By Jasun Horsley
The speaker is Death: There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, ‘Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.’ The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, ‘Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?’ ‘That was not a threatening gesture,’ I said, ‘it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.’ —The Appointment in Samarra, retold by W. Somerset Maugham
“Nothing is what it seems,” says John Baxter, the protagonist of Don’t Look Now, at the start of the film. The rest of the movie depicts the tragedy of Baxter’s incapacity to apply this fundamental wisdom in his own life. “Nothing is what it seems” may be an untested platitude, but it’s a truism when it comes to movies, and Don’t Look Now is one of the great “movies-about-movie-watching” ever made. Primarily, it is about the act of perception itself.
A sustained work of anxiety, melancholy, and dread, Don’t Look Now is also an intellectual’s dream of a horror movie: a combination of a four-dimensional kaleidoscope with the most ruthlessly beautiful and intricate mousetrap ever made. (It was voted best British movie of all time by a Time Out poll.) While much of the film’s power derives from the Daphne du Maurier story, the story serves as a mere frame upon which the English director Nicolas Roeg and the scriptwriters, Allan Scott and Chris Bryant, weave their dark tapestry. Du Maurier’s short story has neither the depth nor the ingenuity of the movie, but it does suggest it, as latent potential, and the central idea which makes Don’t Look Now such a rich and rewarding puzzle is to be found not only in the body of the story, but in the title itself.
“Don’t look,” first of all, lets us know that appearances are deceiving. It implies that the only way to reach the truth is not by looking but by seeing. (A “seer” is another word for a prophet, one who sees outside the flat circle of time.) The “Now” of the title refers to the present moment, and the fact that the protagonist—Baxter, played by Donald Sutherland—commits a fatal error by interpreting a vision of a future event as something happening in the present. By seeing an event that has not yet happened as something that is already happening (what-will-be as what-is), he fatally confuses the signs and makes the future the past, i.e., irrevocable, inescapable. Like a movie stamped on celluloid, or the glimpse of the satanic dwarf on the slide Baxter is handling in the opening scene, he fixes something in time, and thereby turns life into death.
“The skill of police artists,” says Inspector Longhi to Baxter, “is to make the living appear dead.” Remove the word “police” and the statement refers to Don’t Look Now itself—and by extension to all movies, all art. In this same scene, Baxter is sitting below a portrait of a man, also depicted sitting, in roughly the same posture as Baxter. To draw or paint a living subject—or capture them on film—is to turn the living into the dead. Conversely, the image created, if it outlasts the life of the subject as movies do, is a way of making the dead appear living.
“First, kill all your darlings.”
—Nicolas Roeg, quoting W.B. Yeats
The plot of Don’t Look Now, while quite simple, is ingenious. John and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) are seen, at the movie’s start, lounging about their country home. The film cuts back and forth between the Baxters and their two children, playing outside by the pond. Baxter is looking over some slides of churches (he’s a restorer) when he notices in one of them a strange, red-hooded figure sitting in one of the pews. He accidentally knocks over a glass of water and watches with curiosity as a red stain, emerging from the small figure, spreads out like blood across the slide. He is struck by a sudden intuition. We see the little girl (wearing a red raincoat) sink lifelessly into the pond. Baxter gets up and heads for the door. Laura asks him what’s wrong. “Nothing,” he replies, and rushes out.
The film cuts to “the present”—Venice, where Baxter is at work restoring a church. He meets Laura in a restaurant; she’s writing a letter to their son, Johnny. Baxter gets up to close a window and jokes that it’s so cold that even the waiters won’t serve them. His act causes another window to blow open, and a gust of wind to pass through the restaurant. Two middle-aged women sitting at a nearby table (who have been watching Laura surreptitiously) are caught in the blast, and one of them gets a piece of dust in her eye. The two women make their way clumsily to the toilet, but try to enter the men’s room by mistake (one of them we discover is blind, while the other, her sister, has been temporarily blinded by the wind). Laura gets up to help them, and the chain of events that will lead to Baxter’s death and Laura’s widowhood is set in motion.
Like Hitchcock’s Psycho, but with even more clarity and precision (and power), we see how the tiniest of acts—Baxter closing the window—can lead to the most catastrophic of results, and all for a grain of dust. This is not to say that, if Baxter had never closed the window, none of the later events would have happened (the sisters would certainly have imposed themselves on the Baxters somehow). But the important thing is that Baxter’s death is traced back from the very beginning to his own conscious actions. He is never a simple victim; he is an accomplice in his own murder. Even the act of closing the window against the cold is consistent with the film’s thematic meaning: Baxter is trying to keep something out of awareness that causes him discomfort.
