The Director's Chair Interviews
"God Helps The Bad When They
Outnumber The Good"
Alex Cox on his films
WHERE DO YOU GET THE MONEY FOR YOUR FILMS?
This is the second-most-asked question I encounter. (The most-asked question is, "What's Joe Strummer doing nowadays?") As a young lad, scrabbling in the red sandhills of my home planet, Mars, I found a huge trove of Mexican tesobonos and American dollars in a cave. Apparently they had been stashed there by corrupt American and Russian astrounauts, some time in the late 21st century.
Travelling back in time to the mid-twentieth century, I allied myself with a friendly Earth family, and began my simultaneous careers of Terran film maker and Martian real estate developer, cashing in the tesobonos as they matured.
NO, BUT SERIOUSLY, WHERE DO YOU GET THAT MONEY?
SLEEP IS FOR SISSIES was paid for by me and by the Jack Nicholson prize money (about $2,000). The total cost of the film was about $8,000 - this is the real cost, including the mix, prints, everything. I didn't have credit and so nothing could be deferred. Luckily UCLA had an extensive array of cameras and lighting equipment, which you could rent for the cost of the insurance; and there was a good inexpensive 16mm lab nearby. It was shot over a couple of years, by students at UCLA including a very gifted cameraman called Michael Miner. He was the person who pointed out to me that if people were working for free, you had to feed them.
(I don't think it could be made so cheaply today; primarily because the cost of public education has skyrocketed. In 1977 my tuition fees at UCLA, as a foreign student were about a thousand bucks a year: for a California resident they were a few hundred.)
REPO MAN and WALKER were funded by a studio, Universal. They cost $1.5m and $5.8m, respectively. According to the studio accountants, neither film has shown a profit.
SID & NANCY was co-financed by Zenith Productions, in London, and Embassy Home Entertainment, in Los Angeles. Zenith was a film production company owned by Central Television. Embassy was a video company; it has ceased to exist. The cost was $4m.
STRAIGHT TO HELL was made for Island Pictures, a division of the record company, for $1m.
EL PATRULLERO (HIGHWAY PATROLMAN) was paid for by Marubeni, a Japanese trading company. Its investment was $1.5m.
DEATH & THE COMPASS was originally made as a 55-minute drama for the BBC in London. It was expanded by the Japanese production company PSC, who paid for the shooting of an additional 35 minutes. It was completed in partnership with Churubusco Studios in Mexico City (where both sections of the film were shot). The total cost of the film was $3.5m.
THREE BUSINESSMEN, my most recent foray, was shot this year in Liverpool, Rotterdam, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and the Desert. It was financed by Exterminating Angel Films, VPRO television in Holland, and Film Funds Rotterdam. It's still in post production, and there are a couple of special effects shot to be done, so...final cost, no man can say.
WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS FOR YOUR FILMS?
Don't you want to ask me about Joe Strummer?
NO, I'LL ASK THAT LATER. WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS?
From all over the place. Things I read years ago - ALICE IN WONDERLAND and THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS and THE HUNTING OF THE SNARK and THE WAR OF THE WORLDS and THE TIME MACHINE and M.R. James ghost stories and THE REVENGER'S TRAGEDY and THE DUCHESS OF MALFI and comic books and copies of MAD and pulp novels and 30s, 40s, 50s science fiction. Things I read on a daily basis - I became interested in the Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen story through articles in the Village Voice and in newspapers. "Police Kill Writer On Way To Rob Bank" was an actual headline which created a goodly portion of the SLEEP IS FOR SISSIES plot. Sometimes it's a place: I really wanted to make films in Almeria, Spain, and in Nicaragua, and in the Palacio de Correos in Mexico City; the stories came later.
A lot of my stuff seems to be about dangerous jobs, and much of it is based on biographical material - I wrote REPO MAN after riding around with a car repossessor, Mark Lewis [interview also included]; for EL PATRULLERO Lorenzo and I interviewed a Mexican highway cop who told us the most fascinating stories but asked us not to mention him by name...
In dealing with the actual Federal Highway Patrol in Mexico (asking permission to use their cars and helicopers, permission which we needless to say didn't get!), Lorenzo had to submit to interrogation by a Police Psychiatrist: this conversation provided another scene for the script.
Clearly, I'm inspired in many specific instances by other films - my head is still thick with movies, from the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70's, and it keeps spilling out.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE FILMS?
