Hailed as a wunderkind on the American midnight movie circuit in 1984 for his punk rock-fueled cult hit "Repo Man," expatriate British filmmaker Alex Cox was already pushing 30 years old and a graduate of the UCLA Film School by way of Oxford University. Balancing a love of European exploitation fare with a no less passionate admiration for the cinema of Luis Bunuel, Akira Kurosawa, Robert Aldrich and John Ford, the trenchantly funny, fiercely intelligent Cox stood poised to become Hollywood's go-to guy for major studio releases with an urgently anarchic bent. He followed "Repo Man" with the punk biopic "Sid and Nancy" (1986), which made a star of Gary Oldman, but it was the unabashedly political "Walker" (1987) that got him blacklisted in the States. Unconcerned with temptations of fame and fortune, Cox turned his hand to a string of personal projects financed with funds cadged from around the globe, including the Spanish language "Highway Patrolman" (1991), "Three Businessmen" (1998), and the micro-budgeted "Searchers 2.0" (2007), a lean and mean rejoinder to John Ford's Western classic. Marginalized but never invisible or afraid to speak his mind, Cox remained a formidable presence in world cinema, disseminating his views via the Internet and academic volumes devoted to his cinematic passions, as a film curator dedicated to the inexhaustible uses of cinema.
Alex Cox was born on Dec. 15, 1954 in the small English town of Bebington, Merseyside. Educated at the Wirral Grammar School for Boys, Cox fed his aesthetic on weekends in the decrepit movie houses of nearby Liverpool, most notably the Scala Cinema, where he saw many Italian horror films and spaghetti Westerns through clouds of cigarette smoke emitted by the venue's disreputable adult patrons. Though pointed initially to a law degree at Oxford University -where he participated in stage shows produced by the campus drama society - Cox ultimately shifted his focus to the study of film. After completing his studies of radio, film and television at Bristol University in 1977, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the United States.
While enrolled at UCLA, Cox directed a 40-minute short subject, "Edge City/Sleep is for Sissies" (1980), which reflected his growing unease with the political situation in the United States and the ramifications for the United Kingdom. The vaguely post-apocalyptic fever dream was exhibited with a number of other short subjects by UCLA film students and was commended by The Los Angeles Times as having "labyrinthine imagery" and a "voluptuous sense of dread." Though Cox's agent had invited the head of development from the newly-founded Orion Pictures, the executive fled the screening in disgust and offers of work within the film industry were not forthcoming. Cox did exhibit "Edge City" at London's National Film Theater, where he won the admiration of filmmaker Nicolas Roeg.
After departing UCLA, Cox was retained by United Artists to write a screenplay about World War I deserter Percy Toplis. When his script was rejected as too anti-war, Cox wrote a nuclear holocaust scenario for expatriate British filmmaker Adrian Lyne, who opted instead to make "Flashdance" (1983). In 1982, Cox approached former UCLA classmates Jonathan Wacks and Peter McCarthy, partners in a small commercial firm, to form their own production company, Edge City. With a plan for the three to work in concert writing, directing and producing their own films, Cox attempted another postapocalyptic screenplay, based on a story by Beat novelist William S. Burroughs. When his vision of a 21st Century Los Angeles devastated by terrorist attacks proved prohibitively expensive, Cox turned his labors to a script that would become his first feature film, "Repo Man" (1984).
Inspired by the edgy vocation of a Los Angeles neighbor, an automobile repossessor (Emilio Estevez) who often brought Cox along to steal cars back from their deadbeat owners, the script for "Repo Man" found a champion in music producer and former Monkee, Mike Nesmith. Nesmith shepherded the screenplay to Universal studio head Bob Rehme, a former protégé of B-movie magus Roger Corman, who acquired "Repo Man" for $1.5 million, underwriting its production in July 1983. A regime change at Universal left the completed film in distribution limbo, prompting Cox to take out a Variety ad cajoling the studio into releasing the film. Though the executive inclination had been to bury it, "Repo Man" was rescued through the eleventh hour intercession of Kelly Neal, head of the studio's arty subdivision Universal Classics, who brought it to college campuses to help it garner positive and passionate word of mouth.
The concurrent release of the "Repo Man" soundtrack, which featured blistering tracks from Iggy Pop and a number of bands hot on the So-Cal punk scene, helped transform the film into a cult sensation, popular on the midnight movie circuit and in art house cinemas. Though it would take until 1999 for "Repo Man" to recoup its investment, the film's pop culture chops made Cox a talent to watch. In 1984, a European producer approached Cox about directing a film based on the tragic tale of British punk rocker Sid Vicious and the American girlfriend/groupie he is speculated to have murdered, Nancy Spungen. When Cox heard the film was to star American pop singer Madonna and young British actor Rupert Everett, he turned down the offer but began conspiring to make his own Sid and Nancy biopic before the Hollywood film could be made.
After putting the deal for "Sid and Nancy" (1986) in place while touring with "Repo Man" on the European film festival circuit, Cox moved into Manhattan's Chelsea Hotel, where Sid Vicious had allegedly stabbed Nancy Spungen to death in October 1978, four months before his own demise from a heroin overdose. Working with writer Abbe Wool, Cox finished the script, then titled "Love Kills." Produced in England and distributed in the States by the Samuel Goldwyn Company, "Sid and Nancy" reflected Cox's codependent American-British sensibilities. Punk lifers approached the film with trepidation, eventually won over by Cox's mostly unsentimental approach and eagerness to include associates of Vicious in the process. "Sid and Nancy" made a star of Gary Oldman, who narrowly beat out contender Daniel Day-Lewis for the title role.
