Pictures from Roeg's gallery

 

After a decade in the doldrums, the veteran British film director is back with an adaptation of Fay Weldon's acidic novel, 'Puffball', writes Donald Clarke

IT IS THE SPRING of 2006 and I am standing outside a warehouse in the heart of Monaghan. Burly men wearing utility belts carry planks of wood about the place. Miranda Richardson, the reliably flinty English actor, emerges from a caravan to frolic with a big dog. Everywhere, young people are sighing down mobile phones.

"Well, if he can't deliver the 15-gauge by Wednesday, find somebody who can!" one of them bellows.

Somewhere near the centre of this organised chaos, an elderly man in a battered hat calmly watches the clouds drift towards Clones. "I like to sit in the sun and look at people," he says.

Meet England's greatest living film-maker. Nicolas Roeg (for it is he) has, it is true, directed little of note over the past 20 years, but, from the late 1960s, when he and Donald Cammell knocked together the notorious Performance, to the early 1980s, when he delivered the equally troubling Bad Timing, Roeg set about engineering one of the great streaks in world cinema. Masterpieces such as Don't Look Now and Walkabout gained him entry to the same exclusive club frequented by such mighty eccentrics as Michael Powell, Lindsay Anderson and Ken Russell.

Over a decade after his last proper theatrical feature, 1995's interesting Two Deaths, Roeg has been lured to the border country to direct an adaptation of Fay Weldon's acidic novel Puffball. Written and produced by Dan Weldon, the author's son, the film takes in witchcraft and possession as it details the hostility between a pregnant architect and deranged bumpkins in the neighbouring field.

"It is about pregnant women and women who aren't pregnant," Fay, who is visiting the set, told me earlier. "You will find that women who are pregnant often don't want to be and women who aren't desperately envy those who are."

So, how did Roeg find himself onboard? "Well, um, Dan sent me the script, but it never reached me," he says. "So I never replied and that looked rude. When he sent it again, I felt, to be polite, I had better read it. It's such a good book. Well, here we are."

Roeg, who will be 80 next month, has a most singular way of not answering a question. Ask him the time and, after a degree of amiable muttering, he will begin telling you a story about a watch he bought in 1956. Five minutes later, all going well, you may find yourself back with the big hand and the little hand. A simple request to describe the plot of Puffball sends him off on a characteristic amble.

"It doesn't fall into a genre," he says. "One hardly ever discovers a film now without it being written about in every paper. There are no surprises. When I was a boy, I went to the cinema and I wouldn't have read anything about the film. So it was always a total surprise. That happens so rarely now.

"Mind you, I remember meeting Roman Polanski years ago in London. He'd just made Rosemary's Baby and he said: 'We're having a screening. Come along'. I knew nothing about it. This extraordinary film started and it was a marvellous experience."

THAT WAS 1968. At that point in Roeg's career, Performance had been shot, but was yet to be released. He was already well known as one of the best cinematographers in the business. Following national service, Roeg had insinuated his way into the lowest layers of the British film industry as a tea boy and clapper loader.

An eager student, he managed to secure a position as a camera operator on Ken Hughes's The Trials of Oscar Wilde, before becoming director of photography on such fine-looking films as Far from the Madding Crowd, Fahrenheit 451 and Masque of the Red Death. His distinguished work as a second-unit cameraman includes the train sequences from Lawrence of Arabia.

I had read somewhere that he couldn't understand how anybody could become a director without previously being a director of photography.

"Did I say that? I don't think so. I must have been misquoted. No, I wouldn't say that," he mutters. "Of course, back when I started, cinema was not thought of as an art form in Britain. It was overseen by the Board of Trade and Industry, not by the arts council. They kept censorship in the cinema when they abolished it in the theatre. Anyway, coming from photography, I did feel able to direct in the cinema. I wouldn't know how to begin directing a play."

At any rate, Roeg's films have always been distinguished by their extravagant visual flourishes. Performance, which billeted Mick Jagger's reclusive rock star with James Fox's ruthless gangster, began with cuts between a fighter jet, a limousine and a couple having sex. Don't Look Now, in which Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie mourned their drowned child in Venice, featured the most unsettling use of the colour red in world cinema. Walkabout, starring a young Jenny Agutter, managed to do fresh things with the Australian outback.

