Repo Man, Cult Classic: Facts And Trivia About The Punk Rock Black Comedy
By | March 1, 2021
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.