Writer-director Alex Cox made his auspicious debut with 1984's Repo Man, an influential, punk-spirited science-fiction comedy about speed-addled repo men and alien conspiracies that has become a justly revered cult classic. Cox's next film, 1986's Sid & Nancy, was another punk masterpiece, a biopic of doomed Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and lover Nancy Spungen that seethed with dark energy. Sid & Nancy made Cox a hot commodity, but his next two films—the Buñuel-inspired spaghetti western spoof Straight To Hell and Walker, a stridently political attack on U.S. policies in Central America—ensured that he would remain a perpetual outsider, an iconoclast pursuing his own anarchic vision. Cox has since directed the acclaimed Mexican drama Highway Patrolman, the 1996 comedy The Winner (re-cut in the U.S. without Cox's permission, leading him to remove his name from the credits), a documentary on Akira Kurosawa first screened in the U.S. on the Independent Film Channel, and the still-unreleased Three Businessmen. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke to Cox about The Sex Pistols, the new video and DVD reissue of Repo Man, and plans for a semi-sequel.
The Onion: When did you first encounter punk rock?
Alex Cox: It was either Devo at the Starwood, which was their first Los Angeles performance, or it was an aborted gig at the Elk's Lodge Hall in Los Angeles, which I think The Go-Go's played at. And it was supposed to be the Plugz and X and all these other L.A. bands, but the cops came and shut it down. The man wouldn't let the kids play their music. It was like a police riot: The police were smashing people's heads on the ground and that sort of thing. That was my introduction to the punk-rock scene. Either that or Devo, because both those shows were around the same time.
O: What time would that be?
AC: That would have been 1978 or so. When was the L.A. punk thing? When did it start? A couple years after the English one. Maybe it was '79, because X had already formed and The Go-Go's had already formed. Yeah, all those early bands pretty much existed then, including the Plugz—who later did the music, funnily enough, for Repo Man.
O: Obviously, 1977 was the big year for British punk. Did you feel tuned into that at the time?
AC: I was, actually. In '76 and '77, I was in Bristol, so there was a little bit of punk stuff going on, but I never saw any of the bands play. Then I went to the States and went to UCLA to go to film school.
O: Was there much of a culture shock going from Bristol to UCLA?
AC: It was terrifying, yeah. Not so much UCLA but the city of Los Angeles itself. UCLA is sort of an attempt at being the ivy-covered halls of academia, but it's surrounded by this vast miasma of smog, buildings, roads, and garbage. It was terrifying, really, to be in Los Angeles. After about a year, you start to get used to it.
O: What about the weather?
AC: The sun never stops shining. Every day is the same.
O: It's kind of creepy, isn't it?
AC: Yeah, it's really creepy. The only way you know what season it is is by how much smog there is, because by August the smog has built up to its thickest, and then it'll rain and the smog dissipates a bit. Then the winter comes, but the sun still shines every day. Not a cloud in the sky. It's intimidating.
O: Where did you come up with the idea for Repo Man?
AC: I had a neighbor who was a repo man, and I ended up driving around with him and earning the occasional small sum for driving home cars he had repossessed. Or driving his car home after he repoed somebody else's car. Just by chance, I knew this fellow who was a car repossessor.
O: And it struck you as an interesting subject?
AC: It has sort of an emblematic quality, doesn't it? A symbolic quality about what the repo man does: He's the criminal of capitalism.
O: How did Repo Man get made?
AC: I had these two very good partners from UCLA: Peter McCarthy and Jonathan Wacks. Everybody who goes to film school wants to be a director, obviously, but they graciously agreed to put their directorial ambitions on hold for a little while to produce a film for me. So I wrote my script, and the budget was going to be too much, so they said, "Go away and write another one." This is the second one I wrote, and it went through 14 drafts over a period of about two years. Finally, the former Monkee, Michael Nesmith, took the project to a studio and they put up the money. At the time, the head of the studio was the guy who'd worked for [B-movie legend Roger] Corman, a guy who'd actually come out of the Corman empire; his name was Bob Rehme. His idea was to make a lot of films: Make them as cheap as you can and make a lot of them, because some of them will hit. So he green-lit Repo Man and he green-lit Francis Ford Coppola's Rumble Fish, both of which are quite unusual.
