Repo Man came out 30 years ago, but it remains one of the weirdest, and most beloved, cult movies of all time. But how did this genre-smashing comedy, about a punk kid who starts repossessing cars only to find one very special car, ever get made in the first place? Join us on a look inside the strange journey of Repo Man.
Alex Cox, fresh out of UCLA, had a couple of projects fail to get off the ground. He was hired to write a script for United Artists about a WWI deserter but it was deemed "too English, too expensive and too anti-war." Adrian Lyne was somewhat interested in another one of his scripts but went off to direct Flashdance instead. It was at this point that Cox ran into two UCLA buddies – Jonathan Wacks and Peter McCarthy – who now had a small production company in Venice, California that mostly made commercials. He convinced them to give feature films another shot and they asked him to deliver a script. The first script he gave them – The Hot Club – was about nuclear war survivors in the early 2000s, but it was rejected as too expensive. The next one was Repo Man.
The script was based on some of Cox's own Los Angeles experiences driving around with his neighbor Mark Lewis who was an actual car repossessor. Cox even spent some time working as Lewis' apprentice, driving repo'd cars back to the yard. The script also incorporated elements of a short screenplay called Leather Rubbernecks that was written by Cox's frequent collaborator Dick Rude (who also plays Duke in the film). A few chunks of the film – mainly monologues like Tracey Walters' beloved 'plate of shrimp' speech – were added later, written on the fly by Cox as material for actors auditioning for the movie to read. The actors liked these monologues so much that they demanded the speeches be retained in the shooting script.
Looking to make the project more attractive to potential investors, Cox packaged the script with a four page comic book treatment (which can be found here). These materials drew the attention of former Monkee Michael Nesmith, who agreed to produce the film and take it to Universal Pictures. Bob Rehme at Universal greenlit the picture but, unfortunately for Cox and company, his regime was replaced partway through production. The new guard had considerably less confidence in the film and basically sabotaged its initial release.
Universal had a very on again off again relationship with the movie. Michael Nesmith had to agree to what's called a negative pickup, meaning that he had to finance the film and they would agree to buy once it was done.
As is often the case with small productions, a lot of the casting decisions were made through personal connections. Cox cast Charles Hopkins, his former boss from the UCLA Film Archive, as supermarket manager Mr. Humphries. He'd met Sy Richardson at UCLA and called him to audition for the bit part of the angry man who storms into the repo office with his girlfriend. Cox thought he was a powerful actor and gave him the larger role of Lite instead. Michael Nesmith sent Tracey Walter (the mystic hobo Miller)and Miguel Sandoval (Archie the punk) to Cox, having worked with them on Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann (on which Nesmith was co-writer and producer). One of Victoria Thomas' friends introduced her to Emilio Estevez after his manager Dolores Robinson refused to give her the time of day.
Del Zamora describes the process, in an American Cinematheque Q&A from Sept 2010:
Actually it was a student film first at UCLA. Alex was there on a Fulbright scholarship from Oxford... I think it was something that was percolating with him for a while. I will tell you that I auditioned for it when it was a student film. Nine months later they called me again, and again after four months I still thought we were going to do it as a student film. I said, "We'll shoot on the weekends," and he laughed. He said, "We're actually shooting it with Universal Pictures and you're officially the first one cast, but I do know that I have Emilio and Harry Dean Stanton." So I hung up the phone and I promptly quit the play that I was in.
Fox Harris – the film's lobotomized, irradiated scientist J. Frank Parnell – was already on Cox's radar, since he was the only actor who was nice to the filmmaker when he worked as a guard/caretaker at the Actor's Studio in Los Angeles. When Harry Dean Stanton brought Harris up as a possibility for Parnell, Cox jumped on the idea. However, while Harris was excellent in the movie, it's hard not to wonder how Lance Henriksen – the runner up choice for Parnell - would have done.
Zander Schloss, memorable in the film as Otto's nerdy supermarket colleague Kevin, was originally hired as a production assistant. Schloss was desperate to play Kevin but was briefly derailed by the producers' insistence on hiring Chris Penn (a friend of Estevez's) for the role. Penn's more over-the-top Animal House comedic style didn't mesh well with the performances around him and Nesmith agreed to try reshoots with Schloss. This decision was supported by casting director Victoria Thomas, whose sympathies had been aroused somewhat by the sight of the hapless Schloss sobbing in public over the decision to go with Penn.
