Alex Cox is one of the most consistently interesting filmmakers of the past 20 years. Although probably best known for his early cult successes Repo Man (1984) and Sid and Nancy (1986), Cox has maintained a steady output of films that are every bit as unique, personal and idiosyncratically inventive as those early hits. A true maverick whose political passion and passion for the cinema unite in an often anarchistic rejection of Hollywood norms – the ‘corporatisation of storytelling’ – and Hollywood itself. He permanently alienated himself from the studio system with his feverish, surreal and largely suppressed historical allegory Walker (1987), an attack on American foreign policy that is conceptually and politically bolder than Oliver Stone’s wildest dreams. In the years that followed he chose, like his hero Buñuel, to live and work in Mexico. More recently he has returned to his native Liverpool, England where his latest film, The Revengers Tragedy (2002) was set.
Common to many of Cox’s films – Repo Man, Straight to Hell (1986), Walker, The Winner (1995), Death and the Compass (1996) – is a unique, truly anarchic narrative strategy. Rather than unfolding smoothly, these films lurch alarmingly from one inventive highpoint to the next, with moments of frequent confusion, indecision or narrative stasis hovering between them, as if the film were deciding where to go next. Rather than the steadily flowing stream of most movie storytelling, Cox proposes an experience closer to that of crashing waves that recede only to return with renewed exhilaration – after the initial frustration of the messy spaces between peaks, this pattern becomes uniquely engrossing and is certainly appropriate to the surprising nature of many of his ideas. Not all of his films are structured in this way. Some of his most satisfying works display instead an elegant, almost serene smoothness, substituting exhilaration for calm detachment – Sid and Nancy, Highway Patrolman (El Patrullero, 1991), Three Businessmen (1998).
Repo Man tells of the apprenticeship young punk rebel Emilio Estevez serves as a repo man to the wonderful Harry Dean Stanton’s hardened veteran with a deadpan eccentricity that all ends in aliens. Sid and Nancy movingly chronicles the betrayal of the punk movement by Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman), and his descent into self-destructive heroin addiction through his affair with Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb). This early triumph was the film that made Oldman a star and deservedly so.
Straight to Hell is Cox’s most gloriously demented movie to date. Probably the best way to approach it is as a wild party of a film, which the audience is invited to participate in. A slapstick pastiche of the Spaghetti Western that delights in anachronism and cultural incongruity, its largely and undisguisedly British cast is mostly comprised of musicians, headed by the late Clash front man Joe Strummer and filled out with cameos by the likes of The Pogues, Elvis Costello and Dennis Hopper. Although wild, the humour is based on a deep knowledge and appreciation of the genre it celebrates, functioning almost as an essay on the numerous bizarre aspects of the Spaghetti Western and its innate cultural hybridity. Dismissed at the time, Cox feels that it might have done better had it appeared after Tarantino brought post-modernism into the mainstream (and rightly points out that he dreamed up the black suit ensemble look for his bank robbers in it five years before Reservoir Dogs!). But this is debatable – the calculatingly controlled smartness of Tarantino and his followers is very different from and far safer than the genuinely out-of-control Straight to Hell.
Walker is Cox’s most overtly political film. A powerful attack on American imperialism, it is based on 19th century expansionist William Walker’s invasion of Nicaragua (“Before Rambo, before Oliver North…” runs the film’s tagline) but incorporates anachronistic elements such as Coca-Cola bottles, issues of “Newsweek” and, finally, a helicopter airlift of surviving American forces. Described by its director as a colonial fantasy, it follows an increasingly deranged trajectory that culminates in the unforgettable image of Walker casually eating a piece of a wounded man on a makeshift operating table in the middle of a battle. Featuring a central performance by Ed Harris of such stunning intensity that it cannot but bring to mind Klaus Kinski’s megalomaniac colonisers in Herzog’s films, the urgently relevant Walker is far too little seen today.
