My First Wife “I find living itself quite difficult so you may as well make it more difficult by doing something crazy.”

– Paul Cox (1)

Paul Cox has been making films for over 40 years. His stories often reflect aspects of his own life experience or that of his close friends, a key factor leading to his reputation as the most personal of filmmakers in Australia.

I write this article with some knowledge of Cox. I worked on two of his films in the early 1980s, Man of Flowers (1983) and My First Wife (1984), and we also worked together as crew members on Werner Herzog’s Australian production, Where the Green Ants Dream (1984). Prior to my film experience, Cox taught me photography and cinematography at the Prahran College of Advanced Education in Melbourne from 1980-1982.

For many years Cox was considered one of Australia’s most critically acclaimed filmmakers, both within Australia and internationally. His prolific output includes over 20 features, numerous short films and documentaries, and three films made for children’s television (2). Since his films don’t always fit the criteria set by the institutionalised funding bodies, he is obliged to make do with low budgets and tight production schedules. Cox prefers to work with a small cast and crew comprised of actors, technicians and production staff who have built up strong connections with him over many years (a key factor in enabling him to make so many films). The relationship developed is reciprocal; Cox makes films and those included in his “creative community” attain work. But as Cox admits, “We work for very little, we are all walking deferments” (3).

Born on 16 April 1940, in Holland, Cox has vivid memories of the horror of the war that was played out on the doorstep of his hometown of Venlo close to the German border. Cox’s father, Wim Cox, was also a filmmaker and photographer, whose filmmaking career came to an abrupt end during the war and couldn’t be resurrected once peace returned to Europe. Cox’s memory of his father was of an embittered and emotionally distant man, and he regretted Hnever having a close relationship with him, especially as they ended up sharing much the same passion. He only saw his father’s films many years later and was surprised at the similarity of their view of the world. In contrast to his father, Cox’s mother, Else Cox-Kuminack, was a loving and supportive parent who understood her son’s introspective nature.

At the age of 23, Cox travelled to Australia as an exchange student to study at the University of Melbourne. He began his career in Australia as a photographer and originally made films as a hobby, financing them through the profits he made as a professional photographer. For many years, he also taught photography and cinematography at the Prahran College of Advanced Education, which at the time, was one of Australia’s most highly regarded art schools. When Cox began teaching filmmaking he had no experience with the medium and used to spend his lunchtimes in the library learning about the subject and making sure he was not “talking total crap to the students” (4).

After honing his craft through making a number of documentaries, shorts and experimental films during the 1960s and early 1970s, Cox began his professional film career with three features; Illuminations (1976), Inside Looking Out (1977) and Kostas (1979). Kostas was well-received by film festival patrons and critics (5), however, as with his two earlier features, this enthusiasm wasn’t reflected in box office returns. This would be a repeated pattern throughout Cox’s career.

Cox earned the status of one of the shining lights of Australian cinema with the release of the features Lonely Hearts (1981), Man of Flowers (1983), My First Wife (1984), and Cactus (1989). Cox’s status as a significant filmmaker, both nationally and internationally, was recognised by film critics, audiences and his peers. For example, Neil Jillett, the Melbourne Age’s film critic at the time, wrote that “Man of Flowers establishes Cox as the most daringly original director working in mainstream Australian cinema” (6). Over the years, Cox has been the recipient of many national and international awards, a number of international retrospectives and more recently, during August 2009, the subject of a two-day conference that was held in his honour at the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Victorian College of the Arts and Music.

Cox has a singular vision and a steadfast confidence in his ability as a filmmaker and storyteller. How else could he continue to make so many films with such little financial backing and industry support? Such tenacity, coupled with an insatiable drive could only be generated by a person with great passion and conviction. However, with a few notable exceptions, the run of successes he experienced in the 1980s didn’t carry over into the following decades.

