Liverpool-born filmmaker Alex Cox scored a cult hit with the wonderful REPO MAN in 1984, and followed it up with the equally loved SID AND NANCY (filmed as 'Love Kills') two years later, which charted the tragic relationship between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. Featuring a brilliant early performance by Gary Oldman as Sid, stunning cinematography and music and a beautifully realised balance of sadness, humour and pathos, realism and larger-than-life elements, it's one of the key films of the '80s and one of Cox's finest achievements. After the controversial WALKER (1987), which criticised American involvement in Nicaragua and is a prime example of Cox pursuing interesting projects close to his heart rather than following the box-office, Cox believes he was put on a blacklist in Hollywood, and he has worked in the independent sector ever since, creating an ouevre of highly distinctive, challenging, fun and eclectic pictures such as HIGHWAY PATROLMAN (1992), filmed in Mexico in Spanish, and two 'microfeatures' (shot for less than $200, 000) - the comic road movie SEARCHERS 2.0 (2007) and REPO CHICK (2009), a loose sequel to REPO MAN. I spoke with Alex about his experiences making SID AND NANCY.
What attracted you to the story of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen?
I thought, for the times, the story was a good one to tell. Sid and Nancy were terrible fuck-ups and they betrayed the punk ideal, but in the midst of all this chaos was a romantic story. It was all so tragic the way it played out.
How did you get involved with the project?
Abbe Wool and myself heard there was going to be a studio movie with Rupert Everett and Madonna. We thought 'It must be stopped at all costs!' and wrote our own screenplay in order to prevent it from ever happening.
Were you yourself a punk during the Sex Pistols era?
I was too old then, but I certainly appreciated punk.
How affected were you by the deaths of Sid and Nancy?
I wasn't really affected by their deaths, because it wasn't like they were great musicians. They were a pair of fools really. But their story was sad.
Did you have any particular actors in mind for the lead roles when you were writing the screenplay?
Not really, no. The two main guys who were up for Sid Vicious were Gary Oldman and Daniel Day Lewis. A number of women read for Nancy including Courtney Love, whom we had heard about second hand. I didn't actually see Courtney's audition because I was out of town. She did it with Vicky Thomas. The ones who seemed the best, particularly in the case of casting Sid, were Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb. The whole cast we had was great.
What was it about Oldman that made you think he would be a great Sid?
Gary came from the same neighborhood as Sid, Bermondsey, and he had the same understanding and desire to escape, to create a new persona and life for himself. He was good to work with. It was one of his first films and he worked very hard.
How many drafts of the script did you write?
We did about four to six drafts. Not that many.
What was the writing process with Abbe Wool like?
Mostly we worked together, sometimes we would work alone.
How did you come to decide on the unique tone of the film?
All I did was capture the times. It's pretty accurate to how it all happened I think. It's enhanced to make things more grandiose and dramatic at times, but it's faithful to the characters.
How much research of the era did you do?
I interviewed a lot of people who had been involved in the scene.
Did you spend much time with the surviving members of the Sex Pistols?
I met with them, but I didn't spend a lot of time with them. I met Glen Matlock, John Lydon and Paul Cook, but I never met Steve Jones.
How did you feel about the criticisms made by the Sex Pistols about the film?
It didn't bother me. The Sex Pistols thrive on controversy.
How was the film financed?
It was a co-production with Zenith Productions, an independent film company in London, and Embassy Home Entertainment, a TV sales company in the US.
Were you influenced by any other films when you made the movie?
Julien Temple's THE GREAT ROCK 'N' ROLL SWINDLE (1978), I guess, because it had the original 'My Way' promo.
The 'My Way' scene in your film is hilarious. Was it fun to shoot?
Did you have a good collaboration with cinematographer Roger Deakins? It was one of his first films.
He was great. A great talent and a great guy to work with. We actually wanted to make the film in black-and-white. When it was clear we wouldn't be able to do it, we discussed how we could photograph the film in a monochromatic way at times, and how we could treat the print. Roger contributed some great ideas. There were two lenses he used on the movie - an 85mm and a 35mm. This was much more reduced than I would normally go for but it worked very well.
Were you trying to send any messages with the movie?
To the extent that these guys were total screw-ups and betrayed the punk ideal, yeah. But I don't think the message got through or had any impact. In retrospect, it was very foolish to think the message would have any impact.
I suppose making a film about music was a big challenge for me because I don't really know anything about it. I had to rely on my musical collaborators a lot. It didn't make me want to make music themed movies again!
Were the likes of Joe Strummer, Paray for Rain, John Cale and The Pogues eager to get involved in the project early on?
They got involved once the film was finished and was a going concern.
Did the film come together easily in the editing room?
There was tons of material but I had a great editor in David Martin. The first cut of the movie was about three hours long. Everything that got cut out deserved to get cut out.
How was you experience taking the film to Cannes?
It was nothing memorable or out of the ordinary. Just another film festival.
Were you happy with the critical response to the film?
Yeah, people seemed to like it a lot.
Were you happy with the commercial success of the film?
Well, I don't know how much of a success it was. I have never seen a full account. It would be nice to know how much money it has made and to share in the receipts. That would be great.
How much impact did it have on your career?
Looking back, not much really.
What was your favourite memory of the shoot?
To be honest, it was a long shoot, and the only thing I can really remember is the relief of realising the shoot was nearing the end!
Alex was interviewed by telephone on 27th July 2012. I would like to thank him for sparing his time.
Cox's useful, entertaining book "10, 000 Ways to Die - A Director's Take on the Spaghetti Western" (2009) can be ordered here.
For more background information on SID AND NANCY and Cox's other films, his superb book "X Films - True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker" (2008) can be ordered here. Cox's website can be accessed here.
Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. Paul is also a writer of so far unpublished short stories and novels, and is planning his first short film.