After the stylistic and thematic madness of Straight to Hell and Walker, the more detached, objective Spanish language Highway Patrolman was a major shift in style for Cox and one of his unqualified masterpieces. It is a lucid, episodically constructed and quietly devastating slice of social realism about the corruption of an initially idealistic highway cop in Mexico. Making discreet but effective use of long, fluid takes, the images Cox creates have a weight and a vivid physicality reminiscent of the best of early and mid ’70s American cinema. This was followed by The Winner (1995), a film that was re-edited and re-scored against Cox’s wishes and released straight to cable. Although Cox has completely disowned it, referring to it as “terrible”, it has a demented, cartoonish aesthetic and a compulsive unpredictability that is far from uninteresting.
Equally anarchic, if more accomplished, Death and the Compass is a suitably baroque Borges adaptation, originally shot for TV but subsequently lengthened for a theatrical release. It has something of the atmosphere of von Trier’s Element of Crime (1984) although its flashily colourful comic book visuals are very different from von Trier’s brooding monochromatic noir-fetishism. Where Death and the Compass really succeeds is in creating the vertiginous impression of numerous narratives unfolding simultaneously, not only fighting for screen space within any given scene but fighting for ownership of events also. Every character seems to be desperately engaged with a personal agenda that doesn’t really concern other characters but shares events with their stories, and Cox creates an appropriately chaotic vision for this veritable narrative Babel.
Three Businessmen is not only Cox’s finest film, it is one of the greatest and most thematically important works of ’90s cinema. Yet, from what I have been able to ascertain, it is not a well-known film, certainly not as well known as it deserves to be. Its plot, a hommage to Buñuel, features two businessmen, the American Benny (Miguel Sandoval, an actor who has appeared in most of Cox’s films) and the English Frank (Cox himself) who find themselves alone together in the restaurant of an oddly quiet hotel in Liverpool. The food they order never arrives and in investigating they find the hotel completely deserted. So they venture forth into the nocturnal urban landscape of Liverpool in search of dinner, forming a friendship with each other. As their search progresses, they get lost. Although they constantly think themselves still in Liverpool, their search magically transports them to Rotterdam, Hong Kong and Tokyo. As day breaks they find themselves near a tiny desert village in Spain, meeting up with the third businessman, also lost, and (in the most Buñuelesque touch) visiting a baby in an unexpected evocation of the story of the three kings. But they fail to grasp the relevance of this, just as they have failed to grasp everything else they have been through – surrounded by miracles, they are so cut off from the world and their own feelings that they don’t even notice. They are men who are “closer to their mobile phones than they are to their emotions” as Cox puts it. This disassociation is played out against the background of an urbanised global village, the cities of which have become so disorientatingly interchangeable as to be almost unreal. If the story is reminiscent of Buñuel, the atmosphere is something quite unique. On the one hand Three Businessmen is very much a dialogue driven film, with the two businessmen engaging in lengthy, sometimes disturbing, often hilarious discussions. But it is also very visual, with the eerily glistening surfaces of the mysteriously shifting cityscapes immaculately captured by cinematographer Robert Tregenza in long takes that allow the settings to acquire an unusually palpable presence. In fact, Three Businessmen is as vivid and poetic an evocation of the modern city as Wong Kar-wai’s late ’90s masterpieces were.
Cox’s latest film is an energetic, inventive updating of Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy starring Christopher Eccleston, Eddie Izzard and Derek Jacobi. It keeps the original Jacobean language of the play but moves to a very contemporary techno beat, replacing the long takes of Three Businessmen with a punchier, busier style.
There is one other aspect of Cox’s career I would like to pay personal tribute to, even if he seems rather dismissive of it – his association with the series Moviedrome, which appeared on British television in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Moviedrome was a programme that showed classic and cult movies, always with an introduction by Cox. I have vivid memories of frequently watching these films in the ’80s while still a child and many of them marking my first tentative explorations of the mysterious, often subtitled, often still only semi-comprehensible cinematic worlds that existed beyond the comforting limits of the Hollywood mainstream – and, in some cases, indelibly powerful first encounters with great Hollywood films like Johnny Guitar (1954). Cox’s passionate and intelligent introductions are inextricably linked to these experiences – he was one of my first film history teachers, and always a very good one. I know that these fond memories of Moviedrome are shared by many British and Irish cinephiles of my generation.
