Impressed by the great performances, David Bowie has given in a handful of movies that almost no one has seen. One of our editors talks to the ex-rock god about the films he's made, the films he almost made, and the film he's making.
Gee honey, how 'bout if we go see the new David Bowie movie? If you've never uttered these words, you might not be the only one. It's possible nobody has. Maybe back in 1976, when Bowie, still cresting with the triumph of his album Young Americans, made his film debut in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth, some platform-shoed hipster laid out an extra line for his significant other and they raced together to the nearest theater.
But Roeg's unusual film so thoroughly confounded this groundswell that Bowie did not instantly become a Sinatra-like music-to-film crossover, which is what he himself said at the time that he intended to do. Nor did he correct his trajectory with his next film project, Just a Gigolo, which crawled belatedly on and quickly off screens in 1979. He had two big projects in 1983, Tony Scott's The Hunger and Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, and both failed at the box office. By the time the Muppet epic Labyrinth, in which he starred as a goblin king, disappointed in 1986, Bowie was limiting his screen ambitions to cameos--in John Landis's Into the Night in 1985, in Julien Temple's Absolute Beginners in 1986, and in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988.
Why, then, you might ask, is David Bowie on the cover of Movieline? Reasons could be cited. The long-delayed "quirky comedy" The Linguini Incident, in which Bowie stars opposite Rosanna Arquette and Buck Henry, is due out any day now. Also, Bowie has just done a cameo in David Lynch's upcoming Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and he is now in production on his directorial debut, a small, European-financed, as-yet-untitled film he wrote the script for. But those are pretexts. The truth is this: We like David Bowie. We like his movies. We don't care that none of his films has ever made any money. We think his work is at least as interesting as that of most of the dozen or so movie stars who might have been on our cover this month. And as a person, he's much more interesting.
Ziggy Stardust taught the Spiders from Mars to play 20 years ago. That's when David Bowie's daring, self-absorbed walk on the wild side really began to pick up speed. As Ziggy, he stylishly trampled such sacred notions of the day as "all you need is love." Ziggy didn't like hippies. He (correctly) thought they'd gotten boring with their lazy, stoned out embrace of the great amorphous values like peace, love and understanding. All that "genuine" feeling was lousy showbiz. What about ungenuine feeling, the kind that made up most of everyone's internal life? The whole scene needed spiffing up, and Bowie was a one-man spiff-up squad. A little makeup, some orange hair dye, a taste of bisexuality and--this was the important part--a jolt of rock and roll so good and various and un-mellow it made the '70s bearable. Against the stupefying '60s ethos of "just be yourself," Bowie's music and behavior raised the useful question, "which self?" He had quite a few. So did everybody else. It all got pretty crazy.
Looking back none too fondly on Bowie's heyday, music critic Stephen Fried wrote a couple of years ago that "Bowie was the first to recklessly fuck with the free world's head in a big theatrical way, not just focusing all kinds of adolescent cross-lust, but also mass marketing alienation and sexual weirdness." Well, for one thing, what's the free world good for if not to get its head fucked with once in a while? For another, Fried must have had some dull friends back then if they needed any help from David Bowie in getting alienated and weird.
But that is not to underestimate the extreme, authentic strangeness of David Bowie. There are reasons his stage and film roles have not included George in Our Town and have included: a space visitor, a gigolo, a vampire, a martyr, the Elephant Man, an evil advertising man, the guy who killed Christ, etc. These reasons go beyond his Boy Dietrich look and Daliesque anorexia. Bowie has always had a lot of theater going on behind the curtain of his earthy, unearthly flesh. The life of excess he so egregiously pursued in the '70s pumped up the volume. How insane was the lad? Of all the facts and fantasies I read about Bowie--and there are some sleazy, mean-spirited, badly researched, fascinating books out there--my single favorite outrageous, scarcely believable pseudo-factoid about his bad days was that during a stint in L.A. in 1975, he was so flipped out and paranoid on cocaine that he allegedly had a witch exorcize his house of demons (that's not the weird part) and then (this is the weird part) took to preserving his bodily fluids in jars in the refrigerator. The ultimate discouragement to midnight snacking. This I've got to ask him about. He probably won't even remember if he ever did such a thing--it was long ago, he's proper these days--but I've got to ask.
