He worked as a cinematographer on such varied projects as ‘The Masque of Red Death’ (1964), ‘Doctor Zhivago’ (1965), ‘Fahrenheit 451’ (1966), ‘Casino Royale’ (1967) and ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ (1967). However it is his exceptional work as a director for which he will be remembered.
In 1968, Roeg acted as cinematographer and collaborated with Donald Cammell to co-direct ‘Performance’ starring James Fox and Mick Jagger. Set in the London criminal underworld, Performance tells the tale of an East London gang member Chas (James Fox) who works as a debt collector, through the use of intimidation and violence. After murdering a local book keeper, Chas goes into hiding in the house of Turner (Mick Jagger), a reclusive former rock star. Turner lives with Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michele Breton) with whom he enjoys a bi-sexual menage a trois. Chas and Turner are initially contemptuous of each other, slowly their interest in each other grows. Drugs, sex and violence ensue in a classic piece of late 60’s cinema.
Roeg followed up Performace with ‘Walkabout’ (1971). A schoolgirl (Jenny Agutter) and her younger brother (Luc Roeg) are driven to the Australian outback by thir father who starts to shoot at them, as they run for cover, he sets fire to the car and kills himself. By dawn the next day, they are weak from exposure, and the boy can barely walk. Discovering a small pool with a fruiting tree, they spend the day playing, bathing, and resting. Next morning, the pool has dried up. A young Aboriginal boy (David Gulplil) appears. Though the girl cannot communicate with him, her brother mimes their need for water, and the newcomer cheerfully shows them how to draw it from the drying bed of the oasis. The three travel together for several days, with the Aborigine sharing food he has caught hunting. The boys learn to communicate, using words and mime. I watched this movie several times throughout my youth, it’s a sad, beautiful story, incredibly well told.
In 1973, Roeg directed ‘Don’t Look Now’, a thriller starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a married couple mourning the loss of their young daughter. They head to Venice where they meet two elderly sisters, one of whom claims to be clairvoyant and informs them that their recently deceased daughter is trying to contact them to warn them of danger.
While Don’t Look Now observes many conventions of the thriller genre, its primary focus is on the psychology of grief, and the effect the death of a child can have on a relationship. Its emotionally convincing depiction of grief is often singled out as a trait not usually present in films featuring supernatural plot elements. Originally causing controversy on its intitial release due to an explicit and—for the time—very graphic sex scene between Christie and Sutherland, its reputation has grown considerably in the years since, and it is now acknowledged as a modern classic and an influential work in horror and British film.
Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie) is a humanoid alien who comes to Earth from a distant planet on a mission to bring water back to his home planet, Anthea, which is experiencing a terrible, catastrophic drought. Newton starts by using the advanced technology of his home planet to patent many inventions on Earth. This allows his rise to incredible wealth as the head of a technology-based conglomerate, World Enterprises Corporation, aided by leading patent attorney Oliver V. Farnsworth (Buck Henry). Secretly, this wealth is needed to construct his own space vehicle with the intention of shipping water back to his planet.
The film maintains a strong cult following for its use of surreal imagery and its performances by David Bowie (in his first starring film role), Candy Clark and Rip Torn.
Roeg took four years to make his next film, ‘Bad Timing’ (1980), a dark film about sexual obsession. Described brilliantly as “a sick film made by sick people for sick people” the film proved a difficult sell and although decorated at several film festivals, was poorly received at the box office. It was the first in a line of collaborations with actress Theresa Russell who he would marry in 1982.
Roeg made ‘Eureka’ (1983), about a prospector who strikes it rich and lives in fear that his daughter and partner are scheming to take away his wealth. In 1985, Roeg released ‘Insignificance’, a drama/comedy set in a hotel where four people bear striking resemblance to Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Albert Einstein and Joe McCarthy.
In 1986, Roeg directed Oliver Reed and newcomer Amanda Donohoe in ‘Castaway’, adapted form the book by Lucy Irvine, telling of her experiences of staying for a year with writer Gerald Kingsland on the isolated island of Tuin, between New Guinea anmd Australia. He followed that with ‘Track 29’ (1988).
Roeg then made the incredibly fun family film ‘The Witches’ (1990), based on the book by Roald Dahl. Helga (Zetterling) warns her grandson Luke (Jason Fisher) about witches, describing them as demonic women who hate and destroy children. While they look and act like ordinary women, it is really an elaborate facade. They hide their bald heads with wigs and their clawed hands with gloves. Their feet have square ends and hideous stumps where the toes should be, forcing them to wear sensible shoes most of the time. About the only way to tell them apart is by their purple eyes. They also find the smell of children repulsive.
The family take a holiday by the seaside, ostensibly so that Helga can recover from her illness. They visit a hotel where a children’s charity group is holding its general meeting. Luke discovers that the group are all witches. Starring Angelica Houston, Mai Zetterling and Rowan Atkinson. As well as being the final film that the legendary Jim Henson personally worked on before his death.
His last few movies , ‘Cold Heaven’ (1991), ‘Two Deaths’ (1997) and ‘Puffball’ (2007) have received a colder reception by critics and the viewing public. Nic Roeg is an artist, a visionary, and a legend of British film.