At the Cork Film Festival early in October 2002, I had the opportunity of interviewing Mr. Cox and his wife and collaborator Tod Davies – writer and producer of Three Businessmen, co-producer of Revengers Tragedy. Unfortunately the interview took place prior to the screening of Revengers Tragedy, which meant I still hadn’t seen it. The following day my friend Chris Neill was also granted an interview, and he has kindly allowed me to incorporate extracts from it into mine.
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Maximilian Le Cain: Revengers Tragedy is based on a Jacobean drama by Thomas Middleton.
Alex Cox: We think it’s by Thomas Middleton. Nobody really knows who wrote Revenger’s Tragedy because it was published anonymously. But it’s thought to be his, based on his other plays and based on these things they can do now with computers – you know, count the words. Academics are pretty convinced now that Middleton wrote it. And if you look at some of his other plays, especially Women Beware Women, there are themes in it which he’s still playing around with 20 years later. In a way he becomes even more cynical and jaundiced because he’s in his twenties when he writes this and he’s in his forties when he writes Women Beware Women.
MLC: But you’ve updated it, or more than updated it actually…
AC: Well, it’s sort of set in the future, a dystopian future. The future is always a dystopia in movies. You never have a happy future. And, in a way, us setting it in this sort of slightly futuristic environment, making it a little bit science fiction or a little bit alternate universe, is really what they did at that time anyway when they would set all of their comedies and revenge dramas and stuff in Italy or in Spanish cities or something. By putting it at one remove you’re able to get a bit closer to what’s really going on in your own society. Whereas if you did it about your own society then people would be going ‘whoa, it’s not like that’!
MLC: So you’re attracted to this material because it comments on our society of today in some way?
AC: It’s a fairly revolutionary piece. Shakespeare, who is probably the greatest writer and poet of the English language, lived in a time that was politically very conservative and it’s reflected in his writings. The worst thing that can happen in a Shakespeare play is for somebody to murder the king. And that’s what Macbeth‘s about, that’s what Hamlet‘s about, that’s what Richard III‘s about. The murder of the King is the de-stabilising element within society for Shakespeare. And there’s a reason for that: he was writing for the Tudors, for the end of the Tudor tyranny and if you didn’t write things that pleased the powers that be you could end up murdered in a pub brawl by government agents, like Marlowe, or tortured on the orders of the government like Thomas Kyd. So Shakespeare was not only a great artist but a very clever man just to survive. But Revenger’s Tragedy comes from the regime after that. The Tudor tyranny has collapsed and has been replaced by a new bunch of wankers. But they don’t have quite as much power, they’re not quite as able in their authoritarian methods and so you start to have playwrights like Webster and Middleton being a little bit more free in what they can write. And so for me the key line in Revengers Tragedy – I don’t know if we do it justice or not – is when Vindici says “Great men were gods if beggars couldn’t kill them”. And that’s what appeals to me, it’s the idea that no matter how powerful one of these guys is – what would be for us now a corporate head or the head of a government or something – they can be brought down. And the world doesn’t end as a result, you know. Society continues. Unfortunately another wanker comes along and takes their place but they can be brought down, they can be reduced to nothing. And that was from somebody who’s got a more radical or revolutionary perspective. That’s very encouraging. So I think that’s why it doesn’t seem very dated to me and it seems actually that the Jacobeans, the politics of the Jacobeans, are more interesting and more fun for a modern audience.
