Saturday, October 30, 2010

Straight to Hell Returns! Alex Cox Interview!

Attentive followers of this blog will know that in July of last year I called out for someone somewhere to project Alex Cox's Straight To Hell, in memory of Joe Strummer and in acknowledgment of the fact that this film, a critical and commercial failure at the time, is "a gleefully idiotic, deliriously inventive, thoroughly postmodern gem," too long neglected, almost forgotten... This despite its being beautifully shot in Almeria on the disused, decaying set of a Charles Bronson western, in the same region where Sergio Leone shot his westerns, and being smarter, funnier, and richer than several successful recent spaghetti western homages like Sukiyaki Western Django and The Good, the Bad, and the Weird. It also boasts performances - some great, others at worst enjoyably ridiculous - by Strummer, Courtney Love, the Pogues, Elvis Costello, Jim Jarmusch and Dennis Hopper - to say nothing of having at least eleven roles for the cast of Cox's earlier cult favourite Repo Man, including Joe Strummer collaborator/ Circle Jerks' bassist Zander Schloss (Kevin in Repo Man - "there's fucking room to move as a fry cook"); Straight To Hell co-author and filmmaker Dick Rude (who'd played Duke - "society made me what I am"); Jennifer Balgobin (Debbi, the gang's co-leader); Miguel Sandoval ("King Archie"); Fox Harris (J. Frank Parnell, here playing a non-radioactive lounge singer); and the inimitable Sy Richardson (Lite, of whom you need no reminding). I suggested with some arrogance that Cox could even tour with this film. The time is ripe to reevaluate Straight To Hell, I pleaded. I made a wee fuss.

This Sunday - Hallowe'en - a new, digitally retouched cut of Straight To Hell, dubbed Straight To Hell Returns, debuts in San Francisco. Cox will be present. I hereby pat myself on the back and smile. There is order in the universe, after all, and I have correctly perceived it. And now if all goes according to my wishes, thanks to the legwork of Quentin Tarantino, Miike Takashi, and other postmodern hipster filmmakers who delight in playing with the codes of cinema past, Straight To Hell Returns will be "discovered" as the fine entertainment it always has been and Cox will be heralded as an ahead-of-his-time genius.

Such is my fervent wish, anyway. Vancouver audiences will have a chance to make it come true on November 12th through the 14th, when the film is double-billed, as part of a tribute to Dennis Hopper, with Hopper's 1980 shot-in-Vancouver feature Out of the Blue - the film with the much-talked-about appearance of local punk-pop legends the Pointed Sticks. (Straight To Hell Returns gets the 9pm slot on Friday and the 9:45 on Saturday, with various people involved in the shoot of the Hopper film invited to attend the Saturday screening). I will be on hand to introduce the film on November 12th (a Friday), but bear no grudges to those who would rather see it on one of the other days. Nardwuar the Human Serviette will be interviewing Cox on his radio show at 4pm of Friday the 12th. (Nardwuar's interview with Dennis Hopper is here). I have left aside all questions about Dennis Hopper (...and Courtney Love) for Nardwuar; what follows below is my talk with Alex Cox about Straight To Hell Returns.
Allan: I'm delighted that you've recut Straight To Hell and it's going to get a second chance at life!

Alex: Heh heh heh. It's better!

Allan: Well, there's more of Karl being tortured, so - yes!

Alex: There's quite a bit more of that - also Elvis Costello being tortured.

Allan: Did you have to get Zander Schloss' permission, to include more of the Karl-torture?

Alex: I don't think so, because I think the thing is, when they signed on, everybody who was involved agreed to make the movie, so whether the movie was 87 minutes long or 91 minutes long isn't relevant.

Allan: He always seemed so unhappy about being tortured and abused to such an extent.

Alex: I think so, but the thing is, because he agreed to do it - it's a bit like if you buy a car; you may be unhappy with it, but if it's still running, then... you're stuck with it, you know?

Allan: I've been trying to figure out the smaller things that have been added. Miguel's clogs, the torture scenes, the digital skeleton - that's all quite obvious. But it looked to me that you may have added some digital flies. Is that true?

Alex: Yes, there are digital flies. There are a lot of - you know, the flames and stuff coming out of the guns, and dust hitting the walls and stuff - a lot of it is digitally enhanced. But the skeletons, though - the skeletons in the car are digital skeletons, but the skeleton of the wolf and the skeleton of George are actually animated, in the old-fashioned way. They're model skeletons, like Ray Harryhausen.

Allan: And you did those especially for the new cut.