Several actors were under consideration for the role of Bud. The possibility of Lee Ving from the punk band Fear (whose music is on the soundtrack) was batted around for a while. Dennis Hopper was in the running, but the limited budget and rumors about his drug-fueled misbehavior ensured that this was not to happen. The studio wanted Mick Jagger — which, in all likelihood, was even more of a fantasy. Harry Dean Stanton turned out to be the perfect choice. Tod Davies, a friend of Cox's, helped convince him by describing Stanton as having the ideal "great remnant of the Old West/cadaver look." Cox, however, didn't need much convincing, having loved Stanton's work in Two Lane Blacktop and Landon Mills.
Del Zamora (one of the Rodriguez brothers in the film) also brought Olivia Barash into the fold. At the American Cinematheque Q&A in 2010, Barash said her agent told her not to try out for this movie by no-name people, but "I was rebellious, and I went." Her agent kept asking her not to do the movie, because it was "never going to do anything."
Also key to the film's success was the distinctive work of DP Robby Muller, a Dutch cinematographer who had worked on numerous European productions. Nesmith asked Cox to come up with his dream choice and promised to find the money to hire whoever it was. Cox thought of Muller's stunning car scenes in Wim Wenders' The American Friend and suggested him. Muller had only worked on one American film before and hadn't enjoyed the experience but, upon receipt of Cox's script, liked it so much that he agreed to sign on.
The smoking boots left behind when the motorcycle cop is zapped by the Malibu's glowing cargo are a visual reference to Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann.
Miller's oft-quoted asides about John Wayne being gay were based on stories told to Cox by a Venice eccentric named Swatty. He worked for a glass company and insisted that he'd installed two way mirrors in Wayne's home and that the star had answered the door in a dress. Both these tidbits were incorporated into Miller's dialogue.
The sunglasses worn by Emilio in the Camaro-stealing scene are an homage to Kings of the Road, one of Robby Muller's earlier films.
The aesthetic of the film is influenced by the underground comics of the 60s and 70s, particularly the work of Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton. The Rodriguez brothers are modeled on Shelton's Fabulous Furry Freak brothers.
The L.A. punk-rock scene, which Cox was interested in at the time, was also an obvious influence on the aesthetic, philosophy and general anarchic tone of the film. Dick Rude's contribution to the script via "Leather Rubbernecks" also factored into this, because Rude was deeply immersed in the punk milieu.
Cox picked the now-iconic 1964 Chevy Malibu as J. Frank Parnell's Macguffin-toting transportation because he liked the 'boxy aspect' of the car and felt that it looked sinister. The '73 Impala driven by the repo men originally belonged to the casting director, and the production bought it from her for the movie. Cox chose the AMC Matador as the government agents' ride "for its weird shape and for its name." Several of the other cars seen in the film were personal vehicles driven to the set by cast and crew.
The pine tree shaped air fresheners seen in several of the cars were donated by Car-Freshner Corporation. Ironically enough, the donated fresheners were the ones without scent, much to the actors' chagrin. Car-Freshner Corporation and Ralph's Supermarkets (who donated the generic goods) were the only sponsors rounded up for the film and the only featured product placement.
The film was shot in July and August of 1983 — LA's hottest, smoggiest months. Cox recalls showing up to a set full of massive trucks loaded with elaborate equipment and wishing he could go back to his UCLA days, wielding a 16mm Bolex and running around the desert. Thankfully for him, the first scene they shot was a reminder of the "weirdness and magic that filmmaking involves." That scene was a shot in which Otto walks along the railroad tracks before dawn, as the lights on the Fourth Street Bridge go out behind him.
"Alan, the location manager, introduced me to the guys whose job it was to turn the lights off, on the bridge. One was very tall and gangly, and looked like Ichabod Crane. The other was short and fat, clad in dungarees like a cartoon character's. His name was Mr. Knickerbocker. Here were two perfectly preserved, downtown LA characters circa 1932, the kind of guys who would have been waiting for Philip Marlowe when he stepped off the train at the Union Station. I gave the nod when Emilio got up from the tracks, and the assistant directors relayed a radio cue to Mr. Knickerbocker, who turned the lights off. I gave the cue a second time, and Mr. Knickerbocker shut all those bridge lights off again, and the scene was done. The sky behind the bridge was glowing. I was entranced. I hope I remembered to say thank you to Mr. Knickerbocker."