While Laura is off with the sisters, Baxter falls into contemplation, and we cut gracefully back to a shot of the Baxters leaving their home in England, after the death of their daughter. The house is all closed up, and it is raining. We see Laura gazing bleakly out the car window as Baxter climbs in and closes the door. As the BFI-published script has it, “She glances for a moment at the house as the car moves off. Then she looks away into her private infinity.” With a few brief images, Roeg conveys the black despair of the moment. As for so many of us, unbearable grief is the Baxters’ first brush with eternity.
Meanwhile, Laura, while helping the sighted sister Wendy to remove the dust from her eye, has discovered that the other sister, Heather, while blind, possesses “second sight.” Unprompted, Heather claims to have seen Laura’s dead daughter, Christine, sitting between the Baxters in the restaurant, laughing happily in her red raincoat. Laura is at once sold on this optimistic vision and returns to Baxter with newfound joy. Baxter is immediately mistrustful of the sisters; this is his attitude throughout the film, and plays a central part in his death.
We discover, through the sisters (when Laura mentions Baxter’s intuitive awareness of Christine’s accident), that Baxter “has the gift but is resisting it,” and that, “It’s a curse as well as a gift.” This line, along with the title, is the key to the movie. Baxter is in denial, and his inability to accept this hidden side of himself forces him to suppress, however irrationally, everything that reminds him of it. Perhaps his suppressing of his gift prevented him from saving Christine’s life. At the very least, his sorrow is all tangled up with guilt, making it impossible for him to fully process his grief. It would also intensify the emotional need to suppress and deny this side of himself. All of this is how his gift becomes a curse.
The sisters repeatedly warn Laura that Baxter’s life is in danger, and though she passes this warning on to him, he ignores it. Since Laura is obviously happier and stronger than before, Baxter is temporarily reconciled to her belief. The couple makes love, perhaps for the first time since Christine’s death. Roeg intercuts between their foreplay and sexual congress and their languidly dressing for dinner afterwards. Sutherland and Christie show a rare kind of intimacy together throughout the film—they feel like a married couple—and working with Roeg, they transform this central scene into something deeply affecting. Seeing them at their most naked and vulnerable, we come to know them, and to love them. Without this intimacy, this closeness, the final catastrophe would be just one more grisly murder in a long series of grisly murders that constitute—for the most part—the history of the horror film. As it is, when Baxter’s blood begins to flow, we feel the life force ebbing from him, and we are bleeding with him. Donald Sutherland felt it too, as he said in the interview (Don’t Look Now, Mark Sanderson’s study of the film for BFI modern classics): “We shot the climax last, and I knew I was going to die in it and I became literally convinced that I would die, and dying began to feel almost like a sexual rite.”
Don’t Look Now is a film about grief and loss, which is the true horror. It is one of the very few horror movies that makes death palpably, agonizingly real.
“I believe film has a life of its own but releasing yourself to it is by no means easy. Movies, like life, are full of compromise and the fight is to have as little compromise as possible… the point is not to interfere with the movement of all kinds of forces.”
Following their loving reunion, the Baxters receive a call in the middle of the night—their son Johnny has been in an accident. It’s not serious but Laura is sufficiently upset (and also vindicated—she thinks it fulfills Heather’s prophecy) to return to the U.K., having secured Baxter’s promise to follow her as soon as he can. Baxter says goodbye to her on the pier and watches as the barge moves away. We stay with Laura, and watch Baxter’s figure shrink to obscurity. This is the last time she’ll see him alive. Baxter returns to work, and later that same day (following a brush with death that forces him to re-evaluate his judgment of the sisters), he sees Laura, dressed in black, on a barge with the two sisters. He calls out but she does not respond. Puzzled and bewildered, he returns to the hotel (which is closing up for winter) to see if Laura has returned there. He then goes to the police and tells his story to the inspector (an eerily placid performance by Renato Scarper), who is puzzled by it (and by Baxter) but agrees to look into the matter. He has Baxter followed, having asked him to try and find the sisters’ hotel; this Baxter does, only to find the sisters gone. They have changed hotels that morning, due to a “prowler” (the prowler was Baxter, snooping around the previous night, once again ensuring the circumstances of his fate).
The sisters are picked up later by the police, but by this time Baxter has received a call from Laura in England, saying that everything is all right, and that their son’s injury was minor. Baxter is speechless, and when he splutters out incoherently that he saw Laura in Venice, she simply tells him not to worry, and that she’ll be back soon (she seems to have forgotten her desire to get him out of Venice). That night, Baxter goes to the police station to pick up the sisters, apologizes profusely for all the trouble he’s caused them, and takes them back to their hotel. While he is there, Heather falls into an epileptic trance, and Wendy insists that Baxter leave. Baxter is obviously glad to get away. Heather, in a state of wild despair, cries “Don’t let him leave—fetch him back!” Wendy finally relents and chases after Baxter, but runs into Laura instead, who has just been brought to the hotel from the police station. Wendy tells her Baxter has just left, but takes Laura up to the room, where Heather tells her to find her husband at once, repeating hopelessly—“She told you, leave Venice!” (referring to Christine, from whom the warnings supposedly came).