MLC: You’ve dealt with power before, again with anachronistic elements, in Walker, another story about someone who thinks he can’t be brought down and is. Do you see any connections between the two films in as much as treating of power…
AC: They definitely suggest that power corrupts. I think they’re also really about society as a mausoleum, these great edifices – whether it’s Walker’s empire in central America or the Liverpool inhabited by the Duke and all that lot – they’re necropolises, great edifices built on mounds of corpses. Whether it’s Walker’s imperial ambitions or whether it’s Liverpool built on the slave trade or Liverpool’s St. John’s Market built on the old plague cemetery. I mean, literally, these edifices are built on mountains of dead. And that hasn’t changed. It’s like empires now. When we establish our new empire in Iraq it’s going to be built on piles of corpses. So that’s interesting and it sort of suggests a continuity in human behaviour that hasn’t really changed since we bumped off the last Neanderthal man.
MLC: Can we talk about my favourite of all your films, Three Businessmen?
AC: Aaaah! A good person! You’re a good person! Do you think that in Three Businessmen it would have been better if we’d made the transitions more obvious?
MLC: No, definitely not.
AC: I agree with you, I thought the same. But you can make another case, which is that since the transitions do pass kind of unnoticed, it confuses some people. They don’t realise that Liverpool isn’t Rotterdam and they really do believe that even when we’re in Hong Kong, we’re still in Liverpool!
MLC: Surely that confusion’s part of the point of the film.
AC: That’s what I thought.
Tod Davies: It is for us, but it’s very dispiriting when you have people at the end of the screening who actually think there is a Japanese garden that looks like Tokyo in Liverpool! It gets depressing when people come up to you and say ‘Where is that Japanese garden in Liverpool?’ and you’re like ‘There were thousands of Japanese people on the screen, there were big screen televisions, do you really think that’s what it was?’ But that is what the point was: anything you’re told you just take in as truth, you don’t ever evaluate it and you should start evaluating it.
MLC: I recently had an argument with someone who claimed that everything on screen in a film had to represent a literal, objective reality and that audiences can’t accept anything more ambiguous…
AC: That’s a problem. Obviously it isn’t true but it is definitely a problem because of the corporatisation of storytelling. The way that a handful of corporations in Los Angeles dictate how our stories are told creates a real poverty of imagination and it’s a big problem.
TD: It’s a big problem for individuals when they read the news because they read it and they don’t even think. They don’t think that what they’re reading is nonsense because they’re being told it isn’t nonsense. It’s very annoying.
AC: It’s like here! You have a referendum, right, and you have a vote and it’s decided that we’re not going to expand the European Union. The referendum’s been had. It’s done, decided. That wasn’t what the corporations wanted! ‘Just a minute! No! No! No! We need to transfer our heavy industry over to Eastern Europe and make our films in Prague rather than London or Dublin so we’ll have that referendum again! And if you don’t vote right this time we might have it again! And we’ll keep on having it until you finally cave in and vote the way we want!’ We in England, we thought we were voting for the Labour Party. No! We got the Tories again. You know, it’s incredible the twists and turns that life takes!
MLC: It’s like the great line in Three Businessmen when you talk about singing the ‘Red Flag’…
AC: And last week at the Labour Party conference there was an old lady distributing copies of the ‘Red Flag’ at the back of the room but to stop the delegates singing it they played that disco song… ‘Don’t stop dreaming about tomorrow’? ‘Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow’? Apparently it played at a Democratic convention. So to stop them singing the ‘Red Flag’ at the end of the Labour Party conference they whacked that on to the speakers and started clearing the hall. It’s fascinating!
MLC: It’s terrifying, actually!
AC: It is terrifying! It is terrifying because these are our rights. We’re real people, we’re actually sentient individuals and we have opinions and feelings and the whole point is that our feelings are supposed to be suppressed. Like Benny’s and Frank’s in Three Businessmen! They’re so repressed they don’t even know where their feelings are anymore! They’re closer to their mobile phones than they are to their emotions! And they’re not made up characters, they’re not fantasy people at all. Benny and Frank are just like guys you sit next to on the train. Yelling into their mobiles and you hear all their business details and you’d really rather not!
