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Bowie on the set of The Man Who Fell to Earth
Courtesy of Studio Canal

The costume designer who dressed Bowie as an alien

We speak to May Routh about working on The Man Who Fell to Earth and her favourite memories of the film’s intergalactic icon

In early 1975, visionary filmmaker Nicolas Roeg was in pursuit of a leading man for his next film – his first since 1973’s widely celebrated Don’t Look Now. It was to be a cinematic rendering of Walter Tevis’s 1963 sci-fi novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Roeg required an actor ethereal enough to embody Thomas Jerome Newton, the vulnerable alien protagonist who ventures to Earth, posing as a mysterious entrepreneur with hyper-technological abilities, and all the while attempting to source and contain enough water to send back to his own drought-ridden planet.

Roeg is said to have watched David Bowie in Cracked Actor – Alan Yentob’s controversial documentary, filmed the previous year, which detailed the musician’s all-consuming cocaine addiction and frail mental state – and found in his fragility and otherworldliness his perfect Newton. “We were fortunate in that Bowie was staying in LA at the time,” recalled Candy Clark, Bowie’s co-star in the film, in a recent interview with Variety. “So Nic and I went over to his place on Doheny. I remember Nic brought a bottle of wine. It was a nice meeting and the next thing I knew, I was starring in a movie with David Bowie.”

Shooting began in June 1975 – three months after the release of Bowie’s tenth album Young Americans – and took place in the vast open plains of New Mexico. According to Clark, Bowie threw himself wholeheartedly into his first starring role, turning up on time each day “clear as a bell, focused, friendly and professional and leading the team.” Forty years on and his performance has lost none of its original potency, Newton’s childlike naivety and luminous presence a key component of the film’s enduring appeal, along with Roeg’s bold, surreal, sensual filmmaking and Tony Richmond’s extraordinarily vivid cinematography.

Interestingly, Bowie was not the only first-timer on the set. Costume designer May Routh (of Being There, Splash and Ronin fame) also cut her cinematic teeth on this production, brought on board by her husband, production designer Brian Eatwell. Likewise, her inaugural attempts were remarkably accomplished, whether piecing together subtly stylish ensembles for Newton in businessman mode or conjuring up fantastical alien attire. Here, as a newly restored version of the cult film is released in cinemas, we sit down with Routh to discover the stories behind the wardrobe choices, as well as her favourite recollections of its intergalactic star, alongside an exclusive look at some of her original sketches.

How did you get into costume design?

May Routh: When I left school I went to St Martins to study fashion. While I was there, I fell very much in love with a boy in the fashion department, (Brian) Duffy. We split up when we left college and both went into the fashion industry, but I hated it. After about six months, having thought that Christian Dior was going to be phoning up and asking me to be his partner immediately, I discovered that I was in a factory in Aldgate East. By that point Duffy had gone into fashion photography, and one day, I introduced him to a man called Len Deighton and they decided to start a film company together. They produced two films and asked me to work on the second one, Oh! What a Lovely War, as an assistant to the costume designer.

“When David came in for a fitting, he just looked like a grey blob and the whole area around his genitals was baggy. He said, ‘No, what you’ve got to do is put the seams in here,’ and told us exactly where to cut the seams” – May Routh

So how did you end up being involved in The Man Who Fell to Earth?

May Routh: Well, after that, because I could do fashion drawings, I began helping people sketch out their costume designs and came to work with a wonderful costume designer called Yvonne Blake. She was doing a film called The Three and Four Musketeers and asked me to go with her to Spain. My life at that point was in a state of change – my husband had just split up from me – so I went to Spain, met the production designer, Brian Eatwell, on the first day I was there, he asked me out and we’ve stayed together ever since!

We came to America in the hope of starting a new life, and we were just about at the point of giving up and going back when Nic Roeg asked Brian to work on The Man Who Fell to Earth. Brian had worked with Nic on two previous films so he knew him well, and Nic had a kind of aura where all the people who worked with him thought he was wonderful. It was my first job as a costume designer so it was very inspirational thinking that I was going to be working on something really fantastic.

Do you remember first meeting David Bowie?

