Maybe a year or so ago, some of my online colleagues posted a trailer for Alex Cox's then-forthcoming film 'Repo Chick.' As a longtime fan of 'Repo Man,' I eagerly hunted down the clip in anticipation of what I assumed would be the director's return to form after seemingly decades of silence. But what I saw was dramatically different than anything I could have expected – a shoestring special effects extravaganza that bore little resemblance to the gritty punk universe of its predecessor, much less Cox's many other memorable films, including 'Sid and Nancy' and 'Straight to Hell.' So I did the only thing I could think of: I hunted down Cox himself and interviewed him about the film, which at the time was in no position to be released theatrically, on hone video, or via any other format.
Just a few weeks ago, 'Repo Chick' finally arrived on Blu-ray, so it seemed like an appropriate time to revisit my lengthy chat with the director. In addition to talking about the technical and artistic inspirations for 'Repo Chick,' Cox talked about his longtime absence from Hollywood, his continuing creative evolution, and finally, the process of bringing his filmography to digital formats like DVD and Blu-ray.
Cinematical: You're living in Oregon now. Why did you relocate there – was it a good place for you to exercise your creativity?
Alex Cox: No, it had nothing to do with that. My wife, the woman I am married to, moved here like 20 years ago, and we got together the year after. So I had to move here too; otherwise I wouldn't see her.
Well, has that made it more difficult to be able to find work?
Oh yeah. I mean, we live in a forest, so there's no production here. I think there's a little bit of production in Portland, but I kind of doubt it really if there's any production anywhere except Los Angeles now. It seems to have become so centralized around LA in the last few years. There was production in the Bay Area, there's still a couple of companies hanging on there. But it's pretty sad - and there's much less production now as well, and what there is seems to be controlled by the studios and is based out of L.A., even if they make it in some strange place for some tax rebate.
Is that why you've been doing a lot of work for the BBC?
Well, no. I was blacklisted by the studios back in '88, so I have to work for other entities that don't maintain a blacklist. It sort of limits my room to maneuver. But for the BBC, I was more of a TV presenter than a film director. They had me doing this show for years where I would introduce really bizarre old movies and sometimes foreign language movies, and sometimes they were pretty interesting, Kurosawa and stuff like that. And this was a show that went on for about nine years. So I think the BBC thought of me more as a TV presenter than anything else, but that was good, because that was some income.
Cinematical: One of the things that really jumped out at me in your filmography was a documentary about the 'Emmanuelle' films, a series that I'm kind of obsessed with. I read the interview on your website about 'Emmanuelle II' and I think that's an amazingly beautiful movie.
Yeah, it's an excellent film. It's sort of like the 'Once Upon a Time in the West' of soft core porno movies. I mean, it has everything in it. It's really well directed... by Francis Giacobetti. And he's not particularly interested in or proud of the 'Emmanuelle' films, because when we made the documentary, I called him and asked him if we could interview him. And he goes, "Oh no, my dear boy, you don't want to interview me. That's rubbish." I said, "No, no, it's good actually." "No, no, no. I have nothing to say about them." So it's funny because he tends to view it as very slight and unimportant, but I think 'Emmanuelle II' is actually a very good film, a very sophisticated film - very well thought out, cleverly done. I really do think it's the 'Once Upon a Time in the West' of soft core porno movies; it's an art film, and it's very aware of what's going on, and of the nature of the fantasies and how each one fulfills a different purpose and represents a different symbolic thing. It's terribly sophisticated. I wish that Giacobetti was more proud and forthcoming about it because, I don't know his work very well, so I can't say really what he might think of as his best work, but I really do like that film. I think it's very, very good.
Can you relate to the idea, though, of a film you made that it's hard for you to embrace now because it maybe didn't come out the way you intended, or even is just different than how you might make it now?
Well, I find it very hard to support 'Sid and Nancy.' I find the end of 'Sid and Nancy' to be troubling and very sentimental, and I think that it would be wonderful to be able to recreate that and do the ending again so it isn't so soppy and wishy-washy, because junkies aren't really like that. It would be better to have a more cruel ending. But, that said, we probably wouldn't have got the money to make the film if we'd made it a more cruel and realistic ending - but it would be a better film.
You mentioned earlier that you were blacklisted. What has this meant in terms of your career?
The studios act as a cartel. The studios keep a list of actors and directors who have offended them and who will not be given work, especially in the 1950s. The only difference is they're more sophisticated now and they don't make the list public, I think it's because it's against the law.
