In February 1987 I talked to Nicolas Roeg for Time Out to tie in with the UK release of Castaway, a virtual two-hander about what transpired after 49-year-old Gerald Kingland placed a small ad in search of a woman who would be willing to marry him (to comply with visa requirements, apparently) and live with him for a year on Tuin, an otherwise uninhabited island in the Torres Strait between New Guinea and Australia. The successful respondent was 25-year-old Lucy Irvine.
The film had a direct connection to Time Out, which happened to be the magazine in which the ad was originally placed, in 1980. Always on the lookout for a novelty angle, I conceived what I thought at the time was the brilliant idea of formatting the interview itself as a series of small ads, separated by bullet point symbols and arbitrary use of caps, which I imagined would reflect both the screenplay’s origins and Roeg’s own habit of playing with timelines and continuity in his films.
The result ran in the magazine with no interference or criticism, but reviewed with hindsight was clearly a disaster: at best annoyingly choppy, at worst almost unreadable. Hence I have heavily edited the text here in an attempt to make it a slightly more agreeable reading experience. Roeg’s quotes, however, stay the same and are, I think, very interesting even if I bollocksed up the rest.
I wish now, of course, that I’d asked him more about his career. But I hadn’t been given a lot of space and mostly we stuck to talking about Castaway; I also wish we’d talked more about the practical experiences of filming with Oliver Reed, who played Gerald Kingsland, and Amanda Donohoe, who played Lucy Irvine – or maybe I did ask him, but his replies didn’t make the cut.
The film did contain a lot of non-gratuitous nudity, which naturally got the media frothing salaciously at the mouth, though despite the age difference and Reed’s reputation, one’s impression of the then relatively inexperienced Donohoe is that she was remarkably self-possessed, and more than capable of holding her own. In 2011, she recalled her experience working with Reed, stating: ‘Well, naked on a desert island with Oliver Reed – it was a tabloid fantasy, wasn’t it? He was an alcoholic and his behaviour was erratic, but he was always a courteous and good actor. His personal life wasn’t working but he never crossed any lines professionally.’
I do remember Roeg being delightful. As I recall, we had a really nice chat, and particularly bonded over our memories of growing up at a time when it was considered perfectly normal to roll up at a cinema halfway through the main feature, and then sit through the next show in order to catch up with the beginning of the film.
‘It’s Time Out, for God’s sake!’ And so, in its own small way, our own little organ gets its own moment in the product placement sun alongside, for example, Budweiser’s cool tubes in The Delta Force, and James Bond’s Sony hardware. Time Out Issue No 562 (January 23-29 1981) gets a lot of exposure in the early scenes of Castaway, because that’s where the story starts, in the small ads at the back.
‘Uninhabited Tropical Island Adventure: writer wants “wife” for one year.’ Lucy Irvine answered Gerald Kingsland’s ad, and the rest is his-story (Kingsland’s The Islander) not to mention her-story (Irvine’s Castaway) and a film by Nicolas Roeg, based on Irvine’s book.
‘What attracted me to it? It’s a classic thing,’ says Roeg. ‘Robinson Crusoe was the first English novel. And it must be something that everyone wants — to go on holiday to a deserted beach. No one says “Go to Marbella, it’s crowded there.” ‘
Roeg does little impersonations as he talks, switching his personal pronouns around, swapping verb tenses and interpolating seemingly irrelevant fragments at random. It all adds up, however, in a kaleidoscope of detail. Just like his films.
Castaway relates the consequences of Irvine answering that small ad: her hopes and dreams, a year of adventure, and the practicalities of catching parrot fish and dislodging coconuts. She and her co-castaway are not very practical people, however. They go down with all sorts of wasting diseases and infections and vitamin deficiencies. One’s first impression is of a right couple of dingbats. ‘But they did a very marvellous, eccentric thing,’ says Roeg.’ If it had been two Americans, they’d have taken pills to turn salt water into fresh water, and all kinds of technical stuff. But to arrive with a few boxes, and “Did you remember the rice, darling?” “Oh Christ, I forgot the iodine…” ‘
Someone told Roeg that it looked like a Bounty Bar commercial. ‘I guess it must do, because of the coconuts. If it were shot on the London Underground, it would look like a London Passenger Transport commercial. It’s inevitable, isn’t it?’
The timeline in Castaway is fairly straightforward compared to the narrative structure of Don’t Look Now or Bad Timing, but Roeg maintains that his characteristic juggling with time and space is not deliberate obfuscation. ‘I know I’m accused of that and it makes me sad. But I try and make it as clear as possible.’ Castaway is ‘a film of chap ters that represent a human relationship under a searchlight. But the chapters don’t immediately follow on from each other. There are gaps — it goes to black. And the next scene is a result of what happened in the black bit.’
