HOW DID REPO MAN OCCUR?
After I left UCLA I was hired to write
a script for United Artists about the British World War One deserter
and agitator, Percy Topliss. When I delivered the screenplay
it was rejected as "too English, too expensive, and too anti-war."
Shortly thereafter I met the British
director, Adrian Lyne. He had directed one feature, FOXES, and
he wanted his next to be about what he felt was the most important
issue of the day: the imminent possibility of a nuclear war. I
scouted Seattle and Vancouver as locations, and wrote him a script
called THE HAPPY HOUR.
Adrian read it and went off to direct
FLASHDANCE. And I ran into two old chums from UCLA - Jonathan
Wacks and Peter McCarthy. They had been in the Production
programme; Jon had directed a documentary, Pete a drama. Now
they had a company, and even more impressive, an office in Venice,
California, where they were making commercials ("Gene Kelly assures
the public the MGM Grand is safe again!") and public service announcements. I
suggested to them that they should also be feature film producers,
and hire me as a director. They agreed to consider this,
but instructed me to come up with a script.
The first one I wrote for them was
called THE HOT CLUB (a comedy about nuclear blast veterans and nerve
gas thieves set in the early years of the 21st century). They
budgeted and Marie Canton (also ex-UCLA) budgeted it; it turned out
to be rather expensive. So I went off and wrote another
screenplay instead: REPO MAN. This was based on my own personal Los
Angeles horrors and the tutelage of Mark Lewis, a Los Angeles car repossessor
and my neighbour in Venice, CA.. When the screenplay was published,
Dick Rude and I interviewed Mark for the introduction: his take
on the repo trade and the movie can be found at pscweb.com/repo/whatever.
To make the package more interesting
to investors, I drew four pages of a comic book based on the script
and we included them with the screenplay. I had planned
at one stage to do an entire comic book, but it is too much work: a
page a day at the very most, and hard on the eyes. Michael
Nesmith, the former Monkee, saw the script/comic package, became interested,
and took it to Bob Rehme at Universal.
WHAT WAS THE RESPONSE TO REPO MAN?
REPO MAN was made as a "negative
pickup" by Universal at the time when Bob Rehme was head of the
studio. At the time, the big deal over there was
STREETS OF FIRE, and nobody really noticed our film at all. Which
was lucky for us, since Bob Rehme had "green-lighted" a film
which was quite unusual by studio standards. Unfortunately,
just before we were completely done, Rehme was ousted from his post,
and a new boss came in. 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. And
rightly so. I was an enthusiast, and the film has a major punk
influence - in addition to the protagonists Otto, Duke, Debbi, Archie
and Kevin, there's a tailor-made hardcore score by Los Plugz, Circle
Jerks, Fear, Suicidal Tendencies, Black Flag, and Juicy Bananas,
and a title song by Iggy Pop, who suffers under the sobriquet of
The Godfather of Punk.
DID YOU HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE
Yes. Because the
film REPO MAN had so much swearing and a scene of speed-snorting, the
studio made their own re-edited video version. It was very odd. In
an effort to "explain" the film, someone had gone and shot
an insert of the license plate of the Chevy Malibu, and made the Hopi
symbol dissolve into the HEAD OF THE DEVIL!
No, this is really true. It
made me wonder, could it be that the Christian Fundamentalists are
right, and that the multinationals and Hollywood are controlled by
Satanists? I cannot say. It seems so, most of the
time. But perhaps those executives were just confused by
the film, and trying to explain, in their own innocent, satanistic
way, what it was about. "Whut the heck is in that
trunk?" "Gee I don't know." "Maybe
it's the... Devil hisself!" They were
just trying to improve it in their own way, and make it clearer.
WEREN'T YOU HORRIFIED THAT THEY WERE
BUTCHERING YOUR FILM?
I was a bit alarmed, yes. They'd
intercut static shots of this license plate with shots of the car moving,
and it looked completely cheesy, worse than an Ed Wood film. But
the thing was, they weren't really bad guys: they knew what they'd
done was a mistake, and now they were looking for the filmmaker to
They knew they had done wrong.
