HOW DID REPO MAN OCCUR?
After I left UCLA I was hired to write a script for United Artists about the British World War One deserter and agitator, Percy Topliss. When I delivered the screenplay it was rejected as “too English, too expensive, and too anti-war.”
Shortly thereafter I met the British director, Adrian Lyne. He had directed one feature, FOXES, and he wanted his next to be about what he felt was the most important issue of the day: the imminent possibility of a nuclear war. I scouted Seattle and Vancouver as locations, and wrote him a script called THE HAPPY HOUR.
Adrian read it and went off to direct FLASHDANCE. And I ran into two old chums from UCLA – Jonathan Wacks and Peter McCarthy. They had been in the Production programme; Jon had directed a documentary, Pete a drama. Now they had a company, and even more impressive, an office in Venice, California, where they were making commercials (“Gene Kelly assures the public the MGM Grand is safe again!”) and public service announcements. I suggested to them that they should also be feature film producers, and hire me as a director. They agreed to consider this, but instructed me to come up with a script.
The first one I wrote for them was called THE HOT CLUB (a comedy about nuclear blast veterans and nerve gas thieves set in the early years of the 21st century). They budgeted and Marie Canton (also ex-UCLA) budgeted it; it turned out to be rather expensive. So I went off and wrote another screenplay instead: REPO MAN. This was based on my own personal Los Angeles horrors and the tutelage of Mark Lewis, a Los Angeles car repossessor and my neighbour in Venice, CA.. When the screenplay was published, Dick Rude and I interviewed Mark for the introduction: his take on the repo trade and the movie can be found at pscweb.com/repo/whatever.
To make the package more interesting to investors, I drew four pages of a comic book based on the script and we included them with the screenplay. I had planned at one stage to do an entire comic book, but it is too much work: a page a day at the very most, and hard on the eyes. Michael Nesmith, the former Monkee, saw the script/comic package, became interested, and took it to Bob Rehme at Universal.
WHAT WAS THE RESPONSE TO REPO MAN?
REPO MAN was made as a “negative pickup” by Universal at the time when Bob Rehme was head of the studio. At the time, the big deal over there was STREETS OF FIRE, and nobody really noticed our film at all. Which was lucky for us, since Bob Rehme had “green-lighted” a film which was quite unusual by studio standards. Unfortunately, just before we were completely done, Rehme was ousted from his post, and a new boss came in. It is, we quickly discovered, the primary task of a new boss to make an old boss look bad, and so as much of Rehme’s product as possible was quickly junked. That which was already made, or almost complete – REPO MAN and RUMBLEFISH, for instance – was swiftly consigned to the Chute of No Return.
We took out an ad in Variety, reprinting a good review we got there (we also got a very bad one – in the weekly edition – but we didn’t reprint that) as a challenge to Universal to get the picture out into the theatres.
The studio’s response was to lean on the head of public relations at Pan American World AIrlines, Dick Barkle, to condemn the film. Mr Barkle declared himself shocked by REPO MAN, adding, “I hope they don’t show this film in Russia.” It is the world of DILBERT there.
The theatrical life of the film was prolonged by Kelly Neal at Universal, who went out of his way to support both REPO MAN and RUMBLEFISH. And, even more, the record was a major element in promoting the film; it was popular with the punk rock community and that got the word around. And rightly so. I was an enthusiast, and the film has a major punk influence – in addition to the protagonists Otto, Duke, Debbi, Archie and Kevin, there’s a tailor-made hardcore score by Los Plugz, Circle Jerks, Fear, Suicidal Tendencies, Black Flag, and Juicy Bananas, and a title song by Iggy Pop, who suffers under the sobriquet of The Godfather of Punk.
DID YOU HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE TV VERSION?
Yes. Because the film REPO MAN had so much swearing and a scene of speed-snorting, the studio made their own re-edited video version. It was very odd. In an effort to “explain” the film, someone had gone and shot an insert of the license plate of the Chevy Malibu, and made the Hopi symbol dissolve into the HEAD OF THE DEVIL!
No, this is really true. It made me wonder, could it be that the Christian Fundamentalists are right, and that the multinationals and Hollywood are controlled by Satanists? I cannot say. It seems so, most of the time. But perhaps those executives were just confused by the film, and trying to explain, in their own innocent, satanistic way, what it was about. “Whut the heck is in that trunk?” “Gee I don’t know.” “Maybe it’s the… Devil hisself!” They were just trying to improve it in their own way, and make it clearer.
WEREN’T YOU HORRIFIED THAT THEY WERE BUTCHERING YOUR FILM?
I was a bit alarmed, yes. They’d intercut static shots of this license plate with shots of the car moving, and it looked completely cheesy, worse than an Ed Wood film. But the thing was, they weren’t really bad guys: they knew what they’d done was a mistake, and now they were looking for the filmmaker to fix it.
They knew they had done wrong.
In the end I removed their strange insertions, and included two funny scenes which hadn’d made it into the theatrical version: the one with Jac MacInally shaving (where Harry Dean says his name is “I.G.Farben”) and the the one where Harry Dean smashes the phone booth with his baseball bat.
BUT WHAT ABOUT CUTTING OUT ALL THE SWEARING?
And who cares. By then I’d made SID & NANCY and I was sick of swearing. It was fun coming up with synonyms for the swear words – “Melon Farmers” was a particular favourite.
Sometimes, for television and aeroplane screening, or for a film to play in prisons or at children’s tea-parties, changes need to be made. It is always better for the filmmaker to be invited to participate than to be excluded. Excluding the filmmaker results in what in Liverpool is called a dog’s breakfast.
WHAT WAS REPO MAN ABOUT – REALLY?
Nuclear War. Of course. What else could it be about? And the demented society that contemplated the possibility thereof. Repoing people’s cars and hating alien ideologies were only the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg itself was the maniac culture which had elected so-called “leaders” named Reagan and Thatcher, who were prepared to sacrifice everything — all life on earth — to a gamble based on the longevity of the Soviet military, and the whims of their corporate masters. J. Frank Parnell – the fictitious inventor of the Neutron Bomb – was the central character for me. He sets the film in motion, on the road from Los Alamos, and, as portrayed by the late great actor, Fox Harris, is the centrepoint of the film.
Fourteen years later, I had a call from one Sam Cohen, who announced himself the father of the Neutron Bomb. I imagined a cross between Jack D. Ripper and Edward Teller in a dark Brentwood apartment, raging because there hadn’t been an intercontinental thermonuclear war…
The following week Sam Cohen and I had lunch in Venice, California. Sam had lived in LA since 1923 – “Grew up in the Jewish ghetto of East LA – grew up knowing all your locations.” His daughter saw REPO MAN when it came out in 1984 and took him to see it. He’s seen the video “a couple of dozen times”.
“It starts off with nostalgia for me… the map at the beginning, I spent World War Two at Los Alamos, working on the Fat Man device. My job was to study what the neutrons did. I know more about neutrons than you would ever want to ask.
“My daughter took me to see this film, and here was this nutcake, our hero, lobotomized, head bobbing. A cop stops him, opens the trunk, and — voila! He’s neutronized!” Sam had no doubt there was a Neutron Bomb in Otto’s trunk.
“It was the quintessential neutron bomb in the trunk… what we call a SADM – a Strategic Area Denial Munition.” He and the Russian politician General Lebed gave press conferences a couple of years ago to draw attention to the number of ex-Soviet SADMs which had gone missing — hundreds of them, sold on the black market to whoever was buying. He thinks a SADM may have levelled the Federal Building in Oklahoma.
Sam’s next destination was Washington, DC. “I’ve got a grand bash to attend: two friends of mine, aged 87 and 90, both four-star Air Force generals, are having a birthday party. One of them is General Schraber. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. He put together the ICBM program.”
Later he reconsidered, and called me again. “It wasn’t a Neutron Bomb in the trunk – it was an enormous concentration of nuclear material – it was gamma rays that killed the cop.”
Sam had one more observation, re. his contribution to thermonuclear devastation: “The Neutron Bomb was the most moral weapon ever devised… it was a weapon for good Christians… a defensive weapon, it spares innocents, keeps war to the warriors, doesn’t damage the economy, has no hideous, crippling, lasting effects as in conventional warfare… if you survive, a lot of the victims will recover… no significant level of radiation is produced… it disappears very rapidly. My friends Graves and Slotin were in just such an accident. Slotin died horribly; Graves had a fifty-fifty chance of dying, but recovered, and in a few months was playing handball.”