Do you feel like you need to work in Hollywood in order to be able do what you want to do creatively?
I think if you're going to make films in the United States, you have to work in Los Angeles or you have to kind of go to Los Angeles, because all the actors live there. So it's what are you going to do, unless you're going to work with animals, maybe, or an animated film. But even then you're going to have to have the voices, so at some point you're going to go to Los Angeles because all the actors have to live there. So to go to Los Angeles is inevitable - but it's not so bad. I mean, if you don't live full-time in Los Angeles, it's actually not so bad to go now and then; the city's getting a little bit better, and the public transport has gotten much better.
Does your name or your body of work have a cache of credibility that would enable you to recruit people regardless of the blacklist?
In terms of creative people, I think that's definitely true, in terms of actors. I find a lot of actors are very open to doing all kinds of things. The problem of filmmaking is really distribution, because you can make films, but because the studios also have now pretty much a lock on distribution, not much gets into theaters that the studios don't control. So, and as fewer and fewer films get made, it has an impact on the industry that's really quite painful. There are a number of people that have been waiting for work for a long time now. And you see a situation where an investor might put up $200,000 or $150,000 to do some very low budget feature, but that's such a small amount of money, if they're a very wealthy person, they don't really have a mad incentive to see that film get in the cinema or get out on DVD and be sold to television; it's more a kind of vanity thing, not an actual desire to make money.
And in the same way films are then made based on a tax rebate will very rarely make it into the movie theaters because the investors have already got their rebate - they've got what they were after. So whether the film actually ever gets shown or not is kind of irrelevant, and so in a way, that kind of rebate system is quite corrupt. That means that films get made purely on the basis of whether or not there's some kind of tax deal in whatever obscure corner of the nation.
Do you have to think practically about continuing to work, or can you enjoy the sort of purity of pursuing ideas and then making them happen in whatever format or way you can?
No, I'm pretty much defeated at this stage, I do have to say. Because if Universal can rip off my copyright in 'Repo Man' and create a fake sequel to 'Repo Man' out of another completely different movie, call it 'Repo Men' and pass it off as something that has some connection to my movie, what can I do? How can I possibly function in that world? I mean, the studios, it's like a type of card game where you don't even get dealt a hand. How can you play in that game? The studios have won.
'Repo Chick' seems like a dramatically different sort of film than ones people associate with you. What was the original concept for it?
Well, the film takes place like in so many different places - it takes place on a moving train which has been hijacked and it's hurtling towards Los Angeles, where it's going to blow up and destroy the entire city, and it also takes place in the home of a wayward millionairess and her family. That's a fairly expensive film, and the only way to work around that with a more modest budget is to say, okay, we're going to treat the whole thing as special effects. Everything is a special effect, so everything will be done in post. And then, a nice thing happens, which is that by working in front of a green screen rather than in actual locations or on a genuinely constructed set, you can go really, really quickly. It's like a theater piece. Rosanna Arquette, I talked to her on the phone one time, and then the first time I saw her, she was already in costume and in makeup. She showed up and we started doing our thing.
To be able to work with that speed is also to work with that kind of purity where you don't have to endlessly pursue movie stars and sit around while they tell you their profound thoughts. The actor just shows up on set in costume ready to go, and you roll through like 10-11 pages in a day. What fun! How liberating that is, compared to the kind of the boredom of a more conventional film where you sit around or stand around for a long time while the trucks arrive and the Winnebagos are put in their places and the honey wagons are unhitched and the executive producer's trailer arrives. You're just standing around the craft services table with the Teamsters and the Teamsters are telling stories of violence, and it has nothing to do with making a film, nothing to do with being creative or being an artist. And so to work really quickly, to work on a stage, to not have to do night shoots, to not have to do wet downs of the street and all that kind of thing, it's very liberating.
Your budget is probably not going to be big enough to create the kind of photorealism that you might expect in Hollywood-
Exactly - but then why do things have to be photorealistic? I mean, why is this great premium placed upon common "realism?" You know. It very rarely is real, isn't it, because the stories of Hollywood films are generally so silly and childish that you couldn't really think "real" figured into them at all.
With that heightened reality, as a director, is your goal then to create a throughline of authenticity, or are you trying to find like a sort of emotional "reality" that is faithful to the heightened environments you're creating?
