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His previous film was Innocence, a popular film about love rediscovered in old age. His new film, a picturegramme of the legendary dancer, Nijinsky, could easily be titled Insanity, about love discovered in art. Paul Cox tells Andrew L. Urban how he hand-made the film, with his own blood, sweat and tears. He was mad to do it, he reckons.

Paul Cox can honestly and literally say he made the film, Nijinsky, all with his own hands. And that he made it with his own blood, sweat and tears. He wrote, directed and edited the film himself, and also did the camerawork. In one dramatic dance scene in a forest in France, he tripped on a tree root and fell over while holding the camera, breaking both hands. He continued to film. “That’s the bit when you see the footage get a bit shaky,” he says.

"that’s the way the film shapes itself"

With bleeding fingers, Cox was not about to get a bleeding heart. “Because we don’t have much money I do everything myself. And it’s simpler, I don’t have to explain to anybody what I’m trying to do. I can’t even explain to myself what I’m trying to do. The film takes its own course; I’m just an altar boy and I follow the priest . . . I just try to be in tune with what happens. That may sound very abstract but that’s the way the film shapes itself.”

The idea which had stayed with him for almost 30 years manifested itself in a film that even now Cox finds difficult to explain. He sees it as a product of his alter ego, in a way.

“How this film is put together is unlike anything else. It’s not a documentary, it’s not a drama…it’s a film. It’s probably too pretentious to say it’s from his point of view. Who knows what his point of view was? I’m only following the intensity and sentiment of his words. And when he says ‘my magnet is my love for mankind’, that is a big and all-embracing line – how do you illustrate that? But he talks about beauty being essential for every thinking, feeling, struggling individual – there must be beauty in every life. So the film searches for beauty – because that gives us peace, a sense of belonging.”

The idea for a film of Nijinsky started some 30 years ago when Cox heard Paul Schofield reading parts of his diary, Cahiers, on radio. “I thought his sentiments were very close to Vincent van Gogh’s in his letters to his brother. Here was another person who managed to say what they felt - not what they thought. Here are two people managing on the edge of insanity – like we all are in a way – to say what they feel. That intrigues me and that’s why I made Vincent about van Gogh.”

The diaries were written in 1919 when Nijinsky had moved with his wife to St Moritz to escape his overbearing mentor, Diaghilev and had partially descended into madness. In these extracts, Nijinsky reveals his mystical worldview, recounts episodes from his life, and gives opinions on a variety of topics. 

“He’s humbled me,” says Cox. “I agree with all he says about why we’re here and God. I think we’re here to help make your fellow humans’ lives a little more acceptable. And that can come through art – which is a strong sentiment that comes out of his own life.”

But there isn’t one person playing Nijinsky – the various dancers play different aspects of him – male and female. “There are at least 25 different Nijinskys. He was a man of many different guises,” says Cox, whose original discussions were with Graham Murphy’s Sydney Dance Company, but the geography didn’t work. He ended up shooting the interiors in Adelaide, and used the Leigh Warren Dancers.

"Working with him was a great delight" on Derek Jacobi

But for the voice of Nijinsky, reading his own diaries, he used Derek Jacobi, “because his voice has many nuances – and his voice has all the emotions right on the surface. I met him on the set of Molokai (directed by Cox, releases in Australia in June 2002) and we got on very well. Working with him was a great delight. A few days with him and Leo McKern in Hawaii was lots of fun. They are terrific. Four of the most wonderful days of my filmmaking life. Both are the most wonderful professionals.”

After the shooting came the laborious and complex editing process, in which the film was really composed. “Editing is a tedious and difficult job, and I still prefer the old mechanical method using a Steenbeck, not digital editing.” 

And being about a dancer, music was crucial. “I believe when you start a film you must have your music in place. Music is the basis of all creativity. In this case, there is a lot of existing music one has to use to give it a sense of authenticity. Debussy, Weber and quite a few other established composers you have to use for credibility. We wanted the Adelaide Symphony involved and record it the way it was played in those days, so it’s not too smooth…quite rough around the edges.”

Cox repeatedly expresses wonderment at how this film came to be made here. “It’s crazy to make a film about Nijinsky in Australia – but this is where the bulk of the money came from. But I shot a lot in Europe – we’ve been to Russia, Spain, etc. I cannot do the exteriors in Australia, that would look too odd. Of course if we had a normal crew we couldn’t afford it, but because I’m shooting it myself, it helps.”

A larger budget does not necessarily mean more creativity, though, he says. “Look at most movies today – I don’t go to the movies much, I’d rather read or talk to the neighbours. Most films are pathetic. I think if you had more money to make this film you’d ruin it. There was a big budget film made about Nijinsky about 20 years ago – it was an abortion, hopeless. Of course there’s no guarantee that this will work either, but if it’s no good we’ll have lost a lot less money.”

"a self expression"

Cox knows there will be “people, academics and the like who have studied Nijinsky, who will criticise the film. But I use film as a self expression, which is not done. Film these days is a product, like a bottle of shampoo. I should probably be doing something else.”

Not everyone agrees.

Published April 25, 2002

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Publicist Catherine Lavelle on set

Andrew L. Urban on set with Paul Cox

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