Film critic Ian Schultz completed this interview with the cult filmmaker Alex Cox via email. Cox, director of such cult classics as Repo Man, Walker and Sid & Nancy, covered a wide range of topics—from his new sci-fi film Bill the Galactic Hero to the current state of cinema.
Bill the Galactic Hero is about to premiere at the Boulder International Film Series. How do you plan to release it—festivals first, small theatrical run, straight to DVD, Netflix or something else?
BILL is a non-commercial project. My deal with the University of Colorado is that the cast and crew be not paid, and that the film not be sold for a profit. So it can still play at festivals, people can download it from the interwebs, but in terms of distribution any screenings will need to be for charity.
Since distribution of films has changed drastically in the last ten years, do you consider a festival run as a new kind of theatrical run for microbudget films?
Festival exposure has always been important for independent cinema; as the venues become increasingly dominated by the studios, festivals become more important.
This is your first “hard” science fiction film. What attracted you to Harrison’s story?
It is very funny, and very cynical about war and the military-industrial-space complex. Like Harry I had problems with Heinlein’s fascist vision of the SF future. But I have no problems with Harry’s view of things!
This film is going to include animation as well as live action and models. How did that work out in the final product in your opinion, and are there other films that mix animation and action that you really like?
Anything by Ray Harryhausen, Jim Danforth, or Willis O’Brien! All worked out well, I think, though the students who did it will tell you that stop motion animation is a lot of work!
Bill the Galactic Hero has been made with mostly students. What has it been working on a film without the talents or the egos of trained actors?
It’s been made entirely by students. The only “professionals” involved—if you can call us that—were me and Iggy Pop. As a rule I love crews and actors and don’t run into too many ego problems. Everyone who works on a film—one hopes—wants to a good job and there ain’t no I in TEAM. But the CU acting, directing, and visual arts students are super-well-educated, and technically very well trained. They know more about the software and the camera and lighting gear than I do. I’m still just a generalist; many students and recent graduates have much deeper technical knowledge than I.
After you made The Revenger’s Tragedy, you moved towards making microbudget films. What do you think about the rise of filmmaking in this bracket and the fact that more filmmakers are now working on small budgets?
We’re forced to, because we can’t access big budgets any more. But some of the inexpensive films being made now – A Field In England, for instance—are just superb and really challenge the notion that you can make a good film by throwing money at it.
The film Southland Tales took inspiration from both Repo Man and Kiss Me Deadly. Did you ever see the film, and if so, did you like how it referenced Repo Man?
Didn’t see it.
It’s been nearly 30 years since the release of Sid & Nancy: do you have any regrets about the historical inaccuracies or the portrayal of John Lydon?
What were the historical inaccuracies? In what way did you disapprove of the portrayal of John?
What I meant about historical inaccuracies in Sid & Nancy was the scene very early on when Nancy goes to a punk club and there is a band and it’s some Siouxsie Sioux-esque singer lip-synching to “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” by X-Ray Spex. It always irked me because it’s the total opposite of Poly Styrene. The depiction of Lydon, besides the obvious difference in accent, Schofield’s performance always lacked the sharp wit that Lydon has and he seems to be more channeling Captain Sensible than Lydon. I’ve always found the choice of the hammer and sickle on Sid’s shirt over the swastika problematic. So were there any specific reasons in these choices?
I wasn’t an X-Ray Spex follower so plead guilty to the inauthentic Poly Styrene performance.
Lydon as a character doesn’t come over badly to me. He’s a good friend to Sid and horrified at what’s happening to him. Drew Schofield went out to New York to hang out with Lydon and attempt to emulate him and he was very supportive—though he also said he thought we should totally fictionalise the band –make his character a Liverpudlian, like Drew, make Sid a woman, etc. In retrospect I’m sure he was right.
Don’t like Nazis. Have no problem with communists other than their capitalistic tendencies.
Probably the biggest inauthenticity in the film is our depiction of London punk as a slam dance scene. This was unique to the West Coast (starting in Los Angeles) around 1979/1980 and had little in common with the rather anemic “punk pogo” done by the Londoners. To that inauthenticity I plead guilty. But my punk sensibilities were formed by seeing X and the Plugz and Fear and Weirdos and the Circle Jerks, rather than the Specs and the London scene.
