SCRIPT TO SCREEN: Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now

Don't Look Now | Nicolas Roeg | 1973 | UK, Italy | Format: 35mm | 110 min 

Released in the US 40 years ago today on December 9, 1973.
When British director Nicolas Roeg’s perverse thriller Don’t Look Now hit American theaters, not everyone was happy. In the New York Times review, Vincent Canby claimed that when this “fragile soap bubble of a horror film” ends, “you may feel, as I did, that you've been had.” Adapted from a Daphne Du Maurier short story, Don’t Look Now previewed many of the director’s upcoming themes—chaotic, realistic sex; disjunctive narrative montages; storylines that collapse the psychological and the supernatural. Here a young couple (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland), traumatized by the recent drowning of their young daughter, comes to Venice for a working holiday and possible relief from their grief. What they find instead is a mystery lost in the maze of Venice’s back streets and canals and shrouded in the city’s famous fog. And while some find the film’s enigmatic style off-putting, more have found it unforgettable. The sex scene, which was thrown in at the last moment, has become so infamous that for years people have questioned whether it was real or simulated. The film’s fractured shooting style remains a model for how to transform a city into a cinematic character. And the infamous chase of a girl in a red raincoat has been referenced by films as diverse as the torture porn hit Hostel to the comedy In Bruges to James Bond’s Casino Royale to many music videos. ~~ FOCUS FEATURES




Polish poster version of "Don't Look Now"
Don't Look Now was produced by Peter Katz through London based Casey Productions and Rome based Eldorado Films. The script based on the short story by Daphne du Maurier was offered to Nicolas Roeg by scriptwriter Allan Scott, who had co-written the screenplay with Chris Bryant, while Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland were cast in the principal roles. Filming began in England in December 1972, breaking off for Christmas, and resuming in January 1973 for seven more weeks in Italy.


Don't Look Now was to be Nicolas Roeg's third directorial feature following Performance and Walkabout. Although real-life couple Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner were suggested for the parts of Laura and John Baxter, Roeg was eager to cast Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland from the very start. Initially engaged by other projects both actors unexpectedly became available. Christie liked the script and was keen to work with Roeg who had served as cinematographer on Fahrenheit 451, Far from the Madding Crowd and Petulia in which she had starred. Sutherland also wanted to make the film but had some reservations in regards to the depiction of clairvoyance in the script. He felt it was handled too negatively and believed that Don't Look Now should be a more "educative film", and that the "characters should in some way benefit from ESP and not be destroyed by it". Roeg was resistant to any changes and issued Sutherland with an ultimatum.

Roeg wanted Julie Christie to attend a séance prior to filming. Leslie Flint, a direct voice medium based in Notting Hill, invited them to attend a session which he was holding for some American parapsychologists, who were coming over to observe him. Roeg and Christie went along and sat in a circle in the pitch dark and joined hands. Flint instructed his guests to "uncross" their legs, which Roeg subsequently incorporated into the film.
Adelina Poerio was cast as the fleeting red-coated figure after Roeg saw her photo at a casting session in Rome. Standing at only 4'2" tall, she had a career as a singer. Renato Scarpa was cast as Inspector Longhi, despite not being able to speak English and had no idea what he was saying in the film.


The drowning scene and house exteriors were filmed in Hertfordshire at the home of actor David Tree, who also plays the headmaster at the son's boarding school.  Shooting the sequence was particularly problematic: Sharon Williams, who played Christine, became hysterical when submersed in the pond, despite the rehearsals at the swimming pool going well. A farmer on the neighbouring land volunteered his daughter who was an accomplished swimmer, but who refused to be submersed when it came to filming. In the end, the scene was filmed in a water tank using three girls.  Nicolas Roeg and editor Graeme Clifford showed the opening sequence to some friends before filming resumed on the Venice segment, and Clifford recalls it making a considerable impression.  

