Today's conversation with Paul Cox is a lesson in many hues. He is ill, recently diagnosed with liver cancer and there are many projects he wants to do if only he has time. There's a co-production with Theo Van Gogh's Dutch production company to be filmed in Ireland and a book about the making of Cox's Adelaide Film Festival funded, Kalaupapa Heaven (2007). Of that film, shot on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, Cox says “the producers fired me, they sacked me and the leprosy patients with whom I had become very friendly came with knives and guns in wheelchairs and on stretchers to fight and they chased the producers off the island. It was an extraordinary time.”
This is only one story in a tremendous career — although Cox doesn't see it in those terms. A true survivor of our industry he says, “I thought if I depart from this strange planet it would be nice to think that you leave a better world behind but I've come to the conclusion that we don't at all. What I did with my own little life I could never do now. I would never get away with it. I was very stubborn and I lived and made my own films and there are very few people in the whole world that can do that.
I had to sacrifice a lot but I was very lucky and I didn't have great expectations. There was not the compulsion to make it a career. Filmmaking is not a career. You make a film every year, every two years and what do you do the rest of the time? Just tell everyone you're a filmmaker?”
Cox's vision always includes a sense of identity. Born in Holland in 1940 and having lived and worked in Melbourne since the 1960s, his local films would always include a scene shot at the Albert Park Lake (“before they fucked it with the Grand Prix”) a location he defines as “very European”. His latest film, Salvation is entirely shot in his adopted hometown of Melbourne, although the city is never named.
A film about a televangelist, Gloria (played by Wendy Hughes), her biblical scholar husband Barry (Bruce Myles) and the Russian prostitute with whom he falls in love, Irina (Natalia Novakova) was, for Cox, “a funny film to make. We all lived here. There were ten, twelve people living upstairs. I've got a studio upstairs with two people lying there. The living room was full. The bedrooms were full. That was the only way we could do this. I have fantastic friends that have been with me for the last two hundred years. We're probably the oldest army of mad people with amazing fire and belief and faith and we go and we do it again and again. How many times do we have to prove ourselves? If there's no money we'll do it for nothing. All these people, including Barry Humphries – we do this for nothing. I can't even go around telling people we did this for nothing because it's very bad for business.”
Cox came to write the script of Salvation over about two years — a long time for a filmmaker who normally writes in two weeks. But Salvation, he says, was different. “I always research and made notes. For Salvation, I re-read the Bible and the Koran and rewrote the script quite a few times. It had to firstly be accurate. I also wanted it to be funny. I know that this particular sense of humour is not shared by most. When Gloria says, “Lie on top of me” people don't really see the funny part of it — they take it seriously!”
Illumination Films received development money for the script but the film failed to secure production funds. Cox says, “The film was called Whore and the people in the film office refused to use the word. They couldn't even discuss my script. So I thought this is a sign of great maturity.”
I ask if the title was meant to provoke or if it was imperative to the film. “Both” is Cox's reply. “It's all whoring. Most whores are much more honest and to the point.”
In his own words, Cox has been “a very outspoken migrant.” He says, “I've made so many films and if they do their sums they would also realize that in the long run they will return their money. Innocence made 16 million or maybe 20 million dollars and I never saw a penny. They screwed us right, left and centre – but I don't mind that. It's ok. But in terms of the government, I think there is a case to give some maniac like myself a small amount. There's a case for that.”
I ask him if he still believes that work you love should be a hobby. Without a pause, Cox answers, “absolutely. We live in a world of compromise. Today in this way, tomorrow in another. Always towards some murky horizon that is never a clear picture of who you are and what you are. Then you look at the life of Vincent van Gogh. He didn't compromise. He didn't even know the word. And what did he leave behind? And how much has he enlightened generations of people and given them love and vision and single-handedly all by himself in all his loneliness. Spectacular – he changed the future of the medium, of painting. People talk about “he only sold one painting and killed himself – what a miserable life”. I don't think it was that miserable at all – I think he must have known great moments of elation. And it's better to have one great moment of elation than a lifetime of boring nonsense.”
Salvation is currently in cinemas.