Repo Man, Cult Classic: Facts And Trivia About The Punk Rock Black Comedy
The life of a repo man is always intense. Maybe the most cult of cult movies, Repo Man is a hard film to pin down. Part comedy, part science-fiction, and part treatise on nuclear war, its end times death drive through Los Angeles was written and directed by Englishman Alex Cox. Starring Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton, the film's venomous nihilism is the antithesis of everything happening in mainstream cinema in the 1980s. Oh, and it was produced by Mike Nesmith from The Monkees.
Filmed at a time when movies like Back to the Future and Sixteen Candles were wistfully looking back at the 1950s, Repo Man has no nostalgia for the past, it absolutely hates the present, and has no faith in the future. Filmed on a budget that any seasoned director would scoff at, Cox packed UFOs, time travelers, punk rock, globalization, and the dumbing down of society into a blender and pressed puree.
How does a bleakly comic film that moves through genres like a punk band moves through chord changes become a cult classic? It doesn't matter what it takes, Repo Man's got all night.
I'm the repo man and I'm looking for the joke
Alex Cox was in studying film at UCLA by day and riding around with repo man Mark Lewis by night. His friend's roommate paid him $20 to drive repossessed cars to a lot, it was dangerous work but it was fun. After directing the student film Edge City, Cox wanted to make a feature that was commercial enough to be seen but that still had an edge. Like a lot of young people in the 1980s, the cold war and its ensuing nuclear fallout was on Cox's mind.
Initially written as a road movie that stretched between Los Angeles and New Mexico starring members of the band Fear, the story mutated into a satire of consumerism in every form. After retooling the story to the constraints of the Los Angeles city limits (mostly) and illustrating a four page comic book for prospective producers, Repo Man attracted the attention of Mike Nesmith. You know, from The Monkees.
As a producer Nesmith was hands off either because he didn't understand the subject matter or because he didn't want to put a lot of money into the production. He managed to bring the film to Universal but failed to secure more than a negative pickup deal (that's when the studio agrees to buy a film after it's finished rather than paying upfront). Cox was pleased with the film's minimal budget, but he wrote that Nesmith was disappointed that they couldn't get more cash:
Peter, Jonathan and I puzzled over Nesmith, trying to understand him and anticipate his moves. We puzzled him, too. When he said we’d need more money for the budget, McCarthy and Wacks agreed, I didn’t. I didn’t want more money: I wanted to make the film as cheaply as possible. Nesmith remained intrigued by the subject and the four-page cartoon, yet fiscally distant. I knew he could fund it, and I wanted to get going. Nesmith wanted Repo Man to cost a lot more, and for someone else to pay for it.
We got the neutron bomb
The 1980s in Los Angeles were apocalyptic. Punks were fighting cops in the streets. The buildings were crumbling. It was the end of the world and no one felt fine. Cox infuses every frame of Repo Man with the energy of punk rock, not only by using punk and hardcore on the soundtrack, but with the disaffected and doomed nature of everyone on screen.
There's little in the way of plot in Repo Man. Disparate groups of punks, repo men, government officials, and UFO conspiracy theorists all chase down a Chevy Malibu that holds a neutron bomb or maybe just nuclear isotopes or maybe some kind of alien technology. It doesn't really matter because nothing matters, at least not in Repo Man.
In casting his two leads Cox had two entirely different experiences. Emilio Estevez's biggest role at that point was The Outsiders. He was just excited to have the lead role in a psychotic black comedy. He threw himself into the punk scene at the time, shaved his head, and started repossessing cars with Mark Lewis.
Harry Dean Stanton was less enthused about appearing in the film. Stanton was coming off of Paris, Texas, the ruminative road film by Wim Wenders (along with Repo Man DP Robby Müller), and his agent tried to give his role away to Mick Jagger. Stanton spent much of the film arguing with Cox over everything from memorizing his lines to whether or not he could use a real baseball bat in a scene.
The rest of the cast is filled out by independent actors (some you'll recognize others you'll never see again) and members of bands like the Circle Jerks and The Untouchables, infusing the film with an energy that you don't feel in an entirely professional production.
It happens sometimes. People just explode
How do you make a science fiction film with no money? Putting aside the anti-corporate, anti-everything message of Repo Man there's a loose science fiction narrative running through the film complete with people getting vaporized, a government agent with a metal hand, and a Chevy Malibu that glows neon green. With just over a million dollars in their production budget it was hard to even get an office.
Production designers literally had to build an office in an empty lot, and the film's special effects were all lo-fi and achieved through the most basic of means. Humans were vaporized through freeze frames and careful editing, a shot of aliens was created out of water filled condoms, and the glowing green Malibu was painted with a translucent material reserved for stop signs. At $600 a bucket this was the most costly effect in the film.
Punk rock, Iggy Pop, and a mountain of cocaine
The number of films that have been popularized by their soundtracks (and not vice versa) can be counted on one hand. The Repo Man soundtrack crystallizes the LA punk and hardcore scene of the early '80s into a 37 minute teaser for what could be found on any given night at The Starwood and Madam Wong's.
The film's theme song, sung by Iggy Pop with a backing band made up of a who's who of punk royalty (Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols and Clem Burke and Nigel Harrison of Blondie) was recorded in two sessions and just as few takes, the song is Pop flexing his inner dirt bag. Written moments before the engineer pressed record, the singer celebrated like a true rock star. The session's assistant engineer wrote of the experience at Cherokee Studios:
While we broke down the instruments and repositioned the vocal mic, Iggy's coke dealer arrived. When the man left, Iggy was in possession of 2 grams of coke. He laid it out on the producers Table. Everyone waited in anticipation of Iggy giving each of us a line. Instead, and to the utter shock of everyone in the room, Iggy quickly scratched the coke into 2 giant lines the size of Cuban cigars and snorted all of it in two huge sniggs. Then he went out to the mic and stated to sing.
Released on MCA records in 1984, the soundtrack brought the Circle Jerks, Black Flag, and The Plugz to middle America in a way that the film wasn't allowed by Universal, at least not initially.
From cult to cult classic
By the time Cox finished Repo Man it had a different ending than the one agreed on by Universal Pictures and was over budget and behind schedule. The original regime at the studio was long gone and replaced by a new group of suits who didn't know what to do with the film that was dropped in their lap. They were contractually obligated to release the film in theaters but they didn't have to promote it. Cox wrote about his genre hopping film getting dumped on his website:
It is, we quickly discovered, the primary task of a new boss to make an old boss look bad, and so as much of Rehme's product as possible was quickly junked. That which was already made, or almost complete - Repo Man and Rumblefish, for instance - was swiftly consigned to the Chute of No Return.
In its initial theatrical run the film made $129,000 before it drifted out of theaters and nearly out of the public consciousness. Repo Man may have completely disappeared if it weren't for its soundtrack. MCA sold 50,000 copies of the compilation with pretty much zero advertising and rightly felt that if Universal put some muscle behind the film they'd sell more copies. The record company pressured Universal to re-release the film and it eventually brought in $4 million at the box office, turning Repo Man in a legitimate hit. When the film made it to video it made even more cash on rentals.
Neither the film or the soundtrack is a relaxing experience but not everyone is looking for something easy. Fueled by Cold War anxiety and post-graduate nihilism, Repo Man remains an aggressive introduction the LA punk scene and low budget filmmaking, albeit with the backing of Universal Pictures and a member of one of the most beloved boy bands of all time.
Tags: Cult Films | Emilio Estevez | Harry Dean Stanton | Rare Facts And Stories About History | Repo Man
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