What makes the perfect cult film?
As film enthusiasts we use the phrase ‘cult film’ an awful lot. In many respects defining a cult film is like that old adage about describing an elephant: difficult to do, but you’ll recognise one when you see it. Things got more complicated after Hollywood’s major studios and distributors started seeing the long-term financial value in cult films and started trying to re-categorise every unsuccessful blockbuster they had as some kind of secret niche-market masterpiece.
To my mind there are basically four requirements for an authentic cult film. Firstly, it has to be strange: odd enough that a mainstream audience fails to appreciate it, but so a minority audience simultaneously adores it. Secondly it has to be quotable. No cult film ever succeeded without successive generations of viewers proudly reciting lines of dialogue at one another or emblazing them onto t-shirts. Requirement three: on its original release the film has to fail. This ties in pretty closely to requirement one, since a film that’s broadly appreciated is unlikely to be financially unsuccessful. Finally, an authentic cult film has to demonstrate longevity. Once the mass audience has departed, the die-hard faithful have to keep watching it again and again. Midnight screenings, re-releases on home video, and so on.
Of course it’s possible for a cult film to only satisfy three out of four requirements. John Landis’ 1980 comedy The Blues Brothers, for example, managed to gross US$110 million dollars worldwide but remains a key cult film of its decade. If this is the case, I think a cult film simply has to excel at one or more of the other requirements. In The Blues Brothers’ case that’s probably its quotability and longevity.
I think that in 1984 the American film industry managed to produce two perfectly-formed cult films. The first, the impressively titled The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, is best left for another time. The second is Alex Cox’s aggressive, idiosyncratic genre mash-up Repo Man. It’s a difficult film to categorise, but it’s probably easiest to say that it is part comedy, part science fiction, with both halves soaked liberally in the early 1980s Los Angeles punk culture.
Despite the film’s strong Los Angeles identity and aesthetic, it was written and directed by a foreigner: English filmmaker Alex Cox. After reading law at Oxford and studying film and television at Bristol University, he grew dissatisfied with the British film industry and enrolled in the filmmaking programme at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). After completing his graduate film, the surreal 40-minute short feature Edge City/Sleep is for Sissies, Cox entered into a partnership with fellow students Jonathan Wacks and Peter McCarthy to produce and direct independent films.
‘I wanted to make a film about nuclear war,’ said Cox, ‘or something like Dr Strangelove or Peter Watkins’ The War Game, but the prevailing wisdom at that time of most producers and of the studios was that the film had to be pitched to a mental age of 15 and had to star a teenage boy. So… that’s what we did.’[i]
After toying with a William Burroughs-inspired action film titled The Hot Club, Cox zeroed in on basing a film around car repossession. A disaffected teenage punk would get drawn in by a middle-aged ‘repo man’ to work the streets of Los Angeles. ‘I had a neighbour who was an actor,’ explained Cox, ‘and his roommate was a car repossesser, so I was interested. The guy was telling me about his job and I thought, “There’s a film in this”. I became somewhat like an apprentice to this repo man and drove around in the car with him at night. If we got lucky and found somebody’s car, then I’d get to drive it back home or drive it back to the yard – or drive the man’s car while he drove the repo vehicle – and I would get paid $20.’[ii]
The repo man to whom Cox tagged along was named Mark Lewis. At the time Lewis was employed by a large, reputable repossession agency. Cox elected to set his screenplay among the less reputable independent sector, where ‘cowboy’ repo men would steal back cars in the city’s most dangerous neighbourhoods.
That said there was a period when Cox’s Repo Man screenplay was not set in Los Angeles at all, but rather the highways between California and New Mexico. It was only budget considerations that led him to restrict the action to the back streets of his own neighbourhood.
Repo Man was initially developed as an ultra-low budget production, using members of the band Fear in the lead roles. The role of the elder repo man Bud was written for lead singer Lee Ving. Cox, Wacks and McCarthy attempted to raise $70,000 in production funds via private investment. 200 copies of the screenplay were sent to any potential contact the filmmakers could think of, each one illustrated by a rough four-page comic strip at the front that was hand-drawn by Cox.
