Filmmaker Alex Cox on Repo Man, his next project and the beauty of black and white film
Alex Cox dressed in one of the costumes for Bill, the Galactic Hero.
When filmmaker Alex Cox finished shooting Repo Man in 1983, the first thing he did with the left-over money was option the film rights to the science fiction novel Bill, the Galactic Hero. Now both projects are back in the spotlight. The Criterion Collection recently released a Blu-Ray edition of the 1984 sci-fi punk cult classic, and the Alamo Drafthouse will screen Repo Man at 7 p.m tonight as its first presentation on 35mm -- with Cox in attendance for a Q&A.
And thirty years after he optioned the book, the prolific Sid and Nancy filmmaker is on his way to making Bill, the Galactic Hero into what he calls the biggest student film ever made, with the help of the film students he teaches at the University of Colorado Boulder. A $100,000 Kickstarter campaign (which you can donate to through April 21) will help turn the anti-war sci-fi novel into a black-and-white film shot on 35mm.
We caught up with Cox in advance of tonight's screening to talk about the inspiration for Repo Man, why he loves black and white, and the future of independent film.
See also: - Artist Jay Shaw on his love of bizarre cinema and even more bizarre film posters - Tod Davies on storytelling, lost superheroines, and tonight's screening of Wonder Women! - Photos: Alamo Drafthouse will open Monday; here's a sneak peek
Westword: Where did the idea for Repo Man come from?
Alex Cox: I had a neighbor who was a car repossessor in Venice, California, and so he hired me to drive around with him and if he was successful at repossessing a car then I would drive it back to the repo yard. So some of the incidents that take place in the film were actually things that happened to me working for this guy Mark Lewis, who was a repossessor.
Minus the aliens?
Minus the aliens! Yeah, we never found any aliens. But he did always find those little Christmas trees constantly. And they would do all kinds of terrible things, like if there was food in the car they would put the food in the same bag as the personal possessions and that kind of thing and the rats would get into it. So they were really naughty, you know.
Are you excited that it's going to screen on 35mm?
Well I think it is kind of exciting, isn't it? Because the future of 35mm as an exhibition medium is dim, so it's very exciting that they're going to show a print.
When was the last time that you watched the film?
I had to watch it not long ago because Criterion are bringing out a Blu-Ray disc, so they wanted me to look at the transfer, so I watched it a couple of months ago. But I hadn't seen it prior to that for a long time.
What was your experience watching it again after not seeing it for a long time?
You know, I don't know. I've seen it too often is the thing. [Laughs.] I'm terribly familiar with Repo Man. I've seen it so many times. It holds up, I think. It's still entertaining I think. It entertains even me after thirty-odd years.When you made it, did you have any idea that it would develop the cult following that it did?
No. One of the producers did. Jonathan Wacks kept going, "This is gonna be the Easy Rider of the '80s!" And the rest of us were all, "Ah, you're crazy, man. Shut up." But he was right. How did he know? I don't know. I didn't know.
What was your vision for Repo Man?
Well, we wanted to make a very low-budget movie. We were Roger Corman fans -- he was a big independent director and producer from the '60s and early '70s. He was just tremendous. We were all film students at UCLA and our hero was Corman, so we wanted to do independent films. We didn't want to work for the studio. So it was a complete surprise.
In many of your films,you worked with a lot of interesting figures in the music scene like Courtney Love and Joe Strummer. Where did your interest in musicians and punk rock come from? Well, I was just around when that thing was happening so it seemed like a very good movement. The good thing about punk was it wasn't just about music, it was also kind of a revolutionary movement. We were gonna change the world and overthrow the government and create new systems. So punk was kind of like the surrealist movement or the Occupy movement. It had a bigger agenda than just rock and roll, even though rock and roll and fashion were a part of it.
What was it like to work with Courtney Love?
[Laughs.] She was all right. I mean, she was young. She didn't really know what she wanted to do at that time. She was determined to be famous, but she hadn't`quite figured out if she was going to be an actress or a rock and roller, and so she was kind of dipping her feet in both of those things. But I thought she was a pretty good actress. I thought she was actually quite talented as an actor and could have pursued it.
She famously called you over and over, berating you to let her play Nancy Spungen.
Oh yeah, she wanted to be Nancy. But the thing was, we'd already cast Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious, and he was a very experienced actor. He hadn't been in any films, but he had been in a lot of stage and television and was very experienced and a bit older than she was. And Courtney didn't have any experience at that time. She didn't have the chops to play that part. Whereas Chloe, who played Nancy, was like Gary. She was an experienced actor, she'd done a lot of stage. She could hold her own with Gary Oldman. It wouldn't have been fair to put Courtney in that position, because she wasn't experienced enough.
Bill, the Galactic Hero.
It's a science fiction movie based on a book by Harry Harrison, who was a very prolific science fiction writer who died last year. And he wrote the book as a response to Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. It's quite a sort of right-wing book in favor of the military and in favor of a constant state of war to keep us all on our toes. It's very much like the book Ender's Game. Very, very in favor of war and the military and discipline and all of that stuff, and Harry Harrison had been in the Army and the Second World War, but he'd been a machine-gun instructor and a prison guard, and so he had a completely different take on it. He thought the military really sucked. And so he wrote Bill, the Galactic Hero as a riposte to the military enthusiasm of Robert Heinlein. And Heinlein was so upset, he never spoke to Harry again. But the book over the years has always remained in print and is very highly thought of by science fiction fans, although it tends to be ignored by the critics. Writing about science fiction books is a very big deal and they have university courses in it and that kind of thing, but somehow they always tend to focus on books like Starship Troopers and Ender's Game, and somehow, maybe because it's so funny or maybe because it's so anti-war, Bill tends to get neglected. So I'm trying to put it in the spotlight again via this project.