I asked if he meant his Bomb was intended as a battlefield (“theater” in the vernacular) weapon. He insisted that was its only possible application: “The Neutron Bomb totally conformed to the so-called Christian principles of a Just War. I got a medal from the Pope in Rome, in 1979.”
WILL THERE BE A REPO MAN SEQUEL?
I would be delighted. But Universal have already released a faux-sequel, “REPO MEN” and don’t seem interested in pursuing the real McCoy. So the sequel will have to wait till March 2019, when the rights to the original script revert to me.
THE RIGHTS TO REPO MAN REVERT TO YOU?
To the screenplay, yes. So if you are a wealthy patron of the fine arts, seeking to see a sequel, or a remake, or a REPO MAN series, just get in touch.
SID & NANCY
DID YOU DO A LOT OF JUNK PREPARING FOR SID & NANCY?
No. Did John Wayne really shoot the Indians off their horses? Did Orson Welles buy a newspaper business to prepare for CITIZEN KANE?
A noted film director even asked me this question: “How much smack did those actors do?” I could only tell him the ol’ yarn about Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier when they were making MARATHON MAN:
Dustin, in the process of “getting into character” tells Larry that he is going to the dentist to have a tooth filled without anesthetic, so that he will know what it feels like to be tortured with a dentist’s drill.
“Dustin,” asks Sir Larry gently, “Have you ever tried… acting?”
IS THE FILM PRO-DRUG OR ANTI-DRUG?
Is it pro-love or anti-love? I hope it does not depict being a junky in too positive a light. Gary and Chloe are great actors; their performances are outstanding. Perhaps as the director I sentimentalized the end. The true lives of junkies are sadder, even worse.
Yet we are still assailed by junky-chic; photos of truly wretched-looking individuals are plastered the sides of buses in an effort to sell us jeans. This upsets me more than any drama – along with the other kind of propaganda (on milk cartons in in sneaker ads) that says, “Don’t do drugs; do sports.” Sports are far worse than drugs. They encourage brutishness and violence as a means of problem-solving. They cause large mobs to chant nationalistic slogans. O.J. Simpson is the perfect product of the sports industry. And the sneaker ads are as pernicious: they encourage demented and repetitive behaviour and wanton consumption of overpriced stuff made by slaves. Consumerism (other than of products available from this website) and sports are almost as bad as the military addiction most of the nations of the planet are hooked on.
Pot smoking, on the other hand, encourages pacifism, appreciation of the arts, eating and sex. Particularly sex. And this, I think, is why it is so diligently banned.
HOW DID YOU FIND CHLOE WEBB AND GARY OLDMAN?
Chloe was a stage actress. I met her through Miguel Sandoval (who portrays the A&R Man on the Texas bus tour); he had acted in a play with her in Los Angeles. Gary was also a stage actor: I saw him in a War Play at the Barbican in London; he had done some good TV work too. For Sid we were doubly lucky because another then-unknown London stage actor was interested in the role: Daniel Day Lewis.
DANIEL DAY LEWIS WANTED TO PLAY SID?
Yes. And I think he would have been very good, too. He gives one the impression of possessing a soul, and would probably have handled the romantic aspect well. But Gary was an authentic Bermonsey boy – from the same part of London, the same world as Sid – and he really understood the ambitious aspect, the desperate need to get out of South London at all costs…
The project was also fortunate to have a great, spontaneous producer – Eric Fellner – and supportive executives at Zenith – Margaret Matheson and Charles Denton. They gave us great leeway in casting. We were under no obligation to cast “stars.” And everyone auditioned – Gary, Chloe, David Hayman, Xander Berkeley – just as the actors had on REPO MAN.
DID YOU SEE THE LATEST SEX PISTOLS TOUR?
No. I planned to. I was in Mexico City, finishing DEATH & THE COMPASS, and the Pistols were due to play a gig there. It would have been a strange sight, the Pistols playing in a big stadium for a crowd of yuppies and Mexico’s ten punks, 20 years later… But they cancelled.
ARE THERE NO PUNKS IN MEXICO?
Very few. The Mexicans have enough real disasters and tragedies. To make your artistic statement by becoming a “walking disaster area” would seem absurd: there is too much real poverty and repression; art is more actively politicized.
He hated it. Which was understandable, given that it was based on incidents from his life and centered around one of his friends.
At the same time, he was quite generous to the production. He and I had a nice meeting in the bar at the Mayflower Hotel in New York to discuss the script over several Sea Breezes. And he graciously invited Andrew Schofield, who played him in the film, from Liverpool to New York to study him.
Drew had a fascinating lightning trip in which John took him round the happening venues of the day, and tried to persuade him that he should play the role of Johnny Rotten as a SCOUSER. He did not, of course. Neither Drew nor I can recall any further details of our meetings with Mr. Lydon, perhaps due to the enormous quantities of sea breezes consumed.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE FILM NOW?
Though I do think we erred towards the sentimental, I’m glad we made it. Because in the mid-80’s there was the threat of a rival Sid & Nancy film – a Madonna vehicle, with Rupert Everett, financed by a Hollywood studio.. This was before Rupert Everett was a good actor. I felt under an obligation to struggle against that studio project, fearing it would be even worse than mine.
I’m also most impressed by the technical aspects. The art department – Andrew McAlpine in London and Rae Fox & Linda Burbank in the States – is outstanding, particularly Andrew’s stage set for “My Way,” and Fox & Burbank’s recreations of the Chelsea Hotel rooms. And the photography of Roger Deakins is extraordinary — particularly the illumination and movement in the final scenes.
And I very much like that sequence which Abbe Wool improvised – the one of Sid and Nancy kissing in the alley with the garbage falling all around. She invented that scene, which was shot by Roger, when we lost a location at the last minute and had to improvise a bridging scene. In some ways it’s the best moment in the film. Pray For Rain apparently find that piece of music being used by directors and editors when they hear the “demo” version of films they’re supposed to score.
THE IMAGE WAS ALSO USED ON THE POSTER.
On the American poster, yes. And if you compare it to the original scene you’ll see those aren’t really the legs of Chloe Webb! Chloe’s legs, which are fantastic, still weren’t enough for the marketing department. They photographed the legs of a BARBIE DOLL for the poster. Which is somewhat ironic, since in the film Nancy complains she’ll never have legs like Barbie’s.
STRAIGHT TO HELL
WHAT’S UP WITH STRAIGHT TO HELL RETURNS?
It came about because I watched – in quick succession – the old DVD of STRAIGHT TO HELL, and thought, oh, I wish we’d had the digital technologies of violence and grotesquesness then (back in 1986, when Courtney was still a baby and Shane an innnocent genius and Strummer resembled the young Michael Caine), followed by the DVD of APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX, which Kim Aubry had very kindly given me, and then thought, wait a minute: it’s not too late! Because thanks to a wonderful relationship with Collateral Image, who did the million and one special effects backgrounds for REPO CHICK, and most of that film’s model stuff, I DID have access to just those violent and perverse technologies. And this new, longer, crueller ‘return’ is the result.
HOW DIFFERENT IS THIS RETURN FROM THE ORIGINAL STRAIGHT TO HELL?
There was once a version of STRAIGHT TO HELL which was five or six minutes longer. At the eleventh hour, the producer, the editor and I cut out half a dozen scenes, in a misguided flight of cutting room madness, thinking that by making the film shorter we were making it better, by making it go a bit faster we were making it funnier…
We were wrong. Now, fortunately, the UCLA Film and TV Archive has rescued the original Interpositive of the uncut version, the missing scenes are restored, and a new HD master has been created, Dan Wool has recovered the missing audio, Richard Beggs has whipped the picture into aural shape, Tom Richmond and Beau Leon have created a new visual strategy – heavy on the yellows and deep blacks – and Webster Colcord has animated some additional skeletons.
So the film returned to the theaters in October and November 2010. Oh! And did I mention all the digital violence by Collateral Image, and the dolly tracks, and the new shot of George’s shoes?
AND HOW DID STRAIGHT TO HELL COME ABOUT?
While we were editing SID & NANCY, Commies From Mars Inc. organized a concert at the Fridge, in Brixton, in support of the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) in Nicaragua. The Pogues, Elvis Costello, and Joe Strummer played to a full house and we made a couple of thousand quid for the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign.
