15 Atomic Truths About Repo Man
Repo Man is the quintessential cult film: a low-budget, high-concept teardown of early ’80s consumer culture, Reaganism, nuclear fears, and suburbanism inspired by the death of cities and the birth of punk. Released in 1984 and shot by first-time writer-director Alex Cox (who would go on to make Sid & Nancy two years later), the film starred Harry Dean Stanton as a crusty repo man and Emilio Estevez as his young punk protégé on the hunt for a Chevy Malibu that may or may not have radioactive aliens in the trunk.
The film was so weird and so angry that it nearly wasn’t released at all. But it connected with kids (and adults) who felt alienated and marginalized by an increasingly conservative society, and who appreciated the film’s DIY aesthetic and, above all, its soundtrack, which has become an American punk touchstone. More than 30 years later, Repo Man continues to resonate thanks to an incredible afterlife on VHS, DVD, and now Blu-ray, thanks to a superlative HD edition released by The Criterion Collection. Here are 15 facts to celebrate the film that was almost too weird to live, but too great to die.
1. REPO MAN WAS ALMOST A SHORT FILM. OR A COMIC BOOK.
The 92-minute punk classic began as a 17-page short titled Leather Rubbernecks written by Dick Rude, who plays Duke in the film. Rude reached out to Alex Cox to ask for help in finding money to finance the short, but when that didn’t happen, aspects of the short were incorporated into what eventually became Repo Man. But even as a feature, it was a hard sell for Cox and his producers. It was “punk rock meets science fiction in Ronald Reagan’s house,” according to Rude, and studios didn’t know what to do with it. So Cox sketched a comic-book treatment to help sell the movie. After seeing it and reading the first scene, former Monkee Michael Nesmith, Repo Man’s executive producer, said: “I’ll do this.”
2. THE FIRST PERSON ALEX COX APPROACHED TO PLAY BUD WAS FRANK BOOTH.
From the beginning, Cox wanted Harry Dean Stanton for one of the leads in Repo Man. (He had a “great remnant of the Old West/cadaver look,” Cox said.) But by the early 1980s, Stanton had been kicking around Hollywood for decades, appearing mostly in supporting roles and bit parts. So they turned to Dennis Hopper. “[He] was better known than Harry at that time, so we went after him,” Cox told The Quietus. “He was very nice but wanted a little more money than we could afford.” That opened the door for Stanton. Except ...
3. IF THE AGENTS HAD THEIR WAY, BUD WOULD HAVE BEEN PLAYED BY MICK JAGGER.
When Cox went to Stanton’s agent to get him for Repo Man, he had what he described as a “super eye-opening” experience. “The agent said, ‘You don’t want to work with Harry Dean. He’s past it. You want to work with Mick Jagger,’” Cox recalled. But the filmmaker stuck to his guns, and gave Stanton his first starring role in a feature (Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas would come out a few months later); Stanton repaid the favor by creating one of the most indelible movie characters of the 1980s.
Side note: Jagger would end up working with Emilio Estevez on the 1992 film Freejack. But take a moment to imagine this version of Mick Jagger strutting around Repo Man:
4. AGENTS ALMOST KEPT EMILIO ESTEVEZ OUT OF THE FILM, TOO.
Cox and his producers ran into management interference when trying to cast Estevez as well. His agent and manager also didn’t want him to do Repo Man because they wanted him to avoid “small films,” so they refused to show him the script. But through a friend, Cox and company got the script to Estevez. His reaction? “I was falling on my ass laughing; the script was just hysterical. I said I had to do this picture,” Estevez told American Film in 1985.
5. OTTO GAVE ESTEVEZ GREATER INSIGHT INTO A FAMILIAL RELATIONSHIP.
“I didn't really know anything about the punk movement,” Estevez recalled to American Film in 1985. But he had a general idea because his brother, Ramon, was into the scene. “So I started listening to the music and going to the clubs and I began to understand what the punk movement is all about, and understanding where my brother was coming from at that point. So for me it was an important film on a personal level.”
6. ONE OF THE FILM’S MOST ICONIC ELEMENTS WAS THE RESULT OF AN ACCIDENT.
When the filmmakers began making Repo Man, they went looking for corporate sponsors to help keep the production viable. Nobody bit, except for the grocery store chain Ralphs and the Car-Freshner Corporation (the company that makes those little scented Christmas trees that hang from rear-view mirrors). The Car-Freshner people donated a bunch of unscented novelty trees, but Ralphs came through with a film-defining contribution: generic products passed their sell-by date with labels like “FOOD” and “BEER.” They were “essentially a fallback position for us,” according to producer Jonathan Wacks. But they became a vital part of the film’s condemnation of consumerism.
7. THE REPO CODE WAS KIND OF A REAL THING.
The idea to make a movie about repo men came when Cox drove around with an actual member of the profession, a guy named Mark Lewis. “This would be an interesting subject for a film,” Cox thought, and he took note of how Lewis talked and what he said. A lot of that ended up in the Bud’s dialogue, especially the Repo Code, which was also influenced by Isaac Asmiov’s "Three Laws of Robotics" from I, Robot and Harry Dean Stanton, who consolidated several bits of screenplay into a his Repo Code speech.