The list changes daily. But let's say for now: KING KONG, 2001, CITIZEN KANE, DEAD OF NIGHT, THE WAGES OF FEAR (LE SALAIRE DE LA PEUR), FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, EL, THRONE OF BLOOD (KUMINOSO JOE), THE MATTEI AFFAIR, PERFORMANCE, DR STRANGELOVE, THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, Jean Pierre Melville's SECOND BREATH (LE DEUXIEME SOUFFLE), TOBY DAMMITT, RAN, THE HARDER THEY COME, PANDORA'S BOX, LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, QUIEN SABE? LA GRAND ILLUSION, O LUCKY MAN!, AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD, THE WILD BUNCH, KWAIDAN, TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, WHITE HEAT, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALLANCE, ROJO AMANECER, Ken Russell's VALENTINO, Joseph Losey's MR KLEIN, REPULSION, MIDNIGHT COWBOY, THE TIN DRUM, KISS ME DEADLY, TIME OF THE GYPSIES, COME & SEE (IDI Y SMOTRI).
WHAT'S IDI Y SMOTRI?
A Russian film directed by Elem Klimov in 1985. It's about Russian partisans fighting the Nazis in the Second World War. Anyone who thinks the Russians are the enemy should see this film. Twenty million Soviet citizens died in the fight against the Nazis during WWII; this gives the viewer a horrific (and brilliantly filmed) idea of why not everyone was happy when the Berlin Wall came down.
WHAT'S TOBY DAMMITT?
It's a 30 minute film by Fellini, based on an Edgar Allen Poe short story called "Don't Bet Your Head Against the Devil". It stars Terrence Stamp as a degenerate movie actor who comes to Italy to act in a Spaghetti Western financed by the Vatican. He's got no idea what's going on: all he knows is that they're going to give him a Ferrari. Everything is strangely coloured, everything - even the road, even the airport - looks like a horror movie set. It was part of a compilation film called HISTOIRES FANTASTIQUES.
WHAT'S THE MATTEI AFFAIR?
A bio-pic of the post-war head of the Italian petroleum industry, Enrico Mattei. Sounds really boring, right? In fact it's fascinating - a great docu-drama directed by Francesco Rosi (SALVATORE GIULIANO, CADAVERI ECCELENTI), starring the greatest Italian actor, Gian Maria Volonte (LUCKY LUCIANO, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE). The structure of the film is both complex and clear, and the portrait of Mattei as a heroic maniac is superb.
WHAT'S ROJO AMANECER?
Jorge Fons' film about the Government's massacre of students at Tlatelolco (the Plaza of the Three Cultures) in Mexico City in 1968. It was made in the mid 80's in a warehouse in Mexico City: made clandestinely, without the support of any studio. When it was finished, it was banned for a couple of years by order of the Presidential Guard: but its reputation was such that the system of State Censorship collapsed, and ROJO AMANECER became, domestically, the most successful Mexican film of all time. It features Hector Bonilla, Mario Rojo, Demian and Bruno Bichir, and Jorge Fegan. The whole movie takes place inside one family's apartment, overlooking Tlatelolco: the massacre itself is never seen.
Four Japanese ghost stories, with some of the greatest production design I've ever seen. Gigantic sets with painted skies: extraordinary use of sound, including the total absence thereof. It was shot in an old aircraft factory over a period of more than a year, and was - in 1964 - the most expensive Japanese ever made. The director was Masaki Kobasashi, who died in October 1996.
WHAT'S QUIEN SABE?
QUIEN SABE was released as A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL during Spaghetti Western days. It stars Gian Maria Volonte (who played Enrico Mattei) as a Mexican revolutionary bandit, the American expatriate actor Lou Castel as his nemesis, and Klaus Kinski as his brother, the priest. It's a mad, fast, energetic film with a great script. It was filmed entirely in Spain and Italy but the art direction transcends everything - it's the best film I've seen set in that period, even better than the impressive 30s Mexican movie VAMONOS CON PANCHO VILLA!
WHY HAVEN'T WE SEEN ANY OF THESE FILMS?
Because they are all in languages other than English (Russian, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese). Once films of this ilk would play on BBC2 in Britain and on cable in the United States. I saw YOJIMBO projected on the wall of the Bluecoat Chambers in Liverpool! Today, even you live in a large city with a specifically-designated "art" cinema, you are unlikely to encounter many of these films. TOBY DAMMITT may be available in a dubbed version, title unknown.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE DIRECTORS?
Bunuel and Kurosawa. Plus Kubrick, Lindsay Anderson, Sam Peckinpah, Robert Aldrich, Billy Wilder, John Huston, and Sergio Leone.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE ACTORS?
