Director Nicolas Roeg sadly passed away on 23 November. Simon Rumley writes about working with the late, great director when he served as executive producer on Simon’s film Crowhurst.
Nic Roeg passed away on Friday night. It wasn’t a shock when I found out, but it was still a sad and contemplative day and it was heartwarming to see so much praise lavished on this true iconoclast, not only from social media but from tabloids and quality papers alike, joining together on a rare occasion to proffer the same, respectful truths.
My most recent film, Crowhurst, is about the sailor Donald Crowhurst; Nic himself was interested in making a film on the same subject during the 1970s and I was lucky enough to have him come on board our film as an executive producer. When setting out on the journey to make Crowhurst, I met Nic a few times and it was a truly humbling, ennobling experience over which I was pinching myself for weeks and months to come.
When I first went to his house in Notting Hill, I arrived uncharacteristically early but wanted to wait for my producer Michael Riley to arrive since I was somewhat starstruck and had no idea what I’d say to Nicolas Bloody Roeg, alone with him. I waited 10 minutes or so and phoned Mike, wondering where he was. He was already inside, so I rang the doorbell and waited to meet the great man. I think his wife answered and took me up to his study, where all his books, papers, thoughts, memories and filmic souvenirs abound. We shook hands and sat down; still trepidatious, I waited to see what was going to happen.
One of the first things Nic said to me was, “Well, I was really nervous to meet you, you know?”
If ever there was a role-reversing, jaw-dropping moment, this was it. I wasn’t sure if I’d heard him correctly and leant forward on my chair, confused, my heart missing a small beat, in thrall to the silence, waiting for him to elucidate, disbelieving, gobsmacked.
“You being a younger, cutting-edge director and with all this new technology, I wasn’t sure if my ideas would be of any real interest.”
Still not quite able to believe my ears, I mumbled something positive and he carried on talking, but for a few minutes I wasn’t quite able to concentrate, thinking how crazy it was that Nic Roeg had just said he’d been nervous to meet me.
One of the other things he said which really stood out was how, when people look out the window, everyone sees different things. I thought this was an interesting metaphor for life generally, but also specifically about art and creation and it’s something that always stuck with me.
I hadn’t seen The Man Who Fell to Earth for a long time, but after David Bowie died I was in Austin prepping for Fashionista, which was my effort at vaguely recreating the non-linear aesthetic that Nic pioneered and is probably best remembered for. The Alamo Drafthouse was screening a bunch of Bowie films so I went with my friend Tim League and we watched The Man Who Fell to Earth, which remains a mind-blowing and essentially unclassifiable classic.
There’s a scene where Bowie is driving to his new home near his spaceship launch site and he looks out his limousine window. Although there are only pastures, he sees, yes, something completely different: a bunch of old settlers dancing around a fire in the pasture. “Oh my God!” I thought, Nic was being completely literal. It made me laugh and it made me happy; it still does, in fact. I’m still not quite sure what to make of his comment, how to interpret it, because it feels like a buddhist koan somehow. But it reminds me of him, when I’m traveling especially, looking out a random window on a train or plane and it’s a heartwarming memory to have.
The last moment that stuck with me about my time with Nic was when we were discussing Crowhurst. He noted that at some point, everything we were contemplating would no longer be relevant because once you’re on set, all your original ideas are superseded by a different reality and the script is forever changed. I didn’t want to contradict him on this and just agreed politely. I’m more Hitchcockian in my approach to directing; once the script is agreed on, I make a shot list and that’s what I shoot and, in reality, the script and that shot list rarely change once the locations are secured.
Of course, we filmed most of Crowhurst on water and after the first hour, I realized that what Nic had said had been absolutely true and for the first time in my career, the script went completely out the seafaring window. It was an exhilarating experience and rather than prepping and planning everything like an exam, I had to direct everything off the cuff. I worked with my lead actor Justin Salinger and cinematographer Milton Kam to shoot as much as we could, trying to capture Crowhurst in as many emotional states as possible, in as many different weathers as possible, very much making it all up as we went along, something which then proved equally challenging but rewarding in the cutting room with my editor, Agnieszka Liggett.
So yes, I met Nic a bunch of times and was truly excited and honoured that he bothered to meet me in the first place, let alone come to our test screening and offer notes and generally help make the film better.
It has been a true career-high to share these moments with someone whose films meant and continue to mean so much to me, to share not only a screen credit with the man but also, more poignantly, his last screen credit. I hope he felt Crowhurst was worthy of his involvement and I hope my effort at attempting to mimic him with Fashionista was taken in the spirit it was offered.
Much like when David Bowie died, I feel like I’ve lost something personal, something inside, a small flame extinguished. But what a man, so humble and seemingly unaware of the power his creations had over people; what a life, what films, unrivaled by any.