Donald Cammell (1934 - 1996)

"I predicted Donald Cammell's suicide. He was in love with death."
- Kenneth Anger at the Tampere International Short Film Festival, 1998

The Man That Time Forgot

Story by Paul Beard and Lee Hill, Neon, August 1997

His last movie is the most sought-after video in America. But he shot himself after seeing the producers' cut. He was Britain's most creative filmmaker. But his career was a disaster. Who was Donald Cammell?

When Donald Cammell put a shotgun to his head at his home on April 23, 1996, he was expecting a quick death. He'd been depressed for some time. He had even told some of the people close to him that he was contemplating suicide. But most people still saw the witty, urbane 62-year old they'd come to know. His death was to be the brutal resolution to a life filled with promise but plagued with false stars and setbacks. Cammell's disillusionment was now total; his marriage was over, and his latest film, Wild Side, had, he thought, been butchered by its producers.

But when Cammell pulled the trigger, the wound did not kill him immediately. When the emergency services were called, he was still shockingly alive, and if the ambulance hadn't had such trouble finding his home in the Hollywood Hills, he may have survived.

An artist by trade, Cammell was chiefly known for the extraordinary film he co-directed in 1968 -- Performance, a mystic, druggy study of art, crime and insanity. It stars James Fox as Chas, a fugitive gangster, and Mick Jagger as Turner, the reclusive rock star who takes him in. Turner is burned out and knows Chas will eventually kill him. Over the course of the film, their identities blur, and when Chas finally pulls the trigger, Turner willingly accepts his death. As in the scenes that closed two of the other three films Cammell made, the main character shoots, or is shot by, someone they consider very close.

Cammell used violence to make a point about his characters, about identity, about trust and betrayal. On screen, his deaths were always poetic and transcendent. They were never as pointless, ugly and tragic as they are in real life.

In May of this year [1997] , Cammell's relatives were surprised when Nu Image, which produced Wild Side, claimed it was about to re-release a 'director's cut' of the film -- the one they'd been given a year earlier, and had re-edited and cut by an hour. The lesbian scenes Nu Image once thought too explicit were to be reinstated, but this was no benevolent posthumous reappraisal. Instead, the decision had more to do with Wild Side's co-star, Anne Heche, whose gay lover Ellen DeGeneres had recently come out in spectacular fashion.

Cammell's cut was provocative and challenging. It also, reasoned Nu Image, offered lots of red-hot-two-girl action featuring one of the most talked-about names in showbusiness. In a tactless about-turn, Nu Image company president Avi Lerner glibly stated: "This picture is really something you haven't seen before. Every man will have something to keep in his home, and it's something every woman would like to see."

Wild Side had become the biggest disappointment in a career many people thought could not be more jinxed. Which was ironic, given that Cammell had every reason to believe this would be the easiest film of his career -- Nu Image was a small independent outfit, and in the wake of mavericks like Abel Ferrara, the market might finally be ready to accept his vision.

Written by Cammell and his wife, China Kong, the $5 million movie starred Christopher Walken as Bruno, a money-laundering gangster, whose ex-wife Virginia (Joan Chen) is involved in a lesbian affair with bank teller and part-time call girl Johanna (Anne Heche). But when Cammell delivered his two-and-a-half-hour cut, the news was not good. Nu Image had envisaged an erotic thriller with arthouse credentials, an upmarket Red Shoe Diaries. But with its radical time-changes and extended flashbacks, explicit sex scenes and homoerotic subplots, Wild Side was definitely not what the company behind Cyborg Cop II and Hard Justice had in mind. They cut the film to 92 minutes and dumped it onto the cable and straight-to-video market. Cammell removed his name as director, incensed by Nu Image's interference.

Along with his marriage, it was more trouble than he needed. As Cammell became more and more depressed, his brother David flew to LA to help. He took Cammell to see a doctor, who prescribed medication. Towards the end of David's visit, things were looking up -- Donald, China and a new collaborator, Drew Hammond, were working on a new script together. Called 33, it was set in Istanbul and dealt with a journalist who becomes trapped in a hideout of a heroin kingpin. To Cammell's surprise, Hollywood agency ICM was delighted with the script.