O: Hollywood is so cautious nowadays, and to think of somebody giving people a chance…
AC: Yeah, and even to get Coppola to do a film that was in black and white and weird and wasn't going to make any money… He was a cool guy, Rehme. He made lots of films that didn't make any money, but it didn't matter because some of them did or some of them had some kind of quality that paid off. But he ended up being replaced halfway through the post-production period, and then the film was doomed. That was my introduction to the world of film.
O: I heard the people who ran the studio after that weren't big on Repo Man.
AC: Not on any of the films that were made, because whenever a studio changes hands, it's essential to make the incumbent's product fail. Otherwise, why was the guy fired? Repo Man and Rumble Fish and films like that can't possibly be allowed to make a profit, because then Rehme was a good studio head who showed sound judgement. You can't have that.
O: How did Michael Nesmith become involved with your films?
AC: Abbe Wool, who was the video coordinator on Repo Man and then the co-screenwriter of Sid & Nancy, and later a director [most notably of Roadside Prophets —ed.] in her own right, introduced Peter and Jonathan to a producer in the Valley who had a contract with Nesmith. And I think Nesmith was interested because he thought the script was funny, and because he's actually had cars repossessed during his lean years.
O: Head [a 1968 Monkees vehicle] is a strange film.
AC: It is, but it's quite good, isn't it? It's got good things in it.
O: It's one of the weirder studio films.
AC: Yeah, it is. Did you ever see Lord Love A Duck? [It's a truly bizarre, anarchic high-school comedy starring Roddy McDowall and Tuesday Weld and written and directed by George Axelrod, the playwright and screenwriter behind Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, The Manchurian Candidate, and many others. —ed.]
O: I've heard of it.
AC: It's a weird film that's got some of that same odd quality of Head.
O: It's unfortunate that films like that don't seem to get made anymore.
AC: Well, the corporate philosophy now is to keep as small an inventory as possible. So they have as few films as possible and they spend as much money as they can making and marketing them. Or they pretend to. It certainly does reduce consumer choice when there's an awful lot less to look at.
O: It seems like studios want to hedge their bets and do a couple of films that will absolutely be big, rather than a bunch of films that may or may not do well.
AC: And the strange thing is that films flop anyway, yet the studios continue. Which leads some people, most of them outside the United States, to suspect that the studios are really a money-laundering operation for the mob. That couldn't be true, could it?
O: I don't know exactly. That would make a whole lot more sense.
AC: Wow, could that be? Nah. Because Las Vegas isn't, is it? The studios wouldn't be, either. No criminal activity there at all. No, no, no.
O: There is an increased Hollywood presence in Vegas.
AC: They've merged until they've become the same thing. The studios relentlessly promote Las Vegas in their films. It's really weird, for such a sickly place, how many films are set there.
O: It's unfortunate how few good films are being released, and how audiences will just laugh at whatever is in front of them because that's all they have access to.
AC: I think they're being denied it. Another generation comes along that's never had it, so what they laugh at is what they get. I sort of suspect that there's actually an audience with intelligence and a desire to see slightly weirder and quirkier films. But if you don't develop that audience and don't encourage them and don't nurture them the way we used to be nurtured by double bills and repertory cinemas and stuff… I mean, the cinema will just be like a great big Pokémon game.
O: Do you think of Repo Man as a political film?
AC: I think it is fairly political, but I think pretty much all films are political, aren't they? They all promote a certain point of view. I think, in a sense, that Repo Man tends to promote a non-consumerist and anarchic point of view. It's not the normal thing that would be promoted. Most films would tend to promote… There's another kind of completely non-criminal and legal activity Hollywood engages in called product placement. You can line your pockets fantastically if you agree to prominently feature Marlboros or Coca-Cola or Budweiser and other ghastly products in your film. And one hand washes the other: You get free FedEx and free beer as long as you… Do you remember a film called Tequila Sunrise? There's this one shot in Tequila Sunrise which is the exterior of Mel Gibson's house. And the FedEx truck is turning around in the driveway, and it pulls away to reveal a billboard that says Coca-Cola. Or maybe it reveals a UPS truck behind it. You just think, "Wow! I just saw a shot that has no bearing on the film at all."
