Alex Cox on Bill the Galactic Hero, Biggest Student Movie of All Time
No matter the time or place, even in deep space or the far future, war is hell, and the little guy always gets the worst of it. But when that little guy is the hero of director Alex Cox's adaptation of Harry Harrison's Bill, the Galactic Hero, at least you get a few laughs along the way, plus the hope of a happy(ish) ending. Given the state of endless war in which the United States finds itself mired, Cox's take on Harrison's anti-war cult classic -- a project he's wanted to tackle since just after he finished Repo Man in 1984 -- couldn't be more timely. And its lo-fi sci-fi action, brought to the screen thanks to Kickstarter and a cast and crew made up largely of students from the University of Colorado at Boulder, should provide the perfect realization of both Cox's style and Harrison's message. Before the film's world premiere Friday, December 12 in Boulder, we spoke to Cox about the process of making "the biggest student movie of all time," how Roger Corman almost brought it to the screen in the '80s, and how being a narcissist helps get your art seen.
Westword: Before we get started, I just wanted to say I really appreciate you taking some time to speak with me about your upcoming film.
Alex Cox: Well, it's my pleasure. It's my job!
Sure, but some people don't find it one of the more pleasurable aspects of the job. I guess I don't know if you do or not.
It's interesting, isn't it, because I think it has to do with our culture. In Western culture, or whatever it is, it does mean, if you think about it, not only in film but in any sort of artistic endeavor -- literature, or if you're a painter or sculptor or something like that -- it helps if you are a talkative, fairly narcissistic, apt to boasting person. [Laughs] Then you give a good interview, or you're a good subject for a profile. But what if you're a kind of painfully shy creative person, who really, really doesn't like to talk, who isn't good at talking about things? Who just wants to do the work and get on with it? It's interesting, isn't it? Our culture sort of requires people who are in the creative field to promote -- to commercially promote -- their work.
It does make a difference. You see people who do great art but aren't comfortable with the process and you wonder if it doesn't hold them back somewhat. Would they be more successful if they were better at saying, "I'm fantastic, and let me tell you how fantastic I am!"
Yeah, and then you have this whole sort of subset of the young, British artists who are all really rich and photogenic and they're all prats. [Laughs]
I always wondered if Oasis's success was due in part to their skill at doing interviews -- saying outrageous things and being entertaining to the press, making the press want to follow them around and say all these expansive things about how wonderful they were. It worked out very well for them.
Do you remember the band called Madness? I knew Joe Strummer and he and I had to give an interview one time and we were in this big garden, in the south of France for Cannes, and so I think we pulled some funny faces or stood on one leg or something. And Joe said, "Just imagine if you were in Madness, and there were seven of you, and people expected you to do this all the time." Those guys, every time they showed up, they had to be wacky. They had to wear those little hats and do handstands be totally crazy. [Laughs] What if you're not feeling crazy?
As far as Bill the Galactic Hero, how did you come to do this adaptation? My understanding is it's an anti-war piece, right?
That makes it pretty timely or ...
Contemporary! [Laughs] Yes, even though it was written in 1965.
I guess America has a hard time learning from its mistakes.
I suppose that most places do. Who ever learns from their mistakes? Yes, it does seem not an awful lot of lessons are learned in the process.
It definitely seems like the United States likes to get involved in some massive conflict every 25 years or so, and keeps a few backburner fights going all the time, just in case it needs to inflate one of them into a full-blown war.
Absolutely. Well, I think that is indeed the case, isn't it? It's a constant. Now it's the "forever war," some general announcing at a press conference, "No one in this room will be alive by the time this war ends!" Oh, come on. "We will continue to spend your money any way we want for the unforeseeable future!"
Does Bill fit into the style of Harrison's other work? Is it a bit wacky, if you will?
It's funny. It's just funny. I don't think it would actually be -- I suppose it depends on the definition of wacky -- but it's definitely funny in the sense that Catch-22 is funny. It embraces a lot of really, really terrible situations, and yet the hero is able to survive them. I think that was Harry Harrison's theme, I think, was survival. The hero is always a survivor. He always manages to pull through, even if they achieve not very much.