Eric Fellner, the producer of SID & NANCY, came up with a grander scheme: since the public clearly loved the musicians and was sympathetic to the Nicaraguan cause, why not organize a rock’n’roll tour of Nicaragua, involving the same guys? Eric figured that a video deal would pay for it, and we persuaded the musicians in question to sign up for a month-long accoustic Nicaragua Solidarity Tour in August 1996. The bands agreed; but, as time went by, we couldn’t find a video company that would fund the tour.
You know why not. This was the mid 1980s. The Reagan/Thatcher maniac front was working overtime to destroy the Sandinista revolution by any means. Thatcher had even attempted to criminalize the word “Sandinista” — hence the Clash album of the same name. It would be a mistake to underestimate the power of the punk movement at that time: the Clash, the Jam, the Pistols and their successors were almost the only beachhead many of us had against a tidal wave of reactionary politics. Which put Commies from Mars in a somewhat embarrassing position, having persuaded at least a dozen musicians not to tour or record for the entire month of August. Eric’s solution? Make a film instead: as he predicted, it was easier to raise $1m for a low-budget feature starring various musicians than to find $75,000 to film them playing in a revolutionary nation in the middle of a war.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF STRAIGHT TO HELL?
I think it’s very funny. I like that it has no swearing at all (the worst thing anybody says is “Go boil yer ‘ead!”). It has great cinemascope compositions by Tom Richmond. And it is completely autobiographical. It has fine performances – Sy Richardson, Fox Harris, Biff Yeager, Miguel Sandoval, Xander Berkeley, Elvis Costello, Jennifer Balgobin, Courtney Love, the list unends. The characters were written for the actors: Courtney was the Spungenesque heroine – a Nancy who was tougher and more together. This was her first leading role, and she acquited herself very well, I thought. It was Sy Richardson’s first lead role in a feature, too: now he is a great actor – I’ve been very fortunate to work with him so many times.
Plus there was a great deal of pleasure attached to being there. In Almeria, in the desert, in midsummer, at night. It’s a pleasure I can’t explain. There are people who think the desert looks like a slag-heap. That is their point of view. For me the greatest pleasure of STRAIGHT TO HELL was filming in that fantastic, surreal Andalucia landscape — the desert of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY, and FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE – films with extraordinary locations: the weird, ancient clay and sandstone and volcanic badlands, the huge triangular mountain of El Faro on the horizon. Filming there, and making a homage to the great Spaghetti Westerns — the Leone films, DJANGO, ¿QUIEN SABE?, HELLBENDERS, and DJANGO KILL.
There is an inexplicable beauty to being on location, to working in Spain, in Mexico, staying in a small country town, walking its streets at night, then rising at dawn and going out to the surrounding desert to film till the last light is gone….
WHY WAS THE REACTION TO THE FILM SO EXTREME?
I don’t know. Perhaps it was a little ahead of its time: there was not then a vogue for jokey films about black-suited professional hit-men a la Jean-Pierre Melville. Certainly some people didn’t “get it” — having rigidly observed our “no swearing” rule, we received an R-rating from the American film censors for “strong language.”
And there is also an expectation on the part of film critics that a director will follow a certain trajectory. In their hearts critics have this Hollywoodian fantasy: they imagine all directors want to “graduate” into gigantically-budgeted movies full of special effects and petulant stars.. But this trajectory is illusory: it has nothing to do with me. I turned down the opportunity to direct THE THREE AMIGOS and made STRAIGHT TO HELL instead.
DO YOU REGRET THAT?
Not at all. Of course, if I’d done THE THREE AMIGOS I would have earned a lot more money. But that money would be spent by now. I would have had to shoot in the United States, and not in my beloved Almeria. I would essentially have been a hired hand for some comedians from Saturday Night Live. It would not have been a good experience, for them or me. The script had these weird political overtones: it promoted the idea that Americans have the right to intervene in a violent way in foreign countries – for all that it was supposed to be a comedy, it was actually propaganda for the Monroe Doctrine. STRAIGHT TO HELL, for better or worse, is my film, and I like it very much.
DOES STRAIGHT TO HELL HAVE OTHER MERITS, BESIDES THE LOCATIONS?
The music, by Pray For Rain, Strummer, Schloss, The Pogues, and the McManus Gang. And the costumes by Pam Tait. Especially the womens’ costumes!
WHAT ABOUT THE RUMOUR THAT SERGIO LEONE WAS INVOLVED IN STRAIGHT TO HELL?
It isn’t true. The only spaghetti veterans were Juan Torres, a flamenco singer from the gypsy quarter of Almeria city, and some of the stunt men. But I was told later that Leone saw the film at the Madrid Film Festival, where he was on the jury.
WHAT DID HE THINK OF IT?
I don’t know. There was a rumour that we’d won a prize of some kind, but I never heard any more about it. It would be nice to think that the Old Master did see STRAIGHT TO HELL.
WHO WAS WALKER?
William Walker was an American soldier of fortune who in 1853 tried to annex part of Mexico to the United States. He failed, though his invasion contributed to the climate of paranoia and violence which led to Mexico surrendering large areas of territory shortly thereafter. Two years later he invaded Nicaragua, ostensibly in support of one of the factions in a civil war. But his real intention was to take over the country and annex it to the U.S. He betrayed his allies and succeeded in making himself President. He ran Nicaragua, or attempted to run it, for two years. In the U.S. he had been an anti-slavery liberal, but in Nicaragua he abandoned all his liberal pretensions and attempted to institute slavery. He was kicked out of Central America by the combined armies of Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Honduras.
Walker tried to go back twice and was eventually caught by the Hondurans and executed. He is relatively unknown today, but in his day he was fantastically popular in the United States. The newspapers wrote more about Walker than they did about Presidents Pierce or Buchanan.
WHY DID YOU MAKE A FILM ABOUT HIM?
In the late 70’s, while I was a student in Los Angeles, the Sandinista Revolution took place. I was completely in the dark regarding Central America, but was impressed with the articles in the LA Times and Chronicle, and the accompanying photographs of revolutionary dudes in panama hats.
At first the newspapers seemed positive about the Revolution which had overthrown a corrupt, brutal and wealthy dictator. But soon there was a very obvious change in the attitude of the American media to these Revolutionaries. President Jimmy Carter issued dark warnings against the Sandinistas, and (as we now know) began funding the contra rebels. In the early 80’s the demented Reagan promoted the same anti-Sandinista rhetoric and the U.S. papers followed suit. I wasn’t surprised at Carter’s change of heart or at Ronzo’s hostility, but I was – innocent me – astonished at the supposedly-liberal media following suit. So, in 1984, I went with Peter McCarthy – the producer of REPO MAN – to Nicaragua on an “election-watching tour”.
Election day was 4 November, and we were in the hot and dusty city of Leon. At our hotel, we met two compas (Sandinista soldiers). Both had been wounded in a contra attack in Murra: the previous day their friend had been killed there. One of them was in his first year of college. The other was still in high school. They were reading La Prensa — an anti-Sandinista newspaper reputed to be funded by the CIA. “All lies, but it proves we have a free press.” Both had thumbs dyed red at the voting booth. (Voting age was 16; army service began at 17.) Since they were both seriously wounded (the high school boy had been blinded in one eye by shrapnel) they didn’t have to return to the front.
“But if there’s an invasion, I’ll go back anyway,” he said. “And if there wasn’t a war, I’d like to be an agronomist…” Their fight was hard, they said, because they took prisoners and the contras didn’t. The contras could also retreat into safe havens in Honduras where the compas couldn’t follow them.
They had no fear of a contra victory. “They are still few in number, and not getting stronger.” They had no popular support. The great fear everywhere, the young men told us, was of a U.S. invasion, from Honduras and Costa Rica. Every day the U.S. invaded Nicaraguan airspace: Peter and I had heard the sonic booms of a U.S. Air Force “Blackbird” spy plane above Managua only the day before.
They asked what we did and we said we were filmmakers (we had shot REPO MAN the previous year). They asked if we would come back to Nicaragua to make a film. I said “espero” – I hope so – but that filmmaking costs a lot of money. The compas were not impressed. “Si tu es intelligente…” If people like these two lads could overthrow a hated dictator and American stooge, how hard could it be for two gringos to scam some money in the USA, bring it back and make a movie about Nicaraguan history, Nicaraguan reality?
