Repo Man: Interview with Alex Cox

Repo Man

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 20 February 2012

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Alex Cox

Writer: Alex Cox

Cast: Harry Dean Stanton, Emilio Estevez, Tracey Walter, Miguel Sandoval, Fox Harris, Del Zamora

USA 1984

92 mins

To coincide with the release of Repo Man as a new Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema, Alex Fitch caught up with director Alex Cox to talk about the film, its sequels and his career over the last 28 years.

Alex Fitch: Most people have seen Repo Man on video or pre-digital TV. The Blu-ray release will allow audiences to see Robby Müller’s cinematography in its full glory for the first time since the original cinema release.

Alex Cox: Yes, it’s probably the best it’s looked since the 35mm print. Robby’s work is really wonderful in the film. His lighting is so beautiful and the locations are fabulous. Those Los Angeles landscapes… It’s really fun, looking back.

In your book, X Films, you said that at the time of making Repo Man you felt that you were more like a writer who also directs, rather than a director. But Repo Man has a notable directorial style: from your choice of the distinctive blue and white packaging for the comestibles, to the framing of shots and the mise en scène. Looking back on it, do you feel you were developing as a director?

More as a script writer. The mise en scène is Robby Müller! He had these opinions at the time – he didn’t like to move the camera unless it was necessary, he preferred medium shots to close-ups, he liked to play things in master shots if it was possible, and I just went along with Robby’s aesthetic. Obviously later, everyone changes their aesthetic – Robby’s work on 24 Hour Party People, where they’re shooting on 20 little video cameras, is completely different, or his work for Lars von Trier. Also, perhaps Robby brought the somewhat austere style – there aren’t many fast cuts, cutaways and useless shots such as one encounters in the cinema of today. Although, interestingly, a fair bit of Repo Man was made in post-production. We did extra shots, reconstructed extra scenes, moved things around, and so there were two other cinematographers involved: Robert Richardson, who has become quite famous as the cinematographer of Oliver Stone and the Coen Brothers, but for whom this was the first feature, and Tom Richmond with whom I’ve worked many times since, who shot Straight to Hell.

Listen to the podcast of the interview with Alex Cox.

When you talk about Repo Man, and reading the chapter on it in X Films, it seems very obvious that working with Müller and Harry Dean Stanton meant you were able to indulge your love of cinema as well as making a film yourself.

Well, it’s true, and also those locations… The LA River has such a rich filmic historical importance: it’s where the giant ants were in Them! and where the assassination takes place in Point Blank. Immediately after Repo Man, Robby shot To Live and Die in LA for William Friedkin, which included a big-shoot-em up in the LA River. Drive has a scene where they race down it, very similar to our little car race.

Repo Man, along with other films of yours – Three Businessmen, Revengers Tragedy, Death and the Compass – seems to be a meditation on man’s relationship with the city. Is that something you’ve always been interested in, or did it start when you moved to LA?

No, I like the country the best. In almost all my films the characters go out to the desert, though not in Revengers Tragedy, because we couldn’t find a desert near Liverpool! The desert is where Three Businessmen ends up, where Straight to Hell takes place, where Walker meets Vanderbilt, where the Villa Triste-le-Roi is located in the Borges film. So, I’m really the desert guy.

Tenuously linking Death and the Compass to Repo Man, there does seem to be a bit of a Borgesian narrative at play in the earlier film: there are all of these characters in search of that undefinable thing, and it’s almost as if the city is the thing that keeps them down, that stops them from fully realising their dreams…

It is! There was one shot that we could have done in Death and the Compass but didn’t have the budget for. I really wanted to have a big night-time shot of this futuristic city interlaced with all of these freeways and overpasses, which would be full of police cars with all of their flashing red and blue lights on, so that you realise the city exists purely as an authoritarian exercise. It’s entirely about domination and control, and of course there’s the underside of the city, which is an entire criminal class arrayed against the forces of authority, like two sets of teeth constantly gnashing against each other, somehow in one shot! That’s the shot that isn’t in there yet. One day!

When you were shopping the script for Repo Man around, it had a four-page comic book prequel on the cover that you drew as well as wrote and it’s reproduced in the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray booklet.