MLC: So where did the idea for Three Businessmen come from?
TD: It was Alex’s idea originally. We both love Buñuel, that’s the director we both love.
AC: It was two couples in a car looking for their dinner, you know, like Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie…
TD: No, looking for dinner was my inspiration! And the going around the world and the two couples was yours. The looking for the dinner was mine because I’m food obsessed and Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie obsessed! And then there was this very weird – you don’t even want to hear this whole money grubbing story! – this very weird letter Alex got from this Dutch… presenter?
AC: A Dutch television presenter and producer.
TD: Yeah, and philosopher. He said that he wanted Alex to participate in a Dutch TV series he had called “On Beauty and Consolation”. Anything Alex wanted to do on the theme of beauty and consolation he could do for this series. So we looked at his proposal and said ‘that’s enough for a budget for a feature’! We figured that on that budget we could only afford two people, not two couples and we could only afford public transportation…
AC: Not a car. We couldn’t afford to transport a car around the world!
TD: So we figured we could do it in four different cities as long as we had a support base in each city. And we did! And that was the first film we produced because we couldn’t afford a producer!
AC: Or a proper actor!
TD: Because it was cheaper if Alex acted in it and I think he’s a really good actor!
AC: We just overpaid the other guy, that’s all! That (Miguel) Sandoval, we paid him far too much money! (laughs)
MLC: But you must be used to that – you’ve done, what, six films with him?
AC: I’ve done more films with him than anybody I think, overall. I think the only films I’ve done that he’s not in are this terrible film that I did called The Winner and Revengers Tragedy. He’s not in Revengers Tragedy, is he?
TD: No, he couldn’t because it’s an English film.
AC: That’s right, there’s no Americans in it.
TD: Half of the investment was a tax break for the company so it needed to be a completely British film. We couldn’t have afforded Miguel anyway, because we couldn’t have afforded to bring him over.
AC: Yeah, because everybody’s on the same whack, about six hundred pounds a week.
TD: But he was great. He was great in Three Businessmen. And he suggested a lot of his dialogue and in fact Benny is his father’s name. Reyes was my bit but he said ‘can I be called Benny like my dad?’ And Alex’s character, a lot of those characteristics that Frank has, Alex actually has. He actually tears things out of the newspaper!
AC: And type them into the computer later. I’m amassing a hard drive full of bits and bobs of information that I might just lose one day. It’s an attempt to derive meaning. It’s an attempt at deriving meaning or at least compiling the evidence.
Chris Neill: You’ve acted for other directors, too. What’s that like?
AC: It really depends on the director. Perdita Durango (Alex de la Iglesia, 1997) was one of those films where you go in and the tape marks are already on the floor. I mean Alex (de la Iglesia) is a very imaginative guy and a nice guy, but he’s not like an actor’s director by any means. He really doesn’t like actors. Movies are what he likes, actors are just a bother for him. They just get in the way. He’s really a cartoonist, a very talented cartoonist and he’s a good filmmaker, too. But it’s not an environment where actors flourish. Me and (James) Gandolfini were lucky in the sense that we were subsidiary characters, so we tended to get left alone. For the principal characters, there’s endless kinds of lighting and shooting and set-ups and moving the camera a bit and moving the tape marks on the floor a little bit and it’s quite boring. We get left to the very end of the evening and they’d shoot us quickly in a master, which is much more fun. The best directors that I have worked for apart from Dennis Hopper on Backtrack (1991) – I was just in one little scene and that was something he just improvised on the spur of the moment – I think are Luis Estrada, who’s a Mexican director who made a film called The Law of Herodes (La Ley de Herodesi, 1999), and Arturo Ripstein, who’s another Mexican director, who made a film called Queen of The Night (La Reina de la Noche, 1994) that I was in. Those guys are really brilliant directors. I don’t think Ripstein likes actors very much either, actually, but he’s got a different approach to it.