Maybe I won't ask. Nobody who at any time in the last 20 years preserved his bodily fluids in jars in the refrigerator would ever set 8:30 a.m. for an interview time. Rock stars across the city are just now shooing away their wasted groupies and passing out in disheveled suites. In the small, elegant living room of the small, elegant Manhattan hotel he is staying in, Bowie is already watching TV, the recap of a boxing match he seems to care about. He savors a few last punches, then turns the sound down to zero but leaves the picture on across the room over my shoulder as he gathers up a cup of coffee. Maneuvering around the period furniture in T-shirt, gym pants and laceless hightops, Bowie is the most aerodynamic person I've ever seen up close. He looks designed to swoop where others have not swooped, and not to show up on radar.
I take out my tape recorder, a few pages of notes, and a book of poems I've brought as a present. "I don't know if you know this poet," I say. "He's wonderful but he's not really that well known, which is kind of amazing--being a well-kept secret for 20 years in the age of celebrity isn't easy." Bowie smiles, thanks me, checks out the book, which he has indeed heard of, and says, "Well, I've been a well-kept secret for 20 years. You've only seen the tip of the iceberg." There is not a trace of irony in his voice. It is the voice of a movie star, a voice John Garfield would have killed for, low, edged with a soft rasp that makes you listen. What I hear is a man who is not kidding, but is not dead serious either. A man who is just being a little playful first thing in the morning. The Diamond Dog is throwing the ball for me.
The night before flying to New York, I watched Bowie's brief performance as a serene, pragmatic Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. "That's a strange movie to watch before going on a plane flight," Bowie laughs. "It's like, shall we find out--is there a God?" Then, as if moving on to the next logical topic, Bowie says, "I can't wait to see the other 10 percent of the Dead Sea Scrolls. They're in fragments, of course, kind of a Bill Burroughs effect..." and he recounts for me a certain conspiracy theory ("a '70s thing") about a secret section of the Dead Sea Scrolls supposedly written by a Jesus who'd escaped from the cross and ended up dying a revolutionary at Masada. This secret stuff is, according to the theory, held in the Vatican and shown only to each new Pope on the day of election. But what on earth, I ask, could the big secret be anyway? "Oh," laughs Bowie, "that there really was a Brian."
And that's about as serious as Bowie seems to want to get about his Scorsese film. "I had a great problem with the idiosyncratic accents. I fell afoul of that right at the beginning. It was kind of hard being there in Morocco with all these Method actors saying"Bowie shifts into Brook-lynese"'If we ged anutha plate o' coozcooz I'm gunna throwwhup! Fuck! Fuck you!!' And then the next day in character saying, 'So whadyaa get when ya look in da eyes uf an ant?' It was unreal. I kept cracking up." However amused by the proceedings, Bowie managed a riveting, low-key scene with the Method Jesus in which, as Pilate, he sends his surreal white horse out of frame to neigh in the distance as he quietly condemns the Savior. "I was always told two things," he says. "Never work with animals and never work with Nicolas Roeg. I was waiting for the horse to take a dump on my big scene. But he was a good horse." And Bowie was a good Pilate.
"It seemed to me that the lower echelon of the bureaucracy of Rome was probably pretty similar to the British colonials who had to govern bits of Africa and India. It's sort of"Bowie shifts precisely into his Pilate voice"'Look, you people are causing too much trouble. I've got far too much work on my hands and I'm having a lot of complaints from Rome. We're going to bring you education, you'll have roads, but it all takes time. Let's just try to keep the system working--I do have the power to come to an ultimate conclusion about you chaps. For God's sake, I could have you crucified.' That's the part of the speech I thought was humorous."