The resulting scene wasn't too shabby, either.
Not all on-set experiences were quite as entrancing. Cox recalls that Emilio Estevez was fond of parading around in his briefs. Fox Harris couldn't drive a car, a complication that led to many composite/body double shots becoming necessary. The first day he showed up to the set, he promptly proceeded to drive his car into a bridge. Subsequent scenes made him so nervous, he would break out into hives. The opening scene with the motorcycle cop on the desert highway was one such composite, made up of shots completed on different days with Alex Cox doubling Harris where necessary and Cox's bike mechanic Varnum Honey playing the cop. At one point, Harris even ran his Chevy Malibu into a gas station pump.
More serious setbacks came from the ornery behavior of veteran actor Harry Dean Stanton. It didn't help that Cox was 29 at the time, to Stanton's 58. For the first couple days of filming, Stanton refused to learn his lines. He said that Warren Oates read his dialogue in Two Lane Blacktop off of note cards stuck to the dashboard so he should be able to do the same. Cox overcame this obstacle by informing him that refusing to learn lines was in breach of the SAG contract (which may or may not be true). Stanton memorized everything perfectly after that.
At another point, Stanton wanted to do a 'baseball-type signal' to Estevez in a scene where he had to show him where to park a car. Cox — a notorious sports-hater — refused the suggestion. According to Cox on the DVD commentary, Stanton lost his temper: "I've worked with the greatest directors of all time. Francis Ford Coppola. Monte Hellman. You know why they're great? Because they let me do whatever the fuck I wanted!"
Filming a scene in which Bud brandishes a bat at the Rodriguez brothers, Stanton wanted a real bat and did actually use it in one take, swinging it around recklessly. The other cast members were (relatively) OK with it, but Robby Muller took Cox aside and said: "Just now I felt the wind of a wooden baseball bat pass over my face. I will not shoot this scene unless all the actors use plastic bats." Unsurprisingly, Stanton was furious when asked to use a plastic bat, screaming out that "Harry Dean Stanton only uses REAL baseball bats." A literal tug of war ensued over the bat, much to the amusement of the crew. Fortunately, a quick-witted production assistant was able to swap the wooden bat out for a plastic one.
At this point, all these incidents — along with Stanton's general moodiness and constant grumbling about money — prompted Cox to consider writing him out of the rest of the film and giving his remaining scenes to Sy Richardson's Lite. Michael Nesmith vetoed this plan, so Stanton stayed in the picture. It also helped a little that Stanton noticed how the crew revered Muller, and began to do so in turn. So if Cox wanted something done, he'd sometimes tell Stanton that it was "for Robby". It worked.
Other struggles were mounted over Muller's cinematography. His strategy was to shoot the film as a series of two-shots, many of which were in motion, thus complicating the camera and lighting setups. This led to progress slowing down somewhat, causing friction with the producers. As a result, Cox had to fight a number of running battles with them over Muller's aesthetic choices, culminating in one instance when he and Jonathan Wacks literally came to blows over the issue. They had just shot the scene in which Otto drags Parnell's body out of the Malibu and leaves it on a bench. Muller had filmed it wide-angle but Wacks thought his approach was boring and wanted greater, more dynamic coverage.
Ultimately, Cox got his way and Muller's more painterly approach went on to define the film. He also learned that speeding up the pace of filming had a lot more to do with efficient logistics than aesthetic choices. Transportation chief Dave Schaffer imparted this lesson to him on set: "Don't waste any time at the beginning of the day. Know what your first shot's going to be before you arrive. That way, everyone can get to work right away and I won't have to move any vehicles."