TD: He liked you, though.
AC: Yeah, because I’m another director. I’m a good actor in that sense for directors because I always do what they say. I’ll absolutely do anything the director tells me to do because that’s what I think actors should do. They should be obedient and follow the instructions of their director.
TD: And not, for example, go next door to the bar and have 17 drinks!
AC: I then beneficially discovered that, unlike Marlon Brando, I cannot play a drunk character when I’m actually drunk. It’s not possible for me to do that. Arturo was very kind, you know. He would have shouted at most actors who were drunk and he didn’t shout at me. He was very patient with me. He’s a really good director, he’s made some brilliant films. And Luis is a really good director too and this film he made, The Law of Herodes, is a very political and funny film and very popular. But he hasn’t managed to make a film since I think because the film was so political.
CN: While your character appeared in the American version of Hopper’s Backtrack, I understand you were cut from the shortened European version, which was retitled Catchfire and disowned by Hopper.
AC: My character was in Backtrack but not in Catchfire, which is the reedited version.
MLC: The fluidity of the transitions in Three Businessmen reminded me of another Buñuel film, The Milky Way. I understand you’re interested in making a film about Buñuel.
AC: We have the life story of Buñuel written as a puppet show, like a Punch and Judy show. And he’s Mr. Punch and the stick he carries with him is Surrealism. And the good characters are all glove puppets and the bad characters are stringed puppets because they’re being manipulated by others. And so Dali is a stringed puppet, Buñuel is an honest glove puppet. Who knows what will ever happen with that?
MLC: You have to make that!
AC: I know! Or we’ll just do it in puppet theatre.
TD: It was originally supposed to be with actors and we had the most incredible cast you’ve ever heard of! Jeanne Moreau was going to play Madame Buñuel and Salma Hayek was going to play the Virgin Mary and Javier Bardem was going to play the young Buñuel. All these actors, they’d all agreed! Martin Landau was going to play the old Buñuel. Who else did we have? We had a whole bunch of others…
AC: Al Pacino said he was going to play the old Buñuel for a while. But you just cannot interest financiers in a film about a 70-year-old film director.
TD: They said it was about an old Spaniard. What did anybody care?
AC: In Spain that was what they said about him!
MLC: That’s even worse. Like Buñuel, you’ve worked in Mexico…
AC: It’s a wonderful place, Mexico. Liverpool and Mexico are great places to make films. They’re quite similar, too, in terms of the speed of the crews and the enthusiasm and the availability of grandiose, semi-derelict buildings.
MLC: You intend to work in Mexico again?
AC: I’d like to. I’d love to make another film in Mexico. I’d love to make another film in Japan as well. I did a television series in Japan this year, which was really fun, even though it’s working with a Japanese crew and I don’t speak Japanese. But the way you do it is pretty much the same, a film is the same anywhere. Yeah, I’d be happy to go back to Mexico or Japan to make another film.
MLC: Highway Patrolman is the only film you’ve done in Mexico so far?
AC: No, I did a film called Death and the Compass as well. And Walker was made with a Mexican crew, although it was shot in Nicaragua.
MLC: Since the time of Highway Patrolman you’ve been using a lot of very long takes.
AC: They made me stop! The producers made me stop! I did it for ten years and they made me stop because they say people don’t like that. Cineastes like you and me, we like that but the producers of Revengers Tragedy felt that for a general audience it was a little off putting to have everything happen in masters, although there’s a couple of scenes that do play in masters…
TD: Not in every film, but to add the austerity of long takes on top of the very difficult language… It just seemed to me and Margaret (Matheson, co-producer) to be a time when the long take could maybe have a rest…
AC: I was completely oppressed on Revengers Tragedy, I mean they broke my spirit completely, she and Margaret… (laughs)
MLC: You’ll have to get them back on the next one!
