He was in town to lend his stature and expertise to OffScreen 2010, the Brussels film festival for all lovers of little-seen, bizarre, offbeat and intoxicating cinema. Alex Cox, British film connoisseur and director of gems such as Repo Man (1984), Sid & Nancy (1986) and Walker (1987) was on hand to present several classic Spaghetti Westerns (his favourite genre), hold a Cinema Master Class on 17 March and, of course, speak to Picturenose’s Colin Moors (CM) and James Drew (JD). Much fun was had by all, and it was also a good chance to talk with Cox about his involvement in recent years with ‘MicroFeatures’, which are films made on a budget of less than £100,000. Oh, and Magic Tree Air Fresheners and ‘melon farmers’ featured in the discussion too, natch… 🙂
JD: Alex, thanks so much for speaking with Picturenose. I suppose the first question should be whether your Cinema Master Class with students from Brussels’s RITS School for Audiovisual and Performing Arts went as well as you hoped?
“Yes, it’s amazing, the RITS is a very big film school, they have 650 students there, and the audience seemed more than willing to put up with me speaking for half an hour before asking some really intelligent, perceptive questions.”
JD: So, do you see appearing at such events as being a way of ‘giving something back’, as it were, to people who are obviously passionate about film early on in their lives?
“Er, no, I have absolutely no interest in “giving anything back” [laughs] – if these people are foolish enough to want to become filmmakers, on their own heads be it, you know? Seriously though, it’s great, because you’ve got people there who want to make genre movies, zombie movies, who want to work in commercial cinema, and you’ve got those who want to do pure art, you know? So that’s interesting, because you’ve got a chance to talk about those two worlds, the world of art and the world of commerce, how those worlds merge, and how you get into a business which is now so nepotistic, how you find your way in there.”
CM: Well, as you bring it up, Alex, are you thinking about making a zombie movie yourself? I only ask as it’s one of my favourite genres, and if you made one I’m sure it would be a pretty good effort.
“Funnily enough, I was talking about that just last night, but I was also looking at the fabulous Jess Franco poster on the wall at RITS, and I was thinking that I really want to make a Lesbian Vampire Spaghetti Western [laughs]…not so much obssessed perhaps with enormous breasts though.”
JD: And Spaghetti Westerns, it’s fair to say, would appear to be the genre that you love the most – with the current trend of revisionism in cinema, and directors such as Tarantino going back to the war-movie genre with Inglourious Basterds (2009), do you think the time might be right for another hyper-modern take on a Spaghetti Western?
“Well, I don’t actually know if there’s a market for Westerns any more, because I had a little job with the BBC a while ago, more recently than Moviedrome, providing introductions to mainstream American Westerns such as Fort Apache (1948), She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949), Wagon Master (1950) and Run of the Arrow (1957), and the reaction to the programme seemed to indicate that there’s an entire generation of moviegoers who have grown up oblivious to Western conventions – maybe they have become a little superannuated, because they seem to be disappearing. I mean, you can talk about Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), but that’s nearly twenty years old now, and what has been made since?
CM: There was The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones – I think that’s pretty much the definition of a modern-day Western, don’t you?
“You’re probably right, and I suppose the death of the Western has been predicted for a long time, and yet it keeps coming back here and there, so who knows? As always, it depends on the financing and it depends on the market.”
CM: Talking of financing, is your MicroFeatures project, in which films have to be made for less than £100,000, a political statement as well as a cheaper way of making films?
“I suppose it’s both, really – Film London announced this MicroFeatures project, in which they were going to make ten of these films a year, which was perfectly feasible, and then it was postponed for a year, and then they were only going to make one or two, and I think that it just put the wind up the British Film Council, because the British Film Council are all about Hollywood studios, trying to do co-productions with the Americans, giving Lottery money to Murdoch, and so on, and all of a sudden the idea that Film London were going to be producing ten features per year, all by local filmmakers, was deeply frightening to the British Film Council, because it’s an entirely different model, a local model. It didn’t depend on the British Film Council, it didn’t depend on bringing big American actors over, it was a completely different and specifically local approach to filmmaking. I see this as very positive thing, because essentially it’s a job-creation scheme, isn’t it? It’s a way of making many films cheaply, like the Italians did with their own cowboy and horror films, you’re creating an awful lot of work,and the profits don’t get expatriated back to the United States. I thought that MicroFeatures was potentially extremely destabilizing, in a good way [laughs].”
