He’s one of the world’s most renowned filmmakers, and yet, it’s almost 20 years since Nicolas Roeg scored a hit.

As our hour-long interview with Nicolas Roeg comes to an end, we wish him an early happy birthday – the acclaimed British filmmaker turns 80 on August 15th – we also wish him well with his latest film, ‘Puffball’, based on a Fay Weldon novel, and shot here in Ireland.

His parting words were, “Encourage people to go and see it”, which echoed in our heads long after we had said our goodbyes.

This is the man who started his career as a filmmaker with a run of incredible films, starting with Performance (1970), then Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) and Bad Timing (1980).

Since those golden years though, Roeg has struggled enormously. Insignifance (1985) had an impact with the critics, and his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches (1990) even pulled in some money at the box-office, a rarity for a Nicolas Roeg film. But there’s been little else to get truly excited about. And that includes his latest offering, ‘Puffball’.

Kelly Reilly plays the young architect settling into a derelict country cottage with her plans for making her dream home under her arm and her man by her side. When she falls pregnant, she finds herself caught up in the voodoo of a local family (including Miranda Richardson’s baby-hungry Mabs and her spooky old mum, Molly, played by a constantly bugged-eyed Rita Tushingham).

It’s a story that throws up many questions about motherhood, fertility, infidelity, desire and, well, hocus pocus. And it’s a mess. One that I really couldn’t encourage anyone to go and see.

Roeg is charming, forthcoming and free from any kind of vanity about his work, but I couldn’t help but feel, looking over his recent output – the most recent being the 18-minute short The Sound Of Claudia Schiffer – that he ain’t got the power anymore…


Q: By chance, we happened to bump into your leading lady, Kelly Reilly, in Dublin a few days ago, and she said what delighted her most about Puffball was, here was a man in his seventies who was willing to take on a story all about women having babies…

NICOLAS ROEG: It was a book by Fay Weldon, originally, and her son, Dan, had done a screenplay, and that interested me. A mother’s book, adapted by her son. I read them both, obviously, and they were very linked, and it gave me a chance to delve into a woman’s mind, but then, also her son’s take on that. It’s not just a plot, a book, but all the hopes and desires, the anxieties and joys, all translated onto the page. It made it easier for me to find the truth there, and that meant I could bring something of myself to the piece as well.


Q: Looking over Nicolas Roeg’s films, it’s hard to see a defining pattern though…

Nice of you to say that, but it’s a strange thing. Mainly, any good reviews have come about ten years after the films are made.


Q: You’ve said before that your films are like Clarets – they need to be set down for a few years before consuming…

It makes me think, was it the wrong film for that time, or the wrong time but the right film, or would they ever have been accepted as they are? Hard one to figure out, if you’re not making obviously commercial films.

Actually, I made a film called Bad Timing, and a lot of our lives is bad timing. Certainly, popularity is when you hit what people are feeling emotionally at that time. They’re about to release a DVD of Glastonbury Fayre, which was one of the first films I worked on, and they wanted me to look at it and talk about it. And this was about 40 years ago, and all the young people in it are 40 years old. It’s a wonderful thing, film, and it takes a lot more reading with images, when you’ve got people’s thoughts involved without the words.


Q: With film, a huge amount of information can be put across in seconds…

Absolutely.


Q: Dan Feldon adapted his mother’s script, and worked as second unit director – how has Fay Weldon reacted to the film?

I was very proud of Fay, because she saw the truth in the film, and it’s in many ways very different to her book. It changes every day when you’re making a film, and you have to be alert to that. You have a couple who love each other and they’re parting, and they’re on a beach with the sun going down, and you arrive to the location and it’s pissing with rain. The crews have gotten use to me saying, ‘Get the camera out, boys’, because that’s like the filly that wants to go. Then you shoot the couple hiding under a shelter in the pouring rain, on a deserted beach, and the rain on her face as she walks away looks like rain. It comes out of the situation.


Q: You’ve always said that you never say ‘Cut’, as moments can occur at any time that you wouldn’t have captured otherwise. Bowie walking down an empty street, and a bouncing clown losing its cables at a nearby fairground just as a homeless guy staggers up to him and belches…

That’s right. And these are moments that you’re not actually waiting for; you just must be alert to them. Kelly was incredible in this movie, because she was very truthful. That’s what you’re looking for in every moment; the truth. And that comes out of real situations, where you don’t know what’s going to happen next…


Q: Murky, muddy Ireland seems to have been the perfect location for this story of isolation, uncertainty and being literally and metaphorically stuck in the mud. Of course, the tax breaks would have helped as well…

Yeah, the tax breaks helped, but there were tax breaks in Denmark too at one point. That might have been an odd choice. The location is important, and Ireland had always been an attractive idea to me. The original story was set in the West Country, but the similarities are there. That the story deals with love, jealousy and hate, these are emotions that travel all over the world, and it seemed to me that the countryside had an authenticity that was necessary here. Untouched, and uncomplicated…


Q: It’s been 12 years since your last feature, which was Samson & Delilah, for television. A tougher world out there for you?

Yes, but there’s always something going on. Film itself is changing all the time, and the industry side of it keeps on shifting. There are many films that I want to do, and people are constantly working on scripts. It’s not like I’m heading off into the garden; I want to keep working. Time is a very different thing from sickness. Time doesn’t stop your brain thinking. It’s very strange…


Q: By stupidly making some classic films at the start of your career, there’s a certain expectation there whenever Nicolas Roeg steps up to the camera…

Yeah, that happens. It’s a very odd thing. As I said, I’ve been pretty lucky that my work has come around to being understood a few years after each film’s release. They act as a marker for some people, and then, when they watch the film years later, they think, what the f**k did I see in that? Truth is very difficult. There are truths of the moment, and truths of the past, and truths to come.


Q: The simple truth of any business though is, if you’re not making money for your investors, they won’t keep investing…

The corporations don’t want the truth to come. They want the immediate, and the culture is becoming more and more immediate.

It’s lunacy that marketing has a set of rules that must be met. Studios give scripts to the marketing people to get their approval. It used to be the showman screaming ‘Roll up! Roll up!, and it’s become that again.

Fortunately, I’m lucky that there are still people around who want to get involved in a film not just for the money.


Q: Does the legend of Nicolas Roeg sit comfortably with you?

Honestly, truthfully, I don’t think about it, and I can’t even imagine it. I imagine myself as this completely different person, just getting on.


Words : Paul Byrne

 

Puffball is at Irish cinemas from July 25th