'the man who fell to earth's' candy clark talks bowie behind the scenes
As a re-released version of Nic Roeg’s seminal sci-fi film opens in cinemas, we speak to Bowie’s co-star.
There is, it must be said, a rather mixed history of musicians on screen. Generally speaking, they aren't particularly good; and yet British director Nic Roeg seemed to have a certain knack for casting them well. He worked with Mick Jagger in Performance, of course, and actually got quite a good one of those out of him (by essentially allowing him to be Mick Jagger).
It's a theme he later replicated with David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, back in cinemas today after forty years. Made in 1975 and released in 1976, it was based on a sci-fi novel by Walter Tevis and follows the story of an extraterrestrial named Newton (Bowie) whose home planet is on the verge of dying from a lack of water. He lands on Earth with the aim of finding a way to save his wife and kids, only to become dragged down by a mix of consumerism and human emotion: falling in love with a woman (Candy Clark) and succumbing to drink and general inertia (isn't that always the way when you're trying to save a planet?).
The best example of Bowie on screen (the less said about his follow-up Just a Gigolo the better), the film marked an interesting point when the then 28-year old's movie aspirations and music career completely intertwined. The sleeve of Station to Station is a still from the movie, as is the cover of Low and the 12" to "John, I'm Only Dancing." In fact for the next couple of years, Bowie seemed to be Newton: an emotionless alien, not quite human, just visiting.
For all the its disjointedness and incoherence (Roeg is quoted as saying he was attempting "to push the structure of film grammar into a different area ... by taking away the crutch of time which the audience holds onto") it really is a great movie and an exceptionally good turn by both Bowie and his co-star Candy Clark. As a newly restored version hits cinemas, we were lucky enough to have a chat Candy about her memories of working on the film. Read the interview and see behind the scenes images from it below.
How long were you involved with the movie before it started shooting?
I was the first person hired, really, before it even got financing. I was with [then boyfriend] Nic Roeg and he was having a meeting and I was sitting out in the lobby waiting for him and he said, "Well here, read this script and tell me what you think." He was in the meeting for a long time so I read the whole thing and when he came out I said, "Wow this is a great film, you have to do this" and he said, "you've got the part!". It was that easy. I had the part for about six months, maybe seven, while they were getting it together, so I really had time to think about my character and what I wanted to do with it.
How did you decide to approach Mary-Lou?
Well, my best approach for any part is to learn the dialogue and then once I get that out the way, it becomes a lot easier for me. That's my greatest fear, not knowing my lines. So I started silently studying for a long time and just thinking about the character and how I thought she should dress. I didn't know about the aging. That kind of just came as we went, with all the rubber pieces that they glue to your face. I added up my time, every day I'd write down how many hours I spent in the chair; I spent a total of ninety-six and a half hours just getting that makeup on and off. That's two 40 hour work weeks! I had to drink through a straw because it would crack.
You mention the dialogue — the script really is so good, isn't it?
It is, and I wanted it word for word and pause for pause. It was so good, the writing, you just wanted to revere that. You know, Paul Mayersberg probably spent a long time writing that and you just don't want to dismiss all that work. That's always my greatest challenge: to get it word for word and not substitute anything.
How was David with the line learning?
Oh I made him work double! We'd finish a scene and there was always down time, changing the lights or adjusting stuff, so when he could've been resting in his room — nooo, Candy wants to run lines! He never said no, really, and he never looked pained and I attribute that to him being a musician. They always have to rehearse, even if they know the songs they still have to go in, do the sound check. it's just kind of a part of their make up. Which was good for me.
Could you tell that he was a first time actor?
Never. He was brilliant from the get-go. I was pretty close to first time, I'd only done a few things myself. But he was great.
And he looks brilliant in it too, of course…
I know, that's the thing. I always thought David's skin was so reflective and luminescent, just gorgeous. And that was Tony Richmond. Artistry. He's a master of lighting and capturing beauty and it was just fantastic.
David was supposedly at the height of his drug use during the period. Did you ever see any evidence of that?
Well, he told Nic Roeg that he was not going to do drugs and I took his word for it. So even though he said he did drugs, I don't think so. You can't have that much depth of emotion while being stoned. It just doesn't come to you. When you're stoned like that you're either brittle or cold or removed from the action. You're far away. But he was never like that. He always kind of elaborated on his life and, you know, maybe he thought it would make him seem really doubly talented if he did all of that brilliant work while being loaded. I don't think so.
Had you followed his career before shooting the film?
I'd seen his movie Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars when I lived in New York but I hadn't been to any concerts. After we finished the film I did go and see him onstage and he was fantastic and I'm glad that I hadn't seen him before because I would've been all groupie-d out like, 'yeah, I looove you.' So I'm glad that was just an acting experience and not colored by his musical career. That would've made it a lot harder. I would've treated him more like a rockstar instead of just another actor.
Is there one scene that you're particularly proud of?
I'm really proud of the whole thing. The acting, the cinematography, working with Nic Roeg. I mean, he is a real actor's director. He is right there like a coach, and that was before they had all those stations where they watch your acting on a video screen. I prefer the old style, where they're next to you. It's a warmer feeling when the director is right there, right out of frame just watching. I like that.
Was it ahead of its time?
It really was and it always has been. It's starting to catch up to it's time but it's still ahead. Now we're suffering a lot of the same things that Newton did on his planet: the drought, the dryness, the lack of population, water, everything.
How often you are reminded about the film? You must have people speak to you about it on an almost continual basis.
Well, after it came out in the U.S., nobody talked about it. It was really frustrating because it had been heavily edited for the the U.S. release, so when I talked to people about it they just didn't understand. Like a fifth of the film had been chopped away. And even as it is, in tact, you really have to pay attention to follow the story! Imagine 23 minutes cut out of it. But now that version is gone, and you see the story, you see the acting, you see all the work that's been put into it, you see the beauty of David Bowie and how relaxed and how good he is. He just has natural abilities. Everything he touched.
What your first thoughts were when you heard he'd passed away?
I felt very guilty because he had that play opening in New York and for months I knew about it. It was on the internet and for months I said, "well, I'll book a ticket and go to New York and surprise him and be there on opening night." But then I thought, "oh, I'll see it when it comes to Los Angeles. He'll probably come to Los Angeles." And then he died. And I didn't even know he was sick. But when I saw pictures from the opening night I could tell. I looked at him and I could see something was wrong. He looked very strained and unhappy. Even though he was smiling, it was more of a grimace and I thought, "Woah, what's wrong with him, he doesn't look good." But then yeah, that's my guilty feeling of not showing up, you know? I didn't feel like there was any time limit. Now it's too late. He would've been thrilled if I had shown up, I just know he would've. Because the play was based on The Man Who Fell To Earth and I really wanted to see what he was going to do with Mary-Lou.
When was the last time you saw him?
I ran into him a couple of times when I did this play in New York called A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking. Just ran into him on the street like, 'hey!' and you know he'd say hey, come have some coffee and we'd sit and talk for a while. But that was years and years ago, like in the 80s.
What are your overriding memories of working on the film?
The overriding memory was friendship, working together. It was just a real good feeling. Good times with the crew, a lot of laughing, light hearted, everyone working together and friendly and happy. A very good feeling.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is out now in cinemas and available to own from October 24. A newly reissued soundtrack is also out now.
Text Matthew Whitehouse
Photography David James