Filmmaker Paul Cox pictured with actor David Wenham in 2012. Julian Smith/AAP

Life lessons from the editing suite of Paul Cox

I was introduced to Paul Cox at his home office in Albert Park in 2006. I felt nervous as hell as I was ushered through the dark and musty corridors filled with ancient camera gear. I immediately recognised the posters on the walls and they brought back fond memories of sneaking out of bed late at night to watch films on SBS as a teenager.

The first Paul Cox film I stumbled upon was Lonely Hearts (1982) and I distinctly remember being surprised by how different it was. It seemed so alien and foreign, but also deeply familiar and personal: the actors and the locations … But I was strangely confronted by how emotional the film was.

In Australia, nobody likes a sook and we try to keep our mouths shut when it comes to expressing ourselves, but Paul’s films felt like a reaction against the emotionally restrained Australian caricature. They had a distinct European sensibility which was a heartfelt plea for us to witness all things beautiful before they pass us by … just like meeting the man himself, as I was about to discover.

A sculpture inside a block of wood

As I walked into his office, led by our mutual friend, the actor and editor Aden Young, Paul got up from his desk and shook my hand with both of his, repeating my name as if it was some kind of relief to finally have met me – as though these two paths were destined to cross.

Our conversation centred on films, love, art and our mutual hatred for the Grand Prix, held annually in Albert Park. It was a profound experience which I have witnessed with others many times since. Paul had the ability to make whomever he was meeting feel like the most important person in the world – two lost kindred spirits finding common ground in a mad, mad world.

This first meeting took place just before I embarked upon my final year at the VCA Film School. Aden needed me to replace him for a few months as Paul’s editor.

For the next four months, I worked on Salvation, a film starring Wendy Hughes as a TV evangelist. Juggling it between classes at the VCA, I had my very own “one on one” film school with Paul. It was an experience that changed me as a storyteller.

During the edit, I was always looking to make brash decisions and to cut and hack into the film by playing Tetris with the movie clips on Final Cut, the digital editing software we used.

But Paul’s background was with splicing and taping actual film negatives, so every decision was considered and thoughtful. He worked away at the film as though it was a sculpture waiting to be discovered inside a block of wood. He was always cautious not to make a cut too deep for fear it might damage the end product.

That level of patience – and faith that the work will reveal itself – will always stay with me. Working as Paul’s editor, I was basically acting as his translator for the “machine”, as he called it – the digital technology that eluded him.

He made little progress in understanding computers or digital editing and protested fiercely against them. There were many times that Paul took out his frustrations in the edit room, cursing and growling at how ridiculous the process had become. The computer represented everything that Paul felt had gone wrong with the world, and with cinema. He was frustrated with the embrace of quick cuts and the lack of heart, intimacy and truth that had come from the MTV generation of filmmakers.

A crew of loyal creatives

Paul’s films were his art and his soul, so he refused to compromise or to make a film that wasn’t for himself: a true auteur in every sense and, sadly, not so much a dying breed in Australia, more of an anomaly.

Apart from Rolf De Heer, I can’t think of an Australian filmmaker who can compare with Paul’s body of work. This country rarely celebrates filmmakers who put their heart on their sleeve or take risks to occasionally fail and unashamedly explore the melodramatic and absurd nature of being human.

We struggle with that third act and rarely do we completely “go there” out of fear of being cut down or being ridiculed for being too emotional or arrogant. Remember, nobody likes a sook, mate.

It’s a deep-rooted problem that we have with our cultural identity: if we’re not an English colony or an American fanboy/girl, then what are we? The caricatures of Paul Hogan, Chips Rafferty and Steve Irwin paint only a tiny glimpse of the whole picture. And it’s a dated one, a very masculine and stoic view of the country that wouldn’t dare cry or declare love for their fellow man, woman, piece of music or art.

But Cox and De Heer, born elsewhere yet having lived here long enough to truly understand the place, were able to transcend these existential limitations.

As payment for my hours on Salvation, Paul generously gave me half the budget for my VCA graduating short film, Hell’s Gates (2008). He also introduced me to my future producer Maggie Miles with whom I ended up making Hell’s Gates, Van Diemen’s Land (2009) and Fog, a chapter of The Turning films.

It was Paul who saw Hell’s Gates and recommended that I bypass the traditional funding routes and just go out there and make the feature. Much like he made his films. He said: “You made the 20-minute short for less than 20,000, go out there and make the feature for 80.”

It was his words that inspired Oscar Redding and me to push forward, get a bank loan, beg friends and family for money and make Van Diemen’s Land. Maggie, Oscar and I made that feature for A$260,000. So potentially, without Paul, we may not have a Van Diemen’s Land.

