Interview with Alex Cox on ‘Bill, The Galactic Hero’. (Plus, link to download full movie!)

This interview originally appeared on Quietearth.us.

Alex CoxHaving recently completed post-production on his new feature, Bill, The Galactic Hero, Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid & Nancy, Walker) is ready to release the film for free online. Adapted from Harry Harrison’s novel of the same name, and funded through Kickstarter, the project has been a collaboration between Cox and students at the University of Colorado, where Cox currently teaches production and screenwriting. Blending science-fiction with satire, it’s a micro-budget feature, shot in black and white, and incorporating Cox’s own brand of dark comedy, and politically conscious, counter-culture attitude. Having taken almost 30 years to get the film into production (studios considered it “too anti-war”) it’s fantastic that he has finally been able make the film on his own terms and without compromise, as it should be. You can read my review right here. You can also DOWNLOAD the ENTIRE FILM for FREE here.

I had the chance to talk to Alex about the film, the process of getting the book onto screen, comparisons to other sci-fi movies, working again with Iggy Pop, and little about what to expect next from this renegade director…

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Now that Bill is completed, how did you find the experience overall, and would you consider making another film in this way?

Exhausting. I can’t teach school and make a feature simultaneously again! So I will have to go back to making features and paying people.

You’re credited as writer and director on the film, but there are additional directors listed in the end credits. Given the collaborative, low-budget approach taken with Bill, would you say that you were the main creative force behind the film, or was this very much a group effort?

Harry Harrison was the main creative force behind the film! I directed most of the first act and all the third; act two and parts of act one were directed by students and recent graduates of CU. All films are group efforts; this one was no exception though the shared direction is unusual.

How did you find the experience of letting others take over direction for sections of the film? Were you quite comfortable and confident in their abilities?

It was a pleasure. We’d established a working style and pace and since they hadn’t done features before they didn’t know how fast we were going.

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University of Colorado students, filming scenes of a desert planet, at Cathedral Gorge, Nevada.

It sounds like you’ve been eager to adapt the book for quite a while. What inspired you to undertake the project now, and in this way?

Because this was an opportunity to make it. Probably the last one, since Harry died during the writing of the screenplay and I don’t think he would have given us an option thereafter!

What do you think Harrison would have made of your film now that it’s finished? Did he have ideas about how best to put it on screen?

He read two thirds of the script and gave notes, all of which were included. The return of the ‘drinky drinky’ robots was his idea. I think he would have liked the cast a lot – especially their ages. Take a look at the casualty figures for US troops in Afghanistan. Late teens to early thirties. That’s who gets to die for a meagre wage. Our cast is exactly the median age of the poor youth who get dragged into combat – 21-28 yrs old. Conventional hollywood movies cast actors who are way too old for the roles: Eastwood as a 70 year old policeman, Harrison Ford (looking really decrepit and bloated) as the captain of the space mission in Ender’s Game. If you were in the military Deathwish Drang wouldn’t look like Ernest Borgnine – she’d look live Devon Wykoff.

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On the set of ‘Bill, The Galactic Hero’.

Many fans of the source material would envisage a film adaptation as a colourful, big-budget affair. What struck me about your film was, in part, its sombre tone. Although the humour of the book, and its basic plot structure, are very much retained, was it your intention to focus on the darker elements of the story, the character’s desperation, and its caustic view of human nature? (Or am I just projecting?)

That’s it. Black and white can be funny too – DR STRANGELOVE and parts of ICARUS are hilarious. But it’s a great medium for telling a story without unnecessary things like colours getting in the way.

This is the first film you’ve made in black and white since Edge City (aka, Sleep Is For Sissies) in the late ’70s – did you find working with your students on a DIY project like this one reminded you of that experience?

All films are DIY, one way or another. And I managed to include some Black and White in Death & The Compass, too. It’s interesting how the hostility of the broadcasters to black and white was never matched by the commercial and rock video makers, who continue to use the form.

Enjoy the view. Bill approaches the city-planet Helior.

Enjoy the view. Bill approaches the city-planet, Helior.

The film makes reference to two other famous movie franchises, Starship Troopers and Ender’s Game. Was this a little nod to these films with similar themes, or a way to distinguish your film from the blockbuster treatment they received? (Or just a bit of fun?)