Pedro Armendariz Sr., Patricia Reyes Spindola, Sy Richardson, Zaide Silvia Guttierez, Toshiro Mifune, Warren Oates, Takashi Shimura, Jack Palance, Jeanne Moreau, Klaus Kinski, Bruno Ganz, Amanda Donahoe, Ed Harris, Roberto Sosa, Masatoshi Nagase, Isabel Ampudia, Bruno Bichir, Blanca Guerra, Tomoro Taguchi, Pedro Armendariz Jr., Bob Wisdom, and Miguel Sandoval.
WHAT DID YOU HAVE TO DO WITH FLASHDANCE?
Nothing! I swear! After I left UCLA I was hired to write a script for the British director, Adrian Lyne. He had directed one feature, FOXES, and he wanted his next to be about what he felt was the most important issue of the day: the imminent possibility of a nuclear war. I scouted Seattle and Vancouver as locations, and wrote him a script called THE HAPPY HOUR.
Adrian read it and went off to direct FLASHDANCE. As a result, I am sometimes referred to as the author of that winsome tale. But I am not.
HOW DID REPO MAN OCCUR?
Shortly after the HAPPY HOUR incident, I met two old chums from UCLA - Jonathan Wacks and Peter McCarthy. They had been in the Production programme; Jon had directed a documentary, Pete a drama. Now they had a company, and even more impressive, an office in Venice, CA, where they were making commercials ("Gene Kelly assures the public the MGM Grand is safe again!") and public service announcements. I suggested to them that they should also be feature film producers, and hire me as a director. They agreed to consider this, but instructed me to come up with a script.
The first one I wrote for them was called THE HOT CLUB (a comedy about nuclear blast veterans and nerve gas thieves set in the early years of the 21st century). They budgeted and Marie Canton (also ex-UCLA) budgeted it; it turned out to be rather expensive. So I went off and wrote another screenplay instead: REPO MAN.
To make the package more interesting I drew four pages of a comic book based on the script and we included them with the screenplay. I had planned at one stage to do an entire comic book, but it is too much work: a page a day at the very most, and hard on the eyes.
DIDN'T YOU DO ANOTHER COMIC, TOO?
Much later I was the author of four GODZILLA comic books for Dark Horse Comics: GODZILLAS # 9, 10, 11 and 12. They tell the story of a time-travelling mad scientist, Elmer Mason, and his henchman, Nick Dixon, who kidnap the fiery saurian and use him to provoke disasters such as the destruction of Pompeii and the Spanish Armada, the San Francisco earthquake, and the wreck of the Titanic. Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe are subsidiary characters. In #12, they sell Godzilla to two game show hosts in a City of the Future.
WHAT WAS THE RESPONSE TO REPO MAN?
REPO MAN was made as a "negative pickup" by Universal at the time when Bob Rehme was head of the studio. At the time, the big deal over there was STREETS OF FIRE, and nobody really noticed our film at all. Unfortunately, just before we were completely done, Rehme was ousted from his post, and a new boss came in. It is, we quickly discovered, the primary task of a new regime to make an old regime look bad, and so as much of Rehme's product as possible was quickly junked. That which was already made, or almost complete - REPO MAN and RUMBLEFISH, for instance - was swiftly consigned to the Chute of No Return.
We took out an ad in Variety, reprinting a good review we got there (we also got a very bad one - in the weekly edition - but we didn't reprint that) as a challenge to Universal to get the picture out into the theatres.
The studio's response was to lean on the head of public relations at
Pan American World AIrlines, Dick Barkle, to condemn the film. Mr Barkle
declared himself shocked by REPO MAN, adding, "I hope they don't show this
film in Russia."
In the end, the record probably did more than any other element to promote the film; it was popular with punks and that got the word around. And the theatrical life of the film was prolonged by Kelly Neal at Universal, who went out of his way to support both REPO MAN and RUMBLEFISH.
DID YOU HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE TV VERSION?
Yes. Because the film REPO MAN had so much swearing and a scene of speed-snorting, the studio made their own re-edited video version. It was very odd. In an effort to "explain" the film, someone had gone and shot an insert of the license plate of the Chevy Malibu, and made the Hopi symbol dissolve into the HEAD OF THE DEVIL!
No, this is really true. It made me wonder, could it be that the Christian Fundamentalists are right, and that the multinationals and Hollywood are controlled by Satanists? But I don't really think so. These executives were just confused by the film, and trying to explain what it was about. "Whut the heck is in that trunk?" "Gee I don't know." "Maybe it's the... Devil hisself!" They were just trying to improve it in their own way, and make it clearer.
WEREN'T YOU HORRIFIED THAT THEY WERE BUTCHERING YOUR FILM?