O: There's a particularly egregious example of that in The Thomas Crown Affair, where a full minute is devoted to Rene Russo rapturously enjoying a Pepsi One. It just sort of lingers on her drinking.
AC: The most important line of dialogue in the film Wall Street, for me, was Martin Sheen saying, "Two more Molson Golds over here." There was absolutely no reason for him to say that. Even in a bar, why would he drink that shit anyway? Even in a bar, if you're having two more, you say, "Two more beers, please." The barman knows what you're drinking. It was such a corrupt line of dialogue, with an actor of the stature and quality of Martin Sheen uttering it. And that was years ago.
O: You've got the great scene in Repo Man where he opens the refrigerator and everything is generic. That's one of the things people remember most about Repo Man.
AC: The problem with the film is that you can't really do that with the cars, because you'll always end up talking about a Ford or a Chevy or something. It's difficult: If we'd invented car types, the film would have seemed too strange, wouldn't it?
O: The whole tone and attitude of Repo Man seems a little ahead of its time. Do you see that at all?
AC: It's endlessly being imitated, isn't it? Even in the present day, there are all these people in movies quoting it and little scenes being ripped off from it. They turned one of the characters into the spokesman for the Yellow Pages on television. They had Tracey Walter, the actor, driving around in a car in L.A., saying stuff like, "I refuse to drive. I let my fingers do the walking," and that kind of thing. But I think it reflects that, too. It comes out of popular culture, and it's reflecting a lot of other films. It's sort of a societal artifact in itself.
O: In Repo Man, the trunk with the sort of nuclear capability obviously seems like an homage to Kiss Me Deadly.
AC: Of course.
O: Which in turn was recycled in Pulp Fiction.
AC: It's also in the Buñuel film with Catherine Deneuve, Belle De Jour, where she has a relationship with the Asian guy: He shows her this box and you never see what's in it, but you hear this buzzing and she looks really excited. That's one of those old things. You ask, "What's in the box?" and you never get to see.
O: Do you feel validated by the fact that Repo Man has found such a devoted audience?
AC: It is very gratifying. I'm very lucky, really, because it's such a strange film, yet most people seem to have seen it. It's quite incredible, since the film, according to the studio, didn't break even until last year. It didn't recoup its $1.2 million until 1999. But it's not true, because you know the film has been seen by a lot of people. It's unfortunate in the sense that the creative accounting in the studio says to me that you never really see any money. It is gratifying that people have seen it, although the studios are very bad and criminal, and they keep all the money and defame the filmmaker and all that kind of stuff. But they never actually altered the content of the film. The version of Repo Man that plays in the cinema and on the DVD really is the one I edited. It's the best attempt I could make at the film. And it was the same studio with Walker, although there was disastrous distribution with that, as well. They never actually altered the content of it or messed with the film, so I have to say thanks, because I think things have gotten much worse now. I think there's so much market testing that quite often the director gets thrown off, they bring on another director, and they re-edit the film, and I was very lucky that that didn't happen.
O: Did you write Harry Dean Stanton's character with him in mind?
AC: It's actually written for Dennis Hopper, although it was actually written for Lee Ving, who is in a band in L.A. called Fear. It was originally written for Lee Ving, and then it sort of… Originally, I was thinking of doing the film with the four guys from Fear, as Repo Men. But then, when its ambitions grew a little bit and Fear had a different direction to go in, I think he wasn't so keen on the punk thing; he was trying to be more like a rocker. So then we tried to do it with Dennis Hopper, and we made a pilgrimage to New Mexico and looked for Dennis, but we couldn't find him. Then it devolved to Harry, but Harry was so perfect.
O: For years, there's been talk of a Repo Man sequel, even though the original apparently just made its money back.
AC: That's what they say. But I don't know. It remains to be seen. We certainly haven't been approached by the studio, although for a long time Peter [McCarthy] and I pursued a film with kind of a Repo Man-ish twist to it, which is called Waldo's Hawaiian Holiday. Maybe that'll happen one day. You never know.
O: What is Waldo's Hawaiian Holiday?