The original book is a riposte to Starship Troopers. Heinlein was quite offended by it. And Ender’s Game is the heir to Heinlein’s militarist fantasy – though it has a more complex attitude to the aliens, and in that way it resembles Harry’s work a little. The ending of the book Ender’s Game was good, I thought, though they struggled with it in the film: not through any lack of money but rather a lack of imagination.

What did you think of the changes Verhoeven and Neumeier made to the novel Starship Troopers for their film version? It’s generally recognised now as a satire on fascism and militarism itself, while also indulging in certain aspects of that fetishistic, militarist fantasy.

It just isn’t a very good film. A bunch of good looking kids shooting at giant ants? That isn’t what Starship Troopers was about. For all the money they spent they didn’t pull much off, especially compared to what they achieved – in irony and humor and visual genius – with the original RoboCop.

James Miller’s take on the character of Bill was interesting. I enjoyed his minimal style, as the character could easily have been overplayed by the wrong actor. Did you hold auditions for the role, and what won James the part?

We auditioned about 150 actors. Lily Grisafi, who played Eager, was the casting director. James wandered in by chance. He didn’t know there were auditions that day and was on his way to take a test. He is a very strong actor: what’s great about a feature is that the main actor gets to go through a character’s trajectory and to change, whereas when you act in a short (which most student films are) you are able to create a character, but not to develop it.

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Actor James Miller, in a rare moment without his space-helmet on.

Iggy Pop contributed a song to the soundtrack. How did he get involved, and was it good to work with him again?

I rang him up and asked him. My wife and I were talking about licensing a song from the new Bowie album but we don’t know him or how to enquire. Tod said, why not ask Iggy? You can just call him… so I did. He downloaded the book to his e-reader, saw a rough cut of the film (same process as Repo Man, minus the e-reader) and away he went! It was great to work with him again. He is unchanged.

How do you feel about the fact that many of your earlier films, some of which were not successful at the time, have recently been re-discovered and are finding a new audience on DVD? Walker, for instance, was badly handled by Universal and was not well received by critics, but has since become something of a cult classic.

I’m glad that Walker finally got some recognition, thanks to the Criterion DVD. Unfortunately it is still relevant and needs to be seen.

Have you had any further thoughts about making the Rudy Wurlitzer puppets-riding-dogs western? Or indeed, do you have any other films you’d like to make or are planning on making?

I talked to Rudy yesterday about Zebulon and another project I’d like him to write — it’s called Gunfighter Nation (no relation to the wonderful book by Richard Slotkin). The maestro says he has one more cartridge in his chamber. So we’ll see…

Alex, thank you for your time. All the best in your future projects and endeavors. To the Skies Avaunt!

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Review of Alex Cox’s ‘Bill, The Galactic Hero’.

This review originally appeared on Quietearth.us.

Bill posterIn light of the affection many fans have for Harry Harrison’s source novel – that playful, anti-war sci-fi satire of the 1960s – it is difficult to talk about Alex Cox’s crowd-funded, film adaptation of Bill, The Galactic Hero without feeling duty-bound to prepare viewers for what lies in store. This is because it is essentially a feature length student film, albeit one of considerable scale and ambition. It’s also a not-for-profit project, one which will be made available for free online. I must admit, during the first ten minutes of the film (which I had invited a friend unfamiliar with Cox’s work to watch with me) I was tempted to switch off and suggest something else, as I felt that awkward pang of embarrassment which occurs when one insists on playing a favourite song before realizing that nobody else in the room is going to enjoy it. Thankfully, after the initial shock of realizing just how lo-fi, rough and chaotic this little movie is, one slowly begins to appreciate everything which is going on within it: the imagination of the artists at work, the attention to detail, enthusiasm of the young actors on screen, and the appreciation of the book’s surreal and often black humour, which is largely maintained by Cox’s script.

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The film is not perfect by any means, and for many it’ll be a love-it-or-hate-it type situation, but one thing which is undeniable is the passion with which it has been crafted. Cox had been communicating for years with Harrison on the idea of adapting the book, and that he’s co-opted the talents of his own film students at the University of Colorado in finally putting it on screen seems like a fitting approach for this often radical and always unconventional film-maker.

