BOWIE GOLDEN YEARS

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SPACED OUT IN THE DESERT

Steve Shreyer and John Liftlander | Creem | December 1975

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.

Roll titles:

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 by narrative.

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 Tibetan chant?

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 reclining on.

Cut to: close-up and slow pan down the page of a reporter's notebook.

"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!"

"Let's go."

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 laughs.

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 for this.

"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 film.

Cut to: medium shot, as two groupies join the scene and approach Bowie. A buxom blonde over-flowing her halter top does the talking.

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?

David: Rubbish.

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 magic.

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 read it?

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 possible way.

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 very friendly.

John: It would've probably been very different somewhere like LA

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?

David: Right.

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?

David: Sure.

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.

» The Man Who Fell To Earth


1974  1975  1976  1977  1978  1979  1980 

DAVID LIVE  |  YOUNG AMERICANS  |  STATION TO STATION  |  LOW  |  HEROES  |  LODGER  |  SCARY MONSTERS

CRACKED ACTOR  |  THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH  |  JUST A GIGOLO  |  THE ELEPHANT MAN

ARTICLES  |  TV APPEARANCES