SPACED OUT IN THE DESERT
Steve Shreyer and John Liftlander | Creem |
Close-up: Face the face as inscrutable as that
of the Sphinx and just as far removed from humanity. It could be
the face of an angel, or just as easily a devil. It is the face
that presented the seventies with an androgynous ultimatum: you
either love it, laugh at it, cheer it or fear it, but take it or
leave it, there is no room for indifference. Most would recognize
it as the face of David Bowie, glitter prince of rock 'n' roll.
But this is not David Bowie, this is Thomas Jerome Newton.
THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH
Starring David Bowie
Directed by Nicolas Roeg
A Sneak Preview
Cut to: Interior, long shot. A large room done in
the best neo-schizophrenic style. Great gilt mirrors contend against
a giant video-screen hung on the wall opposite. A swarm of technicians
buzz about the set making last minute checks, and the cinematographer
rehearses the upcoming shot.
Slow zoom-in. In the eye of this storm of activity,
on a king-size bed suspended by four chains running from the corners
of a skylight in the middle of the fifteen foot high ceiling is
a diminutive young man. He calmly sits cross-legged, wearing bathrobe
and pyjamas and a pair of tinted wire-rim glasses.
This is a very simple scene. Thomas Newton, a brilliant
inventor, whose genius, some suspect, may be due to the extra-terrestrial
origins, is being held captive in a prison of luxury. As he watches
his overgrown video-screen a servant enters his bedroom pushing
a trunk concealing a pitcher of martinis. He pours a drink and hands
it to Newton. Dialogue is minimal, and on screen the scene may last
thirty seconds, but it has already been rehearsed four times.
A clapperboard is thrust before the camera's lens.
"Scene 105 A, take one."
Cut to: Flashback, fast sequence of scenes accompanied
Upon arriving at the Albuquerque Hilton Inn and identifying
ourselves, we were assigned to a room on the fourth floor. The first
order of business was to check in with the publicity director, Steve
Jaffee, whose office was now just around the corner. He was not
in an omen of things to come but a young lady was, and
she offered to lead us to him.
Cut to: Exterior tracking shot; the camera follows
a small group across the hotel courtyard. A pretty blonde with an
upper class British accent is flanked by Steve and John who are
questioning her about "a shoot-out" on the set that had been reported
in the trade papers.
"Oh, that was really nothing. A guard got drunk on
the set one night and started firing off his pistol. When everyone
arrived he said he'd been attacked by a band of youths! He had to
say something, he didn't want to get canned."
Of such stuff are the dreams of PR persons made.
It made far better copy than what the publicity office had been
cranking out more recently: David Bowie, a devotee of Eastern religions
had discovered that his gold record Young Americans played backwards
sounds amazingly like a Tibetan chant.
What record played backwards doesn't sound like a
Cut to: close-up of a bearded American at poolside
who is introduced as Steve Jaffee. He seems less than delighted
to see us, which is odd since his job is acting as liaison between
the production and the press. Perhaps we've interrupted a discussion
with one of the bikinied ladies laying around his chaise. (Who says
only stars get fringe benefits?) But as he squeezes the creamy remains
from a flattened tube of Bain de Soleil, he informs us that Bowie
is not granting interviews. Questioned about the possibility of
watching the proceedings on the set brings another rebuff. "The
sets are secret. "
Impact cut to: clapboard snapping shut. "Scene 105
A, take seven." The camera rolls as the servant enters. All goes
well until he tries to pour the martini and the shaker spout gets
clogged. Getting frustrated, he shakes it violently and martini
mix splashes out over everything.
"Cut," calls Nick Roeg, and the crew breaks into
muffled laughter, and the cameraman calls out, "David, can you sit
up a bit, love. Each take you're sliding down a bit lower. You'll
be flat on your back soon." David smiles and straightens up a little
as a set dresser moves in behind and fluffs up the pillows he's
Cut to: close-up and slow pan down the page of a
"Two days in Albuquerque and the walls are beginning
to close in. Still waiting for Jaffee to find out if Roeg will talk
to us. Supposed to meet us in the bar at 9 last night to give us
an answer but he never showed. Returning to the room at 11:30 we
spent half the night trying to call him, but apparently he was amorizing
in someone else's suite."