Alex: Yes! They were done by a guy named Webster Colcord, who specializes in skeletons - he has a whole web presence devoted to skulls and skeletons and flying skulls and all this stuff. (Not sure which site Alex is referring to, but here's Colcord's blog, showing varied bits of art and animation). He did the two animated skeletons with Ray Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts as his inspiration. Ray Harryhausen's like, 90 years old now - they had a party for him in London at the BFI...

Allan: Were you there?

Alex: No, I wasn't invited - I'm not really a special effects-y person, but do you know Phil Tippett? He's a CGI/ special effects/ monster guy from Berkeley, in California. He went, and he said a whole bunch of Harryhausen's surviving colleagues were there or sent messages, and Spielberg and Lucas recorded tributes to him and stuff, so it was pretty cool.

Allan: Wouldn't it have been cheaper and easier to go for CGI instead of stop motion? Did you deliberately choose stop motion?

Alex: Yeah, because I think what it is - the Collateral Image guys who did all the blood spurting and bullet hits and stuff - it's more interesting if people get to do stuff outside the norm. A lot of the work that special effects people do is to "try and make it look as realistic as possible" - to try and make that cat hairball rolling across the carpet look as realistic as possible, which isn't necessarily as much fun as doing some stop motion animation, or doing something that's really gross and over the top and would normally be rejected. It's fun to - you know, "step outside the box" is the corny way of saying it.

Allan: It's fun to see in the film. It looked like you darkened some of the blood spatter, too, when George shoots one of the Pogues.

Alex: That's enormously more, now. What happened was, there was a little squib on him and blood flew out and hit the lens, so what the Collateral Image guys did was, they enormously exagerrated that. It's huge - like the liver section of the supermarket exploded (laughs).

Allan: Where did the decision to recut and re-release the film come from?

Alex: I watched the old DVD, and I was thinking, "Ohh, I wish that we had, back in 1986, the digital technologies that we have today, in order to amp this up and make it much crazier." And then I thought - "but wait, we DO have the digital technologies that are available today!" And the very good fortune was that the archive at UCLA had manage to preserve, somehow, the interpositive of the original version of Straight To Hell, so we could go back to something that was as near to the negative as you could get, without being the negative, and do our HD transfer from that. So there was incredible high quality, which didn't exist previously. Previously, the best editions of the film have been either the 35mm version or the digibeta tape. And now we have the HD transfer and this new colour scheme by the cinematographer, so it's all kinda - better!

Allan: It looks great, it looks wonderful. Did the passing of Joe Strummer and Dennis Hopper have anything to do with the decision to re-release it? I mean - I think it's Joe's best film role. I like him in Mystery Train, but he really gets to have some fun in Straight to Hell...

Alex: I agree. I think he's very good in it. Your eye is really drawn to him, in the film - I think of the acting jobs I saw him do, this is the best. So I suppose it is a bit of a tribute to Joe and Dennis and all the other unfortunate Straight To Hell people who are no longer with us.

Allan: Do you have any Joe Strummer anecdotes that you haven't told before? I've read X Films, so I know some of your stories (which range from Strummer's involvement on the soundtrack to Cox's previous film, Sid and Nancy, to his scoring and acting in Cox's next film, Walker)... is there anything from the last years of his life that you haven't told?

Alex: No, I only saw him one time in the last few years before he died, and that was at Cannes, when we went up the red carpet, and I'm thinking, like, "Whoaaaa!" - y'know - "there are all the photographers! They'll take our picture!" And he says, "When they see who we are, they'll turn away." And I'm going "No, man, no - this is Cannes, we just got out of a big limo, it'll be okay." And we got to the top and the photographers all clock us. They all turn away. So rude! Not only do they not want to take our photograph, they don't even want to look at us. (Laughing).

Allan: It's heartbreaking - it reminds me of the footage in Dick Rude's documentary about Joe (also used in Julien Temple's film), where he's passing out flyers in the streets of New York, saying "Come see me, I used to be in a band called the Clash..."

Alex: Yes, but it's interesting - he had all of that, he had this enormous success and fame and celebrity and great, wonderful transcendent admiration by all. And then everybody hated him, because he broke up the Clash, y'know, and then he had these other careers, as an actor and a movie composer, and he had these other bands - the Mescaleros, but he also had that band that Zander was in, the Latino Rockabillies (aka The Latino Rockabilly War, Joe's backing band on Earthquake Weather, also appearing on the Permanent Record soundtrack - check out "Trash City" if you don't know it).

Allan: Did you ever see them perform?

Alex: I did, I saw them perform several times, because they did a tour of England. I saw them in Poole and - really horrible cities, very unpleasant minor English cities. But they were a great band.

Allan: I never saw them, I saw the Mescaleros twice in Japan, but never them...

Alex: And I saw the Mescaleros once, they played with The Who - as, like, the warm-up band for The Who.