The whole Blu-ray booklet is a quasi-comic book itself. It’s all pretty much: ‘What might have been…’ I was going to try and make a whole comic book of Repo Man, but it’s hard work drawing good comic books. You can’t just dash it off, you’ve got to spend a lot of time on it, so I did four pages and I gave up!

Things like the blue and white packaging for the comestibles, the radioactive car, the name of Edge City all seem to have a comic book aesthetic. I was wondering if comics were an influence on the making of the film.

I do think so. I was very influenced by Robert Crumb and by The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. The Rodriguez Brothers in the film are like the Freak Brothers, only with a revolutionary purpose. It’s definitely influenced by those 60s and 70s comic books that came out of San Francisco – Gilbert Shelton and Crumb.

Even though you didn’t get to direct the sequel to Repo ManWaldo’s Hawaiian Holiday – yourself, I believe you gave permission to a bunch of Texan filmmakers to adapt it at the beginning of the century. I was wondering why that production fell apart.

I don’t know. What I did was: I gave a whole bunch of people year-long options on that. I thought you could open source it – anyone can make this film if they want, or if they want to make a comic book out of it or a video game or whatever. That’s when Chris Bones got in touch with me about the comic book, and there were two guys in Texas who wanted to make it as a film and they shot part of it. It’s one of these things. It was a successful experiment in the sense that Chris Bones did a very good comic book. He was very expert at what he was doing. In other cases, if you try and open source something, not everybody in the community who takes it on is going to be able to accomplish it

I’m surprised you haven’t written more comics over the years. You wrote four issues of a Godzilla comic in the 90s but then nothing until your script for Waldo was turned into a graphic novel.

I was going to do another one with Chris Bones, called Helltown. I think the thing is: it’s a big investment of one’s time and my guess is that the Waldo comic book didn’t sell that many copies, and even the Godzilla series didn’t do that well because they didn’t continue the series after a certain point. Comics are maybe a speciality item, maybe guys prefer to play games now than to read comic books. What do you think?

Well, due to the whole democratisation of the app store where the price of a comic is the same as the price of something like Angry Birds, maybe comics are going to become popular again due to mobile devices.

Interesting. I think something has to change in the cinema – I don’t mean 3D or getting rid of film, those are just fantasies of the studios – but the idea that maybe film and games will have some kind of merger, or films will be somewhat interactive. In his most recent film, Twixt, Francis Coppola tried to have alternative scenes, so he’ll sit at the back and he’ll decide, ‘Now we’ll have the happy bit’ or ‘Now they’re going to go in a sad direction’, and at the end of a scene he’ll take you somewhere quite different, depending on what screening you’re at. I haven’t seen the film, so I don’t know how successful it is and I think it’s become muddied as well by having 3D sequences – the 3D thing has overshadowed the alternate aspect.

Are you familiar with the Italian western The Big Silence? It ends very sadly with the death of the hero and the murdering of all the hostages, but Corbucci shot a happy alternative ending. Trintignant bows in, shoots all the bad guys, and he’s wearing a gauntlet or suit of armour he’s got from somewhere, so the bullets bounce off and he saves everybody. So, in a way, Corbucci was saying: ‘For other territories that can’t accept the other brilliant ending of my film, here’s a happy ending, guys!’ Corbucci was a master of these possibilities, and maybe we’ll do films like that in the future, maybe we’ll start getting films with multiple endings or multiple narrative paths. Maybe they’ll play arbitrarily in the cinema and you can pick them at home or maybe people will be electronically wired to the seats, so their emotions drive the movie. Though that’s very dangerous, so they won’t do that! Who knows what will happen?

One of Joe Dante’s most recent projects, Splatter, was an interactive TV mini-series where people could vote on what would happen in the next episode, and he shot two different versions of each five-minute segment.

Exactly! So it’s already happening.

I was going to mention video games, as Repo Chick seems to have that aesthetic in some of the backgrounds.

It depends on which bit. They’re in a game at the beginning when they’re in their car and then the car segues into the model railway.

What made you want to do Repo Chick? Was it to get the supporting cast back together and relive those heady days?

