Film In Conversation
Alex Cox with David Wilentz
Starting with Repo Man, director Alex Cox has successfully subverted mainstream culture (and the studio system) with several definitive cult films. Cox was present for the screenings of two of his films at this year’s Film Comments Selects series at Lincoln Center. Their presentation of the surreal 1987 biopic Walker, based on the true story of an American who seized the presidency of Nicaragua from 1856–1857, coincided with the DVD release on Criterion. Cox’s latest, Searchers 2.0,showed the director undaunted by limitations of budget or lack of major studio support. The Brooklyn Rail sat down with Mr. Cox for a conversation about filmmaking, imperialism and spaghetti Westerns.
Rail: Tell us about Searchers 2.0.
Alex Cox: It’s about two guys seeking revenge. I wrote this on the basis of something Rudy [Wurlitzer] and I wanted to do. I was trying to persuade Rudy that he and I should drive out to Monument Valley to see The Searchers on a great big inflatable screen, because the year before last was the 50th anniversary of the film. But Rudy didn’t want to go, so I went anyway. And it just stuck in my head that we could do something about this—the oddness of having this inflatable screen put up in a desert when the film is watched by maybe a dozen people. Once Upon a Time in the West the year before was literally a dozen people. When they showed The Searchers it was a bit better attended because it was a slightly different time of year and all the tourists came from Goulding’s Trading Post. All these Japanese, Italians, French, Germans and English filled up the house. It was based on the experience of going to see those films and trying to persuade Rudy to go…and failing. And ultimately it’s about the futility of revenge.
Rail: This is a microfeature, right? What is that?
Cox: A microfeature is made for $180,000 or less under the SAG low-low budget agreement, which actually was negotiated by one of the actors in the film. Sy Richardson was on the SAG committee, which created this new form where you literally can pay the actors a hundred bucks a day. The committee created this because they knew there was this void where films were being made but they couldn’t employ SAG actors, hence they made this kind of little realm for very low-budget films.
Rail: How did Rudy Wurlitzer get involved with Walker?
Cox: I asked Rudy to write it. I wanted to make a film in Nicaragua. I thought all people of goodwill should be in solidarity with the Sandinistas. Because I was a filmmaker the best thing I could do was go and make a film there. Bring them money!
Rail: The anachronisms were in the original screenplay?
Cox: Our film actually is about William Walker. That was the guy and these are things he did, although somewhat re-ordered. [The anachronisms] were in there from the beginning. I think they were Rudy’s idea because we didn’t want to make a conventional movie [at the Q&A Rudy said it was Alex’s idea]. If you had made Walker in the conventional way it would be the story of an honest journalist who goes down to Nicaragua along with Walker and then becomes disgusted and alienated by the corruption of a once noble project. But the project was never noble! It was always imperialist, so we couldn’t approach it in that kind of bogus Hollywood way so we thought, let’s really go for it. We’re going to make a film about evil madmen. And Ronald Reagan is the president so let’s bring it up to date and let’s show the parallels between the evil madman Walker and the evil madman Reagan, partially through these anachronisms but also by including Reagan at the end.
Rail: How did you get a subversive film like this through Universal [Studios]?
Cox: I think it was because of my and Rudy’s prior experience with Universal. While they are a studio, and therefore agents of the devil, they also had had a kind of flirtation with interesting filmmakers. They’d made Two Lane Blacktop and The Last Movie with Dennis Hopper, as well as Repo Man, so somewhere within the black heart of Universal was a notion that they should try and engage with interesting filmmakers. And because Two Lane and Repo Man had such bad distribution I think they were thinking, “We can do this film with Cox and Wurlitzer and it will redeem the relationship in someway, and demonstrate that Universal isn’t just an evil place, but filmmaker-friendly.” Of course it didn’t turn out that way because the film was too political. They couldn’t really support it. Going into it I don’t think they knew it was going to be shot in Nicaragua. I think they thought it would be shot in Mexico. They weren’t expecting the Hollywood ending and they knew that Walker died in the end but an article appeared in the New York Times saying that we were in collaboration with the Sandinistas and implicit in that was that there was something wrong with this. And that’s when the spaghetti hit the fan. They realized then that they were involved with a project more political and problematic than they’d anticipated.
Rail: What is your Against the World project?