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Introduced in a colourful animated segment, we watch as pizza delivery boy, Bill (James Miller), is coerced by a recruitment officer visiting his farming planet, into joining the intergalactic military to fight an alien lizard race known as the Chingers. The film then shifts to live-action monochrome, landing on our hero as we wakes up in his spacesuit and begins training under the ruthless tutelage of drill instructor Deathwish Drang (Devon Wycoff) aboard the flagship Fanny Hill. From here, we follow Bill as he navigates his way through a series of bizarre and often degrading encounters with his fellow troopers, before (literally) single-handedly destroying an enemy armada during a space battle and becoming the reluctant hero of the empire. Bill’s problems, however, have only just begun…

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It’s pretty clear from the get-go that this a micro-budget film, and its problems mainly revolve around the limited resources available to the filmmakers. While I took no issue with the black and white photography, which actually helps provide a distinctive sense of melancholy and dread, complementing the darkly satirical tone, some will find it an ill-fitting approach to adapting a book which is characterized by its colourful cover art and cartoonish tone – but low-budget films need to do their best to look good, and monochrome is a forgiving format, plus, I dug the nods to Eastern block era sci-fi, ICARUS XB1, which Cox cites as a major influence. (We also sense shades of Roger Corman lurking in the background.) What sticks out more though, is the decision to dress all key players in white spacesuits, with only minor details to distinguish them from one another (Bill always has his teddy bear, so at least we know who he is) which makes for difficulty both in figuring out who’s who, and who’s speaking which lines. I suppose this could be taken as commentary on the uniform individuality of the troopers, but it still means that we have trouble getting to know the characters. There are additional problems with sound clarity, exacerbated by the fact that everyone’s voice is muffled by a space helmet…

BillenderstroopersThe actors here are mainly students, all young and, we sense, relatively inexperienced. Unfortunately this does give the project an amateurish feel, as tough-as-nails drill sergeants and hard-bitten troopers are played by fresh faced kids who, ultimately, struggle to convince. It’s unfair to labour this point though, as it’s part and parcel of a student film experience, but too often it detracts from the storytelling – taking us out of the film – and we can’t help but imagine a better movie recast with professional actors more suited to their roles. As it is, Miller gives a fine, low-key performance as Bill, keeping his reactions minimal, but instilling the character with the requisite innocence and bewilderment befitting of a conscript, before transforming him into a cynical burn-out by the film’s end. Devon Wycoff and Hayden Winston as (respectively) Deathwish Drang and the ship’s Chaplain, also provide memorable turns, and Lily Grisafi does well in lending her voice to Eager Beager, Bill’s suspiciously upbeat and perky comrade.

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Where the film really shines, however, is in its visual design, where every penny of the budget is evident. Wonderfully imaginative scale model work on the spaceships, along with occasional CG animation and green screen effects, is well utilized during space battles and for establishing shots of the city-planet Helior, leaving us wanting more (in a good way). Live action segments are busy with amusing background details (the ubiquitous pro-war propaganda, sarcastic robots and sentient vending machines, several peculiar references to the film Ender’s Game), reminiscent of the kind seen in Cox’s own Repo-Man, which may reward second viewing. Many of the interior spaceship scenes were filmed in the concrete stairways and basements of campus buildings, but a third act taking place on a valley-encrusted desert planet and shot in Cathedral Gorge, Nevada, offers some genuinely startling shots of natural beauty, giving the film a chance to breathe, while also reminding us of Cox’s love of spaghetti westerns. For the scenes set on Helior, exterior shots are framed by stark, ultra-modernist buildings, while interiors are, again, a mixture of cramped basements and labyrinthine corridors: appropriately alienating and claustrophobic.

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The pace of the film is definitely one of its strongest points. Although split into three main chapters, its episodic nature dictates that for every scene or situation which doesn’t quite work, there’s always another ready to come along to try its luck. Standout moments include Bill’s recovery from losing his left arm in battle, during which he’s visited by unhelpful colleagues and well-wishers in hospital, before realizing that surgeons have fitted him with a second right arm by mistake. (“Now you can salute with both hands!”) While visiting Helior, Bill is forced to escape his old life and take a job in waste disposal, which mainly involves thinking of ways to get rid of a deluge of ‘unknown artefacts’ which constantly flood the garbage chute – forming a vast mountain of defunct and broken iPads (nice touch). Other visual gags work well, particularly a running joke concerning Bill’s friend, who has been so severely injured over time that he’s reduced to a life as a severed head, jutting out a little travel case, with a single flailing arm. Certain parts, though, feel less consistent, including a sub-plot involving a group of rebels with whom Bill becomes involved; a slightly overextended skit which ought to be funnier.

