As the cult film turns 30, Daisy Woodward sits down with its director to revisit its making and discuss the enigmatic legacy of The Sex Pistols
This year marks the 40th anniversary of punk: the British subculture that tore through the mainstream like a tornado, turning convention on its head. At its helm were The Sex Pistols, the rude, crude and lascivious London band, spearheaded by singer Johnny Rotten and bass player Sid Vicious, who in their two and a half-year tenure in the spotlight altered the face of music forever. The Sex Pistols' legacy is notoriously shrouded in myth and tragedy, due in part to Vicious' turbulent relationship with his American girlfriend Nancy Spungen, punctuated by drug abuse and domestic violence, and ending in tragically, in Nancy's murder, with which Vicious was charged; he was, of course, never convicted, as he died of a heroin overdose while on trial, aged just 21.
Ten years after the scandal, British director Alex Cox immortalised the story on film with his cult movie Sid & Nancy, starring an exceptionally cast Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb in the title roles, and offering an offbeat and superbly shot rendering of the fatal attraction. Cox fostered a fascination with punk throughout his formative years,: his first feature film, the sci-fi crime comedy Repro Man, follows a young punk living in Los Angeles, and Sid & Nancy, which he co-wrote with Abbe Wool, was his sophomore offering.
"It was a long process," the director recalls, speaking with AnOther to coincide with the 30th-anniversary re-release of the film. "Five weeks in London, a week in New York, then weeks in Los Angeles and San Francisco. An 11 week shoot in all!" Both of Cox's leading players were stage actors at the time, Oldman having caught Cox's eye while performing in the 1984 production of Edward Bond's The Pope's Wedding. Cox made a shrewd choice in casting two unknown, but highly invested actors; both threw themselves wholeheartedly into their roles, improvising "a great deal" during the shoot. Oldman went as far as to eat nothing but "steamed fish and lots of melon" to achieve Vicious' emaciated physique, at one point being hospitalised when he got too thin, while the duo's enactment of Sid and Nancy's drug-addled states were so convincing that a famous (unnamed) director asked Cox how much smack they used while rehearsing.
"We actually didn't do much in the way of rehearsal prior to filming," Cox explains of the preparation they did do. "We had a table reading of the script and then usually we’d rehearse as soon as we got to the set and take it from there. For the cast, [the greatest challenge] was to recreate their characters vividly and credibly, and for the crew it was to facilitate and record it, on a daily basis." One of his proudest and happiest on-set memories is achieving the evocative scene that sees Sid and Nancy leave a boat party on the Thames, and stumble around the streets of London. "It was done in one continuous, hand-held shot, the camera being operated by Roger Deakins. It's one of my favourite moments." Looking back on the film three decades on, he does have one regret: "It’s a bit long – it should have been 90 minutes!"
Today, of course, the film will be received by a wildly different audience to the one that first watched it 30 years ago; the disenchantment endures, but punk, a subculture that once turned society upside down, has become something of a nostalgia-soaked moment in music's tumultuous history. Still, Cox doesn't let that blight his memories of the time. "Punk now is a fashion thing rather than a social movement. But it was very inspirational, and you can detect its energy in the Occupy movement, in good art, in many forms resistance to corporate domination. Will there be a second wave of punk-like rebellion? I don't know. Anything is possible."
Sid & Nancy is in select cinemas nationwide from August 5, 2016.