"At that time the art of cinema was very divorced from the technical capabilities," he says. "What do I mean? The technical people guarded their world very closely. Now, of course, with all these digital devices, everyone is a technician. Then, it was very difficult for, say, a cameraman to become a director. There is a very distinguished critic - I won't say who it is - who used to always say: 'Nicolas Roeg was a cinematographer and you can tell it from his films'. Bulls**t! I couldn't tell what he did before he was a critic from his writing. Could I? What bulls**t!"

The grim, sexually explicit Performance, though regarded as a classic now, so appalled Warner Brothers (which seemed to think it was getting Jagger's Hard Day's Night) that it delayed the picture's release for two years. Indeed, Roeg has suffered from distribution problems throughout his career. When Rank Pictures saw Bad Timing, in which Art Garfunkel did awful things in Vienna, the company insisted that their logo be removed from all prints. Don't Look Now, Roeg's most famous film, was grudgingly distributed in a double bill with the contemporaneous horror The Wicker Man.

"Yes, I have never been much in demand really," he says sadly. "I was never offered a decent array of scripts by the studios either. I always had to develop my own stuff. No, I have never been much in demand."

Yet those early films, each of which reveals unhappy truths about human frailty, are now written about with a kind of bewildered awe. Surely that critical support must have helped him with the studios.

"Ah well, you see the critical support came a bit too late. It's like that Philip Larkin poem which goes, "Sexual intercourse began in 1963,/ (which was rather late for me)". Then there were attacks on me. I was censored. I was derided. I remember when I made Bad Timing, which is rather well thought of now, one review just said: 'There's weird and there's Bad Timing'. That was all it said. Not very helpful.

Why did he attract such fury? "I think I scratched surfaces that people would prefer were left alone. But all any of us has is this world and the people that inhabit it. There's a quote from an artist - I can't remember who - 'I take the familiar and make it strange'. I like that. I hope that sums up what I do."

ROEG'S GREAT FILMS stand outside fashion, so it is not altogether surprising that they befuddled some critics on their release. Performance was conceived at the height of the hippie era, but keep in mind that Roeg and Cammell, his co-director, were from an older generation that offered a bitter, poisonous take on those alternative lifestyles. While the western world was still getting over its experiments in permissiveness, Don't Look Now and Bad Timing made a point of juxtaposing sex and death. Only 1976's The Man Who Fell to Earth, a fascinating science fiction film starring David Bowie, now seems conspicuously of its time.

Mind you, despite his struggles with the suits, Roeg did find work throughout the 1980s. Castaway made good use of Oliver Reed. The Witches, starring Angelica Huston, was a very decent adaptation of Roald Dahl's popular novel. The decades that followed have, however, proved less fruitful. In 1996, for example, he found himself directing a version of Samson and Delilah starring Elizabeth Hurley and somebody called Eric Thal. Don't seek it out.

Still, you wouldn't say that Nicolas Roeg seems in any way downcast. Following two previous divorces, including one from his sometime muse and frequent female lead Theresa Russell, he recently married the actor Harriet Harper and appears reasonably relaxed with the world.

"You know how it is when you are making a film," he muses. "You plan this scene where a girl is going to say goodbye on a sunlit beach. Then she'll head off in this bright, lovely light. Then you get to the location and it's raining heavily.

"Some film-makers would pack up and start asking about weather coverage. I like to use the rain. Suddenly you have a lovely scene with a girl saying goodbye in this glistening rain. That's the sort of happy accident I am always anticipating."

Continuing the drift into metaphor, he recalls a scene from John Huston's Treasure of the Sierra Madre. "Everybody else is miserable after they don't get the gold, but the old man is dancing. They ask him why he's so happy and he says: 'You don't see the gold beneath your feet. You don't see the gold beneath your feet."

Leaving me with that happy aphorism, he levers himself onto his feet and heads off to sit in the sun and look at some more people.

Puffball opens at The Screen, Dublin, tomorrow. See review in The Ticket