The director of Sid and Nancy reflects on the mistakes he made and discovering Gary Oldman.
The Sex Pistols’ bassist, Sid Vicious, died of a heroin overdose in February 1979, 4 months after stabbing his girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death. By 1986, Alex Cox had made a dramatised biopic, starring Gary Oldman in his first leading role. Sid’s bandmate and friend, John Lydon/Johnny Rotten, panned Sid and Nancy in his 1994 autobiography, calling it “fucking fantasy” and saying that Cox “was quite lucky I didn’t shoot him.”
Before production began, Cox sent Lydon the script. The response was suggested changes, including Sandra Bernhard in the role of Sid, and the Johnny Rotten character as a Scouser. “It would have been impressionistic, and a slightly more revolutionary drama, but we didn’t go that way.” This is something that Cox regrets: “Looking back on it now I’m more sympathetic to Lydon’s point of view than ever.”
LWLies: Why is that?
Cox: His take on it was a better one. Our attempt to emulate the scene was inevitably doomed to fail because you could never replicate something like that.
And why do it?
Film is a work of art. It should have freedom and liberty. I like the film when it deviates from the true story, for example: the depiction of the concerts. The concerts were never like that. When punks were playing in London the gigs were sparsely attended. There would be some skinny guys doing the punk pogo, but we recreated it like the mosh pits of Southern California: massive crowds of people in there, wading about, because that was what I was used to.
What else would you would do differently if you remade Sid and Nancy today?
I’d do just what Lydon told me to. I’d have Drew Schofield play Johnny as a Scouser. I’d have Sandra Bernhard play Sid. I wouldn’t have the happy ending, you know, the taxi to heaven stuff, because I think that’s very compromised. It’s sentimental and dishonest, because we were trying to make a film that condemned Sid and Nancy for their decadence. The punk movement was essentially a positive movement that was supposed to be forward-looking. You can’t do that if you’re a junkie rock star in a hotel room. The scene in the film that was the important one for my co-writer, Abbe Wool, and I was the scene where they go to the methadone clinic, and the character played by Sy Richardson gives them a lecture. He won’t give them the methadone until he tells them that they’ve completely betrayed the movement and they’ve betrayed themselves. That was the point of the film, but I think that gets forgotten, and gets undercut by the quasi-happy ending. If I was to remake it, I would end it with Sid dying in a pool of his own vomit.
How did you discover Gary Oldman?
We had a fantastic casting director called Lucy Boulting who was based in London. She said to me, ‘There’s this boy who’s acting in a play at the Barbican right now, The War Plays [by Edward Bond], you might want to go and see him.’ So, I went to see the play and even though Gary only had a small part I was very impressed. I met him and talked about the character. Then I was in a real quandary because Lucy had introduced me to two young actors, just starting out, neither of whom had yet made a feature film. One was Gary Oldman and one was Daniel Day-Lewis. How to choose between two good actors? They would have brought different things to it. Daniel would have brought more of a romantic aspect to the character and made more of the love affair. Gary came from Bermondsey where Sid was from and was genuinely from a working class family, whereas Dan was from an aristocratic family and the son of a poet laureate.
Has there ever been an equivalent to the punk movement in cinema?
In the late ’70s, early ’80s, there was a black film movement in Los Angeles involving people like Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry and Julie Dash. It was called the LA Rebellion. They made very low-budget films, but they weren’t like gangster, hip-hop, shoot ’em ups or blaxploitation movies. They were about the experiences of real black people. They were made without any funding from studios. They were extraordinary films by very talented filmmakers, especially Burnett, who is one of the best filmmakers ever.
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