Through personal connections they managed to get Cox’s screenplay to film producer Harry Gittes, and he in turn had passed it on to film producer and former pop singer Mike Nesmith. Rather than finance the film himself, however, Nesmith took the screenplay to Universal Pictures and persuaded them to finance the film instead.
In his own memoir Cox wrote: ‘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.’[iii]
Even today the edgy, urban aesthetic of Cox’s film seems an odd match for a major Hollywood studio. Other films released by the studio in 1984 included Conan the Destroyer, The Last Starfighter and Cloak and Dagger. Even Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire, which shared some superficial similarities with Cox’s film, was produced at a much higher production budget. Repo Man remains a genuine oddity: a studio-funded feature film that somehow emerged with its distinctive independent personality fully intact.
Part of the reason Universal agreed to provide a negative pickup on Repo Man (basically, they agreed to pay for the film once it was completed) was likely down to the studio’s head of marketing and distribution Robert Rehme. He had come to Universal Pictures after a string of canny successes in the independent film sector, leveraging the success of one production into the development of another. He was a former producing partner of low-budget film legend Roger Corman, and had already championed numerous cult films into production including John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, Joe Dante’s The Howling, Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm and David Cronenberg’s Scanners. In Cox’s memoir the director puts Repo Man’s greenlight down to a friend of Mike Nesmith’s pressuring Rehme in a bar, but given Rehme’s clear genre and cult preferences it seems likely the executive would have backed the film anyway.
With a significantly larger production budget, the original plans to use local punk rockers in the lead roles was abandoned. To play the central role of Otto, Cox quickly settled on up-and-coming star Emilio Estevez, son of noted actor Martin Sheen. Getting the screenplay to Estevez in the first place proved a challenge when the actor’s agent refused to forward it, not wanting their client to accept the role. In the end Estevez received the screenplay and an offer to come audition via his babysitter – another UCLA graduate who had studied with Cox.
When he was offered the role, the only thing Estevez knew about punk was from conversations with his brother Ramon. ‘I get this script for Repo Man,’ he said, ‘and the lead character is this punk. I was falling on my ass laughing; the script was just hysterical. I said I had to do this picture only I didn’t really know anything about the punk movement. 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.’[iv]
To prepare for the role, Estevez accompanied Mark Lewis on several genuine car repossessions in Los Angeles.
Cox’s first choice for elder repo man Bud was Dennis Hopper. While Hopper was amenable to playing the role, his asking price – somewhere in the region of half a million dollars – was too high for the production to afford. Cox ultimately settled on Harry Dean Stanton.
1984 ultimately represented something of a banner year for Stanton, thanks to his appearances both here and in Wim Wender’s acclaimed drama Paris, Texas. The two films are pretty much the only times Stanton, despite his immense screen presence and talent, was utilised as a lead actor. Prior and subsequent films, including Alien, Kelly’s Heroes, Cool Hand Luke, The Last Temptation of Christ and Wild at Heart, placed him in supporting roles.
‘When we were going to go with Harry Dean,’ recalled Cox, ‘I paid a courtesy visit to his agent, and I met his agent, and it was such an eye-opener for me because the agent tells me “You don’t want to work with Harry Dean, he’s past it. You want to work with Mick Jagger.” I’m thinking have you read the script? It’s about a crusty 60 year-old L.A. repo man, you know? This is not a part for Mick Jagger, and in any case you shouldn’t be saying this to me because I’ve come to talk about your other client.’[v]
Alex Cox tested several actors for the role of crazed inventor Frank J. Parnell, including Lance Henriksen, but settled on Fox Harris. At one stage Harry Dean Stanton suggested playing the role himself in addition to Bud. When Cox declined the offer, Stanton suggested hiring Harris – who by that stage had already read for the part.