Baxter, meanwhile, is wandering around the darkened alleys of Venice again. He hears a scream and sees a small, red figure running away. It appears to be fleeing from a man, and Baxter pursues it into an abandoned building, closing an iron gate behind him to keep the man out. This is the last act that serves to ensure his death, by preventing both the man and Laura from following him. He has kept his appointment in Samarra.
Until now, the film has made full, glorious use of the natural settings to create a sense of mystery and menace. Stylistically—and not counting the various montages of parallel imagery—Don’t Look Now is unlike any of Roeg’s other films and more closely resembles Friedkin’s The French Connection in its textural richness and 1970s realism, as well as the unfussiness of the performances. For the climactic sequence, however, Roeg moves into grand-guignol, complete with swirling mists, ghostly winds, and spiral staircases. Since everything in the film seems conscientiously worked out, and since the filmmakers are clearly aiming for something more than mere horror, it seems unlikely Roeg was simply falling back on movie conventions here, as a means of ramping up the suspense. So what is the film communicating?
It’s also notable that, where Baxter was previously wholly skeptical, even scornful, of Laura’s belief about the spirit of their dead daughter, he now swings to the very other extreme, chasing after a figure in red as it is his magically resurrected daughter—something neither Laura nor the sisters are likely to have been foolish enough to have believed. His stubborn denial has flipped over into blind belief. It is as if he has become possessed by his latent, repressed psychism, and can no longer tell the difference between dream and reality. Apparently, this is the point at which Baxter enters into a psychic dreamspace in which “nothing is what it seems,” and where images of the dead and the living are all mixed up. If so, it makes sense that Venice begins, at this point, to resemble Hell itself. If Baxter is compulsively reenacting the death of his daughter—literally haunted by her image—now he is entering Hell to rescue her. What greets him there, however, is something closer to his own private demons.
As Laura and the man reach the gate but are unable to pass through it, the man shouts out after Baxter a warning in Italian about “il diablo.” Baxter is beyond saving by this point however. He approaches the small figure, offering soothing words of comfort; the figure turns—we see its face, the moment of truth, as it draws a knife. Baxter says “Wait,” once, then again. It is as if he hopes to stop the tidal wave of events started by that single gust of wind, a wave that now engulfs him, reducing him to nothing. As his blood flows, Laura reaches helplessly out to him through the bars of the gate, and calls out, “Darlings.” The many, myriad, fractured events of his life pass through Baxter’s awareness, now with new meaning, as clear and final as death. The facets of the kaleidoscope of time come together, for one brief moment, before being scattered into a million fragments.
The film cuts to Laura on the barge, dressed in black, between the two sisters. It is the same shot from earlier, only now there is no Baxter to witness it. It was by looking at his vision, with his ordinary eyes, rather than seeing it with his soul, that he mistakenly perceived it as here and now and so consolidated his fate. If he had understood the true meaning of the vision, he would have fled Venice at once, and so have avoided it. The reason nothing is ever what it seems is that we have imposed a linearity to time that it does not have. The lake of the world only appears flat. Really the end and the beginning meet and overlap. As when we watch a movie, it is all a trick of our own perception that turns the fixed images of eternity into the all-immersive illusion of linear time, that makes the dead appear living. In the same way, a glimpse of eternity makes the living appear dead.
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
—Gospel of Thomas
In his essay on Don’t Look Now, Mark Sanderson comments that “the network of sulci—the serpentine grooves on the surface of the brain” resemble the labyrinthine structure of the film: “in one sense the whole film takes place inside Baxter’s head.” His analysis of the film draws a seemingly endless pattern of relations and synchronicities both within the movie and outside it: “The film creates such an atmosphere of the paranormal and the paranoid that there seems no room for harmless coincidence.” In his shot-by-shot breakdown of the opening sequence, Sanderson writes:
The red forms a foetal shape on the slide. A terrible evil is born… An eye has developed in the foetus as it continues to grow. It forms exactly the same shape as the drowned Christine (and Wendy’s mermaid broach)… Water kills (Christine) and gives birth to the evil embryo on the slide… The inversion shows that the woman in red is the opposite of the child whose name means a follower of Christ: a withered limb of Satan.