The plan is to work with your students at the University of Colorado?
Yes. It's going to be the biggest student film of all time. The most expensive student film ever made. It's going to take eighteen months to make it. So if we start in the late summer of this year, we won't be finished until the end of 2014 because of all the model work and the special-effects shots. It may even be the last feature to be shot in black and white 35mm, because there's only one company still in business making 35mm film stock and they're in bankruptcy. So it's sort of an exciting time.
What made you want to work with your students on this film?
Because they're so marvelous and they're so talented and they're still young, so they're not obsessed with money yet. That will come later. When you're like 20 or 21 or something, obviously you need money -- you need to survive, you need to put food on the table, etc. But it's not like when you're in your thirties and forties, and all of a sudden you've got children and a family and cars and mortgages to worry about. The good thing about my students is not only are they very talented, but they're still keen.
What happens when people get older?
Well, I think the thing is it's a little bit like the old religious concept of a vocation. If you're an artist, if you actually are an artist -- that's all you can do. You can't do anything else. But you have to figure that out. You have to learn that. And it takes a while. A lot of people want at the outset of their existence to have an interesting and creative life. But what you learn if you try to do that is there isn't a lot of money in it. And sometimes you have to endure poverty and hardship in order to be an artist. And so a lot of people fall by the wayside because it's not easy. But if you're driven to do it, you can't do anything else. I can't think of anything else to do. [Laughs.] That's the thing. If you have a vocation and that's what you're called to do then, that's all you can do.
What made you adamant about shooting the film on 35mm black and white?
Oh, because I always have. Because that's always been my desire. I wanted to make Repo Man in black and white, Sid and Nancy should've been in black and white, Walker should've been in black and white. Films cry out for that medium because it's so beautiful and so graphic. But all through my career, I've been told by financiers that you can't make a film in black and white because audiences don't like it. Now, that's clearly not true. Because if you think about the black-and-white features that have been made over the years, films like Good Night and Good Luck and Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull, Jim Jarmusch's films. Every couple of years a black-and-white film comes out and makes money. Plus, for the last thirty years I've been watching commercials and pop promos in black and white, and commercials and pop promos exist to sell products to people. So if black and white wasn't an effective medium to sell stuff to people, they wouldn't make commercials and pop videos in black and white. So there's just been this terrible hostility to the form, and yet if you think about films like Dr. Strangelove, Citizen Kane, Raging Bull, it's a fantastic medium.
Guernica, the painting by Picasso, is in black and white, and nobody asked him to colorize it. The good thing is, though, because this film is being funded essentially by the audience rather than by film financiers, there's a lot more freedom. The audience is a great deal more accepting of variety and of originality than studios are.
What do you love about black and white?
I think it's very beautiful. It's a beautiful medium in its own right and it's a better medium for storytelling because it's completely graphic. There are no distractions. Somebody sent me some stills actually from Dr. Strangelove to try and persuade me that we should make Bill the Galactic Hero in color because they'd taken some stills on the set in color. And I'm looking at these stills and all I can think is, oh, wow, Dr. Strangelove has ginger hair. And I don't want to be sitting, looking at the movie Dr. Strangelove and thinking, ooh, look at that ginger hair he's got there. Because it's irrelevant. The color of Dr. Strangelove's hair is completely irrelevant to the story and I don't wanna be distracted by it. It's a purely graphic medium and it demands much more of you because you really have to do it properly. You can't get away with stuff just because it's gonna look pretty. You have to really work at it and make every image count. I've done films that had black and white elements, because what you could often do if the studio said you couldn't do black and white, well, you could do black and white for a flashback or fantasy sequence or something like that. But it's exciting to think that given film as a recording medium is gonna disappear soon and black and white monochrome film is going to disappear very very soon, it's the chance of a lifetime. The last chance.
You talked about coming up against financiers. Do you think with the advent of audience-funded films that film will move in a weirder direction?
Oh yes, I do! Because the thing is, there's got to come some merge of film and games, hasn't there? It's interesting because it's something that the studios seem to be avoiding at all costs. The studios are pushing all of this stuff like 3D and shooting at weird frame rates, but no one's really grasping the nettle that certainly boys, I don't know about young women so much, but boys are kind of deserting the cinema for video games and computer games. So at some point there's gonna be a merge between film and games and it's gonna be the generation of my students, the guys I'm teaching at CU. That's the generation that's gonna make it happen. Something really interesting and weird and unusual and potentially terrifying is going to happen in the cinema. It's got to happen. But it's very problematic, isn't it? Because then film would become like those build-your-own-adventure books where actually you'd shoot a massive amount of material for every film, because the audience can then dictate which direction the story goes in. The director has to prepare a bunch of alternatives. And imagine all the work, how great that's going to be? Because instead of shooting one film you'll have to shoot enough footage for, like, five or six films because what if the audience wants to see a tragedy? Or what if the next night the audience wants to see a comedy? The potential for interactive drama is incredible and very subversive.
It kind of takes away the pedestal and barrier between the artist and audience.
Yeah it does. And that's important, too, because film is such a collaborative medium, except animation films -- but there was never a film that was made by one person other than a short animation film. And yet it's in the interest of the movie business and the culture that we live in to create the idea of the heroic individual. The artist/hero who does it all and pulls the rabbit out of the hat amazingly. But it's not true. Film is such a collaborative medium and depends on so many people working together. There wouldn't be a Citizen Kane if it wasn't for the cinematographer and the art department and the screenwriter. Orson Welles was a genius, but he was only a genius at collaboration with other people.
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