Going Back In Search of “Hell:” An Interview with Alex Cox
The cult director talks about making (and remaking) his two punk westerns Straight to Hell and Searchers 2.0,
San Francisco’s Roxie Film Center premiered Alex Cox’s Straight to Hell Returns on Halloween 2010, which—Cox suggested in an interview with Vancouver blogger Allan Macinnis—seemed appropriate since cinematographer Tom Richmond had chosen a new color scheme that had a “kind of pumpkin quality to the whole movie. It’s got this kinda yellowy orange look. So maybe that’ll stand it in good stead!” Cox’s reversion of his 1987 Straight to Hell featured “enhanced violence and cruelty” by way of additional footage, applied digital effects, and a picture and audio overhaul. I met up with Cox the following morning for coffee and scones at a Cole Valley roastery.
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Keyframe: What made you revisit Straight to Hell Returns?
Alex Cox: I have a friend here in San Francisco named Kim Aubry, who worked for [Francis Ford Coppola’s production company) Zoetrope for a long time. One of the things he worked on was the DVD box set of the Godfather movies and also the redux of Apocalypse Now. Some of the stuff in the redux version—like the scene where Marlon Brando puts Martin Sheen in a shipping container and reads to him from the pages of Time magazine—is absolutely brilliant. I think it's the best scene in the film. And so when I thought about how they had gone back and revisited Apocalypse Now and made it better, I was thinking, "I wish we had available 25 years ago the digital technologies we have today to create extreme blood and gore effects. I wish we could do that." And then I thought, "But wait, these digital technologies are available now", thanks to all these Collateral Image guys over in Berkeley and Emeryville who ended up doing all the special effects work for Straight to Hell.
The great thing was that the UCLA archive had managed to somehow preserve the interpositive of the original version of Straight To Hell, so that we could go back to something that was as near to the negative as we could get. Because we made our HD transfer from that, the quality was incredibly high, possibly even better than the original. So I guess you could say that revisiting Straight to Hell was inspired by the Bay Area natives of the region; it's in many ways a Bay Area concoction.
Keyframe: There's a sensorial pleasure to watching Straight to Hell Returns. You can feel how much fun your actors are having on location. And yet with Repo Chick you worked with green screen. Can you speak to shifting from location shooting to studio green screen shooting?
Cox: Oh, it's just so different, isn't it? If you do a green screen film, it's sort of like doing a stage play because you're in the same place every day and you don't have to work at night. I mean, there are many benefits to it. It's a more orderly existence. You get home at a reasonable hour and put all the backgrounds in later; it's great! But with Straight to Hell there was the romantic aspect of being in these locations where other great films had been made.
Keyframe: You shot on the decaying set of an old Charles Bronson movie and in the region where Sergio Leone had filmed several of his westerns. That must have been the best working vacation ever!
Cox: Yes! It's much nicer to be in Almería in the south of Spain than it is to be in a sound stage in Los Angeles. It's much more fun and interesting.
Keyframe: I recently read Simon Banner's interview with you in Spin magazine during the filming of Straight to Hell where he described you as wearing a t-shirt that said "Fear and Loathing in Almería".
Cox: Maybe? I don't recall.
Keyframe: You've had some strong complaints about genre and have argued that in American and in British films, "genres are rigidly controlled by marketing."
Cox: It seems so to me now.
Keyframe: Yet you seem to enjoy exploring genres and mashing them up?
Cox: Wouldn't that apply to Sam Peckinpah and Budd Boetticher as well? On the one hand they were making cowboy films but on the other they were very personal films. You wouldn't mistake a film by Budd Boetticher or Sam Peckinpah. They're specific in their art. They were auteurs with genre.
WATCH STRAIGHT TO HELL RETURNS ON FANDOR:
Keyframe: Your films reflect an ongoing struggle to align the seeming idleness of creativity with paid work. I'm reminded that just before I was constructively discharged from the courts, the associate justice criticized that my "eccentricity credits" had run out and added: "You've brought this on yourself." That felt like an insult at the time—and I'm sure it was intended to be an insult—but now, I see quite clearly that a true creative person's eccentricity credits never run out and what I brought onto myself was freedom from an oppressive environment.
Cox: Cory Doctorow wrote an interesting thing recently about copyright law and he was saying that artists don't make any money. Just give it up if you think you're going to make money, he wrote. If you go into the arts to be a writer, or a director, a musician or a composer, do it because you want to do it; but, you're going to have to have a real job too because artists don't make any money.
Keyframe: The true payment is the perks? You clearly enjoy filmmaking?
Cox: It's the pleasure of doing it. It's the pleasure of having done it and beginning to see it. It's the pleasure of making it, really. My wife's a publisher and I asked her yesterday, "What do you like best? Writing? Publishing? Or promotion?" She went, "Oh just writing, I don't like publishing and I don't like promotion." Even though she's a publisher, she really only likes writing.
Keyframe: Did she have anything to do with the children's book you illustrated: Danbert Nobacon's 3 Dead Princes: An Anarchist Fairy Tale?
Cox: Yes, she published that one.
Keyframe: Is that your first children's book?
Cox: It's the first book I've illustrated of any kind. I've never illustrated a book before. We all have to do something but what we really want to do is to be creative. But then you always have to do something else as well; some kind of graft.
Keyframe: That being said, is creativity then—in your estimation—a political act? At what juncture does art become political intervention?
