Alex Cox is very simply a cult-film phenomenon. He represents that rare breed of filmmaker whose love of underground, off-centre cinema has allowed him to transcend the barriers between making films and film appreciation.
Following his offbeat debut Repo Man (1984), Cox’s punk credentials were further displayed in the biopic Sid and Nancy (1985). Arguably, it was his fiercely independent punk spirit (and political leanings) that led him to be increasingly shunned by mainstream Hollywood (most famously in the case of his displacement from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). However, he has responded to such studio tactics by increasingly embracing European filmmaking culture and funding as a way of making movies beyond the Hollywood machine. This has resulted in the proliferation of a diverse number of productions including the Spanish based Highway Patrolman (1992) and the more recent Dutch funded Three Businessmen (1998).
While best known internationally for his offbeat and quirky productions, Cox is also fondly remembered in Britain as the host of BBC TV’s influential film show Moviedrome. The series introduced eager audiences to American underground classics and European oddities and effectively inspired a generation of would be movie critics and fledgling academics to endorse a love of trash and cult cinema.
In the following interview, Alex Cox discusses not only his films and cinematic influences, but also the relationship between film theory and production as well as possible alternatives to the mainstream Hollywood machine.
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Xavier Mendik: Your film training background came from the UCLA tradition of uniting film production techniques with strong theoretical traditions. How useful did you find these approaches?
Alex Cox: I thought they worked really well actually. At that time, the way in which the entrance requirements worked meant that if you wanted to enter into the production department, you had to have made a film previously and be able to show it to the department. But if you wanted to enter into Critical Studies, you could use any kind of work at all as your introduction. So I actually entered into Critical Studies, which wasn’t really what I wanted to do, but it was the easiest way to get into UCLA! So, until I was able to change over to production, I had to go to all these Critical Studies classes. However, this wasn’t actually a bad thing, because the guy who ran the department was a great teacher. And so I found the whole interdisciplinary thing that was going on at UCLA a very interesting one. It’s kind of genre breaking as well.
XM: In Britain we associate you with not only being a filmmaker, but also hosting the groundbreaking film series Moviedrome, which strove to break down divisions between film production and critical interpretation/appreciation of trash and cult cinema.
AC: Yes, and I thought the series was good, precisely because it worked like a bit of a film literacy class. Because the series was on late on Sunday nights nobody minded after a while what we did because by that time it had become this kind of institution. After a while, the BBC didn’t even think about it, they just automatically reviewed the budget and kept on doing it. Even after I had decided I didn’t want to do the show anymore because the direction had swung mainly in favour of American films, the budget remained after I left! One of the aspects of the series that I really liked was that we were able to screen some great movies that had rarely been seen before. For instance, we showed Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966), Django Kill (Giulio Questi, 1967) and The Big Silence (Sergio Corbucci, 1968). Nobody had ever shown The Big Silence in any English speaking territory before. In fact, no one had ever seen The Big Silence anywhere outside of France, Italy, Spain or North Africa. So to able to do that was a great opportunity.
XM: Watching Moviedrome, it is obvious that you have a great fondness for unusual, offbeat cult cinema. How much has this type of cinema affected your own productions, for example, Repo Man?
AC: Well, originally, Repo Man was supposed to be more of a road movie, going out of Los Angeles to New Mexico, but we lost the New Mexico part mainly for money reasons. However, half of the movie was on the road and so it was a road movie, like some of my favourites: Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) and Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971). These were the models we had in our minds when we made the film; we just wanted ours to include more jokes!
XM: Why did these two films make such an impact on you?
AC: They come out of that odd sort of cinema from the late 1960s and early ’70s, which was for me the great time of American cinema. I still believe that if you look back to the years between 1968 and 1973, they were just making these amazing films that were quite radical, surprising and unusual and they made me think “Wow, I want to be in this business!” Whereas I don’t think I would feel that now if I were going to the pictures a lot.
XM: Just to stick with Repo Man for a moment, why do you think the film became such a cult phenomenon?