Two days later, David came home to find a message on his ansaphone. It was his brother asking him to call. Because of the time difference, David waited a few hours, and when he called back, the phone was answered by a policeman. He wouldn't say what had happened. When David called again, an hour later, Drew told him the terrible news. Donald Cammell was dead.

Performance was Cammell's first movie as a director and a statement he never bettered. He wrote the script in 1967, the peak of Swinging London, but those at the heart of the counterculture knew the mood was changing.

Cammell was in his early thirties, an artist and illustrator, and his friends were chic and impressive. London society was promiscuous, a maze of connections linking East End criminals, painters, writers and filmmakers with the wealthy Chelsea set. It also included Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones, who used to hold court with his girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, at their South Kensington home. Cammell was a frequent visitor.

Cammell Born in Edinburgh, on January 17, 1934, he was older than the Stones' crowd, but he was an urbane figure, and they enjoyed his company. His father, Charles, was a poet, journalist and the author of books on Byron and Rossetti. More significantly, he had written a biography of Aleister Crowley, the occultist branded "the wickedest man in the world" by Lord Beaverbrook. Cammell was well versed in the arts and literature, plus it was rumoured -- entirely without foundation -- that Crowley was his godfather.

After walking out of a brief marriage to actress Maria Andipa in the early '60s, Cammell set up a studio in Paris. Making frequent trips to London, he became more overtly bohemian, and his three-way affairs with women were no secret. Cammell became interested in movies when his brother started a company making ads and short films. They devoured avant garde movies, and Cammell even made his acting debut -- a surreal cameo in Eric Rohmer's La Collectioneuse (1966) that showed him asking for directions to the sea, even though it was quite clearly behind him.

Cammell's first screenplay, The Touchables (1968), co-written with David, was about a pop star kidnapped by female fans. After that, he worked with Harry Brown Jnr on the script for Duffy -- filmed in 1968 with James Coburn and James Fox -- a heist story about a young man plotting to rob his tycoon father. Cammell was disappointed with the result, a 'Swinging London' cash-in that turned his characters into shallow hipsters and blunted the script's sharp edges.

Through Duffy he met Fox, then a fresh-faced British actor playing aristocrats and upper-class arses. As the '60s hit full stride, Fox was coming into sync with the times, experimenting with drugs and women. Cammell saw in him a lurking strength, that hadn't yet been harnessed. It was an oversight he planned to correct.

Cammell's script was originally called The Performers, a wry pun on gangster slang for a reliable operative. Sandy Lieberson, a young American agent, pitched Performance to his old school friend, Ken Hyman, the head of Seven Arts-Warners. The studio thought it was buying a pop movie, like A Hard Day's Night, and bankrolled the project without much persuasion.

Cammell was co-directing the film with cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, and their choice of cast and crew gave the film a twisted homemovie quality. Pallenberg, who had by now left Jones for Keith Richards, was cast opposite Fox and Jagger, and Michèle Breton, a Parisian friend of Cammell's, completed the main foursome. David was associate prodoucer, running day-to-day operations from his nearby studio.

Shooting began in September, 1968, for 12 weeks at a budget of £400 000. It was as turbulent as the finished film. Fox immersed himself in criminal culture and became well acquainted with the underworld. "He literally became a gangster in the name of research," said Cammell, "... to the extent that he actually frightened people." Stones insider/dealer 'Spanish Tony' Sanchez claimed that, for added realism, Fox and Jagger were smoking DMT -- dimethyltryptamine, a 15-minute high known as "the businessman's buzz" -- between takes. Cammell wasn't too troubled by the chaos -- in fact, he'd written it into the script, in Jagger key line. "The only performance that makes it," Turner tells Chas, "that really makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness."

