I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

There Is More To Look At In A Master: An Interview With Alex Cox


by Cory Vielma
Nov. 6, 2012
Alex Cox, legendary director of such cult classics as Sid & Nancy, Straight to Hell and Walker has been known as a "renegade" since his first feature film, Repo Man came out in 1984. His movies come from a sort of rebel perspective and are possibly just as well known for their great use of music as for their ragged but charming sense of storytelling. Not to mention, he is quite an affable bloke and our entertaining interview covered a wide variety of topics, as you will see below...

How did you get interested in filmmaking?

By going to the pictures. I was very impressed particularly by a film called Goliath and the Dragon, because there was a dinosaur in it, by Ray Harryhausen films, and by the original King Kong. If there was a dinosaur in it, I was there.

In your Revengers Tragedy diary, you mention taking footage for use in future mini-DV movies. Can you tell me more about these movies? Are they hobbies, home movies or just for fun? 

That was probably footage for the additional DVD elements. The producers and I had a feeling while we were in production that the financiers or DVD distributors would want more than a half-hour "making of." So we rustled up a small crew, and later, I concocted half a dozen small films around the making of Revengers. They're on the American and the Japanese DVDs, though strangely not the British one.

Are there plans to release the film theatrically or on DVD in mainland Europe? 

The film has played theatrically in the UK and at festivals in Locarno, Cork, and Bruxelles. It was rejected by the Berlin Festival. I don't know what other European sales on DVD or film there might be.

You have mentioned several times your admiration for Buñuel and Kurosawa. What are your personal favorite films by each of them? 

My favorite Buñuel films are El Ángel exterminador, El and L'Age D'Or. My favorite Kurosawas are Seven Samurai, Ikiru and Madadayo.

Do you see any similarities in their work?

I don't see any similarities at all!

What other films or filmmakers do you admire or have influenced your work?

I like very much the work of Francesco Rosi, especially The Mattei Affair, and the Russian film Idi y smotri (Come and See), Corbucci's Il Grande Silenzio (The Great Silence), and Leone's For a Few Dollars More. Of American directors, my favorites are Welles, Peckinpah, Huston, Hellman andAldrich. Everything I've seen has probably had some impact on my stuff, unless it was instantly forgotten.

Any current films or filmmakers you admire?

The only film I've seen recently that impressed me was Gus Van Sant's Elephant.

Music has always played an important role in your films, from the classic soundtracks of Repo Man and Straight to Hell to Chumbawamba scoring your Revengers Tragedy. How do you go about choosing the music for your films? Does music ever come first? That is to say, are characters, scenes or dialog ever shaped by the music you want to use?

Music was influential in advance in Sid & Nancy, where sequences are constructed around specific songs, and Walker, where Rudy wrote that Walker's men depart the burning cathedral singing "Onward Christian Soldiers." The main theme for Straight to Hell was composed before the film was made, and it was nice to listen to it out there on a desert evening. But I don't think it made any difference to the film. Whereas some of the songs that arose spontaneously in Straight to Hell - "Danny Boy," the "Hardware Man's Love Song" and the "Weiner Song" - were very significant.

Do you play music yourself?

No, I have no musical talents. But I like listening to it.

What are some of your current favorites?

My favorite bands are the Beatles and the Clash. So you know how old I am. I am also very keen on Chumbawamba, Space, Pete Wylie aka The Mighty Wah!, and when I'm in the mood for film soundtracks, Morricone and Pray For Rain. Yorkie of Space has a massive collection of solo material and I have been enjoying that of late.

How did it come about that you lived in Mexico City?

I lived in Mexico City because it was the capital of the Mexican film industry - the last two studios were there, as was the editing, camera and sound equipment. So even if you shot in Durango, or Zacatecas, the base was Mexico City. I love the Distrito Federal very much. It has a great Metro system, great steam baths, a superb museum of Mexican art - including landscapes by Jose Maria Velasco - the Museo Nacional. And I made many friends there. If I must be based in a city, Mexico is the city I would prefer.

You have made films in several countries. What are the differences, if any, between Mexican, Japanese, American and English film crews?

I'm sure there are differences, but my experiences are only of specific crews on certain occasions, years as well as miles apart. The Mexican and Japanese crews I saw worked more quickly than the English or American ones - that is, they accomplished more work of equal quality in the same time frame - perhaps because they were less strict about areas of specialization. Within England, there is more than one style, London crews being more forma and Liverpool crews more like Mexicans or Asians with a "get it done" attitude.

In an article about Stanley Kubrick for the Guardian, you wrote that he "benefited from the physical distance between himself and his paymasters, the mental distance between himself and a set full of gorblimey limeys calling him 'guv'nor.' He was inventing himself, as people often do when they go abroad." As an Englishman who has lived in the US and in Mexico, how would you say the distance from your homeland influenced or changed your work and development as an artist? How did you invent yourself in each of these foreign lands?

