Visionary Director Alex Cox on Joe Strummer, Punk and Getting 'Blacklisted' By Hollywood
We spoke to the director of <i>Repo Man</i> and <i>Sid and Nancy</i> about his career and the new film he's crowdfunding.
Acid-warped, apocalyptic and frequently bizarre, the films of Alex Cox are idiosyncratic in the extreme. He influenced the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez with a wild deconstructionist take on hoary genre tropes and the sheer joy of celluloid chaos, and today he remains a warped visionary – still intent on sharing his unhinged take on life, art, sex and death.
Perhaps best known for cult favourite Repo Man (1984) – a tale of auto destruction and anti-establishment fury set among the flotsam of the early 1980s LA punk scene – the forward thrust of punk has been a frequent inspiration. Sid and Nancy (1986) told the story of the doomed chemical romance between Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, evoking the squalid Lower East Side surroundings and stumbling hopelessness of their last days. Straight to Hell (1987), meanwhile, cast Joe Strummer, Courtney Love and The Pogues in a fucked up desert frontier where the locals were highly caffeinated and trigger-happy.
His films were perhaps always destined to attract the ire of the Hollywood machine, due to a frequent and overtly anti-establishment bent. It was a situation that led to his being unofficially "blacklisted" by the major studios; 1987's Walker – which tracks the journey of William Walker in his botched attempt to stage a military coup in 19th century Nicaragua – was the one that did it, a thinly veiled critique of 1980s American interventionist foreign policy at the time of the Oliver North/Contra affair. Cox has worked free of major studio interference ever since.
Currently crowdfunding a new Western, Tombstone Rashomon, and lecturing in film at the University of Colorado, I caught up with the director to talk three decades of underground agitation.
VICE: Hi Alex. Tell me about Tombstone Rashomon.
Alex Cox: The idea of Rashomon is that it's a sequence of events described by four different people; different every time. That is the concept. It's essentially a version of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral but in the manner of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon – it tells the story from different perspectives.
And you're crowdfunding the film?
It's a really good way of raising money. The other project I did recently was a science fiction film that I made with my students from the University of Colorado. With that, we raised $114,000 (£75,000), which probably makes it one of the more lavish student movies ever made.
Perhaps it was counterproductive to put the word "Rashomon" in the title for this film, though? How many people actually know the original movie? You know, they used to say you should never put the word "death" in the title of a movie because it would "kill" it at the box office – but obviously that was nonsense, because you had movies like Death Wish or Die Hard, or whatever.
You've explored the western before. Straight to Hell was a hugely original film, a postmodern take on the genre. Was it an anarchic shoot?
It was an anarchic shoot, to an extent – the script changed a fair bit. We didn't really play close attention; lots changed. New scenes got added randomly, like the "Danny Boy" song, so in that sense it had an anarchic aspect to it. It was done in four weeks. Probably now I could do it even faster than that [laughs]. But it was shot like a regular movie; you get it finished because you need the discipline of that schedule to make sure that you've shot everything you need by the end of the day. But I suppose that anarchy can be a discipline of its own, too.
Tell me about working with Joe Strummer. He really looked like a classic 1950s movie star in that film.
He does! He looks like a young Michael Caine, or something like that.
What was your relationship with Joe?
He'd done the soundtrack to Sid and Nancy – I knew him from that. He was marvellous. Very talented, very generous. He was credited with two, but actually contributed five, songs for Sid and Nancy, which appeared under pseudonyms. He had tremendous energy. He wanted to know what we were going to do next; what was happening.
After Sid and Nancy we were planning a big rock 'n' roll tour of Nicaragua with The Pogues, him and Elvis Costello. He was going to be part of that, but we couldn't raise a budget for it. We would have had to have brought a large number of people over; The Pogues were always a rather large number...
The trailer for Sid and Nancy
I can imagine the insurance quotes for that would have been interesting.
It was a regular movie insurance policy, if I recall [laughs]. The danger was exaggerated. But when the tour didn't happen, we said, "Let's try and make a feature instead." Strummer was actually the one who suggested filming in Spain, because he'd been going down to Almeria on holiday and he said, "Why don't we go make a movie, go make an Italian Western." So that was the mission when Dick [Rude] and I wrote the script. Straight to Hell was Joe's idea.
At what point did you realise that he could really act?
The part of Simms was always written for Joe. Dick had written the part of Willie for himself, then we had Sy Richardson as Norwood and Courtney Love as, um, Courtney Love [laughs] – these people were in our heads when we wrote the film, y'know.
It's nice when you can cast in advance like that; it saves time, you can visualise them, create a character around them. I think Joe always wanted to be that young amoral 60s movie hero guy. And he just did it, didn't he? He did it really well. He was a force of nature in his black suit and his shoulder holster. He'd sleep in it, napping until he was needed.
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Can you tell me a bit about the re-release of Straight to Hell a few years back? You added some new scenes, right?
Well, they put the scenes back in – the missing scenes. I'd always regretted having them out because I wanted all of the scenes to be included in the movie and I liked the new colour scheme as well, which gives the film a kind of pumpkin colour. There is more bloodshed; more nozzle flashes; more boys stuff like that.
Do you feel Straight to Hell ever got the dues it deserved? It is a totally unique movie; something like Desperado would have been unthinkable without it, I reckon, but it remains relatively obscure.
Well, if it was super obscure, you and I wouldn't be taking about it all these years later [laughs]. But I borrow from other filmmakers too; I borrow from other directors, other actors; I think that is just the nature of the medium. It flows along.
Punk has been a recurring theme in your work as a director; I'm thinking particularly of Repo Man and Sid and Nancy. Can you tell me a little about the influences?
I was into the scene, properly; I liked the music a lot, back in the late 1970s and early 80s. I think the punk thing was rather like the surrealist movement; the dadaists. It wasn't just a style of painting or a style of music. It was an attitude: there was a rebellious thing to it that gave it the quality of a movement.
The trailer for 'Repo Man'
Are you really "blacklisted" by Hollywood?
Yes. It happened after Walker. Things are often done via proxy; the real villain of the piece in Walker was the bonds company that kept hassling us during the shoot. I'm still not really sure what crime I was accused of. We were shooting battle scenes and really dramatic bits and pieces with lots of multi angles, and if we had a second camera in the truck we'd get it out and use it to shoot horses galloping by, as you would on any movie. But the bond company took this as an indication of my unsuitability as a director; they tried to shut the film down, but they ultimately failed.
They seized a load of equipment; the crew were held up for about a week, during which time the cast just waited. We didn't know what to do – we were thinking, 'Shall we make another movie in the meantime? We could make a movie about the missing equipment; make a movie about waiting for it to turn up.'
But the idea was so exhausting and we were struggling to keep the thing afloat. But they failed. It was ultimately pointed out to them that nothing was going wrong, that everything was fine, and that if they pursued the aggressive tact that they were taking that it would end up in litigation – and that they would lose and that it would cost them a lot of money.
And so we were able to finish the film. But that was the last film I made like that; after that point I realised that this is some kind of gangster operation, y'know? These financier companies kind of set themselves up and say they'll step in and take over if the director or producer "can't finish the film". But for fucks sake! How many times has that happened? That the director or the producer were not able to finish it? It's a little gangster operation created in order to harass the filmmaker.
And did that signal an end in terms of working under that system?
Oh, I wasn't able to work in Hollywood after that. I was essentially blacklisted. After Walker I was never able to get a film made in a major studio again, hence the films that I made after, which were independent. But this is what is so exciting about crowdfunding movies: it is not about the peripheral stuff – there are no gatekeepers or studio heads or any of that; the people involved genuinely want to see a great film get made.
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