Another major mishap concerned the famed Chevy Malibu. Dave Schaffer noticed that Cox didn't have his own car, and suggested that he use the Malibu as his personal transportation, saving Schaffer the effort of having to assign a Teamster to look after it. One evening, Cox drove the Malibu to the Edge City offices in Venice to confront his producers about Muller and the slow filming pace. While they were lost in spirited conversation, the Malibu was stolen. Scenes involving the car were rescheduled and the Teamsters mounted a frantic search to find a similar car. Eventually, one was found, and technical experts worked on it to make it resemble the stolen vehicle. Just as they got done doing so, the old Malibu was found abandoned in Riverdale. A silver lining was that they now had two 'hero cars'. This proved helpful later, when Fox Harris put a dent in one of the cars when he scraped a gas station pump with it.
As usual for an indie production, there was a lot of improvisation going on. They hadn't secured a complete location for the repo office. All they had was an empty lot. So production designers J. Rae Fox and Lynda Burbank had to build an office out of scratch on the lot. A lot of the special effects were makeshift quick fixes. Fox and Burbank designed the aliens seen briefly in the picture out of condoms filled with water and dressed up in grass shirts! The hilariously fake looking hail scene at the end was accomplished by two guys standing on a plank, dropping ice into frame out of buckets.
The glowing green hue of the Malibu, as seen in the final scene, was achieved by actually painting the whole car with a reflective substance used for traffic signs. Unfortunately, the stuff was 600 dollars a bucket, and this exercise ended up costing thousands.
Zander Schloss took a lot of lumps — he got bruised while being pushed around in an early supermarket scene, despite wearing a protective girdle. The gunplay in the store was filmed in a certain way due to concerns about an MPAA pushback on violence. The scene is somewhat bloody, but Cox makes sure to film ketchup bottles exploding in the foreground so it's never clear whether the red stuff on view is blood or ketchup.
Improvisation also took place at the larger script level. The story was originally supposed to end with Otto joining a bunch of Latin American revolutionaries who are actually seen in their base (with their stash of weapons) about a third of the way into the movie. Another alternate ending had the entire city being annihilated in a nuclear explosion. However, Wacks and Nesmith were intrigued by the direction being taken by the character of Miller, who was fast becoming one of the key figures in the film — especially with the addition of the 'plate of shrimp' monologue. They suggested that Miller's mysticism be made to define the conclusion by having the car actually turn out to be a time machine and that Cox have Miller be the only one worthy of operating it upon that revelation. The final scene was supposed to be filmed in Lancaster, but smoggy conditions there made helicopter use risky, necessitating the moving of the scene back to the repo lot. While setting up, Cox heard that Muhammad Ali was at a nearby Gold's Gym and wanted to put him amongst the many worthies (priests, rabbis etc) who attempt to approach the Malibu in the end and fail to overcome its protective aura. Ali listened very politely to Cox's request and, equally politely, turned him down.
The film is known for its superb soundtrack, featuring seminal American punk bands like Fear, the Circle Jerks, Plugz and Black Flag, as well as a specially commissioned "Repo Man" theme by Iggy Pop. Cox visited Iggy Pop personally at his apartment, to explain the movie to him and request that he do a song for the soundtrack. Iggy's career was going through a rough patch at that point — prompted in part by the singer's 'wild lifestyle' — and he needed some money and breathing space. It also helped that Cox gave Iggy carte blanche to do whatever he wanted with the song. "It was like a gift from God to express myself," said Iggy of the opportunity.
Not that Iggy actually put a whole lot of prep into the song. According to Chas Ferry, assistant to an engineer at the recording session, Iggy wrote the song a few minutes before recording started:
We began setting up with the engineer, Bev Jones, and the musicians started to arrive. Clem Burk from Blondie arrived to Play Drums. Then Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols and Nigel Harrisson of Blondie arrived. I couldn't believe I was going to be involved in this. Iggy arrived. He came up to me and said, "Hi I'm Jim, nice to meet you". Then he started talking with the band. He asked the guys to play some chords (I was watching this as I plugged in mics and helped build a plywood wall around the drum kit). He said, "no I really don't like that, try something else". Steve Jones came up with a guitar run that Iggy appeared to like. At that moment I realized Iggy hadn't written the song yet, and we were going record it in about 20 minutes (later Tony Sales told me that Iggy always worked this way, and had written all the songs on Lust For Life 1 minute before they were recorded). Steve ran through the soon to be famous lick again. This time Iggy nodded his approval. "Okay thats great, now I need something for the chorus." Steve quickly came up with another part that Iggy liked.