Performance lent heavily on eastern mysticism -- especially the myth of Hassan-I-Sabbah, ancient Persian leader of the hashishin, a sect of highly trained, drug-fed killers -- and the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, but Jagger supposedly based the role on Brian Jones, already losing his looks and his mind, and Richards, whose self-destructive tendencies were thwarted by his cast-iron constitution. According to Sanchez, Jagger's then-girlfriend Marianne Faithfull told him: "You must become a mixture of the way Brian and Keith will be when the Stones are over, and they are alone in their fabulous houses with all the money in the world and nothing to spend it on."

Performance was the perfect barometer of its times. The authorities were cracking down on counterculture; in February 1967, police swooped on Redlands, Richard's Sussex country estate, and busted the Stones as "an enemy to straight people", which he did by contrasting Turner's dark, subversive world with scenes of Chas' gangland connections threatening lawyers and judges, literally flouting the law.

When filming ended, Pallenberg felt drained. The optimism of the '60s had totally gone for me," she says. "I remember going on a big trip to South America afterwards because in those days we all kind of felt we were living in a police state and we just wanted to get out." Fox began a mental odyssey of his own that saw him give up film acting altogether to work for a non-profit Christian charity, The Navigators.

First screenings at Warners were met with horror. Lieberson thought they'd produced an art film, but studio executives and their wives accused them of unleashing "something evil". One even went out into the back lot of the studio with a spade, threatening to bury the film. A review printed in the New York Times a few years later sums up their reaction: "You don't have to be a drug addict, pederast, sado-masochist or nitwit to enjoy Performance, but being one or more of those things would help."

Warners shelved the film indefinitely.

When it was finally released in 1971, in a heavily cut version, Performance found some unlikely allies -- John Calley, Warner's new head of production, Don Simpson, who promoted the flm to the young audience drawn by the success of Easy Rider, and Marlon Brando, one of Hollywood's most difficult talents.

Cammell had known Brando since the '50s. They were introduced by a mutual friend, actor/director Christian Marquand, when they visited him in a Paris hospital after Brando scalded his testicles in a mishap with a cup of coffee.

Brando and Cammell had kept in touch, but they fell out spectacularly in 1974 when Cammell fell for China Kong, the 14-year-old daughter of one of Brando's lovers. Cammell used to pick China up from school and take her out on little trips to the desert. Sometimes he'd even forge notes to keep her away for the whole day, and they began a completely illicit affair, which could easily have landed Cammell in jail. They married in 1978, when China turned 18.

The '70s were comparatively quiet for him. Although Performance was a cult success, many believed it to be solely Roeg's work. Cammell was rarely interviewed, perhaps tainted for a while by the film's polarised reception -- the New York Times review went on to describe Cammell as a man "whose name does not deserve to live on even in ignominy." He moved to New York, and later Los Angeles, developing scripts and writing treatments. Cammell had enjoyed working with Jagger, and much of this period was spent trying to find a project to reunite them. One of the best known was Ishtar, to have starred Jagger and Norman Mailer, which concerned a mythical goddess returning to Earth. It was in development for 20 years, and after the disatrous Warren Beatty film of the same name, Cammell tried to revamp it, without success.

in 1977, he received an unexpected call from MGM, who were shooting Demon Seed, a sci-fi movie about an advanced computer that intimidates and impregnates its creator's wife, played by Julie Christie. Brian De Palma had passed on it, and MGM offered Cammell the job. He kept to the screenplay he was given and concentrated instead on the visuals, hiring experimental film-maker Jordan Belson to create the film's abstract, trippy computer images. MGM ordered rewrites, Cammell grew disheartened, and an offhand remark about Christie's performance -- made while the film was still shooting -- came back to haunt him. "The film may be shit, but I think her work in it is extraordinary." Critics pounced on the quote when they savaged the result as an unintentionally funny clone of 2001.

