Even knowing of his extensive prior experience working as a cinematographer, it’s difficult to believe that Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) was only his second film as a director. The fearlessness that characterises his best work is already present here: his enigmatic, impressionistic visual style and loose relationship with straightforward narrative, but also his interest in the darkest, most painful corners of human nature.
Walkabout begins with a scene of unspeakable horror, then proceeds to excavate with heartbreaking beauty and candour its roots in man’s cruelty and greed. All this with a deceptively simple set-up, following 2 children abandoned in the Australian outback and looking for their way home to ‘civilisation’.
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One of these 2 unnamed children – they are simply referred to as ‘girl’ and ‘white boy’ in the film’s credits – was played by Roeg’s own son, Luc, then aged only 7. Now an established film producer in his own right, Luc explains that this close relationship between actor and director was made even more direct by the fact that Roeg was also cinematographer on the film: “Having Nic photographing the film meant that there was nobody in between him directing the performance and the camera; it all just led to a very natural feeling around making the film.”
Indeed, Walkabout is worth seeing for Luc’s ease in front of the camera alone: rarely has such a young actor so convincingly played his own age. “The scenes were scripted,” Luc says, “but I think Nic could have incorporated some of the things that I said into the script… Nic had a lot of sons and he knew a lot about children!”
Although Luc says that his father always wanted to cast one of his own children in the film, the role was initially supposed to go to his older brother: “As time went on and the film took a little bit longer to get together, he grew up and got a little bit too old, and I grew up to be just about the right age. It was my turn to have a go.”
The outback as seen in the film – and no doubt in reality as well – isn’t the most welcoming of landscapes for a 7-year-old, but Luc’s memory of the experience isn’t marked by fear at all. “It was a magical place… Yes, there were scary things about it, but it got like an adventure, more than anything.”
As photographed by Luc’s father, the place appears both wonderful and hostile, but its richness and life only comes to the fore once the children encounter a young Aboriginal man, played by David Gulpilil. As he guides them and helps them hunt for food, the young man opens up their eyes to a world not devoid of violence and death, but one where it is never gratuitous or cruel, and the roughness of the elements goes hand in hand with their blunt beauty and strength.
“David had such an incredible relationship with the natural world,” Luc recalls, “and I think we all fed off that and shared all that. We saw it through his eyes. I think that that was important to all of us, not just Jenny [Agutter] and myself. It affected all of the crew.”
Scenes in which the 2 children and their new friend play together, swimming in crystal clear water or climbing up trees, are incredibly rich with life, showing the unbounded imagination of children, their capacity for play, their innocence and optimism, as well as the organic and life-affirming way attraction can form between 2 young people, no matter how different they may be.
This creative force of life and the sense of harmony it brings the children is all the more touching for the way it contrasts with the profound heartbreak at the heart of the film, made explicit by the suicide of the sibling’s father at the beginning but echoed throughout as civilisation gradually comes to infringe and terminate the trio’s idyllic, alternative lifestyle.
Walkabout touches both directly and poetically on the soul-crushing nature of colonialism, racism and capitalism, heavy topics for a child to be exposed to, although Luc does not recall it being an issue at the time. “The story was explained, and we were in Australia for quite a while before we started filming, just getting into the narrative of the film, learning some of the parts, becoming familiar with it. When the time came to actually do those scenes, it didn’t feel too alien from what we’d been preparing for.”
He credits his father with making the film as emotionally powerful as it is: “I think a lot of the impact of it has to do with the way he captured the images and the performance, and the editing of the film. He knew how to bring the nuances of that performance out. He was able to get to the emotional point of it very clearly.”
Edited to follow feelings and sensations rather than plot, with every shot evocative and atmospheric, and featuring some of the best, most sincere performances ever caught on film, Roeg’s work from the 1970s and 80s stands out for its rare ability to induce complex and powerful emotions in the viewer. “I think his films raise questions about yourself and how you feel about certain things,” says Luc. “They created feelings in you as well.”
As a producer, Luc himself has gone on to work with filmmakers who similarly eschew plot in favour of a more internal kind of experience. “One of the hardest things to do in film – as a filmmaker, as an actor, but even more so as a director – is to make a film that encourages feeling,” he explains. “You can put a hundred, even thousands of images up on the screen and they can be exciting. But creating films that have genuine feelings, that make you question your feelings, that interrogate your feelings, is a very difficult thing to do.”
Luc has produced films by Lynne Ramsay and Carol Morley, two UK filmmakers whose kinetic and connotative work clearly owes a debt to Roeg. “What you strive for is a filmmaker with those capabilities, and I would say that Carol and Lynne both have those qualities about them as filmmakers,” Luc says. “It’s been a great privilege to work with both of them.”
Considering how rare such filmmaking is today, in an era where streaming platforms, smaller screens and the mere fact that we live in a much faster world encourage a form of cinema focused on information rather than sensations, Luc notes that this kind of impressionistic filmmaking “is not something that you’re deliberately doing. It’s an interpretation of the world, and the work, and the human condition that leads to that kind of cinema.”
Luc had first hand experience of this seeing his father work, but most of all later in life, when he produced one of his films, 1995’s Two Deaths. “By then, he wasn’t photographing his own films, but Nic always had a great relationship with the camera,” he says. “He never imposed himself on it…” – or on anything else. “If he was scheduled to shoot an exterior scene and they announced a sunny day, but it was suddenly a rainy, windy day, he would adapt himself, and the film, and the narrative, and the performances, to whatever natural elements came up… Certain filmmakers are all about control, trying to control everything, whereas Nick was quite the opposite.”
Though visible in all his films, this fearlessness is never more on display than in Walkabout, a deconstruction of and plea against the impulse to impose control on the world, on ourselves and on others. This might be why, as Luc himself says, his father had a personal relationship with all his films “but none more so than Walkabout.”
- Walkabout is out on Second Sight Blu-ray from 31 August