Cox: It’s a good idea isn’t it? I sent it to the History Channel (laughs). Floyd Webster Rudmin, a Canadian academic, wrote a book about an American covert action, sort of SAS/S.W.A.T. type special forces base that had been established on the Canadian border. He started investigating this and the Pentagon told him, “It’s just for Latin and Central America tactics.” Well, why is it on the Canadian border in the snow and they’re all dressed in white uniforms? And why are they skiing. This was in the ’60s or ’70s. There was STILL an American plan to invade Canada if necessary; to seize their resources. NAFTA made it unnecessary to invade Canada or Mexico because we own Canada and Mexico now. It would be a great documentary. The interesting thing about the Mexican invasion plan is that it’s exactly what they’ve done in Iraq. You charge in and cause complete chaos. And it shows that Iraq isn’t a mistake. Everything has happened pretty much I imagine as they expected. But it doesn’t matter because our goal is not to bring democracy or whatever else we pretend we’re doing. It’s to take their oil. Anybody in the service will tell you, “We’ve established 14 permanent bases in Iraq that are going to be there”…well McCain says 100 years. But it won’t be 100 years because the oil will run out in 20. But we’re going to be there. And when you see the battle plan for Mexico it’s exactly the same as what they’ve done in Iraq: setting up a puppet government and creating an untenably unstable situation within the country.
Rail: Talk about Spaghetti Westerns starting with your old and new books.
Cox: When I was a graduate student at UCLA I was in the critical studies department and wanted to shift to production. So I wrote my thesis double quick, a book about Spaghetti Westerns called 10,000 Ways to Die. But that was the ’70s and it was very structuralist, semiotics, you had to break everything up into symbols and in so doing reduce it to a nub of irrelevance. I put a PDF of it on my website in case anyone was interested and then this English publishing company asked if I wanted to publish it. I said not really, but I’ll write you another one that’s just chronological, that starts with the first Corbucci movie (Massacre at Grand Canyon). Year by year and then probably just one chapter on the ’70s because I don’t like the Spaghettis of the ’70s. My Name is Nobody is okay, Keoma is okay, but it’s nothing compared to the richness of what was coming out in ’65–’68.
Rail: Why does that sub-genre mean so much to you and how has it informed your work?
Cox: I don’t really know why it means so much to me except that it’s a bit like the Jacobean or Renaissance revenge dramas in that both talk about their own, contemporary society, but through a glass of another form. The English playwrights like Shakespeare, Middleton and Webster would be writing about the Italian courts or the courts of Denmark, but really they’re talking about their own society but they can’t talk about their own society because of censorship issues so they have to talk about foreigners and the bad things foreigners do. And it’s the same way with the Italians. Not everybody can be Francesco Rossi and make Lucky Luciano and The Mattei Affair. Very few people were fortunate to make such brilliantly overt political films. A lot of people working in popular cinema had political concerns so they made popular cinema…with politics! Like Sergio Sollima and The Big Gundown or Valerii’s The Price of Power, Damiani’s Bullet for the General…Tepepa is another good one. Plus the shootin’ and killin’ and cutting off of ears was so entertaining.
Rail: You have a project about Bunuel, right?
Cox: I tried to get the life story of Bunuel on. We have a script you can download on my site. It’s called Bugs Are my Business. He’d wanted to be an entomologist. We had an incredible cast for that movie: Jeanne Moreau playing his wife, Javier Bardem as the young Bunuel and Sy Richardson as Louis B. Mayer. And for the old Bunuel we talked to Martin Landau, Dennis Hopper, everybody wanted to play Bunuel. But Bunuel is an old Spaniard. They’ve forgotten him. Then we were going to do a puppet version. That’s still my goal but I’m also trying to persuade Rudy Wurlitzer that we should do a puppet version of Zebulon, his western that was never made. I’m thinking we can put the puppets on the backs of dogs (for horses). It’s cheaper to work with puppets and we can put the voices later. We just go to Jeanne Moreau’s house and say “Can we record your dialogue?”
Rail: Talk about some new films that you think are great.
Cox: Writing this book I have to watch hundreds of Spaghetti Westerns so I haven’t seen any new films. I recently saw a really good 35mm print of Django at the Venice Biennale Spaghetti Western retrospective. The lights come up and there is Django himself, Franco Nero with [his wife] Vanessa Redgrave and director Corbucci’s widow Nori. I watched Django again, because it’s very important and different from the Leone films, and tried to figure out these characters that don’t say much and are kind of odd. I think both Django and Maria, the prostitute, are suffering from post-traumatic stress. She has been beaten, whipped and threatened with being tied to a burning cross; he’s obviously had some extraordinary experiences, fought in the Civil War, stolen a machine gun and is dragging it around in a coffin. These are seriously abused people, severely messed-up. If you look at the film in that sense then the oddness of their performances makes more sense. It’s not that they’re bad or wooden but that they’re actually traumatized in a way that Leone’s characters never seem to be traumatized by all the horrible things that happen.
Rail: What’s a dream project?
Cox: I would like to make four films for a million bucks because that’s how you make money. When a television company buys a film they don’t care if it’s good or bad, they just want to fill 8 or 10 hours of television time and justify the commercials. If I take Searchers 2.0 and four more films made for the same price as a package that’d be easy to sell…so if you run into anyone with a million dollars…I’m always looking for money for films, I’m always writing, every so often some money appears.