Nicolas Roeg, British filmmaker, smokes too many cigarettes for a fifty-two year-old. His laugh is raspy and phlegm-soaked, and he chortles a lot more often, and in an infinitely jollier way, than I would have expected from his dark introspective pictures. We talked casually over coffee at the Toronto Film Festival, and our topic was Roeg's latest film, Bad Timing-A Sensual Obsession, starring his youthful wife, Theresa Russell.
I asked about the Italian novel credited on screen as the source, but unmentioned in the press material. "I haven't read the novel. It's a legal issue," Roeg said. Italian producer Carlo Ponti sent him a "semi-script outline" for a story set in Italy. The situation interested Roeg, so he assigned - good timing! - someone he barely knew, Yale Udoff, to write an original screenplay, and to move the tale to Vienna. Udoff,a friend of a friend, always had wanted to meet Roeg. They met. Roeg liked him and hired him.
"I didn't have a title for it at all. One evening we were sitting up, and an incident occurred. I said, 'Oh God, it's bad timing.' That's what a lot of life is: 'Isn't it extraordinary! I just met you, but I got married last month!' Of course, Bad Timing has a double connotation of 'bad-timing,' stepping out on your lover."
We talked about Milena Flaherty's (Russell) reading in Bad Timing: a poem about love by William Blake, also Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky. Both are Roeg favorites. "I always loved The Sheltering Sky and wanted to film it. But it was owned by Hollywood director, Robert Aldrich. We tried to buy it; the situation was impossible." All books in the apartments of Milena and Dr. Linden (Art Garfunkel) were handpicked by Roeg. "Props have their own life," he said. "When you go into someone's house, what do you do? I head for the bookshelves."
Bad Timing continues Roeg's obsession with expatriates, strangers in very strange lands, from Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie caught in nightmare Venice in Don't Look Now to the caucasian kids crossing the could-be-the-moon Australian terrain in Walkabout to David Bowie from another planet landed on our peculiar one in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Roeg's conversation is peppered with stories of Expatriates That I've Known-from the ex-NYC dry cleaner whom Roeg met living in "Nebraska City" (sic) to the young American adrift in Vienna who, years ago, penned the song, "Walk Away, Renee." Milena in Bad Timing is a composite of these people. "Her family had drifted apart. She was brought up in Europe. I imagine her as an army brat."
When he discusses it, Roeg seems much more sympathetic to Milena's relationship with Alex Linden than I would have thought from the movie. She is irrational, impulsive, messy; he is straight, stiff, fastidious. "Opposites do attract." Roeg said. "It's a very pretty idea. One complements the other. Tall men are attracted to small women, and vice-versa. A person wants a partner who will fill in areas that are lacking."
Still, the mismatched couple are constantly bickering when they aren't in bed. I asked Roeg if they made the same mistake as Oshima's protagonist in In the Realm of the Senses, trying to obliterate the world through fucking.
Roeg was piqued by my analysis. "You can't obliterate the world through fucking. What you say say has a slight jadedness to it. Fucking is pornography. The characters in Bad Timing are driven all the time to 'making love.' It's like Schopenhauer said: 'Who knows why they're together? It's the genius of the genes inside.'" Roeg not only blessed the Bad Timing relationship but approved of Garfunkel's psychoanalyst character.
"It's interesting. Men don't like him, but women I've talked to understand his plight. I like to think of Bad Timing as a 'man and woman' picture, like Belle de Jour. I find that exciting-that it should appeal to each member of the audience."
And then Roeg laughed in that raspy, boisterous way, over the double meaning of "member."
The Real Paper (Boston) - October 23,1980