Back in 1987, director Alex Cox followed up cult classic “Repo Man” (1984) and the rebellious biopic “Sid and Nancy” (1986) with “Straight To Hell,” a film he co-wrote with Dick Rude in just three days. His gore-filled take on the spaghetti Western features blood, sex and over-the-top performances by musicians such as Joe Strummer, Courtney Love, Elvis Costello and the Pogues. It received less-than-stellar reviews upon initial release but has gained more affection over time.
Cox decided to revive the flick, adding new footage, some digital effects and a picture and audio overhaul. Now called “Straight To Hell Returns,” the updated version is available on DVD and screened March 3 at the 92YTribeca. The screening was followed by a nostalgia-filled Q&A between Cox and Jim Jarmusch, who makes a memorable cameo as the stylish crime boss Mr. Dade. Before the event, indieWIRE got the chance to sit down with Cox and discuss such topics as the motivation for returning to “Straight to Hell,” why the film features so many musicians and the punk mentality that characterizes much of Cox’s work.
Can you talk about the decision to revisit this film and what material you choose to remaster or reinsert?
I was inspired to do it by Francis Ford Coppola, who had revisited “Apocalypse Now.” I watched it and there’s a scene added where Marlon Brando puts Martin Sheen in a shipping container and reads to him from Time Magazine about the war in Vietnam. And it’s a fantastic scene, by the far the best thing Brando does in the film. I just thought, “If the boss can do this, then maybe I can do something.” And the work that I thought needed the most improvement was “Straight to Hell.”
The UCLA archive had actually acquired “Straight to Hell” and preserved it. So we found the original picture and the audio, reinserted five scenes and gave the film a new color treatment, making it very yellow and black instead of a more naturalistic color. There are also more skeletons, both stop motion and digital, digital violence, digital flies and a shot of Miguel Sandoval’s feet. And the sound has moved from a mono soundtrack to breaking into 5.1 stereo for wind and wolves howling.
Are you hoping that the new version will change how the public perceives the film?
I thought that the people who originally liked it might like it again. There’s a certain nostalgia about the film. But it does seem to have earned a wider degree of acceptance than before. It’s much better that it was. It’s much more fully realized.
The original “Straight to Hell” was released in 1987. How much would you say the film is a product of its time?
It’s really a product of the Sixties because it’s based on an Italian Western, Giulio Questi’s “Django, Kill! (If You Live, Shoot!)” [which Cox had permission to adapt]. And that was a very surrealist, sort of psychedelic, quite violent, fairly gay Western. It’s a really extraordinary film, but nobody had seen it. At the time, spaghetti Westerns weren’t as cool as they are now.
“Straight to Hell” is now seen as a precursor to Quentin Tarantino movies.
Well, I think people say that because the character Norwood is quite similar to the one Samuel L. Jackson plays in “Pulp Fiction” and they dress the same.
I read a review by Karina Longworth for LA Weekly describing the film as a “sub-sub-subgenre: Films Full of Rock Stars in Which None of Them Play Music.” Can you comment on your decision to feature a lot of musicians who don’t necessarily play their instruments and why you wanted them to be in the film?
Well, that is a result of us actually trying to make something completely different. We were going to have a rock-and-roll tour in Nicaragua back in 1985 and various artists, including Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello and the Pogues had all committed to go to Nicaragua for a month and play in solidarity with the Sandinistas, when they were still a left-wing political party. We thought we could raise the money for the tour, but we couldn’t find a big media company who wanted to support the Sandinista revolution. So the producer of the tour said if we could come up with a script, he might be able to find money to make a film instead. We had a duty to the musicians as well because we had asked them to make themselves available for a month. They could entertain themselves and make a little money, although I think people only got paid around one hundred bucks.
Did you try to sneak in any musical performances?
There’s loads of music in the film actually. Although it’s not a musical in the sense of “Paint Your Wagon” or “Gigi,” people burst into song fairly frequently in the film. The Weiner song is a big favorite of a handful of people who watched “Straight to Hell” and enjoyed it.
“Straight To Hell” features a lot of evil people drinking coffee. Was there a reason for why you chose to portray coffee as a sort of demonic enabler?
Originally I was thinking, “Well, obviously these guys are druglords and they’ve got loads of coke in the back of their truck or something.” And Dick said, “You know, that’s kind of boring, isn’t it? Couldn’t it be something more funny than that? What about if they’re coffee addicts?” If they had been druglords, it would have felt like everything else of that ilk.
Courtney Love and Dennis Hopper both have roles in the film. What was it like working with them?
The Dennis process was like, Dennis shows up, does his thing and goes home again. He was there for a day. But he did come a long way to film. I had met Courtney on “Sid and Nancy.” She’d auditioned for the role of Nancy but we’d already cast Gary Oldman, and Courtney was much younger and not an experienced actor, so the disparity in both age and experience was too much of a risk. But I just thought she was marvelous and she should be a leading lady because she was very charismatic and determined and funny and interesting looking. I was a big Courtney supporter and I don’t think anybody else was really a Courtney supporter at the time.
How did you decide to cast Jim Jarmusch as Mr. Dade?
Jim’s part was originally offered to Iggy Pop, who was going to do it but then he had a crisis of confidence because it’s not the same thing to be an actor as a musician. Dick then said, “Jim’s in New York and he’s willing to do it, let’s bring him over.” And Jim looked good in a white suit.
There has been some suspicion that the film was just an excuse to have a party in the Spanish desert. Is that true?
I wish I could say it was a nonstop party for four weeks but actually it was more of a major logistics enterprise, trying to wrangle the Pogues and get them to the set on a daily basis. It was hard work. I think the film has a party reputation because a woman once said she saw the film and felt like it was watching a party from which she had been denied admittance. But I hope the revised version of “Straight to Hell” opens the door and people can enter the wretched party if they so desire.
You are a director known for your punk sensibility. How did you arrive at this aesthetic?
The nice thing about punk is that it was conceived by Malcolm McLaren, Bernie Rhodes and Vivian Westwood as a revolutionary movement. It wasn’t just about music, it was about bringing down the government and hanging the Queen from the gates of Buckingham Palace. It was an ambitious project, but like the surrealist project, it completely failed.
Have you made a conscious effort to keep having punk elements in your films?
I think I remain completely marginal. I mean the punk movement was very marginal. Dreaming of a revolution is a sort of marginal, foolish activity.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you are working on?
I have done a couple promotional videos for an upcoming book “Snotty Saves The Day: The History of Arcadia” [by Tod Davies], which will come out in May. And I’m doing a promotional video for an artist in England called Kid Carpet who works with all kinds of instruments, including children’s toys. I’m using a tiny JVC camera, which puts the means of production in the hands of the workforce.