Bowie is friendly enough with Scorsese to have been given a copy of Marty's storyboards from the big Raging Bull fight sequence ("The picture is, of course, in black and white, but in the storyboards the blood is painted in red"), but as a man who has himself put out good and bad product, he calls a spade a spade: "I hated Cape Fear. I was so disappointed. It felt like he was bored, like he was playing with the camera instead of getting into the thing. The story is sublimely silly. It was all making a silk purse out of a sow's ear. There was one series of shots I couldn't believe, five zoom-ins in a row, and thought, I don't know whether he's saying, 'You'll buy this, sucker,' or 'I don't like what I'm doing.' It was a message in a lens."
Bowie's part in Temptation was exactly one scene, in keeping with his apparent strategy of doing cameos for directors who interest him instead of doing possibly grander roles for directors who don't. With the exception of first-time director Richard Shepard's The Linguini Incident, which, Bowie explains, he did because the starring role as a bartender was one in which "I could just be me," Bowie says that "on any project, I take into consideration first, foremost, above the storyline, above the role, who is directing. Is it somebody I'd like to observe firsthand?" In the case of David Lynch, yes. Bowie spent two days on Lynch's Fire Walk with Me (the movie prequel to the TV "Twin Peaks") last year, playing an FBI agent who reappears, after long being presumed dead, to drop some clues about Laura Palmer's predicament. I ask Bowie what his favorite Lynch movie is. "Oh, I'm afraid it would be Eraserhead. I think it's an adorable film, quite lovely. It's such a pure form of his enthusiasm for making films. I think he's veered off now, but I saw him initially as much more of a painterly filmmaker."
"A lot of people seem to think Lynch has gone off the deep end," I remark.
"If you put his work alongside what Europe's been producing for the last 50 years, it's not so wacky. It's all relative. People would think Lynch has gone nuts if they've been brought up on Tony Scott, yes. But crikey. One good sharp dose of Un Chien Andalou would set them straight."
"I'm talking about people who know Un Chien Andalou. They just think Lynch has lost control."
"They want that. They'd love that, wouldn't they? People are always looking for chinks in the armor in this business." Realizing he has just uttered a cliche, a sin he does not easily allow himself, Bowie leans forward and adopts the tone of a cigar-chomping showbiz know-it-all. "Ya know, in this business, Virginia ..."
"I read the synopsis of Fire Walk with Me and I couldn't tell what the hell it was about."
"You wait," says Bowie, now shifting into mock hype mode. "You ain't seen nuthin' yet, baby. I read his script to Ronnie Rocket [a long-planned Lynch project]. I have never, in my entire life--wait, how can I be really glib--" He gathers himself up and pronounces with TV movie critic blurb relish that "Ronnie Rocket makes Eraserhead look like 'Dallas.'
"I wanted to see if Lynch was quite as cerebral as everybody had always told me he was," Bowie continues. "He is. But he's quite scattered. On the set he's quite alarmingly nuts. He was super. Working with him was probably very much what it was like working with Nic Roeg--if I remembered."
The key year in Bowie's film karma was 1975, when wild rock and roll success was finally his. He was living in L.A., showbiz Mission Control, where offers of every kind were being hurled his way. And so a rough year it was. Cameron Crowe, now a film director but then an intrepid journalist, caught the spirit of these fast times in a now justly famous Playboy interview based on his travels with a uniquely unleashed Bowie, a Bowie who had given up conventional sleep patterns and, one surmises, was fueling his revelations about such things as his bisexuality (which he has since disavowed) and his taste for fascism (which he has since disavowed) with large quantities of cocaine. ("It's kind of good, isn't it?" Bowie says with a low, clenched-jaw laugh at the mention of this past bit of public relations.)
"Weren't you considering doing a movie version of Stranger in a Strange Land back in 1975?"
"No, I was offered it many, many times by many, many different producers. I absolutely never had any intention of doing it. It was a staggeringly, awesomely trite book." The film Bowie did decide to do was based on another science fiction book he describes as "quite a pallid little story," The Man Who Fell to Earth. Both stories are about space aliens, but the latter project was to be directed by Nicolas Roeg, the man who'd done well by Mick Jagger in Performance and could be counted on to transform the pallid into the perplexing. Roeg, having gotten over his notion of having a too-old Peter O'Toole play The Man, no doubt knew of Bowie's rock-life self-casting as a non-Earthling, but probably considered that incidental. He may well have seen more in Bowie back then than Bowie did, which is saying something.