AC: Well, I think it’s really well photographed; the work of Robby Müller is really fluid. This impact of the film is also thanks to the work of Robert Richardson, who did fill in bits when Robbie had left and these two cinematographers were superb. And I think the casting was very strong, as everybody just fitted straight into their roles. Also, the film’s impact has a lot to do with the whole rock and roll thing and the music of the period as Repo Man really manages to capture that feeling of Los Angeles during that time, so that today it still looks authentic.
XM: How would you compare Repo Man with the later punk biopic Sid and Nancy?
AC: Sid and Nancy has a fairly conservative narrative, with the flashback structure and everything. The only thing in it that is not that conventional is the weird stuff with their neighbour in the Chelsea Hotel, who is either a dwarf or a little boy, we are never sure who or what he is, and I like that aspect of it. But it is not the thing I feel the most proud of. It looks good and it’s well acted but I don’t feel any personal attachment to the film.
XM: It’s interesting that both Repo Man and Sid and Nancy foreground the importance of punk music in your work. What do you feel was so significant about the punk movement?
AC: Well, this was a movement that encouraged the political. It encouraged anarchic tendencies because it had revolutionary expectations. Although punk’s revolutionary tendencies may have been disappointed, its features fed through into a number of interesting films at the time. When we made Repo Man, Penelope Spheeris was making Suburbia (1984), which is also quite an interesting film about the punk scene in a way. Punk was a dangerous thing outside of cinema as well. At the time that it was happening, there was still a thing called vinyl and people were making their own records and the record industry was being cut out of the distribution of music. So what did the record industry come up with, how did they regain control of the punk movement? By introducing two new bits of technology: the CD, which was well out of the recording ability of most punk bands and the rock video! These two new media allowed them to take back control of the music business again. For instance, rock videos tended to be orientated towards groups that had a lot of money or bands that had pretty faces!
XM: I think you could extend this vinyl recuperation to a visual recuperation on the part of the major studios during the period. I am thinking here of Robin Wood’s famous definition of Hollywood of the mid-’70s and early 1980s as ‘Reaganite cinema’, which attempted to seize power from the independents through big budget blockbusters which seemed to endorse the position of the status quo.
AC: Definitely. I think you can also see it in the career trajectory of an actor like John Wayne. As you may know, John Wayne began his career playing outlaws, he ended it playing reactionary cops. Equally, you can think of someone like Eastwood, he began his movie career in the 1960s, playing bounty hunters, in other words characters that are half way between an outlaw and a cop. So even in those days he was already being incorporated into the reactionary apparatus of the state, rather than being at odds with it. And he also ends his career playing reactionary cops. I heard a rumour that he is going to do another Dirty Harry movie, which would make his character the only 80-year old policeman on the force in San Francisco! So as the ’70s wore on, it is interesting how the movie business switched from celebrating the rebel or the outlaw to celebrating the policeman. If you think of the remake of Shaft (John Singleton, 2000), then those contradictions are there again. In the original film, Richard Roundtree is a private eye, while the new Shaft is a cop. Now, it’s not that cops are bad necessarily, but the medium has increasingly come to celebrate the police state, where the police are the automatic hero of any activity that’s going to be reported on film.
XM: You did go on to depict police figures in the movie Highway Patrolman, but they seem a world away from the reactionary Hollywood versions you describe.
AC: I had resisted doing a police film for a long time, precisely because I couldn’t stand that kind of position. But then I became interested in such a story after talking to a guy who had been a policeman in Mexico. And I thought, “This is a very interesting story.” He was like a rural highway patrolman. Most of this guy’s story is about his domestic life and how he doesn’t have enough money, so he has to do these little deals on the side to keep things going. And this is how he ends up running two families: the big house and the little house and shuttling between them. So this is a story about how the idealistic story of being a policeman gets beaten down.
XM: We have talked a lot about potential American influences, but both Highway Patrolman and Straight to Hell seem to be very influenced by European genre cinema.
