Parting Thoughts with Director Alex Cox

In my last blog post I transcribed the first half of an informal interview I had with Repo Man director Alex Cox a couple weeks ago. In this second half of that interview we talk about movies he’d select for TCM if he were a guest programmer, what it’s like to work on the other side of the camera, some specific thoughts about Walker (his radical western starring Ed Harris), along with discussing other directors from Jim Jarmusch to John Carpenter.

Keelsetter – If you could be a guest-programmer on TCM, what titles would you choose?

Alex – What’s the cut-off date?

Keelsetter – It’s somewhat arbitrary, but let’s say late sixties or so.

AlexThe Big Silence, For a Few Dollars More, The Mattei Affair, although that’s 1972, directed by Francesco Rosi, and it’s about the man who spearheaded the Italian petroleum industry. What could be more boring? But it’s an incredible film. He was believed to have been murdered by the C.I.A., so it’s like an early version of the J.F.K. film with the same kind of fragmented structure. Francesco Rosi, who also wrote and directed Salvatore Giuliano, is an incredible filmmaker. Citizen Kane, of course. The Gunfighter. Wages of Fear.

Keelsetter – I love that film.

Alex – And William Friedkin’s remake, Sorcerer, isn’t bad either.

Keelsetter – I’m a big fan of Sorcerer. Jaws had such a huge impact on me as a kid that Roy Scheider ended up being my hero and I sought out his films wherever I could find them. Sorcerer came out two years later and I was really quite stunned by how gritty and nihilistic it was.

Alex – It’s even darker than the original and I like it a great deal. I love the front story and the setup where you see how each of the guys is screwed up and has to flee to Latin America. And I love the ending as well – how he doesn’t crash his truck, but rather gets back to the bar where his adventure began but then the New Jersey Mafiosi who he ripped off at the beginning of the film show up to kill him. It’s perfect. Let’s double-bill Wages of Fear with Sorcerer. Then there’s the The Wild Bunch, The Manchurian Candidate… which makes me think of American political films like Executive Action – mind you, not a good film, but still a very interesting film. Robert Ryan and Burt Lancaster plotting the Kennedy assassination? It’s pretty interesting. Add The Parallax View, and we should also toss some Kurosawa in there. I’d love to do his last one, Madadayo, but that’s the early nineties. For an older Kurosawa film I’d maybe select Ikiru.

Keelsetter -Putting aside date constraints and thinking of other non-American directors, who comes to mind?

Alex – We should look at something by Arturo Ripstein, maybe Principio y fin.

(Editor’s note: Arturo Ripstein worked with Luis Buñuel, is widely considered Mexico’s best director, and was a mentor to Alex Cox.)

Keelsetter – That segues into my next question. You were cast as a gringo in Luis Estrada’s Herod’s Law, a corrupt cop in Fernando Sariñana’s Todo el poder

Alex – Have you seen Todo el poder?

Keelsetter – We screened it here as part of the International Film Series.

Alex – I’ve never seen it! How is it? (Laughs.)

Keelsetter – It’s good! We screened Herod’s Law at the International Film Series too.

Alex – Some of the lines – not in Herod’s Law, that completely followed the script – but in Todo el poder most of my dialogue is improvised. All that stuff I say such as “Sin enervantes, jefe?” is my dialogue and picked up from reading their newspapers and knowing the language; “Hijos de la ciudad bajo la influencia de enervantes…”

(Editor’s note: these bits of dialogue translate roughly as “Without drugs, Chief?” and “The children of the city under the influence of drugs.”)

Keelsetter – You were also cast as Doyle in Álex de la Iglesia’s Perdita Durango

Alex – I was the henchman of Jim Gandolfini in the film before his role in The Sopranos.

Keelsetter – Tell me a bit about your experiences working in front of the camera instead of behind it.

