as a camera operator, then shot other people’s films before finally becoming a director. He has collaborated with a variety of filmmakers, including David Lean, Francois Truffaut, Richard Lester, and John Schlesinger, but he immediately showed a unique eye as a film artist when he began helming his own features. He’s learned from the best and also taken the advice of other legends. Those tips combined with his own ideas about filmmaking shared over the years are compiled below.
Learn the Craft of Cinematography
Roeg was a notable director of photography before he was a notable director, having shot Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 and earning awards recognition for Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd. The path he took to become a filmmaker is one that he recommends and is surprised isn’t followed more often. In a 2005 interview for The Guardian, he explains why this is:
“You make the movie through the cinematography — it sounds quite a simple idea, but it was like a huge revelation to me. Curiously, it sank for a while when video and commercials came in. Because they had very little story to tell and they just had one thing to sell, they could have magnificent photography but not great cinematography. So quite a lot of people who’ve come into cinema from the commercials world have had to learn the very fact of what cinematography is over again…
“I can’t think how anyone can become a director without learning the craft of cinematography. I was very glad later when I was directing that I wasn’t in the hands of a cinematographer and hoping that he would do it well. I would know what he was doing, and we could discuss how that scene would look. It was just lucky in a way that I didn’t go to film school and just learnt all this on the floor.”
Listen to the Production Designer
In his 2013 book “The World is Ever Changing,” Roeg imparts a lot of great wisdom about filmmaking. Most of it is pretty original as far as tips go, such as this one regarding the importance of the art department, particularly the art director/production designer:
“The art department is a very curious thing. It covers pretty well everything: script and set and building and locations and costumes, because it all goes together with the picture. The production designer, who used to be just called the art director, is really worth listening to about a lot of things because he’s searching for a truth in everything. All things are connected. His responsibility is to all those sections of the art department. When people say, ‘Beautifully designed, what a great look it had,’ but then add, ‘But I didn’t like the movie,’ then something isn’t married. There’s something odd about that. It’s the absurdity of awards: the art direction got the award, but the movie wasn’t very good. But it’s part of the whole, you can’t divorce it. The movie either works or it doesn’t — you have to think of it as a whole. I don’t think you can have a great movie where the art direction doesn’t work. It belongs to it.”
The First Shot is Yours
Because Roeg came up through the ranks, he shows a lot of respect for the crew and for the collaborative art. But he also recognizes his position as the lead artist. Also from “The World is Ever Changing,” here’s an appropriated tip about the only time the director can truly feel like he’s the sole artist who matters:
“From the first shot, the whole unit is making the film. It’s wonderful when you sense that they are feeling what you feel about the piece. It was Orson Welles who said that when you’re making a movie, after the first shot everybody else in the crew — from the electricians and the prop man to the hairdresser, everyone, apart from the actors — can make a better movie than you. At least they think they can…Once everybody’s working, just don’t forget what Orson Welles said. After the first shot, everyone knows better than the director, viz, ‘I don’t know why he had her come out and then have the taxi turn left, when in the previous shot, etc.’ In any case, the first shot is yours. So it doesn’t really matter.”
Here is a video of Roeg at work during the making of 1991’s Cold Heaven:
Happy Shoots Make For Bad Movies
With all the differences of opinion on how a movie should be made, a film set is hardly a utopia. Rather it’s like any sort of society of individuals, and Roeg respects and is fascinated by that diversity of ideas. From a 2011 interview for TheArtsDesk.com, here is another piece of advice he admits didn’t originate from him:
“There’s a saying that if it’s a happy shoot there’ll be something wrong with the movie, and I think that’s basically true. Everyone is so equal, the crew and everybody, and their lives are so stretched. It’s an amazing thing, a film crew. It’s like a little intimate society. It’s a bit like a gold rush town — you set it up and then it vanishes as if it never existed.”
Related to that, Roeg apparently believes the director, especially, should never be happy — or at least he shouldn’t look like he is. The below quote is relayed by filmmaker Michael Winner (whose 1964 feature The Girl-Getters was shot by Roeg) in his book “Winner Takes All: A Life of Sorts“:
“You’ll never be successful if you direct as if you’re enjoying it. You’ve got to look very serious. You’ve got to give it a bit of this: [raises his right hand and pinches the top of his nose with his thumb and forefinger and lowers his head as if in deep and intellectual thought] Make them think you’re an intellectual.”
Movies Are Not Scripts
Roeg is a visual filmmaker, understandably so considering his background, and he favors movies that couldn’t really be anything else, even if he has helmed quite a few adaptations. Just watch him discuss why he loves slapstick and one visually comedic scene in The Woman in Red in particular. And from the Guardian interview, here are more of his thoughts on what makes cinema it’s own thing:
“Movies are not scripts – movies are films; they’re not books, they’re not the theatre. It’s a completely different discipline, it exists on its own. I would say that the beauty of it is it’s not the theatre, it’s not done over again. It’s done in bits and pieces. Things are happening which you can’t get again. I forbid anyone to say “Cut”, the sound man, the operator, or whatever.”
And here, in a 1980 interview for American Cinema Papers, Roeg discusses the uniqueness of the art of cinema:
“I believe film is an art. I believe it, I TRULY believe that. Thought can be transferred by the juxtaposition of images, and you mustn’t be afraid of the audience not understanding. You can say things VISUALLY, IMMEDIATELY, and that’s where film, I believe, is going. It’s not a pictorial example of a published work, it’s transference of thought.”
God Laughs at Those Who Plan
This is one of Roeg’s most repeated tips — it’s also another that he acknowledges as being an old saying — and it relates to why he doesn’t care that much about scripts and why he doesn’t like to yell “cut” during production. From a 2008 Time Out London interview:
“God laughs at people who make plans. If one does too much planning… You’re not seeing the gold beneath your feet.”
The “gold beneath your feet” part is from a line spoken by Walter Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (“You don’t see the gold beneath your very feet. It’s right here in the most unlikely place.”). He credits the source in “The World is Ever Changing” before writing:
“That’s why I never let anyone say ‘Cut’ on the set. For me, chance and coincidence are really exciting, but you can’t really relax into chance and coincidence if you’re driving on something you’ve already prepared.”
He also talks about his distaste for planning in the below Q&A moderated by Jarvis Cocker following a 2013 screening of The Man Who Fell to Earth:
What We Learned
Roeg seems mostly concerned with two things while making movies, the look of the picture and the spontaneity of capturing those visuals. Sometimes he does sound contradictory, mostly regarding the way cinema consists of pieces yet shouldn’t be appreciated in parts without honoring the whole. But he’s definitely a believer in cinema is cinema and delivering stories in a way that could only be told through this art form. This shows in his best films and their memorable visuals, some of which have been clearly influential on younger filmmakers who’ve imitated them. Perhaps his tips can also be as influential.