AC: It's the story of a young man who vanished and returns 15 years later. He's gone around the corner for a drive in somebody else's car and gets out of the car 15 minutes later, but 15 years have passed. It's sort of a punk rocker from L.A., circa 1983, finding himself back in the World Trade Order of the late '90s. And human beings have been declared obsolete, so they're training animals to drive cars and do simple tasks, where the only job you can get is one carrying great rocks back and forth all day under the hot sun for $1. It's a more extreme and more grisly 15-years-later version of Repo Man, so perhaps it's not surprising that it hasn't gotten made.
O: Walker must have been difficult to get made: It's a blatantly leftist film, and it was released at the height of Reagan and Thatcher. How hard was it to get that made?
AC: It was very difficult, but again I had a brilliant producer, Lorenzo O'Brien, who later was the screenwriter and producer of Highway Patrolman. You tend to forget the importance of producers, because directors and actors always tend to hog the limelight, but you can't make a good film without a good producer.
O: Walker was written by Rudy Wurlitzer.
AC: Can't make a good film without a good writer, either.
O: What attracted you to his screenplay for Walker?
AC: I liked things I'd seen him do for other directors, like Two-Lane Blacktop and Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid. That always seemed to be a very interesting film, Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid. Even if it wasn't entirely successful, it was about fame, in the sense that it was craved by the Billy The Kid and the Pat Garrett type. It was just like being able to climb and claw your way to the top of the pile of bodies and kind of stand there waving a severed arm, which is the pinnacle of success in Western culture. That seemed to be the message of Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, although it got a little diluted. And I really like Rudy. I was introduced to him by Harry Dean Stanton at a film festival, and we really hit it off. He's such a nice guy and such a good friend.
O: I read that you were offered Three Amigos right after Sid & Nancy. How did that come about?
AC: Oh, it was a studio thing, because at that point I would be apt to get offered a studio project. In a certain sense, the trajectory of my career should have been to accept that job or accept Robocop, which I was also offered, and go do one of them. The problem was that they all seemed to me to have… I thought Paul Verhoeven did a fantastic job with Robocop, but it seemed to me that the films had a reactionary agenda. Three Amigos really seemed to be an apology for American involvement in Latin America. That was the overall message of it, that it's all right for us to go down into Mexico and sort these beaners out. I had a meeting with Steve Martin where I said to him, "Of course, we're going to have to address the issue of the Central American and El Salvador business. We have to talk about all that before we can really get to the other stuff." [Laughs.] That was the end of me. They don't want to talk about that stuff; they want to be popular and rich—popular more than rich. I think popular is the most important thing, and rich is also very important.
O: They kind of go hand in hand.
AC: [Laughs.] So that was out, but I wouldn't have been a very good director for Three Amigos anyway. It's a very packaged film. You can't really deviate from the script very much or come up with witty improvisation. Some unusual casting, maybe, but it's otherwise quite generic.
O: Were you offered any other big films around that time?
AC: Actually, the only one I wish I could have done—I was unfortunately doing Walker at the time—was The Running Man with Arnold Schwarzenegger. That seemed to me to have quite a good… The politics of The Running Man were quite good. It was sort of a left-wing thing, and they had Nelson Mandela Airport and stuff like that in it. The execution of the film wasn't nearly as good as, say, Paul Verhoeven would have done, so I thought maybe I could have done a good job.
O: I've heard that John Lydon is not a big fan of Sid & Nancy.
AC: I think he was almost doing us a favor by complaining about it, because you remember the controversy of how The Sex Pistols were born, and how it was all negative publicity. We'd talked to him about the script, he'd seen the script, I'd had conversations with him, he'd met the actor [Andrew Schofield] who was going to play him… He was very friendly to us, so I think him bad-mouthing the film was really a great act of kindness, actually. But both he and [manager Malcolm] McLaren kind of dissed it. I thought it was very kind of them, because it made it controversial. And, interestingly, the next album Lydon did after Sid & Nancy was the generic one, which is called CD or Album or Cassette. And it was a light blue package with a white stripe on it and just the word "album," which was the generic packaging we'd used in Repo Man. So I thought there were really no real hard feelings at all. I thought it was rather a charming response to the film. He's a good lad.