Alex – I was very fortunate because most of my acting – I’ve done a little bit of acting in England and in America – but most of my acting has been done in Mexico. And in Mexico, when I was working there, the director was still King. So my job was merely to obey the orders of the director – which I loved doing. I don’t like coming in and already finding the marks on the floor, because that’s kind of dispiriting when you come in and you see those and “okay, you want me to stand here.” But apart from that I would do anything the director wants unless, of course, it’s beyond my personal dignity – but otherwise I’ll do anything the director wants.

Keelsetter – Did you ever feel a bit type-cast as “the bad gringo”?

Alex – Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! (Laughs.) And you know what else? After La Ley de Herodes I would be in this situation where I’d be in a taxi in Mexico City sitting in the back and another taxi would pull up next to us and pull down its window and the driver would say (pointing) “mira El Gringo!”

(Editor’s note: although this translates into “Look! The American!” it’s worth noting that the roots for the word “gringo” are a Spanish variant for “stranger” and can thus include other foreigners. But, more often than not, and certainly in this case, it’s a disparaging slang term to define Americans.)

Alex – (continued): Mexicans are the politest people in the world. They never shout out “mira el gringo” just because somebody’s a “gringo.” But… I was El Gringo. I was the guy from Ley de Herodes. That was fantastic! La Ley de Herodes was the most successful Mexican film of all time.

Keelsetter – Is it still?

Alex – It may have been superseded by something else by now. But the political impact of the film was huge. It was fun to be a part of that. It was fun to be a part of a film that was so inexpensively made but so important and so liberating. And I do have to say that Luis Estrada is a good director. I’d known him for a while and I’d seen his other films but I wasn’t prepared for how good it would be. He’s a really good director and I was really lucky to get that part.

Keelsetter – You’re clearly sympathetic to the plight of indigenous people getting trampled by imperial forces.

Alex – Like people from Liverpool… since I’m from Liverpool. (Laughs.)

Keelsetter – With this in mind, tell me about Walker. I’m curious about your decision to make a film about William Walker, as well as your particular approach.

Alex – Lorenzo O’Brien, the producer, and I, and some of the other people involved like Cecilia Montiel, Rudy Wurlitzer, and others, wanted to make a film that supported the Sandinistas. We wanted to spend dollars in Nicaragua and create this idea of Nicaragua as a non-threatening place. So we opened the set to an enormous zoo of journalists – which ended up being a horrible thing. So in a way the film was secondary to a propaganda aspect. What surprised me was that it turned out good despite the hassles we went through trying to make it, and despite attempts by Universal and the bond company to shut the film down. It ended up being a miracle that the film was finished at all  and actually turned out good.

Keelsetter – How did Universal respond to the anachronistic stuff that you put in there?

Alex – Boy, did they hate it. And the bond company at that point – films had to be bonded, a form of gangsterism, really. You have to give up two or three percent of your budget to an extra insurance company when you already have an insurance policy? Just in the vague possibility that the filmmakers might not be able to finish? It was ludicrous and a rip-off. The bond company became kind of a crazed task-master who attempted to have the film shut down, to have me replaced… so it was just nightmarish. A nightmare situation in which we’re supposed to be creative while simultaneously and constantly being undercut and sniped at and harassed. And yet, it was an exciting time and a good environment with all the people involved who were so good that we came through it alright. Certainly Lorenzo, Cecilia, Rudy and I got very bonded by the experience – they’re still some of my closest friends.

KeelsetterWalker is a film that many critics have championed yet was a financial disaster…

Alex – Well, it cost 5.6 million and the studios never give an honest accounting of any film’s performance. What I noticed was that although they didn’t put the film in the theater hardly at all immediately after a limited theatrical release it played widely on cable in the U.S. I imagine that Universal recouped their investment in the film simply through the cable sales. Walker was probably in profit within a year, but we’ve never seen a penny of that.

Keelsetter – Despite being tarred and feathered as a “failure,” Walker holds up to this day and is a film championed by many critics.