"Roeg phoned my office in New York and made an appointment to see me," Bowie recalls, "and I turned up a day late. He came at four o'clock on a Saturday afternoon and I went out all night because I was doing my drug of choice and I got back midday the next day and he'd stayed overnight in my kitchen waiting. He won me over just by that. I was being very snobby about making films--you know, 'I'm not sure I want to do your little movie.' I had plans of taking over show business. This film really didn't fit into my scheme of things. I read bits of the script, as much as I was able to at the time, 30 seconds at a go."
The Man Who Fell to Earth turned out to be an inspired, irreducible piece about an alien who comes to earth to rescue his own planet from drought through an elaborate, doomed plan involving the development of a Howard Hughes-ish empire. Bowie, ethereal almost to the point of transparency, was brilliant casting as the Visitor who, Roeg wanted us to understand, comes as much from metaphorical inner as literal outer space. While Roeg's achievement flew by most critics (who never do seem to do the right drugs), Bowie caught them all off guard and won their praise. This bizarre-looking rock creature of dubious sexual identity could act.
Bowie claims he wasn't acting: "I just threw my real self into that movie as I was at that time. It was the first thing I'd ever done. I was virtually ignorant of the established procedure, so I was going a lot on instinct, and my instinct was pretty dissipated. I just learned the lines for that day and did them the way I was feeling. It wasn't that far off. I actually was feeling as alienated as that character was. It was a pretty natural performance. What you see there is David Bowie."
"Well, it's an awfully good performance."
"It's a good exhibition--of somebody literally falling apart in front of you. I was totally insecure with about 10 grams a day in me. I was stoned out of my mind from beginning to end."
Ten grams a day?. That's Hiroshima plus Nagasaki. I'd have been putting my bodily fluids in the refrigerator too. Bowie lights his fifth or sixth Marlboro in the ongoing, theoretically milder assault on his longevity that he allows himself these days and explains, "I was out of my head from '74 till at least through '76, in a serious and dangerous manner."
"Was Roeg ever bothered by your being so out of it on his set?"
"I don't remember him ever getting angry with me. We got on rather well. I think I was fulfilling what he needed from me for that role. I wasn't disrupting ... I wasn't disrupted. In fact, I was very eager to please. And amazingly enough, I was able to carry out everything I was asked to do. I was quite willing to stay up as long as anybody. I'd go home and stay up even then, and write and make albums and do all this stuff all the time. Days on end. I've got thousands of paintings."
Oil or acrylic? Bowie laughs. "Acrylic! It's fast. Bzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Done. Next!" Perhaps because Bowie's love of the nonlinear is catching, I suddenly want to know what he thinks of Willem de Kooning's latest work, the paintings done since the maestro got senile and quit talking. Truth is, I can picture Bowie ending up like this at 90 or 100.
"I actually visited de Kooning."
"What state was he in?"
"Fake catatonic, I think. I went with some friends and I think he just didn't want visitors. As we walked in, he was painting ..." Bowie gets up and stands crouched with an invisible, unmoving brush poised at the surface of an invisible canvas, "very much like that. And then he made a big number of sitting in his rocking chair and we got three words out of him the whole time. He sat there waiting--'Oh fuck, visitors'-- then he wanted us to realize we'd disrupted his day because he didn't wait for us to go. As we were walking out, he got back up and started painting again. There's a man who's aware of the existence of life and death at the same time."
The phone rings and Bowie crosses the room to answer it. He speaks very briefly in a soft voice to his publicist, who is asking how things are going and letting him know the schedule for getting to his performance by evening in another city. It's all very calm, very '90s. "I had a very strange offer the other night I must tell you about," he says as he sits back down and refocuses. Because of a much discussed peculiarity of his eyes--one of his irises is paralyzed from a childhood fight--Bowie tends to focus your attention when he's focusing his. "Someone sent me a Mormon Bible and $500 in cash to have a couple of hours to spend with me." He laughs lightly at this, marveling. "Of course, I returned both. I think a straightforward presentation of the Mormon Bible and a request to maybe have a chat about it might have produced a different result. It was the inclusion of the $500 I felt was particularly weird. Buying my time. Really odd."
