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Junk in the Trunk

Director Alex Cox reveals how 'Repo Man' went from dead-on-arrival to cult classic

By Steve Palopoli

What's Alex Cox got in the trunk? Oh ... you don't want to look in there. Because even though Repo Man--which makes its Del Mar midnight movie debut this weekend--is now considered one of the best cult films of the '80s, writer-director Cox has lots of nasty memories of how his debut studio film came this close--more than once--to never being released at all. Cox, a UCLA film student at the time, wasn't about to languish in development hell, however, and he gained his first real notoriety when he took out an ad in Variety daring Universal to make his movie. It wouldn't be the last time the future director of Sid and Nancy, Straight to Hell and Highway Patrolman would find himself slashing his way through controversy.

Cox does, however, have some good memories of making Repo Man, especially working with some of the bands that he and executive producer Michael Nesmith (of the Monkees) recruited for what would become one of the most famous cult-film soundtracks of all time. I spoke to him from his home in his native England at the time of Repo Man's release on DVD.

Metro Santa Cruz: Is it true that 'Repo Man' would never have even seen the light of day if it wasn't for midnight movies?

Alex Cox: Repo Man got ditched almost immediately, and [Francis Ford Coppola's] Rumble Fish I think only played in two cinemas. And it was really thanks to one guy at Universal, a guy called Kelly Neal who ran a division called Universal Classics. He just had two films that he kept busing around to college campuses--one was Rumble Fish, and one was Repo Man. That went on for a couple of years, then Universal found out, sacked him and shut down Universal Classics. But he obviously wanted to see those films get out, which always can happen in a big corporation. You find there's somebody there who actually will speak up for the oddest things. Maybe more so in those days than now.

Most people forget how epic many of the shots are in 'Repo Man.' It's filmed very much like a Western. Perhaps it's no coincidence, then, that you made a film in that genre ['Straight to Hell'] a couple of years later?

Westerns are by far the best films. We should only make Westerns.

'Repo Man' is also one of the great punk films of all time. Did you consider yourself a punk while you were at UCLA making it?

I was a supporter, but we used to have this joke at UCLA that the most embarrassing band name you could possibly have would be the Film Students. So we always knew there was a certain distinction, you know? Can you imagine the art students doing punk? Film students would be even worse.

I think art students doing punk is called Talking Heads.

Exactly. Oh my God.

Have you been surprised to see that 'Repo Man' has built such a following over the years?

The longevity of it did surprise me. I really thought it was going to be much more ephemeral, but it has had some longevity. Actually, the album really helped to sell a lot of videos, I think, 'cause people were saying, "Yeah, isn't there a movie that goes with this soundtrack?"

The soundtrack does seem to be as famous as the film at this point. Were you going to see a lot of those bands around L.A. at the time?

All those bands, really. The only person in it who's not a local act is Iggy. They were all bands I went to go and see. I wasn't very fond of Black Flag, actually, as an act. I thought the lead singer was so pretentious. But I liked the Circle Jerks a lot, and I loved Fear and I loved the Plugz.

I know Michael Nesmith supervised much of the music, but how did you find working with the bands? Were they as difficult as they acted onstage?

It was uniformly great, actually. Even the ones I didn't have anything to do with. Black Flag were very accommodating. They redid "TV Party" for the album so that the television titles that he shouts out at the end would be more contemporary. It couldn't have been better. I especially had a good time with the Plugz; they were the ones I was most involved with.

Has your perspective on 'Repo Man' changed at all over the years?

I think for a while I was thinking we maybe should have gone back to the original ending--which was where an atomic bomb went off and blew up the car and blew up Los Angeles--instead of the more uplifting, mystical ending. I go back and forth about it.

You made another cult classic, 'Sid and Nancy,' immediately afterward. Were you already planning it while you were doing 'Repo Man?'

No, Sid and Nancy was actually an emergency film that got made because there was a rumor that there was going to be a Hollywood movie about Sid and Nancy starring Madonna and Rupert Everett. So it was to prevent that from happening. Rupert Everett actually became quite a good actor, but at the time he couldn't really have played Sid Vicious. So we said, "This has got to be stopped," 'cause, you know, we were supporters of the punk rock movement and we couldn't allow such a terrible travesty to occur. Isn't that a funny reason to make a film?

It's not widely known that you co-wrote the script for yet another cult film more recently: 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.' What did you think of the finished film?

I haven't seen it. Don't go to pictures much. Porno movies, now ... you don't want to waste your time watching that Hollywood trash! You want some porn.

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From the March 31-April 7, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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