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Cammell was born in the Camera Obscura (then known as Outlook Tower) on Castlehill, near the castle in Edinburgh, Scotland, the son of the poet and writer Charles Richard Cammell. He was educated at Shrewsbury House School and Westminster School.
The older Cammell wrote a biography of Aleister Crowley focusing principally on the occultist's poetry. Crowley, who lived near the Cammells for a time, knew the young Donald. A prodigy who drew the richly medieval illustrations in a now sought-after 1952 children's King Arthur book by Alice Hadfield (the originals now lost), he was a society portrait painter and thanks to family connections, a prominent fixture of the "swinging London" social scene of the 1960s, specifically of what became known as the "Chelsea Set." One of his early forays into films was the rarely seen 1968 movie The Touchables, directed by Beatles photographer Robert Freeman, which Cammell co-scripted with his brother David.
He wrote and co-directed Performance with Nicolas Roeg in 1968, though he didn't get another film produced until Demon Seed in 1977. Cammell also made the eccentric horror thriller White of the Eye in 1987. Between infrequent film and TV directing jobs, Cammell directed music videos for the likes of U2.
When Cammell's 1995 film Wild Side was cut by the producer, he committed suicide in Hollywood, California, by shooting himself. His wife claimed the wound was not immediately fatal and that he asked for a mirror so that he could watch himself die; the claim would later be disputed in Cammell's published biography. A posthumous director's cut, commissioned by FilmFour and edited by his widow and co-screenwriter China Kong and editor Frank Mazzola, was released in 2000 to critical acclaim.
In 2005, Fan-Tan, a novel Cammell conceived with actor Marlon Brando in 1978, was published.
Cammell was a central figure in the making of Performance. In writing the screenplay he drew on his familiarity with the London underworld of the 1960s and association with the pop musicians of the day. In his collaboration with Roeg, Cammell concentrated on working with the actors and did most of the prolonged editing of the film in California; producer Sanford 'Sandy' Lieberson and co-director Roeg were busy on other projects.
- Performance, with Nicolas Roeg (1968; released 1970)
- Demon Seed (1977)
- White of the Eye (1987)
- The Argument (1971; released 1998)
- Wild Side (1995; director's cut released in 1999)
- Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance (1999)
- "Fan Tan". google.co.uk. Retrieved 15 October 2015.
- Donald Cammell biography and credits at the British Film Institute's Screenonline
- Senses of Cinema: Great Directors Critical Database
- Donald Cammell @ pHinnWeb
- Essay review of "Wild Side"
- Donald Cammell article on Scotsman.com
- Donald Cammell at the Internet Movie Database