On STRAIGHT TO HELL: Straight From Its Cinematographer

"One thing about STRAIGHT TO HELL: It’s a lot longer than a Punk song.” - Tom Richmond, Director of Photography

Punk month is inspired by the release of the awesome Drafthouse Recommends title, Green Room. Buy your tickets here!

There’s still some folks who call him “Whitey”, a nickname Tom got from Keenan Ivory Wayans, while shooting his seminal parody of Blaxploitation, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. It is the sort of inclusive, tongue-in-cheek subversiveness that we probably won’t see again until the second Trump Administration. Like everyone, Wayans loved Tom, the party-animal cameraman with shocking red hair who had cut his teeth on the kind of Exploitation films (from Corman and his ilk) that Wayans was sending up. Before Tom was nominated for countless Indie Spirit Awards and bundled up for Sundance every year, solidifying himself as a godfather of that genre, his career was a lesson in how to embody Punk in film. Alex Cox, one of his frequent collaborators, said in an interview years back, “Between Len Gowing, Whitey and Abraham Haile Biru, I am cinematically sorted for the rest of my career.”

Full Disclosure: Tom Richmond is #family. Ride or die. Literally. These days, I tool around Hollywood in his old ‘69 Barracuda. Before he gave me a car, he gave me a place to live, when I rented a room across the hall from where Michael Miner (another roommate, back in the '80s) wrote Robocop while Alex wrote Repo Man in my bedroom two decades earlier. It was a cheap room. I once found a copy of Cox’s never-produced sequel, Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday, wedged in the floorboards. Tom gave me work, back before I was a renowned, sought-after thespian. I’ve known him for more of my life than I haven’t, and he’s taken great care of me. He’s my O.G. and will be respected. This is a puff-piece about a cool guy who has self-described as “either the Keith Richards or Forrest Gump of Cinematography”.

Cox and Tom met while film students at U.C.L.A., and quickly became pals. They loved Detective movies and Westerns and renegades and outlaws. At that time, the kind of music that embodied all of it was Punk. They’d make friends with kids like Dick Rude, with shaved heads and leather jackets, who’d turn the old men (guys in their early 30s) on to new tunes. They made short films together and went to shows, all the while trying to build legitimate, or at least bill-paying careers in a field far more competitive than playing shows at the Masque. Luckily, the overlap between the movies and the music was thick enough to influence both sides, leading to cinematically-significant documentaries like The Decline of Western Civilization and feature films like Cox’s Repo Man, with a soundtrack and style borrowing heavily from Punk Culture.

Cox put Repo Man together by the skin of his teeth, eventually seeing it come to fruition when former Monkee Mike Nesmith spent some of his family fortune on making it happen. Nesmith’s mom invented White Out. Cox hired his Punk pals. Dick Rude played a role and held the nebulous title of “Creative Consultant”. Abbe Wool, who he’d go on to write Sid and Nancy with, was “Video Coordinator”, an equally obtuse job description in 1984. When Cox got a shot at hiring one of the true maestros of cinematography, Robby Müeller, for Repo Man, he got Tom to operate and do additional photography alongside another chum who’d go on to big things, Robert Richardson.

Soon after Repo Man, Tom graduated from gaffing to full-on cinematography, just as Cox was premiering Sid and Nancy at a little film festival on the French Riviera. Cox had enlisted Tom to shoot a music video for the title-song to what was then called Love Kills. The eponymous track about the tragedy of England’s Crown-Prince of Punk, Sid Vicious, was written and recorded by a brother-from-another-mother, Joe Strummer. Tom, Cox, Strummer and Dick Rude all ended up right down the road from Cannes in Almeria, Spain, where many of their favorite Spaghetti Westerns had been shot. While trolling the abandoned sets for films like Once Upon a Time in the West, they found themselves inspired, coming up with anachronistic concepts that combined Punk and Western aesthetics. After making the video and heading to Cannes, Rude and Cox cracked their own take on the genre, and the heat generated by Sid and Nancy’s premiere gave them the juice to head back to Spain with their gonzo concept. Concurrent to developing their new script, Cox had seen a longform music project fall through, a concert video that was to star Elvis Costello, The Pogues, and Tenpole Tudor. When that film failed to materialize, but knowing that group of Punks had already been interested in working together, he found himself the cast for Straight to Hell.

Besides having the talents of Punk celebrities at his disposal, Cox fleshed out his film with a ragtag group of character actors and left-of-center personalities. Repo Man co-stars Sy Richardson and Miguel Sandoval showed up, along with Grace Jones and Dennis Hopper, and filmmaker chum Jim Jarmusch, who’d also just premiered his film, Down By Law, at Cannes. Dick Rude, fully-credited as co-writer, played a significant role, as did The Circle Jerks’ Zander Schloss. Dan Wool, whose sister Abbe had co-written Sid and Nancy, composed the music, as he would continue to do for Cox’s films, under the famed “Pray for Rain” group. Cox’s third film was as familial as it was Punk. He managed to include his entire team of loved-ones for a film that had been incepted on a lark, put together in a matter of a couple months and shot in weeks.

