Interview with Donald Cammell by David Del Valle
Video Watchdog Magazine © 1998 All Rights Reserved
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Dangerous times produce dangerous art. The cinema of the late 1960’s reflected a wild and dangerous mood that was best crystallized in Performance, a witches’ brew of crime, decadence, and drug-induced hallucinations. This film of “Vice… and Versa” was the work of two directors: Nicolas Roeg supervised the cinematography, while Donald Cammell wrote the screenplay, directed the actors and supervised the editing. It took nearly two years for Warner Bros. To distribute Performance in the United States, where after it immediately assumed cult status throughout the counterculture.

In the wake of Performance, Roeg directed a number of acclaimed motion pictures, while Cammell's appeared to stall. The common assumption that Roeg’s success resulted in feelings of envy and sour grapes is unfounded: no ill feeling existed between the two directors. I emphasize this because, in the interview you are about to read, Cammell makes certain comments tht might be mistaken for a kind of animosity that simply was not in his nature. If they were rivals, it was only as siblings would be. When he heard that VIDEO WATCHDOG was planning to print the following statement about Cammell, Roeg said, “I feel like a part of me has been taken away. He was like a brother.”

Anyone familiar with Cammell’s work habits knew that he liked the collaborative mode and the communal environment of filmmaking. He took everyone’s suggestions, never subscribing to the auteur theory. It wasn’t the way Hollywood pictures are made, but no one ever accused Cammell of making a Hollywood picture. In 1978, when his directorial solo Demon Seed was being produced, Cammell envisioned it as a comedy. He found that the idea that technology would lead to sexual reproduction between woman kind and a machine, hysterically funny. The studio, Metro-Goldywyn Mayer, wasn’t laughing.

Donald Cammell was an extremely bizarre and eccentric artist. His views were very personal and he refused to conform, not in Europe, and certainly not in Hollywood, to what was commercial or politically correct. This previously unpublished interview was conducted in June 1988. At the time, Cammell had just completed White of the Eye (1987), a billiant, mesmerizing odyssey through the mind of a serial killer (David Keith) and his loving wife (Cathy Moriarty). It anticipated films like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and The Silence of the Lambs, and at the same time, went light years beyond them. It was critically acclaimed, even publicly endorsed by Martin Brando, yet it was too potent and unique a work to attract a popular audience. Ironically, I was trying to get in touch with Donald a couple of weeks before his suicide to urge him to appear at The American Cinematheque for a screening of Performance. However, days before the screening, Donald phoned to beg off. He apologized, saying that it was “bad karma” to look to the past. For him, nostalgia was a waste of time. He lived life in the present tense, preferring to leave the explanations to people like myself. He ended our conversation by saying if he ever consented to another interview, he would give it to me. Well, Donald, it seems to have worked out that way after all. –David Del Valle