Alex – And that’s partially because of the anachronisms and our insisting on including the anachronisms in a way that they could not be cut out. The bond company and the studio were after us to try to isolate the anachronisms, but I realized the reason for this was so they could cut them out later. So we made sure they were incorporated in such a way that the film couldn’t really be altered. Another thing is that 90 or 85 minutes is a wonderful length for a film, so if you make a film that is already 85 or 90 minutes long, they can’t cut out a lot of it.

Keelsetter – You didn’t have final cut, right? So that’s why you’re saying you needed to incorporate the anachronisms wherever you could?

Alex – Yeah, and also if you make a film that is 2 1/2 hours long they’re going to come and mess with you. But if you make a film that’s 85 minutes long, how can they mess with you?

Keelsetter – Have you ever had final cut on any movie?

Alex – Yes and no. I kind of have when I’ve been the producer of the film, some with very low budgets and with people I’d bonded with so there was no question of anyone messing with it. But, strictly speaking, a contractual final cut is a pretty hard thing to obtain.

Keelsetter – The people who come to my mind who get final cut are Woody Allen and Jim Jarmusch…

Alex – I saw Jim last week in NY and I haven’t seen him in many years. We did a co-presentation of Straight to Hell Returns because he’s in Straight to Hell. He owns all his films and he’s always managed to control them. He’s a very smart and uncompromising guy, but when necessary he can be a very political guy – and it’s served him well.

Keelsetter – You’ve worked on a prodigious number of scripts. Given a scenario where you could have all resources, along with final cut, is there some pet project skulking around in the back of your brain that you’d love to chase?

Alex – The life of Luis Buñuel, the script of which is available on my website and you can download called Bugs are My Business, and a script I wrote for a Japanese producer called Helltown – not to be confused with a John Wayne two-reeler also called Helltown. It’s a Kurosawa-like film. At the beginning the guy who is the hero is told that there’s a baby down the street who is going to be murdered by narco-Satanicos at sundown and you have 90 minutes to save the baby. So off he goes! He spends 90 minutes going down the street dealing with all kinds of battles and bullshit on the way, all in order to save the baby. And guess what? He saves the baby. Of course he saves the baby, but it’s that idea from Kurosawa that he will show you the beginning of the film – like a map or a diagram that tells you how you’re going to protect the village…

Keelsetter – Because it’s not about the end, it’s about the journey.

Alex – And it’s also going to be in real time, like High Noon, happening in a 90 minute period.

Keelsetter – Last question. We talked earlier about John Carpenter’s They Live. Of the 50 films on the calendar film schedule that I program, that’s the one that popped out at you. Why?

Alex – It’s John Carpenter’s best film.

Keelsetter – Did you like Carpenter’s The Thing?

Alex – Nah.

Keelsetter – Too visceral?

Alex – It didn’t need to be made. They Live is unique among American films. I cannot think of another American film that has a homeless person as its protagonist. I mean, I can…

KeelsetterCombat Shock, Street Trash, Trash Humpers… all admittedly very much on the outskirts of…

Alex – Yeah: studio films. I’m talking about American studio films. There is one; where Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep pretend to be homeless but, of course, that’s pathetic. The thought of these millionaires pretending to be homeless people is just awful. Diabolical. Proof that the Devil runs the film industry. They Live is the only American studio film that I’ve seen that has a homeless person as a protagonist. That’s not the only reason I like it: it’s a great science fiction movie. In the first half of the film Carpenter reveals to us that yuppies are really aliens that have taken over our culture and are strip-mining the Earth. Roddy Piper puts on these glasses that he’s found in the streets and suddenly looks down sees the billboards for what they are: Die. Consume. Eat and get fat. That’s reality! It is Subliminal Seduction, the book, turned into a film. A beautifully done piece of work for the first half.

(Editor’s note: Subliminal Seduction, by Wilson Bryan Key, was first published in 1974.)

Keelsetter – Are you saying the film was based on that book?