I don't think I - or anyone - ever got around to inventing such a comprehensive persona as Stanley Kubrick! In the brochure of 2001, it said Kubrick had 50 pairs of black slacks, 50 white shirts, and 50 blue blazers, so he would never waste any time deciding what to wear. How can anyone approach that? Or, indeed, follow the master, Welles, with his long black cape and matador's sombrero.

Well, for a start you need a cupboard in a fixed location to contain the distinctive or distinctively non-distinctive outfits which will form a part of this self-invention. The absence of such a cupboard, and the absence of a fixed location over the years, has held me back from adopting a more distinctive persona. But today my dear wife emptied a drawer in her chest-of-drawers for me, so I can work on it more.

While your films are all very different from another, there seems to be a certain personal style that remains consistent in each work. What, if anything, would you say makes your style unique? Are there certain elements, visual or otherwise, you consciously add to or keep out of a film?

I don't have any visual elements that I particularly like or want to re-use. At the same time I think you could run all my pictures in a row and there would be certain visual themes as well as narrative ones. What they are, though, I don't know!

I was very keen on shooting every scene in a single, moving master shot, and did four features that way in the 1990s. But I have had to promise producers to stop doing it, since they think - probably correctly - that long takes are alienating to a younger audience raised on fast-cut fare.

That's probably true. That and your earlier comment about Gus Van Sant remind me of a DVD I saw recently by Hungarian director Bela Tarr called Werckmeister Harmonies. I rented it partly based on Gus Van Sant's quote on the box calling Tarr "one of film's few true visionaries" or something to that effect [Van Sant credits Tarr as an influence Gerry]. The movie is two-and-a-half hours long and has a total of 38 cuts! What appealed to you about doing such long continuous takes?

I enjoyed the work of Arturo Ripstein, the Mexican director who has been doing this for a while, and I Am Cuba clinched it for me. There is no question for me that a master is better than an exchange of close-ups, TV-style. There is more to look at in a master.

You were a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences before quitting in disgust. The Academy is basically a mysterious, shadowy organization to most people.

I was made a member of the Academy - on the recommendation of another member or members, I suppose - around 1987 or '88. I understood this meant I could vote for the best picture and/or best director at the Oscars. But I never got around to this! Instead, I started to get inundated with packages: mostly videotapes of feature films, or tapes of soundtrack music or books. I was offended because I thought it was an attempt to buy my vote, gain my attention unfairly, waste valuable natural resources - plastic, jiffy bags - and also my time. All of this stuff came from the studios, by the way. Independent producers either didn't have the list of names, or couldn't afford to do this.

The Academy was also causing my post office box in Venice, California, to overflow - something which quite sightly annoyed the postal workers who had to keep a special box of trash videos in the back for me. So I called the Academy and asked if they would please stop giving out my address to the studios.

They wouldn't do this. They said that the studios had a right to my details (which, since I was peripatetic, meant my post office box), and that they'd continue to give it out to them. So I asked to be removed from their membership lists.

Not a very outrageous tale, I'm afraid. And I never even went to the Oscars!

How did you get involved initially in the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas debacle [Cox was the first director on the project before he left due to "creative differences"]?

I think that I had an agent in Los Angeles who was friends with the lawyer of the people who temporarily had the rights. Something as exciting and tenuous as that.

How did you meet Sam Cohen, inventor of the neutron bomb?

He called my office in Venice one evening. I answered the phone and he introduced himself. Spoke to him a couple of weeks ago. He had just celebrated his 83rd birthday, he told me.

What was his reason for calling you in the first place?

To introduce himself. He really liked Repo Man. It's his second favorite film after Dr. Strangelove. Dr. Strangelove, according to Sam, is a highly accurate representation of the way nuclear policy is made. He thinks it is barely a comedy at all.

On your extremely informative website, you cover several political topics. You have said that Repo Man is, at heart, essentially about the fear of mutually assured nuclear destruction. Have you ever considered making a blatantly political film or a political documentary?

I think Walker is a blatantly political film. But it isn't a question of considering them, or not: it's finding the money to do them.

Are there any political groups you yourself are affiliated with or endorse?

I'm a proud member of the Green Party of England and Wales.

Do you own the rights to your films?

I've been able to get the rights back to several of my films, including Straight to Hell, El Patrullero, Death and the Compass and Three Businessmen. But sadly, not Walker, which - though you can get a DVD of it in Europe and Japan - is not sold in the USA.

Is there anything cuter than a fluffy pink bunny holding a sleeping kitty?

Tuxton.

 

Cory Vielma is an American musician, photographer and occasional guy who strings words together, based in Berlin. Under the name The Sadnesses, he has released several records and has had the pleasure of writing for such great publications as SF WeeklyGreencine.com and Si Señor Journalism Compendium. His love of music and film runs so deep that it has permanently altered his DNA and given him the ability to smell time and taste rhumbas. Additionally, he is very fond of a good veggie burger with fries and a side of mustard.