Impact cut to: medium shot of the door bursting
open and John rushing in.
"He's out there, I just saw him!"
Cut to: tracking shot. A figure in green jumpsuit
walks down the dim corridor. As he passes the glass doors leading
outside, a flood of evening light illuminates him. The shock of
red hair alone is enough to identify him as David Bowie. His shoulders
rock from side to side and he has the springy step of one endowed
with an overabundance of energy, even though he has just completed
a full day's shooting in 90 degree heat. Stopping in front of a
room, he knocks but gets no response. As he turns to leave, he meets
the reporters who have trailed him here and are ready to pounce
like diamond dogs.
"We're from CREEM Magazine and we've been trying
to talk to you for a couple of days," says John.
"C'mon, let's go sit down outside," he says without
a moment's hesitation.
Sitting on the porch overlooking the parking lot,
he shakes hands as introductions are made and seems genuinely friendly.
Can this be David Bowie, who is called cold and aloof,
even by friends? Who is rude to reporters and photographers? Who
doesn't give interviews?
John: Is this your first endeavour in film?
David: Yes, which makes it very interesting, because
it's all new to me. I adore it, I really do. And I'm a very good
actor, too. [Laughing] No, I really am.
Of course, working with Nick is nice because we get
on well, we understand one another. There's a marvellous chemistry
between us. He's very sensitive to everything that's going on. He's
brilliant. He's the only director around right now I'd want to work
with. Him and maybe Schlesinger.
John: One thing we want to ask him is how he compares
working with you and Jagger.
David: We're both professionals. It's a job to us
and we're very serious about it. If you've a job to do, you want
to do it as well as you possibly can.
Steve: Do you aspire towards working on the other
side of the camera?
David: Of course, that's what I really want to do.
But it's very complex… complicated, you know. That's why I'm learning
everything I can about the different angles of production. I'd really
like to direct.
Steve: That's where the control is?
David: Exactly. An actor can only do so much with
his part. The director is the one who pulls everything together,
so in the end what you see is his idea, his conception. That's where
I think my talent could be. I'm not a good actor, too much of a
ham. [Laughing] I love ham. I'm all for cliches. People say "Oh,
that's cliched," but cliches are very important, I think, because
they're something everyone understands, they're universal. Life
is full of cliches. And I love throwaway lines, they can say a lot.
If you have an important line, you know, why work at it? I'd much
rather, instead of pounding away at it, just… drop it in… throw
it away, and suddenly the people who were sitting back in their
chairs are… "Wait what did he say?"
There is an interruption as a burly, goateed man
wearing Bermuda shorts and a tank top enters the scene to hover
over David like a protective mother. He appears to be a bodyguard.
"I'm just waiting for Tommy to get back from the
set," David offers.
"Do you want me to stay and wait with you?" he asks,
sliding a glance at the two strangers questioning Bowie.
"No, that's okay. Go on, I'll be alright."
Clearly, Bowie is a man well insulated from the world
by a retinue of employee-disciples. The danger of this is obvious
overzealous satellites vying for status filter out more and
more information, until finally the man in the middle loses touch-with
reality. His choices are made for him since he receives only the
biased data parasites "protecting" him. Only Bowie isn't falling
for it. He has too much self reliance and confidence in his own
abilities to surrender much of his decision making power, as proven
by the recent firing of Tony De Fries as his manager.
Cut to: "Cut! We almost had it that time, Albert,
but you must flip off the video-screen before you give Newton his
drink. Okay, let's try it again."
