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Straight to Hell Returns: filmmaker Alex Cox on Joe Strummer, punk politics, and The Wonderful World of Kittens

Still from Straight to Hell
15 November 2010

When Straight To Hell was released in 1987, Alex Cox did have a cult following, established by Repo Man and Sid & Nancy; but though several actors from those films appear in Straight to Hell, including co-writer Dick Rude, Circle Jerks bassist Zander Schloss, Sy Richardson, Miguel Sandoval, Jennifer Balgobin, and even J. Frank Parnell himself, Fox Harris, the films couldn’t be more different. Repo Man, while also a comedy, shows the strongest contrasts: located on the fringes of the LA punk scene, it riffs on the noir Kiss Me Deadly to offer a darkly funny poke at alienated urban life, replete with generic groceries, decomposing aliens, a radioactive Malibu, incompetent MIBs and pseudo-Scientologists. By contrast, Straight To Hell is a rather gleefully silly spaghetti western homage, with a starring role for Joe Strummer and smaller parts for the Pogues, Elvis Costello, Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones, Jim Jarmusch, and Edward Tudor Pole. People who found Repo Man funny wouldn’t necessarily appreciate the far broader humour of seeing Fox Harris as a lounge singer delivering a godawfully melodramatic performance of Tom Jones “Delilah” to a party of cowboy-attired baddies – including most of the Pogues – who periodically shoot their pistols in the air in appreciation. Though there were probably fans of Cox’s previous films other than myself who also loved Straight To Hell, I must admit that I never encountered one until this year, and had no luck, video store geek that I was at the time, in convincing my customers of its merits.

Straight To Hell Returns poster

With the benefit of hindsight, really, the failure of Straight To Hell to find an audience in 1987 is no surprise.The vogue for postmodernist manipulation of the codes of cinema gone by was yet to be established, with Quentin Tarantino, in 1987, still a video store geek himself, and films like Sukiyaki Western Django and The Good The Bad and The Weird things of an undreamt-of distant future. Further, though the film was obviously intended to appeal to music fans – growing, as it did, out of an initial, abandoned proposal to film various bands on tour in revolutionary Nicaragua – people who came to see Joe Strummer, the Pogues, and Elvis Costello in acting roles wouldn’t necessarily notice, let alone care about, the nods to For a Few Dollars More, Point Blank, Cool Hand Luke and other films. What could it mean to a non-cinephile, too, that Straight To Hell was filmed in the oft-used Sergio Leone location of Almeria, Spain, on the set of a Charles Bronson movie called Chino (AKA Valdez the Halfbreed), where the buildings had all been designed, according to Cox, to a somewhat smaller stature, so the shortish Bronson might appear tall? This is the sort of apocrypha film geeks drool over, but music geeks are a different species, and unless you were a bit of both, you were likely to feel at least partially excluded from the proceedings. Indeed, on the commentary for the previous DVD edition of Straight To Hell, Cox comments that a Tucson punk once told him that watching Straight To Hell was like being at a great party to which you were not invited.

There is some reason to think the film has a better chance now. Audiences are more sophisticated; the young, then-unknown female lead of the film, Courtney Love, has gained celebrity status, however troubled it may be; and several of the cast members – including Joe Strummer and Dennis Hopper – have passed on, adding to the mythical impact of their names. Fortunate, then, that Cox has recut the film, digitally enhanced it, and is presently touring it around the United States, under the new title, Straight To Hell Returns.

The following is stitched together from two separate conversations with Alex Cox. A much shorter, different version of this has previously appeared on my blog, Alienated In Vancouver.

Alex Cox

So how was the first public screening of Straight To Hell Returns (Halloween 2010, in San Francisco)?

AC: For the screening in San Francisco, one of the actors of the film was there, Ed Pansullo, and he brought some of the animals from his farm along with him. So that was a whole livestock-type atmosphere, which was extraordinary, especially on Halloween.

What animals did he bring?