Alex – I don’t know if it was based on it, but I suspect it was because it was all about the gut messages that are behind advertising. It talks a lot about how in the ’70s ad men were concealing bizarre images of skeletons and murder in ice cubes of a glass of scotch because subliminally it hit you even if you didn’t see it.

Keelsetter – Why would subliminal images of skeletons in ice cubes make you want to drink?

Alex – Because the importance is the shock value. The importance is the impact. You don’t have to have a feeling of love, or affection, or warmth. You can have a feeling of fear and terror. Doesn’t make any difference. As long as you make an emotional connection.

Keelsetter – Pure branding.

Alex – Yup.

Keelsetter – Getting a name to rise above a competitors.

Alex – Anything at all. If a severed head left on your doorway would make you to buy Pepsi then there you go. And that’s the message of They Live. We have a death culture. The subliminal messages behind the advertisements are all violent, negative, and destructive. We’re on our way out as a species and we’re taking the rest of the planet with us. They Live holds up for the first 45 minutes, and then there’s this long wrestling match between Roddy Piper and Keith David, and it never recovers. But those first 45 minutes are amazing. Pretty much the only good science fiction film I’ve seen post 2001: A Space Odyssey.

At this point I run out of space on the memory card used for my recording, and so ends my transcript. But our conversation continued and provided other revelations. I was fascinated to learn that Alex is an atheist and vegetarian who has been married for over 20 years to a lapsed catholic pantheist who enjoys eating meat, and I also found it very telling that he finished the last beer I gave him despite it being far afield of the stouts and I.P.A.’s he favors. Here’s clearly a man who will try new things and easily coexists with others.

Our last beer was a barrel aged Consecration ale from Russian River – a very sour beer that is definitely an acquired taste. Normally, people who don’t like sour beers will take a small sip, pucker their face as if eating a lemon, and then promptly wave it away. Alex had never had a sour beer, so I was pretty sure that would be his reaction too. His first sip seemed to confirm this, and he later confided that it wasn’t really to his liking. But instead of dismissing it, I could see his mind working as he tried to figure out what the heck was going on inside this complicated brew.

A blend of flavors. Layers of complexity. Unique. These are fitting words for both the Consecration ale and Alex Cox, who responded to my three cups of tea analogy with its Spanish equivalent: “Uno es nada, dos tampoco, tres…  es empezar!”

For all you gringos out there (by which I mean strangers to Spanish, rather than in the pejorative sense) that’s an ode to camaraderie that means: “One is nothing, neither is two, three… is a beginning!”

6 Responses Parting Thoughts with Director Alex Cox
Posted By suzidoll : March 27, 2011 6:08 pm

Very nice to hear someone mention directors such as Rosi and Ripstein. Rosi’s THREE BROTHERS was one of the first DVD releases I worked on at Facets, and we distributed Ripstein’s SUCH IS LIFE for the U.S. market.

I am also a big fan of Carpenter’s THEY LIVE, with Rowdy Roddy Piper completely negating the common perception of a homeless man.

Posted By suzidoll : March 27, 2011 6:08 pm

Very nice to hear someone mention directors such as Rosi and Ripstein. Rosi’s THREE BROTHERS was one of the first DVD releases I worked on at Facets, and we distributed Ripstein’s SUCH IS LIFE for the U.S. market.

I am also a big fan of Carpenter’s THEY LIVE, with Rowdy Roddy Piper completely negating the common perception of a homeless man.

Posted By AL PEREZ : March 27, 2011 6:28 pm

I’m a big fan of John Carpenter and I agree: THEY LIVE! is my favorite too.

Posted By AL PEREZ : March 27, 2011 6:28 pm

I’m a big fan of John Carpenter and I agree: THEY LIVE! is my favorite too.

Posted By dukeroberts : March 30, 2011 2:04 pm

I agree that Carpenter’s The Thing didn’t need to be made.

Posted By dukeroberts : March 30, 2011 2:04 pm

I agree that Carpenter’s The Thing didn’t need to be made.

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