Posted by keelsetter on March 13, 2011
Alex Cox was born in Liverpool and later moved to the U.S. and went on to direct some of the most iconoclastic arthouse films of my youth with titles like Repo Man, Sid and Nancy, Straight to Hell, and Walker. That was the eighties. Then came the nineties and I was still being amazed by his unique aesthetic as he spent more time south of the border, directing the criminally under-appreciated Highway Patrolman, followed by Death and the Compass, and also landing several other gigs that put him in front of the camera as well as working on a prodigious number of scripts, including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. By a strange twist of fate, I found myself sharing beers with Mr. Cox at my kitchen counter last Tuesday and he was kind enough to let me interview him for the purpose of this blog.
First things first: I’m dropping the formal “Mr. Cox” because we shared three glasses of beer. Anyone familiar with The New York Times bestselling book by Greg Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, knows that the title comes from the Balti proverb that says “The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family.” The same goes for me and beer, so from here on out we’re on a first-name basis.
Alex and I wound up sharing beers thanks to a serendipitous event: he happened to be in town on a business meeting. He asked somebody what microbrews the area had to offer and my name popped up as a reliable beer guide. From there, a date was set for the next day. In preparation for this I stopped by a local liquor store to procure some top-shelf brews for Alex to choose from. As I was sifting through various bottles and labels, the lone store attendant was blaring a punk song through the sound-system whose lyrics kept chanting “MORE BEER, MORE BEER, ALL I WANT IS MORE BEER, MORE BEER…” Not exactly Mozart but certainly a very singular anthem in focus, and perhaps not one that should have been a surprise to hear inside a liquor store. Being unfamiliar with the song what caught my ear was that it had an old-school punk sound, one that would have been right at home on the Repo Man soundtrack. On my way out I asked the cashier if he knew what the name was for the beer-obsessed band who were still yammering on over the speakers (GONNA KILL A CASE OR MAYBE TWO, ALL I WANT IS MORE BEER, MORE BEER, etc.). He responded with one word: Fear.
Once home I looked up the soundtrack info for Repo Man and verified my suspicion: Fear does, in fact, have a track on the film (“Let’s Have a War”). Not only that: in turns out the band Fear was the inspiration for the repo men in the film! This provided me with a fitting conversational starter when I sat down with Alex for our first beer: an Espresso Oak Aged Yeti Imperial Stout from Great Divide Brewing Co. (a local Denver beer that met with Alex’s approval).
Keelsetter – Aside for Emilio Estevez’s character in Repo Man, you named the other primary characters after beers, Harry Dean Stanton as Bud, Sy Richardson as Lite, Tracey Walter as Miller, Tom Finnegan plays Oly, and yet here we are drinking stouts, and you are clearly a man with good taste in beer. Would it be safe to assume, that had the microbrew revolution had been in swing full decades earlier, you might have named those characters after better beers like Rogue or Dog Fish?
Alex - And Deschutes or Lagunitas? (Laughs). I think it’s better that they are called Bud, Oly, Lite and Miller because those beers are piss water and there’s a generic horror of those beers and how they all taste the same.
Keelsetter – So that’s something that fit into the Repo Man concept?
Alex – Yes, it fit into the “generic” concept of the film. Because when they drink beer in the film, it’s just called “beer” isn’t it? Or “drink.”
Keelsetter – I used to remember buying generic beer at the super market.
Alex – Me too, I think it was actually Lucky Lager. Pretty bad. (Editor’s note: Lucky Lager is now brewed in Irwindale, CA alongside such brands as Olympia and Rainier.)
Keelsetter – I already mentioned how I heard that “More Beer” song by Fear in the liquor store while buying these beers we’re drinking now. Is it true that you based the principal character in Repo Man after the band members of Fear?
Alex – Yeah, because for the four repo man, I used the Fear guys as kind of proto types…. I’d seen Fear so many times, they were my favorite band in LA, and I was really thinking about casting the four band members as the repo men back when it had a $400,000 budget, but that changed (when the studio decided to give it a bigger budget).
Keelsetter – Did you know them personally at the time?
Alex – I introduced myself to them at shows, and I invited them to UCLA to see my student films…
Keelsetter – Let me switch gears. As a fan of Walker, which I think is a fascinating western, it strikes me you know a thing or two about this genre. What westerns would you recommend to anyone wanting to study the subject further?
Alex – I’d start at the beginning with The Great Train Robbery. Then look a little bit at The Iron Horse… But I kind of feel that the audio is an essential element. So the first film I would really concentrate on would be The Big Trail – it’s a fantastic piece of film making. It’s made in 70 mm; a wide-screen film of extraordinary beauty and extraordinary ambition… The other thing that I think is very interesting about it is that you see the difference in the acting styles of the theater, prior to the advent of cinema and the style of talking cinema. And John Wayne! Now he is kind of seen as a reactionary, but the guy was a good film actor and the style of acting that is used by Wayne in The Big Trail is unique in the sense that it’s naturalistic acting. While the other actors like Tyrone Power, they’re playing King Lear in the thunderstorm, wind milling their arms and speaking in a stage voice, ranting and raving. It must have been terribly entertaining. But then come the movies and things changed. Wayne’s performance in The Big Trail was considered a failure and he had to wait another ten years for any kind of stardom, but he actually was a very advanced actor in terms of film acting (as opposed to stage acting).
