A Collaboration Between Two Artists
By Asher Bilu
Published in Senses of Cinema, Issue 53, Paul Cox Dossier Dec 28 2009
My work with Paul Cox as Production Designer has been successful, I believe, because we have much in common. On the surface, our backgrounds are similar – we are of similar age, we both experienced the indoctrination of our different religions and discarded their dogmas as soon as possible, and we both migrated to Australia and forged careers as artists, I as a painter and Paul as a photographer and filmmaker. But the crucial thing we recognised in each other was a daring, a “madness” – a term that Paul always uses endearingly – that made us invest in ourselves without reliance on immediate financial or critical gain. Neither of us moved with the tides of fashion. We were drawn to each other quite instinctively, and it was not before too many bottles of red wine that Man of Flowers (1983) really brought us together.
It was as “mad” of Paul to invite my involvement as Production Designer on his next film as it was for me to accept the role. We both knew that I had no experience in film, but somehow we were both confident that I could do it.
So the shoot began. With such a small crew and cast, it worked like chamber music. We all seemed to be discovering each other as we went along, and there was extraordinary goodwill. I was the entire art department – location manger, prop finder, set dresser etc. – with total freedom to indulge my ideas. Without doubt, it was a “Paul Cox film”, but it was the film that dictated its requirements to me. The artist’s studio, for example, had to be authentically located in a sleazy neighborhood and be filled with work in several different styles to highlight the painter’s (David, played by Chris Haywood) evident talent but especially his lack of artistic integrity. I used the studio of an artist friend, and filled it with the work of several artists, including my own. Our home took over as the house of Charles, the “Man of Flowers”. I was inspired by my own home turf. As I introduced visual ideas, Paul changed the script to accommodate them, until the original script was virtually discarded. We were on fire.
Paul supported all my suggestions without fail. I think this is because as artists we share the same eye and the same sensibilities. I felt free to come to him at any time, day or night, even in the middle of a shoot if something interesting came up unexpectedly. We were like hunters working together, exploring, grabbing every opportunity.
Paul encouraged me to choreograph the scene of the exuberant canvas dance where the artist, wearing my painting clothes, and working with my studio equipment – blow torch, spray gun, mask – creates one of his paintings, my object being to satirise the common public perception of how contemporary art is produced, and even perhaps to parody myself a little. The scene was shot with only one take!
The initial script called for the artist to die by falling in the cellar at Charles’ home. I had suggested to Paul that somehow, somewhere, he should utilise my artwork, a wall sculpture titled Abacus, because it added to the eccentricity of Charles’ home. Paul changed the script to make Abacus the murder weapon, and then between us, we introduced various other devices to make the idea plausible – an enigmatic box of objects, one with a spring loading, Charles firing at a target on the lawn – all designed to show that Charles was capable of mechanical engineering. One morning, an actress arrived, already in costume, to play a cleaning lady to be seen through the window. The object of this scene was to introduce Abacus in the background. Paul had written the scene the night before, called her, briefed her, and surprised everyone. The crew had learned to quickly adapt to such sudden changes. In fact, after the first few days, changes were so expected that the mood on set every morning was that no-one knew what would happen until Paul arrived.
The final (very subtle) murder scene was the result of much discussion. The artist, David, was to bring a painting to Charles’ home, but which painting? Paul and I worked out the scene together the night before, and the next morning I was still painting as the crew was setting up the shot. The painting was, of course, a “vase of flowers”, which was to illustrate the end point of David’s integrity as an artist, but I painted it deliberately in the style of a well-known (you guess who) Australian artist as my private comment on artists whose work degenerates into “saleable art”.
Man of Flowers is unique – the three week shoot, the single takes of many scenes, the cooperation of everyone who worked on it – all this and more made it possible on such a tiny budget. It is also unique because of the spontaneous way it happened, growing organically with its own momentum. It is unique as an art film, with the eye seduced in every scene with visual richness. It is unique because it is a true collaboration between two artists (which I think has never been acknowledged by critics or film historians). It set the tone for our work on future films.
The next two films had bigger budgets and more structure, but I was still the entire art department, and my freedom to search for locations, find props, and to invent visual delights, remained. My First Wife (1984) is in some sense an ode to the suburb of Williamstown with its beautiful vistas, eccentric pubs, and its small community of real people. Often these “ordinary” people were found to be doing extraordinary things.