Since Bowie has struck so many poses throughout his professional life, quite a few of them overtly borrowed from some of the great pose-strikers of all time, one assumes he carried out a study of past masters at some point. He bristles at the suggestion: "I never was consumed by star stuff, even slightly. If ever there was anything I would redirect about how people have thought about me it's that I must have had an obsession or deep empathy with people like Garbo or Dietrich--that star element, that mystique. It never at any time had anything to do with what I was trying to do. It was inadvertent. My main preoccupation throughout everything I've ever done has been the concept of what I was writing about. And the problem of how it should be presented was the priority. It was never 'I want to be alone,' or any of that shit."
As far as, say, the obvious Garbo/Dietrich look on the cover of the Changesonebowie album, "It was just a matter of trying to get an interesting album cover. I never lived up to that look. I was never like that." Nevertheless, in past interviews Bowie himself used to talk about James Dean being an influence. "I wonder if he was," he says to me now, as if we are discussing someone else's life. "There were aspects of him... I wasn't crazy about his acting. I thought he was an interesting actor, but not brilliant. I'm much more persuaded by the acting of Montgomery Clift, truly one of the most brilliant presences on celluloid. I thought Dean had some great gimmicks. He knew how to eat up a camera, but I don't think it had much to do with acting. He was over-greedy in his performances. What I had empathy with were the simple things. His alleged bisexuality interested me at the time. The ways he conducted himself with people were probably very much like I was, in an Anglo fashion. The same kind of dysfunctional behavior I recognized and was drawn to."
And speaking of dysfunctional behavior, Bowie once described the movie he made after The Man Who Fell to Earth as "all of Elvis's 32 movies rolled into one." Actually, it's not quite that good. Directed by David Hemmings, Just a Gigolo was the project that Bowie, having departed from the insanity of Los Angeles without totally regaining his senses in Berlin, where he'd gone to live, signed on to do with the following cast: Marlene Dietrich, Kim Novak, Maria Schell, Curt Jurgens, Hemmings and one Sydne Rome. Regrettably, Ms. Rome, unknown then and destined to remain so, had the largest role opposite Bowie's gigolo. Dietrich, looking a lot like Myrna Loy did on the Oscars last year, had only a cameo. Novak, looking a little like Myrna Loy on the Oscars, had a somewhat larger role, dancing a tango in a ghastly raspberry dress with her nipples highly visible. Bowie, who, this film proves conclusively, cannot embarrass himself on film, is merely badly lit. "I'm such a control freak that I would like to buy Gigolo back--this is a pipe dream of mine--and redo the entire thing. It actually read very well. If only Hemmings had applied himself. But David was too fond, like myself at the time, of having a good time. The second day, we looked at each other and said, 'God, this is a piece of shit. Let's have a good time.' We were just having a lark for seven weeks."
A little less fun and Bowie's life in the cinema might have gone differently. But after a searing decade of show business that had included speedy transitions from one stage persona to the next, Bowie was in retreat. Though he made great music at that time, he was not up to the next logical step as far as his film career was concerned: following his critically well received performance in The Man Who Fell to Earth with a film that did well at the box office. Besides Gigolo, he did no film work at all for the next few years. He did, however, star on Broadway in The Elephant Man, and elicited acclaim that respectfully ignored his stature as rock star. Not until 1983 did he appear on-screen again, this time in two films. One, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, directed by the extremely Japanese Nagisa Oshima, had Bowie cast as a prisoner in a Japanese WWII POW camp in Java. "I think Oshima had an enormous problem understanding the Western thought process," says Bowie, responding to the adjective I say a friend of mine used to describe the film-- "dotty." "With his Japanese actors he was very severe, down to the minutest detail. With Tom Conti and me, he said, 'Please do whatever it is you people do.' "
In a story that could have used a lot more of him and a lot less of everybody else, including the Japanese soldier who commits interminable hara-kiri on-screen, Bowie had one especially remarkable scene where his character, Celliers, thinking he's about to be executed, performs a mime of shaving, smoking and drinking tea, as if savoring the last precious moments of life. "Yes, well, that's what I was thinking--I'm not going to waste this precious moment," Bowie laughs. "Oshima just gave that scene to me with no direction." Later Celliers dies a martyr's death, buried up to his neck in sand. "Oshima just said, 'Now, we going to bury you up to your head!' I had to cope and find something in me--though, believe me, it was very easy to understand what it felt like to be buried up to my head."
