The title was chosen to remind people of Romeo and Juliet, but the star-crossed lovers in Sid and Nancy had worse problems than those teens from Verona. Repo Man director Alex Cox's film told the harrowing (yet weirdly romantic) true story of Sex Pistols bass player Sid Vicious, his groupie-turned-girlfriend Nancy Spungen, and their descent into heroin-flavored destruction. Despite good reviews and excellent performances by newcomers Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb, the 1986 biopic did poorly in theaters and gained its cult following later—the same way a lot of punk bands did, fittingly.
1. IT BEGAN AS A SCRIPT CALLED TOO KOOL TO DIE.
In 1980, 25-year-old English filmmaker Alex Cox wrote a screenplay about an American detective hired to find a rich girl who ran off with an English bassist. It was a fictional story inspired by Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, adorned with references to current political events in England that, in Cox's view, "guaranteed it would never be made into a film." He put it away and did other things—like Repo Man, released in 1984.
2. MADONNA WAS AN UNLIKELY SOURCE OF INSPIRATION.
Late in 1984, Cox met with a producer who told him about an idea that had been percolating in Hollywood: a movie about Sid and Nancy, starring the beautiful Madonna and the polite, handsome Rupert Everett. As Cox wrote in his autobiography, "For anyone who had been vaguely into the Punk movement, this was a troubling idea indeed." Aware that this potential project didn't have a script yet and eager to beat them to the punch, Cox was motivated to dust off Too Kool to Die and rework it into a Sid and Nancy picture of his own.
3. THE WORKING TITLE, RIGHT UP TILL THE RELEASE, WAS LOVE KILLS.
Near the end of post-production, one of the companies financing the film received a letter from someone claiming to own the title Love Kills and threatening legal action if they used it. Cox reluctantly changed it at the lawyers' insistence. He would later describe the title Sid and Nancy as "bland," but he liked what it was called on video in Mexico: Two Lives Destroyed by Drugs.
4. GARY OLDMAN PUT HIMSELF THROUGH A LOT TO PLAY THE PART.
The actor had no interest in Sid Vicious or punk rock, and had to be talked into making the film. ("My agent at the time put a lot of pressure and bullied me into it," he said on Criterion's out-of-print DVD commentary.) Once he committed, though, he went all the way. He lived on a diet of steamed fish and melon to lose enough weight to play the emaciated, heroin-addicted Sid, and was hospitalized when he went too far and became malnourished.
5. FOR ALL THAT, OLDMAN DIDN'T WANT TO MAKE THE FILM AND DIDN'T LIKE HIS PERFORMANCE.
Oldman is famously hard on himself. He told Playboy, "I don't like myself in the movie, no. Frankly, I didn't want to make it in the first place ... I don't think I played Sid Vicious very well. I don't like the way I look in Prick Up Your Ears (1987). I wasn't the right person to play Beethoven and turned it down half a dozen times [before making Immortal Beloved]."
6. COURTNEY LOVE REALLY WANTED TO PLAY NANCY.
The 21-year-old musician and would-be actress called co-writer Abbe Wool and claimed, "I am Nancy Spungen!" (She only meant she was perfect for the part.) Wool had Love submit an audition tape, but Cox wanted an actress with more experience. Still, he liked Love enough to write a small role for her as one of Nancy's junkie friends, and subsequently cast her in his film Straight to Hell (1987). Years later, Love would be compared (unflatteringly) to Nancy Spungen for her supposed similar influence on Kurt Cobain and Nirvana.
7. CHLOE WEBB REALLY WENT TO TOWN ON THAT PHONE BOOTH.
One of the film's most emotionally intense scenes (and that's really saying something) is when Nancy calls her parents from a London phone booth and ends up screaming at them and smashing the booth. To prepare, the crew had replaced a few panes of glass with the fake Hollywood stuff that shatters easily (and harmlessly) when struck. But actress Chloe Webb was so caught up in the moment that she broke several of the real glass panes, too, and was lucky she didn't get cut up like a turkey.
8. JOHNNY ROTTEN SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN OF TWO MINDS ABOUT IT.
The Sex Pistols' lead singer (real name John Lydon), whose friendship with Sid Vicious was ruined by a combination of heroin and Nancy, publicly excoriated the film. "To me this movie is the lowest form of life," he wrote in his 1994 autobiography. "I honestly believe that it celebrates heroin addiction ... All of the scenes in London with the Pistols were nonsense. None bore any sense of reality." He also claimed outrage at never having been consulted by Cox, and at only meeting the actor who played him after the film was finished.
But Cox, in his own autobiography, says he did consult Lydon beforehand, and indeed had a pleasant, alcohol-fueled, 90-minute discussion with him about the script, about who should play Johnny Rotten, and other aspects of the production. Andrew Schofield, who was portraying him, met with him, too, and was guided around London to see his old stomping grounds. "Later, Lydon denied these conversations had taken place," Cox wrote. "In retrospect, I think John was being kind to us, since his alleged rage got the film publicity."
9. DENIED BLACK-AND-WHITE, THE CINEMATOGRAPHER RESORTED TO HIS OWN TRICKS.
Cox and cinematographer Roger Deakins wanted to shoot the film in stark black-and-white, fitting the bleak tone. Unsurprisingly, the people financing the movie nixed that idea as too artsy and potentially off-putting to audiences. Instead, Deakins shot in color but designed it so the images become increasingly monochromatic as the film goes on, so that by the end the film is practically gray.
10. ONE SCENE ATTRACTED ATTENTION FROM POLICE SNIPERS.
There's a playful moment when Sid and Nancy are on the roof of a London hotel, shooting cap guns at each other like cowboys. All fun and games, sure ... except that the filming location was across the street from New Scotland Yard (i.e., London police HQ), and all anyone down below could see was that two people were waving guns around on a rooftop. Black-clad snipers soon appeared on an adjoining roof, joined by a police helicopter, and production stopped until Cox and the actors could sort everything out with the constabulary.
11. THERE WAS A PROBLEM WITH EXTRAS SPITTING ON THE ACTORS.
Extras for the concert scenes were chosen based on appearance, which meant a lot of actual punks were present. And something that punks did back in the day was spit on the bands they liked. (We don't want to know what they did to bands they hated.) The actors playing the Sex Pistols and other bands complained about the constant shower of saliva, but Cox, reluctant to dampen the extras' enthusiasm and commitment to authenticity, wouldn't ask them to stop.
12. SID'S MOTHER COOPERATED WITH THE FILM; NANCY'S PARENTS DID NOT.
Sid Vicious's mother, Anne Beverley, had drug problems of her own, and is rumored to have given her son the dose of heroin that killed him. Gary Oldman visited her while researching the role, and described her as "very warm and open and helpful." He said she gave him the chain and padlock that Sid used to wear around his neck, which Oldman wore in the film. Understandably, Nancy's parents, Frank and Deborah Spungen, wanted nothing to do with the production and had no interest in seeing a movie depicting their daughter's death.
13. AT THE PREMIERE SCREENING, DURAN DURAN GOT SHUSHED BY THE CLASH.
Sid and Nancy
premiered in the Directors' Fortnight section of the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, in a lavish, packed auditorium. According to Cox, some or all members of Duran Duran were in the audience, and when Gary Oldman first appeared on the screen, one of them yelled, "Johnny Thunders!" (referring to another punk musician who'd been with the New York Dolls). The Clash's Joe Strummer, who'd consulted on Sid and Nancy, stood and yelled, "Shut the f*** up!" Duly chastened by their elders, Duran Duran shut up.