Such a reading clearly implies that Baxter’s “second sight” was warning him from the very beginning, not only about his daughter’s death but his own. And yet, like all the characters in the film, the two are inextricably bound up, one a shadow of the other, implying that it is Baxter’s guilt over not being able to save his daughter—and his inability to process his grief—that unconsciously compels him to his own death, as the only way for him to be reunited with her.
Because Baxter denies his gift of seeing, it swallows him up—not as punishment but as the inevitable consequence of disowning or denying the unconscious life of his soul. Don’t Look Now weaves together the supernatural, psychism, the psychology of grief and regret, spiritual longing, and the mysteries of perception, into a unified—if many-faceted—whole. It portrays the interconnectivity of all events, all lives, into a single tapestry of existence: the life of the soul that is the life of all souls. Don’t Look Now is a nightmare of metaphysics from start to finish, and its entire premise rests on recognizing an essential complicity between ourselves and the forces of the occult. The supernatural, both the demonic and the angelic, is seen not as acting on us, but through us. The horror only enters into it as a consequence of our willed ignorance of this truth.
By this interpretation, it is not until the very last moment, when the tiny hooded figure turns around and faces its pursuer (its “maker”?), that Baxter’s mysterious, amorphous tulpa (psychic projection) takes on solid form as a “withered limb of Satan.” Until that moment, it may be wholly dependent upon Baxter’s consciousness itself whether he is confronted with his resurrected daughter, a helpless child, or a “malicious munchkin” wielding a butcher’s knife. Tellingly, it is only at this point, also, that Don’t Look Now starts to behave like a (somewhat) conventional horror movie. It may seem cruel, even hokey, on the part of the filmmakers to end it thus, almost literally with smoke and mirrors. But if so, we may pause to consider our own unconscious complicity, along with Baxter’s, our shared denial of the life of the soul, that has forced the filmmakers’ hands, making the bleak tawdriness of this outcome inevitable.
When the devilish dwarf shakes its head pitilessly at Baxter, it seems to be reprimanding him for his obtuseness and folly, while announcing the fatality of its actions, all of which add up to one thing: an ignominious death. When Laura calls out “darlings,” to both her husband and her daughter, she is not necessarily mistaken: that murderous “diablo” may as well be their dead daughter, seeing as how it has emerged from the very same “realm” of their (our) shared unconscious. It represents the same id that was warning Baxter, now making good on its warning and fulfilling its own prophecy. By this time, it is all up for Baxter, in any case, and the only message an emissary from the beyond can have for him is: “Time’s up.” And maybe also: “You shouldn’t have looked.”
The mysterious and ineffable smile that lingers on Laura’s lips at her husband’s funeral seems to acknowledge this, in the most quixotic way. The smile may seem vaguely sinister to us because it seems so unaccountable; and yet, at the same time, it is a relief, after all we have been through, to witness such apparent acceptance. Roeg himself (who has often been accused of detachment) comments on the smile:
Laura is in a state of grace, that’s why she smiles. It is beyond their knowledge. I think it is secret and chilling, but beautiful. Emotionally the terrible events have given her a dreadful strength. Laura is smiling at some secret memory. . . Laura and Baxter have had the best: it may be over now but it can never be taken away from them. Laura knows this. She is locked deep in some other place where superficial things like tears cannot reach her… As she smiles I chill. Grief takes many forms… The beginning is birth, the ending is death and all the rest is just anecdote. Life does not have a happy ending—everyone ends up dead—but movies can end happily. Laura has survived, triumphant—death shall have no dominion over her—their happiness may be in the past but it was real and will always remain so. That is what you have to remember in your grief.
Jasun Horsley is an existential detective, cultural commentator, and author of several books, including The Secret Life of Movies, Seen & Not Seen, Dark Oasis, Prisoner of Infinity, and The Vice of Kings. He hosts a weekly podcast called The Liminalist, and runs a thrift store with his wife in Canada. His website is auticulture.com
Interview with Nicolas Roeg, by David Jenkins, 2010. An edited version of this interview first appeared in Time Out London magazine.
Do you recall the last time you watched Don’t Look Now?
Golly, it was some time ago. I’ve seen clips and things, and I’ve introduced it at festivals. It’s quite interesting seeing it in clips, as it gives you these little hints that remind you where you were going at that time. Funnily enough, I don’t really like watching a movie I’ve finished. I mean, I do, but it’s very difficult because, I guess, this film became part of your life. Movies are very curious: making them is not just a case of going in to work then going out again. For everyone on the crew, it becomes his or her life, especially when you’re on location. You’re there and you can’t stop it. It’s not nine to five: a film is there the whole time. The only thing revisiting a film can do is make you see the things you think you could improve upon. It also makes you remember where you were, personally speaking.
