20 Intense Facts About 1984 Cult Classic Repo Man
Often, when we reflect on the films of the 80s, we tend to think of the blockbusters: the big budget extravaganzas with the superstar actors and the state of the art special effects that wowed the masses and raked in the money.
That’s all well and good, but what about the less mainstream tastes? Not everybody wants glossy, upbeat, multiplex-friendly fare: sometimes we need something smaller, stranger, riskier, something that takes a satirical stab at the darker underbelly of the times. Few 80s movies did this as well as Repo Man, one of the true underground cult classics of the era.
As the movie teaches us, the life of a Repo Man is always intense, and here are some suitably intense facts about the madcap black comedy from 1984.
20. Writer-director Alex Cox was inspired by his own experience working as a repo man
Born in Cheshire, England, Alex Cox moved to Los Angeles in the early 80s as a film student, but as is the case with so many university graduates, he didn’t land his career goals overnight.
While Cox would go on to direct Sid and Nancy, Straight to Hell and Walker (as well as hosting BBC cult film series Moviedrome), early on he had to make ends meet any way he could.
As such, for a time Cox worked as an apprentice to an actual repo man – that would be, to use the dictionary definition, ‘a person employed to repossess goods for which a purchaser has defaulted on payment.’
The repo man in question was Cox’s neighbour at the time, and the young filmmaker immediately recognised the potential for exploring this world on celluloid.
Cox drew heavily on this experience in writing what would be his first movie (although whether this means he ever tried to repossess a car with the radioactive corpse of an extra-terrestrial in the trunk, we’re not 100% sure).
19. The script incorporated elements of an unproduced short film by a man named Dick Rude
Filmmakers tend to have numerous projects in development at any given time, and Cox was no exception, even so early in his career.
Another such project he had in the works early on was Leather Rubbernecks, a short film script written by Dick Rude.
Cox was working on that film and Repo Man back to back, and initially planned to produce both.
Ultimately Cox chose to merge the two, however, and incorporated elements of Rude’s script into his own.
Although Rude is not given any writing credit on Repo Man, he does co-star in the film in the role of Duke, and later had a small role in Cox’s next film, 1986’s Sid and Nancy.
18. Cox originally planned to make the film for $100,000 and cast the members of punk band Fear
Given his punk proclivities, it’s only natural that Cox’s original plan for Repo Man was to make it as cheaply and independently as possible.
The filmmaker initially intended to cast the film with the members of punk rock band Fear, on a modest $100,000 budget.
The Los Angeles group (whose line-up at one point included future Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea) were formed in 1977, and had a huge influence on the hardcore punk scene that sprang up in the early 80s.
Lee Ving, founding member and lead vocalist, was originally ear-marked to play the role of ageing repo man Bud.
However, Cox struggled to find investors on this basis, and had to look further afield instead.
17. Cox made a comic book of the movie to help pitch it to producers
In a bid to help drum up interest in Repo Man, Cox knew he needed to give people an indication of the film he was trying to make.
To this end, Cox made a four-page Repo Man comic book to show to potential producers and investors.
Not for nothing did Cox choose this format, as his vision for Repo Man was heavily influenced by underground comics.
The final film diverges from this early material (for one, the character of Bud is called Ray in the comic), but it was enough to make clear what kind of movie Cox envisaged.
It was this material that ultimately helped bring on board the producer who would prove instrumental in getting Repo Man made…
16. It’s produced by The Monkees’ Michael Nesmith
Although Repo Man is often held up as one of the great punk rock films, one of the men most directly responsible for getting it made would seem quite far removed from that scene.
The film’s executive producer was Michael Nesmith, best known as one-quarter of The Monkees, who agreed to work with Cox after seeing his promotional comic book.
The 60s pop band was created specifically for the TV show of the same name, which was still a popular small screen staple in the 80s.
Repo Man would be Nesmith’s second feature film credit as producer, after 1982’s Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann, which he also co-wrote.
On boarding the project, Nesmith presented the project to studio Universal in hopes of securing backing – but when the studio proved ambivalent, the producer was forced to raise funds independently.
15. Dennis Hopper was the first actor pursued for Harry Dean Stanton’s role
Once Michael Nesmith was on board as producer, he promised a larger budget than Cox originally envisaged – but to secure that kind of money, they needed big-name actors on board.
Cox says he had Harry Dean Stanton in mind for Bud right away, but as Stanton had never taken a lead role before, he initially went after a bigger name: Dennis Hopper.
As the director and star of 1969’s ground-breaking independent film Easy Rider, Hopper seems a natural fit for the anti-establishment ethos of Repo Man.
Cox met with Hopper, who he says “was nice but wanted a little more money than we could afford” – although it has been claimed the actor’s erratic behaviour and addiction issues may have been a factor in his not bagging the part.
Hopper would get his career back on track two years later, thanks to his performance in David Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet, and worked steadily until his death in 2010.