AC: Well, Straight to Hell is supposed to be a Spaghetti Western and the reason for doing this was because apart from those American movies we discussed, the majority of films I was watching in the late 1960s and early 1970s were Spaghetti Westerns. I watched these movies endlessly. And it was through this interest that I saw other Italian films such as those by Francesco Rossi or the work of actors such as Gian Maria Volonte.
XM: These kind of European genre films were also notable for their frequent fusion of art-house and experimental techniques. Your own works have also demonstrated an interest in this kind of European art/popular cross over. For instance, in 1996 you directed a film adaptation of Jorge Luis Borges’ novel Death and the Compass.
AC: Yes, the Borges story that I really wanted to do was The Aleph, but I could not get the rights to do this at the time. So of Borges stories available for option, I thought the easiest to do would be Death and the Compass, because it is a piece of classic detective fiction. This is a story that has been made into films or influenced films and other novels a lot. For instance, there was a murder novel called Hawks Moor that was written in England in the late 1970s or early 1980s, which was about a guy building the Churches at the Tower of London, who also happens to be a serial killer and a Satanist. The novel ends up with a similar resolution to Death and the Compass, because the detective in the story gets sent a geographical map in the post and the fourth place on the map is where he will meet his apotheosis. So Death and the Compass is great to adapt because it is such a classic detective fiction piece as well as being an interesting parody and commentary on the genre.
XM: Sticking with the European angle for a moment, the other thing about European genre cinema is that it has never been afraid to incorporate other media forms in quite startling ways. In particular, comic strip art has been very influential on directors such as Jean Rollin and Mario Bava. I gather that you are also a director who has also dabbled in the idea of comic strip adaptations.
AC: Yes, that’s because I just love comic books. About six or seven times, people have come to me and said “Don’t you want to do The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers”, and my reply is always “Yes, go and get the money and we can do it right away!” And that is the problem, who is going to pay to do The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers as a film? Or rather, who would pay for such a movie without being judgmental about it? That is because in the story, these people are constantly on drugs all the time, and they don’t get punished, and they are not only funny but they survive! You might not know that I also wrote a script with Stan Lee of all people called Dr Strange, based on the Marvel comic. But once again, it was impossible to fund this as a film, it was just a bit too weird for the studios. This is because the character was an odd creation for Marvel. He is not like X-Men or The Fantastic Four because Dr Strange is not part of any militaristic gang. He is just this kind of eccentric guy who lives in a weird house in New York with his houseboy. He would often sit there just meditating while a huge intercontinental battle between good and evil is going on all around, so I guess it is just a little too weird for a studio to take on!
XM: In the absence of studio support and funding, you are a director who has increasingly turned to new multimedia technology such as the Internet. What do you feel it offers you?
AC: It’s a good sort of political tool because it is a way of providing a voice when one doesn’t have one. It’s a good activist medium for causes or sites that would not otherwise get a lot of attention. Yet, I don’t necessarily think that it offers the way forward for young filmmakers. There is this theory that all you need is a laptop and then everyone can be a film director. But that is not strictly true. You also need to engage with the collaborative effort that is filmmaking. You cannot make a film by yourself. So the idea that new media will help us tear down the studios actually misses the point. What it is more likely to do is to lead to a splintering of talent rather than bringing people together.
XM: I cannot leave the interview without raising the issue of fear and loathing in Beverly Hills. This is because independent directors such as yourself have been increasingly pushed out of the Hollywood system and I wondered if you had any closing thoughts on this?
AC: Well, it’s kind of like a huge mill. The United States churns out something like 10,000 film directors a year from universities and film schools. So you have all of these people coming out of this system wanting to be directors, and that clearly makes it a buyers market. And given that the Hollywood studios are still very similar to the top-down, heavy industry, war machine-type mindset they don’t want to have old cynics like me working! I mean, I am 47 years old and you are not going to hire me when you can hire somebody who is 22 to do this film. Because at that age, people will do exactly what you ask them to without questioning it!
I wish to offer my sincere thanks to Alex Cox for his time and enthusiasm during our interview. I also wish to express my gratitude to the staff of the Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film for organising the above interview.