By John A. Riley and Mónica Delgado
“Three Businessmen is definitely a critique of that time and that philosophy – the idea that socialism could be abandoned and the aspirations of the working class subordinated to Virgin Trains and trickle-down capitalism.”
Alex Cox (Merseyside, UK, 1954) came to international prominence with American films such as Repo Man and Sid and Nancy. Leaving the studio system, his next films, Il Patrullero, Death and the Compass, were made in Mexico. In the late 90s he returned to his native Liverpool to make Three Businessmen and Revengers Tragedy. More recently, he has embarked on a series of micro-features including Searchers 2.0 and Repo Chick. Alongside his directing work he has presented the BBC’s film strand Moviedrome (which was largely responsible for schooling a generation of British cinephiles), written books (about the Spaghetti Western and about his own career in film) and acted in several productions. He currently teaches film at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Mr. Cox kindly agreed to answer our questions about his long and varied career.
Desistfilm: I have a vivid memory of seeing you introducing Django Kill on BBC TV in the late 90s, which was my first encounter with your work. Your interest in the spaghetti western has been long-standing; can you tell us something about what you saw as the radical potential of these films that were so easily dismissed at the time as violent and exploitative?
Alex Cox: I think I liked them BECAUSE they were violent and exploitative. I was a teenager! But there is something genuinely subversive about Questi’s Django Kill: something disturbing, in the direction of Buñuel and Cronenberg, which I’d never seen in a Western, or indeed in any film (other than the end of Throne of Blood, which also stayed in my mind and both disturbed and inspired me). For a Few Dollars More is a great Italian Western and a near-perfect film. Django Kill, with its perversion, death-fixation, and talking parrot, is something else again.
Desistfilm: Following on from that, do you have any thoughts on Quentin Tarantino and his decision to do his version of a Django film? I always felt his 90s films borrowed heavily from your work in the 80s, and this latest move would seem to confirm that.
AC: No. I think his Django movie is about slaves on the plantation. So it’s a different genre, more in the category of Mandingo and Drum. I liked Drum a great deal too, but I don’t know if this new film will have a lot to do with Italian Westerns. (Samuel Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction certainly seems to be based on Sy Richardson’s in Straight to Hell. And why not? A pity they didn’t give Sy the job!)
Desistfilm: You’ve acted in more than twenty films, in and outside Latin America. It seems like acting was a sort of hobby for you, while you’re not making films. Is this so?
AC: Oh yes, the best hobby one could ever have. I love having something to do on a film set (I’ve never gone to one as a “visitor” and detest people who show up on location just to hang around) and acting is the best job there is. Also one of the easiest jobs there is.
Desistfilm: It’s been impossible not to identify you in the “gringo” role in Latin American and Mexican cinema. How does this stereotype seem to you, being a British foreigner and not an American one?
AC: It’s just great. I’ve been very lucky to work for some excellent directors – Ripstein, El Perrito Estrada, Alex de la Iglesia – and I love playing the Ugly American. Working with students at the University of Colorado I tend to end up playing the English butler. But that’s all right too.
Desistfilm: Returning to the idea of vivid memories, your Three Businessmen opens in an iconic Liverpool location I remember from my childhood. Was there a burning desire to return to your place of birth in this film? Or, put another way, what was the significance, for you, of a global film that begins in Liverpool?
AC: I was so impressed by the city when I was a child. It seemed monumental, massive, designed to impress (as indeed it was). So I was ever so happy to return there in 1996 and to work there for several years. Left to my own devices I would be there still, or else in Tabernas, in the desert in Southern Spain. But my wife, who produced and wrote Three Businessmen, and is more global than me (her father is German-American, her mother Macanese) had other ideas.
Desistfilm: Three Businessmen is one of a handful of films that I know of that could be called satires of the Blair/New Labour era. It seems especially prescient as they had only been in power a year when the film was released. Could you comment on what that film means to you?
AC: It’s definitely a critique of that time and that philosophy – the idea that socialism could be abandoned and the aspirations of the working class subordinated to Virgin Trains and trickle-down capitalism. So much was wrecked by Thatcher in the 1980s and New Labour in the 1990s, and the process of destruction has only accelerated under the Tory/LibDem coalition. You could say the film was prescient but these massive levels of hypocrisy and bogusness and imperialism were there for all to see.