JD: So, you love trouble, right Alex?
“[Laughs] No, it’s not just because I love trouble, I was essentially talking about a good, old-fashioned, Harold Wilson-esque job-creation scheme, and that’s viewed as trouble-making, but what does that tell you about New Labour and the British Film Council?”
CM: Yes, it is rather telling, isn’t? A brief mention of director Shane Meadows, because he made Le Donk and Scor-zay-zee (2009), which was actually very good, and all shot on one camera in five days. So that’s obviously the sort of thing you are moving towards?
“Yes, well, the thing is they have to be done in bulk, I mean you have to do a whole bunch of them, so for that model to work, you have to make like ten five-day films, ten ‘MicroFeatures’, and then there is a sort of a work continuity, from one film to another. So, maybe they only make a hundred quid, but they make a hundred quid over and over again, and then it becomes a sustainable model, and you actually start to grow an industry.”
CM: And will you perhaps boost your own acting career as well with these MicroFeatures?
“The thing is, I don’t know if I can go on making them, because I tend to lose money at it, because making the film may only take ten to fifteen days, but then you still have to finish the film, and that takes months, and it isn’t possible to be constantly haemorrhaging money. You need to have a distribution network rather like Roger Corman had when he was making films in the fifties and sixties. That’s what we need, an alternative distribution channel, which exists outside of the American studio-dominated system.”
JD: You moved away from mainstream, you made your mark seemingly as the very antithesis of a ‘mainstream director’, and some of your political stances have disenfranchised you from the world of mainstream cinema. Do you have any regrets about that?
“[Laughs] Well, I certainly regret not having more money, I think that’s the only downside! No, not really – you don’t really think anything through when you are young, you’re just kind of jumping on stuff…things in the sixties and seventies weren’t that bad, and we kind of thought that things would naturally get better, but we’ve all had to come to terms with the fact that, in fact, there’s very little that really changes.”
CM: Repo Man, absolutely one of my all-time favourite films – was it really about nuclear war and was that all it was about?
“Yes, well, that was what was interesting for me, I mean that aspect of it – the neutron bomb in the boot, and then it kind of became an alien, a time machine, and so on. At one point it was supposed to be a nuclear bomb, and then when they opened the boot it would destroy Los Angeles, but then it changed.”
JD: It’s very Kiss Me Deadly (1955), isn’t it?
“Yes, that’s exactly right, a homage to Kiss Me Deadly, the thing in the box.”
CM: As I say, I’ve loved the film for years, I saw it at the right time, and it was full of Punk music, a great, driven soundtrack and a lot of humour, but the only thing that’s ever really perplexed me is why the omnipresent Magic Tree Air Fresheners?
“Oh, because I had worked for a repo man driver, and he told me that every one of the cars that he had to steal, take back to his office, you’d find one of these ‘Christmas Trees’ in it, and it was true, you had guys, just like Miller in the film, who actually collected these things, you know? So it was fascinating that this was just a piece of repo ‘lore’ which we put in the film, but it was also true.”
CM: And was it you that coined the expression ‘melon farmer’ (which has even been adopted as the title for an anti-film censorship website) as a substitute for ‘motherfucker’ for the TV edit of your film?
“Yes, the first use of the expression ‘melon farmer’ was for the cleaned-up TV version of Repo Man, I think it was actually Del Zamora (‘Lagarto’) who came up with ‘melon farmer’, because he had been paid to revoice the dialogue, but I wasn’t on set that day – for me, I think that on the DVD of Repo Man, they should have two audio tracks, the original dialogue and the cleaned-up version, and let viewers decide. In fact, after I did Repo Man and Sid & Nancy I was actually a bit sick of ‘fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck’, so in Straight to Hell (1987), my next film, nobody swore once, but when the film played in the United States, it got an ‘R’ certificate, on the basis of bad language, and the only thing I can think is that it’s the way Shane McGowan talks, and the censors just assumed he was swearing [laughs].”
CM: Thank you so much, Alex – you have made our day.
For more information about Alex Cox’s life and work, check out his website here.