After winning accolades with his punk-oriented art films Repo Man and Sid & Nancy, director Alex Cox seemed poised to join David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, and the Coen brothers as one of the defining independent filmmakers of the '80s. Then Cox's ragged 1987 film Straight To Hell bombed, and he followed it up immediately with Walker, a semi-historical action film about 19th-century American political misadventures in Nicaragua. Cox's tongue-in-cheek approach to storytelling and undisguised disgust with the Reagan administration's Central America policy brought down the wrath of critics and irked his host studio, Universal.
In the decades that followed, Cox scurried to the margins of independent cinema, making documentaries for British television and low-budget genre films that either went straight to video or died on the festival circuit. But in 2008, Cox may be on the verge of a revival. The Criterion Collection recently released a features-packed DVD of Walker—which has gained a reputation over the past 20 years as a neglected classic—and Cox's most recent film, Searchers 2.0, has drawn good reviews for its laconic story of two aging actors traveling cross-country to gain closure on a traumatic incident from their shared past. Cox recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the ups and downs of his career, and whether he'll ever work in Hollywood again.
The A.V. Club: What's the status of Searchers 2.0 getting wider distribution?
Alex Cox: You'd have to ask Roger Corman and his crack team of salespeople. They're in charge of sales, both domestic and international. It's been sold to Japan and England, and I think maybe they're going to make an Italian sale. I don't know what the American fate of it is. I hope it will have one. [Laughs.]
AVC: Several of your recent films haven't had much theatrical distribution in the States. Does that bother you, or do you just consider it a byproduct of the kind of films you make?
AC: What can you do, you know? Distribution is controlled by the studios, and I've been on the blacklist of the studios for the last 20 years. It's not very likely that I'm going to get New Line to come along and distribute one of my films.
AVC: Do you ever get inquiries from mainstream Hollywood about working for them again?
AC: Not in 20 years. Not after Walker. The last movie I was asked to direct was The Running Man… which was actually quite a good film, I thought. I would have liked to have done The Running Man. It was just that Walker happened at the same time.
AVC: If a studio were to call, would you answer?
AC: If it was something as good as The Running Man! [Laughs.] But the blacklist is permanent, I don't think you could take me off it.
AVC: Is it just because they perceive you as difficult to work with because of Walker? Or is there something else going on?
AC: I don't know. You could call them and ask them. [Laughs.]
AVC: Prior to Walker, you made Straight To Hell, which didn't do so well, but before that you made Repo Man and Sid & Nancy, both of which were arthouse successes. So what were the expectations for Walker, both from you and from Universal?
AC: The original deal we made was that Walker would be treated like a regular movie, rather than an arthouse thing. I may be wrong, but Lorenzo O'Brien, who was the producer, and Rudy Wurlitzer, who wrote the script, and I all thought that if we could do a film that had enough violence, jokes, and beautiful women, it could appeal to a wider audience as a sort of satirical Western in the style of Blazing Saddles. But at a certain point, the studio decided that wasn't the case, and the film would instead be treated as an art film, which meant a very limited release and a very low budget for the advertising.
AVC: As far back as 1974, in the middle of what's usually considered a golden age for Hollywood directors, critic Pauline Kael wrote an essay in which she argued that studios actively tried to sabotage the careers of filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, and Sam Peckinpah, because they didn't have any control over what those directors would do. Was that your experience in the '80s?
AC: I was just a boy in the early '70s, so I didn't know anything about it, except that I saw those directors' films. I think really it's all political. I think that's different. There might have been personality conflicts between Peckinpah and the studio people, and maybe the other directors too. There weren't really any personality conflicts between me and the studio. But my film is intentionally political. And I think that's really the issue.
AVC: Do you think the politics of Walker also explains why critics didn't go for it as strongly at the time?
AC: Yeah, definitely. If you were to actually read the reviews, it's very interesting. There was obviously a set line being distributed. Not everyone went with it: The New York Times guy, Vincent Canby, gave us a very good review. But in general, there was a sort of model to the reviews by Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, and all the rest of them that trashed Walker. And it was threefold: The film was full of blood spurting, and that was bad; the anachronisms were bad; and the word "clever" was used as a pejorative. If you read the reviews that came out that first week of Walker, there's kind of a patent to them, like they've been given their instructions and they're just churning it out. It was interesting.
AVC: On the DVD, there's a clip of you reading those reviews.
AC: Ah, then you know! Did you watch the documentary they put together from the footage Terry Schwartz shot?
AVC: Yes. You had an amazing mustache back then.
