Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh“Paulus Henrikus Benidictus Cox”: the name triggers images of a character from some historical tale by Umberto Eco. From my experiences of collaborating with him for over a quarter of a century now, I can tell you that he has many of the values and characteristics of such a character.

Working with Cox is not dissimilar to being one of the Musketeers or part of a pirate crew, there is a loyalty that is expected from and given by those around him. Production can also be an adventure that is worthy of a film in its own right. Not an insubstantial “making of” though, but a true, emotionally adventurous drama. Such adventures are often triggered by the creatively small budgets – which tap the technician’s and production management’s world recognised Australian “can-do” ability to the extreme – as well as, in earlier days, the sometimes-edgy relationships between Cox and his actors. When Aden Young, one of Cox’s closest collaborators, first worked with him in the lead role of Exile (1994), we were filming in the middle of scrubby coastal forest on the Freycinet Peninsular in Tasmania. Cox had taken his actor to one side to talk through the scene. The crew sat quietly discussing lunch, as you do. I kept an eye on the discussion as time ticked by, we were keen to shoot, it was windy and we were hungry. Progressively it became obvious that some sort of face-off was taking place as arms started to wave in the air – they looked like angry windmills – and smoke started to billow from Cox’s pipe. Suddenly both headed off in different directions swearing never to return. Paul Amitzbol (producer, grip, first assistant director and trick cyclist) and I looked at each other, we sent the crew to lunch and then we went off to encourage our two protagonists to join us when we returned after the meal. Aden Young edited Cox’s latest feature, Salvation (2008).

Cox’s films are made without hesitation, without assistant directors, without a dedicated continuity girl/boy, without a caterer, while the gaffer is the grip is the actor, as is the director of photography (DOP) the director and the “woman next door”. But not always. It depends, of course, on the budget. There can be teamsters, two camera units, casts of international (the likes of Peter O’Toole, Derek Jacobi, Isabelle Huppert and John Hurt) and Australia stars (David Wenham, Claudia Karvan, Hugo Weaving, Kate Ceberano and Wendy Hughes, to name but a few). Cox is like a being driven, as are many directors when they are working. His hands bleed, he doesn’t sleep, and lamps have even been hurled off sets. Cox’s relationship with light often brings him head on with an unsuspecting DOP. Cox’s still photographs are internationally recognised and collected. His artificial lighting is minimal, with a preference for natural illumination, and his DOPs have complained of there not being enough light to really register the picture.

On a shoot in France for the film Human Touch (2004), for example, there was a scene set in a farmhouse kitchen. The building was from the 17th century and had thick stone walls. Cox disappeared into the room with his two lead actors. They stayed there for an hour, maybe two, trying to come to grips with what was a highly emotional scene. When they were ready he called in the crew. We watched the scene. The room was lit by a narrow shaft of sunlight coming through the window in the thick wall. “That’s the light I want”, said Cox. To maintain that single shaft of light for an extended period of time would normally mean a black tent outside and a powerful lamp, a brute or something similar, brought in to replace the sun. We had no such thing. Two large mirrors were made and mounted on tallboys. The scene was put on hold and we moved on to others until a day arrived when the sun was right. We returned to the scene and I spent the rest of that day panning the sun through the window.

The master-shot is Cox’s preference. Coverage? Sometimes not. There have been occasions when the days are running out and Cox is busy choreographing a long tracking shot (to contain a whole scene) that the time he normally gives to his actors to find their own rhythms and pace is lost in the scramble to shoot. That is the exception rather than the rule, but when it happens it can be frustrating for the actor. I know, because it has happened to me. But it’s not just with Cox that this happens. There are many times when the scenes scheduled for the end of the day are done in a rush, as too much time has been taken with the morning’s schedule. But Cox’s shots, when they are created with adequate time (and it can take up to a day to arrive at that fine balance between actors, light and camera), are great moments in cinema. The scene in the 17th century farmhouse is again a fine example of this. They typically contain within the one shot, the wide, mid and close-up views of the characters. Cox rides the camera through many of the final rehearsals. In days gone by you knew the camera was getting closer if you had your back to it, as the smoke from his pipe got thicker.

Cox prefers, where possible, for all locations to be within walking distance of the production office. Salvation had many scenes shot within the building that houses both the offices of Illumination Films and Cox’s own residence. Many previous films were shot within this building: Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh (1987) and A Woman’s Tale (1991) are but two. Golden Braid (1990) was shot in a house he previously owned across the street, that has since sold to finance another film. But that house was still in walking distance. The building is constantly reconfigured according to his needs, and is significant to his productions; housing actors and crew, the production office, screening rushes, storing equipment, containing post-production facilities, and, of course, containing the kitchen where the sacred Albert Park chicken is cooked and consumed to feed all creative spirits who venture in from home and abroad.

Cox’s own life is an ongoing work of art, in the form of collections as well as individual pieces, be they his own photographs, his own paintings, clocks, shell lamps, temples, furnishings or the works of friends. They fill the walls and floors of his rooms. They fill the screen in his films, often along with the works of his long time collaborator Asher Bilu. Asher’s creations can be of such proportions that a whole scene or more can be shot within them. Explanandum being an example of this again in Human Touch (1).

Right now Cox is choreographing a ballet. What next? I will be there (2).

Endnotes

  1. For a taste of Bilu’s work, including footage of Explanandum, see: http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=asherbilu#p/u/1/3PJ-hnLdg_g.
  2. For further insights into Cox’s work see my interview conducted in October 2009: http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/extra/movietime/2009/mme_20091016_cox.mp3.

About The Author

E15 trained Chris Haywood has performed in 82 feature films since 1974, receiving AFI, Logie and international film festival awards along the way. He also crews.