The other '83 venture was a film that now enjoys something of a cult status, The Hunger, in which Bowie, playing the vampire consort of Catherine Deneuve, suddenly begins aging rapidly and, unable to be helped by gerontologist Susan Sarandon, ends up a heap of sentient dust--no doubt a bracing acting exercise for a well-over-30 rock star. Directed by British import Tony Scott (only in Hollywood could a guy direct both Bruce Willis and David Bowie in the same decade), the film is actually a snazzily accurate depiction of modern addiction, not the glitzily stupid vampire shtick it was accused of being when it was released. Bowie, who even now looks like he lives on chicken bullion, was fully convincing as a vampire with tragic needs.
"First let me say," Bowie begins, "that Sarandon is one of the brightest, wittiest, bestest actors I've ever worked with. Also, as a person, she's delightful and intelligent. Let me say that, because I've never actually been asked..." I must be looking at him a little blankly, because he leans into the tape recorder, "and I wasn't asked just now! Anyway, I think she's fantastic." Bowie clears his throat. "Tony Scott had one particular vision of this movie. The script Tony, Susan and I talked about was different from the sensibility of the actual film. He had no power at all and had to bow to demands. I have every respect that he kept his cool throughout the whole proceedings and actually got the film finished. Let's say that it was a case of 'More blood!!!' Tony was trying to pull back from such situations and treat things in a more psychological manner. And this is Tony Scott we're talking about. Believe it or not, it was a very intelligent look at the subject. And now he's known for having a less than three-dimensional look at life. I don't think he's made a Tony Scott film yet. I saw him walk away from The Hunger shattered. I think he came away with a completely different idea of what filmmaking was about in America, or with American money."
So, perhaps, did Bowie. Apart from his sly turn as a goblin king in Labyrinth, a film children now watch fanatically on video ("Every Christmas," says Bowie, "a new flock of children comes up to me and says, 'Oh! you're the one who's in Labyrinth!'"), it's been cameos only since then. In qualitative terms, of course, Bowie has fared better than any other rock star on-screen. Prince, Madonna, Elvis and the rest are cinematic fingernails-on-chalkboard. Bowie alone has been as much an actor as a rock star from the start.
"I think if you didn't know that Jagger was Jagger," Bowie tells me, countering my opinion about rockers on-screen, "and of course that baggage comes with us, but if you just looked at Performance objectively, you'd see an extraordinarily interesting actor."
"But then again, if you looked at Ned Kelly..."
"I didn't say that film. I wasn't going to breathe a word about it."
I suggest that we can just wait and see with Jagger's Free-jack. "I turned that film down," says Bowie. When I tell Bowie I bet he's turned down some awful stuff, he shrugs and goes "Pfffffff" with a mixture of horror and disdain. "You wouldn't believe it. There've been a few where I said, 'Shit, I wish I could've done that.' But there've been more..." Like what, besides the occasional Bond villain? "Like Ford Fairlane. The Wayne Newton part." Yikes. "I was offered a part in Kafka, a part someone could have done something with. But the script itself made no sense. I thought, why are they making this film? What are you saying about Kafka that makes any sense?"
A rumor a few years back had Bowie and Jagger as the original stars for Mountains of the Moon. "I was offered Mountains of the Moon separately, before Mick. He and I were interested in doing a film together, though. There was one written for us, but it never got to us and became that Michael Caine-Steve Martin movie Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. How 'bout them apples! Mick and I were a bit tweezed that we lost out on a script that could have been reasonably good. But Mountains with Mick? It figures slimly in my memory. When we were much younger--and that, my dear, was many years ago, when there were mountains on the moon, when we lived in the mountains on the moon--it was bandied around that we should play Byron and Shelley. I think we were stupid never to have done it. But we weren't very serious about anything in those days. Maybe as older men we'll do Pinter, in our seventies"Bowie broadens his accent for effect "on the Broadway stage!"
