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Music man hits right notes

For a guy who claims no desire for a second career as a screenwriter, cult Australian rocker Nick Cave is carving himself quite a reputation in the world of movies.

“The Proposition,” the searing Outback Western he wrote as a favor to Aussie director John Hillcoat, won awards in Oz but had only middling box office elsewhere. But its savage poetry caught the eye of talent-spotters all the way from Hollywood to Blighty, where both expats live in the trendy seaside resort of Brighton.

Both have since been deluged with offers. Their next collaboration, an English tragi-comedy that takes its title from the Leonard Cohen song “Death of a Ladies Man,” is one of the hottest projects currently doing the rounds, though like “The Proposition” and Cave’s own music, it’s likely to prove too raw for some tastes.

Ray Winstone will star as a sex addict plying his trade as a travelling salesman along England’s seedy south coast, whose life becomes a whole lot more complicated when he’s forced to take his nine-year-old son along for the ride. FilmFour is co-financing the pic, with Paul Webster producing.

“It’s a different take on the English kitchen sink, I bring an Australian sense of humor to it,” Cave says. “I find a lot of English films are desperately trying to make the English cool. I don’t have that agenda,” he adds drily.

“Nick’s got a great gift to take archetypes and cliches and make them fresh again,” says Hillcoat. “It’s the same with his songs; they are quite classical, but he brings a shrewd take that makes them fresh and alive.”

Cave and Hillcoat first crossed paths in the Melbourne post-punk scene of the ’70s. They have now formed their own company, Titan Films, to develop more movie ideas.

Yet although Cave has composed soundtracks, played the odd cameo and contributed many songs to movies (his classic track “Red Right Hand” crops up again and again), he regards the prospect of being sucked any deeper into the film biz with something close to horror.

At the age of 48, his rock career has reached new peaks of critical acclaim and commercial success since he settled down with a family and cleaned up his notorious heroin and alcohol habit. The dark prince of alt-rock clearly isn’t looking for alternative employment.

“I’m very comfortable with my day job as a musician,” he says candidly. “The last thing I ever wanted to get involved with is Hollywood.”

This prejudice was reinforced when Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott asked him to write a sequel to “Gladiator.” They wanted something radically different from the original, but when Cave delivered something characteristically wild and woolly — “it finished with a 20-minute war sequence throughout history, ending up in a toilet at the Pentagon, with Russell as this rage-filled eternal warrior” — Scott said it was impossible to finance.

“It’s a waste of fucking time, and I have a lot to do,” Cave says. “Nick’s not the most patient person in the world,” Hillcoat notes.

Cave’s own screenwriting is lightning quick. Although he got a credit for contributing some ideas to Hillcoat’s 1988 debut movie “Ghosts … of the Civil Dead,” “The Proposition” was his first proper stab at writing a movie, and the result took them both by surprise.

“It all poured out,” Hillcoat says. “All those rock ‘n’ roll years of hotel rooms in a slightly altered slate watching all these videos, they must have been hardwired into his subconscious.”

He dashed off “Death of a Ladies Man” in two weeks after Hillcoat pitched him the basic concept. Cave describes it as “much more personal” than “The Proposition.”

“There’s something wonderfully adolescent about ‘Death of a Ladies Man’ that I’m not allowed to get away with in music any more,” Cave admits. Screenwriting may not be his first choice for a career, but it clearly scratches an itch that even rock ‘n’ roll can’t always reach.

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