Nick Roeg is a pleasant man with great patience,
and this is mirrored by his cast and crew, even under less than
ideal conditions. They are filming in an old building which has
been condemned and will be torn down as soon as the crew clears
out. There is no air conditioning. and in the island of intense
light where Bowie has been stranded for the hour and a half since
work on this scene started, the temperature must be near 100 degrees.
As if the heat weren't enough, flies attracted by
the lights have begun assembling. Answering the challenge, a crewie
with a can of Raid douses the set, then takes aim at David, who
turns away but gets a barrage of bug repellent in the back. Then,
amidst laughter and applause from the crew, David turns in the best
performance of the day. Mimicking the death throes of a cockroach,
he alternates between quivering paralysis and spasmodic jerks that
lift him off the bed to the accompaniment of nasal droning and rasping.
"You didn't know we were doing Kafka, did you?" David
Cut to: close-up of Nicholas Roeg. After years of
work as a head cinematographer for films like Lawrence of Arabia
and Doctor Zhivago, Roeg got his first chance to direct when he
collaborated with Donald Cammell on Performance which starred Mick
Jagger. Since then he has directed Walkabout and the psychological
mystery Don't Look Now.
"The thing that attracted me to Bowie was his sense
of mime and movement. Because the thing that interested me about
his performance was his movement, not just his singing that
didn't come into figuring for the film as an actor.
"What's extraordinary about David… as an artist
he can't be classified. He can't be singled out, ah that is Bowie,
because that's the way he always does that. He never appears the
same way twice."
"And he's got fantastic concentration and he's also
got an amazing kind of self-discipline. He's a very… highly well-read,
interested person and it comes out… He seemed the perfect person
"I think a lot of rock stars think they can just
transfer their art or their personality to film. David is quite
an exception to the rule in the same way that Mick is. He is a performer… I
think they're both artists and were genuinely right for the parts."
"Can you describe the difference in working with
Mick Jagger and David Bowie?" John asks.
"Very similar, very different… but they're very
similar in terms of their absolute concentration… on the character
they're playing. They're not just a singer with a band. Their whole
magnetism comes out in acting."
"Is that self-discipline something Jagger had when
you worked with him?"
"Right down to the little things like called on time,
never late. He knows everything he does is going to be scrutinised
so it's not slipshod, it's very careful out of respect to people
who do scrutinise him. David worries, Mick worried, you know, it
was interesting to see. For a performer to worry about their act
you can tell they're concerned. They become self-disciplined
wild, but everybody's a bit wild out of respect for their
medium… respect for the people who like that medium.
Cut to: clapboard snapping shut. "Scene 105 A, take
thirteen." The servant knocks, but instead of calling, "Come in,"
Bowie pauses then signals "Cut, let's go on to the next one." Apparently
he'd rather skip take thirteen and move on to a more auspicious
number. But four year old Zowie Bowie, who'd been entertaining himself
elsewhere, chooses this as the time to pay a visit. "I want to get
in bed with Daddy," says little Z clambering over the tangle of
cables just off camera. A crewie takes him gently by the hand and
guides him to safe territory. "You can't get in bed with Dad right
now, he's working."
Zowie settles for a mock shoot out with David from
the sidelines, then scurries away to another part of the set.
Dissolve to: exterior at the Hilton, close-up of
Bowie who unzips one of the many pockets in his parachutist's jumpsuit
and extracts a packet of Gitanes, a harsh unfiltered European cigarette.
Even under the blousey uniform (his own wardrobe, not a costume)
it is evident that he is painfully thin. All indications point toward
a general disregard for health. It would be easy to believe this
gaunt figure wearing fatigues belted by a length of rope were really
a marooned astronaut fighting for survival on a strange planet.
Steve: How did you get involved in this project?