While no one's idea of box office gold, "Sid and Nancy" garnered enough critical praise to push Cox an inch higher in the strata of the American film industry. Offered the helm of TriStar's "The Running Man" (1987) and both "RoboCop" (1987) and "¡Three Amigos!" (1986) for Orion, Cox chose instead to make "Straight to Hell" (1987). Co-written with L.A. punk musician Dick Rude, the film was shot in Almeria, Spain, as a tribute to the Italian Westerns that had sculpted Cox's aesthetic. Casting from repertory company, which including Sy Richardson, Fox Harris, Xander Berkeley and Miguel Sandoval, Cox also coaxed spirited performances out of musicians Elvis Costello, Joe Strummer, a pre-fame Courtney Love, Shane MacGowan and Grace Jones, while making room for indie filmmaker Jim Jarmush and Dennis Hopper. In the States, "Straight to Hell" was fobbed off as either anti-American agit-prop or disregarded outright.
Barely taking the time to acknowledge, let alone process, the enmity engendered by "Straight to Hell," Cox progressed with "Walker" (1987), based on the exploits of American soldier of fortune William Walker, who attempted to annex Nicaragua to the United States in 1853. Cox had been a UCLA undergrad at the time of the 1979 Sandinista revolution and traveled to Nicaragua in 1984 to assess the ongoing battle between the Sandinistas and the CIA-funded contras. Despite being underwritten by Universal, "Walker" was even more openly critical of American involvement in the Third World and enjoyed a higher profile due to the presence of Ed Harris, then riding high on the strength of principal roles in "The Right Stuff" (1983) and "Places in the Heart" (1984), and 1987 Oscar winner Marlee Matlin. Baffled by the film's willful employment of anachronisms and anti-American content, Universal shelved the film after its platform release.
Effectively blacklisted in Hollywood, Cox returned to England in 1988. Shot in Mexico in Spanish, "Highway Patrolman" (1991) found the filmmaker working in an uncharacteristic naturalistic mode, employing long takes to etch the plight of an idealistic rookie cop caught in the cogs of corruption and desperation in and around the deserts of Durango. Also shot in Mexico and adapted from the short story by Jorge Luis Borges, "Death and the Compass" (1992) began as a 55 minute film for the BBC, which Cox was able to expand with funds from Japanese investors. Lacking capital for post-production, he took on "The Winner" (1996) as a for-hire job, shooting in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Though he later disowned the project, which was recut by its producers, Cox used his fee to complete "Death and the Compass" while also turning up in a small role in Alex de la Iglesia's crime-horror hybrid "Perdita Durango" (1997).
"Three Businessmen" (1998) was Cox's homage to exiled Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel, to the extreme of calling his new production company Exterminating Angel. The tale of two businessmen (Cox and longtime collaborator Miguel Sandoval) knocking around Liverpool in search of dinner, the film boasted asides set in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Rotterdam and Spain, partly to please its patchwork of investors. Hired initially to direct "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (1998), Cox was dismissed early on and replaced by Terry Gilliam. For England's Channel 4, Cox eulogized another of his idols in the documentary "Kurosawa: The Last Emperor" (1999) while "Emmanuelle: A Hard Look" (2000) was a retrospective look at the long-running European exploitation films based on Just Jaeckin's inexplicably influential sexual travelogue "Emmanuelle" (1974).
Dividing his efforts between academic concerns, book writing, directing for Japanese TV and his own DIY filmmaking, Cox turned out the Jacobean brush-up "Revengers Tragedy" (2002), whose cast included Christopher Ecclesteon, Derek Jacobi and comedian Eddie Izzard. Advances in digital filmmaking allowed Cox to streamline his own efforts, resulting in the micro-budgeted "Searchers 2.0" (2007), a tribute to John Ford's "The Searchers" (1950), and "Repo Chick" (2009), a semi-sequel to "Repo Man," while maintaining both an enduring passion for cinema and an apostate penchant for unalloyed dissent.
By Richard Harland Smith
Director (Feature Film)
Assistant Direction (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Editing (Feature Film)
Costume-Wardrobe (Feature Film)
Director (TV Mini-Series)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Music (TV Mini-Series)
Feature directorial debut, "Repo Man"; also scripted
Wrote and directed the biopic "Sid and Nancy"
Edited and directed "Walker", about the 19th Century soldier of fortune William Walker
Made uncredited appearance as D H Lawrence in "Backtrack"
Directed the video of the Cole Porter song "Well, Did You Evah!" aired as part of "Red, Hot & Blue" (ABC)
Helmed Spanish-language feature "Highway Patrolman"; also had cameo
Acted small parts in three films: "Floundering", "The Queen of the Night" and "Dead Beat"
Directed "The Winner"; filmed debuted on The Movie Channel before receiving theatrical release; Cox disowned film after studio re-edited and re-scored it
Wrote, acted and directed in "Death and the Compass"
Helmed "Three Businessmen"; premiered at the Hamptons Film Festival
One of four writers credited with the screenplay for "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"; at one time had been slated to direct film; left project in April 1997 over "creative differences"