14. Harry Dean Stanton’s own agent suggested they cast Mick Jagger as Bud instead of him
Repo Man’s 60s rock’n’roll connection didn’t stop at Michael Nesmith, as Cox found himself pushed to cast another rock star as the lead.
With Dennis Hopper no longer in the running, Cox returned to his first instinct and went to Harry Dean Stanton’s agent – who, it turned out, also represented Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger as an actor.
The agent then surprised Cox by declaring, “You don’t want to work with Harry Dean, he’s past it. You want to work with Mick Jagger.”
However, Cox didn’t consider the Rolling Stones frontman a good fit to play “a crusty 60-year-old L.A. repo man,” and pushed ahead to hire Stanton instead.
Eight years later, Jagger would get to co-star with Repo Man’s younger lead Emilio Estevez in the much-maligned 1992 sci-fi thriller Freejack.
13. Emilio Estevez’s agent didn’t want him to do the film either
Emilio Estevez was top of the wishlist to play Otto, the young punk who inadvertently stumbles into the world of LA repo men.
Once again, however, agents got in the way, as Estevez’s representatives refused to pass the script on to the young actor.
Estevez’s people were pushing for him to take on bigger movies, as he would the following year with The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire.
Ultimately the Repo Man script reached Estevez through a mutual friend, and the actor was reportedly “falling on my a** laughing; the script was just hysterical.”
The actor agreed to play Otto immediately, and researched the hardcore punk scene with the help of brother Ramón Estevez.
12. Chris Penn was hired to play Kevin, then fired
The Repo Man crew ran into a little more difficulty with the supporting role of Kevin, Otto’s co-worker in the early supermarket scenes.
Zander Schloss, a production assistant on the film, had auditioned for the role, and was very keen to land it.
By all accounts, Schloss was upset when the filmmakers decided to instead cast Chris Penn, already a bigger name and a friend of Estevez.
However, Penn’s take on the character was reportedly a little too larger than life and didn’t fit the tone of the movie, so his scenes were ultimately re-shot, with Schloss getting to play Kevin after all.
1984 was still a good year for Penn thanks to his role in Footloose; he’d go on to a fruitful career, taking in films including Reservoir Dogs and Short Cuts, before sadly dying in 2006 at the early age of 40.
11. Plain white food labels were used because Cox couldn’t find product placement deals
One key aspect of Repo Man which would seem to embody its anti-corporate stance is the abundance of blank-labelled food items.
On the shelves in the supermarket and the liquor store, and on the beer cans the repo men drink from, labels are almost entirely plain white with thin blue lettering.
Many fans and critics took this to be reflective of the film’s disdain for 80s capitalist greed – but the truth is rather less idealistic.
These products are so labelled simply because Cox and company could not persuade any big name companies to sign off on their products being featured in the film.
The only corporate sponsors Repo Man managed to secure were the grocery store chain Ralphs and the Car-Freshener Corporation – hence the abundance of tree-shaped air fresheners seen in the movie.
10. Stanton gave Alex Cox hell on set, to the point where Cox almost wrote him out of the film
Cox may have pushed to get Harry Dean Stanton, but he would come to question that decision once cameras were rolling on Repo Man.
The young first-time director and seasoned actor frequently butted heads, with Cox rejecting some of Stanton’s suggestions, and Stanton initially refusing to learn his dialogue, insisting he be allowed to read it off cue cards.
The actor reportedly yelled at Cox, “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 f*** I wanted!”
A scene in which Stanton brandishes a baseball bat proved particularly difficult, as the actor furiously refused to handle a safe rubber prop, roaring “Harry Dean Stanton only uses REAL baseball bats!”
Things got so bad that Cox wanted to write the character of Bud out of the film and give his remaining scenes to supporting actor Sy Richardson. Thankfully, the director was overruled on this by producer Michael Nesmith.
9. The glowing car effect was achieved with luminescent paint
While it may have a science fiction element, Repo Man isn’t exactly a special effects-heavy film.
Even so, the climax of the film – in which the irradiated Chevy Malibu takes flight – required some extra movie magic.
However, the glowing car was not achieved via high-tech visual effects, but with a simple, practical approach: the use of reflective paint.
The production crew coated the car in a reflective substance used on traffic signs, and this combined with the lighting made the car appear to glow.
This proved a costly choice, however, as the paint in question cost $600 a can, and quite a few cans were required.
8. The filmmakers approached Muhammad Ali for a cameo
The final scene of Repo Man sees representatives of various faiths – notably priests and rabbis – approach the mystically empowered car, only to be denied entrance.
At one point, Cox hoped for this scene to feature a very notable representative of Islam: Muhammad Ali.
The filmmakers were preparing to shoot the grand finale when they heard on the grapevine that the legendary boxer was training at a nearby gym.
Hurriedly, Cox and casting director Victoria Thomas arranged to meet Ali, described the scene to him, and asked if he’d care to participate – but he “very nicely” declined.
Bonus trivia: one of the ‘rabbis’ featured in this scene is producer Michael Nesmith, making an uncredited cameo.