Some of the other bands (eg. The Circle Jerks) had a previous acquaintance with Cox and agreed to appear in the film. Zander Schloss, a fan at the time, introduced himself to the Jerks and received a very unenthusiastic response ("Hi, I play Kevin the nerd." "So?"). However, he actually went on to join the band, and played with them for twelve years.
Repo Man's release strategy was comprehensively botched by the new regime at Universal. After an extremely truncated run in theaters, the film was dumped unceremoniously into video.
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.
We took out an ad in Variety, reprinting a good review we got there (we also got a very bad one - in the weekly edition - but we didn't reprint that) as a challenge to Universal to get the picture out into the theatres.
The studio's response was to lean on the head of public relations at Pan American World Airlines, Dick Barkle, to condemn the film. Mr Barkle declared himself shocked by REPO MAN, adding, "I hope they don't show this film in Russia." It is the world of DILBERT there.
The theatrical life of the film was prolonged by Kelly Neal at Universal, who went out of his way to support both REPO MAN and RUMBLEFISH. And, even more, the record was a major element in promoting the film; it was popular with the punk rock community and that got the word around.
The movie did, however, meet with strong critical acclaim. Roger Ebert loved the movie, saying that it gave him "one of the biggest laughs I'd had at the movies in a long time."
It was the success of the Repo Man soundtrack that gave the film its initial sparks of commercial life. Alex Cox says on the commentary that he believes that the success of the soundtrack was key to renewed interest in the film's video release, and that it was instrumental to the film's emergence as an object of cult affection. Box Office Mojo lists the initial theatrical box office as $129,000 (on a budget of about 1.6 million) but Cox has noted that Universal ended up making a healthy profit off of video and foreign markets (particularly the UK).
When Universal realized that the film was doing better than they anticipated, they wanted to put together a cleaned up broadcast version, free of profanity or other family-unfriendly elements. The result was a hilariously sanitized cut, that barely hit feature length and remains a popular example of edgy movies defanged for TV. It features an early use of the censorious term "melon farmer". Universal even made the mistake of trying to simplify the narrative with trite explanations, creating one shot of the Malibu's license plate cut together with a dissolve into the face of the devil. Finally, their efforts proved so disastrous that they called in Cox himself to help put together the TV cut.
The design elements (pine tree car fresheners, happy face badges, the blue and white generic packaging) that make up what Cox refers to as 'the lattice of coincidence' went on – according to the director – to cross over into wider media culture. The happy-face badge enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, further boosted by its use in Alan Moore's Watchmen. The blue-striped packaging attracted the interest of John Lydon and Public Image Limited (PiL).
The film probably has more than its share of unlikely/illustrious fans. One such personage was Sam Cohen, inventor of the neutron bomb, whose favorite movies were – ironically enough – Repo Man and Dr. Strangelove. He called Alex Cox 14 years after the film came out, asking to have lunch.
"My daughter took me to see this film, and here was this nutcake, our hero, lobotomized, head bobbing. A cop stops him, opens the trunk, and — voila! He's neutronized!" Sam had no doubt there was a Neutron Bomb in Otto's trunk.
"It was the quintessential neutron bomb in the trunk... what we call a SADM - a Strategic Area Denial Munition." He and the Russian politician General Lebed gave press conferences a couple of years ago to draw attention to the number of ex-Soviet SADMs which had gone missing — hundreds of them, sold on the black market to whoever was buying. He thinks a SADM may have levelled the Federal Building in Oklahoma. ..later he reconsidered, and called me again. "It wasn't a Neutron Bomb in the trunk - it was an enormous concentration of nuclear material - it was gamma rays that killed the cop."
Cohen believed that the neutron bomb was the most moral weapon ever developed, one that spared innocent lives and stopped short of causing unnecessary devastation. "The Neutron Bomb totally conformed to the so-called Christian principles of a Just War. I got a medal from the Pope in Rome, in 1979."
Sources, as linked and cited in the article, plus the following primary sources used throughout:
Criterion DVD Commentary + extras
X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker by Alex Cox. (Soft Skull Press 2008)