Though few people think of him this way, iconoclastic British filmmaker and punk auteur Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid and Nancy) is something of a film historian and conservationist. His various recent projects range from a documentary about the films of Akira Kurosawa to one about the famously imitated Emanuelle sexploitation films. Before that, he was the host of Moviedrome, a BBC2 dedicated to introducing viewers to cult films like The Wicker Man and Django. In 2005, he published 10,000 Ways to Die, a book he’d written as a student about the semiotics of the spaghetti western, and last year he premiered a restored version of Straight to Hell, his surreal homage to more offbeat spaghetti westerns like Django, Kill. Straight to Hell Returns includes new footage not previously released from the film’s original 1986 theatrical cut and new color correction from cinematographer Tom Richmond. I talked with Cox this past Sunday about the importance of legacy, being blacklisted after making the anti-Reaganite, Sandinista-financed acid western Walker, as well as RoboCop and Sarah Palin.
Your projects of late largely concern legacy—cinematic legacy specifically, whether it’s your films or other directors’ films or characters. Do you often think of how people will remember and accept your films?
Not really, I don’t think, for the long-term. Of course, a filmmaker can’t help but think of how the audience will respond when they first see it, but beyond that, I don’t think very far ahead into the future, especially, funnily enough, with the most recent films I’ve made. What form will digital movies survive [in]? When movies were kept on film, there was a certain longevity to them, a certain understanding that they could be projected or copies could be made. But now there’s no certainty that the media will endure, that the little flash cards that we use, or tapes, or whatever will have information that will be meaningful. I don’t know.
That’s interesting. I was just in a rental store yesterday and they didn’t have a single DVD on the shelf—it was all VHS and it seemed so…strange.
There’s this great joke in a YouTube video I recently saw where Nicolas Cage’s agent is joking that they’re going to shoot his next film on Fruit-by-the-Foot instead of actual film stock [Cox laughs]. There’s no way to know where the medium is going, whether it’s evolving or devolving at this point.
Yes. The special machinery that we watch movies on, or the format. Will a Quicktime movie or doc or file have any meaning in a generation’s time? Or will everything have to be migrated to new formats once or twice to be viewable? I don’t know!
Would you say that you’re optimistic about where film is going?
Oh, I think that we face far more serious problems than this! [Laughs] I don’t think it matters in the least compared to some more dreadful and pressing problems, such as war or the destruction of the environment. That’s the least of our worries.
Can you talk a little about how people’s perceptions of Straight to Hell has changed over time, if you’ve even noticed a change?
Not really over time in the sense that there’s been an evolution of people’s responses. There really are two Straight to Hells: there’s the original Straight to Hell, which came out on film in 1986, and there’s Straight to Hell Returns, which was generated on HD Video from a film negative. We filmed it purely for the television market and it’s been beautifully preserved at Cannes. The digital version has scenes that were cut out of the original 35[mm print]. It has new stuff: a stop-motion animation skeleton, a shot of Miguel Sandoval’s feet, all kinds of stuff. There’s also a new color treatment by Tom Richmond, the cinematographer, which makes the film look very yellow and the blacks look very crushed. It gives it a very contemporary, postmodern, very fucked-up look as opposed to the very pure colors of the original.
I didn’t really answer the question though. So therefore, there are two different versions of it. One can say, “I like the first version better” or “[I like] the second version better.” I think the second version has been responded to with greater enthusiasm because everybody’s living in a postmodern world now. The original audience that saw the film has also grown older: people who say 25 years ago now have children and grandchildren. And they look at the film and think, “Ahhh, happy days,” you know? “Oh, Joe Strummer was a handsome bloke!” For them it becomes more of a…nostalgic, introverted experience. And then there are people who haven’t seen it before and are seeing it for the first time.
Speaking of postmodern viewership, you yourself were the host of BBC2’s Moviedrome program.
I did the introductions to a bunch of cult films of minor interest and foreign-language films, yes.
Because of that, I’m curious about what you meant by a more “introverted” audience, a more individualized viewing experience for cult film and film in general to a postmodern audience. How does that effect moviemaking and movie-watching?
Even though that’s a phenomenon that we expect to see more of, prices for paying audiences go up every year in terms of demographics, or what someone’s paying to do. So going to see film as a communal experience is dying out, but maybe it’s being restricted to these very large studio pictures with lots of tie-ins and stuff…novels. It’s like you say: Then people who see art films or foreign films or old film, do they become lone media consumers as opposed to part of an audience? I was going to the cinema to the second half of obscure double bills anyway, some obscure spaghetti western. But it’s changing. It’s becoming something else, the experience of how and what a film is. Maybe a film will become more like a game eventually.
One of the things I noticed on your website is that in the section of FAQs about Walker, you don’t really talk about what happened to your career as a result of your film. I imagine I can understand why, but I’m curious how you now feel about the way you were so despicably blacklisted and the effect it had on you, not even your career or your moviemaking. Would you be willing to talk about that a little?
Well, I think mutter and grumble, really. Things could have been worse. It’s not really…you intend to do battle with vast corporate entities or the evil empire. That’s okay. It’s all right. How many people get to work in the film industry and make one film—how proud are they of their films? Are the films personal to them? What kind of a career would I have had if I were acceptable to studios after Walker? I would have made movies like…I would have liked to have made Intergalactic Hero, which was written as a riposte to [Robert] Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. But Starship Troopers got greenlit as an anti-war, very funny, very subversive, grandiose vision of the future where people battle bugs with nuclear weapons. They’re different visions, you know, the anarcho-pacifist dream is quite different from the Hollywood version.
I was just thinking yesterday that you would have been perfect to make a Judge Dredd movie, considering the subversive humor that’s peppered throughout that.
Yeah, and RoboCop is really good too in the sense of how it married a very frightening right-wing worldview with these left-wing subversive jokes. I thought that was very clever. But that’s personal-minded, too, isn’t it? It’s just a moneymaking machine that’s able to incorporate irony.
Do you think there’s a chance that movies like RoboCop and Starship Troopers could be made today?
Verhoeven really is an auteur director. He’s a genuine director that likes to make films that are so…the corporate industry only incorporates so few people like that, if any. I don’t suppose it would be possible to make either of those films today. They were talking about remaking RoboCop for so many million dollars. All the people that originally made it got very excited that they’d get to share in that bounty, but for some reason the project got trashed…it seemed too risky.
Switching gears a bit, can you tell me a little about why you often cast musicians in your work, especially in something like Straight to Hell?
That was because of the circumstances of Straight to Hell. It had been on a rock n’ roll tour and there were all the guys that you see in the film, like Elvis Costello, Joe, the Pogues, and they were supposed to go on a Nicaraguan tour out of solidarity with the Sandinistas. We were going to pay for this tour out of the proceeds of the video cassette sales [of the concert]. We just couldn’t do it—no media copy would buy into it, or bankroll a thing like that. Eric Fellner, who was the producer of the tour said, “Why don’t we instead make a film? I think I can raise a million dollars to make a feature that has all these bands in it.” Island Pictures, which is the filmmaking subsidiary of Island Records, did indeed come up with a million dollars. So we had to make a film that starred both real musicians but also actors to kind of balance it out. That was how Straight to Hell came to have so many musicians in it. Some of those guys, like Joe and Spider Stacy and Zander Schloss, came to Nicaragua for Walker.