AC: Well, I didn't have a girlfriend. [Laughs.] I like that documentary a lot. I think it conveys a lot of the feelings at the time, about the enthusiasm surrounding the Sandinista movement. Because Walker was only really made to support the Sandinistas. To support the Nicaraguan revolution. I think that Terry's documentary makes that really clear. But it doesn't make us look particularly great, you know, because there we are screwing the extras, not paying anybody anything. We were this "mean" movie, exploiting people, which in the bigger context of all this stuff, I think is really wonderful.
AVC: You've traveled to a lot of hot spots to make your films. Have you ever had any brushes with death?
AC: Only in Los Angeles! [Laughs.] Nothing bad ever happens anywhere except in L.A. I got run over one time in Ojai and robbed at knifepoint in Venice, California. But the rest of the world is fine. [Laughs.]
AVC: Were you nervous about going to Nicaragua, with the news at the time being so dire?
AC: Well, that was why I really wanted to do it. The news was so dire, and the country was being painted in such a negative light. Some of the actors were afraid to go, because they thought they'd be killed. And unless you were a farmer living on the border in Costa Rica or the border of Honduras, you were in no danger, because the Contras never had any presence inside Nicaragua; it was just this endless border war. And the American presence at the border was huge. A hundred thousand American troops rotated to Honduras to calm the threat. An American invasion is what the people of Nicaragua were afraid of. They weren't afraid of the Contras in particular. It was more the enormous drain on the economy and on people's lives. So no, we were really well-treated and we weren't in any danger, except from the usual: riding buses to the location and that kind of thing. It was very well-managed, the shoot. Very well-organized by Lorenzo and by the Nicaraguan partners he had with him.
AVC: In the documentary, Ed Harris says one of the reasons he wanted to do the film is because it was going to be shot in Nicaragua.
AC: I think everyone felt that. All the actors went down there for that reason: Marlee Matlin, the Mexican actors, all the Americans. Everybody wanted to see Nicaragua. Peter Boyle, who played Vanderbilt… originally we had another actor play Vanderbilt, but it didn't quite work out. I couldn't exactly direct him well enough or something. The performance wasn't quite at the same level as the other actors. Lorenzo had some money left over on the budget, because we'd underspent, and he was like, "Let's reshoot Vanderbilt with Boyle." And Peter Boyle said, "Look, I'll do it for free. I'm embarrassed now because I was afraid to go down. I wish I had gone down to Nicaragua, so now just tell me when to show up and I'll be there." So there was a real big solidarity to the Nicaraguan thing. Outside of Hollywood, a lot of actors and crew people really had sympathy with it.
AVC: Your films come from a tradition of cult filmmaking, where often the appeal is that sometimes these movies just disappear. Oftentimes, you'll hear, "Oh, I saw that film in Times Square in 1972, and now it's tied up with rights issues, and only a hundred people ever saw it." And that's part of the fun for cult-movie fans. Given that, for you, is it satisfying or dismaying to have Walker available in a really nice special-edition DVD?
AC: Yes it is satisfying to have Walker available. At last! For the first time in 20 years, in the United States, Walker is available in a nice package from a reputable company. It's great!
AVC: So there's no part of you that likes the idea of making a movie that fades into rumor?
AC: Not at all! Artists make their work to be seen by others. Well, really we do it to please ourselves, but whatever your art is, you want it to be seen by an audience. In theory, especially in the independent world, ironically, you do stand a chance of making a bit of money if the film gets distribution. If the studio controls distribution, they'll eat up the profits with the distribution expenses. But if you actually can make an independent film, get it to the cinema, and get it on DVD, there's a chance you'll make a living. So it's tough. The cult thing is really a curse, because it means the object has vanished, it's disappeared. It's hard on the basis of that to get another film going. Or to buy dog food! [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you still consider your films to be informed by punk? Or was that aspect of your origins overblown?
AC: I think the punk thing was a revolutionary movement. Very surrealist. I never thought I was a part of it, because it was more of an English thing, and I was in the states. What we got in Los Angeles was "California punk," which was very specific to Los Angeles. I thought that punk in its original state was a revolutionary movement. But like surrealism, it failed in its revolutionary attempt.
AVC: Is it hard to rectify what punk stands for and also make movies that cost a lot of money?
AC: Yeah! I think so. I think that's right, because the money… we spend an awful lot of money on a movie. Twenty percent goes back to the studio for overhead. Who knows how much is going to get eaten up by the principal actors? Even making Repo Man for $1.5 million seemed like a waste of money to me. We had two guys in a car, and yet we have to have a tow truck, a car trailer, another huge vehicle behind it, police cars in front, motorcycle outriders. The only thing we were missing was a Roman Centurion riding along at the front with a big banner. "Here comes the movie!" And I think it's grandiose. A lot of the time, this last one we did, nobody even knew we were there. We'd be shooting in places, and people would just walk right past us. You film much quicker and have more fun that way.