I was a bit alarmed, yes. They'd intercut static shots of this license plate with shots of the car moving, and it looked completely cheesy, worse than an Ed Wood film. But the thing was, they weren't really bad guys: they knew what they'd done was a mistake, and now they were looking for the filmmaker to fix it.They knew they had done wrong.
In the end I removed their strange insertions, and included two funny scenes which hadn'd made it into the theatrical version: the one with Jac MacInally shaving (where Harry Dean says his name is "I.G.Farben") and the the one where Harry Dean smashes the phone booth with his baseball bat.
BUT WHAT ABOUT CUTTING OUT ALL THE SWEARING?
And who cares. By then I'd made SID & NANCY and I was sick of swearing. It was fun coming up with synonyms for the swear words - "Melon Farmers" was a particular favourite.
Sometimes, for television and aeroplane screening, or for a film to play in prisons or at children's tea-parties, changes need to be made. It is always better for the filmmaker to be invited to participate than to be excluded. Excluding the filmmaker results in what in Liverpool is called a dog's breakfast.
WILL THERE BE A REPO MAN SEQUEL?
I would be delighted. But the sequel rights are owned by the studio, and there's still this weird attitude to the movie there.
There is, however, a script called WALDO'S HAWAIIAN HOLIDAY which I hope to make one day with Peter McCarthy and Jonathan Wacks as the producers (you can download colour special effects storyboard pages, painted by me).
WHAT IS WALDO'S HAWAIIAN HOLIDAY ABOUT?
It is the story of a young man, recently returned from Mars, who is forced to choose where his alliegance lies -- his boss Duke Mantee or the sex goddess Velma; money or knowledge; the past or the future; paper or plastic; cash or charge; Earth - or Mars?
DID YOU DO A LOT OF JUNK PREPARING FOR SID & NANCY? No. Do you imagine that the Indians in John Ford's cowboy films were really shot off their horses? Did Orson Welles buy a newspaper business while preparing for CITIZEN KANE?
A noted film director even asked me this question: "How much smack did those actors do?" I told him the famous story about Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier when they were making MARATHON MAN :
Dustin, in the process of "getting into character" tells Larry that he is going to the dentist to have a tooth filled without anaesthetic, so that he will know what it feels like to be tortured with a dentist's drill.
"Dustin," asks Sir Larry gently, "Have you ever tried... acting?"
IS THE FILM PRO-DRUG OR ANTI-DRUG?
Is it pro-love or anti-love? I hope it does not depict being a junky in too positive a light; Gary and Chloe are great actors and there is a lot of truth to what they do. I am afraid we may have sentimentalized their characters' end. The true lives of junkies are sadder, even worse.
On the other hand there is this junky chic now; photos of truly wretched-looking
individuals are plastered the sides of buses in an effort to sell us jeans.
Pot smoking, on the other hand, encourages pacifism, appreciation of the arts, eating and sex. Particularly sex. And this, I think, is why it is so diligently banned.
WAS IT DIFFICULT TO GET GARY OLDMAN FOR THE FILM?
Not at all. He hadn't done any movies at that time and he was desperate to be in one. In fact we were doubly fortunate, because my alternative choice for Sid Vicious was another then-unknown London stage actor, Daniel Day Lewis.
DANIEL DAY LEWIS WANTED TO PLAY SID?
Yes. And I think he would have been very good, too. He has a lot of soul and would probably have handled the romantic aspect better. But Gary was a Bermonsey boy - from the same part of London, the same world as Sid - and he really understood the ambitious aspct, the desperate need to get out of South London at all costs...
We were very lucky that our executive producer was Margaret Matheson. She and Zenith gave us carte blanche in casting. We were able to go ahead and cast "unknown" actors - Gary and Chloe Webb - in the two lead roles. And everyone auditioned - Gary, Chloe, Daniel, David Hayman, Xander Berkeley - just as the actors had on REPO MAN. The only person who said no to a part was Tim Roth. I asked him to play Johnny Rotten, but he felt it was too close to recent history.
DID YOU SEE THE LATEST SEX PISTOLS TOUR?
No. I planned to. I was in Mexico City, finishing DEATH & THE COMPASS, and the Pistols were due to play a gig there. It would have been a strange sight, the Pistols playing in a big stadium for a crowd of yuppies and Mexico's three punks, 20 years later... But they cancelled.
DID YOU HEAR WHAT JOHNNY ROTTEN SAID ABOUT YOU AND SID & NANCY IN HIS BOOK?