It took a while to raise that money, though. And it the end it wasn’t two gringos who put WALKER together, but a Peruvian filmmaker called Lorenzo O’Brien.
WHAT WAS THE REACTION TO THE FILM?
WALKER was extremely popular in certain places. It was the second biggest film hit ever in Nicaragua, after THE SOUND OF MUSIC.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE UNITED STATES?
WALKER was made in 1987, in the middle of the US-sponsored terrorist war against the Nicaraguan people. We made it with the intention of spending as many American dollars as possible in Nicaragua, in solidarity with the Nicaraguans against the yanks’ outrageous aggression against a sovereign nation. Then, as now, this was not a popular position with certain people in power. But it was the right one.
WHY THE ANACHRONISMS?
Because we didn’t want to make a “traditional” film. The Hollywood way to make WALKER would have been to tell it from the viewpoint of a sympathetic humane journalist – a film like UNDER FIRE or THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY. But Rudy Wurlitzer – who wrote the script – and I were opposed to that. There were no “good” journalists in Walker’s retinue. His men were pirates, gangsters, would-be slave-owners. And the Nicaraguans who supported him were just as villainous. In other words, nothing had changed in the 140 odd years between Walker’s genocidal campaign and that of Oliver North and his goons. We had to show them as they were, and to make the point that the politics and the murders and the cover-ups of 1986 and 1855 were no different. Walker’s tame journalist Byron Cole was the same as the man from the New York Times. His henchman Rudler was the same as the American mercenary Hasenfus, shot down by Sandinista soldiers, with a plane full of guns.
At the same time, one of our Nicaraguan actors, Roberto Lopez, wanted to put the contra point of view in the film. He was a Sandinista, but he felt it was very important to explain why some of his countrymen adored the Americans and their notions of culture and progress – “God, Science and Hygiene” in Walker’s words. Roberto – who played Mayorga – wrote a speech in praise of the American intervention, and we included it in the film.
The Americans called the Sandinistas communists, but they were never that.. The Nicaraguan communists hated the Sandinistas. It’s quite funny – or it would be, if it wasn’t so pathetic – to see the liberal media’s efforts to erase the 1984 election from our collective memory. That was a free and fair election (more so than the one in 1996, when many of the electorate didn’t receive voting credentials), and the Sandinistas won. Whatever their flaws, they did a tremendous amount of good for the very poorest people of the country: the FSLN provided levels of education and health care and land ownership that Nicaragua had never seen before. This was all documented by OXFAM in their book “Nicaragua – the Threat of a Good Example?” And so, of course, they had to be destroyed.
HOW WAS WORKING WITH ED HARRIS?
Wonderful. He was perfect, always involved and thinking. Ed has a lot of complexity, and suppressed mania: he is a very rare talent. We were very lucky with all the cast, especially with Marlee Matlin and Blanca Guerra. The whole cast was 100% committed and a joy to work with — Peter Boyle, Richard Masur, Rene Auberjonois, Sy Richardson, Cathy Burke, Xander Berkeley, Karl Braun, Alfonso Arau, Billy O’Leary, Pedro Armendariz, Edward Tudor-Pole… Casting was by Victoria Thomas, Miguel Sandoval, and Claudia Becker.
WASN’T THERE ANOTHER WALKER FILM?
I don’t think so. Our film upset a lot of liberals, supposedly because of the anachronisms and the jokes. Robert Redford even announced that he was going to make his own film about William Walker — direct and star in it, to set the record straight. But he never did. Universal hated the film, yet were strangely fixated by it, just as they had been with REPO MAN. They offered Lorenzo and me an office on the studio lot: free phone, free parking, subsidized canteen. But we didn’t take them up on it. We didn’t mean to be rude, but neither of us wanted to have to go to Universal City in the San Fernando Valley every day. It was too big a price to pay.
So the studio and its international division, UIP, sat on the film and made sure it received the minimum distribution possible. There were to be no more Walker-type films, and no more studio money spent in Nicaragua. Some months later Lorenzo and I were watching TV at his house: an ancient episode of BONANZA, the cowboy show. And in this episode one of Ben Cartwright’s old buddies appeared, and he reminded Ben – played by Lorne Greene, of course – how they had both been filibusters in Walker’s army of intervention in Nicaragua, many years before. As Strummer would have it, “he was once an Immortal in William Walker’s gringo army…”
JOE STRUMMER DID THE SOUNDTRACK ALBUM.
He certainly did. SID & NANCY and STRAIGHT TO HELL had had multiple composers – Joe, Pray For Rain and the Pogues. Joe was sick of sharing the credit and wanted to compose an entire score himself. Going in we listened to and talked about Bob Dylan’s score for PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (the one that contains KNOCKING ON HEAVEN’S DOOR, which Dylan wrote with Rudy Wurltizer). It is a masterpiece, and Joe wanted to do something as good as that. I think he managed it, too. It’s a brilliant soundtrack — certainly his best work after the breakup of The Clash. The only person he took with him from the previous films was Zander Schloss, who had played with Pray For Rain on SID & NANCY, and had sung the lovely Wiener Song in STRAIGHT TO HELL.
THE GUY WHO’S ALWAYS GETTING BEATEN UP AND TURNS THE ROTTEN CARCASS ON THE SPIT?
Exactly, the Wiener Kid. Zander was the leader of the Juicy Bananas, back in REPO MAN days. He plays an idealistic German filibuster in WALKER and Kevin, the much-abused friend in REPO MAN. He was with the Circle Jerks for many long years; and the Latino Rockabilly War; and still tours. He also plays the role of Daddy Z in THREE BUSINESSMEN.
ISN’T ZANDER SCHLOSS THE ALIAS USED BY PRAY FOR RAIN’S DAN WOOL FOR HIS SOLO WORK?
No. I too have heard this rumour, and read it on the back of the DEATH & THE COMPASS CD. But it is not true. They are different.
EL PATRULLERO / HIGHWAY PATROLMAN
WHY DID YOU MAKE A FILM IN MEXICO?
Because the story of EL PATRULLERO was set there. While we were scouting locations for WALKER, Lorenzo O’Brien and I had met a driver who had been a member of the Federal Highway Patrol. His stories always remained with us and we wanted to turn them into a film. Interestingly, the story our Highway Patrolman told us which stuck in my head most never made it into the film.
WHAT WAS THAT?
Our friend had pulled over a car at night on a long highway called the Recta de Matehuala, in North-Central Mexico. A gringo was at the wheel. The guy had the stereo cranked way up, and it was playing “Sympathy for the Devil.” Our young cop knew the gringo was stoned and he could probably bust him, but he thought, what the heck? It might turn out to be a hassle, maybe the gringo had lawyers and money, and it was late at night. He turned his back on the guy for just a moment, planning to let him go, and he heard this little click-click sound…
Our friend recognized the lock-and-load of an Uzi. He threw himself to the ground just as the shooting began, scrabbled off into the dirt and dark, into the nopal-filled night, and lay there, in a cactus patch, with a bullet in his leg, pretending to be dead and listening as the Camaro started up and drove away, hearing the Rolling Stones grow fainter and finally disappear. And of course, his car had been destroyed in the firefight and he had to walk back, with a bullet in his leg, to the destacamento (police station).
I loved that story when I first heard it, because it seemed to be about how no good deed goes unpunished, and about the impossibility of ever behaving properly or achieving anything. “God helps the bad when they outnumber the good.” And yet it is essential that we do the right thing, as we can, that we not behave as badly as the monsters that confront us, that we have our own code, and do our best to live by it…
Mexico is a great teacher of this lesson. Because, no matter how the Mexicans are abused by their powerful neighbour to the north, no matter how much their politicians are bribed, their activists murdered, and their cops corrupted, they always retain a high degree of dignity and repose, a sense of politeness and personal honour and correctness which can never, ever, be defeated. The poorest man in Zacatecas or Durango or Cuahuila will address a stranger with such courtesy, such absolute formal respect, and will hope to be dealt with courteously in return. “Bienvenidos, señora, caballero. You have take possession of your house.” “Now I must take my leave of you.” “Here you always have your home.” “Hopefully we will see each other again before too long.” “Indeed – si dios quiere.”
WAS THE CREW THE SAME AS THAT OF WALKER?
