ALLISON ANDERS INTERVIEWS ALEX COX: THE DIY WAY IS GOING TO BE OK
illustration by nathan morse
Directors Allison Anders and Alex Cox were graduate students in UCLA’s storied film program at about the same time, and they’d soon follow the same then-brand-new path—a daring zig-zag between punk rock ethos and critical chops—to make their own classics Repo Man (1984) and Border Radio (1987), both snapshots of philosophy and attitude in action as much as representations of specific moments in time and space. (Each has a killer local soundtrack, too.) So let’s not call this a class reunion, but L.A. RECORD (with welcome help from Cinefamily) was lucky enough to re-connect Anders and Cox for a conversation about coming up through UCLA in the 80s—and to swap stories about hustling grants to work with Wim Wenders and “accidentally” running into Harry Dean Stanton over and over. Repo Man and Border Radio screen together with Anders and Cox in person at Cinefamily on Fri., Mar. 18, as part of the “Underground USA: Indie Cinema of the 80s” series running until April 29, and Anders and Cox reminisce now about a rare occasion when the good old days really were that good. (UCLA’s Billy Woodberry and his Bless Their Little Hearts will join Cox and his Walker on Sat., March 19, as well.)
Allison Anders: I was just trying to remember the first time I ever saw you at UCLA. And I remembered!
Alex Cox: What was the event?
It was no event—that’s the cool thing. You were just walking through the hall and I was new that quarter in 1982, and I saw and I was like, ‘Oh my God—there’s a punk guy here!’ Everyone else was so terribly boring.
Alex Cox: Everybody had long hair. Long hair was still everywhere.
Totally! Even in film school, I was stunned by the fact that people already had an idea of what a filmmaker was supposed to be—this angsty kind of thing, walking around with their palms pressed against their forehead. Like actors were driving them crazy, or this was driving them crazy, and I thought … ‘These people, why are they even doing this if it makes them that unhappy?’
Alex Cox: Yeah—but you know what’s also funny about the punk thing, I was talking to Abbe Wool who was also at UCLA, and she said ‘Why were we so angry?’ I don’t really know! You had to be really angry, didn’t you? It was obligatory!
The second time I saw you was at an event. It was my very first Melnitz screening and Abbe’s film was playing and you were sitting there watching her take the shit you have to take from the audience. Someone had said to her—actually I think it was a friend of mine—he was really harassing her, saying, ‘From what I can tell from your movie, you don’t like people, you don’t like children!’ And she said, ‘No, that’s not true,’ with this little twisted smile. ‘I like everybody …’ and she looked at you and said, ‘Except him!’ Meaning not you but [she liked everybody but] the guy who had asked the question. And you cracked up laughing. I watched this like ‘These people are why I’m here!’
Alex Cox: What was also good about it though is that people would come from outside and screen their films and we could really give them a hard time. If someone came along with a conventional or with a Hollywood-type movie, you could really give them a terrible experience—and that was good.
You really could! I can’t imagine they could get by with that now. The students are so sensitive. If you criticize anything they’re doing you could be fired.
Alex Cox: Also I think they’re more respectful. I think that’s maybe an even worse thing—everyone is very respectful and doesn’t want to upset people.
I think that’s very true. In a weird way, I felt I could survive that Melnitz scrutiny then maybe I could have a shot at—if I ever got that far—getting torn to pieces by a reviewer. I felt that it was a great rite of passage—a really important lesson to have to take that from people and have to listen to John Boehm say something and have to defend the film.
Alex Cox: That [Melnitz screening] was [Abbe’s] Rita Steele: Private Heart.
That’s it! Which had, of course, your actress from Repo Man—
Alex Cox: Jennifer Balgobin, a marvelous woman in Repo Man! She was the star, and Abbe discovered her briefly in that film. It was just great! Why did we leave? Why aren’t we still graduate students at UCLA?
I know! It was so fun. I was a single mom at the time, but there was room for me to be there. And my God, you’d be in those critical studies classes watching amazing films all day long.
Alex Cox: That was the other good thing—that we were embedded in critical studies. That actually turned out very good. It forced you to acquire a very broad film knowledge. John Cassavetes films, you know? Which I would have never seen on television.
It forced you to think about creating—using the language of film to create meaning. Some years later, after I was a filmmaker, someone said, ‘Such-and-such filmmaker says you don’t need to go to film school—you don’t need to learn all that stuff.’ Well, … I guess not, but I think it’s important to learn why one editing style over another creates a completely different feeling in the audience, and that you’re going to create totally different meaning if you cut something one way versus a different way. And you’re only going to learn that in critical studies. Yes, you can learn that on your own—but not necessarily.
Alex Cox: You can intuit things, but a lot of things will pass you by because you won’t have a framework for it.
Exactly! And we had some of the most brilliant people in the world teaching us.
Alex Cox: I thought Rosen was pretty great—I was always happy to go to one of Bob Rosen’s classes.
I’ll never forget on the first day of class he showed Hard Days Night and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. That was back then! That wasn’t now, when all this is accessible—and it was 35 mm prints. I was like, ‘I am just absolutely in heaven.’
