Peter Katz, an American producer living and working in London—as many Americans were in the 1980s and almost none are today—had seen the movie we wrote for Warner Bros, The Awakening. A movie which Mike Newell directed and Charlton Heston graced with his presence. Heston was iconographic in my writing partner (Chris Bryant, ex-lawyer with a great gift for comedy) and my life, because we had some time earlier started a stand-up comedy act at university, and Heston spotted us and decided to acclaim us to the world. On the basis of his enthusiasm and kind proclamations, we made a very good living for a year or two on the US cabaret circuits. Thereafter we went on to become screenwriters.
The Awakening was based on a book written by Bram Stoker, the father of all horror stories. When Warner Bros hired us, the president of production warned us emphatically that “exposition will be very tricky indeed.” It was such a peculiar remark that we ignored him and began to write. During this process I asked the studio for their readers’ report or other coverage. It is quite useful to read somebody’s precis of the story to ensure you have seen the overall line of the narrative.
Sure enough, the studio coverage said “exposition will be very tricky indeed,” and now we knew where the studio president gained his wisdom. But why would any reader find the plot difficult to explain? The reason lay in the date of the coverage. 1928. Silent movies. A time when plots could only be explained in a handful of subtitles. But the wisdom of the comment was relayed to us in the 1980s with all the solemnity of insight and the weight of a major studio president.
Peter Katz gave us Daphne du Maurier’s short story to read, made no comments based on a reader’s report, and seemed pleased when we told him we were enthusiastic to write the screenplay. We made some big decisions early on: not to have the couple visiting Venice on a holiday but for the husband’s work as a restorer; and to embrace the mystical elements of the story. The resulting screenplay was enhanced at the last minute when I said to my partner, “It’s a bit dull in the middle,” and prompted us to make Baxter a specialist architect so that we could have a suspense sequence somewhere in the fold! The collapsing scaffold in the church, which eventually Nic filmed so brilliantly, shifted time and terror.
Thus are movies made, piece by piece, notion by notion. Watching the random elements come together is the greatest part of the fun. Less fun much later on was Nic accompanying us pre-filming to every seer, fantasist and witch doctor in London, making that mystical other world harder and harder to believe in.
A US director named Larry Peerce was engaged to make the film and we accompanied him to Venice on a location scout. Details of the story came together and Larry had one note, but it was a note that changed everything: “I think you need something more exciting, more interesting at the very beginning before they go to Venice.” The idea was barely expressed when we devised the opening in which (a) the younger child dies and (b) her father seems to have some foreknowledge which he utterly rejects.
It was several months later when Peter Katz called to tell us that Larry had moved on and would we like to lunch with a possible director? We were excited, both of us having adored Walkabout, to meet Nicolas Roeg. That first lunch was enjoyable but yielded no hint that his life and mine would be tied by work and friendship for the next three decades.
There is no doubt that Nic Roeg is an auteur. But how does that come about since he shot the script as written and handed to him? Well, first he cast it. Second, he had us in day-long sessions, revising and reading, testing and checking every single page. In later years, I saw this as his way of becoming absolutely familiar with the material. But the sessions also brought wonderful little tweaks, ideas or visual inspirations. I remember Nic asking for a line for our blind lady as she crossed St Mark’s Square. He even proffered a large book of philosophy to stimulate us into a startling sentence. We came up with “Milton loved this city, you know,” referring to both the lady and poet being blind.
Nic is also a proper filmmaker: a collaborator. It was his editor who came up with the notion of cross-cutting images from Baxter’s life as he lay dying. Nic’s embrace of this notion is what makes him an auteur. Films written by others, collaborators from other disciplines once embraced by the director, make them belong to the director. But this is a thousand miles from the “film by” school of thought. I actually received a list of Cannes Festival entries this year (2023) with only the director credit “by” on the list. The Guardian among other outlets tends to perpetuate this: crediting entire movies to their directors no matter how nugatory that director’s contribution may be.
Case in point, the great Robert Bolt wrote a play which became a world-wide success: A Man for All Seasons. But when it was made as a film, it became contractually known as “FRED ZINNEMAN’S MAN FOR ALL SEASONS.” No wonder writers sometimes despair.
Nic and I went on to make four films together, including our wounded baby Cold Heaven, starring Theresa Russell (by then Mrs Roeg) and Mark Harmon. I asked him one day: “Can we make a movie in Hollywood that ends with a character having an apparition of the Virgin Mary?” Yes, he replied with certainty: “if Spielberg can give you little space aliens shaking hands with Francois Truffaut, then audiences can surely be helped to believe in a character seeing the Virgin.”
Sadly, although I love the movie, his thesis proved wrong.
Donald Sutherland and I made a couple of films in later years. I approached Julie Christie once over a BBC film; she was interested but wanted to know more about the politics of the project. There were none. I begged Nic to let me re-make The Man Who Fell to Earth on the grounds that there was a better version somewhere; he admired my cheek but the idea got no further. He was such a decent person and so much fun, I miss him daily. It was Nic who introduced me to The Queen’s Gambit. He didn’t want to do it himself but I nonetheless went and bought the rights—thirty years ago. I struggled with eight different directors and finally got it made with Scott Frank at Netflix. Alas Nic was gone by the time we got all our awards, so we don’t make much of a fuss about them.
In the mid-seventies when we made Don’t Look Now, productions saved money by showing rushes (dailies) in black and white rather than in colour. Thus the first time any of us saw the whole film in its glorious colour was at its opening night!
Moved, I once asked Nic how he rejected the little women killers in red who auditioned. “I was thinking of someone a bit taller,” he replied. Tall, like the tales he loved to tell.