The producer / writer, Lorenzo, was of course the producer of WALKER. Cecilia Montiel, who had been WALKER’s art director, was the production designer. Miguel Sandoval and Claudia Becker were again responsible for casting. And, of course, Carlos Puente was the editor. Aside from them, it was a different crew – from the STIC union instead of the STPC. STIC was based at Estudios America in Mexico City – which is now a television studio only – and STPC is at Estudios Churubusco / Azteca. I’d wanted to work with Miguel Lima, who is a great first assistant, but he was unavailable: instead the first a.d. was Rene Villareal, who is also exceptional though quite different in style. The cinematographer was Miguel Garzon, who had done outstanding work in Jorge Fons’ brilliant ROJO AMANECER.
WHAT’S ROJO AMANECER?
It’s a feature about the Government’s massacre of students at Tlatelolco (the Plaza of the Three Cultures) in Mexico City in 1968. It was made in the mid 80’s in a warehouse in Mexico City: made clandestinely, without the support of any studio. When it was finished, it was banned for a couple of years by order of the Presidential Guard: but its reputation was such that the system of State Censorship collapsed, and ROJO AMANECER became, domestically, the most successful Mexican film of all time. It stars Hector Bonilla, Maria Rojo, Demian and Bruno Bichir, and Jorge Fegan.. The whole movie takes place inside one family’s apartment, overlooking Tlatelolco: the massacre itself is never seen.
WHERE WAS EL PATRULLERO SHOT?
In Mexico City and on location all over northern Mexico. We began in Parras, Coahuila, which – by complete coincidence – was the town where Peckinpah filmed THE WILD BUNCH. We travelled west through the desert to El Chocolate, Torreon, Gomez Palacio, and Mapimi; thence to Durango and the surrounding hills; and down to Sombrerete in Zacatecas, and the Desierto de los Organos. Superb locations, but we were only scratching the surface — as I learned later, directing DEATH & THE COMPAS and acting for Arturo Ripstein in LA REINA DE LA NOCHE and for Luis Estradda in LA LEY DE HERODES, Mexico is the most visually stimulating place on earth.
WAS IT DIFFICULT DIRECTING IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE?
Not for me! But for the crew and the actors, I’m sure it was a nightmare.. My Spanish was a little better than it had been on STRAIGHT TO HELL and WALKER, but it was still pretty rudimentary. But Roberto Sosa, Zaide Silvia Guttierez, Bruno Bichir, Vanessa Bauche, and everyone else was very patient with me. Everyone was very kind to the mad gringo making a film about the Highway Patrol.
WHAT DID THE MEXICAN HIGHWAY PATROL THINK ABOUT THE FILM?
I doubt that they liked it, any more than REPO MAN appealed to real repo men or SID & NANCY to real Sex Pistols. Lorenzo and Alejandra Liceaga, our production manager, actually went to see the chiefs of the Federal Highway Patrol at their office in Mexico City. They wanted to see if the cops would lend us police cars and uniforms, maybe a helicopter or two, as they had done for other films. But it was not to be. The chiefs were known by their code names – Dragon and Puma – and they were not pleased with Lorenzo’s version of the Highway Code. One of them asked him if he was gay or if he hated his father (this part of the interview made it into the script, in the scene where Pedro Rojas visits the Police Psychiatrist).. The other confessed that all policeman that he know had the same fantasy: to reform a prostitute. It was an interesting interview, and it ended amicably enough. The Highway Patrol certainly weren’t going to lend us any uniforms or cars, but neither would they give us a hard time as long as we “fictionalized” the police corporation. Hence the massive Dart police cars, designed by Cecilia, and the original uniforms – the work of Tolita Figueroa.
HOW DID IT DO?
Roberto Sosa won best actor award at San Sebastian for his portrayal of Pedro Rojas. Though the film didn’t get much distribution, EL PATRULLERO (called HIGHWAY PATROLMAN in the U.S. and Britain) received pretty good reviews.
*HIGHWAY PATROLMAN Reviews*
“HIGHWAY PATROLMAN is maverick director Alex Cox’s finest film to date and represents his best work since his terrific debut feature, the funky, surreal 1984 REPO MAN. Released in the US in 1994, HIGHWAY PATROLMAN, in Spanish with English subtitles, opens just the way one would expect of Cox — with a darkly satirical take on the subject, an idealistic young Mexican’s training at the National Highway Patrol Academy in Mexico City.
“But the British-born Cox and his producer-screenwriter, Lorenzo O’Brien, a Peruvian raised in Mexico, gradually get more serious once their wiry, wistful hero (Roberto Sosa) takes up his first assignment in a remote town in Durango.
“It would seem that working in a foreign language has given Cox the necessary freedom and detachment not to worry about being hip and to take the plunge into classic screen storytelling, backed by O’Brien’s superbly structured script. While it rightly skewers American hypocrisy and complicity in Mexican drug trafficking, HIGHWAY PATROLMAN abounds in the virtues of traditional filmmaking. Indeed, there is an epic quality, moral as well as visual, to the hero’s odyssey that recalls the westerns of John Ford and such John Huston films as TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE…
“In its way, HIGHWAY PATROLMAN is a coming-of-age film, both for its hero and for Cox himself. It’s also a beautiful, gritty film, shot by Miguel Garzon and scored evocatively by Zander Schloss, steeped in the atmosphere of vast, desert-like vistas slashed by highways sizzling in the heat.”
Kevin Thomas, LOS ANGELES TIMES
“The hero is a young idealist fresh out of the police academy in Mexico City, ordered to a post in a mountainous, fir-treed outback where corruption reigns supreme. No one can tread these grounds untouched, not even him. The performances throughout are intelligent, understated. There’s a nervy moment of stylish flourish when Cox’s floating steadicam [sic — read CAMERA] accompanies our hero, bloodied and limping, down a stretch of highway, midway though his life’s defining gun battle — but for the most part Cox’s calm, feline gaze never judges or reproaches, never telegraphs to us what we’re supposed to feel about what we’re looking at. HIGHWAY PATROLMAN is an astonishing, mature piece of work. It’s like a Bresson film with a rock & roll pulse.”
F.X. Feeney, L.A. WEEKLY
DEATH & THE COMPASS / LA MUERTE Y LA BRUJULA
HOW DID YOU COME TO MAKE A BORGES FILM?
In 1991, while I was in post-production on EL PATRULLERO, I was asked by the BBC if I would be interested in directing a short story by Borges as their contribution to a “strand” of Borges teleplays in connection with the 500th Anniversary of the Spanish Invasion of the New World.
I was pretty ignorant about Borges. I started reading and discovered this marvelous writer, of course – extremely highly regarded in Latin America and Spain. In the US and Britain he’s often called a “cult” writer, which is depressing – as if great literature were a “cult” instead of a zenith to which all writers should aspire.
Pretty quickly it became clear I should direct THE ALEPH. There were other good stories, like GARDEN OF THE FORKING PATHS and THE CIRCULAR RUINS, but THE ALEPH was fabulous – “Quality” Period Piece Meets 2001. I proposed it, and was told it wasn’t a good idea because it would be too difficult. The difficulty was part of the fun, of course, but I asked the BBC producers’ what their thoughts were. They faxed me a list of about five titles: it turned out they were the only stories to which they had the rights! Among them were EMMA ZUNZ and DEATH & THE COMPASS.
WHY PICK DEATH & THE COMPASS AND NOT EMMA ZUNZ?
At first I favoured EMMA ZUNZ and we discussed Cathy Burke playing Emma. But the more I thought about it the more politically charged it seemed: it’s the story of a woman who fakes her own rape so as to get revenge against an evil factory owner – it works brilliantly on the page but on screen it could prove quite dubious. So I went for DEATH & THE COMPASS, the story of a brilliant detective whose brilliance and eclectic methodology bring about his destruction.
Borges’ work is great material for the cinema because it is so visual – his descriptions of places, of melancholy times of day, of deadly doppelgangers, of dark coincidences formed out of chaos, are visually spectacular.. But some things are harder to translate than others – like the scene in DEATH & THE COMPASS where Lonnrot finds himself in a mirrored room.
That scene seemed like a homage on Borges’ part to LADY FROM SHANGHAI – he had been a film reviewer and wrote one of the very best reviews of CITIZEN KANE. It is brilliantly written, but it was too daunting to attempt to emulate the work of Welles. So I left it out entirely.
We shot a 50 minute version in 1992, which was screened by the BBC and Spanish television. The following year I was asked by the producer Karl Braun to shoot more scenes with money he’d obtained from our Japanese partners, Katsumi Ishikuma and Kuniaki Negishi. We shot another 40 minutes – adding a robbery in which an old friend of Lonnrot’s is killed, various special effects shots, and the scenes of Treviranus
on trial and as an old man.
