Behind the scenes of The Man Who Fell To Earth and David Bowie’s alien

Martin Samuel and May Routh tell us about working with David Bowie and The Man Who Fell To Earth

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Nicolas Roeg’s sci-fi masterpiece The Man Who Fell To Earth is currently celebrating its 40th anniversary with a glorious 4K restoration, giving audiences the opportunity to witness the brilliant story of an alien visitor and David Bowie’s stunning performance on the big screen.

Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Newton, the titular outsider, who lands in America looking for water to save his home world. Using his alien technology, he quickly builds a profitable empire, but the harsh realities of this world will grind him down and drive him mad…

We had the opportunity to talk to the film’s hairstylist Martin Samuel and costume designer May Routh about their work on the film and their experience of working with Bowie to create a truly iconic character…

This was a very early job for both of you; how did you get involved?

May Routh: Well, it was my very first job as a costume designer, but I had actually met the production designer Brian Eatwell on a film called The Three Musketeers. I was an assistant costume designer and we fell in love. So, although I was already in the film business, I got into the film business the way people tell you not to get into the film business! And all the people that I teach and say, “You need to do all this to really know how to do it,” I broke all the rules! I’d been an assistant but I didn’t know about the job that you have to do as a costume designer, nobody tells you that. So I learned the hard way.

Martin Samuel: I had worked in the business and had done a few films early in my career, I’d done some music films, I’d done Stardust with David Essex and Larry Hagman. Then I got a phone call in the middle of the night from New Mexico, from make-up artist Linda DeVetta who had just got there, who was [cinematographer] Anthony B Richmond’s wife at the time.

“Martin, I know you’re a fabulous hairdresser, I think you’d be great for this film, David Bowie, Nic Roeg…” I mean, I’m dropping the phone! “If you’re interested can we get you the script and can Nic call you…” and onward it went from there. Within about five days, May and myself and my wife and my little boy, 20 months old, flew out to New Mexico for the next four months.

MR: It was quite extraordinary because they actually brought a complete English crew to New Mexico.

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David Bowie and Martin Samuel on set

Those New Mexico locations are amazing!

MS: We were in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Artesia, White Sands, Roswell…

MR: Being with the production designer, I went with him on the location scout that very first time to go to see New Mexico. We went with the film board of New Mexico who took us all around, so Brian chose those locations so that it would look like different parts of America. So you had somewhere like Lake Fenton, the lake, and then you had White Sands. You had these different images.

You mentioned that Nicolas Roeg and David Bowie were already involved, that must have been pretty exciting!

MS: A very exciting proposition, yes. I spoke with Nic on the phone and he told me all about the film and his expectations. I’d read the script by then, the various ageing stages, and all the different aspects of Candy’s character [Candy Clark plays Newton’s companion Mary-Lou] and Buck Henry’s character [Newton’s business partner Oliver Farnsworth] and obviously with David, the colour and the alien hair.

So we went out there and met them all immediately and had a session with David, which was amazing. We collaborated on that hairstyle and haircut and then with Candy’s various different wigs and looks and aging colours and Buck Henry’s different formation of his hair, as he got older. So yeah, it was a lot to take in and it was a fantastic experience to do, it really was. Especially working with David all those months.

When you’re in make-up and hair you’re very close with these people. You’re there with them two hours, three hours in the morning and then all day long you’re touching them, making sure they’re right. And then there was all the alien make-up which was incredible because they had to wheel him in the middle of the night, fast asleep, and all the special effects people would work on his body, removing all the parts, and then Linda would wake him up and Linda would do the head. Four hours!

It was very extensive, but it was amazing and after that David invited me to stay with him on the Station To Station tour and that was amazing.

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Was it a challenge to find that look for an alien who’s trying to look human?

MR: Well, I think that’s something that David and Nic talked about a lot, that he had to look totally ordinary and that you wouldn’t notice him except that he had orange hair. We had to choose clothes that were almost just so common you wouldn’t even think twice about them.

But of course coming from England, when [Roeg] suggested a duffel coat it was weird, because funnily enough in America they don’t really wear them and when I found one it was actually olive green, which was for us quite strange because we thought they would be beige. But they were all things like that, that just threw you off slightly.

I can imagine that everything just looks kind of amazing on Bowie…

MR: It does! And he was very helpful in actually working with you. As it was my first film I had no idea that actors could be really ornery people and he really did work with you and help you. There was one costume that we designed for when he goes in his capsule to go back to his planet, and he’s arrested, that the costume I’d made was actually made out of a foam core, the girl had flown out to fit him and it was awful.

And David just stood there, he was quite calm about it, I was about to eat the curtains, I didn’t know what to do, and he just said, “Well, you need to cut a seam up here and up here and if you do that…” and she did and suddenly, because he’d worked so much with Lindsay Kemp and knew about mime and movement, he actually made the whole thing work. And he wanted to help you.