AVC: Even when you aren't making features, you seem to be staying busy with documentaries about your own pet interests, like spaghetti Westerns, the films of Kurosawa, and softcore pornography.
AC: We were lucky, because we knew a guy who was a commissioning editor at Channel 4, so for a couple of years, Tod and I were able to make film-related documentaries for Channel 4. You do make a bit of money. And it's also pretty interesting to meet, like, Kurosawa's collaborators. Documentaries are quite different. They're less stressful to make.
AVC: Do you consider your taste in film to be fairly broad, or do you focus on specific genres and sort of live there?
AC: I kind of watch films that people make and send to me, or that my friends have made. Margaret Matheson, who is a producer I've worked with a couple of times, just sent me a film called Sleeping Furiously. It's all set in Wales. It's a documentary about the decline of country life, and it's so rigorous. The guy never moves the camera. It's all slow and beautiful and then at one point, these piglets are being born, and the filmmaker can't resist moving the camera. Just two or three inches to the left to incorporate all of these piglets. And I went, "Aha!" Because he subordinated the rigorous aesthetic to the drama of the moment. And that's in a documentary film about rural life in Wales! So I can find that kind of pleasure in any kind of film, when they surprise you. When they break their own rules to do something that's more adventurous.
AVC: Do you watch a lot of films that aren't like your own?
AC: I used to when I was on the airplane a lot. I'd watch mainstream films and stuff. Not so much since I've tried to fly less. If I have to go to Los Angeles, I go on the train now.
AVC: Why are you flying less?
AC: Well, it's not very nice to go to the airport anyway, but I think we should take alternative means of transport when possible, because of the environmental damage which we've already done far too much of. And Amtrak is more fun! You get a compartment with a view of the Pacific, and ride down the coast in style.
AVC: But if you have to be somewhere at a certain time…
AC: Leave a day early! That was the way we made Searchers. I never got on a plane during Searchers. I would take the train down to L.A. We rented a couple of cars and drove them down to Monument Valley, then drove them back to Oregon. They were still cars, but it was a modest number of vehicles compared to the other shoots. Jon Davison, the producer of Searchers, had the biggest convoy in movie history. L.A. to Montana. I think he liked that.
AVC: How long have you lived in Oregon?
AC: My wife moved here 17 or 18 years ago, and we got together a year after that.
AVC: Your wife's name is Tod?
AC: She's Tod Davies. The producer and writer of Three Businessmen and Revengers Tragedy.
AVC: When I saw you were married to someone named Tod, I assumed… something different.
AC: Well, when we were doing Walker, I was going out with a woman named Joe for a little while. And Joe Strummer was there too, so various people were convinced that we were lovers. It wasn't so. [Laughs.]
AVC: You worked with Joe Strummer at an unusual time, because The Clash were pretty much done, but he hadn't really started his solo career in earnest yet. Did you have any sense of what was going through his head at that time, as far as his future?
AC: I think he was going to spend a little bit of time where he didn't have to make a decision. He kind of wanted to kick back for a couple of years. Which is very nice, if you can do a job where you don't have to be the front person, where you can just be a supporter. I worked second unit for Lorenzo O'Brien in Mexico City, and it was wonderful. You get to direct, but the pressure's off. I guess doing soundtrack music was a bit like that for Joe. He could write these soundtracks, like for Walker, that were incredible, but he wasn't tying his hands to the whole project like he'd have to with an album. I think he felt ambivalent about it. On the one hand, he wanted to break into the American market, but on the other hand, he didn't, really. So he was very ambivalent, and the good thing about Walker is that he was completely into it. He didn't have any doubt about the score he was writing. He was very confident. Sometimes with his solo work he would tend to be unconfident compared to this.
AVC: Anything lined up yet for your next project?
AC: I want to work for Roger Corman again! He understands it all. And I had a really good time working with Jon Davison, and I'd love to work with him again. And Lorenzo. I'd be lucky to work with those producers, if I can persuade them to work with me again.
AVC: Is Corman still a vital part of this business? Is he still in there, hands-on?
AC: Aside from the fact that some kind of Scandinavian interview people will show up to interview him for half the day, yeah. I mean, he's an actor in the Searchers film. He plays the producer of the film. So he's very vibrant. He's very agile. Would that we all were. [Laughs.]