In the end I removed their strange
insertions, and included two funny scenes which hadn'd made it into
the theatrical version: the one with Jac MacInally
shaving (where Harry Dean says his name is "I.G.Farben")
and the the one where Harry Dean smashes the phone booth with his baseball
BUT WHAT ABOUT CUTTING OUT ALL THE
And who cares. By then
I'd made SID & NANCY and I was sick of swearing. It
was fun coming up with synonyms for the swear words - "Melon Farmers" was
a particular favourite.
Sometimes, for television and aeroplane
screening, or for a film to play in prisons or at children's tea-parties,
changes need to be made. It is always better for
the filmmaker to be invited to participate than to be excluded. Excluding
the filmmaker results in what in Liverpool is called a dog's breakfast.
WHAT WAS REPO MAN ABOUT - REALLY?
Nuclear War. Of course. What
else could it be about? And the demented society that contemplated
the possibility thereof. Repoing people's cars and hating alien
ideologies were only the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg itself
was the maniac culture which had elected so-called "leaders" named
Reagan and Thatcher, who were prepared to sacrifice everything
-- all life on earth -- to a gamble based on the longevity of the Soviet
military, and the whims of their corporate masters. J.
Frank Parnell - the fictitious inventor of the Neutron Bomb - was the
central character for me. He sets the film in motion, on the
road from Los Alamos, and, as portrayed by the late great actor, Fox
Harris, is the centrepoint of the film.
Fourteen years later, I had a call
from one Sam Cohen, who announced himself the father of the Neutron
Bomb. I imagined a cross between Jack D. Ripper and Edward
Teller in a dark Brentwood apartment, raging because there hadn't been
an intercontinental thermonuclear war...
The following week Sam Cohen and I
had lunch in Venice, California. Sam had lived in LA since 1923
- "Grew up in the Jewish ghetto of East LA - grew up knowing all
your locations." His daughter saw REPO MAN when it
came out in 1984 and took him to see it. He's seen the video "a
couple of dozen times".
"It starts off with nostalgia
for me... the map at the beginning, I spent World War Two at
Los Alamos, working on the Fat Man device. My job was to study
what the neutrons did. I know more about neutrons than you would
ever want to ask.
"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.
Sam's next destination was Washington,
DC. "I've got a grand bash to attend: two friends of mine,
aged 87 and 90, both four-star Air Force generals, are having a birthday
party. One of them is General Schraber. Perhaps you've
heard of him. He put together the ICBM program."
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."
Sam had one more observation, re. his
contribution to thermonuclear devastation: "The Neutron
Bomb was the most moral weapon ever devised... it was a weapon for
good Christians... a defensive weapon, it spares innocents, keeps war
to the warriors, doesn't damage the economy, has no hideous, crippling,
lasting effects as in conventional warfare... if you survive,
a lot of the victims will recover... no significant level of
radiation is produced... it disappears very rapidly. My friends
Graves and Slotin were in just such an accident. Slotin died
horribly; Graves had a fifty-fifty chance of dying, but recovered,
and in a few months was playing handball."
I asked if he meant his Bomb was intended
as a battlefield ("theater" in the vernacular) weapon. He
insisted that was its only possible application: "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."
WILL THERE BE A REPO MAN SEQUEL?
I would be delighted. But
it would be very difficult to visualize. REPO MAN was a work
of considerable freedom and creativity. I had autonomy in the
casting (no one at the studio tried to impose any cast choices - the
film was too cheap for them to care about at all), I was able to work
on the script with no undue pressure, I had great producers, and a
IT WOULD BE HARD TO SEE THAT SITUATION
RECURRING ING LOS ANGELES TODAY
For some time Peter, Jonathan and I
pursued a quasi-sequal, WALDO'S HAWAIIAN HOLIDAY, of which you can
download some colour special effects storyboards. It is currently
WHAT IS WALDO'S HAWAIIAN HOLIDAY ABOUT?
It is the story of a young man, recently
returned from Mars, who is forced to choose where his allegiance lies
-- his boss, Duke Mantee, or the sex goddess, Velma; money or knowledge;
the past or the future; paper or plastic; cash or charge; Earth - or