Alex Cox, who wrote and directed cult favorites like Repo Man and Sid & Nancy, is joining CU-Boulder's film studies faculty this fall and will teach screenwriting and film production, as the Daily Camera reported. Cox, who grew up England, studied film at UCLA, then lived in Mexico and Spain before spending the last two decades in Oregon. We caught up with Cox and talked to him about his approach to teaching, Straight to Hell Returns , Repo Man, Joe Strummer, Spaghetti Westerns and a documentary he's working on about Dennis Hopper's 1971 film The Last Movie.
Westword: I'm definitely excited to hear you're coming out to Boulder to teach film. How did you get the gig? Alex Cox: I had the impression that Boulder was a good place, and I was always keeping my eye out to see what they were doing. I discovered through the means of the Chronicle of Higher Education online that they were looking for an assistant professor/film artist. And I thought, "That sounds like a very interesting position." I don't think there are many jobs like that. So I applied, and they actually hired me. So how about that?
WW: Are you looking forward to coming out here?
AC: Yes, I am. I haven't spent that much time at all in Colorado. I've been to touristy places like Mesa Verde and Durango, but I've never spent time there. I have a friend in Telluride as well, so I've been to Telluride, but that's about it, so it's all going to be new. Very new experience.
WW: How long have you been in Oregon?
AC: Nearly twenty years. My wife came here twenty years ago and I followed her a year later.
WW: Were you living in Los Angeles before then?
AC: Before that, I lived in Spain for a while in a place called Tabernas in the desert in Spain. Before that I lived in Mexico City, and before that I lived in Los Angeles in the late-'70s and early-'80s. That's where I met my wife and that's where I went to film school.
WW: Speaking of film school, what are some of things that you'd like to pass on to film students that you've learned over the last few decades?
AC: I think the most useful thing I can do is approach it like I would approach directing a film, which is really to create the nicest and the most creative environment in which the actors and crew people can then do their work. So I guess in the same way with the students in the screenwriting and the production programs my job is to create an environment in which they will do their best work. And that's it. I'm just the environment creator and they have to be creative. My job is to create the interesting, supportive environment and give some structure, perhaps. And I guess ride people and make them hit deadlines and that kind of thing.
But really, I'm quite open to it. And it's interesting because I've seen the films my colleagues have done and some of them have been very specific and the things filmmakers could or could not do, and I think I'd be apt to say you can really do anything you want as long as you can do it. As long as it's in your capacity and as long as it's not going to be awful. But even if it's going to be awful it doesn't really matter, does it? I mean, who's to say something's awful?
WW: Would you say that's the road you've taken? Just kind of do your own thing?
AC: It definitively was when I was a student. When I was a student I was really just aching to get my hands on the equipment. I really wouldn't have to go to any classes, I just wanted to get a hold of the equipment and start making films. But funny enough, when I was at UCLA, some of the most useful classes I went to were critical studies, which at the time I thought, "Oh, God, this is something you have to do in order to get into production." But really, to actually learn kind of in-depth understanding of films and how they came about and know something about films outside your own immediate country or your own immediate language is an extraordinary benefit. That's what so nice about film is that it's like an international art form and there are so many different approaches to it.
WW: Were there any films you saw early on that really resonated with you?
AC: I saw all kinds of great films. On television in England we saw some really classic films like Seven Samurai and Citizen Cane, and all the films that were viewed as the classics a generation ago. Then I was a total consumer of movies. I went to the cinema a lot. I just love going to the movies. The Wild Bunch, 2001, O Lucky Man!... some amazing films. So I just got totally inspired by it and wanted to make films myself. WW: How did you originally get into the Spaghetti Westerns? I know you're quite the scholar of that genre.
AC: I was just terribly excited by them because I knew already the American form. And then what the Italians were doing was so interesting and perverse. They took the original form and kind of turned it around and turned it inside out. Their assumptions were kind of opposite of what the classic American Western directions were. But it was interesting because I think the sort of convergence... the fact that Peckinpah and that Spaghetti Westerns happened at the same time is not a coincidence. It was such a powerful form, such a powerful genre. But it also had reached like a roadblock and it couldn't really go much further, and then there was this incredible anti-western kind of movement in the 60s... these political films. In the case of the Italian western, there were some genuinely surrealist films that got made.
WW: What was the initial inspiration for Straight to Hell?
AC: Straight to Hell was supposed to be a rock and roll tour of Nicaragua involving all those musicians, but we couldn't raise the money for that. Then, the producer of the rock and roll tour thought maybe he could raise the money for a film if we came up with the script quickly. And Joe Strummer, who was one of the actors in it, was a big enthusiast for Spain, for that part of Spain where they made the Westerns where I had my little house. So we both kind of in unison said, "Oh, if we're going to have to make a feature quickly with a whole bunch of rock musicians, lets make it a Spaghetti Western." So we did.
WW: Speaking of Strummer, you've worked with him a lot. He did a great score for Walker.
AC: Yes, he did. It's an incredible score.
WW It's pretty far removed from the Clash, but it still has elements of it in there.
