Scene by scene: my secrets of shooting David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth

Nicolas Roeg’s regular cinematographer Tony Richmond shares his memories of filming key moments in the cult David Bowie sci-fi classic The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Leigh Singer
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The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

“I don’t think that the cinematographer should have a style. A lot of them do. Not to belittle anybody, but Janusz Kaminski is a brilliant cinematographer but all his movies look the same. I’m a slave to the script and the story, which obviously means to the director…”

When the director in question is Nicolas Roeg, however, that’s surely no bad thing. British cameraman Tony Richmond’s long, varied and stellar career has taken in everything from music docs (Jean-Luc Godard’s 1968 Rolling Stones collaboration Sympathy for the Devil/One Plus One to acclaimed indies such as Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner, 1991); mainstream romcoms (Legally Blonde, 2001) to horror classics (Candyman, 1992). But the director who he really feels put him on the map is Roeg, for whom Richmond first worked as assistant camera operator, before working his way up to director of photography on a series of defiantly sui generis classics including Don’t Look Now (1973) – for which Richmond won a BAFTA – Bad Timing (1980) and David Bowie sci-fi oddity The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), which is about to be re-issued in a stunning 4K version. Richmond sat down to talk through specific scenes from the film and how he helped Roeg realise his singular vision.

1. “Bowie himself was very ethereal”

In reality, a cinematographer’s job is to put the director’s vision on the screen. And a lot of directors find it very hard to explain their vision in words. But it was always very simple with Nic Roeg because there are very few directors who had a vision like he does. And he was a cinematographer himself, so he can put it into words you can easily understand.

Bowie himself was very ethereal. When he’s coming down that slag heap, obviously we waited until it was totally backlit, but even then you don’t really see his face properly. It’s a strange image, that.

What happened was, I went out and bought a book of beautiful old Hollywood stills – Grand Illusions by Richard Lawton. And there was one still in there, a guy walking through the heather with the sun in the background. And I showed it to Nic and he said: “That’s it.”

2. “I just love the way these anamorphic lenses flare”

The whole picture was shot in New Mexico. The visuals there were amazing, the topography changes so quickly. You could be in beautiful fields and then miles later, you’re in the middle of nowhere. It was wonderful, we found the location and we waited for sunset.

I just love the way these anamorphic lenses flare, it’s beautiful, the halation. It was a sort of no-no at the time, lens flare, but it’s become a huge thing. We loved that and went for it. I think they were the Panavision C Series Anamorphic Lenses. Nowadays everyone’s trying to get this, the way technology has taken digital cameras, something new is coming out and the new lenses, they’re all too sharp. So now they’re trying to go back to the old lenses that we used here, which flare and halate beautifully.

3. “The film has an outsider’s look at the US”

I hope you’re not going to ask me what that scene’s about, because I have no idea! And those backgrounds are paintings, yes. A very famous artist did those. All the scenes of his home planet, that’s at the White Sands missile range at Alamogordo. It was really hot there too. We weren’t allowed to take anything onto White Sands that couldn’t be pulled by a horse! I think we were the first people allowed to shoot there.

I think the film has an outsider’s look at the US. I’d never been to places like that, where the culture was so different. When I shot my first feature in 67, Only When I Larf for [director] Basil Dearden, we shot in New York. And when it was reviewed in America, they seemed to single out the fact that I’d shot New York like a tourist would see it. I was so struck by the size and scale of everything.

4. “Nothing surprises me with Nic”

To do Bowie’s alien makeup took eight hours. They’d start at two o’clock in the morning and he would be on a very high-end dentist’s chair. Photographically you had to take great care in the way that you shot him in that makeup, what diffusion you used, things like that. Before he reveals himself as an alien, there’s a giveaway there because he’s got no fingernails, when his hand comes up. Then she pisses herself, which really freaks a lot of people out. [chuckles] But nothing surprises me with Nic. And it’s a totally natural reaction.

5. “Aliens having orgasms”

The spinning in the air – “aliens having orgasms”! We did that at Shepperton Studios afterwards. We built two towers and were up there with a camera, about 20 feet up. And we bought a huge trampoline and brought a trampoline specialist in, and the prop men were on another tower. And as they jumped up, they threw buckets of wallpaper paste all over them. And that’s what’s coming off them! Although quite frankly what I hate nowadays, is all these ‘how-they-did-this’ [features]. There’s no magic in movies anymore.

6. “This is obviously not a steadicam”

There’s some stuff in there that was so difficult to do, that would be easy today. When the guy comes along with the cart, the waiter, it’s all one shot. This is obviously not a steadicam, because the steadicam wasn’t invented then!

This is on a dolly, but what’s interesting is, we had to lay boards on the floor and cover them with carpets as we went. Now as you go further, so as we could attach the carpets, what would need to stop and go into this room. And what’s happened is, the crew bought in, like, a piece of scaffolding with carpet wrapped around it and then when he comes back, now as we go, we’re unrolling the carpet! And as we go back they’ve unrolled the carpet across. It’s a good shot, that, but it would be so simple today.

7. “I actually gave blood to the movie…”

Bowie didn’t have any special shooting requirements at all. There was only one strange thing that happened: in the scene towards the end where they’re all working on him, when they cut his breast and blood comes out, I didn’t like the makeup blood. So I said to Tommy Raeburn the prop man: “Send your assistant to the butcher’s to get some pig’s blood.” And Bowie overheard me say that, and he said, I’m not having pig’s blood!

So we had a nurse on set and Nic said, “Well, use human blood”, so he got the nurse to take my blood, because it was my idea! You couldn’t do that today! I actually gave blood to the movie…

He’s so good in this, Bowie. There’s no one else who could’ve played him. When he died a few months ago, I heard someone say: ‘I just like to think he got in his spaceship and went back home.”

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