As soon as this was bruited, I ran to the book shop and devoured the pages in question. Mr Rotten is right. In fact he has been too generous in his assessment of me. He should have devoted more pages, perhaps several chapters, to my villany and the many ways in which I have wronged him. I am grief-stricken now that I know the suffering that I have visited upon him, and the Rotten clan. Having become fantastically rich off the profits of my sordid film, I can only fall upon my metaphoric knees and humbly hope that, in the fullness of time, Johnny Rotten will find it in his heart to forgive me for my heinous crimes and take his full share of the filthy blood-lucre which I have been stashing for him in an abandoned mineshaft, back on Mars.
HOW DID STRAIGHT TO HELL HAPPEN?
While we were editing SID & NANCY I organised a concert at the Fridge in Brixton, in support of the FSLN (Sandanista National Liberation Front) in Nicaragua. The Pogues, and Elvis Costello, and Joe Strummer all played to a full house and we made a couple of thousand quid for the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign.
Eric Fellner, the producer of SID & NANCY, came up with a grander scheme: since the public clearly loved the musicians and was sympathetic to the Nicaraguan cause, why not organize a rock'n'roll tour of Nicaragua, involving the same guys? Eric figured that a video deal would pay for it, and we persuaded the said musicians to sign up for a month-long accoustic Nicaragua Solidarity Tour in August 1996. The bands agreed; but we couldn't find a video company that would fund the tour.
Which put us in an embarrassing position, having persuaded at least a dozen musicians not to tour or record for the entire month of August. Eric's solution? Make a film instead: as he predicted, it was easier to raise $1m for a low-budget feature starring various musicians than to find $75,000 to film them playing in a revolutionary nation in the middle of a war.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF STRAIGHT TO HELL?
I think it's very funny. I like that it has no swearing at all (the worst thing anybody says is "Go boil yer 'ead!"). I'm impressed by some of the performances - particularly Sy Richardson, Fox Harris, Biff Yeager, Miguel Sandoval, Jennifer Balgobin, and Courtney Love. The characters were written for the actors, and I thought Courtney's part was great: like Nancy Spungen if Nancy had been a tougher and more together individual. She'd played a small part in SID & NANCY: this was the second time we worked together, and her first leading role. And it was Sy Richardson's first lead role in a feature: he is a great, great actor - I'm honoured to have worked with him so many times.
A LOT OF CRITICS DIDN'T LIKE STRAIGHT TO HELL.
A lot of critics didn't like Jacobean tragedy, or Spaghetti Westerns, either, until many years passed and they became respectable. There are also people who don't like the desert - they think it looks like a dust-filled slag-heap. That is their point of view. For me the greatest pleasure of STRAIGHT TO HELL was filming in that fantastic, surreal Andalucia landscape -- the desert of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY, and FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE - films with extraordinary locations: the weird, ancient clay and sandstone and volcanic badlands, the huge triangular mountain of El Faro on the horizon.
There is a certain beauty to being on location, to working in Spain, in Mexico, staying in white-walled towns, walking the streets at night, rising at dawn and working out in the desert till the last light of the sun is gone, which cannot be simply explained.
WALKER WASN'T POPULAR, EITHER, WAS IT?
WALKER was extremely popular in certain places. It was the second-biggest film ever in Nicaragua, after THE SOUND OF MUSIC.
BUT IT WASN'T VERY SUCCESSFUL IN THE UNITED STATES.
Why does everything have to be popular in the United States? Is that your sole definition of quality? What if something is popular in Peru? Or in Uzbekistan? WALKER was made in 1987, in the middle of the US-sponsored terrorist war against the FSLN and the Nicaraguan people. We made it with the intention of spending as many American dollars as possible in Nicaragua, in protest against the American government's outrageous aggression against a sovereign nation. It was unlikely such a film was likely to be well received by the official media of a superpower engaged in a genocidal war.
SO WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO MAKE IT?
I'd gone to Nicaragua with Peter McCarthy in 1984 as an election observer. It was the first legitimate, democratic election Nicaragua had had since the USA installed the Somoza dictatorship (more so than the election in 1996, when many of the electorate didn't receive voting credentials). The Sandinistas won. Whatever their flaws, they did a tremendous amount of good for the very poorest people of the country: the FSLN provided levels of education and health care Nicaragua had never seen before. This was all documented by OXFAM in their book "Nicaragua - the Threat of a Good Example?"
And so, of course, they had to be destroyed.