You’re currently working as a film lecturer. What gives you hope about the young filmmakers you work with, and are there any trends you see in this group that you wish would stop?
I am (at least for the next six months) an assistant professor, something even grander than a lecturer in the absurd hierarchy of academia. The good thing about the education CU film students get is that it includes a thorough grounding in world cinema and also experimental film. So, even though most undergraduates are interested in making narrative drama, their films are rendered a great deal more interesting by the knowledge of the wider world of film they have received. CU is a great place for undergraduates to study film; I am most impressed by my colleagues, by the work the students do, and by how hard and seriously they work. I see no trends I disapprove of, though certainly aesthetics change as the years pass.
Through your books, documentaries and “Moviedrome,” you have tried to draw attention to some underappreciated genres. What other areas would you like to cover, if you had time and money to do it?
I have a contract to write a big book about Westerns for a British publisher. But I’m not sure I should do it. Writing a book takes a couple of years and maybe the Western is defunct now. Certainly I don’t think my students are particularly drawn towards the form.
There is an idea currently that American cable TV is better than American film. Clearly there is now some interesting work going on (e.g. True Detective) but I never feel like TV can deliver the atmosphere of film. What do you think?
I don’t have a television so can’t really say. I stopped watching TV a long time ago—around the age of 18—and never got back into the habit.
I’d also be curious to hear what you think about the controversy over the Greens not being included in BBC televised debates, given that you produced their party broadcasts some years back.?
A total scam by the British oligarchy to keep everything nice and toasty with the Tories, Labour, LIbDems and UKIP all following a destructive growth-focused capitalist agenda. The Greens have been kept off the ballot in California and other American states, too. We’re certainly a home-made political party, but we’re the only political party with a consistent agenda which doesn’t change as soon as the candidate is elected. There isn’t that much time left any more—what, 50% of diverse species extincted within the last 40 years and the rate keeps accelerating? Vote Green or your grandchildren will inherit a terminally degraded planet.
And, what do you think about the continuing mainstream media whitewash over the JFK assassination, especially during the 50th anniversary last year?
A little depressing, no? But it was interesting to see certain filmmakers like Tom Hanks and Errol Morris involved in the promotion of the Warren Commission fiction. Check out Morris’ CV: documentaries are a sideline for the guy, who makes big money doing commercials for ethical companies like Microsoft, Adidas and AEG. Follow the money and you’ll see why people do the things they do. If there’s no money involved, maybe they’re on the level.
After leaving Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, did you ever see the finished film, and how do you feel now about Gilliam’s approach to the film?
Didn’t see it! Actors and screenwriters don’t have to go to see the films they’ve been involved in, fortunately.
Your Scene Missing documentary on Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie is supposed to have been completed but I can’t find much more about it, could you shed some light on the film’s progress?
It’s finished, at least for now, and on Vimeo.
A few years back you tried to do a series of microfeatures in Liverpool, as part of its Capital of Culture year. It was a great idea, but lots has been written about how official “culture” funding tends to create bland, civic-boosterism, commercialised products. I would be curious to know more about why this particular project failed, and whether you can take what you learned from it to give advice to young filmmakers who think tapping similar funding is a good idea?
The project failed because a government-funded quango created by the Film Council –“North West Vision”—hijacked my plan and proposed a similar one, only to make three films instead of eight. They hired an out-of-town director for the first one, went way over budget, and didn’t make any more. Then the Tories came in and shut the whole Film Council/North West Vision project down. I wonder what all those FC and NWV bureaucrats are doing now? How many of them have emerged as independent British film producers?
With your latest film (Bill the Galactic Hero) you successfully used Kickstarter to raise the money to make the film. How do you feel crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter have changed independent filmmaking—for better or worse?
It worked well for me, and for Paul Schrader and Spike Lee, clearly. But I won’t use Kickstarter again because of the Amazon connection. Amazon take five percent of every Kickstarter budget to service the credit card charges (which as you know are a maximum of 2 percent). I’m trying to reduce my involvement with Amazon, Google, Apple and their pestilential like, so next time it will be IndieGoGo.
Mainstream production companies are now looking at fan-funding to bankroll commercial products—directors like Gilliam have been urged to use it for example. I think that’s quite dangerous for inventive filmmaking. What do you think?
Anyone who gives their money to a Hollywood studio—whether by sending them money or buying a ticket to see their garbage—deserves whatever they get.