AC: He brought a goat, and some ducks. He brought his pickup truck from the farm, so he could only bring some of the smaller animals. A couple of dogs. I think he would have loved to have brought the whole flock, but… we were limited by the capacity of his truck. But it was still really a nice thought. So that was very good, and then there was another screening the following evening, in San Rafael, which was like, more serious. There was a big staircase to get up into the theatre, so I don’t think most of the goats would have been able to make it up.

Was the reception good?

AC: Definitely. The second evening, people were more excited. Obviously, the animals were the primary attraction on the first evening, and then when the animals weren’t there on the second evening, they had to concentrate on the film. But yeah, I think it went well!

Well, I’m certainly among those delighted that there’s a new, improved version of Straight To Hell to be seen.

AC: Heh heh heh. It’s better!

Well, there’s more of Karl the Wiener Boy (Zander Schloss) being tortured, so – yes!

AC: There’s quite a bit more of that – also Elvis Costello being tortured.

Did you have to get Zander’s permission, to include more of the Karl-torture?

AC: 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.

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

AC: 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?

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?

AC: 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 (Miguel Sandoval) are actually animated, in the old-fashioned way. They’re model skeletons, like Ray Harryhausen.

And you did those especially for the new cut.

AC: 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. ( 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

Were you there?

AC: 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.

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

AC: 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.

the McMahons ride!

It’s fun to see in the film. It looked like you darkened some of the blood spatter, too, when George shoots Spider Stacy.

AC: 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).

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

AC: 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 managed 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 color scheme by the cinematographer, Tom Richmond, so it’s all kinda – better!

Joe Strummer in Straight To Hell

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…

AC: 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.

Do you have any Joe Strummer anecdotes that you haven’t told before? I’ve read X Films (Cox’s book about his work), so I know some of your stories (which range from Strummer’s involvement on the soundtrack to Cox’s previous film, Sid & 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?

AC: 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).

It’s heartbreaking – it reminds me of the footage in Dick Rude’s documentary about Joe, Let’s Rock Again (also used in Julien Temple‘s film, The Future is Unwritten) 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…

AC: 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).

Courtney Love as Velma

Did you ever see them perform?

AC: 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.

I never saw them, I saw the Mescaleros twice in Japan, but never them…

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

Oh, yes. I remember hearing about that concert. And then Roger Daltrey appeared on Global a Go Go. You also went to a lot of punk concerts in Los Angeles, in the early 1980’s, when you were a UCLA student, right?

AC: When I was going to UCLA, I saw Devo, an early time when Devo came to LA; I saw the Screamers; X; Suicidal Tendencies; Circle Jerks; Fear; 999 – I know they were an English band, but they came to LA frequently. I was a big fan of the whole punk thing. I was very enthusiastic for it.

I think I had read someone somewhere asking you about whether you considered yourself a punk, or a punk filmmaker, and you’d said no… Have your feelings changed about punk?

AC: I don’t think it has a lot of meaning now. The punk thing, when it began, was a revolutionary movement, but since it is no longer a revolutionary movement, but an ephemeral and cool fashion style, it’s a little bit different. And like the people who started it, I was very interested in the revolutionary aspect of it, the idea that we could overthrow society as it seemed to be, as we knew it… But I’m less interested in it as a fashion statement.

Actually, speaking of the revolutionary aspect of punk – I was just on the phone with Gerry Hannah today, so, uh – did you ever see the Vancouver band the Subhumans perform?

AC: No. You know who I did see, I did see one of the Vancouver bands play, and they were really good… Now who did I see?

Maybe DOA?

AC: Yes, DOA. And they were excellent. That was a great show – it was in Vancouver, before I made Repo Man, so it must have been 1981 or 1982. And the leader of the band, Joey Shithead, he said, “this next song is dedicated to anyone who has ever been in prison, or soon will be,” and apparently the show was dedicated to some guy who was going to go to prison for some time.

Yes, yes! That’s the guy who I’m talking about, Gerry Hannah, of the Subhumans.

AC: Ah, how funny!