Cox’s films are often variations on a theme based on his own life experience. In general, he prefers to work from an idea he has written himself. The stories expose human vulnerability, inadequacy and loneliness, but Cox’s quirky sense of humour is always present and is often expressed through the obsessive nature of some of his characters. After writing the script he sometimes works with other writers, especially on the dialogue. “With Man of Flowers, the absurdity of it was all mine”, Cox admits with a chuckle, “and then [Bob] Ellis came in because he had a better understanding of the dialogue we should be using”. Ellis also contributed a couple of days to My First Wife, while John Clarke worked on Lonely Hearts and “much later when my whole circus had fallen apart… came back… [and co-] wrote Lust and Revenge [1996]”. Cox has also worked with Barry Dickens on Golden Braid (1990) and with John Larkin on an as yet to be produced script called Homecoming. “The last few scripts, I’ve written myself”, Cox adds with a smile, “at least it’s one less person to argue with about these matters”.

David Stratton, a respected Australian film critic and broadcaster who has followed Cox’s career for more than 30 years, sees Cox as

the most consistently personal of filmmakers. Many of [his films] are about him and his friends as much as about anything else. Nobody I think works quite the way Paul does, or at least, they don’t have the output that Paul has had over the years. The thing about Paul is, up until recently he’s been able to make, more or less, a film a year and that makes him unusually prolific by Australian standards. (7)

Cox has been able to achieve this largely because of the group of dedicated collaborators he surrounds himself with. As Cox freely admits, trust, friendship and loyalty are the key attributes he has cultivated within this creative community:

You can’t make a film on your own but it should be used as a form of self-expression. You need people to share your dreams; to give expression, to give form and shape to whatever you want to give form or shape to. And when you have people you can trust, who are not only very fine technicians but also your friends, you have an atmosphere that you can thrive in. Because I think you make a film in the making, you don’t do it on paper. It becomes a little journey that you share with the people who are dear to you and whom you love intensely and respect. So although it might be a film that might have my name on it, it’s very much a communal effort and this is very much inspired by what [Ingmar] Bergman did. If you follow the rules and regulations of the world, you’re already fucked.

Many of the actors who reappear in Cox’s films become so familiar they can almost be regarded as “old friends”. Norman Kaye, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Chris Haywood, Julia Blake, Charles (Bud) Tingwell, Gosia Dobrowolska and Wendy Hughes are just some of the actors who became Cox’s long-term friends and collaborators. In keeping with this, Cox gives his actors a lot of creative freedom, an approach that Dobrowolska attests to in an interview with Stratton: “Working with Paul doesn’t compare with working with anyone else […]. I felt he could see inside me, tap my feelings […] he opens a door and lets you into his world and though it’s his world he allows you to create as well […]. He’s not always easy, but he’s very rewarding.” (8)

Amongst the director’s most staunch collaborators, Chris Haywood has worked with Cox on 16 films including Man of Flowers, Golden Braid, A Woman’s Tale (1991), and Human Touch (2004). Haywood has worked on both sides of the camera with Cox and sees his filmmaking practice as offering opportunities to actors and others that aren’t often open to them. As Haywood explains,

it’s really utilising people to their utmost whilst they’re involved in the production. As soon as you start saying that this person does that and that person does this, you’re actually limiting what can be made in the picture. You’re limiting the assets that you have and any filmmaking that is made on that basis is, to me, limited filmmaking. (9)

But Cox’s films are as equally defined by their style as their production circumstances. The mise en scène of his elegantly shot films also contributes to Cox’s reputation as the most European of Australian filmmakers. His interior shots often use deep, saturated colours with dark, intimate lighting that gives a highly atmospheric tone to his films. This helps to set the mood of the journey we are about to take. The intimacy of Cox’s approach also allows the characters to reveal their inner-selves.

Man of FlowersCox’s films often germinate from or are responses to significant experiences and obstacles in his life. Man of Flowers was originally conceived and made as a demonstration against the government funding regulations which hindered Cox’s ability to work. In the early 1980s Bob Ellis and Anne Brooksbank had two scripts they wanted Cox to direct (The Nostradamus Kid and Should Auld Acquaintance be Forgot) (10), and Cox had had substantial worldwide recognition due to the success of Lonely Hearts (11), however, neither of these productions could get financial backing. So Cox wrote Man of Flowers in two days and gathered his friends around him to make the film. As a result of this, Cox rang me prior to the start of pre-production and said, “I’m making a film and there’s no budget; we’re making it for nothing. Are you interested in helping us?” We found an office and I typed up a sign on A4 paper and stuck it to the front door: “Man of Flowers – Production Office”. I became the production assistant, stills photographer (along with Virginia Rouse), location scout, and basically took on any job that was thrown my way.