Cox: Well, in a very broad way it could be, couldn’t it? Yes. We’re supposed to be consumers of things and—when we become creators of things—that is quite political, isn’t it? It’s hard to escape from formula and routine and the boxes that are created for people to inhabit. By being creative, wow, you can come up with just about anything.
Keyframe: But your films seem to have always had a political edge or subtext to them. They have a renegade spirit or a rebellious spirit. You call yourself a rock and roll director….
Cox: No! I do not. Somebody said it early on and now it keeps coming up.
Cox: It came out of the time I came out of. I came out in the late ’60s, early ’70s. I remember the Vietnam War. I remember how the public were able to bring an end to the Vietnam War. Even in the ’80s there were so many people who were up in arms about Central America, supporting the Sandinistas and opposed to everything that was going on in El Salvador, and now it’s just so sad how everyone’s so beaten down. No one feels they can say anything because our boys are “over there”.
Keyframe: Do you think that popular culture and mass media have weakened the fighting spirit of everyday Americans?
Cox: Coming from the ’60s and early ’70s, there was this idea that you were supposed to be a rebel. I mean a real rebel, not just someone dressing up in some kind of outfit but actually someone who would be rebellious and not do what you were told. I fear that ethos has been whipped out of a lot of young people because they’re so busy thinking, “How am I going to survive?” When we were young, rent was cheap.
Keyframe: In the mid-’70s when I was in my twenties, I used to pay $100 a month for a room in an apartment on Sanchez Street. Recently that apartment came up for rental and out of nostalgia I went and took a look at it. I was shocked to find out that rent on that space had risen to $2,000 a month! I don’t know how young people do it.
Cox: It’s a terrible problem because how do you move out of your parents’ home? If you want to be creative, how do you support yourself? How do you pay rent? It’s really a big deal.
Keyframe: We talked a little bit last night about my recent interest in various forms of cinematic citation, whether pastiche or homage, which surfaces in your quotation of Robocop in Highway Patrolman and in your evident homage of spaghetti westerns. I was impressed with the cinephilic dialogue in Searchers 2.0., especially during the “show down”.
Cox: It’s very cinephilic, yes. It’s also like that experience of being stuck in a van with actors when they start telling stories and arguing about Pacino being better than DeNiro and that kind of thing. The kind of things that only actors care about. Searchers 2.0 was meant to be a little bit like being stuck in the bus with the actors for an hour and a half.
Keyframe: I found it entertaining. You’ve been gracious with regard to the fact that press in almost every single write-up—including right up to last night’s event at the Roxie—insist that Quentin Tarantino owes you some respect and yet I’m unaware of your ever having said a bad word against him. Do you feel Tarantino was influenced by you and should acknowledge it?
Cox: Probably, but I mean I was influenced by filmmakers that I saw when I was young. I ripped off Peckinpah and Leone and John Ford and so many good directors. That’s what you do. You steal from the best….
Keyframe: And the rest you memorize.
WATCH SEARCHERS 2.0 ON FANDOR:
Keyframe: You’ve said that Sy Richardson is your John Wayne.
Cox: Well, I think I said that at some point because I was purposely winding him up. It was during Searchers 2.0. I was telling him he was John Wayne or Van Johnson, these two hyper-white guys.
Keyframe: He certainly has a commanding presence.
Cox: He does! He has a tremendous presence. He’s like Woody Strode, isn’t he? But probably there’s more going on all the time than Woody Strode, or with John Wayne. He possesses a depth and, in that way, he’s more like Van Johnson. You can see Sy play a villain like Van Johnson could play a villain and then, afterwards, play the hero.
Keyframe: Searchers 2.0, along with Repo Chick, were “microfeatures” shot for less than $200,000 apiece under the Screen Actors Guild ultra-low budget agreement. Can you talk about the philosophy behind that? My understanding is that the aim is to make a lot of movies cheaply in the hopes that a few of them will make enough money to support the rest.
Cox: That’s the idea. If you only make one movie, it doesn’t make a difference because you still have to distribute it but my thought was that—if you could take the million dollars that you would want to spend on one independent film and make five independent films—they would all fit within the SAG low budget agreement (which is $200,000) and the financier would have five possibilities of making his money back. And it would be more fun! It’s more fun to make five films than just one.
Keyframe: Can you expand on that SAG agreement? I had never heard of it before.
Cox: Sy Richardson was on the committee that created it. Actors want to work and there isn’t much work so SAG created a new category—not low budget but super low budget—where the production cost has to be $200,000 or less. If it is, then you pay the actors some modest sum like $136 a day or something—it’s very little money compared to what they might get on the studio lot—but, it means that there are still these small independent films that can be made with Screen Actors Guild members for a price. Then, as the film makes money, a certain percentage of the income from the picture goes back to SAG. In theory, as the income from the microfeature comes in, the actors continue to make money thereafter, in addition to the standard residuals and television royalties.
Keyframe: It comports with a fantasy I’ve often had when I frequent the multiplex and watch yet one more multi-million box office flop. Movies that cost $24-$25 million dollars—if not more!—border on the obscene, especially when they tank. I keep wishing they would take the $25 million and divvy up a million to 25 different filmmakers. Surely that way at least one of them would be good?
Cox: But in that world they’re not interested in independent film. They’re into tent pole franchise movies where they can do a tie-in with McDonalds or guarantee a number of 3-D sequels.
WATCH FILMS BY ALEX COX ON FANDOR.