The song would have been “Burn It Down,” and it was written as part of a fundraising effort for the defence of the Squamish Five, a radical activist group (also known as Direct Action) that Gerry belonged to. It would have been 1982. It’s the only story I’m aware of a punk who actually went underground and committed to the life of an urban guerrilla. It’s an unusual story, at least in Canada. (Gerry, long out of prison has reunited with the Subhumans, talks about the band and about radical politics in Big Takeover 66 and 67). So you supported punk out of an interest in radical politics?

AC: Yeah, I think so – it was the idea that it was a revolutionary movement that was appealing.

And were you disappointed with how the scene developed?

AC: Well, of course, because there was no revolution!

Yeah, I remember that feeling, in the 1980’s – that we were on the cusp of something.

AC: Mm. Something sort of happened there, didn’t it?

Were you involved in radical politics at all yourself?

AC: No, not really. I never met any revolutionaries. Except, in our minds, I think we were revolutionaries.

Do you still follow punk as a style of music?

AC: I don’t know enough about contemporary music, really. I’m sure there’s punk bands, hammering at it even as we speak, but I rarely encounter them here in the forest.

You live in Oregon, right?

AC: Yes. A very backward place, Oregon!

Do you follow cinema much, there?

AC: I don’t see films, really. I’m kind of ignorant of most things cultural. I’m striving to learn, little by little, but it’s a slow process. I’m very behind the times.

Do you have a DVD player?

AC: There’s definitely one on the computer.

But you don’t watch much cinema? That surprises me, since you seem like such a devoted cinephile.

AC: It depends what’s going on, there’s a lot of stuff happening as well. We did watch a DVD the other evening called The Wonderful World of Kittens, but I don’t think you would call it a feature, really, because it’s only 45 minutes long. But it was a splendid piece of work, of kittens cavorting with balls.

Um. I see! It sounds like something you would watch with children – do you have kids?

AC: No, we have dogs. (This is the “plate of shrimp coincidence” for the interview; Gerry Hannah has used the same construction in an interview with me, to speak of his and his partner’s status as pet owners: “we don’t have kids, but we have a dog”).

Courtney, Sy, Dick, and Joe

Anyhow, to return to Straight To Hell Returns, you didn’t use the Commando cigarettes commercial that you shot with Dick and Joe, in the new version.

AC: 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.

And then the red car training scene (mentioned in the original DVD commentary).

AC: 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.

If you could help me, I want to try to track down the different film references. There’s Django Kill. 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. There’s an obvious nod to Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. Is the branding-seen-through-binoculars a nod to Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom?

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

You HAVEN’T SEEN Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom?

AC: I should, I should see it.

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 for this reference. It cannot be mere coincidence, could it?).

AC: 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.

Wow! …and yet you make such bloody films!

AC: 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.

Anyhow, are there any other references that I’m missing?

AC: 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.

By the way, why is Jennifer Balgobin (Debi in Repo Man, Fabienne in Straight To Hell) cutting hosepipe in the film? Is it just a sort of castrative thing, or –

AC: Yeah, I think so. I mean, that’s the reason for it, isn’t it, but maybe there was a demand for it in the town, I don’t know. I think it’s just a way of expressing her frustration at her life with George.

Miguel Sandoval as George

I see. Okay, I’d like to talk about a few other films of yours, but if I could start by asking about a film that isn’t yours, have you seen the Jan de Bont film, Twister?

AC: No!

You’re aware of the film?

AC: Jan de Bont was a cameraman, and then he became a director, right? He did Katie Tippel and these Dutch films… I knew him in, like, Repo Man days.

Oh, you knew him? Because there’s an interesting reference to Repo Man in the film. Phil Seymour Hoffman has an early role in this film, which is about a sort of subculture of hurricane chasers. And apropos of this theme of subcultures, he says – though it has nothing to do with anything in the storyline – that the repo man lives to get into intense situations. It’s really interesting to see an homage to Repo Man appear in a commercial Hollywood film. It said something.

AC: Excellent.

Do you get interesting reactions to Repo Man? Is there a cult that follows you around, or such, because of that film?

AC: No, not me. It might follow screenings of the film, but I am unaware of it.

The decision to make Repo Chick (2009) – where did that come from?

