TUE 20 AUG
from www.edfilmfest.org.uk (thanks BZC)
After twenty years of making cult movies he is still the most uncompromising filmmaker working in the UK today. ALEX COX's latest film, Revengers Tragedy, receives its world premiere at the Film Festival. Here Cox talks about the film, Jacobean history, his hometown Liverpool and a life spent fighting mediocrity.
It's from the passenger seat I first see it, a filthy white sheet sellotaped to the wall of a pub on the Gainsborough Road in south Liverpool, a once wealthy suburban area that has slowly, irretrievably slipped into decline. There's writing on the sheet that reads: "ONE YEAR AGO MY MENTALLY ILL SON WAS SHOT DEAD ON THIS SPOT BY THE POLICE. ENGLAND 2002???" It takes a moment to remember the news story of Andrew Kernan, the young man with a Samurai sword fixation who, in a moment of unmedicated madness, took part of his collection to the street and was greeted by a shot to the head rather than the leg from the armed response unit.
Two days earlier I had interviewed the film director Alex Cox, but now I can feel the joy and positivity he had instilled in me about the future of this singular beautiful city slowly dissipating.
Cox, at a youthful 48, speaks fast, packing every sentence with erudition and odd punctuation. But, even for a man of his esoteric tastes, his new film, a version of Thomas Middleton's very bloody Jacobean play Revengers Tragedy (here adapted and updated to a near-future setting by Frank Cottrell Boyce), seems a strange choice.
"I've been obsessed with this thing since my early twenties," says Cox. "I just read it and thought it was a great piece. When I was a lad they made me read Shakespeare, but I was kind of bored of Shakespeare. He was a great poet, but a bit of a reactionary -- Shakespeare was a propagandist for the Tudors. I had to study the Tudors for history and I hated them; they were the founders of the modern British Police state. Then I read Revengers Tragedy just by chance, and it was sensational. Here's a play where the hero is like Hamlet, in that he has a revenge quest, but instead of being consumed by self doubt and lots of tedious moralising about the divine rights of kings, he just gets on with it. He gets rid of the other guy and then he gets rid of the kids as well. I thought, "Wow, here's something that someone who is not a monarchist can relate to."
The film has been made entirely and independently in Liverpool (where Cox's film production company, Exterminating Angel, is based in an old Mission house on the edge of Toxteth). "It's entirely shot in Liverpool. The crew was 70% based in the L8 and L1 postcodes," says Cox, who is deeply proud of filming in his hometown. "It's a sort of a north/south battle. There's Drew Schofield, Margi Clarke and Christopher Eccleston on one side. They are the Revengers. And on the other side there's Derek Jacobi, Eddie Izzard and Diana Quick. I don't know whether they will get it outside this country. It may be hard-going for Americans, because they may not understand the language differences. But I think its pretty clear here: everyone can tell the difference between a London and a Liverpool accent."
Cox has made films all over the world: his first, Repo Man (1983), was shot on the streets of LA; Sid and Nancy was filmed in London; Straight to Hell, his delicious spoof spaghetti western with Joe Strummer and The Pogues, was filmed in Almeira, Spain; the brilliant Walker was shot in Nicaragua and Tuscon, Arizona. However, it was in Mexico that Cox made what are, arguably, his two greatest movies, Highway Patrolman and Death and the Compass. These are dark, mature works from a master filmmaker who, like Kubrick, was taking on board few influences from other filmmakers, with the exception of his beloved Luis Bunuel and Akira Kurosawa.
Ironically, it was the experience of working in Mexico City that led Cox to return to his native Merseyside. 'Mexico City was the only place I could make Death and The Compass,' he says, 'because it's this great monumental city on an inhuman scale. Then I came back to Liverpool and went: "Oh, actually there is somewhere else I could have made this film". Liverpool and Mexico City are my favourite places; they both have really creative communities that exist in spite of very little encouragement from the authorities, and yet they persist.'
When Cox talks about Liverpool, its difficult not be swept up in his passion for a city that still holds the key for the likes of Jimmy McGovern, Kevin Sampson and Willy Russell. Cox himself has fought many battles, among them the re-nationalisation of Britain's railways (check out Cox's website: www.alexcox.com/). And time and again Cox has battled to make movies; he's been kicked off or disowned as many films as he made. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Winner have been particularly crappy experiences for him. He began his career in the early 80s by taking on the Hollywood studio Universal, when they dropped the previously greenlit Repo Man during an executive shake-up. Cox placed an advert in the trade paper Variety which challenged the studio to make the film. The studio hired a PR man to discredit the film, but extraordinary exclamations such as 'I hope they don't show this film in Russia' backfired and turned Repo Man into a cult project.
It seems now, In Liverpool, that Cox has finally found a base to fight his battles against the profane and corrupt. 'I was pleased about Revengers Tragedy,' he says, 'because we didn't have to have any Americans in it. I was the attached unpaid director of Richard III for a year, the film Richard Loncraine eventually directed. It was depressing because we were under such pressure to have Americans in it. So it was a pleasure to show that you could actually make a British film that doesn't have Tommy Lee Jones and Jennifer Jason Leigh in it.'
So what's next maestro? I ask as a parting gesture. 'The thing I'm most directed towards is a film with Michael Madsen and Eddie Izzard called Helltown,' says Cox. 'It's just non-stop mayhem and fighting, but it's also like a Kurosawa Samurai film in that at the beginning the hero sets out his agenda and he spends the next 89 minutes doing it, obviously with a few setbacks along the way.' Two days later I'm sat in a car driving through The Beatles' old stomping ground Wavertree. I wonder if Andrew Kernan, the young man with a Samurai sword who was shot dead by the police, would have shared Cox's optimism about Liverpool's future? And would Kernan have made the grade as a Kurosawan protagonist? I slump deep into my seat.