Alex Cox: When we did Repo Man, which was right after then—it was in 82 that we were having auditions for Repo Man on the soundstage. And when we did the film, I did re-enroll at UCLA so we could take advantage of the facilities—use the lights and the editing bay.
That’s what we did with Border Radio as well. We kept someone enrolled so we could continue to use that equipment.
Alex Cox: Even though that’s exactly what you were not supposed to do. You were not supposed to be like Ed Harker, and make a feature that went on and on for years, but everybody wanted to do that.
We had a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ kind of thing. ‘We know you’re making a feature.’ Billy Woodberry, bless his heart, encouraged us to make a longer form and said, ‘I’ll help you but we gotta be careful.’ We were careful and we eventually finished the thing.
Alex Cox: Billy was amazingly supportive of so many people’s films, through his tech office.
We put a poster from his film, Bless Their Little Hearts, in Border Radio, and I see that after our films are playing [at Cinefamily], Bless Their Little Hearts is playing.
Alex Cox: That’s rather cool, isn’t it! That’s a good bill.
That’s a hell of a weekend—a UCLA weekend at the old Silent Movie Theater. So did you meet Peter McCarthy or Jonathan [Wacks, who produced Repo Man]? I know you met Abbe there—you and Abbe became close?
Alex Cox: I met all those guys at UCLA. Peter and Jonathan—we must have been in production classes together. Jonathan was doing a documentary and Peter was doing a drama. Then they graduated and started this film business to make corporates and commercials in Venice. I went by and would hang out with them cuz they were professionals! And guys from Suicidal Tendencies would hang out in their office cuz these guys were movie people! So Peter and Jonathan, I follow in their footsteps. Abbe, we had classes together, and we’d go see shows together, and she was the video director of Repo Man, and on it went.
I remember seeing her at the Lab, I believe, at Yale, and she said to me, ‘You will meet people right now that you will work with for the rest of your life.’ And there are people that I’m still so close with that I met at that time at UCLA.
Alex Cox: It’s true. Especially producers, camera people, we knew when we were students. [Like producer] Lorenzo [O’Brien], and I’m still working with him. Right now he’s in Colombia making the second series of Narcos.
He’s so good! How did Repo Man come about? You were still at UCLA?
Alex Cox: I was at UCLA, and I think I was almost finished there but I hadn’t quite. Wacks and McCarthy were already out, and I had written the script for Repo Man. Wacks and McCarthy had started this company of theirs, Wacks-McCarthy Productions, and I took them the script, and they said ‘OK, we’ll try and produce it!’ We created a company called Edge City Productions. I think we tricked Bob Rosen into giving us like $1,000. His investment in our enterprise! There still exists this kind of company, Edge City Productions—the remains of Repo Man. They found the guy who was the former pop star, the Monkee, Michael Nesmith, and he raised the money. Then I was supposed to produce one of their films but of course I never did, but they went on and were directors anyway. Wacks went on and made a bunch of films, including Powwow Highway, a very good film. Peter just made another feature about zombie romance, and he’s living in New Mexico.
I’m realizing all these connections now. We probably only vaguely knew when we were making Border Radio, but we followed very much in your footsteps.
Alex Cox: It was the same kind of project, wasn’t it?
Yeah! Bob Rosen was involved in Border Radio also, and we shot a little something at Peter’s over there in Venice, and then Nesmith ended up distributing Border Radio on video.
Alex Cox: He was very smart! Pacific Arts—that’s what his company was called. He was really smart because in 1983, when we made the deal for Repo Man, the studio didn’t realize home video was going to mean anything, so he managed to negotiate that he would own the home video for like fifteen years or something. So he made a lot of money off of home video!
Super smart! I remember one of the teaching assistants saying in my very first class: ‘Now you have to take notes in the critical studies classes otherwise you won’t remember what you saw in great detail.’ And then he goes [sarcastic voice] ‘Now maybe sommmmmeeday we’ll all have home video playing machines!’ And we were all already watching porn at home.
Alex Cox: We were fortunate—we had this expectation that our films would play in a theater. That they would play on a big screen.
I realized that I was part of the last generation of filmmakers to expect that my film would play in the theater—that I would cut on film, that I would shoot on film, and that people would experience it on film. I just heard something the other day about how ‘… and this means that smaller independent films will have a harder time being seen in movie theaters.’ And I was like … ‘Well, no duh. They’re barely in movie theaters now.’ But we believed we could do that. I was in a relationship for years with Terry Graham who was in Gun Club and the Bags, and he said ‘Yes, we didn’t have any expectation that we would be like Fleetwood Mac but we all thought we’d get a record deal. We all thought there was some way people were going to hear our stuff and buy it.’ It’s not like now where people have no such expectation. They think they’re going to make shit and no one is going to see it or hear it. It’s weird to me when I see that with my students: ‘Why would you even get up in the morning if you didn’t think someone was going to see it?’ Maybe you’re not going to be Spielberg or Fleetwood Mac, but at least you think someone’s going to see or hear what you’ve done.
Alex Cox: The other weird thing as well … because it’s changed, and because the screens that they’re going to look at our independent work on gets smaller—when you’re making a film now, how much do you think about ‘Someone’s going to be looking at this on their phone,’ and how much does that affect the level of detail that you include?