AC: I can’t remember. It’s already a couple of years ago, and its already faded into the mists. Why do anything? It’s a weird experience, I mean.

So it wasn’t an attempt to connect to the cult of Repo Man?

AC: I don’t know, and in any case, I don’t think I could have achieved the magnificent failure of Universal when they did that, with Repo Men. I mean, that was quite a stunning failure. They must be applauded for their efforts.

They actually tried to sue you, right, for making Repo Chick?

AC: They had a cease-and-desist order to prevent us from making the film. But we made it anyway. You know, they sent us one of those letters that says, “you must immediately cease your activities.” But we did never cease our activities. Our activities continued regardless.

What’s going on with the film now? It still hasn’t been distributed.

AC: Of that I know nothing. You have to call Mr. David Lynch, and ask him, because he in theory is supposed to making foreign sales and distributing it in the US. But it’s been a year since the film was finished and played at Venice, and I’ve heard absolutely nothing from those guys.

At least Searchers 2.0 (2007) is finally getting a DVD release here.

AC: That’s all right, though, yes! Searchers 2.0 actually played in San Francisco with Straight To Hell.

It’s one of the few features of yours I haven’t seen.

AC: Oh, get the DVD, it’s actually worth seeing. For movie memorabilia, it’s pretty interesting. It’s got a lot of movie memorabilia in it.

Mm. I’ve been waiting for years to see it. I’ve even looked at a local Japanese video store to see if the Japanese DVD was available, but no luck. I often wonder if you feel upset about the neglect your recent films have been treated with in North America. I mean, even up to Straight To Hell and Walker, you had defenders and admirers, including myself –

AC: Well, one should be glad of that, shouldn’t one – any kind of praise is pretty good.

But since Walker, my experience is that at least here, people haven’t been so aware of your work.

AC: That’s an issue of distribution, though, isn’t it? Because I think that once upon a time there was a distribution network for independent films in the US. And it’s kind of disappeared now. Everything is dominated by, what, five enormous media companies, at least two of which are foreign-owned – the one owned by Murdoch, the Australian company, and ones owned by Bertelsmann. And there’s Disney, and Viacom, and Time Warner. And that’s it. Everything is just controlled by this very small number of very wealthy media corporations.

The company that’s behind the DVD for Straight To Hell Returns, Microcinema International – are they a company that you’re behind?

AC: Not at all. Do you know how I got in touch with them? John Davison, who is a producer of Searchers, sent me a DVD of a Bunuel film, which Microcinema were distributing, called Death in the Garden, and I sent them an email saying I thought it was a great DVD, and they’d done a really good job of it, and were they interested in distributing my films? – because I had a bunch that were under license to Anchor Bay for ten years, and that license had just come up, and they said yeah, so… they’re bringing out six films.

Which are?

AC: Straight To Hell Returns, El Patrullero – which is Highway PatrolmanDeath and the Compass, Three Businessmen, Searchers 2.0 and then finally Revenger’s Tragedy. Which right now is out on Fantoma, but when Fantoma’s license expires… essentially it’ll be the same. The Fantoma DVD is a very nice one, and essentially it’ll be the same as the Fantoma.

I only recently saw that. I found it quite delightful.

AC: Oh thank you! It’s good, isn’t it? I like Revenger’s Tragedy.

Though you’re right – it would have been better with the Twin Towers at the end. (The film, based on a Jacobean play about the consequences of seeking revenge, was originally supposed to end on an image of the twin towers being hit by planes, giving it a contemporary resonance, but its backers balked, fearing the image would offend Americans; in its stead, under pressure, Cox substituted an image of the Nagasaki bomb – a tale recounted in X Films).

AC: Yeah, at the end, it would be great – but you can put them in yourself. You can always re-edit it!

Skeletal wolf by Webster Colcord

Alex Cox is currently touring Straight To Hell Returns through the United States; the film comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray in mid-December. For more information on screenings, or to read about other projects of Alex Cox, see, or pick up his books, X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker, or 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director’s Take on the Spaghetti Western.