We lost the wonderful talented Nicolas Roeg, last week…another extraordinary talent gone. I had the privilege of working with him on The System, my first big film and one of the two best I have done.
This is going to be a long one, but time to talk a bit about The System aka The Girl-Getters…..the US title because the distributors didn’t understand the title and thought it would give potential audiences the idea that the film was about Las Vegas and gambling…hmmm! Thought Peter Draper’s title was much better and described the film perfectly, but what do I know, I am not a Film salesman.
I was rather surprised, but very happy to be offered the part of “Nicola” in the film, the offer coming somewhat out of the blue. Michael Winner, the Director had really wanted Julie Christie….don’t blame him, she is a beautiful actress with a luminescence on screen….but she passed on it, maybe wasn’t available and so he came to me. I loved the part and the script, which was excellent – written by Peter Draper.
The people on The System, who were integral to me giving my best to the film were of course Michael, with whom I had little chemistry and therefore felt little real support from him…it was his first proper film as a Director and I think he didn’t quite know what he was doing.….his mentor had been the great Lewis Gilbert ( Alfie, etc)….. Oliver Reed.….more in a minute about him, Betty Glasgow (Titanic, Alfie)the hairdresser on the film, who was very experienced and supportive, but above all Nic Roeg, working as Director of Photography and his team, the camera crew.
Nic was amazing, experienced and wonderfully talented. I think the film would not have been the success it was without him. His support to Michael was immeasurable. And he was engaged with the entire story telling process, not working in a creative vacuum as some DP’s are. (Nothing wrong with that…just the way it is often). Nic was engaged in the whole, the emotional content of the story, while Michael was more absorbed with the effect. Michael got his effect, but he would not have done it without Nic.
Think I’ve said before the camera crew is often my first line of support, when working……the Director sometimes second unless he is a real actor’s Director and not all are. Peter Sasdy and Christopher Morahan spring to mind as actors’ Directors, in my experience. Without naming names, I have known a few really major actors /stars who have absolutely no time for the Director. Directors can be an odd bunch…some tyrannical bullies, some only blinkered and absorbed in making their exclusive ‘masterpiece’ and the few who can manage the whole complicated process, the team and work well with the actors, really enhancing what the actor brings to the story.
So for me the camera operator has often been my first port of call..the audience…..he/she is on one side of the lens and you are on the other.
After a take I will automatically look to the operator’s reaction first…I know if I have done it well, but always look for a quick affirmation.
I will add that this was a lot less so working in Television in LA, the crews were not as engaged with the actors as in the UK. A factor of fear of upsetting an actor was there ….ridiculous…..or maybe they were just bored and exhausted by then, working in episodic TV…it was just a job.
Alex Thomson was Nic’s operator on The System and he and Nic were my real support on the film, my best friends. They gave me tremendous confidence and I knew from a quick glance at Alex, whether a take worked or not. Alex went on to be a very successful DP (Excalibur, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet). He was a very gentle, very tall man, unflappable and extremely able. He and Nic worked as one, completely in control, confident, and always enthusiastic to be there. They had the passion. I felt safe in their hands….happy and excited to be on the set with them.
Oliver was a different situation. He was a complex man and somewhat unpredictable. I never got to really understand him. By the time we came to do The System, he had made a big name for himself in Hammer Horror films and this was his first really serious role in a serious picture. I think he did an excellent job. He was a nephew of one of the most famous names in the business Sir Carol Reed and I think that weighed somewhat heavily with him. So he would clown it up on set, shut people out and could be cruel…sometimes to vulnerable crew who couldn’t answer back, I disliked him for that. Then incredibly kind…… I got stung by wasps twice in the arm within the space of an hour, one day shooting, My arm swelled up like a balloon. Oliver was genuinely concerned, got the stings out and looked after me like a child. He liked a drink and would challenge people to drinking contests. I remember one drunken night after shooting, he had David Hemmings hanging out of a window, two storeys up at the hotel. Oliver was holding David, by his wrists and could easily have let go….he didn’t . But I think he enjoyed the danger, the theatricality of the situation. And there was a lot of drinking on location in those days. Oliver was very good looking in a powerful way….. a bit of a rock star, but he was an actor through and through and was a real film star, without taking it or himself too seriously. So, though it was working with an unpredictable joker, I really enjoyed working with him and we had chemistry, that vital ingredient.
The film however, was so much about Nicolas Roeg and what he brought to it….it is not surprising that he went on to continue as a successful Director and I would have liked to have worked with him again. Hope you’re happy, still making movies in heaven, Nic.