Once the new stuff was shot we ran into a new wrinkle: there were no additional funds for post-production. Carlos Puente and I prepared a rough cut of the feature version and set it aside. A couple of years later I directed a “work for hire” – a cable movie called THE WINNER (1995). It was re-edited by the producers in clumsy fashion, and the magnificent soundtrack by Pray For Rain was removed and replaced by porno tunes.
But the money I earned on this unhappy assignment made it possible for me to complete DEATH & THE COMPASS – which had been lying in pieces in the negative vaults of laboratories in Mexico City, London, Seattle, and Los Angeles. The film was mixed by Victor Barragan at Churubusco Studios, and completed in 1996.
HOW DOES THE STORY DIFFER FROM THE FILM?
You should read it! It is only 13 pages long. It is constructed like one of Borges’ pages from an imaginary dictionary or gazetteer of a fictitious country: the last adventure of a great detective. The plot of the story and the film are quite similar, although the narrative of the film is less linear — it is broken up by the interview with Treviranus, his eventual downfall and disgrace, and the robbery at the Used Money Repository: Treviranus is our unreliable guide through the labyrinth.
DID YOU USE THE SAME CREW AS EL PATRULLERO?
Pretty much, yes – we had the same cameraman, Miguel Garzon, the same production designer, Cecilia Montiel, the same costume designer, Manuela Loaeza, and the same editor, Carlos. We had gone for muted colour schemes in EL PATRULLERO: this time we wanted for DEATH & THE COMPASS a brighter, more extreme design. Cecilia came up with a specific colour strategy for each of the principal characters. It was important to us all to try something different, to make a film that was quite different from our previous one.
WHY IS IT NECESSARY TO BE DIFFERENT?
I don’t know. It just seems important to be constantly attempting new things. After SID & NANCY I was offered several projects about junkies; but I have no real interest in junkies, and I had to turn them down. After WALKER I was offered several violent projects, including NATURAL BORN KILLERS. But I am not interested in violence per se, either. WALKER was about violent colonialism. I’m not interested in staging shoot ’em ups and sadistic action sequences for their own sake.
THE CHARACTERS IN DEATH & THE COMPASS INHABIT THREE SOLITARY WORLDS; THEY SEEM TO HAVE NO FRIENDS; THEY ARE ALIENATED.
In my films all the characters are alienated: the alienated youth, the alienated adults, the alienated criminals, the alienated cops, the alienated aliens. Vanderbilt in WALKER is completely isolated and alienated, and he is the richest man in the world.
WHAT OTHER BORGES FILM ARE THERE?
According to Edgardo Cozarinsky (whose book URBAN VOODOO Bennie Reyes is reading in his room at the beginning of THREE BUSINESSMEN) there are two films with screenplays by Borges: INVASION , directed by Hugo Santiago in Argentina in 1968; and LES AUTRES, directed by Santiago in France in 1973. Films based on Borges’ stories include DIAS DE ODIO (66 minutes, Argentina, based on “Emma Zunz” and directed by Leoplodo Torre Nilsson in 1955); EL HOMBRE DE LA ESQUINA ROSADA (70 minutes, Argentina, directed by Rene Mugica in 1961; EMMA ZUNZ (54 minutes, France, directed by Alain Magrou in 1969); and Bertolucci’s SPIDER’S STRATAGEM (based on “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero”) – made in Italy in 1969.
(There is even another version of DEATH & THE COMPASS – a black & white short film directed by Paul Miller at the London Film School back in the far-off seventies, and shot by Dave Bridges — later the cinematographer of WALKER. Apparently Nigel Hawthorne plays Lonnrot.)
Maybe the obscurity of these films is inevitable. Borges is cynical, sharp-witted. He documents hopelessness and pessimism, the impossibility of change or escape, the inevitability of fate and meaningless violence. You could not make a Mel Gibson movie out of one of these stories, nor a Merchant Ivory film.
LA REVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:
“…WRAPS ITSELF IN A CLOAK OF BEAUTY”
“… SET IN A TOTALITARIAN FUTURE FILMED AMID
SETTINGS OF ARCHITECTURAL GRANDEUR”
“THE WORK OF A TALENTED VISIONARY”
Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times
“A FREESTANDING, COLOR-CODED COMIC
A GORGEOUS SURREALIST DREAM”
Ella Taylor, LA Weekly
“FILMED IN HARSH ,SATURATED COLORS AND ALMOST
CARTOONISH IN IT’S PRESENTATION. DEATH AND THE COMPASS IS A JARRING FILM EXPERIENCE BUT AN INTELLIGENT ONE AS WELL”
Cathy Thompson-Georges, BOXOFFICE Magazine
HOW DID YOU GET BLONDIE TO DO THE SOUNDTRACK ON THREE BUSINESSMEN?
It isn’t Blondie – it’s Debbie Harry. And she sings the title song, “Ghost Riders In The Sky.” The rest of the score is by Pray For Rain.
WHY “GHOST RIDERS IN THE SKY”?
“Ghost Riders In The Sky” is mentioned in dialogue in THREE BUSINESSMEN. One of the businessmen, Bennie (Miguel Sandoval) tells a story about a wonderful dog he had, Rex, who would spin on his back whenever he, Bennie, sang that haunting song.
When the film was almost finished, we still hadn’t settled on an end title song. Dan Wool, our composer, remarked that he was friends with the son of the original author of “Ghost Riders In The Sky,” one Stan Jones Jr. He talked to the son of Stan, explained the weird and unique nature of the project, and got the rights to the song.
AND WHENCE DEBBIE HARRY?
Dan, Tod Davies and I debated at length as to who should sing the haunting cowboy song, and though there were other good contenders, for me there was only one choice. (Also I had done a video for Debbie and Iggy Pop in 1990 – based on the Cole Porter song “Did You Evah?”, and we had acted together in an outstandingly-odd movie in Tucson, AZ: DEAD BEAT. And I had her phone number…)
Debbie met Dan and recorded the song at a studio in New York just before the Blondie tour began.
MIGHT YOU AND SHE COLLABORATE AGAIN?
I hope so. Debbie is the godmother of punk, and has promised to have my babies, though due to her exhausting schedule of hits and touring this may have to be delayed.
SO WHAT’S THE MOVIE ABOUT? NOT BUSINESSMEN?
Certainly is. It’s the story of Bennie and Frank, two independent businessmen, who meet by chance in the restaurant of the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool. Unable to find food therein, they set out in search of dinner.
THAT’S IT? THAT’S WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
IT DOESN’T SOUND VERY EXCITING.
It’s extremely exciting. Thrilling is not to strong a word. But it creeps up on you. It isn’t a rock’n’roll themed piece like REPO MAN. There isn’t any rock’n’roll at all, in fact, until Debbie at the end. Yet it’s 100% subversive, and threatening to the MTV value system. It’s also very funny, but again, not like TV. And it all happens in the course of one night.
HOW CAN IT HAPPEN IN ONE NIGHT AND TAKE PLACE IN FIVE DIFFERENT COUNTRIES? IS IT DIFFERENT CHARACTERS IN EVERY PLACE?
No, it’s the same two characters throughout.
AND WHY’S IT CALLED THREE BUSINESSMEN IF THERE ARE ONLY TWO?
There are three. But the third businessman is otherwise engaged.
(WRITER / PRODUCER TOD DAVIES ON THREE BUSINESSMEN:)
WHY DID YOU MAKE THIS FILM?
TOD: Any time that you can make a film that you think you should make, you do it. It happens so rarely.
WHY DID YOU THINK YOU SHOULD MAKE IT?
TOD: Because the subject matter of the script means a lot to both of us – that’s from a writer’s point of view. From a producer’s point of view, because I believe there’s an entire audience “out there” of people who would like to see the kind of films I’d like to see – like DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE or RULES OF THE GAME or SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT – entertaining art films. I would have watched WAITING FOR GODOT if they’d made it into a movie. It would have been great with Laurel and Hardy.
WHAT DOES THE SONG THAT DEBBIE HARRY SINGS MEAN — GHOST RIDERS IN THE SKY?
TOD: Originally, for the author, I suppose it was a vision. But it’s true now — it seems like life is nothing but chasing after a ghost herd that we’ll never catch. People are being warned, that they’re going to be roaming the globe forever unless they pay attention. And they don’t.