Allan: Oh, yes. I remember hearing about that concert. And then Roger Daltrey appeared on Global a-Go-Go... You didn't use the Commando cigarettes commercial that you shot with Dick and Joe, in the new version.

Alex: Where is that, that's the thing - I don't know where that cigarette commercial is. I know we did a thing where Dick just walked into frame, in his, y'know, beach outfit, and said, "Hi, I'm Dick Rude - I'd like you to meet the McMahons." But it was too arch, it was too outside the movie. So maybe the cigarette commercial... I don't remember the cigarette commercial very well, so maybe we didn't do a very good job, or maybe it was just something Dick and Joe did, and I never even saw it. I don't know. It's not in the interpositive - had it been in the IP we would have seen it, we would have evaluated it, and then we would have looked for audio to go with it.

Allan: And then the red car training scene -

Alex: The red car training scene was never shot. It was our intention, but we bit off a bit more than we could chew in the first couple of days, and we had the little driving school right outside the hotel, and the Rambler, where we could have done our little car chase with the police - but we didn't have time.

Allan: If you could help me, I want to try to track down the different film references. There's Django Kill (which Cox - a spaghetti western expert and author of a recent book on the form - talks about here; if you don't know this film, hearing Cox talk about it will make you want to see it!). There's the Point Blank shooting-into-the-bed; there's the For A Few Dollars More title sequence. There's the Cool Hand Luke homage when Jennifer washes the motorcycle. The car crash owes something to Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. Is the branding-seen-through-binoculars a nod to Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom?

Alex: It would be if I had seen it! (laughs)

Allan: (flabbergasted): You haven't seen Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom?

Alex: I should, I should see it.

Allan: Oh, my lord! I've ALWAYS assumed you were paying homage to it! The climax of that film - the big torture scene - has someone being branded, as seen through binoculars (see 1:55 of the recent Criterion DVD; by the way, if someone could contact Tom Richmond, I am now desperate to know if he's the man responsible. It cannot be mere coincidence, could it? How many brandings-seen- through-binoculars are there in cinema history?).

Alex: The thing is - I can't watch that! I couldn't watch Secretary, you know, because it's about this girl delicate-self-cutting. I can deal with guys getting shot, but that's about it - anything else, I'm very squeamish about.

Allan: Wow! ...and yet you make such bloody films!

Alex: Ah, but it's only guys getting shot. It's a whole bunch of machos getting shot. That's all right. That's great - that's like The Wild Bunch. Everybody likes The Wild Bunch.

Allan: Anyhow, are there any other references that I'm missing?
Alex: There's probably references to spaghetti western characters, borrowed from other films. And I'm sure that Edward Tudor Pole, the part that he plays is full of a million-and-one references in his head - I imagine he's channelling Warren Oates in Two-Lane Blacktop or somebody from Cockfighter. Because I think that's the other thing - the actors in their heads had certain thoughts and goals, which they never even told me about. Joe is Michael Caine, throughout.
Allan: What are your hopes for the first screening, in San Francisco? Are you nervous? Are you hopeful? Are you blasé?
Alex: I don't know, because it's on Halloween, and Halloween people have a lot of other things going on, if they're apt to do anything at all. But it does seem an appropriate day, as well, for the return of Straight To Hell. And because of the colour scheme that Tom Richmond chose for the new version, there is kind of a pumpkin quality to the whole movie. It's got this kinda yellowy orange look. So maybe that'll stand it in good stead!
Allan: Any messages for Vancouver audiences?
Alex: I'm just honoured to think that people in Vancouver are going to watch this film, as I am honoured anytime anywhere people watch any of the rubbish that I've done! It's marvelous to think that people can spare an hour and a half of their time in this endeavour, and I'm very grateful - I hope they enjoy it very much indeed! ...or at least to a certain extent.
Straight To Hell Returns screens at the VIFC, Nov. 12-14, double billed with Out of the Blue! I introduce it on the Friday! Nardwuar talks to Alex on the radio at 4pm that day! Check it out! Check it out!


Webster Colcord said...

Allan, I updated my website with some production photos from Straight to Hell Returns.

kurt said...

Can't wait!!

Alex Cox said...

Thank you very much for such perceptive comments!!! I had no idea that HELL was on a double bill with OUT OF THE BLUE, but it makes a great deal of sense.

Microcinema International said...

A new director's cut of Straight to Hell Returns will be released on DVD on 12-14-10. The latest version has a new HD transfer and color correction that alters the look of the film. The new director’s cut also has new digitally enhanced effects and new footage, including some footage that was left out of the original film. The new version features music by Pray For Rain, Strummer and the McManus Gang. For the first time, the film will be available on Blu-ray.

Straight to Hell Returns