Jane Ballantyne came on board as producer and was able to secure some private backing which made the process a bit easier. Friends were called on to supply locations, props and actors. Production designer Asher Bilu’s house became Charles Bremer’s (the main character of Man of Flowers played by Norman Kaye) home; my mother’s house was used for the flashback scenes; my house was used for the love scene between the characters of Lisa and Jane. James Stratford, my nephew, was cast as Bremer as a child in the flashback scenes, Werner Herzog came to the party by playing the role of Bremer’s father, and my bulldog, Rasa, was given a cameo as the dog in the artist’s studio.

The critical acclaim the film received surprised everyone. Cox knew it was a good film but neither he nor Norman Kaye were prepared for the level of national and international interest it evoked. Soon after its completion, the film was invited to screen in Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, and Kaye won the Australian Film Institute Award for Best Actor (1983). The film went on to win a number of international awards, was screened at over 21 film festivals around the world, and was sold to more than 24 countries. Cox is still amazed by the continued reputation of Man of Flowers: “I’m still haunted by that film; everyone haunts me with that film…. I can’t go anywhere where they don’t know it, whether they’ve seen it or not, which is very strange!”

But, as Janet Hawley argues, Cox’s subsequent career has been a chequered one:

Cox’s films have long divided audiences into two camps: those who revere them and think their maker is a sensitive genius who deserves all possible help and funding and those who consider them boring and self-indulgent, maintain that Cox has had too much support, and feel help should be directed elsewhere. (12)

This sentiment within the industry has hampered Cox’s ability to get funding for many of his subsequent films and he occasionally has to undertake many – sometimes most – of the key creative roles just so that he can keep on working in this fashion. Discussing The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky (2001) and Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh (1987), Cox explains:

Both of them I shot myself because I couldn’t explain to anyone what they were about…. I think they [Nijinsky and van Gogh] were terribly important and don’t forget that both of them changed the actual future of their medium; Nijinsky of modern dance and Vincent of modern painting. And both of them were supposed to be “mad” people! So I found that fascinating and that basically set me off.

The hostility between the funding bodies and Cox has almost become legend, one cultivated by the director himself. “It’s partly my own big mouth”, Cox admits,

but I don’t ask for very much you know… if I were living anywhere else they would at least regard you as someone who has contributed something. In this country it doesn’t work like that at all, you’ve got to go through all the crap again and the new people in the administration have no fucking clue who you are!

But Cox’s maverick status also has more positive and productive outcomes. On announcing Cox as the winner of the National Film and Sound Archive’s 2006 Ken G. Hall Award, the NFSA Director, Paolo Cherchi Usai, described Cox as “an uncompromising filmmaker with a unique personal style whose work creates debate wherever it is screened” (13).

For example, when Vincent was screened at Cannes, most of the audience walked out. Cox recollects how he felt about the film’s initial reception,

If it happened now, I’d laugh, but at the time, there wasn’t much to laugh at because I was in terrible trouble financially on all sorts of levels. I was shattered and especially [when] the man who was supposed to take over [distribution] said, “beautiful film Paul but our company would never do it justice”. One of those lines that you never forget – “our company would never do it justice” – nice way of getting out of it!

Sometime later, another American company distributed Vincent and it had a two-year continuous release in the United States (14). Vincent was screened at 28 film festivals around the world and has become one of Cox’s most internationally acclaimed films, second for many to only Man of Flowers.

The making of the similarly themed Nijinsky, probably Cox’s most acclaimed recent film after Innocence (2000), was a labour of love. Although Cox had wanted to make a film about Nijinsky for over 30 years, the making of a film about this tortured soul ended up being torture for the filmmaker as well. Just prior to commencing the second-unit shoot in Europe, Cox had an accident. Haywood explains,

he had broken fingers and bones in both hands and was unable to operate the camera or drive a vehicle. He rang me up and said, “Look, I need some hands”, and I said, “Well, I’m not going to hold yah dick when you have a pee, I can tell you that! But I’ll come and do everything else.” And I came up and the two of us headed off from Arnhem with Leni Riefenstahl’s Arriflex camera and just wound our way down to the border of Spain and shot all the incidental shots that we needed.