The Venice locations included the Hotel Gabrielli Sandwirth—the lobby and exteriors standing in for the film's fictional Europa Hotel, although the Baxters' suite was located at the Bauer Grunwald (which better accommodated the cameras)—and the San Nicolò dei Mendicoli (the Church of St. Nicholas), located on the outskirts of Venice. Finding an appropriate church proved difficult: after visiting most of the churches in Venice, the Italian location manager suggested constructing one in a warehouse. The discovery of St. Nicholas's was particularly fortuitous since it was currently being renovated and the scaffolding was already in place, the circumstances lending themselves well to the plot of the film. Roeg decided not to use traditional tourist locations to purposefully avoid a "travel documentary" look. Venice turned out to be a difficult place to film in, mainly due to the tides which caused problems with the continuity and transporting equipment.

Filming the scene in which John almost falls to his death while restoring the mosaic in St Nicholas's church was also beset by problems, and resulted in Donald Sutherland's life being put in danger. The scene entailed some of the scaffolding collapsing leaving John dangling by a rope, but the stuntman refused to perform the stunt because the insurance was not in order. Sutherland ended up doing it instead, and was attached to a kirby wire as a precaution in case he should fall. Some time after the film had come out, renowned stunt co-ordinator Vic Armstrong commented to Sutherland that the wire was not designed for that purpose, and the twirling around caused by holding on to the rope would have damaged the wire to the extent it would have snapped if Sutherland had let go.


While many of the changes were down to the logistics of filming in Venice, some were for creative reasons, the most prominent being the inclusion of the famous love scene. The scene was in fact an unscripted last minute improvisation by Roeg, who felt that without it there would be too many scenes of the couple arguing.  The scene set in the church where Laura lights a candle for Christine was mostly improvised too. Originally intended to show the gulf between John's and Laura's mental states—John's denial and Laura's inability to let go—the script included two pages of dialogue to illustrate John's unease at Laura's marked display of grief. After a break in filming to allow the crew to set up the equipment, Donald Sutherland returned to the set and commented that he did not like the church, to which Julie Christie retorted that he was being "silly", and the church was "beautiful". Roeg felt that the exchange was more true to life in terms of what the characters would actually say to each other, and that the scripted version was "overwritten", so opted to ditch the scripted dialogue and included the real-life exchange instead. 

The funeral scene at the end of the film was also played differently to what was originally intended. Julie Christie was supposed to wear a veil to hide away her face, but prior to filming Roeg suggested to Christie that she should play it without the veil and smile throughout the scene. Christie was initially sceptical, but Roeg felt it would not make sense for the character to be heartbroken if she believed her husband and daughter were together in the afterlife.


The score was composed by Pino Donaggio, a native Venetian who was a popular singer at the time (he had a hit with "lo Che Non Vivo" which was covered by Dusty Springfield in 1966 as "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me"); prior to Don't Look Now, Donaggio had never scored a film. Ugo Mariotti, a producer on the film, spotted Donaggio on a Vaporetto on the Grand Canal in Venice, and believing it to be a "sign" contacted him to see if he would be interested in working on the film. Donaggio was reluctant at first because he did not understand why they would be interested in someone who had no experience of scoring films.

Donaggio had no interest in making soundtracks for films at the time, but was introduced to Nicolas Roeg who decided to try him out and asked him to write something for the beginning of the film. Roeg was enthusiastic about the result but the London based producers were resistant to hiring someone who had no background in films. The film's financiers were pleased with Donaggio's work and overruled the producers. As well as composing the score, Donaggio performed a substantial portion of it himself. The piano pieces were performed by Donaggio, despite the fact that he was not very accomplished at playing the piano. The piano pieces are usually associated with Christine in the film, and Roeg wanted them to have an innocent sound reminiscent of a little girl learning to play the piano. Donaggio claims that since he was not very good at playing the piano, the pieces had an unsure style to them, perfect for the effect they were trying to capture.
The only disagreement over the musical direction of the film was for the score accompanying the love scene. Donaggio composed a grand orchestral piece, but Roeg thought the effect was overkill, and wanted it toned down. In the end the scene just used a combination of the piano, the flute, an acoustic guitar and an acoustic bass guitar. The piano was played by Donaggio again, who also played the flute; in contrast to his skill as a pianist, Donaggio was a renowned flautist, famous for it at the conservatory.  Donaggio conceded that the more low-key theme worked better in the sequence and ditched the high strings orchestral piece, reworking it for the funeral scene at the end of the film.
Donaggio won a 'best soundtrack of the year' award for his work on the film, which gave him the confidence to quit his successful singing career and embark on a career scoring films. Donaggio became a regular composer for Brian De Palma films and credits Nicolas Roeg with giving him his first lesson in writing film scores, and expressed a desire to work with him again.