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It’s worth mentioning that, although the film is a micro-budget feature, with directing duties divided between Cox and his students, there are individual scenes exhibiting remarkable skill in composition. These are the moments where the film hits its stride, and we become excited about the potential of this approach to film-making. One of the joys in watching Bill… is being provided the opportunity to think, “Maybe I could do this!”, and while it’s obvious that, as quite a considerable endeavour (it took 75 people and over 8 months to complete the film), this is easier said than done, there is a sense of fun in considering the possibility of shooting your own low-budget, transgressive science-fiction comedy. Maybe I should finally finish that screenplay I started years ago?

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This film is rough, yes, and unapologetically so, but in acting as a counterweight to the appalling consumerist rubbish deposited into multiplex cinemas every week, it contains a genuine heartbeat, and that anarchic sense of ‘anything goes’ which so typifies the director’s oeuvre. Does this automatically make it good? No. There are weak moments, and it takes a while to find its feet. But stick with it, and you’ll be rewarded. Alex Cox has been making films for 35 years; I’ve seen all of them, and they all have something to offer. This one might have more in common with his own early student film, the apocalyptic, art-house short, Edge City, than with the work for which he’s best known. I see this as a sign that he’s still a kid at heart, and while he’s learned the hard way that Hollywood has no time for radicals or idealists, perhaps it’s better that way, because fuck Hollywood.

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Additional: No information at present on when exactly the film will be available for download, as the backers have first dibs, but I’ll keep you updated.

For more information on Bill, The Galactic Hero and other projects from Alex Cox, check out his blog right here.

Q&A with Alex Cox and Rudy Wurlitzer at Basilica Hudson.

WalkerWhile stumbling around Youtube I found this video of Alex Cox and Rudy Wurlitzer appearing for a Q&A session following a recent screening of Cox’s 1987 film, Walker. Written by Wurlitzer, a novelist and screenwriter most famous for his script work on Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), the film forms a distinctive hybrid of historical fiction and blackly comic political satire. Starring Ed Harris as the American filibuster William Walker, it’s a genuinely transgressive piece of film-making, and watching it now in the wake of recent wars, Cox’s scathing commentary on Reaganite America’s involvement in Nicaragua feels increasingly relevant and more prescient than ever. Shot with a huge budget, but saddled with an unenthusiastic marketing campaign from a confused Universal Studios, the film met with failure at the box-office, and cost Cox his career in Hollywood. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most daring and original films of the decade – and one well worth checking out. (Additionally, the soundtrack by Joe Strummer is excellent.)

Read more about my obsession with Alex Cox and his career (and his highly underrated film Three Businessmen) in my very first blog article, right here.

Cox is currently in post-production on his latest film Bill the Galactic Hero, an adaptation of the book by Harry Harrison. Find out more and follow his progress at: www.alexcoxfilms.wordpress.com

Thoughts on “Life After Beth” – From EIFF 2014

This review originally appeared on Quietearth.us as part of my coverage of the EIFF 2014.

Beth PosterJeff Baena’s first feature as director is a respectable zombie-comedy, unfortunately hampered by a sense of deja vu when it comes to the material. There are a few clever ideas here, but an over-reliance on the old familiar tropes, and the ubiquitous use of comedy character actors all vying for attention does make it a bit of a mixed bag. Having said that, the film is well crafted and easily passes the laugh test by proving itself consistently amusing and playfully irreverent. Don’t expect to be blown away, and you might find it a decent piece of entertainment and a fine way to spend an evening at the movies.

