THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH
New insight into and pics of Nicolas Roeg’s sci-fi oddity.
“He was not a man; yet he was very much like a man… His hair was as white as that of an albino, yet his face was a light tan colour; and his eyes a pale blue. His frame was improbably slight, his features delicate, his fingers long, thin, and the skin almost translucent, hairless. There was an elfin quality to his face, a fine boyish look to the wide, intelligent eyes… Man-like, he was susceptible to love, to fear, to intense physical pain and to self-pity.” The Man Who Fell to Earth, Walter Tevis (1963)
David Bowie could have been born to play Thomas Jerome Newton, the fragile alien who comes to Earth to save his dying planet. The original 1963 novel, like the film adaptation 13 years later, is a melancholy consideration of the soullessness of 20th century American life, and the destructive effect it has on Newton.
By 1976, Bowie had abandoned his Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane stage personas and established himself in America with the “plastic soul” of his Young Americans album. The 1974 BBC documentary Cracked Actor had shown the star being driven around the United States in a large black limousine, talking nonsense as he grappled with a serious cocaine habit. He was very much a stranger in a strange land: “There was a story that [director] Nicolas Roeg had considered [the author] Michael Crichton for Newton because he was very tall and unusual looking,” recalls The Man Who Fell To Earth’s cinematographer Anthony Richmond. “Then he settled on Bowie. There’s no other actor who could have played that role, then or today.”
Richmond had known Roeg since the pair met on David Lean’s epic Doctor Zhivago in 1965 (“I was on that for a year”). They worked together on such distinctive 1960s films as A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Fahrenheit 451 (both 1966) and the anarchic James Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967), before Roeg began his directing career with the Australian Outback odyssey Walkabout (1970). Richmond also worked on Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy For The Devil (1968), The Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus – filmed in 1968 but not released until 28 years later, in 1996 – and the warts-and-all Beatles documentary Let It Be (1970). “I was getting offers to do more rock and roll,” he says, “but I thought, ‘I’m not going to be able to beat the Stones, The Beatles and The Who,’ so I didn’t do any more after [Let It Be].”
Bowie’s co-star was Candy Clark, playing Newton’s unhappy lover Mary Lou, fresh from an Oscar nomination for her role in George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973), a nostalgic tribute to early 1960s teenage life. “Nic was going into a meeting and I was waiting for him,” she tells SFX. “Before he went in, he gave me the script and said, ‘Here, do you want to read this?’ I read it and when Nic came out, I told him, ‘This is brilliant, it’s fantastic!’ He said, ‘Do you want to play Mary Lou?’ ‘Of course!’
“Myself, David and Nic had a real, real good working relationship,” Candy reflects. “Nic is a great director. In every scene you can see he’s standing just outside the frame, doing some body motions telling you to pick it up or take it down. He’s really
good at explaining what he wants and is very easy to understand.
“When I met David Bowie I thought on his looks alone he was perfect for the part. What I liked about working with him was that because he was a musician he didn’t mind rehearsing. When the crew were setting up the lights to shoot one scene and we had some downtime, David and I would be running lines for one another. There was a lot of really great dialogue; we wanted to get it perfect and not change anything. [Scriptwriter] Paul Mayersberg worked really hard on getting the dialogue right, so the challenge for us was to get it exactly as he wrote it and not improvise or change it.”
The principal location was the small town of Madrid in New Mexico. The film unit chose one particularly unusual location. “[The alien planet] was shot at the White Sands government missile range in Alamagordo,” Richmond remembers. “I do believe we were the first people ever to shoot there. All the equipment we had to get in there was put on sleighs and pulled by horses. That’s why that funny little hay bail on the monorail doesn’t go very fast, because it’s being pulled along out of shot by a horse.”
