Director Nic Roeg Takes Control

You know when you wake up at 3 a.m. and you can't figure out what's wrong but something is? Then you realize you just had another dream about that film you saw five years ago. Yes, Roeg has that effect on people. Even in person. Even in broad daylight.


I sit in the driveway of Nic Roeg and Theresa Russell's house, biting my nails and checking my makeup for the third time. It's not that this interview has me nervous. No, it's more like an unspecific anxiety attack that borders on hysteria. What is it? Possibly just this: I think of myself as - pride myself on being - a realist. I know the world is f*cked and nothing is what it seems. But compared with Nic Roeg, I'm a giggling schoolgirl of a romantic. You'll see.

"You know, Nic," I say, kissing him on both cheeks when I eventually make my way into the house, "my boyfriend always knows when I've seen you. He can tell, he can sense it, because I call him afterwards and I'm in a complete panic about where our relationship is going. 'Oh,' he'll say, 'have you been around Nic Roeg again?' It's because you always leave me with this sense of dread."

"How awful," Roeg says with a maniacal grin. Marital difficulties are one of his favorite subjects, on and off screen. "I really don't mean it," he goes on. "Once I was doing this lecture, and the moderator told me that when he saw Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession, he felt that he couldn't stand Milena. And when she came into Doctor Linden's life and just ruined it, well, he said that he was glad that could never happen to him. His wife took care of their business and he did all the creative work and he just knew that their relationship would never go that way. And I told him, 'Now you're ready. It could happen to you tonight.' Because just when you get smug, just when you know for sure that you have everything down pat, that's when you walk into a crowded room and see someone and everything changes forever. So, Martha, how is everything at home?"

You can see how crazy it gets, trying to have a conversation with this man. And if you let him get control (although I think he's always in control), it's like having the Mad Hatter direct traffic in Times Square at midday.

Madness is Roeg territory. Long before David Lynch started stirring the pot of sex and weirdness and violence, Roeg was offering up films that pretty much invented that pot. Don't Look Now, in which Donald Sutherland makes memorable love with Julie Christie, chases his dead daughter through the streets of Venice and ends up getting hacked by a dwarf maniac in a red raincoat, still stands as one of the all-time scariest things I've ever sat through. Bad Timing, a nightmare love story, was the first film I ever walked out on - I was totally horrified by the on-screen vaginal swab and the overtones of necrophilia. (I confessed this to Roeg the first time I met him, and that's really what cemented my friendship with him. He likes the idea that his movies can get to people.) But Roeg can be fun too. The only time I felt I understood the theory of relativity was when Marilyn Monroe [played by Theresa Russell] explained it to Albert Einstein [Michael Emil] in Insignificance.

So Roeg and I are sitting on the chintz couches in his living room getting ready to really start the interview. Actually, he is unwilling to let this simply be an interview. "Who the f*ck wants that?" he asks, lighting another in an endless stream of Gitanes. He suggests instead that we both turn this into a microscopic look at our personal foibles, starting with a recap of my relationship since I last saw him. Oh no.

Thinking I'll feed Nic a tidbit and keep him at bay, and then get on to business, I mention a small regret I have. That's all it takes. He's off and running. "You know, Martha, one of the worst expressions in life is, 'We could start again.' You can never start again. You can't put it back ever. You settle for something else maybe, but you don't start again. It's contradictory to nature. Nature repeats itself, but it never starts from the beginning. We can't get our youth back. Like they say, 'Golden boys and girls all must, like chimney sweepers, come to dust.' "

Okay okay. Now I insist we do an interview. And I do finally manage to turn things around to the reason for today's meeting: Roeg's new film, Cold Heaven, which stars Theresa Russell, Jimmy Russo, and Mark Harmon (Mark Harmon?). I haven't seen it, but I know it's the story of a woman who must decide between a lover and her husband, and then the decision gets made for her by some sort of an accident, and she has visions that bring her to the edge of lunacy. Sounds to me a little like Don't Look Now, and, in fact, Roeg worked with the same screenwriter as on that one, Allan Scott.

I tell Nic I've noticed that in his films people who ignore "unusual" experience tend to pay dearly for their tunnel vision. "Yes," says Roeg nonchalantly, "we all have prescient experiences, but we do choose to disregard them. On reflection, we can see that God or something was telling us to watch for certain things. But we think we can hide. Well, you cannot f*cking hide. It's that simple. In The Man Who Fell to Earth, the alien thinks he was alone when he landed. He tells the other man, 'No, no one saw me.' But the truth is, he was observed. You park your car on Fairfax to meet someone on Crescent Heights, and a week later, someone says, 'I saw your car the other day.' You can't hide in life. We are all being watched by some larger vision. And when we don't look at the signs, there's trouble later. That's the mood behind Cold Heaven, that and the feeling the woman has that just when she is about to make a decision, that decision is taken from her hands and although she should feel relieved, what she really feels is fear. She is about to tell Mark that she wants to leave him, but his accident comes in the way."

Okay, I say, let's talk about Mark Harmon. I know strange casting has been a hallmark of Roeg's films - rock stars Mick Jagger (Performance), David Bowie (The Man Who Fell to Earth), and Art Garfunkel (Bad Timing), for example - but I cannot imagine what could have possessed Roeg to use Harmon (wasn't the TV version of Sweet Bird of Youth that Roeg directed him in enough?) in Cold Heaven. "Oh, come on, Martha," Roeg says, cheerfully gearing up for a fight. "The boy is quite good. It's interesting to see the box people get put in. Even great stars find their business managers trying to convince them to do the same part over and over again. Mark is very independent in his choices, and very deliberate about how he makes those choices. You're going to take this all back someday, you'll see. You'll one day realize what a fine, fine actor he is."

I wonder. In fact, I wonder if anyone will even see Mark Harmon in Cold Heaven. It could easily become another classic Roeg cult film - fought over by the critics, endlessly discussed by the people who sit through it, and largely ignored by the public.

"You do a movie, and you think you're reaching out to the widest audience," says Roeg, when I mention the fact that the broad movie-going public seems to avoid his movies. "You think you've tapped into the f*cking source that moves people. And then you find that only a very few understood. But who the hell can account for taste? It's just fashion."

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