AC: I think of his solo work, it's the best. Of the non-Clash stuff, I really do like that the best of all. He was just really on when he did that, and when he was really on, when he was really confident about what he was doing, he would mix the vocals really loud. And when he wasn't so confident, like Earthquake Weather or Cut the Crap, he would mix the vocals really low so you couldn't tell what the words were. So you could always tell his confidence level. It was very high on Walker, he was really into that.
WW: Didn't he write a lot of that in Mexico?
AC: It was shot in Nicaragua and edited in Nicaragua. After we finished the shooting we were there for another two months editing, and Joe was there at the same time writing the music.
WW: You recently released Straight to Hell Returns. How does differ from the original Straight to Hell?
AC: It's very different. It's the same film, but it has six extra scenes that got cut out. It has additional music that we didn't put in the first time around. We couldn't figure out where to put it in, including another song by Joe. It's got new stuff that we shot especially for it, like extra skeletons and a shot of Miguel Sandoval's feet. It's got a new color treatment, so it looks very different. It looks very kind of pumpkin-y, sort of yellowy orange and black. It looks really different, almost like something's wrong with it in a good way.
In the process of the soundtrack, the audio part opened up, so although the film remains mono most of the time, when there's like wolves howling or wind or music, sometimes it opens up into 5.1 stereo and then folds back into the mono again. But it's quite different. It's really much better. It's more fully realized, I think. Oh, and there's lots more bloodshed because the special effects guys could do all this digital kind of gore and things get splattered everywhere. WW: Was that influenced by Peckinpah at all?
AC: The second time around it's a little bit Peckinpah-esque, but it's more in the style of a Mexican director called Alberto Mariscal, who died last year or the year before in Los Angeles. He made these really mad Mexican Westerns on the sets of the American Westerns that were done by John Wayne. He would then go down and make his own completely weird, demented Westerns. So it's more of an homage to Mariscal. Not many people know about Mariscal, but he's a very good -- and I don't know if it's enough saying he's a good director, but a very interesting director. Another surrealist.
WW: You've worked with a lot of musicians in your films, whether it be Strummer, the Pogues, Courtney Love, Grace Jones. Music is also is a big part of your films, like using scores for Pray for Rain.
AC: It's a big part of most films, isn't it? Unless you don't have any music, which is pretty amazing. If you can do a film without music, that would be pretty cool. Maybe I can do that at Boulder and maybe finally I can do film without music.
WW: You've used a lot of indie music in your films as well.
AC: I can't afford the mainstream stuff. It's too expensive. When we were doing Repo Man we wanted to have a Talking Heads song in the film, but it was $10,000. I was like, "Come on, that's the whole music budget of the film!" So it's interesting with these fake indie films that come out you can always tell if it's a real indie film or if it's not, because if it's a real indie film you've never heard the music before. If there's a bunch of classic rock in there you know it's a studio movie pretending to be an indie film.
I don't think I've ever spent more than a $1,000 on a song. Maybe the opening title of Repo Main because it was Iggy and Steve Jones in the studio and they rented studio time. Maybe the Repo Man cost a couple grand because we would've paid Iggy a fee to do it and then he would have hired musicians and went in the studio. So they were being more serious and there wasn't any kind of price break on it.
WW: Speaking of Repo Man, I think it's held up quite well over the years. Would you agree?
AC: I think that's right. There are good performances. Harry Dean, Fox Harris, whose character is the mad scientist, they're really good characters and they do... and the Tracy Walter character, the guy in the junkyard with the speech about flying saucers. It's all right. It seems to have endured.
WW: Have you had any favorite actors you've worked with over the years?
AC: The nicest actor I've ever worked with is Derek Jacobi, who is incredibly nice, and also Andrew Schofield, who's an actor in Liverpool -- the guy who played Johnny Rotten in Sid & Nancy. He's a really nice guy and a very talented actor. So those two guys are really good. A bunch of the guys I worked with in Mexico were excellent actors. Ed Harris is a very good actor. Del Zamora is a good actor. Miguel Sandoval is a good actor. Marlee Matlin was good too. I remember her. I haven't worked with her since but I thought she was a tremendous actor.
WW: I heard you're working on a new project about Dennis Hopper's 1971 film The Last Movie tentatively titled Dennis Hopper's Last Movie.
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AC: Yeah, it's either called Dennis Hopper's Last Movie or Scene Missing.
WW: Can you tell me about it?
AC: I was talking to some people who had worked on the film, and my goal is to track down as many survivors of the film I can and just interview them about it. It's quite a fascinating film. And it was made at a time when the studios were trying... again, then and now... they've given up now, but they were always for awhile trying to make independent films and they gave like a million dollars to Dennis Hopper and to Monte Hellman for Two Lane Blacktop and to Peter Fonda for The Hired Hand and for a couple of other films. And then the terrible clash that happens when the studio culture meets the independent culture. But the film itself is very interesting. It's very complex, and it seems to have a lot of influence on David Lynch. I would think that Blue Velvet really couldn't exist without The Last Movie. We're trying to track to a print down, so if we can find a print of it, we'll screen it.