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Authentic in every detail (down to the 17th century dildos) The Libertine is another showcase for the extraordinary talents of Johnny Depp playing the debauched Earl of Rochester, the film’s Australian editor, Jill Bilcock, tells Andrew L. Urban.

Having completed the edit on Catch A Fire for Phil Noyce*, Jill Bilcock is ensconced in an edit suite at England’s Shepperton Studios when she picks up the phone to talk about working on The Libertine. A duck had just laid eggs outside the room, having nested in a gutter. Bilcock walks past sheep each morning at 8am to get to the edit room, a windowless, charmless space where the pride of place is occupied by her Lightworks editing gear. “I’m one of the last editors left to use this gear,” she says without a hint of sheepishness.

As we speak, Bilcock is in the midst of editing The Golden Age for Shekhar Kapur, starring Aussie thesps Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I, Geoffrey Rush as Sir Francis Walsingham, Abbie Cornish as Elizabeth Throckmorton, and Clive Owen as Sir Walter Raleigh, whose relationship with Queen Elizabeth I is the subject of the film. Bilcock raves about Blanchett: “She’s just finished her stint on the shoot, and it’s marvellous to work with someone so extraordinary. She’s a really great actor … just wonderful. There’s no-one who could play Elizabeth I as well…” Bilcock also edited Elizabeth (1998), Kapur’s internationally acclaimed biopic of the Queen’s early years – in which Blanchett won an Oscar nomination.

"You cannot underestimate somebody as good as Johnny Depp"

Bilcock has the same kind of praise for Johnny Depp, who stars in The Libertine, with John Malkovich. “You cannot underestimate somebody as good as Johnny Depp. You come in and look at the rushes, and he’s just sensational, so professional. He gives it everything; he doesn’t forget lines, he’s incredibly generous to other actors and an absolute delight to watch on screen. He gives different interpretations for every scene for variety …”

He’s “an impish, quite magical and childlike being,” says Bilcock. Which of course is a wonderful irony when he’s playing John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester, a debauched libertine enjoying scandalous fame in Restoration England with his daring writing. A close confidante of the high-living King Charles II (John Malkovich), the Earl delights in lampooning England’s royals with his subversive wit and in scandalising London society with his sexual escapades. But when the Earl falls in love with Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton), the theatrical protégé he plans to turn into England’s biggest star, their torrid affair and a devastating betrayal begins the Earl’s plunge from the heights of celebrity to the depths of ruin, as he seeks his final redemption.

Shot on locations in London and on studio sets on the Isle of Man, The Libertine was post produced in Australia, where Bilcock completed editing. It was written into her contract that the film be finished in Australia, something she tries to do with every film on which she works. The Libertine is Bilcock’s 20th feature film.

“The script is a really good read, fantastic,” says Bilcock, and a lot of fun to make, but there is just one aspect that troubled the filmmakers. “The visual problem of him [Depp] looking quite well and then becoming quite ill,” says Bilcock, referring to Rochester’s failing health under the stress of his high living: his nose had to pay for the sins of his loins in the grip of syphilis. “We struggled with that right to the end, and maybe that is still the only wobbly area.”

One of the reasons it might look ‘wobbly’ is that it comes up so suddenly. But in fact, there were several other scenes in the film which had to be cut – the price the makers had to pay for getting distribution handled by the Weinstein Company, whose commercial nose was twitching, and demanding cuts, primarily with the American market in mind. “There were a lot more scenes … they were fun and a lot more risqué.”

Some say the interference and recutting cost the film valuable points. Like Variety’s Leslie Felperin: “…debuting director Laurence Dunmore's pic is an honorable misfire, with pockmarks from its troubled gestation and recutting following work-in-progress screenings at 2004's Toronto fest.”

Dunmore imposes a pre-electric 17th century gloominess (only candles were used for lighting) that befits the fire and brimstone forecast by those who disapprove of Wilmot’s willy-waving. “Yes, the authenticity of the film is quite exceptional,” says Bilcock. “The mud, the filth, the gloom … the theatre scenes are all absolutely authentic, and that reminds us how hard it used to be for actors, people throwing all sorts of things at them on stage.” No detail was overlooked: some $6,000 was spent on elegantly carved 17th century dildos.

Dunmore, an experienced tv commercials director (which is where he first worked with Johnny Depp, who then recommended Dunmore to the film’s producers), took it upon himself to shoot the film with a camera on his shoulder, as 2nd cameraman, “and a lot of that footage was used, says Bilcock, “which is amazing because that’s a very difficult thing to do, seeing the actors through the camera.”

"a fabulous challenge"

But it also gave Bilcock her biggest challenge and her favourite scene, in which Rochester coaches Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton) in stagecraft. “That’s Laurence whizzing around the place in very bad conditions on the Isle of Man where we had built the set. It was windy and the place wasn’t soundproof. But for me it was a fabulous challenge; it wasn’t planned coverage and no two takes were the same. They’d move around, cross the line, change the lines … so we had eight or nine print takes and I had to get something out of it. But Laurence was intent on getting the performances, and it’s great.”

She also admires the way John Malkovich worked, playing King Charles. “John had played the Rochester role on the stage,” says Bilcock, and yet he was so generous to Johnny Depp. John Malkovich is a wonderful man with extraordinary presence; very quiet, but powerful.”

Published July 27, 2006

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Jill Bilcock
Photo by Paul Knight
At Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces
200 Gertrude St, Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia


Depp as the debauched Rochester

** Clips from Phil Noyce’s new film, Catch A Fire (also edited by Jill Bilcock), will be screened for the first time at the Filmmakers Studio at Metro Screen, Paddington (Sydney), on August 17, 2006, when Noyce is the special guest, interviewed by Filmmakers Studio resident host, Andrew L. Urban. Set in Apartheid-era South Africa stars Derek Luke as a young rebel who carries out solo attacks against the regime, and Tim Robbins as a policeman.

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