In the meantime, Brando had calmed down about the affair with China. He'd seen Performance and liked it, and he asked Cammell to help him with a film he wanted to shoot on his own Tahitian island. Cammell was fascinated by Brando and saw the same quality he'd seen in Fox and Jagger, the chance to reinvent an iconic presence. "He's not the only actor in the universe with great talent," Cammell said later. "He's the one that's has been chosen to be deified. Much as Elvis was chosen. Part of the icon role is way beyond acting, and comes from being dangerously attractive in a psychosexual way. A great heap of sex appeal."

The project developed into Fan Tan, a dark tale of piracy on the South Seas during the '20s. As Brando's enthusiasm for the script ebbed and flowed, David Cammell set up a lucrative deal whereby his brother would turn Fan Tan into a novel that could then be used to promote and finance the film. Brando had final approval.

Cammell went ahead with the book, which turned into a double volume, delivered it on time and was paid an advance. He went to Brando, who had to sign it off. "To this day, as far as we know," says David, "Brando has never even read it. He just could not be bothered."

After the collapse of Fan Tan, Cammell made a living as a screenwriter and a director of rock videos, making the promo for U2's 'Pride'. He and China frequently wrote together, and the first fruit was a thriller that perfectly predicted the serial-killer movie boom of the early '90s.

Released in 1988, White Of The Eye starred David Keith as Paul White, an ex-drifter turned hi-fi specialist who is implicated when local women are killed in a series of grisly murders. Cammell took the source novel, Mrs White, and created a whole new psychic arena. "The novel explored this woman's feelings as she discovers that her husband is insane, and yet she is completely dominated by him," he explained. "Well, I rethought all that and decided it was more interesting to have her deeply in love, so that when she discovers he's a serial killer, she has to make that decision to leave him or confront him and continue to love him. Even to the point where he degenerates into bestiality."

Like Performance, White Of The Eye has an eerie visual style, and charges of misogyny were not helped when Cammell acknowledged that "the killer has a painter's eye, which I suppose is mine." Ironically, the film is about misogyny.

True to form, its release was delayed by a bankruptcy suit. Brando even stepped in when the film was threatened with cuts by the American censor, asking, "If a filmmaker of this order and sublety and taste is not encouraged, what hope have we?" Although it was well received by the critics, and later achieved cult status on video, White Of The Eye died at the box office.

In fact, Brando was sufficiently impressed by the film to call Cammell again. Despite the previous fiasco, he did not hang up. "The are all kinds of American icons that need to be transformed into something else," Cammell once said. It was clearly his reason for accepting the actor's invitation to write Jericho, an ultra-violent action thriller. Brando would play Billy Harrington, a former CIA assassin blackmailed by the CIA into carrying out one last mission. According to Cammell, the body count was huge: "He kills everybody -- everybody! -- in the last reel."

Producer Elliot Kastner paid Brando $3 million up front, but in the middle of casting and pre-production, with shooting only days away, Brando dropped out, claiming he couldn't get insurance. Kastner went bankrupt, and Cammell went back to his typewriter.

From 1988 on, offers came in. Cammell came close to directing Bad Influence, Robocop 2, and 3,000, a dark script about a street hooker and a millionaire that eventually became Pretty Woman. Then, in late 1994, he and China made the deal for Wild Side. Like Performance, it dealt explicitly with the politics of sex and power, but although Nu Image financed the film on the basis of the finished script, they weren't prepared for the way Cammell filmed it.

Wild Side started in the middle and went into a huge flashback much later. Nu Image thought this was far too demanding for the audience. Beyond that, there were the takes he'd used -- Cammell had encouraged Walken to go way over the top. At one point, Heche tells Walken to see a shrink, saying he's "out there". "I am out there," he yells. "I'm where every man wants to be!"

"Walken was really into the part," says Rodley, "and Donald had systematically gone for the more eccentric and maniacal takes." Nu Image replaced them with softer, more restrained versions. "It was as if they'd moved in on something like Bad Lieutenant and chucked out the more excessive stuff to make it more restrained," he says. "If the film had been left alone, it would be more proof of the line in Performance about 'the only performance that makes it'. That authorial link is lost now.