So with the melding of Haywood’s hands and Cox’s vision they finished shooting. Haywood became, “the clapper loader, focus puller, driver… whatever; general factotum”. “I spent three years making it”, Cox says of Nijinsky, “and one year editing; day and night, totally obsessed, working 20 hours a day and I suffered very badly afterwards. It’s too exhausting, Nijinsky almost killed me you know, I’ve never been the same after that film; it’s just too much.” As Philip Tyndall writes,

Nijinsky pushes the boundaries of the documentary form […]. This is cinema which flows from the screen with kaleidoscopic images […]. If by fate or circumstance he [Cox] never made another film, The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky would serve as a perfect illustration of the work of this filmmaker. (15)

SalvationCox’s most recent feature film, Salvation (2008), was yet another example of a film made with a very tight budget and little support from the funding bodies. Throughout the shoot, most of the interstate cast and crew lived and worked in Cox’s apartment above his production office in Middle Park. This doubled as the set for the film as well. Haywood explained that it was a very exhausting experience living and working in such a tight environment and eventually tempers exploded. It was

towards the end of a scene on an extraordinarily long day, where everybody had worked way beyond the call of duty, and Paul’s mobile rang… this was right at the end of a day and people were getting strung out. I said to him, ‘Turn your phone off!’, and he said, ‘No, I won’t, I’m talking to my sister!’ and I said, ‘Turn your phone off’, and he wouldn’t turn it off. So I punched him.

Cox has also made two very moving tributes to collaborators and friends, Sheila Florance and Norman Kaye, when it became apparent that each was dying. In 1990, Cox wrote A Woman’s Tale specifically for Florance who was terminally ill with lung cancer. She had previously played a number of minor roles in Cox’s films but they had become great friends. As soon as Cox heard that she was ill, he went to see her. They shared memories, laughed and drank together. As Cox was leaving, Florance whispered to him, “You still have time to make me a star!” Cox went home and wrote the script for A Woman’s Tale. Florance subsequently performed bravely in the leading role of a woman afflicted with the same disease. As Stratton recollects, “I was actually on the set when they were filming a lot of that film and it was… painful really to see Sheila struggling to complete [her] part” (16). Florance ultimately received the AFI Award for Best Female Actor and Cox received a Human Rights Award for Best Feature Film of 1991. Florance died six months later.

More recently, Cox made The Remarkable Mr Kaye (2005), a documentary tribute to one of his dearest friends and closest collaborators, Norman Kaye, while he was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease. The film is an extraordinarily tender and open expression of love and admiration by a filmmaker who lays bare his feelings for a man who was enormously important in his life. As Cox declares at the beginning of the film, “This is a blatantly biased portrait of an artist; a fine musician, a wonderful actor and a compassionate lover of life. This is an homage to a friend; to a friendship and a creative partnership that has shaped and changed my life.”

Cox’s contribution to the Australian film industry is significant and his filmography to date is extraordinary. When asked if he will ever retire from filmmaking he admits, “It’s an addiction of sorts, isn’t it? I’d like to stop for awhile, but I’m already writing another script, so it’s hopeless!” With a wry smile, Cox tells me that he and his friend, Werner Herzog, have made a pact; that they will both die on set while doing the thing they love; filmmaking. In my opinion, Cox has never been able to separate the personal from the professional, a characteristic that has been both a strength and a weakness in his film practice. However, the experimental nature of Cox’s imagery and his strong thematic and stylistic traits will continue to be of value to our cinema as the historiography of Australian film culture expands and deepens.