Don’t Look Now is an extremely atmospheric movie. Would you encourage people to see it on a big screen?
It’s very funny that. I recently saw The Diving Bell and the Butterfly on my own, very privately, on a charter plane. I had the whole cabin to myself. Had a couple of Martinis. I thought it was an extraordinary piece of work, and I was deeply involved in it, and I couldn’t have got that deeply involved if I’d seen it on the big screen with other people. I just thought, thank goodness I’ve seen this film in this way.
Do you watch a film like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and think that the director may have been influenced by you?
No. But I’m very flattered you think so. Maybe my films should have an audience of one too!
Do you remember the period of making Don’t Look Now as being a positive one?
Film is a curious thing: you’re preparing it, working on it and thinking about it for a long time before you get to shoot the thing. Suddenly you give birth to this piece. Filmmaking is like being a jockey. After the race, interviews with jockeys are very interesting. One interview stuck in my mind—and I’m aware it sounds a little mad making the connection between moviemaking and horse racing—when they said to a jockey, ‘you were lying third, did you know you were going to come through?’ and then, ‘I was third, but I wanted to hold him back until he wanted to go. I just felt him: HE wanted to go’. The horse is the one who’s directing the jockey. It’s the same relationship between a film and a director. Sounds a bit airy-fairy, but it’s true. There’s a marvellous line in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre when the old man stops at the foot of the mountain, and the old man picks up a rock and says, ‘Nahh, that’s fool’s gold!’. But suddenly, in another scene he starts dancing. ‘What’re you dancing for you old ass?!’ and he says, ‘You don’t see the gold beneath your feet!’ In filmmaking, the gold is often located in the most unlikely places. The world is full of theories, but nine out of ten, if not ten out of ten begin to change. Our creativity is bound by our experience.
For a film like Don’t Look Now, there are segments at the beginning and end that are cut and edited in mosaic pattern.
I find them in the edit. I like it to surprise me, and I shoot a lot. I like shooting a lot because the urgency is essential to the opening of the work. Some people like to take a long time to do scenes, but I like to get a lot of shots and get involved with, say, characters sitting in a room. Making a shot of two people in a room interesting, you have to create distractions and suggestions: the characters are looking at one another and thinking, ‘I know you’re not just thinking of me…’.
I’ve read the word “Hitchcockian” when people were writing about Don’t Look Now at the time of its release. Are you happy with that?
Yes, very flattered. He was a wonderful filmmaker and had an amazing attitude towards film. When people say that one director is influenced by another, I always just think that everyone is influenced by everyone and everything. How could we not be? If you’ve enjoyed something, that’s probably because that’s the way you think of it. It’s more about the person than the subject. When someone says, ‘I find that disgusting!’, I just think, ‘Oh you do, do you? How interesting.’ It works for attitudes, politics, sex—everything.
You’ve had trouble with censorship in the past, especially with films like Performance and Bad Timing. Does that side of the business worry you?
Censorship is an ever-changing thing. It’s all about timing, as far as the artist is concerned. What would’ve never been allowed or terrible back then—politically, certainly sexually—is okay now. The ability of retaining the image: in Shakespearean terms. What’s in fashion is a case in point. It’s not more fashionable to get in to a chic restaurant without a tie than it is with a tie.
In a film like Bad Timing, were you aware when you were making it that it was going to cause trouble?
No, I was excited by it, because it is a situation that had no particularly social structure to it. It didn’t matter whether someone was a professor, or else a milkman. Going back to Don’t Look Now, it is movie was about people discussing with one another, who they were and what they did. I really like the fact that it was an American man—Donald Sutherland—with an British woman—Julie Christie. It was extra interesting because Sutherland is actually Canadian. It was pure, physical and mental exchange, and not because of background or nationality. They were still British. For me, Don’t Look Now is about expressing love in a different way. I remember that I wanted to show something at the end—I can tell you now because it’s been out for 30 years!—in a scene where Julie’s on the funeral barge, and the two older sisters are with her. We arrived at the set and Julie had a lot of make-up on and a veil. She also had this little tube with an acidic substance in it, and when you blow it, it makes you cry. Make-up wanted to see a stained cheek. I saw this scene and just thought, they had a wonderful family life, and the sisters were weeping in the background, and I thought, that’s fine from them. But I’d really like to have something step up, and finish on a moment that was beyond the obvious. You see something that would be a secret in Julie Christie’s head. So I said, ‘put the vale up, and when you’re stood on the bow of the boat. I want you to smile. Undefeated, like Queen Christina!’ I remember Julie said, ‘Oh God, Nic! Are you crazy?’ I think it’s fantastic. It’s a big fuck you to fate. It’s saying that the love they had couldn’t be topped. Fantastic.