At least Bowie and Jagger didn't get involved in Ken Russell's treatment of the Romantic poets, or in any other Russell film, for that matter. "I wouldn't even dream of it. I can't stand his movies. There isn't even one I like." One of the films Bowie did dream of doing was At Play in the Fields of the Lord. "I would have given my right arm to play the role of the missionary. But not with that director [Hector Babenco]. Richard Gere and I both wanted to do this film. He wanted to play the Indian pilot and was fighting to get the rights. It was all far too complicated, and, anyway, we lost it. Had it been resolved in a different way, it would have been a glorious film to participate in."
I ask Bowie how committed he is to film acting at this point. "Not very," he shoots back. Directing is another matter. Having recently sent up the profession with his very funny portrayal of the vicious, imperious British director Sir Roland Moorcock in a John Landis-directed episode of HBO's "Dream On," Bowie is actually going behind the camera in real life. Over the last two years he has written a script and he's now in production on it. "It's not going to be a special effects movie."
"I would never have thought that--"
"Quite. But that's what people ask me. It's a performance piece with four actors, basically. There's a larger cast, but that's the pivotal plot. I think, immodestly, it would have more to owe to Cassavetes than Spielberg. It's about personalities, and the destructive effect of one person's challenge and control over another person's life. It doesn't matter what they are--they could be dentists. The story takes place in L.A. I know the good and bad sides of that town, after a period of close on 18 years. I can almost read L.A. like a person, its attributes and characteristics. So, L.A. itself would be the fifth performance."
I tell Bowie that a friend of mine recently remarked to me that the amazing thing about L.A. is that all the cliches about it are absolutely true. He smiles. "You know, Dame Edith Evans went to Los Angeles in the '60s, and she was given a tour through Hollywood, and after a week she was asked what was singularly the most interesting thing she'd seen there. And she said, 'Well, one day I went to Griffith Observatory and the director took me down to the basement, down through a corridor that was very badly lit, at the end of which was a refrigerator. He opened the refrigerator and took out two pieces of glass, and between the two pieces of glass was a snowflake that fell upon Los Angeles in 1935. That was the most interesting thing I saw in Los Angeles.'" Bowie smiles. "Nic Roeg told me that story."
Writing a screenplay, Bowie says, "is not like writing a song at all. It's not like writing anything but a screenplay. It's stunningly hard. The first 35 pages were fun. Then I hit a wall." The visual part of directing doesn't bother him. The rest does. "I'm a ball of sweat when I think about what I have to do; it really is terrifying," he says, simulating self-strangulation. "I'm being secretive about this because I want the film to come out without any expectations whatsoever."
Directing is a longtime desire of Bowie's. As early as the fateful 1975, when he either did or did not take to preserving his bodily fluids in the refrigerator, he had a project he was ready to proceed with. "Thank God, I never did. First, I don't think I would have had the discipline to put it all together properly. I would have been in one of those dreadful situations where money was being poured down the drain. I don't think I'd have had the psychological stamina to keep it together. Now I feel I can at least accomplish the task, and hopefully with some degree of elegance. But back in '75 I got near to doing the most alarming piece. Very strange and satanic. Based on the Antichrist. I wrote it myself during about seven of those sleepless nights. Complete with drawings and character studies. There was an unbelievable postapocalyptic nihilism to the kids in it, some of whom I'd borrowed from Diamond Dogs--I remember vast gangs of boys on these huge rollerskates that were rusted and squeaked. There were elements not dissimilar to what would become Mad Max--I later came out of that film thinking they must have seen my project. I was," Bowie says drolly, "unaware of synchronicity. Anyway, the Jesus figure, which I took from the idea of the Jesus scrolls, was a freedom fighter instead of the King of Mankind. Terence Stamp was cast in my mind as Jesus, and I had a younger kid, who was unbelievably like the kid who would soon become John Lydon of the Sex Pistols, cast as Jesus's son. It was all very prepunk. The very last scene was Jesus being rowed out to a ship that was like a Fritz Lang Titanic by a hooded figure whose cloak gets pulled up as he's rowing and Jesus sees the goat hooves. It's a wonderful read. John Lennon looked over it and said, 'Why the fuck do you want to make this?? This is so fucking evil!' And I said, 'But it's going to look great!'"