In Bad Timing, there is a shot of Milena (Theresa Russell) reading The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. Bowles’ novels deal with characters stranded in exotic environments, as do Roeg’s 1970s films (Performance, Don’t Look Now, Walkabout, The Man Who Fell to Earth), but Roeg’s efforts to film the book have never come to fruition. ‘I always loved The Sheltering Sky and wanted to film it,’ Roeg told Gerald Peary in 1980. ‘But it was owned by Hollywood director, Robert Aldrich. We tried to buy it; the situation was impossible.” [ETA: Bowles’ book was eventually filmed in 1990 by Bernardo Bertolucci. Bowles said later, ‘It should never have been filmed. The ending is idiotic and the rest is pretty bad.’]
Of Castaway‘s desert island setting, Roeg says, ‘I think it’s possibly easier to see the state of people when one’s not distracted by the background. Castaway could have been set in Notting Hill, but [the relationship] would have taken longer.’ Thus the Roegian relationship, set on an otherwise uninhabited island, gets stripped down to basics. ‘There’s nothing to get in the way of the issue, no job to go to. Twenty years of marriage in one year!’ Like plants grown under laboratory conditions, the marriage of Gerald and Lucy goes through its cycles of courtship, familiarisation, tedium, estrangement and benign understanding at lightning speed, a whole lifetime together compressed into those twelve months. ‘I think their marriage was a fairly good one,’ say Roeg. ‘They went 12,000 miles to a desert island, but they took themselves. They didn’t leave themselves behind.’
At times, watching Castaway feels almost like living through a lifetime of marriage with these characters yourself. At one moment, Gerald is being boorish beyond belief. At the next, Lucy is behaving like a stuck-up cow. Roeg admits that he occasionally took sides while filming: ‘Maybe I dared admit that Gerald had been wrong, and there are various things in my life that I gave to Lucy to be right. But I wouldn’t like to say which ones, otherwise people close to me might think they know a little bit more about me.’
‘What is also interesting to me about Castaway is that because the idea is so simple, everybody automatically makes up their own story. It’s a plotless affair, like our lives. It’s like a home kit, a kit movie.’
There was a time, not so long ago, when filmgoers used to roll up at cinemas at whatever time they pleased, often halfway through the main feature, and then sit through the rest of the programme so they could watch the beginning of the film. I remember this habit as prevalent throughout the 1960s. You could also just sit there – nobody ever turfed you out – and watch the same film over and over again for the price of a single ticket; I watched 101 Dalmatians three times in the same afternoon.
But missing the first half of a film obliges you to make imaginative leaps in your head to fill in the gaps of what happened before you arrived. Interestingly, when you stuck around to watch the first half of the film, it would often reveal that the plot was not nearly so sophisticated as you’d imagined; that you had bestowed unwarranted significance on minor characters, that someone you assumed was a leading character had, in fact, only just appeared; and that events in general tended to be a lot less interesting than you’d thought. Almost like interactive cinema avant le fait.
It’s a practice that has become virtually obsolete in an era of strict showtimes and assigned seating, but Roeg recalls how he recently inadvertently arrived halfway through Peggy Sue Got Married. ‘I went through really enjoying it, and then it finished, and I now I had to see the beginning… But I’d filled in much more in my head. I couldn’t believe it, and suddenly I was very unsatisfied. It became a one-joke movie.’ Kit movies can be much more amusing when they are constructed back-to-front. DIY carries a built-in job satisfaction element.
Roeg’s next project will be Track 29, a script about childhood and memory by Dennis Potter, another master of the temporal tease. He has not yet filmed his segment for Aria, Don Boyd’s opera anthology, and is currently wavering between Puccini and Verdi. [ETA: He ended up selecting extracts from Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. See below.] Puccini gets featured in Castaway, and Roeg does an enchanting vocal impression of the needle getting stuck on Lucy’s ‘Nessun Dorma’ record. Like being cast away with someone on a desert island, going to the opera is a way of living through the most intense emotions and experiences compressed into a short space of time. But it’s a much more comfortable way of doing it.
Addendum: at the time of our meeting, Roeg had just made a couple of television PSA spots for the Department of Health & Social Security, which was belatedly desperate to alert the British public to the dangers of unprotected sexual activity and Aids. There was some controversy about the results, mainly from viewers who would have preferred such matters swept under the carpet as opposed to those who felt misled by the non-figurative approach into thinking ‘Aids’ was some sort of Wagnerian lager, if not a training school for vulcanologists.
‘Some bishop said that it was obscene and phallic,’ says Roeg. ‘But that is it, isn’t it? That’s what it’s all about.’
This piece was first published in Time Out in February 1987. It has been extensively edited and rewritten.