In the Daphne du Maurier novel, isn’t Donald Sutherland’s final line after he’s been slashed by the dwarf, ‘Oh what a bloody silly way to die!’
Oh no, we couldn’t have used that! When you’re adapting a book, it’s in a different place. The premise of the whole piece becomes more important than the moment. I liked this book because it was a place you could see a happy family.
The infamous sex scene in the film: some people see it as this moment of pure bliss, others read it as an outburst of anguish.
Sex, whether you like it or not, we all know that it’s the prime force of life. There is no other reason to be here. It’s quite curious in many films you only see the meeting, the flowering of sex. You hear all the intrigue about how, ‘oh, she loved the other guy at the party’. It’s not about a happy marriage. The first stage of recovery—here, from the loss of a child, who was made by you-know-what—would only be a reminder, and that’s why it’s wonderful when Donald smiles at the end of it. It was an affirmation of their love. For me, sex is very rarely rude. It’s a fresh thing. I think that people secretly connected to Don’t Look Now for that reason. The censors saw things that didn’t happen in the sex scene. Did this happen? Did that happen? It’s not unusual. The wonder of film is that because we relate to moments and emotions so deeply, we often see things that aren’t there. That there was no passionate stripping off beforehand—he just wanders in from the bathroom. It was a step towards getting back to normal and getting rid of a terrible sadness that can strike again. Maybe that’s a reason why, after all this time when it’s looked at, people see that more clearly. When it came out, audiences were probably less used to it. Back then I imagine that scene would’ve been like someone bursting out of a cupboard and shouting ‘boo!’
I get the impression from watching your films that you like to have a say in all the cinematic elements—sound, sets, performances, costume, camerawork.
Yes, of course.
Do you see yourself as an auteur?
Well, I don’t know. I don’t want to get in to what I see myself as.
One of my favourite scenes of yours is from Insignificance where Marylyn Monroe is explaining the theory of relativity to Albert Einstein.
I’m always surprised that that hasn’t been picked up on more. It’s a marvellous situation. Both talked by strangers in a completely opposite way to how they’re behaving. And what she says is all true! So it’s the best lesson you’ll get in cinema. And from Marylyn! In real life, they’re both inventions of other people. They adorn that invention. They put it on. I knew a man who was involved in film—I won’t say who it was or even hint at it because of privacy—I know part of his extraordinariness and extravagant behaviour was born of tremendous shyness and nervousness. And he had this extraordinary eccentric manner, and people misread it. I got to know him quite well. He was quite a public figure in certain circles. We all dress up externally and internally to match the situation.
Do you find that with yourself? Are you a different person on set than to how you are now?
I like being that. I think that happens with lots of work situations. I know that I’ve had tussles with artists, actors and producers—everyone!—but to get someone on to the same wavelength is really not to do with the subject or the work, it’s getting to know someone better. You may even find that what they’re saying could help what you’re going to do more than just doing what you’re going to do in defiance. That happens in politics, doesn’t it.
This may be a little off the beaten track…
Ah, you’ve seen a lot of my movies!
Reading some reviews of Performance…
Richard Schickel called it ‘The worst movie ever made’.
Can you talk about David Litvinov? I saw he’s credited as technical advisor on the film.
I don’t talk about him so much, but David Litvinov was a strange character. He was highly intelligent. Very, very… I guess he was also quite academic in a curious way. He was in revolt against it, and against himself. A lot of attitudes of the generation were understood by him. He was a very good person—as far as Donald Cammell and I were concerned—that we could talk to privately. But he was a unique personality. Fortunately, he was excited at the event of making a film and he wanted to be around and first to it.’
Is he still alive?
No. He’s dead.
Aside from Performance, a lot of your films are shot in other countries and cities. What’s the appeal for you in making films in strange lands?
I like being a stranger in a strange land. We don’t go to all the sites in London, because they’re there and we can always go to them tomorrow. When you’ve got someone staying with you in London, it’s awful when you’re driving them around and they say, ‘what’s that building over there?’. You’d just have to keep saying, ‘I don’t know!’ You’d just end up lying and saying, ‘Well, that building was a spy network and it had a working rifle range in it.’ It might be true! I like that fact that things stand out, and then making the decision of whether to show the tour guide’s view of another city. Some times it’s very inviting not to show those place. In Don’t Look Now, Donald Sutherland is a church restorer and he’s working there, so there’d be no reason that we’d need to see any tourist landmarks. Before that, it’s very difficult for me to see London in the way that a stranger sees it. Stories seem to stand out more when you’re shooting them in a place you don’t know. Especially Venice. I don’t think I’ve been to a city where you can walk down a narrow street and you can hear footsteps getting louder and louder and louder. It as if someone’s always behind you. The maze of those little alleyways was a fantastic thing for me, but Venetians just don’t notice it. Coming back from location at two in the morning is very strange. It’s set there for a lot of those reasons.