That was definitely the case with his Stainless Steel Rat series -- the hero was definitely a survivor. That book was kind of a commentary on the over regimentation of society and the then-newish security state.
He was a very prophetic writer in a lot of ways. A lot of things he wrote about in those science fiction books of the '60s have come to pass. Yeah, it's interesting.
It's unfortunate that all the science fiction writers that were prophetic were the really dark...
[Laughs] Pessimistic ones?
Dystopian, even. I read a lot of Philip K. Dick, and it seems like all the stuff he wrote about is coming true, and that's really, really unfortunate. He's the last person whose stuff you'd want to come true. His work was dark and darker. There's no bright side.
Yes, it's like Philip K. Dick's world, but without the extraterrestrials and the higher power or anything. It's just that ghastly, grinding kind of police-and-speed state.
So getting back to Bill, how did this adaptation come about?
I wanted to adapt Bill in 1983, after I finished Repo Man. I got in touch with Harry's agent in New York and took out an option on the book. I tried to raise money to make it, and although I failed to raise the money, I met Harry when he came to Los Angeles and discovered him to be a very entertaining man.
So no one wanted to fund a science fiction anti-war film in 1983? Seems hard to believe.
I think the only person who was remotely interested was Roger Corman. But there was no script, just the book. As I recall, the only positive response we got was, "Well, show us a script." But the problem was, Harry and I were going to write a script, but Harry wasn't going to write for nothing. He was a canny individual. He was a paid writer. He pointed this out once, that a lot of people who were science fiction writers also had another job, and as far as he knew he and Robert Heinlein were the only ones able to work full time and earn a living from their writing and nothing else. That means he wrote an awful lot, and he wrote professionally. He wasn't going to turn out a script on spec for Roger Corman.
If Roger had come up with a check, he'd have be happy to write a script, but until then...
Of course. I, with my relative youth, and coming from the director's point of view, I would have written a script on spec. But I had to respect Harry. He was a master.
It seems weird to say, but maybe it was all for the best anyway, that Corman didn't end up taking it on.
Maybe it was.
It's certainly more timely than it would have been in 1983. You don't have to look hard to see parallels today.
And the cast ... the cast actually reflect the ages of people who would be in the military. They're all in their twenties and early thirties. The principal protagonist is like 22. They really are ... it's quite authentic in terms of age, rather than a [Hollywood] movie where you tend to have Harrison Ford playing the captain, even though he's 98.
Right, you shot this with mostly students. Pablo Kjolseth referred to it as the "biggest student movie of all time."
Yeah, I think that's right. I don't know of a student film which has cost more or lasted longer in terms of production. There have been student features. Charles Burnett made the immortal Killer of Sheep as a student film at UCLA. There have been student feature films, but I think that Pablo is right, this is the largest, biggest in terms of crew and budget.
And that was the intention all along, at least as far as this attempt to make it? To do it as a student film?
I think I proposed [to Harry Harrison] at one point we make it for no money with hand puppets. He was like, "Sure, but you have to get it past my agent." Ahh, that's not going to happen. But then I thought, while I was at CU, what if we made it with students? We proposed it as sort of an academic project, and he would give us an academic license. He was like, "I don't know, because no one has ever done it before." But he gave us a free option on the film and let us make it into a feature. But obviously, if George Lucas comes along and wants to make a Disney version of it, they can do that as well. It wouldn't be exclusive. There could be two versions of Bill the Galactic Hero.
It was interesting to see ... usually when you see student actors in a student film, it's ten, twelve, seven minutes long. An actor gets to give a performance, give an impression, show one side of a character, or one and a half sides, and that's it. But in a feature, it's 85 or ninety minutes long, and you actually get to develop a character. That's something I've not seen in a student film before, an actor getting to go through the whole arc of a character, to go from something innocent and naive to something terrible. It's good.
You've made a lot of films a lot of different ways, from studio films to indie stuff, now this giant student film. How was it working with idealistic students?