AC: Oh, I’ll never work with either of them again! (laughter)
MLC: But you did use long takes in such a dynamic, powerful way. One of the most powerful scenes in modern cinema is in Highway Patrolman when the crippled policeman hero’s car breaks down and he has to limp as fast as he can to try and save his friend who’s involved in a gunfight with criminals. It takes him forever to find him and when he does, his friend’s dead. You play the whole scene in real time!
AC: Yeah, that’s really good isn’t it?
MLC: You made an interesting comment at the time about the use of the long take in Scorsese’s Goodfellas…
AC: In Goodfellas they have this one scene where the camera goes down some steps and walks through a kitchen into a restaurant and the critics were all over this as evidence of the genius of Scorsese and Scorsese is a genius. But I’d just made this film, Highway Patrolman. Every shot in Highway Patrolman is vastly more complicated and far more choreographed than that one moment in Goodfellas. That really made me think about the critics. They don’t watch films, they don’t actually pay attention to the language of films. Because there is actually something very interesting in Goodfellas, how the style of the film changes as time goes by and based on the mental state of the protagonist. But I never saw any review that actually analysed the shooting style of Goodfellas appropriately and they would just pick up on this one long take. And I never saw a review of Highway Patrolman that even noticed the long takes! So it’s funny how the critics can just sit there blankly as it goes by and then away they go!
MLC: In a way Highway Patrolman feels to me like a film left on some shelf from the early ’70s when there were films like Two Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971) or Electra Glide in Blue (James William Guercio, 1973).
AC: Or even older than that, but it definitely was in that world. I thought about Electra Glide in Blue. Because it’s so odd, the idea that they would have a motorcycle policeman in the desert because you have motorcycle policemen where there’s a lot of traffic, so that they can move around cars. You’d never have a motorcycle policeman out on the Indian reservation. But it didn’t matter because it was such a great epic fantasy, wasn’t it?
MLC: It certainly was!
TD: And wasn’t Two Lane Blacktop Rudy’s movie?
AC: Two Lane Blacktop was written by Rudy Wurlitzer who did Walker and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973)…
MLC: And, I think, another script called Body Parts, which you were going to do…
AC: That’s right, I was going to be the director of it. Another thing that came to naught! We were actually going to do that film with Rip Torn when Margaret Matheson, who’s the producer of Revengers Tragedy, was head of Zenith but she left and the new regime at Zenith didn’t want to do it.
MLC: I also love the ending of Highway Patrolman. For some reason, perhaps thinking of Electra Glide in Blue, I was convinced…
AC: He was going to get killed?
AC: Oh, this is much better! That’s Lorenzo (O’Brien), the writer. There was a different ending, but he never got killed. Because it would be too easy if he got killed, he’d be off the hook But no, he just has to stay there and kind of work it out and exist with these two families and everybody hates him and he doesn’t have a job anymore!
MLC: It’s a great ending.
AC: It is a great ending! (laughs)
MLC: But there’s another ending, the end of Sid and Nancy, that I understand you’re not too happy about these days.
AC: I think we had to have that ending to get the money to make the film. But it’s also a bit romantic and a bit soppy. I don’t feel it is justified. I think it should end with him lying in a pool of vomit, you know, dead. But you wouldn’t get the money. Endings are sometimes complex. We ended Revengers Tragedy with a montage of the World Trade Center being blown up. Since we are now embarked on phase two of an endless war of revenge against all other countries, it seemed like a very, very appropriate ending for Revengers Tragedy. But the financiers, both the Film Council and the private financiers, felt that it was too upsetting for us to have the World Trade Center being destroyed and so we put another image of atrocity and terrorism instead on the end. But not, unfortunately, one that has quite the same revenge aspect to it. It’s interesting actually, what’s gone on with that footage, and also what happened with the footage from the war in Afghanistan, is that our news reporting is pretty much along the lines of pornography now. You show the World Trade Center or you show the Taliban prisoners under guard but you don’t show them being killed. You show the people in the World Trade Center in the windows, but you don’t show them hitting the ground. And even the images of the aeroplanes going into the buildings are now deemed a bit dubious. And it’s the same approach as the straight media have towards pornography, which is that you have the build up but you don’t have the come shot. And it says something about our level of disassociation, that we can provoke these wars abroad but we’re not allowed to see people get killed as a result. And all those prisoners – there’s loads of footage of Afghani guys and Turkish guys and guys from all over being murdered as our allies take over Afghanistan but they don’t get shown on television because it’s considered that would be cheapening of our sensitivities if we were to see the results of our policies. That’s why they don’t show people being killed! In the same way as seeing people have sex would be cheapening of our sensitivities. But the cheapening thing is actually paying people to have sex, paying people to murder other people. That’s the problem. Visual representation of it is essential if we’re to come to terms with what it is we’ve done.