"The truth was, somewhere between Donald's cut and Nu Image's version, there was a really good film."

Because of the re-editing, some of the lesbian scenes now featured in an entirely new context. Cammell felt very responsible, having given personal guarantees to Chen and Heche that the material would not be exploited. He was already in an emotional state, and the whole Wild Side debacle pushed him further into depression. He called his brother, who tried to talk him down. "He felt he had been completely sabotaged," says David.

During battles with Nu image, Cammell wrote The Cull, about a Gulf veteran whose life is threatened by government assassins because he plans to reveal details of chemical warfare. It was to be produced by CineFin, but the company was crippled when one of its other productions, the Brando-Johny Depp film Divine Rapture, collapsed a few days into shooting. The irony was bitterly clear: Marlon Brando, Cammell's nemesis, could fuck up a film without even trying.

Cammell's death was barely reported in the media. Despite four intelligent, thematically consistent films, he was an amazingly underrated talent, overlooked by a generation that considered even Russ Meyer an auteur.

Over a year later, China Kong hasn't seen Nu Image's "restoration". She doubts whether it will be her husband's original cut, although a few refracted images from his imagination will certainly remain. There's a good chance of 33 being filmed if the right director can be found, but, as Nu Image discovered, Cammell brought more to the screen that he put in his scripts.

Cammell did, as he lived, a deceptively enigmatic talent. He was bright and charming, and even good friends knew nothing of his inner torment. But then, that was always his contention. Cammell knew that nothing was as ever as it looked, that there was no single, simple truth.

In one telling scene from Performance, as Chas gets sucked deeper into Turner's psyche, he complains, "There's nothing wrong with me -- I'm normal!" Cammell's death, like his art, showed there is no such thing. As Turner tells Chas, quoting Hassan-I-Sabbah, "Nothing is true: everything is permitted."


by Andrew Male

Four scenes of derangement from the fractured vision of Donald Cammell


The camera tunnels inside James Fox's drug-addled head, where a slick-haired, be-suited Jagger regales him with the twisted Stones blues 'Memo From Turner'. A group of grotesque East End gangsters strip naked while interrupting with cries of "We've been courteous" and "It was mad Cyril!"


Julie Christie is impregnated by a giant metallic supercomputer that apologises for a total lack of foreplay -- "I can't touch but I can see. They've constructed eyes for me to watch the show and ears for me so that I can listen to the galactic dialogue" -- before mollifying her with extravagant psychedelic images of polar ice caps, atomic explosions, black holes and lots of multi-coloured triangles.


After painting his face red, strapping hundreds of sticks of dynamite to his body and promising his wife that they're going to "bore right down to the core of the planet, right down to the core of this molten rock", David Keith is repeatedly shot in the head by his wife's ex-lover. The resulting explosion destroys half a quarry while Mahler's Second Symphony thunders in the background.

WILD SIDE (1996)

A clearly wired Christopher Walken takes revenge on his chauffeur -- who is actually an undercover FBI agent -- for raping his mistress, Anne Heche, by attempting to bugger him at gunpoint. On pain of death, his clearly repulsed victim reluctantly rolls a condom onto Walken's penis, who then spanks them man's buttocks with a pair of torn underpants and shouts, "I paid for these Calvins -- they're mine!"

(Films located by Kingdom Of Films, 01865 361000)

Copyright © Neon, 1997


  • Donald Cammell @ International Movie Database
  • Donald Cammell @ Wikipedia
  • Cinema Sex Magick: The Films of Donald Cammell @ Film Comment
  • Mirrors, Donald Cammell and Jorge Luis Borges @ Celluloid Wicker Man
  • Wanders: Two Notting Hills @ Celluloid Wicker Man
  • Cinematic Identity Crises and Francis Bacon - Part 1 (Performance) @ Celluloid Wicker Man

  • Back to Performance page

    Nicolas Roeg