Parnell spends the film driving around Los Angeles in an ominous Chevy Malibu. By the time shooting commenced the production team had only managed to locate one car of the style Cox wanted. Rather than change the screenplay to incorporate a different car, Cox went ahead with the one he had – putting the entire production at risk should the car be damaged. Cox took to personally driving the Chevy to and from location, until one day mid-shoot it was stolen from outside the production office. A desperate search was undertaken to find an identical replacement Chevy, which was found and carefully restored to match the original – by which point the original Chevy was rediscovered: parked and abandoned on the other side of town.
Putting Fox Harris behind the wheel of the Chevy proved a larger challenge than Cox had expected – the actor had never driven a car in his life. Stunt performers drove the car in long shots, while in close-ups Harris mimed driving the car while the Chevy was towed down the street.
The film’s director of photography was the Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller. Müller had established an international reputation for stylish visuals via his collaboration with director Wim Wenders. In the same year as Repo Man he also shot Wenders’ Paris, Texas – also starring Harry Dean Stanton.
There was a friction between Cox and Müller: one a recent film school graduate with a love for energetic handheld photography, the other an experienced European master with an insistence for tightly controlled master shots and beautifully framed tripod angles. It is clear from the final film that Cox allowed Müller the final word on how the film was visually composed. It strings together some beautiful shots with a stunning use of colour, and has a classical look that belies the dirty, street-level narrative.
The odd combination of Müller’s visual images and Cox’s eccentric script is clear from the film’s first scene: a Chevy drives along the Californian highway in a haphazard fashion. A highway patrol officer pulls the car over, and demands that the driver – Frank J. Parnell – allow him to open the car’s boot. Something inside glows brilliantly, the cop is vaporised except for his boots, and Parnell simply drives the car away down the highway.
The scene is strange. It’s not simply the cop getting vaporised, it’s also Harris’ manic performance as Parnell. It’s all shot like a straight drama, however, and – as Cox often claimed – you could turn the sound down and fail to notice the film is a comedy.
The ill-fated highway patrol officer was Varnum Honey, the owner of the actual Chevy used for the film shoot.
From here the film jumps to introduce Otto, the archetypal angry young Los Angeles punk. He works a boring job in a supermarket stacking cans of produce with his friend Kevin. The food and drink labels used throughout the film are outstanding: white and blue, and utterly generic, they really drive home the banal, everyday culture that’s surrounding the story. The labels were created for the film by production designers J. Rae Fox and Lynda Burbank after attempts to secure product placement failed. It’s classic low budget filmmaking: when the initial plan fails, the hastily prepared backup option actually helps to make a better film.
The role of Kevin was originally played by Chris Penn, a friend of Emilio Estevez’s who had begged for a chance to appear in the film. When Penn’s performance failed to gel with the rest of the film, he was replaced by production assistant and Circle Jerks bass player Zander Schloss.
Schloss does a great job in the role and has subsequently been recognised as a major influence on the 2004 cult film Napoleon Dynamite, in which Jon Heder plays a very similar character in both look and performance.
There’s a remarkably economy of storytelling in the way Repo Man introduces Otto. He fights with Kevin and shouts at his boss, and loses his job. He goes to a party. There he leaves his girlfriend for 30 seconds to get her a beer, comes back and finds her having sex with somebody else. In the end he just walks through the night shouting out the lyrics to Black Flag’s “TV Party”.
We learn who Otto is and what he is like, and we see him lose his job, his girl and his dignity, all in the space of about four minutes. This isn’t simply a feature film infused with a punk sensibility, it’s filmmaking as punk: get in fast, play your song, then get out.
Harry Dean Stanton’s gravelly, ill-tempered performance as middle-aged repo man Bud is unquestionably one of the highlights of the film. In many respects it’s his signature role – certainly it’s one that affords him some of his career-best dialogue.