CN: A lot of people I’ve been speaking to at the Festival vividly remember your introductions to films on the Moviedrome series. Many people of my generation who watched it…
AC: Mostly people selling the Big Issue!
CN: … were seeing films for the first time that were not available on video or DVD at the time and were quite influential. Were you aware how important this show was for many people?
AC: Not at all, no. It was just a good thing from my point of view because for some years the only money I made was doing those introductions. So it was good in that respect. It’s really down to that guy Nick Jones because the series was his idea and he really did an amazing job of finding stuff that nobody knew about. The BBC had licensed films and they didn’t even know what they were! He would go in there and he would watch them all! He’s really an amazing guy. He’s a cineaste, he loves films.
TD (to MLC): You’re a filmmaker yourself?
MLC: Yes. Well, working on DV.
AC: That’s what we’re going to do next time, too. We’re going to shoot on DV, it’s cheaper. And I also figured out that way I can do a film in black and white because I’ve never been able to do a film in black and white.
MLC: You tried to do Let Him Have It (1991) in black and white and were replaced by Peter Medak for your troubles!
AC: Exactly. But if you shoot it on DV you can call it ‘new media’, you know, so then they’ll let you make a film in black and white!
MLC: Have you a project you want to do in black and white?
AC: We hope to do the Spanish Tragedy based on the play by Thomas Kyd. Shoot it in DV, very, very high-contrast black and white and then occasionally, when there’s blood or when there’s a garden full of flowers or something, colour pops in. Certain elements of the image can be in colour.
MLC: Like the pink smoke in Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963)?
AC: Like the pink smoke in High and Low, exactly! So that’s our plan, let’s see if we can do that! And we’ve got dates for that because Derek Jacobi who plays the main guy is only available for filming in May so the month of May is when we have to do it. So, Tod’s done the adaptation, we’ve sent the script to Derek Jacobi, Eddie Izzard, Marc Warren and Tom Waits.
CN: Will it be shot in Liverpool like Revengers Tragedy?
AC: Actually we won’t shoot most of it in Liverpool, we’d shoot a little bit up there, we’d shoot our studio stuff up there and some stuff on a golf course. I’d use the same crew, the Liverpool-based crew who did Revengers. But most of it we would shoot in Oxford because we’ve been offered a college to shoot in, St John’s College, which has got very beautiful architecture. Renaissance-type architecture, also quite nice modern buildings. We’re thinking we’d shoot most of it there, but not really get as location-oriented as we were on Revengers because the locations were so important in Revengers. So I think this time we’ll try and make it more about the characters and less about the place. So the location will kind of recede a little bit. Although it’s called The Spanish Tragedy it doesn’t take place in Spain, they speak English so it can really be anywhere.
MLC: What’s the plot?
AC: It’s another revenge drama but it’s the revenge drama of an older guy, a father whose son is murdered by the young royals. And because he’s a commoner he realises that he’s never going to get any justice so then he decides to take his revenge. And of course he goes after the royal family and brings them all down in a sordid bloodbath!
MLC: Then the colour comes into it?
AC: And then the colour comes into it – when he bites his tongue out!
Acknowledgement: The author thanks the Cork Film Festival for assisting with this interview.