Desistfilm: Could you share some of your experiences working with Robert Tregenza on Three Businessmen? I hear he’s quite a fascinating character, with a PhD and an interest in philosophy alongside his cinematographic achievements.
AC: Bob Rosen, my old professor at UCLA, introduced me to Tregenza’s film Talking to Strangers – nine ten-minute takes. I’d shot El Patrullero, Death and the Compass and The Winner in that style – what the Mexicans call plano secuencia – and so his visual aesthetic seemed just right. He picked an excellent first assistant – Abraham Haile Biru – and they worked wonderfully together. The open secret of any film is that it’s all down the the assistant cameraperson, a.k.a. the focus puller. That person determines whether a shot works or not; on a film with long takes (one of them 11 minutes long) their expertise is utterly crucial.
Desistfilm: Your character’s name in Arturo Ripstein’s La Reina de la Noche is Klaus Eder, which is also the name of the FIPRESCI president. Was this done on purpose as a critique of film critics in some way?
AC: Klaus Eder was a friend of Ripstein and his wive/screenwriter Paz Alicia Garciadiego. So the joke was theirs. I never met the fellow! Fortunately I fell immediately in love with La Reina, and so my acting was completely sincere, whatever my character’s name was.
Desistfilm: Straight to Hell is often seen as a strange achievement, with a sprawling cast of musicians and actors. What motivated you to return to the film and re-cut it 13 years after the first version?
AC: Watching Apocalypse Now Redux, and seeing that missing scene where Marlon Brando has locked Martin Sheen in a shipping container, and reads to him from the pages of Time magazine. Best scene in the movie! Best acting, too! I thought, if only I could revisit one of my old films – especially one which really could be improved – and add to it using all these state of the art video technologies and improve the sound… and then, I realised, I could.
I’d like to shoot a different ending for Sid and Nancy, too. But I’m less fond of that film. Straight to Hell was always one of my favourites and revisiting it, playing around with it, making it more bloodthirsty and giving it a different colour treatment and more skeletons and reinserting the deleted scenes… it was a real treat.
Desistfilm: You’ve expounded at length on the idea of microcinema. What would you say are the defining features and specific advantages of this approach to filmmaking, having now made two such films?
AC: Advantages: it goes much faster! You shoot more quickly. There is no waiting around.
Disadvantages: the budgets are so low that the projects really don’t matter to the investors. These are rich guys who have a bit of money to throw away, and they don’t seem to care whether or not they recoup their investment. Whereas to the filmmaker and the cast and crew who work for little or no money, a good distribution strategy and a financial return are important things.
Desistfilm: You currently teach at the University of Colorado. Other things I’ve read by you always seem to extol the virtues of your old alma mater, UCLA’s film school. What do you think are the advantages of being a student at such an institution. And now you’re a professor, are you still learning yourself?
AC: The advantages are 1. Access to equipment, 2. You might learn something! (you never know), 3. Colleagues who are as crazy about filmmaking as you are, with whom you can stay in partnership and make more films after your leave school. I had a great time at UCLA and some of the people I met there I am still working with. Michael Miner (writer of Robocop) and Tom Richmond (cinematographer of much of my stuff) shot my student film. It would seem pompous and clichéd for me to say that I’m learning from my students. But I am certainly learning from the process, and from watching films like Lonely are the Brave and The Mattei Affair in class. And I’m really impressed by some of the students I work with: by their writing, and by their technical expertise, which already surpasses mine.
Desistfilm: I laughed heartily when reading your accurate stereotyping of British cinema in an interview you gave in 2005 (In this interview, from the book New Punk Cinema book, Cox caricatured British film as trapped in a cycle of Gangster film conventions and cliches) – Do you think much has changed since then? And as an advocate of regionalism in British film (Cox wrote an article about this in Sight and Sound in 2003), what do you think about the career of somebody like Shane Meadows?
AC: Don’t remember what I said! And haven’t seen his films! I pretty much don’t watch anything unless it’s in a foreign language, or black-and-white.
For more about Alex Cox: www.alexcox.com