I was just thinking of the time he came into the wardrobe and he was wearing a pink plaid cowboy shirt, and this was 1975 New Mexico, and I thought I wonder where he got that! And he was wearing pink tinted glasses and with his hair…he’s just so stunning looking, he looks so marvellous. You just wanted to photograph him. Nobody had a cellphone. But then he picked up a police officer’s hat with a visor that I happened to have a pile of, and he put this on on top of this pink…my breath was taken away, I thought that is absolutely amazing.

And he left and I suddenly thought “God, that’s our wardrobe, we’ve got to get it back!” He could do things like that; he had a look that I’ve never seen anyone else have. He looked wonderful. Not sexual, but it was a fashion thing that you suddenly looked at and thought “I wish I had that.” He was just an asset to all the clothes as far as I could see.

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It’s interesting to hear that he was so collaborative given that he was someone who had such a strong vision for their image.

MR: I think he had worked out who he was, the idea of somebody coming from another planet. We were all trying to think, and I think he found the right way. I was very lucky

MS: He loved the way he looked, he was happy with the way he looked as the alien, and as May said, he was just so cooperative, so sweet, so nice, always very helpful, always very charming, whatever was going on.

MR: I never had a tantrum or anything.

MS: Actors are so unpredictable and especially in the make-up and hair room in the morning, you see the best of them, you see the worst of them, because they let out whatever they’re scared of or worried about it in that room because they know they can and he was a terrific person to be around. His group were really supportive. He was just an incredible person.

I have to ask about the hair, which is obviously a huge part of that iconic look. How did that come about?

MS: We had the meeting when I got there immediately. Nic wanted me to meet David to make sure that we were going to be able to get on, and we had a session. His people had already told me that he wanted this particular red colour, so please bring it, because the colour brand was only available in Europe. It was that incredible red made by Schwarzkopf, so I went with a bundle of that, and then we decided about the blonde, and did that and his hair was much longer because he’d just come from new York so we cut it into that look for the movie.

It was a collaboration, we had a couple of hours together of creating all that, and Nic wanted to come and see, obviously. Nic was very involved with the hair and with the clothes too. It was a success and we kept it going, colour every couple of weeks, either in his suite or wherever, Los Angeles or his home, and kept that going and it was all very good.

Nic was very concerned with Candy’s look and all these different changes and all these different hairstyles she would have. So he wanted to see everything that we were going to do to know that everything we had in hand, I had everything in hand for that and that all worked out very well. She was also incredibly cooperative with everything I did, and it all worked out particularly well. She had this red hair in the Artesia hotel and Nic said something to me about “What can she do?” and I said “Why doesn’t she put her head under and say ‘Oh my god, these damn cheap red rinses!” And he said “Oh, that’s fantastic!” He had her do it and it’s in the film. He’s very very involved with hair; hair is always a big deal.

May Routh and Martin Samuel on set
May Routh and Martin Samuel on set

Nicolas Roeg was on an incredible run of films at this point, having made PerformanceWalkabout and Don’t Look Now. Did he always have a very clear vision of what he wanted?

MR: Brian had worked with him on two films previously and knew how things worked, that he liked things that were quirky and things would just throw you off balance slightly. So Brian would find the sets and talk to Nic about them and work very closely with Nic as far as ideas that he had, how he could use the set, something that could happen in it that would work for the script, and so I think a lot of those ideas were open. Nic was always prepared but things were also thought out at the last moment that would be interesting.

In Alamogordo, there’s are a group of people that are around him at the spaceship. We had Terry Southern, Jim Lovell, people that were really unusual were suddenly there, it was an occasion. But there were always things that threw you slightly off. I remember at one point I said to Candy, “I’ve got this hat for you to wear in church,” and she said “I’ll never wear a hat in church. They don’t wear hats in church in America.” And he was sitting there listening, and he said, “Then you’ll wear a hat.”

It was that one thing that wasn’t expected, and that was what he was always looking for. So that you were never quite sitting in your seat feeling comfortable because there was something that was going to be making you nervous. “What’s happening now?” “What was that?” He never wanted people to be totally secure.

Finally, how did it feel to see the film become this iconic piece of cinema, something that still resonates years later?

MS: You never really know when you’re working on a film what the audience reaction is going to be and how it’s going to be received. You know it’s David Bowie and you know it’s Nic Roeg so it’s got to be fantastic, and it’s a classic, it’s always been a classic. I don’t think it was an enormous box office success at the time.

MR: I think there was something strange about it. It might have been a big success in England but we were living in America at the time, I think it was hardly shown. This will be really extraordinary to see it in the new print.

MS: For a new generation, or two new generations! But as far as I’m concerned, whenever I present my resume or go in for a job, people look and say, “Oh my god, you did The Man Who Fell To Earth!” It has always been a talking point. A producer, a director will always say “ You know we’re going to talk about that on set. I want to know everything about that film.” It’s really a classic film that is in a lot of people’s memory, it’s amazing.

MR: I’m very proud of it, that it’s still got legs. I’m really happy

The Man Who Fell To Earth is in cinemas now and available to own from Oct 24th.