HOW MUCH DID THE FILM COST?
TOD: It was funded by three sources, VPRO television, Film Fonds Rotterdam, and our own company, Exterminating Angel. It was a labour of love for most of those involved, and when you get in a situation like that: final cost, no man can say.
IS IT REALLY ABOUT BUSINESSMEN TRYING TO FIND THEIR DINNER?
TOD: It’s not what it’s about. It’s just what happens. There is some confusion that these two things are the same, in the movies. But they are not.
WHY DID ALEX ACT IN IT?
TOD: It is always good to cast the director because you have to pay one salary less, one less airplane ticket, one less per diem. It’s even better if you can persuade them to edit the film as well, and to go and get coffee for the security guys.
WHY DID YOU MAKE THIS FILM?
I first read the play “The Revengers Tragedie” in an old book called The Poetical Works of Cyrill Tourneur. It was 1976, or thereabouts. This was the first Jacobean revenge drama I had read, and it was a revelation to me. I’dbeen made to read Shakespeare at school, and thought, right enough, “Hamlet” is a greater play, but REVENGERS was my cup of tea exactly.
Because Shakespeare’s work was constrained by the reactionary policics of his time. And the author of REVENGERS’ weren’t. Shakespeare’s position is easy to understand and sypathise with: he lived under the Tudor dynasty, and any kind of dissenter (whether a playwright, a nun, or an acutal rebel) was liable to be dragged off, tortured, burned alive, or hanged. It happened to Thomas Kyd, author of THE SPANISH TRAGEDIE – arrested on suspicion of seditious flyposting. Under torture Kyd denounced his former friend Christopher Marlowe (DR FAUSTUS, TAMBURLAINE). And Marlowe was stabbed to death by government agents in a staged fight. These were extremely dangerous times for the creatives.
Shakespeare’s work reflects his brilliance at staying on the right side of the regime. Of all the terrible sins committed in his plays, none is worse than parricide – the killing of a king. Shakespeare promoted the divine right of kings to be kings, and not to fear or heed the mutterings of their subjects.
REVENGERS TRAGEDY comes not from the Tudor but from the Jacobean period (i.e. Elizabeth was dead and the head royal was now called James): in the transition there was some kind of a shakeout – a loosening of power – and the Jacobean plays, the plays of the first years of the 17th century, reflect this. Their language is more modern, and their concerns seem more like ours as well: we know authority is corrupt – the question is, how to unseat it?
REVENGERS TRAGEDY was first published, anonymously, in 1606. In London playwrights and actors were enjoying unheard-of creative freedoms, while in the provinces, country people rebelled against the enclosure of public spaces by wealthy landowners. The rebellions went nowhere and were brutally suppressed; hundreds of people were hanged. REVENGERS is the story of how one malcontent, a member of a once-noble but fallen family, destroys a dynasty of noble lords.
WOULD ANYONE BUT STUDENTS WANT TO SEE THIS FILM?
Who knows if students want to see it? What’s the difference? When I was an undergraduate (cut to black & white footage of trams, the Dockers’ Umbrella, horse and cart with milk churns) you could tell the difference between students and non-students by their haircuts, the music they listened to, and the clothes they wore. Today’s yoof bear fewer distinguishing marks.
It doesn’t matter what their job is. Either people will get it, and find it funny, or they won’t. REVENGERS TRAGEDY isn’t a dessicated work of “quality literature.” It is an angry, almost-demented play, and a black comedy. Our job as filmmakers is to make it as accessible as possible to a modern audience – and to remain true to the piece. The locations are either modern or classical – the monumental architecture that the centre of Liverpool and the docks are rich in. The language is mostly Jacobean, with some modern interpolations, and one contemporary scene.
WHY MIX THINGS UP LIKE THAT?
To emphasize, in a filmic way, the absolute absence of change! The injustices of the early 17th century are those of the early 21st. Corrupt and powerful forces oppress the poor and the meek. The poor rise up. They are suppressed. And a younger generation of poor, angrier and with access to weapons, rises up to take revenge… Just as US foreign policy in Central America was the same in 1856 as in 1986, when we made WALKER. The anachronisms weren’t a stunt: they were an inevitable consequence of the narrative.
In REVENGERS, Lussurioso becomes The Duke while standing against a golden door that bears the logos of Imperial Rome. But instead of “S.P.Q.R.” for Rome it says “S.P.Q.L.” – for Liverpool! The production designers have been congratulated for that, but it’s actually there on the doors in St George’s Hall in the middle of town. That massive building – again, from the 1850s – was built to be the biggest secular building in the world – to symbolise the imperial power that Britain projected out of its principal port. Drew Schofield, the actor who plays Carlo, says he can never pass St George’s Hall without thinking about the homeless children selling matches in the shadow of that great cathdral to capitalism, as it was being built. The very location – like the play – radiates heartlessness, and grandeur.
WHY IS IT SO SILLY?
What do you mean? REVENGERS TRAGEDY is a tight-lipped, hard-edged Noir thriller featuring a showdown between narrow-eyed, desperate hombres. Just because the characters have names like Spurio, or Ambitioso, or Supervacuo, or a mother who has sex with her own sons, or a hero who carries his late wife’s head around with him, doesn’t mean they’re meant to be ridiculous!
WHY ISN’T IT MORE VIOLENT?
It’s violent enough. I don’t think super-realistic violence is necessary here. Everything is so arch and weird to begin with. Emotional passions are already amped to the extreme. If anything, the violence should be even more ludicrous – when the brothers are shot, stuffing should perhaps pour out of them. Or blue blood.
WHY ARE THERE SO MANY CHARACTERS FROM BROOKSIDE IN IT?
There are no characters from “Brookie” (a long-cancelled TV series set in Liverpool) in REVENGERS TRAGEDY. You may have noticed actors, such as Michael Starke, who have appeared in it, or indeed in other soap operas. Soap operas, like episodic drama, provides valuable work for thesps. But actors are not the same as the characters they play. Fortunately.
WHAT DOES THE BUS SCENE MEAN?
In Frank Cottrell Boyce’s original script, Vindici arrived on board a Chinese junk in the River Mersey. In the first draft, his crewmates were alive, and patching up their wounds from a recent sea battle. In a later draft, they were all dead – Vindici was alone aboard a death ship, like Nosferatu.
We didn’t shoot that opening because – for budgetary reasons – we couldn’t come up with a seaworthy junk! For similar concerns we relocated Lussurioso’s party from a Mersey Ferry Pleasure Cruise to the Barcelona nightspot. It’s unfortunate, perhaps, to lose the maritime aspect. But it isn’t deadly. Instead, Vindici arrives on a bus which has (I think) been ambushed, and all its occupants killed. Fate or the Comet or a vengeful god spares Vindici alone, because he still has business to attend to. But death is where he’s coming from, as it were.
WHY DID YOU ASK CHUMBAWAMBA TO DO THE MUSIC?
They are hugely talented, highly relaxed and easy to approach (I emailed them c/o their website at chumba.com, and Alice Nutter replied immediately). They also seemed, and turned out to be, in sympathy with what REVENGERS TRAGEDY is about.
AND WHAT IS IT ABOUT?
While shooting REVENGERS, every night I read a little bit of Philip K. Dick’s A SCANNER DARKLY. Years ago I thought about addressing the disguise problem in REVENGERS by the use of “scanner suits” as in Dick’s novel. The way Frank wrote the screenplay, they weren’t necessary. Yet there still seemed some connection between A SCANNER and REVENGERS. Perhaps it was the determination of the hero, his valiant resolve, and his sacrifice. To know what REVENGERS is really about, you would have to ask the author, who we believe is Thomas Middleton. He is reputed to be rather elusive. As the director of this version, I would say REVENGERS is about the futility of revenge, and of struggling to bring down empires. And the excitement of trying.
AND WHERE DID THE APOSTROPHE GO?
I’m tired of the apostrphe. Nobody knows what to do with them any more (even though the rule regarding apostrophes is very simple, it seems to have become totally un-learnable). There wasn’t one on the title page of THE REVENGERS TRAGEDIE and what’s good enough for Tom M is good enough for me.
DOES THIS FILM HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH JOHN FORD’S THE SEARCHERS?
It would be nice to say that it’s an affectionate parody, or else a science fiction remake set on the moons of Jupiter. But neither would be true.