8. THE SO-CRAZY-IT-COULDN’T-BE-TRUE JOHN WAYNE STORY WAS A REAL STORY.
The key word here is "story." You know, the one where Miller, the strange repo lot attendant, recalls going to John Wayne’s house to install two-way mirrors in his pad and when the Duke opens the door he’s in a dress? Miller telling that story is one of the most memorable moments in Repo Man. And it came from real life! Cox heard a story very similar to this from a guy named Swatty, who worked at Arrow Glass and Mirror in Los Angeles. “I had no real reason to believe that Wayne was gay,” Cox wrote in an editorial for The Guardian. “I just liked the story, and the demented idea of the Duke answering his own front door in a strapless cocktail outfit.”
9. MUHAMMAD ALI COULD HAVE BEEN KO’ED BY THE GLOWING CHEVY MALIBU.
While shooting the film, Cox and his producers caught wind that “The Greatest” was working out at the old Gold’s Gym in L.A. So Cox and casting director Victoria Thomas stopped by to offer him a small role: during the climactic scene with the glowing Malibu in the repo yard, a helicopter descends with a bishop and a rabbi who try to use religion to get into the impenetrable car. Cox would have had Ali join them in trying to approach the Malibu, “and not even he would be able to approach the car. The power would be too great, even for Muhammad,” Cox says. “We proposed this to him,” he adds, “and he listened, very nicely,” Thomas continues. “He declined, but also very nicely.”
10. JIMMY BUFFETT SAID “YES” TO A CAMEO.
There was one famous face that made it into Repo Man: Jimmy Buffett’s. The original Parrothead was pals with producer Michael Nesmith, and he presumably had enough time between eating cheeseburgers in paradise to shoot a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene near the end of the film as a CIA agent in aviators photographing the dead body of Fox Harris (J. Frank Parnell), the mad scientist owner of the Malibu.
11. WITHOUT THE SOUNDTRACK, THE MOVIE MIGHT NOT HAVE HAPPENED.
Margaritaville and its soft-rock chill is light years away from the Edge City punk rock ethos of Repo Man. And it’s the latter genre that we have to thank for the film ever being released. It was made at Universal, but a regime change at the studio buried it … until subsidiary RCA Records saw that the soundtrack, full of cuts from soon-to-be punk icons like The Circle Jerks, Fear, and Black Flag, was doing big business. So RCA execs called up their counterparts at Universal and said they had to release the movie. The rest is cult history.
12. IGGY POP REACHED BACK TO A MONUMENTAL ROAD MOVIE FOR INSPIRATION WHEN WRITING THE REPO MAN THEME.
The soundtrack, and film, open with Iggy Pop’s Repo Man. The propulsive theme is dripping with doom and petrol and acerbic wit—all hallmarks of a great punk song. (The five-minute-plus length of the album version, though? Not so much.) But Iggy wasn’t influenced by punk as much as he was Roger Corman’s 1966 biker picture, The Wild Angels. He says he had that movie’s theme in mind when composing the one for Repo Man, with the cut fulfilling a dream to write a “hot-rod motorcycle badass guitar speed-and-death” song.
13. ONE OF REPO MAN’S BIGGEST FANS WAS A NOTORIOUS SCIENTIST.
Cult films can find fans in unexpected places, especially something like Repo Man. “I got a call from a guy who said he invented the neutron bomb,” Cox recalled. “And he really was. It was a guy called Sam Cohen, who was a contemporary of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller's.” The two men met for lunch, and Cohen shared that “he’s really proud of the neutron bomb,” Cox recalled. “He said he got a medal from the Pope for designing it.” Cohen also told Cox that his favorite films were Dr. Strangelove and Repo Man.
14. A DECADE AFTER REPO MAN WAS RELEASED, A SEQUEL ALMOST HAPPENED.
In the mid-1990s, Cox, Nesmith, and the rest of the production team went to Universal with the idea to make a second Repo Man called Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday. They never heard from the studio, so they raised money independently, which was difficult, Cox told The A.V. Club, because “[Estevez’s] career as an actor hadn’t been very illustrious. Peter McCarthy, one of the producers of Repo Man, worked and worked and was finally able to put together a deal. Then, suddenly, Emilio Estevez just dropped out, and from then all the energy just fell out of it.”
However, Estevez’s version of the story was different. After reading Cox’s comments, Estevez responded that the script did not make any sense to him. “Obviously Mr. Cox is feeling snubbed by me, as I have passed on participating not only in his Repo Man sequel, but on most other events related to the film as well, be they film fest retrospectives, re-release of the DVD with actor's commentary, and many other gatherings to celebrate the film,” said Estevez. “I remain proud of Repo Man, but my focus is on what's ahead of me, not what's in my rearview mirror.”
15. IN THE END, A KIND OF SEQUEL TO REPO MAN DID GET MADE—AS A COMIC BOOK.
Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday was eventually released as a graphic novel in 2008. From the book’s Amazon page: “After Repo Man, I became interested in the idea of a sequel,” Cox writes. “Specifically—what had happened to Otto, during his 10-year absence from earth? And what would he make of the changes [that] had taken place in his absence? Otto, it would appear, has been held prisoner, in great luxury, on the planet Mars. Now he has returned to earth, and changed his name—to Waldo.”
2000 DVD commentary with Alex Cox, executive producer Michael Nesmith, casting director Victoria Thomas, and actors Sy Richardson, Zander Schloss, and Del Zamora; roundtable discussion from 2012 with Cox, producers Peter McCarthy and Jonathan Wacks, Zamora, Richardson, and Dick Rude; and interviews with Iggy Pop and Keith Morris of the Circle Jerks, Rude, Olivia Barash, and Miguel Sandoval, all available on the Repo Man Criterion Collection Blu-Ray.