One day Peter and I were sitting in the Hotel Europa, a little hotel in the northern city of Leon. We were having some beers with a couple of Sandinista soldiers who had been invalided out of the Army - wounded in combat with the Contras; one had shrapnel in his stomach, the other, had lost an eye. They asked us what we did and we said, "Oh, we're filmmakers..." That's great, they said, you should come and make a film here. "Oh," I began, preparing the usual line of bullfeathers you give to people who want you to make a movie about such-and-such, "Making a movie is very expensive... We are not rich..." That's not true, one of them said. You guys come from America, the land of money. You can get money and come back here and make a film... And thus it was.
JOE STRUMMER DID THE SOUNDTRACK ALBUM.
Yes. SID & NANCY and STRAIGHT TO HELL had had multiple composers - Joe, Pray For Rain and the Pogues. Joe was sick of sharing the credit and wanted to compose an entire score himself. Going in we listened to and talked about Bob Dylan's score for PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (the one that contains KNOCKING ON HEAVEN'S DOOR, which Dylan wrote with Rudy Wurltizer). It is a masterpiece, and Joe wanted to do something as good as that. I think he did, too. The only person he took with him from the previous films was Zander Schloss, who had played with Pray For Rain on SID & NANCY, and had sung the lovely Weiner Song in STRAIGHT TO HELL.
THE GUY WHO'S ALWAYS GETTING BEATEN UP AND TURNS THE ROTTEN CARCASS ON THE SPIT?
Exactly, the Weiner Kid. Zander was the leader of the Juicy Bananas, back in REPO MAN days. He plays an idealistic German fillibuster in WALKER and Kevin, the much-abused friend in REPO MAN. He was with the Circle Jerks for many long years; and the Latino Rocakbilly War; and Thelonius Monster; and the Magnificent Bastards; now he is the eminence grise of the Low And Sweet Orchestra in Los Angeles. He also plays the role of DADDY Z IN THREE BUSINESSMEN.
WHO'S DADDY Z?
NO MAN CAN SAY. HE ONLY APPEARS ON POSTERS - BUT THEY'RE IN EVERY COUNTRY WHERE THE FILM TAKES PLACE, EVEN IN THE DESERT...
ISN'T ZANDERS SHLOSS THE ALIAS USED BY PRAY FOR RAIN'S DAM WOOL FOR HIS SOLO WORK?
No. I too have heard this rumor, but it is not true. They are different. Definitely different.
AND, SO... WHAT'S JOE STRUMMER DOING NOWADAYS?
Earlier this year I saw that man of mistery. For the first time in about eleven years. He's hanging out at his country pad in England. He and his wife have three daughters between them. they raise them, and they take a holiday in Andalucia once a year. He looked and sounded exactly the same.
WHAT DID YOU DO AFTER WALKER?
I spent a year in Tucson, Arizona, preparing a film called BODY PARTS, written by Rudy Wurlitzer, about the alleged trade in infant body parts for transplant purposes. Rudy's script was great, and we wanted Rip Torn and Rosie Perez to play the leads. But, as often happens, the money didn't appear at the appointed hour.
I also tried to make a film called THE BATTLE OF TORREMOLINOS. This had been written by Martin Turner for Lindsay Anderson. It was the story of the English and the Germans re-fighting World War Two on the beaches of Spain. A tremendously funny script: but we were stymied because the British film industry was at the time entirely devoted to The Comic Strip (as the American industry was beholden to Saturday Night Live) and you couldn't get a film on in London without the participation of at least three so-called comics from that dire TV show, or an even worse one called The Young Ones. The Spanish thought the script was very funny, but the Germans didn't seem to think it was funny at all. Two years later, the papers were full of the same phenomenon, which they called "Lager Lout-itis". But by then it was too late...
And I was asked to direct the sequal to ROBO COP; also a film about a young limey who was hanged for murder, LET HIM HAVE IT! The latter was a pretty good script, and I agreed to do it on condition that it be made in black and white (it was somewhat antique, and needed to look like a Tony Richardson movie such as THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER). Sadly it turned out that the producers had already sold it as a colour film, and I had to withdraw: by that time we'd already cast Christopher Eccleston and Paul Reynolds in the principal roles. ROBO COP 2 wasn't something I would have been good at: too much heroic stuff and things exploding.
YOU WOULDN'T WANT TO DO AN ACTION FILM?
Not one of those American police movies, no - because they hinge on
the alleged "dichotomy of good and evil." The cop, whether he's Bruce Willis
or Mel Gibson or a robot, is always cracking heads and behaving bestially
- but it's okay because he's pitted against "a greater evil." And I don't
find that a particulourly interesting set-up for a drama. Plus, you have
to shoot all those explosions.