7. The success of the soundtrack album saved the movie
Having cost around $1.5 million to make, Repo Man took only $129,000 from its initial theatrical run in the US, leaving it something of a box office flop.
However, despite bombing theatrically, the film proved to do far better business on VHS – and much of the renewed interest in the film later on was down to the popularity of the soundtrack album.
The record announced Repo Man’s existence to the young punks who had largely been the intended audience to begin with, and immediately made the film essential viewing in punk crowds.
Repo Man’s soundtrack album features many of the most revered bands of the hardcore punk era: Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, the aforementioned Fear etc.
It also boasts a previously unreleased song from the legendary Iggy Pop, whom Cox had personally approached to compose and perform the Repo Man title track.
6. It’s considered one of the best cult movies ever
While it took a little while for Repo Man to find its audience, the film was widely embraced by critics right away.
Influential US critic Roger Ebert praised the film: “(it) comes out of left field, has no big stars, didn’t cost much, takes chances, dares to be unconventional, is funny, and works.”
In the years since, Repo Man’s reputation has only grown further, with it often being classed as one of the best films made in 1984.
Entertainment Weekly, for one, listed the film at #12 in their list of the Top 50 Cult Films in 2010.
Repo Man’s Rotten Tomatoes score reflects its widespread praise – it’s rated a high 98% fresh.
5. The real-life inventor of the neutron bomb was a fan of the movie
One standout scene in Repo Man sees the somewhat troubled J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris) tell Otto (Estevez) about his friend who invented the neutron bomb.
This horrific sounding device, as Harris memorably tells us, “destroys people but leaves buildings standing.”
Some time after Repo Man was released, Alex Cox says he was contacted by the neutron bomb’s actual inventor, Sam Cohen.
Cox recalls meeting Cohen for lunch, where the scientist told him that Repo Man was one of his favourite films, along with Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove.
Also, in a far cry from Repo Man’s fictitious neutron bomb inventor who had himself lobotomised due to guilt, Cohen reportedly stated he was “really proud” of his creation.
4. The edited for television version is almost as legendary as the film itself
Repo Man is notable for containing a large amount of profanity, which at the time would never be allowed on television.
As was commonplace at the time, a censored cut of Repo Man had to be produced specifically for TV use – but, as was less common in these instances, the original director was involved.
Cox worked with Universal to re-assemble the cast and re-record their offending dialogue, with such innocuous verbs as “flip” frequently inserted in the place of the F-word – and, perhaps most notoriously, ‘melon farmer’ in the place of motherf***er.
This hilariously absurd reinterpretation of the film ultimately became as much a favourite of cult audiences as the original.
Tellingly, when Repo Man was released on Blu-ray by Eureka! Entertainment in 2012, the disc included the TV version as an optional extra.
3. Cox says Satanists may have edited the TV version
While Cox helped out on the TV version, he did not have the final cut on it – and this version of the film contains elements that the director is bewildered by.
Cox states, “I helped them create this new version. But they’d gone in to fool around with the film for the video version and they shot new footage.”
This new footage, Cox says, “was the license plate of the New Mexico car that Fox Harris was driving… they kind of dissolved in and you saw the face of the devil on it.”
This, Cox says, left him baffled. “To have the devil’s face appear? What was that about? Are they Satanists?”
Since then, the director says he has “never gotten anyone at Universal Studios to confess that they were Satanists. I’m still waiting for the confession.”
2. There could have been a sequel in the early 90s but Estevez wasn’t interested in returning
Spoiler now… Repo Man doesn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger, but viewers may be left wondering just what happened to Otto and Miller (Tracey Walter) after they fly away in that glowing green Chevy Malibu.
This was a question that Cox, Nesmith and co. hoped to answer in a Repo Man sequel, which they started working on in the early 90s.
Unfortunately, the pieces failed to fall into place, not least because Estevez wasn’t interested; the actor says he simply was unimpressed with the sequel script Cox showed him.
Cox, for his part, tells a different story, suggesting they struggled to secure funding as, by the 90s, Estevez wasn’t such a hot property in Hollywood anymore.
Whatever the case may be, Cox was ultimately able to make something of his Repo Man sequel script: he turned it into a graphic novel entitled Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday, published in 2008.
1. Cox made a semi-sequel with 2009’s Repo Chick
25 years after Repo Man, Alex Cox revisited the repossession trade from an even more exaggerated perspective in a new, ostensibly unrelated movie.
Cox’s 2009 film Repo Chick is an ultra low-budget comedy, which the writer-director dubbed a ‘non-sequel’ to his 1984 debut.
Shot entirely on green screen with digitally drawn backdrops, the film casts Jacklyn Jonet as Pixxi De La Chasse, with such notable supporting actors as Rosanna Arquette, Xander Berkeley and Karen Black.
As Universal still owns the Repo Man rights, Cox was threatened with legal action, but no action was ultimately taken as Repo Chick features no characters from the earlier film (although several cast members did return).
Either way, Repo Chick largely sank without a trace on release, going straight to DVD in most territories and meeting a tepid response from critics.