In fact, the title of the next film came about because of my meeting with such people. Paul’s script required a hobby for his lead character who was blind, and he asked for suggestions. I had a large 175-year-old cactus which I loved. I enjoyed feeling the spikes – they made a wonderful sound. Some years earlier my cactus had become diseased. My search for a remedy led me then to the foothills of the Dandenongs, to an anonymous double fronted brick veneer house which had, surprisingly, a backyard crammed with three hothouses full of exotic cacti from all over the world. This was the home of a dedicated “mad” collector. A cactus collection became the perfect hobby for a blind man. I took Paul to meet the cactus collectors and what do you know, they were Dutch, and had a son called Vincent. The movie, of course, was Cactus (1986).
Much of the movie was filmed in the Dandenongs, and the opening shot is a true master shot – a long pan which pays tribute to the beautiful landscape which is undeniably Australia but is also universal. It provides a kind of metaphor for Paul’s films, perhaps for all art, which transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary.
My involvement with Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh (1987) was brief. Not able to be in two places at once, I devoted some weeks to working on the film before deciding that I needed to return to my studio. My contributions to the film are in the two scenes recreating the images in the famous paintings The Potato Eaters and Vincent’s Bedroom in Arles, and eleven paintings which I created to simulate the fresh paintings that Vincent would have been surrounded by. In particular, Vincent’s letters inspired me to paint La Berceuse and two sunflower paintings, so that they could be shown in the film as the triptych that Vincent always wanted, but never achieved. I was very moved when I read that he had set out to paint a woman as if he were a sailor away at sea, who could not paint, but who tried to paint the woman he loved from memory – Vincent, as a sophisticated painter, creates a naïve painting! (Paul, as a sophisticated man, also paints naïve pictures.)
It was 20 years later that we worked together again.
I was exhibiting a work titled Explanandum and invited Paul to see it. He was very moved. We spent literally hours sitting with it. He explained that he had been overwhelmed and inspired by some caves in France which he would film, but that this artwork was opening up new possibilities for his script.
He wrote an email:
This Saturday I’m leaving once again for Europe and the States and won’t be back until Feb. 03. I’ve not been able to get your last “construction” out of my silly brain and wonder what is going to happen to it. Would love to see it used in our next film The Human Touch . Don’t know how but if you’re willing to read the script you might have an idea. One of the characters is a painter (of course) and I thought maybe he’ll also venture into “the universe” or something. So please let me know if I should send you a script.
And I replied (after other comments):
Now, as to the artist David and my Explanandum. You are right – David is not very interesting. In fact, he is not an artist at all, and there seems to be no reason in the script for him to be an artist; he may as well be a dentist – even dentists paint landscapes. I can see Explanandum as a substitute for the cave – a look at time and space, and a beautiful placement of the human ego in the grand scheme of things – but I can’t see it within this script. Either David has to be re-written so that he is seen progressively making the work (in which case he would not also have a part time job), or David and Anna enter into the work at the end, as they enter the cave, and have their epiphany there. How this fits into France I don’t know. So you see Paul, I am confused. I am not a script writer, and cannot suggest. I don’t know how flexible you can be with the script considering pre-production is near, and you are so far away. But I am seduced by the proposal to include Explanandum in a Paul Cox movie, and by the thought of working with you again, and am happy to continue the dialogue.
When Paul returned, there was a new script, with a new emphasis, and a new artist called Ouspensky. Explanandum had begat Ouspensky who, of course, represents the plight of the creative spirit trying to survive despite the neglect of the short-sighted artistic establishment. And not only was Ouspensky to be the creator of Explanandum, he was also the creator of Amaze, an earlier work of mine, which Paul had seen and remembered, and which he wanted to film as well. It was then that Paul invited me to work with him again.
I saw Human Touch as an art movie in the same spirit as Man of Flowers, and maybe in time it will be remembered for that. This time I had an “art department” – a location manager, set buyer and dresser, wardrobe and makeup – and even an office (which Tony Llewellyn-Jones kindly took over from me), and more responsibility than before, since as soon as I arrived, Paul left for France to shoot scenes there, saying “I trust you”, and leaving me in charge of all the pre-production. This is the beauty of our relationship. I know what he wants, and he knows what I want. Paul himself sat behind the camera to shoot Explanandum, and this is another true master shot – one take which explores the depth and magnitude of an artwork with the understanding of an artist. It is absolutely magnificent.
I am not a professional Production Designer, and I have not worked on any other films. I have worked with Paul Cox because I believe in his vision and his approach to filmmaking. He loves humanity. Humanity is not bums on seats. If you want that, you show certain aspects of humanity – violence or sex – but that is not what matters to him, or to me. Paul cannot be ruled by producers and investors and the marketplace. He must be free to make his art. Freedom can be used and abused – there is a fine line between being reckless and creative. But for me, it is inconceivable to work in any other way, and this is why we can work together.