Sex scene controversy

Don't Look Now has become famous for a sex scene involving Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, which caused considerable controversy prior to its release in 1973. British tabloid newspaper, the Daily Mail, observed at the time "one of the frankest love scenes ever to be filmed is likely to plunge lovely Julie Christie into the biggest censorship row since Last Tango in Paris". The scene was unusually graphic for the period, including a rare depiction of cunnilingus in a mainstream film.

Christie commented that "People didn't do scenes like that in those days", and that she found the scenes difficult to film: "There were no available examples, no role models ... I just went blank and Nic [Roeg] shouted instructions." The scene caused problems with censors on both sides of the Atlantic. The American censor advised Nicolas Roeg explicitly that "We cannot see humping. We cannot see the rise and fall between thighs." The scene's much celebrated fragmented style, in which scenes of the couple having sexual intercourse are intercut with scenes of the couple post-coitally getting dressed to go out to dinner, partly came about through Roeg's attempt to accommodate the concerns of the censors: "They scrutinised it and found absolutely nothing they could object to. If someone goes up, you cut and the next time you see them they're in a different position, you obviously fill in the gaps for yourself. But, technically speaking, there was no 'humping' in that scene." In the end, Roeg only cut nine frames from the sequence, and the film was awarded an R rating in the United States. In Britain, the British Board of Film Classification judged the uncut version to be "tasteful and integral to the plot", and a scene in which Donald Sutherland's character can be clearly seen performing oral sex on Christie's character was permitted, but it was still given an X rating—an adults only certificate.
The sex scene remained controversial for some years after the film's release. The BBC cut it altogether when Don't Look Now premiered on UK television, causing a flood of complaints from viewers. The intimacy of the scene led to rumours that Christie and Sutherland had unsimulated sex which have persisted for years, and that outtakes from the scene were doing the rounds in screening rooms.  Michael Deeley, who oversaw the film's UK distribution, claimed on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs that Warren Beatty had flown to London and demanded that the sex scene—featuring then girlfriend Julie Christie—be cut from the film.  The rumours were seemingly confirmed in 2011 by former Variety editor Peter Bart, who was a Paramount executive at the time. In his book, Infamous Players: A Tale of Movies, the Mob, (and Sex), Bart says he was on set on the day the scene was filmed and could clearly see Sutherland's penis "moving in and out of" Christie. Bart also reiterated Warren Beatty's discontent, noting that Beatty had contacted him to complain about what he perceived to be Roeg's exploitation of Christie, and insisting that he be allowed to help edit the film. Sutherland subsequently issued a statement through his publicist stating that the claims were not true, and that Bart did not witness the scene being filmed. Peter Katz, the film's producer, corroborated Sutherland's account that the sex was not authentic.

Theatrical releases

Don't Look Now—marketed as a 'psychic thriller'—received its world premiere in Britain on 16 October 1973, as the main feature of a double bill.  The Wicker Man was its accompanying 'B' feature and—like Don't Look Now—went on to achieve great acclaim. The two films have thematic similarities, and both end with their protagonists being led to preordained fates by a 'child' they believe to be helping. Michael Deeley, who was managing director of British Lion Films at the time of the film's release, claimed that the film's US reception was hurt by Paramount Pictures rushing the film into cinemas too early, due to the unexpected failure of Jonathan Livingston Seagull; despite its mismanaged distribution, Peter Bart—from his time at Paramount—recalls it performing "fairly well" at the box office. The film had recouped most of its expenses before it was even released, with its $1.1 million budget offset by the fee Paramount paid for the US distribution rights.  Don't Look Now was chosen by the British Film Institute in 2000 as one of eight classic films from those that had begun to deteriorate to undergo restoration. On completion of the restoration in 2001, the film was given another theatrical release. ~~ Wikipedia


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