John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (April 1, 1647–July 26, 1680) was a friend of King Charles II, and the writer of much satirical and bawdy poetry. He was the toast of the Restoration court and a patron of the arts who famously drank and debauched his way to an early grave, only to earn posthumous critical acclaim for his life’s work.
In the film, The Libertine, which was released in Australia this week, the Earl of Rochester is played by Johnny Depp. It also stars John Malkovich and Samantha Morton. Directed by Laurence Dunmore, produced by Malkovich, the film was edited by Jill Bilcock ASE. I met with Jill in Melbourne just after she had finished cutting. I was lucky to get a sneaky peek of Johnny Depp’s opening monologue before we started chatting about the film.
Tell me about working on The Libertine . . .
Working on The Libertine was fantastic.
It was with a first time film director who had just met John Malkovich when he did a TV commercial for him. He was a commercial director named Laurence Dunmore and Laurence had decided that he wanted me to edit, so he tracked me down (I don’t have an agent) and we started talking. It’s a fairly low budget movie, he asked me if I wanted to do it, I read the script and the script was fantastic. The screenplay is by Stephen Jeffreys who also did the play. The Libertine is his first screenplay.
There were a lot of really nice people on the project, Johnny Depp was a big draw card of course, as well as John Malkovich and Samantha Morton. The design team were the Dutch group that did Girl with the Pearl Earring. So it was good.
Before I went over to England where they were shooting, I said that I would like to have some of the editing done in Australia. They said that if I did the film, they could accommodate that. And they did. We spent the shoot over there and I did the Directors Cut, which was ten weeks. It was actually very straightforward and Laurence was very helpful with selection of takes during the shoot. I was in London and they were away on the Isle of Man. So, we talked every day. We then showed it in England and everybody liked it.
I then brought it back to Australia—Laurence didn’t come over. To start we did a rough mix before it went to the Toronto International Film Festival as a Work In Progress. It was quite long then, with many more scenes in it; there were some fabulous other scenes—quite outrageous. We had much more of a decadent feel to it, than it has turned out to have. Then at Toronto—Harvey Weinstein bought it—which is when notes started coming—they wanted massive changes and they wanted to change the style of the movie—it became an ongoing battle. Before that, the film had a bit more humor and a lot more fun in it. It was definitely a bit too long, but that normally solves itself as you do the fine cut.
There is a device used at the beginning and at the end of the film, which is Johnny Depp talking to the camera. They wanted that to happen all the way through, and we didn’t; so after a lot of deliberation we all came to an agreement more or less, what could come out and what should stay. It is very interesting to see both versions. There is another character in the movie originally—in the Toronto version—that isn’t there anymore.
When the film screened in Toronto as a Work In Progress—did you find that exposing?
I love it. It’s the only way to find out whether a movie is working. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there and on this film it actually took a little longer to get to the final result as I wasn’t at the test screenings—you can usually tell by the feel of the audience straight away—if the film is too long or things you thought were funny, aren’t. It’s good to be exposed. I don’t like the studio system very much. You can generally tell if a film is working and what type of audience the film will eventually reach by having screenings.
After Harvey came in, we did all get beaten down a bit, but I think Laurence did win major points with Harvey because Harvey really wanted to sanitize it and make it so boring that we just couldn’t let it happen. He wanted to make it more accessible, but this was always going to be a movie that not everyone wants to see. The Earl’s poetry is so explicit, there’s nothing in the film that is disgusting or sexually explicit, it is tonally quite down.
Was it difficult to bring the film back to Australia?
It was contracted. For me, it helps to get home. Nine to twelve months is too long to be away and it also helps to have other Australians working with you, people that you know and use the same kind of backup that I’m used to.
What was John Malkovich like as a producer?
He was good. It was very hard for John—he actually played the Earl of Rochester on the stage, so Johnny Depp was playing “his role” and I think that made it quite hard for him to be objective. He kept pretty well out of it and let Laurence do what he wanted to do and let Johnny play the part the way he wanted to play it. At times I feel Laurence would have wanted more help from John, but he thought he was doing the right thing in stepping back. Also, as John has directed films himself—I think he knew just how hard it can be, so he showed Laurence respect.
The film is a period piece and starts with titles explaining the setting—how important is exposition like that in these films?
You needed to set the period with that extra information at the beginning. The film itself expresses the period well. It’s very dark, it’s very muddy, it’s very seamy and depicts the era extremely well. The era was also quite sexually liberated at that time, language was foul and that’s why it got more than an R rating in America to start with—we needed to take some material out to get the R. The times were pretty wild.
What was it like working with first time film director Laurence Dunmore?
Most of the directors I’ve worked with haven’t made a lot of movies. I prefer it that way because they’re still terribly excited about what they are doing. And, not open to pleasing anybody else. It makes the fight a little tougher, especially when working with someone like Harvey Weinstein. Because they are passionate and believe in what they want to do—they haven’t been worn down by studio experience yet so creatively they tend to step into areas that are much more interesting as opposed to some people who have been making films for the last thirty years.
Did you find you had to nurture Laurence at all?
I taught him my system—which was a bit rigid. Poor Laurence. Every night he would go home and with his sheets of every slate, he would fill out a comment. If he didn’t like it he wouldn’t write anything, but he would have to give me feedback on a day’s rushes so that at least I knew what performances he liked and what it was in the material he liked. Also, he wasn’t only directing the film, but was holding the second camera on his shoulder which is the main camera used for the whole movie. The DP lit it and had first camera—which was wider and more static—and Laurence did most of the close-ups and movement. Laurence was extremely passionate, he worked very hard and he was very good at getting his notes back. Because I wasn’t on the set or on location and didn’t know him very well it was very important for me to get constant feedback, straight away. And we also re-shot two scenes as we went, due to me saying that I didn’t think they worked, he then scheduled it in and re-shot it and he came in half a day under on his shooting time.
Tell me about establishing trust with your director?
He gave me a lot of time—he always listened to advice. I told him to do what he needed to do and that if I thought something wasn’t working emotionally—I would let him know. He responded very well to that, and the trust was there, I think, from day one.
Did you find there was a difference between working with Laurence and other directors because he had such a strong background directing TVCs?
I come from the same background—an Art background and I’ve done heaps of commercials too and that helped me understand his impatience and speed. What it did give him was the asset of being extremely well prepared. He had done lots of research, he’d done lots of drawing of how he saw it and then of course as always happens—changed his mind as soon as he got out there. He was quite disciplined and extremely driven.
And finally, what was it like cutting Johnny Depp?
It was wonderful, he was brilliant and as you can see—that opening prologue which goes for a couple of minutes, he only did four takes of it and they were word perfect every time. He can do huge stretches of dialogue and not drop words or forget things. He was also very helpful to the other actors . . .
The Libertine opened in cinemas nationally on 27th July 2006. It is screening at a cinema near you.