Alex (cont.) – After The Big Trail I’d show some serials with Gabby Hayes – a superb English actor who sometimes plays an English gentlemen and sometimes plays an old prospector. Then, of course, we get to Stagecoach, which is the resurrection of Wayne, and a great triumph for Ford. Then we go into some classics like My Darling Clementine before getting into the 50s where we’d get into noir westerns like Johnny Guitar, which has some really good women characters.
Alex (cont.) – Also: The Gunfighter by Henry King and Yellow Sky, both with Gregory Peck. Gunfighter is a marvelous film. And of course Shane, and we must see The Searchers, where Wayne plays a madman and a bad guy who redeems himself at the end.
Alex (cont.) – Getting into the 60s here comes Sam Peckinpah with Ride the High Country… boy what a good film! We also have Japan in there, with Kurosawa making his Samurai films in the style of Westerns. And we have the Nakadai character with a cowboy pistol…(Then Sergio Leone with) A Fistful of Dollars, which I kind of regret because A Fistful of Dollars isn’t nearly as good as For a Few Dollars More, which is almost perfect. But it’s important to show how the Japanese and the Italians take on the Western. Which leads us into the mid 60s, then the decline of the American Western…
Keelsetter – What about McCabe & Mrs. Miller?
Alex – Oh, of course! McCabe & Mrs. Miller also should be shown, although that’s the ‘70s…
Keelsetter – Would you go all the way up to The Unforgiven?
Alex – I keep going, but I would actually choose a different Eastwood film. But, yeah, after The Wild Bunch we have Once Upon a Time in the West. And maybe just a little before, Sergio Corbucci’s A Big Silence. Many people would say The Wild Bunch is the best American western, but I think maybe the best western of all time is The Big Silence, which is the very sad Corbucci film with Jean-Louis Trintignant that’s set in the snow. It’s sometimes also called The Great Silence. Il Grande Silenzio is the Italian title but I like The Big Silence as a title better because it sounds like The Big Knife, The Big Gundown, and a whole slew of other films out there that put “Big” in the title… Anyway, it’s set in the snow and terribly tragic. Then we go into McCabe & Mrs. Miller – also set in the snow and also tragic. Then we have The Last Movie with Dennis Hopper, revisionist, deconstructionist, Bruce Conner makes a western. I love The Last Movie.
Keelsetter – What happened with Dennis Hopper, by the way? You originally had him in mind for Repo Man.
Alex – We couldn’t afford his salary because his agent wanted him to receive at least $100,000 and, budgetarily, the executive producer felt we shouldn’t pay more than a certain amount. So we didn’t get to do it together. But that’s when I met Dennis and it formed the beginning of our friendship. And I must say with Harry Dean I simply can’t imagine anyone else in that role now.
Keelsetter – Do other Hopper westerns come to mind?
Alex – Mad Dog Morgan. And, there’s also – this is a good one – Kid Blue. Kid Blue is a film that is rarely seen written by (Edwin) Shrake. A very interesting film! Dennis Hopper, Warren Oates, Peter Boyle… Warren Oates comes on to Dennis – a gay guy in the west, married to a woman, but he’s a gay guy who wants to go out with Dennis, and Dennis rejects him and Warren’s very embarrassed. But it’s fascinating stuff to happen in a cowboy film. And he’s building a flying machine… and at the end of the movie he gets in the flying machine and it works! Amazing film.
Alex (cont.) – The French make a couple of interesting westerns, including Don’t Touch the White Woman by Marco Ferreri, shot in Paris! Michel Piccoli as Buffalo Bill, Catherine Deneuve as Calamity Jane, and Mastroianni as General Custer. But it’s set on the streets of Paris with these guys fighting it out with the Indians. It’s very political and very Buñuelian, a tremendous film; Don’t Touch the White Woman. Like The Last Movie, it’s very deconstructionist. Backtracking a bit High Noon needs to be there too, as an example of a political western talking about the ramifications of The Black List and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. And then we have to talk about High Plains Drifter. Being near the end I might show Brokeback Mountain, and maybe a remake. 3:10 to Yuma or True Grit, what do you think?
Keelsetter – Tough one. I think there might be more interesting contrasts between the original True Grit and its remake than there are to be found in 3:10 to Yuma.
Alex – A good point. In the original True Grit Wayne is a legendary character and has a whole weight to him, of film, of politics, and of iconography. He wins an Academy Award for it, and he kills Dennis Hopper. Dennis Hopper dies for the second time in John Wayne’s arms. But when Dennis died in The Sons of Katie Elder it didn’t mean anything because he was just an actor. But by the time they do True Grit Dennis is also representative of the counter-culture. So for him to be killed by John Wayne and die in the Duke’s arms – it’s an extraordinarily iconic moment. Whereas when the son of the actor from Sea Hunt shoots someone else in a hut in the Coen Brothers remake, it has no meaning at all.
At this point, we’ve both finished our Imperial Stouts and we take a break to refresh our glasses with a DuganA India Pale Ale from Boulder’s own Avery Brewing Company. In my next post: the second-half of the interview, “More Beer,” and – of course – more movies. Including asking Alex what it was like to be an actor in one of Mexico’s most successful films (image below) and titles that he would select were he to be a guest-programmer on TCM!
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