In the Alamogordo scenes Newton’s alien wife was played by none other than Candy Clark. “My [alien] make-up didn’t take as long as ageing Mary Lou,” the actress wryly notes. “That took a long time! They put some white make-up on that obliterated my eyebrows, gave me contact lenses and a suit that sprang leaks constantly, pouring pink water everywhere.” When the unit relocated to New York, Clark stepped into the shoes of the leading man himself. “David wouldn’t fly, so that’s me getting into the limousine outside the building. I was wearing his clothes and had a little orange wig with a hat. People were watching the shoot from behind the barricades and I could hear them going, ‘There’s David Bowie!’ I didn’t correct them.”
With the film complete, Clark prepared for the customary promotional tour. She was in for a shock: “I asked the distributor if I could see it before I went out on the road. I’d seen it in England and it was beautiful, fantastic, but when I saw it in New York it had been totally destroyed.
“It made me sick. When you devote a year and a half of your life to something… The distributor Cinema 5 was an art house distributor. Their whole reputation was based on putting out the director’s cut, so everyone felt really comfortable about putting the film there. Then 5 decided they wanted it to be a straight two-hour film, instead of two hours and 23 minutes.
“They cut it willy-nilly too: they hired a guy who edited commercials. It took Nic and the film’s editor Graeme Clifford a year to cut it and 5’s guy butchered it in a week. It was like chopping up a Van Gogh because you have a small frame – ‘We’ll just have the sunflowers, we’ll leave out the background.’ I saw it and went, ‘Oh my god!’… I was the one who had to break the news to Nic.
“For years I had this horrible VCR of the film that no one could make any sense of. Finally, I found my moment: years later, I phoned the people at [the company] in charge of publicity and distribution, and made it sound like I was being constantly bombarded with requests from people to see the uncut version. They actually listened to me. I then said, ‘You don’t have to do anything. Put it out with the same poster with a banner across it saying Uncut Director’s Cut – they’ll be lining up around the block!’ I also told them, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes. I’ll travel with it, do radio, newspapers, whatever.’
“When the guy called back a week or so later and said, ‘Our negative’s been cut’, I replied, ‘Oh, I know where to get the negative!’ I got in touch with the producers in England, Michael Deeley and Barry Spikings at British Lion, and the rest is history.’
For The Man Who Fell To Earth’s 40th anniversary year, Richmond has been closely involved in what he believes is the definitive DVD and Blu-ray version of the film: “Unlike the other release, which was done by someone else, I’ve pulled it much more akin to the film print, which is how it should be. There are a few scenes I wasn’t happy with, and there was a lot of magenta in the previous version, which I’ve corrected. I’m very happy with it.” Richmond believes the film is more relevant than ever. “It was way ahead of its time because today corporations run the world. When Newton’s in that apartment in that strange chair and watching 20 or 30 televisions, that’s way ahead of its time because now we’re totally bombarded with visual information. I’ve got 400 TV channels in Los Angeles and there’s nothing worth watching. It’s all garbage.” The film continues to fascinate because it merges Bowie’s fictional character with his real, rock star self. He took the clothes designed for him in the film on his subsequent Station To Station tour, and Newton’s driver and bodyguard in the film is played by Tony Mascia, Bowie’s real driver and bodyguard. Strikingly, in a scene near the end of the film, a display for the Young Americans LP can be seen in a record shop, while Newton himself becomes a dissolute rock singer under the alias the Visitor (in the book, he records poetry). There’s no escaping the fact that the celebrations around The Man Who Fell To Earth’s restoration and re-release will, inevitably, be coloured by Bowie’s death in January of this year. “It was really, really sad,” Richmond says. “I hadn’t spoken to him for years, but whenever he performed in Los Angeles I’d get tickets and go and see him. “The Man Who Fell To Earth was such an important part of my life and David’s. It was an extraordinary few months. Bowie didn’t act – he truly played himself.”
The Man Who Fell To Earth is available on Blu-ray, DVD and download from 24 October, including a Collector’s Edition.
When I saw the film in New York it had been totally destroyed