David: They were first thinking of using Peter O'Toole
for the part. Then, Nick happened to see me in a documentary [Cracked
Actor] that aired on BBC on a show called Omnibus, and thought I
might be good for the role. I was in New York at the time and he
flew in to see me. I was really terrible, I kept him waiting eight
hours. I was out and when I remembered the appointment I was already
an hour late, so I thought, "Oh, no, I missed him, he won't be there.
now," and just forgot about it. When I finally got home, there was
Nick waiting for me, sitting in my kitchen very patiently. Eight
hours late and the man waited for me! That's persistence, you know,
isn't it? So we sat in the kitchen talking about the film and different
things for hours, and by the time he left I'd decided to do the
Cut to: medium shot, as two groupies join the scene
and approach Bowie. A buxom blonde over-flowing her halter top does
Groupie: Hi, we've heard that you're really into
the occult and all that, and that you practice black magic.
David: (Laughing) Rubbish.
Groupie: Rub… rubble?
Groupie: Don't you get off on that? We were talking
to Steve Jaffee and he told us you'd read the Tibetan Book of the
Dead, and in one of your songs you talk about the bardos.
David: Well the occult doesn't necessarily mean black
Groupie: We've read the Book of the Dead and it's
fantastic. I'm not afraid of death any more, it's just another part
of your life, and you should welcome it.
David: You mean, if I smothered you with a pillow
now you wouldn't scream?
Groupie: No, don't you know what I mean? Have you
David: Yeah, I've read it. I hope you have a glorious
death. Live your life the best you can while you're here, and when
you die, your death will be as glorious as your life.
Both girls are awed by this pronouncement, and stare
raptly into the opaque sunshades of their henna-ed guru, who flashes
a benevolent smile.
Groupie: Listen, Mr. Jaffee said we're supposed to
meet you for drinks at the bar later on, but I thought we might…
David: Sure, well, I'm talking to these people right
now, and I'm waiting for someone, so we'll see you a bit later.
As they moved in for the kill, David sidesteps with
the finesse of a matador, and sends them into retreat in the nicest
Cut to: interior of the hotel bar, slow pan. In the
throng of people the two groupies search for the flame of red hair
that marks their man. Crowded around the bar, a group of crewies
talk about the day's shooting. When questioned about Bowie, the
crew members voice unanimous approval, summed up by the phrase,
"He's a regular bloke."
Dissolve to: close-up on Bowie. David: It's lovely
here. I like New Mexico, it's so clean and pure and puritanical,
too not just the people but the land, too. There's something
about the land that's very… This is the way I'd like America to
be; the rest of America, I mean. It's so open and the people are
John: It would've probably been very different somewhere
David: Oh God, I wouldn't do a film in LA, I wouldn't
even attempt it. But I'm enjoying it here. And I love the cowboys,
they're fascinating. They can look at a leaf and tell you what kind
of tree it's from and where it grows. It's a different breed.
John: On the subject of America, in Young Americans
you mentioned President Nixon. What did you think about Watergate?
David: It was rather frightening. I don't know if
you realise the impact it had on the European countries that look
to America. A lot of people were worried about what might happen.
Many people here seem to think he was on the verge of creating a
secret police. Well he had that. didn't he, but I mean his own private
army. It could've been very nasty. I think you were lucky to get
rid of him when you did…
Steve: Did the fact that a lot of your previous recordings
had a science fiction or futuristic motif make you choose this film
as a vehicle?
David: No, no this isn't a… this is the farthest
thing from a science fiction film, really. When you see it you won't
think in those terms at all. Someone's published that I play a space
invader and that's… [shaking his head] that's not what it's about.
Actually I'm not interested in space, you know, it doesn't do much
for me. I've used it in some of the things I've done because it
makes… it's a macrocosm, sort of backdrop to set things against
without tying them into something too specific.
Steve: But the character you play, Thomas Newton,
is from outer space.
David: I wish you'd get off that space angle. My
character is… essential man, man in his pure form who's corrupted
or brought down by the corruption around him. But it's never definitely
said where he comes from, and it really doesn't matter. I mean,
he could come from under the sea, or another dimension, or anywhere.
