By Sven Mikulec
Set in the dream-like landscape of the mesmerizing city of Venice painted in dark, somber tones, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now is a special kind of a supernatural thriller that aptly deals with subjects far from supernatural. It’s an analysis of grief, a portrait of sorrow, a depiction of marriage with two characters very much believable, convincing and carefully developed. It’s also an incredibly frightening story that stands out as a clear example of a highly intelligently conceived horror film, but the dread doesn’t come from cheap shocks: it is built gradually, steadily, with a lot of patience and with the always welcome quality of being able to sparkle with relentless anticipation. Much of this comes from Roeg’s subtle direction often reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s filmmaking lessons on the importance of suspense. Editor Graeme Clifford and Roeg compose the film, in fact, out of a series of disquieting images, lined up one after another, accumulating not only to a rather rich and complex film, but also to the legendary bloody ending that’s almost impossible to forget. Only at the very climax does the film let go of its gentle but firm hold on the audience and substitues calm, subtle tension with explicit horror that many, many horror movies make the mistake of basing their strength on.
Don’t Look Now is also the first film Pino Donaggio, Brian De Palma’s long-time collaborator, wrote and composed the score for. Moreover, the decision to shoot in Venice and make this Italian historical city a part of the story proved to be a genius decision, as the city’s canals, winding roads, dark and deserted alleys turn into an additional character, no less convincing than those of really inspired Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. Adapted by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant from Daphne du Maurier’s short story, Don’t Look Now is the pride of British cinema, but also a landmark horror film as well. Its strengths lie exactly in the things that make the horror-thriller genre so great: in the ability to frighten, disturb, emotionally devastate and trigger curiosity at the same time, offering abundant pleasure for all senses, especially the two that have always mattered the most in the world of film—the mind and the heart.
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. —Nicolas Roeg remembered by Donald Sutherland
A monumentally important screenplay. 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 new 4K digital restoration, approved by director Nicolas Roeg, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
“The opening sequence of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now is a masterclass in film editing. Effortlessly maneuvering between siblings playing outside a rural English estate and a couple (John and Laura Baxter, portrayed by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie at the height of their careers) leisurely whittling away the afternoon before events take a sudden, deadly turn, this first sequence of shots deftly begins the construction of a dense labyrinth between harsh truths and red (very red) herrings from the English countryside to the haunting old world beauty of Venice.” —Dissecting the Incredible opening scene
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.
Extract from Mark Cousins’s 2001 Scene By Scene interview with Donald Sutherland discussing Don’t Look Now and key films in his career.
THE WORLD IS EVER CHANGING: NICOLAS ROEG ON FILMMAKING
Roeg began as a cameraman, working for such masters as François Truffaut and David Lean. His explosive debut as a director with Performance established an approach to filmmaking that was unconventional and ever-changing, creating works such as Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bad Timing, Insignificance, and, more recently, Puffball. Having now reached 80 years of age, Roeg has decided, in his new book ‘The World is Ever Changing,’ to pass on to the next generations the wealth of wisdom and experience he has garnered over fifty years of filmmaking.
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.”
In this unique Director’s Cut event, Nicolas Roeg talks with Allan Shiach, who under the pen name of Allan Scott wrote the screenplays for four of Roeg’s films.
The Director in conversation with Philip Strick at the NFT (BBC broadcast 19/05/1983).
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