Alex Cox, the iconoclastic director of the cult classic Repo Man (1984) and the critically acclaimed biopic Sid and Nancy (1986) is back with a new film, Tombstone Rashomon (2017). Tombstone Rashomon draws inspiration from Akira Kurosawa’s cinematic classic Rashomon (1950) and interprets the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in ways that only Alex Cox can. In this August 2020 interview with Brett Homenick, Mr. Cox not only takes us behind the scenes of Tombstone Rashomon, but also looks back on his 1999 documentary Kurosawa: The Last Emperor, in which he interviewed several prominent figures who worked with Kurosawa at Toho.
Brett Homenick: When did you first discover the work of Akira Kurosawa?
Alex Cox: When I was a little boy, I turned on the TV one afternoon (in England, there was usually no broadcasting then) and found myself watching the final scenes of Throne of Blood (1957). I have no idea why it was being shown then, and had no idea what it was. But I was astonished and impressed.
BH: Which is your favorite Kurosawa film, and why?
AC: Too hard to say. I love Ikiru (1952) because it is so wonderfully written and structured, and because of [Takashi] Shimura’s brilliant performance. I love Throne of Blood because of its visual genius and script and cast. I love Ran (1985) because . . . Ran.
BH: How did you meet Chigumi Obayashi (daughter of director Nobuhiko Obayashi)?
AC: In those days, Ms. Obayashi was married to another Japanese friend, so we would naturally hang out together when I came to Tokyo. She is an outstanding person. And through her I met her father.
BH: You once met Kurosawa’s longtime friend and collaborator Ishiro Honda in Japan. Did he give you any insight about Kurosawa?
AC: That meeting was organized by Ms. Obayashi and Mr. [Katsumi] Ishikuma — Stonebear — at Honda’s house. We talked about Kurosawa, whom Honda had known from childhood, I think. They had separate careers in the film industry, but got together in later years because, in Dreams (1990), Kurosawa was dealing with visual effects and a sequence of battling demons, and felt he needed experienced help. So he turned to Honda, and they collaborated for the first time. Both lived near the studio, and Honda would walk there, collecting Kurosawa on the way.
It’s a nice vision of the two old filmmakers walking to work together . . .
BH: You once made a documentary called Kurosawa: The Last Samurai (1999). Please talk about this project.
AC: This was made possible by many friends, including Ms. Obayashi, Stonebear, Mr. [Kuniaki] Negishi, and Masato Hara, producer of Ran and distributor of my film Walker (1987). Thanks to their contacts, we were able to interview some of Kurosawa’s key collaborators, including Tatsuya Nakadai and Teruyo Nogami. And visit the plains of Gotemba! And Kurosawa’s grave!
BH: In the documentary, you interviewed several notable film personalities. I’d like to name a few of them, and if you have any memories of them, please let me know. What do you remember about [Toho director] Senkichi Taniguchi?
AC: A charming, thoughtful man who had many precise recollections about Kurosawa in his early days. Having read Kurosawa’s Something Like an Autobiography, we all knew his brother had committed suicide. Taniguchi-san told us it was a double suicide, involving the girl his brother loved but could not marry. I had not heard this before.
BH: Do you remember being around actor Tatsuya Nakadai? What can you tell us about him?
AC: Remember him? How could one forget him? Nakadai was one of Kurosawa’s finest actors — unforgettable in Yojimbo (1961) and Ran. He has a terrifying reputation among younger Japanese actors. But he was very generous and welcoming to us.
BH: What was Kurosawa’s longtime script supervisor Teruyo Nogami?
AC: Ms. Nogami called herself Kurosawas “script girl.” In fact, she was his closest and most trusted producer. She described the shooting of the climax of Throne of Blood in great detail — how they managed to fire all those arrows at [Toshiro] Mifune without killing him. She’s written a great book, Waiting on the Weather, about her film career. She talks about the blacklist of leftists and reinstatement of the reactionary old guard under the American occupation, and about the studio “speed guy” — always on the set in the 1950s, handing out doses of methamphetamine to keep the crews working. Anyone interested in Japanese cinema should read her book.
BH: What about Kurosawa’s daughter, Kazuko Kurosawa?
AC: Hara-san gave us access to the set of a film he was shooting, based on one of Kurosawa’s unfilmed scripts, After the Rain (1999). Ms. Kurosawa was the wardrobe designer, and she gave us a great interview. Needless to say, she had some interesting stories to tell about her dad.
BH: How do you think the documentary turned out?
AC: I like it a lot. I don’t think Channel 4 had the rights for a long period, though, so it might be hard to see it today. With luck, some bad person will post it on YouTube, and it will be possible to see it before the takedown notices arrive.