If you can find any students like that, send them my way. I'll trade them for the ones I've got. No, the ones I've got are actually quite excellent. I was lucky because a lot of them I knew from being their professor in like intermediate production or screenwriting class. So I'd got to know them from the year before we made the film, and now they're graduating or they've graduated. So that was helpful, because I could see what people's aptitudes were and kind of go, "Well this person is a good production designer, or this person could be a cinematographer or casting director." And it worked out! So that was a good process, knowing people and being able to gauge what area they might want to work in, even if they later changed departments and did something else.
It was harder work than doing a regular film. Partially because people were doing this job for the very first time, so there was a learning curve. But also because they were full-time students, many of whom had a job as well, during the week. So we had to shoot the film on the weekend, Saturdays and Sundays. And that gets old, when you have to work all week and study and then go in on the weekends and act and crew a movie. That's arduous. I think next time, it's got to break down and shoot it all in one chunk, shoot it in four weeks and pay everybody.
Not necessarily the shortest distance between two points, then?
It's the longest line! We were making it up as we went along and it was sort of a learning process. Going slowly, or going intermittently like that, was good, I think, because everybody got kind of good at it in a rolling way. Whereas, on set, if we'd done it all in two weeks or three weeks, it would have been a very steep first few days. But movies are like that. The first couple of days are pretty chaotic. Then by the end, everything is going so smooth, it's like an ocean liner going into port. And thus it was on this film! The last three days of the shoot, we were in a remote location in Nevada, shooting in Cathedral Gorge in space suits and it just went smoothly.
Cox and Bill's art department on location in Cathedral Gorge, Nevada
Being a student film with a minimal budget, there must have been a lot of "make do with what you have," I assume.
We were going to shoot with all of Stanley Kubrick's equipment from 2001. We were going to shoot with the same camera and the enormous beaded screen and front-projection system they used for those "dawn of man" exteriors in 2001. That's what we were going to do, but the only problem was we didn't have his camera. We didn't have a soundstage with that screen on it. And we didn't have that projection system. So our aspirations were thwarted. We did a lot of model shots and matte shots, but we did CGI as well and we ended up doing green screen and a mixture of special effects, old and more contemporary.
You had some intriguing plans to use some local buildings, like the NCAR headquarters, as sets. How did that pan out?
We didn't shoot at the NCAR, but we included it anyway because I'd taken a lot of photographs, so you'll still see a scene that looks like it was shot at NCAR, but sadly we didn't. We weren't able to take a crew up there and do it officially.
I'll tell you where we were able to shoot as an alternative. I was speaking to one of Pablo's friends and saying how unfortunate it was that we weren't able to shoot up at NCAR, because we really wanted to, and he says, "Oh, well you should come to NIST and see our building." So we went to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, on Broadway, and he showed us their building, which is one incredibly long corridor, three stories high. An amazing building, a very impressive architectural thing. So we said, "Can we shoot at the NIST, please?" and they gave us permission. So we ended up shooting a chunk of the imperial planet on Broadway there.
It's really a nice building. The building must be half a mile long, so just to see a corridor that length, three stories high, natural light pouring in from concealed skylights. It's beyond a medieval castle. So we have a portcullis falling down when Bill is in there. He gets trapped.
And you got Iggy Pop to do the theme song, right?
It's quite something. It was the same process as Repo Man. He read the script, he looked at the film, and then he wrote the song, kind of free associating on the themes of the film and dialogue of the film and his own stuff. He did the same with this. He downloaded the book to his electronic e-reader, and he saw the movie and then he did this song.
Is there anything else you want to say about the film, or the premiere?
I'll be there to introduce it, and so will a number of the cast and crew, including the guy who plays Bill, James Miller. And I look forward to it. I look forward to seeing the film finished on the big screen.
See Bill the Galactic Hero at 9:30 p.m. Friday, December 12 (the 7:30 p.m. screening is sold out) at Muenzinger Auditorium on the University of Colorado Boulder campus, or see it at 8 p.m. Saturday, December 13 at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas. Tickets for the CU show are $8, or $7 for CU students and seniors; tickets for the Drafthouse show are $8. For more info, visit the International Film Series or the Alamo Drafthouse.
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