I think truthful rather than realistic, because what made me make "Repo Chicks" is the realization that the disaster of the subprime loans and the current crisis in which we're living now was caused in part by a repo company that I used to work for - GMAC. General Motors Acceptance Corporation was allowed during the Clinton era to become a bank, and a lot of the mis-selling of mortgages to people who couldn't possibly afford them was being done by the same company which back in the pre-Clinton years had been selling cars to people who couldn't possibly afford them. And it just seemed to me so outrageous that GMAC was rewarded for this essentially criminal activity, and that our taxes, and not just our current taxes, but our children's taxes were being used to bail this corrupt company out of a hole. It was so annoying that I think that was my incentive because regardless of the realism or the verisimilitude of the images or the characters, there was a truth there that we were being royally screwed over by the government and by GMAC in just the same way that GMAC has screwed over all those poor people back in the '80's when we used to steal their cars and drive them back to the repo yard.
What sort of learning curve did you experience with the green screen stuff?
[There was] no visual adjustment at all really because in my head, I think we were all kind of imagining, okay, now I'm on a train, now I'm in the repo office, now I'm you know, I'm in this bunker. You just imagine it, so I think the back of my mind was kind of supplying that stuff, but really, because the stuff wasn't there, a lot of the bogusness of acting, a lot of that kind of fake realism of it all, that "I can only act angry if I am angry," that kind of nonsense, kind of went away because we weren't in any kind of reality at all. We were in this big ridiculous environment so that kind of let everybody kind of shake loose the bad habits that we all get into, the repetitiveness of naturalistic acting of what used to be called "method" - because acting is just fake. Everything is pretending - it's not really the thing, it's pretending the thing. And that's the talent of an actor. And so that made it very pure. And the speed with which we went meant that there wasn't the time available to lose energy. There wasn't the time for hanging around and sleeping in your trailer – it was just one thing after another thing after another.
Most if not all of your films have had this sort of political undercurrent to them. Is that a necessary component of your filmmaking?
I think it's case by case. I mean, I think some things have more politics in them than others, but I think there's politics in everything. There's always a reason for things, and the reason is very often political why certain injustices take place, why certain corporations have to be given lots of money, why certain countries have to be invaded. I mean, there's politics in everything. But I think maybe it's more noticeable in my stuff and I've had more of a hard time by the results because I'm not a native American, I'm a Limey. And in that sense, what right do I have to come along to America and tell them what's what? So I think in that sense maybe it sticks out a bit more, but I think I'd be surprised to see a film which didn't have some political undercurrent.
Is there a holy grail script or idea that you would like to make into a film?
There's a book by Harry Harrison called 'Bill the Galactic Hero.' It's like 'All Quiet on the Western Front' in space. It's an anti-war novel, but it's really funny - it is so funny. And of course the green screen and the non-necessity of verisimilitude, it wouldn't actually have to cost a much as 'Avatar,' but it would cost a fair bit because you've got all this space [material] - you've got the imperial planet Helior and you've got the war against the lizards. But it was written by Harry Harrison as a riposte to Robert Heinlein's 'Starship Troopers' because Harry Harrison had been in the military and though it was just bullshit, so he wrote this book as a reply. And he's done a like 110 sequels to it as well, but the original book, 'Bill the Galactic Hero' is so funny and good. Somebody should make it.
Have you had trouble finding DVD distribution for your films? I know some of them have been released, but for example, I don't think 'Highway Patrolman' has ever been released on DVD in the United States.
It's under license to some company that hasn't brought it out until a certain point, at which point it reverts to me and the writer-producer Lorenzo O'Brien. So at some point in the relatively near future, we'll get the film back, and then we can make a DVD deal for it. But once I had a bunch of stuff come out on Anchor Bay a few years ago in like a box, but we couldn't offer them 'Highway Patrolman' because it wasn't part of our little patrimony in the way that I can make a deal for 'Straight to Hell' or 'Three Businessmen.' But that said, maybe there's a certain resistance for foreign language films. It's not as easy now to release a foreign language film as it was, you know, back when. I mean, if Bunuel was still alive and making films like 'The Discreet Charm,' I think he'd be having a harder time getting them into the theaters. I mean, there are some companies which are doing a valiant job of releasing things on DVD, but in terms of theatrical, boy, it's quite difficult.
How important is the DVD distribution of your films? Can you just finish a film and move on to the next one?
Oh no, I always worry about whether people see them or not, and you can't really move on unless you're working for the defendant cinema and just keep your job. You're an independent contractor who creates his or her own work you know, and so it's very important what happens to film you just finished, it's very important because that kind of determines what happens next. But as long as I've been involved in film, there hasn't really been an upside to having things in the cinema in the sense that you lose money if your film plays in the cinema. whether it's a big studio film or whether it's a relatively humble independent film.