The refrigerator story is beginning to gain some credibility with me again, but I can't yet bring myself to ask about it. Instead I ask Bowie how fixated he was on movies as a kid. "Not at all. I quite liked television when I was a kid. Movies not till much later. Then I'd sneak off from being a rock god and watch art movies. I could hire movies from the Met in New York--this was real early in the '70s--and I had a reel-to-reel video player, one of the first. You could show these movies on a white wall and film them off the wall. So I started this collection of German Expressionist movies. Of course," Bowie says, leaning in to speak into the tape recorder, "I don't have them any more. I had everything. Murnau, Pabst, Lang. I went crazy and lived in that world for about a year, and it had a lot to do with what I was doing in rock."
This reminds Bowie of a Giorgio Moroder story ("You know who he is--the guy who put the fascist marching beat behind Donna Summer?"): "One of the harebrained schemes I had for a long time was to take Metropolis and put a soundtrack on it written by Brian Eno and me. I wanted to get a pristine print and have live parts enacted on stage in front of the screen. I thought it such a novel idea that nobody else was going to buy the rights just now. So I was working with Moroder on the music for Cat People. I love Moroder. This is Moroder: He says to Paul Schrader, 'I want my apartment to look just like that wonderful apartment in American Gigolo,' and Schrader says, 'Yes, of course, I'm sure you can get it done just like Richard's apartment,' and Giorgio says, 'No, not that apartment, the pimp's apartment!' So, I'm working with Giorgio and he says, 'Did you see Napoleon?. I thought it was stunning, and I knew I could do something like that--put some music to an old movie' And I was going, 'Yeah ...' And he said, 'I've found the film! Nobody's ever heard of it! It's Metropolis, and I've bought the rights!'" Bowie groans with deadpan mirth. "I didn't even tell him. It ruined my week. He played me some of the stuff he'd written, and it was like--" Bowie does a disco beat and sings, "'I'm the master, you're the slave.'" He breaks up laughing.
Bowie's publicist has returned by now, and she tells him he has to finish up. He graciously acknowledges her orders in a beautifully enacted reversal of the actual hierarchy. As I'm gathering my things to leave, Bowie looks across the room at the TV silently flickering with a football game. "Ha! I love it when they bang their helmets together like that--you know, when something good happens--like a high-five sign!" I suddenly realize I haven't asked the refrigerator question. But how does one begin to ask such an outrageous question, anyway? "You know, people always talk about your manipulation of your image and all of that, much of which is of course true, but no one really talks about how playful you are ... " Bowie, standing up for the goodbye, says, "I do wonder when I see these things that come off as if I'm so Poe-faced or something." I'm already at the door. It's too late to ask my question now. I'll just have to write it off as a disappointing failure of nerve. I thank the man and leave.
Moments later, in the lobby of Bowie's hotel, I do a mental check to see that I have everything with me. Coat, purse, tape recorder ... My notes. I left my notes on the coffee table. Who cares, I tell myself quickly. The maid will throw them away, I don't need them now. No. I do need them. Not only that, in those notes, carefully scripted to prevent a failure of nerve, is the question about the jars of bodily fluids. The tiniest possibility that Bowie would pick up the notes--to scribble down a phone number, whatever--and read that question, even if I never hear about it, drives me crazy. Masking my unease, I ask the publicist if we can go back up and get the notes. She kindly agrees to call up to the room. When we knock at Bowie's door, he opens it. In his hand are the notes, neatly folded, just as I left them. He looks at me with a fantastic, diabolical twinkle in his eye, holds them out and says, "You'll never know."
Virginia Campbell is one of the executive editors of Movieline.