BH: Let’s talk about Tombstone Rashomon (2017). What was the genesis of this project?
AC: England being a small, green, wet island, many English people are attracted to the desert. I was one of them. One of the reasons for watching Westerns, for me, was the landscapes — the desert of Tabernas, Monument Valley, Arizona . . . And the events which took place outside the O.K. Corral in Tombstone had acquired a legendary, even mythical, status, thanks to various books and films.
BH: What kind of research did you do about the Earps and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral?
AC: There’s no shortage of written material about the events — pro- and anti-Earp.The earlier books — Walter Noble Burns’ [Tombstone: An] Illiad of the Southwest and Stuart N. Lake’s biography portray the Earps and Holliday as heroes. Later books are more even-handed. And there are authors who support the Clantons and McLaurys and view the Earps as killers. This was also a political battle — the Earps sided with the saloon keeper/banker faction in town, which was Republican, while the cowboys were Democrats. Each faction had its own newspaper.
BH: What approach did you take to the various characters?
AC: I relied on records of their testimony — in the cases of Ike Clanton, Johnny Behan, and Wyatt Earp. Doc Holliday didn’t give any testimony at the hearing after the event, but later he gave newspaper interviews; he was in Denver, trying not to be extradited back to Arizona to stand trial for murder. Kate Haroney wrote a letter to her niece, in which she described witnessing the gun battle. So, in each case, the writer could hear the speaker’s “voice.”
BH: During the writing process, did you make any changes? For example, did you ever consider fleshing out the time-traveling camera crew in more detail?
AC: The time-travelling camera crew is just a gag. I put that stuff there in case a literal-minded viewer might worry that there weren’t video crews back in 1881. The producer, Merritt Crocker, wanted to get a shot of the time machine landing, and the crew — women in silver burkas — emerging, cameras in hand. But we forgot.
BH: What can you tell us about shooting at Old Tucson Studios?
AC: Fabulous! It is always a great filmmaking experience. I shot at Old Tucson long ago, with Ed Harris and Peter Boyle and Marlee Matlin, on Walker. That was a lot of fun, but this was even better. We shot the whole of Tombstone Rashomon there, two units filming simultaneously. Old Tucson supplied locations, costumes, tack, artillery, stunt equipment, and made us lunch. I would shoot there again at the drop of a cowboy hat.
BH: I felt the O.K. Corral shootout was done very realistically. Could you explain how you directed it?
AC: Just let it happen. I think with action sequences you have to let it go, run multiple cameras, and hope that the operators get great coverage. It’s really the editor who makes the action sequence. I wanted it to be as close to accurate as possible, and that meant including two horses, led into the battle by the McLaurys, which suggests to me that they weren’t looking for a fight at all. In the past, movies have always avoided the horse element — you can’t start blasting away next to their heads with firearms without freaking the poor beasts out. Hence, the decision to insert muzzle flashes later. Health and safety . . .
BH: Watching the film, I was particularly impressed by Jesse Lee Pacheco’s performance as Sheriff Behan. What was it like to work with him?
AC: Splendid. He’s a fantastic actor. I met him at CU Boulder [the University of Colorado Boulder], and he played the preacher, Tembo, in Bill the Galactic Hero (2014). Since then, I’ve acted with him on another film, Geoff Marslett’s The Boardinghouse Reach. I think he has a great career ahead, once we get a reliable vaccine/cure, and actors can act again.
BH: When did you film the movie?
AC: May 2016.
BH: Do you have any other memories from the set that you’d like to share?
AC: We got a lot of support from the UofA [University of Arizona] — in terms of sound and costume departments, in particular — and also from The Loft, the independent cinema which hosted our world premiere. Tucson is a great town, and I would be very happy shooting another film there.
BH: What was the funnest [or funniest] thing about filming Tombstone Rashomon?
AC: Funny? Now you’ve got me. When I’m working, I become entirely literal-minded and don’t notice funny things. Everything that happens either contributes to the forward movement of the picture, or delays it. Twitch, twitch.
BH: What was the most difficult part about making it?
AC: It wasn’t difficult. It was well-organized, we had a great crew, and the cast came to work every day, word-perfect. For me, the hardest part was getting my dog Pearl out of the truck and into the production office at the start of every day. She hated movies because, for her, they were entirely boring.
BH: What are you working on now?
AC: A coronavirus cure. I’ve set up my own lab here and reckon to have a vaccine ready in a couple of weeks. Or at least in time for the election.
After that, I’ll get back to work on the sequel to Repo Man (1984). U.S. rights have reverted to me, so fingers crossed for . . . The Wages of Beer.
Special thanks to TriCoast Entertainment.