The important thing is what happens between the people. It's a very
sad, tender love story that evolves over a long period of time.
it's the story of a man who falls in love and becomes an alcoholic.
(Laughing) No it isn't quite that simple.
David reaches for another cigarette. But he can't
remember in which of his zippered pockets he stowed his matches,
so a search ensues.
John: What do you think about films with rock stars
in them, like Tommy, for instance?
David: Oh, I don't like it. I haven't seen it but
I'm sure I wouldn't like it. I never cared much for Russell's films.
That whole Christ-image has been so overdone you
can't go anywhere with it. It's all been said before so what can
you add or subtract? It's a dead end because you're starting with
the lowest common denominator.
John: What kind of films do you like?
David: I don't see too many, actually. I think the
last film I saw at a theatre was A Clockwork Orange, and before
that was The Hustler with Paul Newman [laughter] I just don't see
too many films, don't have the chance. But the ones I like are mostly
pre-1930 German films. They're very stylised, that's the kind of
film I like, but no one makes them like that now.
Steve: Do you mean expressionism?
Steve: Like The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari?
David: Yeah, that's a good one… I have copies
of my favourites and that's usually what I look at when I want to
view a film. I think this [The Man Who Fell to Earth] will have
some of those qualities.
John: Roeg's previous films have been artistic successes,
but not really big box-office films. Do you think this one will
have more mass appeal
David: That's a very difficult thing to judge.
Steve: With you in it, it would seem to have something
of a built-in audience.
David: Yeah, but that's not necessarily true. Jagger
was in Performance but that wasn't a big hit at the box office when
it was first released.
Steve: But didn't Warners hold it back for two years?
David: Yeah, they were afraid of it, it was too much
for them so they buried it. Then when it was released they didn't
give it any build-up so it didn't have much of a chance.
Steve: Still it's become almost a classic at midnight
movies and film series, a real cult film.
David: That's true, and it would be all right with
me if this turned out that way. I think I might even like that better.
I like cult films and I like cults, you know, people who are very
intense about what they like. I've had that kind of following. Of
course, I'd like to see the film do well and make money, especially
for Nick. I'd like to see him get a bigger audience. He deserves
it. He has that what would you call it vision, I guess,
like, not many. Truffaut, maybe has it.
Still in the dark shades his character wears, David
peers into the failing evening light surveying the parking lot filled
with sound vans, film trucks, and trailers. For several seconds
he is silent immersed in thought.
Steve: Are you doing any music for the film?
David: Yeah, all of it. That'll be the next album,
the soundtrack. I'm working on it now, doing some writing. But we
won't record until all the shooting's finished. I expect the film
should be released around March, and we want the album out ahead
of that, so I should say maybe January or February.
Steve: Is it more difficult writing music to go with
a film than just doing an album?
David: No, not at all. A lot of music has been accompaniment
for films, there just haven't been films to go with them. You have
to supply your own images. But I like to write with that sort of
thread in mind.
Steve: You mean your concept albums have been more
or less - soundtracks without movies?
John: Why haven't you done one before?
David: Nobody asked me.
John: You don't get stuck in one style. You keep
changing with every album… You're not afraid to try anything.
David: I'm not in love with music. I'm not in love
with my music or music per se, so I'm intimidated by it. I know
a lot of people say, "you've aborted music," and so on, but I just
use music to achieve something I have in mind, an idea or a feeling
I want to get across. But I'm not one of those people who treat
it as something sacred. You've got to play around with it or it
gets to be a dreadful bore.
Cut to: interior, a long shot of the set, where we've
just witnessed a small victory. After almost three hours and nineteen
takes, Scene 105A is behind them and the crew wraps for the day.
As equipment is struck from the set, Nic Roeg approaches an exhausted
David Bowie, leans over and plants a fatherly kiss on his forehead.
Then like a proud parent with a baby, he puts his arm around David's
shoulder and feeds him a well-deserved martini.
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