Paul worked outside the system and by his own rules, earning a reputation in the industry for achieving low budgets by working with dedicated crews who shared his passion.

Paul’s trick to keeping the budget low was having a tiny crew of loyal creatives. For example, Chris Haywood, who acted in many of his films, would also often cater, clapper load, art direct, do make-up or whatever else was needed.

Sanity and creative expression

Nijinsky: The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky (2001).

Overseas, Paul had recognition at all the major festivals and enjoyed a close relationship with Roger Ebert – who thought Paul was the bee’s knees. Understandably, as the three films that Paul directed in the early ‘80s, back to back, are some of the finest ever produced in this country: Lonely Hearts, Man Of Flowers (1983) and My First Wife (1984).

For those who say he never regained such genius, I urge you to watch A Woman’s Tale (1991), Vincent (1987), Nijinsky (2001) and Kaluapapa Heaven (2007). You can watch any film by Paul and feel like you’re having a heartfelt and honest discussion with the man, regardless of whether they are “successful” films or not.

One of my favourite films, Nijinsky was an exploration of the mind of a brilliant genius. Paul gained insight into Nijinsky’s diaries in a way no other artist could.

You can see that he identifies with the madman. He feels the battle between sanity, creative expression, passion and just plainly being human. Nijinsky said:

You will understand me when you see me dance.

I know Paul identified deeply with that quote. His films were an attempt to share a glimpse into the way he saw the world.

I wonder if the reason we don’t celebrate Paul Cox in the ranks of other “new wave” filmmakers such as Schepisi, Weir, Armstrong, Beresford etc etc is because his success wasn’t validated by making films in Hollywood. It’s often the case here and part of the cultural cringe. The Babadook (2014) needed to be a success elsewhere before we embraced it here.

Like breathing

Making films was like breathing for Paul and he made one almost every year. The lack of recognition in Australia has been sad, but I feel it helped drive him. His obsession with Vincent Van Gogh always made so much sense to me.

If he had more success and money then he wouldn’t know what to do with it. Paul gathered enough money together to buy a corner block in Albert Park in the early '80s and it became his sanctuary. He slowly rented out sections to keep himself afloat. He never craved an extravagant life.

If he had more money then maybe he would have simply paid us even more. Sounds ridiculous, as he wasn’t a saint, but he valued other artists so much. I spoke with Rob Menzies the other day, who played the lead opposite Isabelle Huppert in Cactus (1986). He said even though he was paid a touch above union rates for the film, he was called into the office and handed an envelope by Paul with over A$5,000 in it:

We came in under budget, merry Christmas.

I ended up editing/co-editing Paul’s last three films – if it wasn’t for him I would still be paying off my half of the Van Diemens’ Land loan. I spent many months in those dark rooms and I considered him a mentor and a close friend.

We laughed ourselves silly, wept together at the beauty of the world and cursed passionately at the injustices within it. He always said, “We have to love each other and care for each other, everything else is just fucking bullshit, you know?” Trust me, it sounds much more profound in Paul’s accent and raspy old-man voice.

But I was fascinated by how closely related his anger and passion were. He would be brought to tears about the violence in the world and how people should appreciate art and love more deeply, and then in the same breath call someone a “fucking c…”.

The contradictions made him even more human and relatable. He was as flawed as the rest of us … but he was the most passionate person I have ever met. So driven, stubborn, generous and warm. We who worked with him all loved him deeply for it and will always carry him around in our hearts.

But most of all, I’ll never forget being that film school student, sitting next to an old Steinbeck in the caged editing room below the stairs, watching the actors of Salvation walk past the barred window … Wendy Hughes, Barry Humphries, Kym Gyngell, Chris Haywood, Bud Tingwell, Terry Norris and Julia Blake to name a few.

The beautiful Wendy convinced me on my first day to come upstairs and eat some of Paul’s famous “Albert Park Chicken”, a chicken breast plonked on a roasted sweet potato.

Amongst the walls of clocks, knick-knacks and framed photos of crew from the dozens of films Paul made sat Paul, Aden, Wendy, Chris, TLJ (the actor and producer Tony Llewellyn-Jones), the DOP Ian Jones and soundy James Currie. I pulled a seat at the table and thought I was the luckiest film student alive.

Many of my heroes of Australian cinema sat there and laughed at anecdotes from making old films past – the very films I’d snuck out to watch on SBS. The very house I sat in was a production studio or location for many of these films and it was drenched in a history that I hoped to be a part of.

I could almost imagine Paul’s dear friend, the Man Of Flowers himself, Norman Kaye, or the great John Hargreaves or the writer Bob Ellis sitting there with us. I’m so lucky to have sat at that table as there may not be many like it in the future. Sadly, not many filmmakers will be able to afford a house with room for a table.

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