I was trying to get going again after Waldo and all the producers went down to LA. Again I was going through the process of trying to get a sequel made at Universal and failed – they weren’t interested and were very rude and hostile. Then the economic crash occurred and I realised that the Repo outfit, the criminal Repo outfit that Repo Man is about, is based on General Motors Acceptance Corporation. What happened in the 90s, in the Clinton years, is that the Democrats deregulated the banks and allowed GMAC to become a bank. So a lot of those bad mortgages and subsequent evictions that occurred when the depression began were at the behest of GMAC bank, and literally all our (American) tax money went to bail them out. Instead of poor people losing their cars, they were being thrown out on the streets by GMAC, and I just thought: ‘Man, this has got to be addressed. I just cannot sit around and watch these guys laugh as our lives are wrecked’. And that’s why I made Repo Chick. There’s just this five-minute thing at the beginning of Repo Chick about GMAC and how they were largely responsible, at least in the United States, for wrecking the economy and throwing some of the people into poverty. If it was a documentary it would be neither here nor there, but it was important to get that little bit out.

I have to say that my favourite of your films is Death and the Compass. The way I describe it to friends is: ‘An episode of Columbo where it turns out that the villain is The Joker!’ Again it felt like you had a great comic book aesthetic in that movie.

It’s really comic booky. To tell you the truth, I and Cecilia Montiel, who was the production designer, had both seen Dick Tracy not long before, and we were very impressed by Warren Beatty! His direction of Dick Tracy and the visual choices that he made were just sensational. I think he’s a very talented individual, and of course he was working with a very adroit production designer – Richard Sylbert – plus a great cinematographer, some big cast members and all the rest of it. Cecilia, I and the same cinematographer had done another film in Mexico a year before, Highway Patrolman, which was much more naturalistic and much more muted, and we wanted to have a visual break with what we’d done and do something quite different.

There are two different cuts of Death and the Compass. Can you see yourself returning to them, remastering them, adding new scenes? I suppose there’s a director’s cut of Straight to Hell just out…

This is the weird thing, Straight to Hell Returns has done fantastically over here in the States and it’s still playing theatrically, more than a year later, but I’ve had no enquiries from the UK about it. I’ll tell you what I think it is: when Straight to Hell first came out, it was generally not liked by critics or audiences, but in the US it’s acquired a cult reputation. The Returns version’s got additional digital violence, extra scenes, extra music by Joe Strummer and more footage of Courtney Love and Shane MacGowan. There’s a new sound design and a new visual aspect because Tom Richmond went through it and completely changed the colour palette – it’s like a new film, and yet, like Repo Man, it’s also a trip down memory lane because you get to see Strummer, The Pogues, Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones and Courtney when they were still young-ish. In England, the critics and the audience haven’t come to terms with the fact that they were wrong about Straight to Hell! Thank you very much for liking Death and the Compass, a film that almost no one has seen!

My pleasure! In film magazines, there’s always such joy when a critic discovers a film that’d slipped under their radar.

Yeah, but the thing is, they were so mad about my films in the past! Two of the films I made really upset people – Straight to Hell and Walker. It takes people a long time to realise they were wrong and the filmmaker knew best and they should have dug it at the time. I don’t want to sound arrogant but Straight to Hell and Walker were good films. In the US, Criterion have brought out a copy of Walker. It’s a new print, and it’s got a fascinating new documentary by Terry Schwartz about the making of the film, in the political context of Nicaragua at the time. Somehow the Americans have got around Walker. The English take a bit longer… I wish Masters of Cinema would bring it out in the UK. Their Blu-Ray is the most complete version of Repo Man there’s ever been or ever could be, because it’s also got the television version – completely re-edited to take out all the swearing and drug use – and all the various things we’ve made about Repo Man over the years. It’s the only version that’s come out to have the cleaned up TV version, where they say ‘Melon Farmers’!

I’ve got a real soft spot for ‘Melon Farmers’ as an expletive…

Isn’t it great? Although that expression has become frequently heard since then, I think Dick Rude came up with that, because he was on set, with the actors working on things they could say instead of rude words.

Interview by Alex Fitch