But then in theory, the money is recouped from television sales, DVD sales, foreign sales, and maybe now downloads and streaming, or maybe that will become a revenue stream at some point. So it's in flux, whereas when say Roger Corman and Francis Coppola and Jack Nicholson and all guys were doing their thing, the theater was important. "Get that film into those drive-ins! And if Cock Fighter isn't working in the drive-in, we'll fix it, and completely recut the travesties of film in the hope of getting them to play theatrically and make money."
What took 'Repo Chick' so long to end up on home video?
David Lynch's people attempted to prevent the screening of the film at Venice, they threatened an injunction against the film at Venice. Universal threatened the production with a cease and desist letter to attempt to prevent the production from taking place. That is so charming, so delightful a part of filmmaker's existence.
I wasn't familiar with this conflict with David Lynch-
No, [I was] entirely puzzled by the Lynch thing too, because in theory David Lynch has a sales company which is supposed to be selling the film abroad, but all they [had] done so far is threaten legal action. They embarked on legal action against me to prevent me from screening the film. Why David Lynch would be involved in the process like that, which only benefits Universal, I really don't know. I don't know what's up with David Lynch, why that would be happening. It's totally mysterious to me. It's totally mysterious. But it really does make me feel like in the end, you just can't beat the studios. I mean the studios are so powerful, and since they also control distribution, even if you managed to beat them in the sense that if you get the film made, will anybody ever see it? I used to think, yeah, yeah, they will see it, it's worth doing anyway. You know, but after that, I'm beaten. I can't beat the studios.
Well, beaten or not, you have I think a large and loyal fan base who would love to see more of your movies on DVD and see ones like 'Straight to Hell' make the jump to Blu-ray as well.
Well, here is something interesting. It's interesting you mention 'Straight to Hell,' because "Straight to Hell" is a case in point. I've been talking to a company in the Bay area where they're bringing out some of my stuff on DVD about whether we should just go to DVD and download, or that we should have a blu-ray as well. And I'm still up in the air about this, especially in the case of 'Straight to Hell' because right now I'm doing extra work on it. It occurred to me because of all the special effects that we did on 'Repo Chick' and this great special effects team in Berkley called Collateral Image who did the effects, I just thought we could do all of these things. We could make these changes to the film - visual changes, scenes of violence could be more violent, blood would flow where previously there was non-blood. Cartridges would fly out of the guns whenever a gun was fired, and there'll be an enormous muzzle flash, all of the things that weren't within our technological capacity when the film was made now are.
So I had this quandary, which was should I be going back to the original negative of the film and doing a new transfer of the original negative so that we will work from that and output a Blu-ray version of the film, or shall we stick with the original anamorphic digital transfer that we have and work with that based on the assumption that we're not actually going to bring it out on Blu-ray. There's a practical aspect to it that somebody, i.e. me, has to go to London, go to the lab, locate the negative, take it to the place, pay for it to be [transferred]. So there are all these kind of considerations, and I'm more like a low-tech kind of guy; I mean, I was hanging on to mono for the longest time. I'm kind of a low-tech, but if money didn't enter into it then absolutely we would make the very, very highest quality transfers of everything. And in the case of something that was generated on video, we would make the separation mattes on film, because we don't know how long video formats will actually last.
But the other thing about high-definition video is high-definition video wasn't developed as a storytelling tool. It wasn't developed for drama, it was developed for sports; it exists so that when they have that great big picture of the stadium, you can follow the ball. Storytelling is different, and with high-definition video is a nightmare for women actors or actresses because every imperfection will be seen and highlighted by that high-tech enormous [lens] in the back of the camera. Yet, the purpose of film is to create a myth, to create an imaginary environment in which the women are really, really beautiful, the men are really strong and tough, the dogs are faithful, the horses can jump over ravines - I mean, all that stuff. I mean, it's not about the sharpest, brightest, clearest image. It's about the story, about the drama. And so everything I've done on video, we've ended up putting the film grain effect on it - not pretend that it was generated on film, but to take away that video sharpness, which is kind of ugly and distracting. So if we did that with 'Straight to Hell,' you know, if we went back to the original negative and we do an HD transfer and we get the absolutely sharpest, brightest, most grain-free version of it we possibly can and there we look at the young Courtney Love and Grace Jones, we might think, "oh, let's soften it up a bit - put a bit of grain in there" (laughs).