(That was the really bad thing about the movie version of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. H.G. Wells, though he can be seriously faulted in certain areas, was a fine writer, very respectably anti-religious. The special effects were ok, but the Hollywood script writers ended the movie with the hero praying in a church! Outrageous! Everyone knows the Martians which invaded Earth in the late 19th century were destroyed by bacteria - interplanetary inter-species rivalry!)
WHAT ABOUT MOVIEDROME?
MOVIEDROME was a series of old movies - described as "cult" movies although it was really a broader selection - which played on BBC 2 on Sunday nights for seven years. The films were selected by Nick Jones, who is very astute about the cinema. Sometimes I worried that people thought I was choosing the films (DIVA! yak! TERMINATOR! yuk!) But there were some great films too (SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, ALPHAVILLE, QUIEN SABE?, DEAD OF NIGHT) and there was the possibility that people would think I had directed them...
WHY DID YOU MAKE A FILM IN MEXICO?
Because the story of EL PATRULLERO was set there. Because Lorenzo and I knew this Mexican guy and wanted to tell his story. Interestingly, the story our Highway Patrolman told us which stuck in my head most never made it into the film.
He had stopped a car at night on a long highway called the Recta de Matehuala. A gringo was at the wheel. The guy had the stereo cranked way up, and it was playing "Sympathy for the Devil." Our young cop knew the gringo was stoned and he could probably bust him, but he thought, what the heck? It might turn out to be a hassle, maybe the gringo had lawyers and money, and it was late at night. He turned his back on the guy for just a moment, planning to let him go, and he heard this little click-click sound...
Our friend recognised the lock-and-load of an Uzi. He threw himself to the ground just as the shooting began, scrabbled off into the dirt and dark, into the nopal-filled night, and lay there, in a cactus patch, with a bullet in his leg, pretending to be dead and listening as the Camaro started up and drove away, hearing the Rolling Stones grow fainter and finally disappear. And of course, his car had been destroyed in the firefight and he had to walk back, with a bullet in his leg, to the destacamento.
I loved that story when I first heard it, because it seemed to be about how no good deed goes unpunished, and the impossibility of ever behaving properly or achieving anything. "God helps the bad when they outnumber the good," the Mexicans say, and they are absolutely right. And yet it is essential that we do the right thing, as we can, that we not behave as badly as the monsters that confront us, that we have our own code, and do our best to live by it...
Mexico is a great teacher of this lesson. Because, no matter how the Mexicans are abused by their powerful neighbour to the north, no matter how much their politicians are bribed and their cops corrupted, they always retain a high degree of dignity and repose, a sense of politeness and personal honour and correctness which can never, ever, be defeated. The poorest man in Zacatecas or Durango or Cuahuila will address a stranger with such courtesty, such absolute formal respect, and will hope to be dealt with courteously in return. "Bienvenidos, senora, caballero. You have take possession of your house." "Now I must take my leave of you." "Here you always have your home." "Hopefully we will see each other again before too long." "Indeed so - if God wills it."
Alfonso Arau, the director of LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, told me he didn't
like EL PATRULLERO because the world it depicted was ugly. Well, perhaps
it is. In that case, I am doubly lucky. Because the Mexicans have let me
paint a sometimes dark picture of the world in which they live - and that
is a testament to their tolerance and sophistication.
WHAT ABOUT RICHARD III? WEREN'T YOU SUPPOSED TO DIRECT THAT?
At one point. But things change. I thought the director who was eventually hired, Richard Longcrane, did an excellent job. He made some very good changes to the script, and showed real visual imagination.
WHAT ABOUT THE WINNER?
I liked the cast a lot, and the screenwriter, and we had a great crew. The film I made hovered on the borderline of funny and hokey: it had a great ironic score by Pray For Rain, where the more sentimental moments were undercut by screeching violins and kazoos. the script was by Wndy Rissm based on her stage play A DAKER PURPOSE, and it had the potential to be really dark and really funny at the same time. But after I delivered the picture it was extensively re-edited. The funniest stuff with Delroy Lindo, Billy Bob Thornton, Michael Madsen and Frank Whaley was cut out. And the ironic score - sometimes synthetic, sometimes sad, sometimes romantic and lyrical, was completely stripped out and replaced with fake jazz, of the kind they buy by the yard for pornos. It was very regrettable, and stupid.
All this went on behind my back, while I was in Mexico completing another film. So it is sadly not my movie. It's an Alan Smithee film.
WERE YOU A BORGES FAN BEFORE DEATH & THE COMPASS?
Not really. I must have read a couple of the stories, but I was pretty ignorant. He's a marvellous writer, of course - extremely highly regarded in Latin America and Spain. In the US and Britain I've seen him called a "cult" writer, which is very depressing - as if great literature were a "cult" instead of a zenith to which all writers should aspire. He's certainly been ignored by the film business: there are only two features based on his works - Bertolucci's THE SPIDER'S STRAGEGY and this one.