Dane DeHaan plays Zach, a college student grieving the death of his girlfriend Beth (Aubrey Plaza), who has recently passed away from a snake bite she received while hiking. Beth’s parents (played by John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) invite him for dinner and to help pack up Beth’s belongings, and they bond over memories of her life while smoking some pot. Visiting their house again the next day, Zach is wildly confused when he sees Beth through a window, and he demands to know what’s going on. Initially convinced that her parents are involved in some kind of insurance scam, he eventually comes to understand that Beth, along with several other members of the local community, has actually come back from the dead. She seems normal enough, although her obsession with the attic is new, and she’s suddenly become freakishly strong and bad tempered. Zach thinks she’s a zombie, her parents think it’s a miracle, and nobody seems sure of whether or not they should actually tell Beth that she’s technically dead…

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Technically necrophilia.

Life After Beth benefits from a likable supporting cast, including Cheryl Hines and Paul Reiser as Zach’s parents, and Matthew Gray Gubler as his overbearing, gun-happy brother. DeHaan himself doesn’t strike one as an obvious choice when it comes to playing comedy, but his performance in the lead role is suitably energetic, and for the most part he hits the right notes and delivers on laughs. As Beth, Plaza does a really good job. Her character’s slow escalation from confusion, to indignation, to eventual rage and outright hostility is handled very well. We get the sense that even when alive Beth may have had a few screws loose, but as a zombie she’s both unhinged and dangerous. Reilly and Shannon are also terrific as Beth’s distressed parents, showing signs of extreme denial as they try their best to keep their daughter in the dark over what’s happened, even as she starts to decompose…

"What do you mean, Camilla Long gave this movie a 1 star review?!"

“What do you mean, Camilla Long gave this movie a 1 star review?!”

There are some nice little touches to zombie mythology here too, as the living dead are not portrayed as outright flesh-eaters, but rather slightly lost and irritable souls who simply want to get back to their old lives. While the plot is vaguely reminiscent of films like Dead & Buried and Shatter Dead, its tone is resolutely comic, with a heavy dose of deadpan irony. I liked the fact that the zombies only relax when listening to smooth jazz and muzak, which is a nice idea, and a pleasing nod to the mall music from Dawn of the Dead. It’s also satisfying to see the gradual changes the zombie phenomenon has on the world the characters inhabit, from a brief shot of a background extra running for his life early in the story, to the eventual arrival of the military as things spiral completely out of control. Baena keeps the action limited to suburbia, thereby giving the story a more closed feeling and allowing Beth’s return to appear as something of a small-scale problem in an otherwise problem-free world. The characters are less worried about ‘zombies’ as they are about ‘the Beth situation’. It’s nothing which we haven’t seen before, but it’s well handled and provides the film with a little more atmosphere and suspense.

When erotic games turn deadly...

When erotic games turn deadly…

One of the problems is a general sense of familiarity to the story. Anyone who’s au fait with zom-coms and zombies in general may not find much new here to chew on. Couple this with an ending which seems very rushed and slightly too Pollyanna-ish, and the film feels distinctly by-the-numbers. Admittedly, for the most part, the movie is completely acceptable, zipping along with snappy one-liners and good sight gags, occasional gore and special effects, but it never quite seeming to become more than the sum of its parts. Despite being well constructed and with some strong performances (especially from Plaza and Reilly), the whole thing somehow manages to keep you at arms length.

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“We are emo!”

The issue facing any contemporary zombie film, comedy or otherwise, is a market which is now so stuffed with new additions to the genre that in order to get noticed you need to have something genuinely fresh and interesting to offer. Comparisons to Shaun of the Dead, which resuscitated the genre back in 2004, and Return of the Living Dead, which set the bar high as one of the first and very best zom-coms, are inevitable. Life After Beth is not in the same league as either of those films, although I felt that it had more soul and more interesting characters than 2009’s Zombieland, which struck me as a fairly cold and empty exercise in stylized violence, even if it was a superficially entertaining one.

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Zach takes a moment to contemplate how totally empty and mean spirited “Zombieland” was.

Beth doesn’t really offer us anything new then, instead ploughing a well furrowed path while covering for its lack of originality with reliable comedy actors and well timed jokes. If this doesn’t bother you, you’re likely to enjoy the film on its own terms (and it is perfectly enjoyable). However, if you’re looking for anything exceptional here, keep looking. No doubt there will be another zombie film coming along next week, and the week after that… and after that…

Just checking...

Just making sure.