In a film like Castaway, did you spend a long time looking for that island?
Those islands are just outside the Seychelles. It comes out of conversations with people. You talk to them about what you want and the availability: they’ve been taken there to be castaway, they’re not wrecked. The wreck comes of them not being able to get off. They’re not unknown, they’re visiting. The crew of the film, a lot of people stand rather aloof from them, but they all make the film. Prop man, is very important. I had a wonderful prop man who would be inside the scene, know how to dress the desk of this person and he would be able to tell when it’s been dressed well by the art department. When there are shelves of books done correctly. I don’t want it to just be a big block of books from the prop house. I like to think the character would read those books.
Screenwriter must-read: Allan Scott & Chris Bryant’s screenplay for Don’t Look Now [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection in a new 4K digital restoration, approved by director Nicolas Roeg, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Nicolas Roeg in conversation with Philip Strick at the NFT (BBC broadcast 19/05/1983).
ANTHONY B. RICHMOND, BSC, ASC
It is a fabulous movie. Not because I shot it, but it still stands up today. It was probably the most difficult thing I have shot, because in Venice everything goes in and out on barges. We shot it in the winter with an Italian crew, which was fantastic, because Venice in the winter is dark, cold and foreboding, which was wonderful. I had Simon Ransley as my focus puller, who did an amazing job. It took six weeks and four days. The first four weeks were in London. I have been very lucky and have worked with some great directors. Nic Roeg is one of them. He really took me under his wing, as did Freddie Young and John Wilcox. They helped me a great deal. —Tony Richmond
To mark its release in scarlet-duffle-coat-enhancing 1080p, Empire Magazine asked the film’s cinematographer Tony Richmond to talk through some rarely-seen behind-the-scenes shots and stills from the production.
“Nic [Roeg] and I met on a movie in Israel called Judith with Peter Finch, Sophia Loren and Jack Hawkins in 1965. He was second unit director and I was a clapper boy on the first unit. He and his crew seemed like a good bunch of chaps, so I hung out with them a lot, and I went on to work as his assistant when he was a cinematographer. He took me out to Australia for Walkabout in 1970 and I directed second unit on that. Then he mentioned that he had something else and would I like to work on it? He keeps things close to his chest—I don’t blame him, things happen on movies—but it turned out to be Don’t Look Now. It happened that quickly.”
“Nic is great on set. He’s not a screamer and shouter like a lot of people; he’s got a great sense of humour and when something goes wrong, as it inevitably does, he sees the funny side. He has the ability to bring out the best in people. Thinking back, one of the things that helped on Don’t Look Now was having an Italian crew. We told them what we wanted them to do and they did it—we didn’t know enough Italian to discuss it (laughs). It was a small crew. Just Nic and I, and a focus puller, and the rest were Italian.”
“To do a sequence like [the sex scene] that takes it so close to the edge that people insist they actually see Laura (Christie) and John (Sutherland) making love—which they don’t because they didn’t—is all to do with trust. This was the fourth time Nic and I had worked with Julie Christie. We’d worked with her on Doctor Zhivago, Fahrenheit 451 and Far From The Madding Crowd too, so there was a lot of friendship and a lot of trust. We shot it one Saturday afternoon at the Bauer Grunwald hotel. The brilliance of that scene was in the cutting room. I didn’t know that Steven Soderbergh had homaged it in Out of Sight—that’s great.”
“The interest in the scene is great for the movie, although the idea that they did it for real is crazy. Donald (Sutherland) emailed me about it the other day. Peter Bart, who was an executive at Paramount at the time, says he came to Venice and watched it in the room [Bart’s new book reiterates his claims that he witnessed Sutherland and Christie having sex for real]. I don’t remember him coming to Venice and I certainly don’t remember him in the room. There were five of us: Donald, Julie, Nic, me and the focus puller. We had some mics in the room and a sound mixer in the hallway, we shot it in an hour and we left. Donald went completely mad about it.”
“I’ve got to tell you, today it would be so easy to desaturate the colours in the digital intermediate stage but we didn’t have any of that so we had to do it all with set decoration and costume design. We took all the red out of it. The only red on the set was the little girl’s jacket, the dwarf’s scarf, the dwarf’s jacket and the red in Donald’s scarf. It was very simple but everything sticks out. I think the blood came from England, although the make-up was Italian. It was redder than normal blood. That was what we wanted.”
