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Interview: Director Alex Cox on his subversive biopic 'Walker'

Written by
Michael Smith

This Friday, October 8, cult British filmmaker Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid & Nancy) will be at the Music Box Theatre to present a special 30th anniversary screening of Walker, a stylistically daring and politically subversive biopic of William Walker (Ed Harris), the Nashville-born physician, lawyer, journalist and mercenary who became the self-appointed President of Nicaragua in 1856 before being driven mad by power. Although this thinly veiled critique of contemporary American imperialism was critically savaged and barely released by Universal Studios three decades ago, Walker has aged exceptionally well and is now considered to be one of Cox's most relevant films. This Music Box screening represents the culmination of a longtime love affair between the Chicago cinephile community and Cox's work; Repo Man had its first theatrical engagement here, and one of the few positive reviews that Walker received upon its initial release was penned by Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. We spoke with Cox about the continued relevance of the film.

Walker is often referred to as the film that ended your relationship with Hollywood but it’s since been canonized by the Criterion Collection and is continually revived for 35mm screenings such as this event at the Music Box. What has it been like to see your film re-evaluated over time?

Canonized? By a DVD release? Oh, honestly. Where's the Blu-ray? Where's the stream? Universal hates the film and have never distributed it. As a result, in a vault somewhere they have some very good condition 35mm prints. 

Walker seems newly relevant with Trump’s talk of military action in Venezuela. How have you been processing the Trump administration?

My main concern is not to die in a nuclear war. In the current insane incarnation of American politics the Clinton Democrats seem to be pushing for a war with Russia. I will support anyone who opposes war and the destruction of the planet. Call me crazy, but I will. The talk of war with Venezuela is crazy. The U.S. military would get their asses kicked by an armed guerilla population (as usual) and such talk (as Steve Bannon said regarding North Korea) is all just for domestic wind-up benefit. The Pentagon, like the government, exists to transfer taxpayers' money to the corporations, but the US hasn't won (or even concluded) a war since 1945, unless you count the Pentagon's great victories in Grenada and Panama.

How did you work with Ed Harris to achieve the intensity of his performance and why did you opt to not have the character speak with a southern accent?

Ed is his own man and did a great job. I support all his choices! William Walker was all over the place—Nashville, San Francisco, Scotland—who knows what his accent was?

What was the logic behind having Walker narrate the movie in the third person?

That was the way he wrote his book about the Nicaraguan venture.

Do you have any other plans while you’re in Chicago?

To screen my new film, Tombstone Rashomon, for students at DePaul University and reconnect with my friends there. I am so happy to be returning for a new event at one of the best film schools in the country.

For more information on the Walker screening and Alex Cox Q&A, visit the Music Box's website.

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