But maybe that's inevitable. Borges writing is great, but dark, cynical, pessimistic. He documents hopelessness and pessimism, the impossibility of change or escape, the inevitablity of fate and violence... You could not make a Mel Gibson movie out of one of these stories, nor a Merchant Ivory film.
DEATH & THE COMPASS IS THE FIRST TIME YOU'VE WORKED WITH THE SAME CINEMATOGRAPHER, MIGUEL GARZON.
True, but I don't know why that is. I've been very fortunate with all the DP's I've worked with - Robby Muller, Roger Deakins, Tom Richmond, Dave Bridges, Miguel. And I've done second unit and pickups and other stuff with very good camerapersons - Bob Richardson, Dennis Muloney, Nancy Schreiber, Declan Quinn. I'd be happy to work with any of them. My first choice of all would be Tom Richmond.
ARE THERE ANY THEMES IN YOUR FILMS?
A desperate scramble for money, fame or power; it is ultimately lost, on purpose. The protagonist usually self-destructs (though not in EL PATRULLERO, where he remains trapped in the game). Nobody gets away. Everybody gets what's coming to them. There is no communication between people. Authority always behaves badly; people who get it, immediately abuse it. Women are smarter and more competent than men.
THAT'S PRETTY DEPRESSING.
That depends how you look at it. It can also be funny. And universal - the above is the story of MACBETH, and CORIOLANUS, and many a Jacobean tragedy and Kabuki drama.
YEAH, BUT THAT STUFF IS ALL, LIKE STRANGE PLAYS. THEATRE. IT AIN'T WHAT'S HAPPENING TODAYWISE.
What? So what? Shakespeare and kabuki have been around for a while. Do you seriously imagine people will be watching Mel Gibson videos 400 years from now?
WHAT OHAPPENED to FEAR & LOATHING?
I was hired to direct that project for a budget of five million dollars, at the end of 1996. Tod Davies and I wrote the script (she had taught it when she was a prof at UCLA). It was to have been shot by Tom Richmond, the designer was Dan Bishop, the costume designer was Durinda Wood. We had a great screenplay and crew, the actors were cast... and it went nowhere. In retrospect, I'd guess that the producers always hoped to make a big budget Hollywood movie and once I got them the cast they had their chance. I doubt that they ever really wanted to go the low road, which is unfortunate, since that was what the book clearly needed.
But they did use script, or about 80 percent of it, with the addition of a couple of scenes, some special effects and rock songs.
WHAT DO YOU & TOD THINK OF THE STUDIO FILM?
Haven't seen it.
WHAT'S YOUR NEW MOVIE ABOUT? NOT BUSINESSMEN?
Certainly is. It's the story of Bennie and frank, two independent businessmen, who meet by chance in the restaurant of the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool. Unable to find food therein, they set out in search of dinner.
THAT'S IT? THAT'S WHAT IT'S ABOUT?
IT DOESN'T SOUND VERY EXCITING.
It's extremely exciting. Thrilling is not too strong a word. Your entire value system may be shaken by it. it's also very funny. And it all happens in the course of one night.
HOW CAN IT HAPPEN IN ONE NIGHT AND TAKE PLACE IN FIVE DIFFERENT COUNTRIES? IS IT DIFFERENT CHARACTERS IN EVERY PLACE?
No, it's the same two characters throughout.
AND WHY'S IT CALLED "THREE BUSINESSMEN" IF THERE ARE ONLY TWO?
There are three. But the third businessman is otherwise engaged.
WHEN DOES IT COME OUT?
THREE BUSINESSMEN will be complete in August. When it comes out... remains to be seen. Though it is scheduled to play on VPRO television in Holland in December 1999.
AFTER "THREE BUSINESSMEN", WHAT?
I've been asked to direct a film in Mexico, which I would very much like to do. I'm still working on THE SECRET LIFE OF DON LUIS BUNUEL, which would also be shot there. And there's another project, set in Liverpool...
After that I'd like toa film called TAPAS in Andalucia, direct Steven Berkoff in CORIOLANUS, and Cormac McCarthy's BLOOD MERIDIAN, and make a film about Velasco, the ex-president of Peru, and shoot SLOW FADE, by Rudy Wurlitzer, and, of course, WALDO'S HAWAIIAN HOLIDAY.
HOW MUCH OF THAT MOVIE WILL BE SHOT IN HAWAII?
None at all.
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