“It’s incredibly hard to shoot in Venice. There are no cars or trucks, so you’re working off barges and if the tide comes in you’re stuck there until the next day. We shot the opening sequence at the cottage in Hertfordshire for four days before Christmas and then it was six weeks in Venice. We shot in places that people don’t go: there’s [only] one shot of the Grand Canal. Our’s is the people’s Venice. But as beautiful as it is, Venice is a scary place in winter. Nic and I went to dinner one night at Julie’s place on Giudecca, one of the other islands, and on the way back we got off at the wrong stop and got sort of lost. It was really creepy. I think the film’s a little bit odd and off-key and it’s a by-product of that strange environment.”
“You can get bogged down in terrible rain when you’re filming but the weather worked in our favour. The great thing about Venice is that the light goes very quickly because it doesn’t get into those little alleys, so it can always be dark no matter what the weather’s like. When John is outside the church or watching the body being hauled out of the canal, the weather was fantastic. In Hertfordshire we had this low, weak, wintery sun which just looked fantastic.”
“The biggest drama of the shot was Donald with the death sequence. It was scheduled to be done on the last day and that panicked him. He didn’t want to do it on the last day and he got a bit nervous about it. We rehearsed it using a prosthetic piece but—and I don’t know if I should upset vegetarians—we got a baby pig from a butcher and put Donald’s wig and scarf around it because pig’s skin is like human skin obviously. Then we sent it to Harry’s Bar and they cooked it for us” (laughs).
“I had an interesting relationship with Nic. When I started working for him he was sort of a father-figure to me, then it became an older brother/young brother relationship and now we’re friends. When you go off on location like we did on Don’t Look Now—and Nic is a pretty intense guy—you live together, you hang out together and there’s nothing to do but talk about the movie. When you’re working in the city you live in, you go home to your wife and kids—instead of dailies, they give you a DVD these days and you go and watch them on a shitty computer—but on Don’t Look Now we’d go and watch dailies after work and have a few beers.”
“It was six weeks of our lives dedicated to the movie and it really paid off. Don’t Look Now stands the test of time. It’s a really good movie. I think it’s Nic’s best. Does he? I don’t know, but he probably does.”
Don’t Look Now is many things: terrifying, poignant, mysterious, sexy, tragic. That all these disparate qualities are woven together so seamlessly is partly a miracle of cutting, so one must give proper credit to the film’s editor, Graeme Clifford. In an in-depth new interview on Criterion’s release of the film, writer and historian Bobbie O’Steen sits down with Clifford (who would go on to have his own career as a director, his films including the Jessica Lange drama Frances) to talk to him about the textures and ideas in Don’t Look Now, and the work that went into making it such a rich experience. In this clip, he describes envisioning the film with Roeg, the choosing of certain takes over others, and some little visual clues you may have missed—even if you’ve seen it many times.
DON’T LOOK NOW: LOOKING BACK
In this short making-of documentary, director Nicolas Roeg discusses the production history of the film and the unique qualities of Daphne Du Maurier’s story that inspired it, while director of photography Anthony B. Richmond explains the significance of specific scenes, including the notorious sex scene, and how they were shot. Editor Graeme Clifford also discusses his contribution to the film.
He was a genius, Nic. A visionary. He made a love scene between a grieving wife and her husband with no cries of passion, no sounds of orgasm, no words. All you hear is Pino Donaggio’s music as Nic intercuts their making love with them getting dressed to go out to dinner. Magical. You don’t see that scene as a voyeur. You watch it and it reminds you of yourself, of you being loving and you being loved. We decided it would be wisest not to shoot John’s death scene until we’d done everything else, in case the unreliable prop knife failed and my throat would be cut, spilling red. Fragmented, abstract images colour and tell his stories. Look at Omar Sharif on a camel, coming from the other end of the desert towards the camera. That’s Nic. Look at the Sahara’s empty foreground, and suddenly the smokestacks of a steamer crossing from left to right along the unseen Suez canal. That’s Nic. He was the was the first to use Panavision’s R-200°, which meant he had 15 degrees more shutter for Don’t Look Now than the 185°s that were the best before. He was everything I ever wanted from a filmmaker. He changed my life for ever. Francine and I asked him if we could name our firstborn after him. He said yes. Our glorious son is named Roeg. —Donald Sutherland
Donald Sutherland Scene by Scene interview with Mark Cousins, BBC 2001.
Nicolas Roeg discusses Don’t Look Now with critic Mark Kermode.
Guillermo del Toro and many others pay tribute to the cinematic visionary Nicolas Roeg, “the magician with a movie camera.”
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now © Casey Productions, Eldorado Films, D.L.N. Ventures Partnership. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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