Nicolas Roeg’s chilling masterpiece Don’t Look Now is heading back to cinemas with a brand new 4K restoration. We talked to co-writer Allan Scott about turning a beloved novella into a genre classic.
We’re all so worried about spoilers these days, living in constant fear that someone will give away some key piece of information about the final act of our current obsession and ruin our enjoyment. However, when it comes to classics, the big dramatic rug-pulls are a part of our pop culture knowledge from a young age. Rosebud is the name of the sled, Darth Vader is Luke’s father, and that figure in the red raincoat that Donald Sutherland’s bereaved John Baxter has been chasing around Venice definitely isn’t his dearly departed daughter.
“Yeah, it was the ending,” enthuses Allan Scott, who co-wrote Don’t Look Now with Chris Bryant and would go on to collaborate with Nicolas Roeg on many more films including The Witches, Castaway and Cold Heaven. We caught up with him ahead of Don’t Look Now’s 4K theatrical and home re-release and he tells us that the sting in the tale of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1971 novella was impossible to resist. “It’s just the ending of the short story was wonderful. And while you don’t necessarily believe in these things you believe in the possibility of them, I suppose.”
Scott is referring to the supernatural element, which provides the story with much of its marvellously eerie tone as well as its deeply tragic inevitability. While in Venice following the death of their daughter Christine, John’s wife Laura is approached by a blind psychic named Heather and her sister Wendy, who tells her that Christine is still with them. Later, Heather will tell Laura that John also has some psychic ability even if he’s unaware of it. The sceptical John scoffs at the idea, but out of the corner of his eye, there’s that figure in the red coat…
John may have been a sceptic but Donald Sutherland was reportedly extremely interested in the ideas of extrasensory perception in the film, so much so that he was keen on showing them to show them in a more positive light than the ambivalent force it appears to be. “Nic told this story that Donald was full of opinions about this and that,” laughs Scott. “And Nic just said to him quietly after one of his long rants, ‘Do you want to make the fucking movie or not?’ And Donald was a pussycat from that moment onwards.”
Now, it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Nicolas Roeg making the film (so much so that a remake has been struggling to get off the ground for years now) but it could have been very different, as Scott explains. “There was originally another director, and we went off to Venice with that director and in the course of that week of conversations and looking at the various locations, we then revised the script,” he tells us. “He ended up not doing it, and the next I heard was a call saying would I meet with Nic Roeg who’d read the script and was tremendously interested. So we met over lunch and we liked each other right away, we started work on it.”
While Scott tells us that there were no major changes to the screenplay at that point, it’s fascinating to hear about Roeg’s attention to detail and the small additions and alterations that have a real impact on the film. “Nic’s the only auteur I know who goes through the script in great detail, changes very little, it’s his way of getting to be completely familiar with the material, but he changes small things but they often have big resonances,” he explains. “Early on he said, ‘OK, come on let’s come up with a one liner that’s what’s the movie, what’s it about?’ I don’t remember who came up with it but we came up with the notion that nothing is what it seems. And once you’ve got that in your head it’s easy to come up with a scene when you first enter the room you don’t see the detective because he’s reading a newspaper or whatever, all the way through.”
However, he does point out that some of the major changes from Du Maurier’s original story were very much in place before Roeg came on board. One of the most celebrated sequences in the film is its opening, the tragic death of John and Laura’s daughter which is almost unbearably powerful.
“The original director said, ‘You need a stronger opening,’” Scott remembers. “And we came up with the idea of the child drowning in the pond and of John Baxter foreseeing it. The biggest change that we made to the Daphne Du Maurier story, it sounds small but in fact it had huge resonances throughout, was that in her story they’re just a couple who’ve lost a child and they go to Venice for their holiday, I think to meningitis, and we had the notion that John Baxter would be working in Venice which I think changes the emphasis quite a lot all the way through.”
Keeping John in Venice for work (he’s employed restoring artwork in the city’s crumbling churches) not only gets around that old “why don’t they just leave” question that everyone watching a horror film asks at some point, it also allows them to explore the back alleys and murky corners areas beyond the tourist hotspots. “It was extraordinary, I had been once but I didn’t know Venice until we were out on a reccie and it just totally changes in the winter,” marvels Scott. “I remember once we were watching them shoot some footage of Donald and Julie coming outside and walking, and the cameraman Tony Richmond said ‘Nic, I’m afraid the light’s gone.’ And Nic looked up and looked around and he said ‘No, this is perfect!’ And they shot the sequence and it is exactly the perfect light. That was the thing that Nic knew in his sleep.”
That cold fog, the murky light all adds to the air of grief that permeates the film. Anyone who was presented Don’t Look Now as a teenager was almost certainly sold on the promise of a terrifying horror film but it’s a tender and heart-breaking examination of a couple going through the greatest loss imaginable, something which Scott tells us allows for one of the film’s most discussed sequences.
“Well, it’s why the love scene was so vital to the movie because grief does that to people,” he explains. “Once you’ve seen the child die, more or less, it’s much easier to follow that with scenes of grief. The little things that Nic likes to tweak, one is a huge one. For the love scene, because we never knew what they would be willing to do and what Nic could realise, so it literally says in the script they make love. The whole concept of flashing to and fro [to the couple getting dressed and ready to go out] was entirely Nic’s and I think that completely made it, it was practically the first love scene in motion picture history between a married couple. Adultery ruled the movies until they got to that!”
It’s not just the discussion about whether or not the scene was real or not that has refused to die (in spite of everyone’s firm assurance that no, it wasn’t). Don’t Look Now is a film that gets richer as you get older. Each time you revisit it, the film finds deeper emotional resonance and horror. “You see other things, isn’t that nice?” smiles Scott. “I love that. I think it’s largely accidental, I don’t think anyone set out to do that, but it’s full of stuff. There was no scene that we hadn’t discussed in detail with Nic. Little things like not being able to see the policeman’s face when he walks in. The wonderful cut the guy in the hotel just sitting there half sleeping, the awkward phone conversation between the very English couple who run the prep school with the boys.”
“[Roeg] once came into the room and said, ‘You know that line you’re looking for?’” he continues. “We were looking for a random line for the two women walking the streets of Venice, and he came in with two huge books of philosophy and said, ‘Read these, they may help you with the line!’ Actually, it’s one of my favourite lines in the movie but it doesn’t have any particular strength, she just says ‘Milton loved this city, you know?’ I don’t know whether Milton loved the city or not, the point is he was blind by the time he went to the city and I just loved her saying that line. And Nic loved that too so he put that in.”
Don’t Look Now is on Blu-ray, DVD and digital from 29 July. Get all the latest horror news with every issue of SciFiNow.