HOW DID STRAIGHT TO HELL HAPPEN?
While we were editing SID & NANCY, Commies
From Mars Inc. organized a concert at the Fridge, in Brixton,
in support of the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front)
in Nicaragua. The Pogues, Elvis Costello, and Joe Strummer
played to a full house and we made a couple of thousand quid
for the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign.
Eric Fellner, the producer of SID & NANCY,
came up with a grander scheme: since the public clearly loved
the musicians and was sympathetic to the Nicaraguan cause,
why not organize a rock'n'roll tour of Nicaragua, involving
the same guys? Eric figured that a video deal would
pay for it, and we persuaded the musicians in question to
sign up for a month-long accoustic Nicaragua Solidarity Tour
in August 1996. The bands agreed; but, as time
went by, we couldn't find a video company that would fund
You know why not. This was the mid
1980s. The Reagan/Thatcher maniac front was working
overtime to destroy the Sandinista revolution by any means. Thatcher
had even attempted to criminalize the word "Sandinista" --
hence the Clash album of the same name. It would be
a mistake to underestimate the power of the punk movement
at that time: the Clash, the Jam, the Pistols and their
successors were almost the only beachhead many of us had
against a tidal wave of reactionary politics. Which
put Commies from Mars in a somewhat embarrassing position,
having persuaded at least a dozen musicians not to tour or
record for the entire month of August. Eric's solution? Make
a film instead: as he predicted, it was easier to raise
$1m for a low-budget feature starring various musicians than
to find $75,000 to film them playing in a revolutionary nation
in the middle of a war.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF STRAIGHT TO HELL?
I think it's very funny. I like that
it has no swearing at all (the worst thing anybody says is "Go
boil yer 'ead!"). It has great cinemascope
compositions by Tom Richmond. And it is completely
autobiographical. It has fine performances - Sy Richardson,
Fox Harris, Biff Yeager, Miguel Sandoval, Xander Berkeley,
Elvis Costello, Jennifer Balgobin, Courtney Love, the list
unends. The characters were written for the actors:
Courtney was the Spungenesque heroine - a Nancy who
was tougher and more together. This was her first
leading role, and she acquited herself very well, I thought. It
was Sy Richardson's first lead role in a feature, too: now
he is a great actor - I've been very fortunate to work with
him so many times.
Plus there was a great deal of pleasure attached
to being there. In Almeria, in the desert, in midsummer,
at night. It's a pleasure I can't explain. There
are people who think the desert looks like a slag-heap. That
is their point of view. For me the greatest
pleasure of STRAIGHT TO HELL was filming in that fantastic,
surreal Andalucia landscape -- the desert of LAWRENCE OF
ARABIA, THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY, and FIGURES IN
A LANDSCAPE - films with extraordinary locations: the weird,
ancient clay and sandstone and volcanic badlands, the huge
triangular mountain of El Faro on the horizon. Filming
there, and making a homage to the great Spaghetti Westerns
-- the Leone films, DJANGO, ¿QUIEN SABE?, HELLBENDERS,
and DJANGO KILL.
There is an inexplicable beauty to being
on location, to working in Spain, in Mexico, staying in a
small country town, walking its streets at night, then rising
at dawn and going out to the surrounding desert to film till
the last light is gone....
WHY WAS THE REACTION TO THE FILM SO EXTREME?
I don't know. Perhaps it was a little
ahead of its time: there was not then a vogue for jokey
films about black-suited professional hit-men a la Jean-Pierre
Melville. Certainly some people didn't "get it" --
having rigidly observed our "no swearing" rule,
we received an R-rating from the American film censors for "strong
And there is also an expectation on the part
of film critics that a director will follow a certain
trajectory. In their hearts critics have this Hollywoodian
fantasy: they imagine all directors want to "graduate" into
gigantically-budgeted movies full of special effects and
petulant stars.. But this trajectory is illusory: it
has nothing to do with me. I turned down the opportunity
to direct THE THREE AMIGOS and made STRAIGHT TO HELL instead.
DO YOU REGRET THAT?
Not at all. Of course, if I'd done
THE THREE AMIGOS I would have earned a lot more money. But
that money would be spent by now. I would have had
to shoot in the United States, and not in my beloved Almeria. I
would essentially have been a hired hand for some comedians
from Saturday Night Live. It would not have been a
good experience, for them or me. The script had these
weird political overtones: it promoted the idea that
Americans have the right to intervene in a violent way in
foreign countries - for all that it was supposed to be a
comedy, it was actually propaganda for the Monroe Doctrine. STRAIGHT
TO HELL, for better or worse, is my film, and I like it very
DOES STRAIGHT TO HELL HAVE OTHER MERITS,
BESIDES THE LOCATIONS?
The music, by Pray For Rain, Strummer, Schloss,
The Pogues, and the McManus Gang. And the costumes
by Pam Tait. Especially the womens' costumes!
WHAT ABOUT THE RUMOUR THAT SERGIO LEONE
WAS INVOLVED IN STRAIGHT TO HELL?
It isn't true. The only spaghetti veterans
were Juan Torres, a flamenco singer from the gypsy quarter
of Almeria city, and some of the stunt men. But I was
told later that Leone saw the film at the Madrid Film Festival,
where he was on the jury.
WHAT DID HE THINK OF IT?
I don't know. There was a rumour that
we'd won a prize of some kind, but I never heard any more
about it. It would be nice to think that the Old Master
did see STRAIGHT TO HELL.