Endnotes

  1. Paul Cox, personal interview, 7 August 2007. All subsequent unsourced quotations are taken from this interview and two others conducted on 28 September and 13 November 2007.
  2. See complete filmography at the end of this article.
  3. “Interview with Paul Cox, the Director of Human Touch”, At the Movies: http://www.abc.net.au/atthemovies/txt/s1338806.htm. Deferments are quite common in low budget films. Actors and technicians may agree to postpone payment until the film has been sold or returns a profit.
  4. Cox in the documentary A Journey with Paul Cox (Gerrit Messiaen and Rob Visser, 2005).
  5. Evan Williams’ review of Kostas in The Weekend Australian of 18 July 1981 calls it, “A work of uncommon vitality and charm, extraordinary freshness and humour. I can think of no other Australian film that has revealed, with such artless compassion, what it’s like to be hard up and lonely in a strange country.”
  6. Neil Jillett, “Man of Flowers”, The Age 4 July 1983.
  7. David Stratton, personal interview, 29 September 2007.
  8. David Stratton, The Avocado Plantation: Boom and Bust in the Australian Film Industry, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, 1990, p. 131.
  9. Chris Haywood, personal interview, 26 September 2007. All future quotes from Haywood are from this source.
  10. Stratton, The Avocado Plantation, pp. 124-125.
  11. Andrew Sarris, for example, wrote that the film was “Thoroughly charming and engaging in a way very few movies are any more” (Village Voice 13 September 1983).
  12. Janet Hawley, “The Wizard of Odd”, The Age: Good Weekend 4 November 2000, p. 25.
  13. “Paul Cox to receive National Film and Sound Archive’s Ken G Hall Award”, Media Release, NFSA: http://www.afc.gov.au/downloads/pubs/cox_kenghall_1006.pdf.
  14. Stratton, The Avocado Plantation, p. 127.
  15. Philip Tyndall, “The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky: The Culmination of a Career”, Senses of Cinema no. 20, May 2002: http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/02/20/nijinsky.html.
  16. Stratton, personal interview.

Paul Cox Filmography:

Matuta (1965, 23 mins, 16mm)

Time Past (1966, 10 mins, 16mm)

Skindeep (1968, 40 mins, 16mm)

Marcel (1969, 7 mins, 16mm)

Symphony (1969, 12 mins, 16mm)

Mirka (1970, 20 mins, 16mm)

Calcutta (1970, 30 mins, 16mm)

Phyllis (1971, 35 mins, 16mm)

The Journey (1972, 60 mins, 16mm)

All Set Backstage (1974, 22 mins, 16mm)

We are All Alone My Dear (1975, 22 mins, 16mm)

Island (1975, 10 mins, 16mm)

Illuminations (1976, 78 mins, 16mm)

Inside Looking Out (1977, 90 mins, 35mm)

Ways of Seeing (1977, 24 mins, 16mm)

Ritual (1978, 10 mins, 16mm)

Kostas (1978, 100 mins, 35mm)

For a Child Called Michael (1979, 30 mins, 16mm)

The Kingdom of Nek Chand (1980, 22 mins, 16mm)

Underdog (1980, 53 mins, 16mm)

Lonely Hearts (1981, 95 mins, 35mm)

Man of Flowers (1983, 91 mins, 35mm)

Death and Destiny: A Journey into Ancient Egypt (1984, 120 mins, 16mm)

My First Wife (1984, 97 mins, 35mm)

Paper Boy (1985, 53 mins, 16mm)

Handle With Care (1985, 75 mins, 16mm)

Cactus (1986, 95 mins, 35mm)

The Secret Life of Trees (1986, 25 mins, 16mm)

Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh (1987, 95 mins, 35mm)

The Gift (1988, 90 mins, 16mm)

Island (1989, 95 mins, 35mm)

Golden Braid (1990, 91 mins, 35mm)

A Woman’s Tale (1991, 93 mins, 35mm)

The Nun and the Bandit (1992, 92 mins, 35mm)

Touch Me (1993, 29 mins, 35mm, episode of the TV series “Erotic Tales”)

Exile (1994, 96 mins, 35mm)

Lust and Revenge (1996, 90 mins, 35mm)

The Hidden Dimension (Four Million Houseguests) (1997, 43 mins, IMAX 3D)

Molokai: The Story of Father Damien (1998, 120 mins, Super 35mm)

Innocence (2000, 91 mins, 35mm)

The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky (2001, 90 mins, 35mm)

Human Touch (2004, 102 mins, 35mm)

The Remarkable Mr Kaye (2005, 50 mins, TD Video)

Kalaupapa Heaven (2007, 90 mins, HD Video)

Salvation (2008, 100 mins, HD Video)

Samurai in Space (2008, 45 mins, HD Video)

About The Author

Maria Stratford is a filmmaker, photographer and radio producer who works at RMIT University in Melbourne. She is currently also making a documentary film shot in Australia and Africa.