Was Duffy your first major screen credit as a writer?
I think so… yes, Duffy must have been. I saw it long ago. It’s based on an adventure that really happened to a mate of mine, or maybe it was all my lovely group-Susie York, James Mason, James Coburn, and Willie (James) Fox. It’s not a serious movie, more of a bon bon, very carefree. Not worth discussing.
James Fox played a far more important role in your next, Performance.
Indeed! It changed his life, mine… everybody connected with it, actually, Performance is a landmark and a swan song for the era of Swinging London, not a success when it came out. Warner Bros. wanted none of it.
To what extent did Warners want it changed?
When they saw my rough cut, they were appalled that Jagger was not onscreen until maybe an hour into the film. So, in a vain attempt to keep it from being shelved permanently, I tried to rescue the work. I mean, I completely re-edited it three times, compressing it more and more. By then, Nick Roeg was completely absorbed in filming Walkabout, so he blissfully wasn’t involved in any of this.
What did Roeg say when he saw the re-edited cut?
He wanted his name removed, because he felt that too many liberties had been taken with the continuity. You have to realize, it was a collaborative effort, yet it was my screenplay, my concept. I directed the actors and Nick did what Nick does best, which is the director of photography.
Did it bother you that Roeg got the lion’s share of credit for Performance?
I don’t really want to discuss Nick, but I will say this: Nick went on to several features on the strength of Performance, and when you realize that the whole project was based on my friendship with Jagger, and the fact that Jagger trusted me, it does aggravate an already open wound. Enough said.
How did you get the idea to combine the gangster world with that of a faded rock star?
Well, in Britain, the underworld was typified by the Krays. The Krays were very macho, very dangerous and rather glamorous. This I saw as sort of a parallel with the rock world and, particularly, The Rolling Stones. Originally, my script was called The Performers because each of the characters is a performer, in one sense or another.
You seem to have a healthy disrespect for Hollywood storytelling.
I have a very healthy disrespect for Hollywood altogether! One of the reasons I think Warners hated the film so much is because it forces an audience to consider the construction of their own fragmented selves, the various aspects of sexuality, which is something people never question. Nick loves to tell the story of one Warner executive who observed, “Even the bath water is dirty in this film,” referring to the menage a trios in Turner’s bath. Nick could only say, “Well the water looks that way because they just took a bath!”
I’ve always been impressed with the film’s opening shots. They seem unrelated at first, a rocket taking off, an overhead view of a Rolls Royce moving through the countryside, a couple making violent love with mirrors. What was you concept here?
It’s to emphasize the sense of transition, of change, of continual mobility. Some of it is subliminal and Nick loved to intercut. (Laughs)
The cinematography seems to me to be from the school of Psychedelic Expressionism.
(Laughs) Well, perhaps the whole film is Psychedelic Expressionism! Yes, I like that very much. Can I use it?
Seriously…I showed John Clark, our art director, several examples of artists like Aubrey Beardsley and Francis Bacon. We deliberately wanted [to reflect] an artist’s vision. Every film I’ve been allowed to make owes a very heavy debt to art because, after all, I’m basically a painter.
The editing technique, in my opinion, was a cross between someone like Alain Resnais and Aram Avakian.
Are you sure you’re not with CAHIERS DU CINEMA? (Laughs) If you mean that seriously, yes. Quite so. It ha s a precision and formality which could be like a Resnais film, and yet it’s very flashy and glamorous in the manner of Avakian. However, that technique is nowadays referred to as “Nicolas Roeg.”
At one point, Turner says, "Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.”
The line comes from Nietzsche. Performance is about the trans-valuation of all values. Perhaps the film is Nietzschean in the sense that I believe in living one’s life that way. The film brings the Neanderthal gangster and the effete yellow book world of the rock star into one demonic fusion. The gangster is really more bisexual and in touch with his feminine side; once again, the fragmented self. It’s really a provocative love story. The margin between love and hate is exceedingly narrow and I’ve made an effort to show that, where violence exists, it’s as indicative of love as much as hatred.*
What was Mick Jagger like to work with?
Well, Jagger is Jagger. His life is his art. Turner is Jagger-ish is something Mick really didn’t want to deal with, as he was trying very hard to make that transition from rock star to movie star. At the time, Mick and the Stones had been offered A Clockwork Orange, but Jagger wanted something a bit more solo. Something apart from the Rolling Stones. But Mick is not acting in Performance. That is Mick to the teeth. He even wore the Turner makeup on the street. He tried to look like that for years. The relationship between Mick and Anita (Pallenberg) was real. They became lovers, even though she was Keith Richards’ lady. I’ll never forget Keith Richards’ Rolls Royce parked across the street from the location, keeping an eye on his paramour. Jagger simply took Anita under the house for sex. Keith would come on the set looking for hanky-panky, not realizing that he was standing about three feet above the action!

*Cammell is mistaken here. This celebrated line appears in William Burroughs novel Naked Lunch, where it is atributed to Hassan i Sabbah, the Old Man of the Mountain, leader of the 11th century Ismailli sect known as the Assassins. Turner mentions Hassan in the film and the quote latter served as an epigraph in David Cronenberg's film adaptation of Naked Lunch.

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