I had been trying to get a project going in Liverpool, in England: exec-producing a slate of eight micro-budget features, in time for “Capital of Culture” year, 2008. Involving almost the whole audio-visual community (directors, actors, writers, producers, composers, special effects, camera and crew) it would have given the drifting Culture Capital project some badly-needed local participation, and the local industry some support.
That project was not to be. Yet the idea of a microfeature – costing a hundred thousand pounds or less – stuck with me. This was the low road, the way we’d originally wanted to make REPO MAN before a studio became involved.
Now, if I was going to make a feature film for such a low budget, it had to be something interesting and amusing – working with actors I liked, who were my friends, rather than skittish weirdos with “star” status or “bankability.” I’d been out to Monument Valley in 2005 to watch ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST on a big inflatable screen. I knew the inflatable screen guys were coming back in 2006 to show THE SEARCHERS on its 50th anniversary. So I thought, what about a film involving a road trip out to Monument Valley, to catch the screening of THE SEARCHERS? Who (apart from me) would make such a trip? No one drives 2,000 miles just to watch a movie. There had to be a reason for it. A real reason.
SEARCHERS 2.0, the script, was the result.
Every screenplay I’ve written (how many is that? 40? 50?) has had the same initial response: “the characters are unsympathetic.” Perhaps this is why so few of them were made. Financiers are simple, twisted souls who like a simple story with false breasts, perfect white teeth, and a muscular, anti-intellectual action hero. Fred lifts weights while watching TV but he is otherwise unheroic: bogarting the joints and the beer, telling ridiculous and untrue stories, bitching about Al Gore and Michael Moore. Mel is, if anything, worse: a penniless deadbeat dad who gets itinerant workers fired and lies to his daughter. And Fritz Frobisher, beater of little children, is the worst of all.
But, perhaps because the story was about actors, and the politics were in the sub-plot (we follow a trail of sad memorials to those killed in WWII, Afghanistan and Iraq), there was actual interest in this one. A few kind people offered to buy shares via the internet. A reclusive millionaire wanted to shoot it in five minute segments, to be downloaded to cell phones. A couple of “real” LA producers proposed they take the project on. The catch was casting. Their visions didn’t involve the actors I’d had in mind: Del Zamora and Ed Pansullo. For your standard Hollywood producer, the writer’s or the director’s intentions are irrelevant. Who would bother to make a picture for only $200K when – with Cheech and Bill Murray on board – you could raise 3.5 million, maybe 4?
At one point in SEARCHERS 2.0, Mel and Fred are mistaken for homeless people by a Mexican guy who gives them a dollar. This follows the revelation that neither of them has health insurance. Not a big deal – 40% of the people living in the US don’t have any, either. But imagine Bill Murray or Cheech Marin, or any other pair of upper-middle-class, Hollywood actors, trying to say those lines. It would be impossible. Worse, it would be despicable – like Jack Nicholson and Madonna playing homeless people, in a film for Universal.
Then someone showed up who understood this: Jon Davison, legendary producer of WHITE DOG, AIRPLANE, ROBOCOP, and STARSHIP TROOPERS. JD had retired from the business to go prospecting in Telluride. But the script – or the prospect of working with Ed Pansullo, an actor he had long admired – lured him back to the City of the Angels. JD took the script to Roger Corman, who (considering his long, illustrious career as an independent director and producer) we might call the inventor of the microfeature.
Mel and Fred were written for Zamora and Pansullo. And there was an obvious part for that great actor Sy Richardson. For the other principal cast members we went the old-fashioned way and held auditions! The casting directors were Jan Glaser and Christine Joyce: they introduced us to Jaclyn Jonet and Zahn McClarnon.
SEARCHERS 2.0 was filmed in 15 days, on the road from Venice, CA, to Monument Valley, AZ. We were working our way towards the shortest day of the year; we’d start at 0700 and wrap around 1600, or 1700. Travel made some days longer. On our penultimate day, it snowed. The cinematographer was Steve Fierberg, with whom I’d worked on SID & NANCY, and WALKER. The designer, of course, was Cecilia Montiel; Diego Sandoval was her art director.
Shooting so rapidly changes the way you make a film: we shot almost in sequence; the actors had to be exceptionally well prepared, since the daily page counts were so high; they also drove the production vehicles.
On a regular feature the cars are usually towed or put on a low-loader. It’s probably safer if the actors don’t drive: they have a lot of words to say and if the car is towed they can concentrate on acting, not driving. But towing cars or carrying them on trucks slows things down enormously: in addition to the tow truck there’s usually a camera car, a couple of follow vehicles and the inevitable pair of highway patrol cruisers or phalanx of motorcycle cops. This is why even an “independent” Hollywood road movie resembles a minor procession involving the Roman emperor.
Luckily, our cast were all good drivers. And despite the SUV-gas-revenge theme, the production had a relatively modest footprint. Half a dozen actors and twelve crew people fit into five vehicles: two Suburbans, a Jeep, an art department van, and a mobile home avec generator. Del came to the auditions (he read opposite all the Delilahs and Rustys) by bicycle, and only two one-way airplane trips (ferrying actors from LA to Prescott, AZ) were made.
We used a Canon HDV camera on the recce (shooting by mistake in a fake “24p” format which was really NTSC 29.97), and three Sony Z1s in production, at 50i PAL. (One of the cameras died; all three had different quirks, but Steve came to like them by the end.) Most of the stills were shot on a Lumix DMC-LX2: a little Panasonic camera with a 16X9 aspect ratio and a Leica lens. At the end of the shoot, our sound recordist, Alexandra Gallo, told JD that – if she’d understood what we had planned – she’d have turned the job down, since it was impossible. (Alexandra is very modest. Her sound is excellent.)
Digital shooting brought an additonal benefit for the actors: the absence of tape measures and slates being pushed in their faces just before they gave a performance. It hadn’t occurred to me how annoying and off-putting these last-minute camera department checks are for the cast: shooting on video liberates you in unanticipated ways…
For our last shooting week we were based at Gouldings Trading Post and Lodge, overlooking Monument Valley. This is a great place, very film-friendly (they’ve been putting up movie crews since Harry Goulding persuaded John Ford to shoot STAGECOACH there). Gouldings screen DVDs of old Ford pictures every night (usually STAGECOACH, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, and THE SEARCHERS): I only hope they’re not too horrified by SEARCHERS 2.0 when they see it.
I cut the film in a log cabin, two days’ drive from Monument Valley, using Avid Xpress Pro on a Mac laptop. No technical problems were encountered. The picture files were kept on several different media: one drive, a Seagate, died, but drives by OWC and G-Tech proved reliable. Special effects were created by Eric Leven at Tippet Studios in Berkley, and by Peter Kuran, at VCE Films in LA. Score and sound design – by Dan Wool and Richard Beggs – were done in San Francisco. The online was at Kappa Studios (a former Scientology headquarters!) in LA, on an Avid Nitris… a machine which our colourist told us is “96%” compatible with Avid Xpress Pro.
Outputting from the Nitris proved quite difficult, even provoking Avid support people to show up (!) and recommend a software re-install. For an online system to be “more or less” compatible with an offline system from the same company is not acceptable. Who do Avid think they are, turning out incompatible, funky software – Microsoft?
Maybe next time I’ll learn to use FCP. Or Cinelerra, or another open-source non-linear editing tool. (Maybe I’ll learn Quechua, too, while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.)
But I’d be happy to shoot another picture with the Z1, a tough and versatile camera – really a big VX-1000, much improved, with native 16X9. Not an ideal camera for the DP: no calibrations on the endlessly-rotating focus ring, and you must choose a special setting – “allscan mode” just to find out where the edges of the frame are. But the Z1 was cheap and easy to use, ideal for the director! And it recorded on tape – easily cloned, reliable and durable in those bygone days.
SEARCHERS 2.0 soundtrack available on
|WHY HAVEN’T WE SEEN REPO CHICK?
You’d have to ask David Lynch why that is, since his alleged sales agent and attorney were peripherallly involved in the production and had the rights to US distribution and foreign sales. As far as I’m aware the only foreign sale so far has been the one I made to the BBC.
IS IT A SEQUEL TO REPO MAN?
Not at all! It is the stand-alone story of a rich young woman who is unaware that she and everyone she knows are HO-scale plastic model railroad characters.
For further info, please visit grandiosesolutions.com!