May Routh: I really didn’t know too much about David Bowie! I went with Nic to meet him and he was very pleasant while I was sort of nervously clutching my portfolio, very intimidated. What was interesting about him was that he was so helpful – especially in designing the special effects costumes. At the time I didn’t realise it was anything special, I thought all actors were going to be like him – big mistake.

I had to have the special effects clothes made for me, so there were costumes I’d designed that I hadn’t seen until they were brought from Los Angeles. There was one costume made out of almost like a spun foam – it’s pale grey and often lines camera cases. I had suggested this because it would protect Newton in his capsule when he was going back (to his planet). Anyway, this girl had made it and glued it together and when David came in for a fitting, he just looked like a grey blob and the whole area around his genitals was baggy. He said, ‘No what you’ve got to do is put the seams in here,’ (indicating to the top inside leg) and told us exactly where to cut the seams and in doing it, suddenly the whole thing fitted him and it all worked!

“He was so helpful – especially in designing the special effects costumes. At the time I didn’t realise it was anything special, I thought all actors were going to be like him – big mistake” – May Routh

So what sort of things did Bowie come up with for the costumes?

May Routh: David wanted a look that was very simple – as a man coming from another planet, he thought he should wear things that wouldn’t stand out or attract attention to him. So he had to look really quite ordinary – until you realise he has orange hair, at least! Anyway because David was so thin, I got all his shirts for size 18 boys. And he wanted things like Viyella, which in America they call brushed flannel, so that they were all very neat and fitted.

What were your starting points for the costumes?

May Routh: Well, I knew that Newton was weightless (at one time you see Candy picking him up to show that he is) and also that if he bumped into things it would be very painful, so I had to take those things into account. For the scene in Newton’s house I drew him in the medical chair he sits in in front of lots of television sets and just put things on him that I thought would work. Sometimes ideas had to change, though, because of what we could get hold of in America. So in that scene I’d drawn him in these plastic fisherman shoes I’d seen in Europe, but when I was in Los Angeles I was told that they had medical boots that were quite good. Another example is a picture of David I’d done in a dressing gown in pyjamas, and again coming from England, I did a traditional striped pyjamas and flannel gown. But in America you realise that the towelling robe is going to have to be Pierre Cardin, with a huge print on it!

Also, once he got into the role, I started knowing what was going to work for that character, so the things I’d buy then, I knew were going to work. At one point they’re playing ping-pong and it was just working it out so that his visor cast a green light on his face – just things that, as a viewer, you never really think of but they’ve been thought out. And the clothes were all slightly longer than usual.

What were your main inspirations for the alien costumes?

May Routh: Well, I had no idea what another planet would look like, but I remember that Nic had said they should be carrying their most valuable possession – the most valuable commodity on their planet – which was water. And I remember thinking, How am I going to do that? Anyway, we had all these reference books and there was one with 18th-century costumes in and in there there was a whole page of lace. And I stared at it and thought, ‘Wow, all those little things join together.’ So that’s when I got the idea of making the tubes on the outside of the costume. I did this drawing which I thought was rather nice, but when I saw what the special effects people had made, they’d minimised all my tubes and all the small ones that should have looked like lace didn’t at all! I thought, ‘They’ve ruined it!’ But it never occurred to me that the water would have to be going through them so they couldn’t be that small.

Do you have a favourite memory of David?

May Routh: We were all working and living in the Hilton Inn in Albuquerque and the wardrobe department was just a hotel room with all the beds taken out and dress racks and sewing machines put in. I’d had to rent some policemen’s uniforms for a scene and I’d bought them typical cop’s caps. Anyway, one day David walked into the room with a small entourage, and I will never forget it because he was wearing a pink cowboy shirt. This was 1975, in New Mexico (which was obviously cowboy country) and you’d just never seen a pink cowboy shirt – I have no idea how he got hold of it! So he was wearing that and he’d got jeans on and he was wearing pink tinted glasses and he slowly leans over and picks up one of these cop’s caps and puts it on. I sat there and I just gasped – he looked absolutely amazing. Of course, nobody had cell phones then and I didn’t have a camera but that would have been the best photograph. I was spellbound. But then he walked out of the room and I suddenly came to life and thought, ‘Shit, that hat’s going to cost a fortune to replace,’ so I had to run out and grab it off him!

The Man Who Fell to Earth is in cinemas now and available to buy on DVD and Blu-ray from October 24