Tom’s got lots of cool stories about working on Straight to Hell. When Jarmusch showed up for his cameo as the boss of Strummer’s inept group of criminals, he realized that the actors playing cops to their robbers didn’t have any prop guns. “Throw rocks”, he said. They did. One day, Tom was chatting with Costello, who he says nobody called Elvis (“Declan. He was Declan.”), and told him he’d been singing “Deportee” all Summer, but couldn’t figure out some of the lyrics. “Funny enough,” said Costello, “I’ve been reworking that tune into a Country-Western version with some new lyrics. I’ll bring my guitar tomorrow and sing it to you.” Tom and a handful of others got themselves a little acoustic Elvis Costello concert for lunch the next day. Some of the most incredible anecdotes about making the film aren’t the spontaneous antics or skin-of-their-teeth adventures, but rather the result of incredibly skilled artists being able to let their freak flags fly.

The “town” where most of Straight to Hell was shot was a dilapidated set built for the Yul Brenner/Robert Mitchum/Charles Bronson Western, Villa Rides, written by Sam Peckinpah and Robert Towne, almost two decades earlier. Like many Spaghetti Westerns, Villa Rides was shot in the 2.35:1 widescreen format, often done with anamorphic lenses or a “negative-pulldown” format meant to mimic the anamorphic effect. “This town was built for a camera”, says Tom. “You take any lens and aim it around that town, and everything would fall into place. Every piece of the town was built in thirds, from the placement of the ‘Jail’ to the ‘Church’, to the ‘Saloon’, they would all be where you needed them to be in relation to the frame and the story. It was magic. All of a sudden, Alex didn’t have any concerns about it being our first 2.35 movie.”

In true Punk spirit, the filmmakers managed to take some of the piss out of the myriad journalists who wanted to visit the set. “Alex would let writers come to set, but they had to agree to be in the movie and do whatever we wanted.” The characters of the vicious McMahon Family were played by The Pogues, the hard-drinking, foul-mouthed poets of Irish Punk. The McMahons, while blood-thirsty, were otherwise parched, as they weren’t allowed to drink, swear or smoke, a funny juxtaposition with the band playing them. Instead of engaging in all the fun the real-life band was used to, the characters they played were the opposite. They’d simply drink too much coffee and get really mad. When they needed some bodies to “hang” in the background of a scene, it was the nosy journalists who got strung up. The journos were safe, but being stuck in the back of a scene while hoisted up on stunt harnesses all day wasn’t the scoop they expected. Cox also buried a couple of them up to their necks for a classic Spaghetti Western gag. “If I didn’t think Alex was cool before doing that to a bunch of guys whose opinions might’ve mattered, I sure thought he was after. We didn’t give a fuck if anyone liked it,” says Tom.

Tom had arrived in Los Angeles at the birth of the Punk Movement in the late '70s as a guy in his mid-20s, already educated, reengineering his life for a career in cinema. He went to U.C.L.A.’s film school, where he met Cox, and then A.F.I., where everyone from Malick to Lynch to Cassavetes had studied. Los Angeles is the hub of filmmaking, but it can be a very alienating place for newbies and wannabes. “I don’t remember hating a place more than I did the first few years in L.A. I thought it was empty and full of fake promises. But I found this radio station, K.X.L.U. (Loyola-Marymount University’s famed Punk and Alternative station), that played this new kind of anarchic, funny music that made being alone and hating everything kind of fun. And it was smart, because you have to be smart to be actually funny. That’s really good to realize when you’re stuck in traffic on the freeway and pissed off.” Think of that next time you’re sitting in your car, bumper-to-bumper.

“Punk Rock was as important to me when I was 28 as Jimi Hendrix was when I was 16.” He’d grown up in the era of Psychedelic Rock, Counterculture and the unifying effects of guys like Hendrix and The Stones. He knew what it meant for music to reflect rebellion and anti-authority, but his present alienation as an adult serendipitously mirrored this new genre he’d discovered. Tom was a little too old to start the kind of group he’d hear at the Starwood. “I wasn’t sad that I was my age and starting a career doing something I liked, but I was bummed I couldn’t do a crazy hair style. If I was younger, I would’ve shaved my head in the shape of natural balding and done a comb-over. That was Punk to me.” Instead of channeling his energy into the music, he channeled it into filmmaking.

These days, Whitey spends most of his time in New York, his hometown. He teaches Cinematography at N.Y.U. and still shoots at least a movie a year. Recently, he premiered Little Boxes, starring one of the best actors, Melanie Lynskey, at the TriBeCa Film Festival. He stays close with Cox and many of his old colleagues. The Barracuda’s stayed in L.A. but he manages to tool around the East Coast in a souped up Mini Cooper. His party days are behind him, and he eats a lot of bananas, but also too much bacon. He should really quit smoking. He is loved by everyone who gets to know him, and lucky for all of them, he’s incredibly sociable.

Straight to Hell has gone on to be the more infamous sibling to its brethren, an angle that no one who worked on it would dispute. It bends and combines genres in a way that few films have attempted and even fewer accomplished. It’s equal parts Comedy, Spaghetti Western, Action and Crime. It’s that combination, along with the spirit, that make it Punk, helped along by some of the more successful personalities in the genre. Beyond the film itself, the production of the movie stands as a testament to what the philosophy is all about. “Punk means more than one person, and they’re all saying ‘fuck it, let’s enjoy each other’. I felt like everyone on that movie was in a giant band. Everybody trusted everybody else,” says Tom. “It was a kamikaze attack on filmmaking.”