It is, in part, the perfect role for Stanton because he helped to sculpt it. His iconic ‘repo code’ speech was originally three separate short monologues scattered throughout the film. It was Stanton himself who compiled the three of them together into one single, hugely effective statement.
It’s unclear just where Bud ends and Stanton begins: the actor had a reputation for being fairly irritable and short-tempered. When the time came to shoot a brawl sequence, all of the actors were supplied with plastic baseball bats for safety reasons. Stanton, however, insisted on a proper wooden bat. When Cox refused to allow him to shoot the scene with a genuine bat, Stanton stormed off the shoot to his trailer.
It was one of several incidents that had fired up between actor and director, and Cox was finding that managing his volatile star to be highly stressful. He had already excised Stanton’s character from several scenes – notably a late night raid for a red Mustang that was passed onto Si Richardson’s Lite – and now started to consider dropping the actor from the production altogether.
‘I wanted to fire Harry at that point,’ said Cox, ‘because I thought actually he was dangerous, but as Nesmith said I’d have been the one who’d have got fired.’[vi]
It’s to the film’s overall benefit that Cox stuck with Stanton: he’s one of the main reasons the film is still watched by movie enthusiasts today.
Bud’s just one of four men working for the same repossession outfit, and Cox named them all after beer: Bud, Lite, Miller and Oly. It’s a cheap trick, but in the context of the film it works remarkably well.
They’re all distinctive characters as well, each getting their own moment in the spotlight and their chance to shine. It’s Tracey Walter who is particularly impressive as the spaced-out mechanic Miller. He gets many of the film’s best lines, and is instrumental in its climax. One monologue in particular, in which he claims actor John Wayne was a cross-dressing homosexual, was based almost verbatim on a conversation Alex Cox had had in real life with a man in Malibu.
One of the most impressive aspects of Repo Man is how readily it juggles around with genre. It is primarily a comedy, but as the story progresses – particularly in its final 20 minutes – it also becomes a science fiction film. It also features an awkwardly stop-start shoot-out in a liquor store that transcends humour and actually becomes slightly disturbing, not to mention a brief torture sequence inspired by Stanley Milgram’s notorious experiments in obedience. There’s a sense of play about Cox’s screenplay: it wilfully refuses to be tied down, and it’s up to the audience to simply keep up and accept the story as it develops.
Nowhere is that clearer in how the film actually ends. The climax went through 14 iterations before Cox settled on one that met with Nesmith and Universal’s satisfaction: it would be a bomb inside the Chevy’s trunk, and it would detonate. Los Angeles would be destroyed. Shooting the scene was delayed by more than a day by unseasonal fog. During that day, a 15th climax was spontaneously developed by Jonathan Wacks and assistant camera operator Martin J. Layton. It would be unfair of me to spoil it here. Suffice to say it’s odd enough that I wonder at what the other 13 proposed endings must have been like.
While Cox adored the new ending it represented a significant shift from the screenplay approved by Universal Pictures. By shooting it instead of the pre-approved neutron bomb climax, Cox would breach the film’s negative pick-up agreement. The decision was made to shoot the new ending anyway, and to let Michael Nesmith smooth things over with the studio.
Shortly after Repo Man had finished shooting there was a significant re-arrangement among the studio management at Universal Pictures. A new regime came in, putting a cloud over all the films in production: if any of them were significant hits, the credit would go to the recently removed management and not the new one.
Repo Man’s initial screening to Universal’s new executives did not go smoothly, with Cox told to edit out all scenes involving Miller (Tracey Walter). When both Cox and Nesmith refused to make the change, Universal immediately started cutting costs wherever possible. Sound mixing scheduled to be undertaken by Universal itself was sub-contracted to the independent company Lion’s Gate. United International Pictures, which handled all of Universal’s productions outside of the USA, started selling off the foreign distribution rights at discounted prices.
Once Universal Pictures was in possession of the completed film, those working in the studio simply didn’t quite know what to do with it. It was considered too alternative and strange for a mainstream release, and certainly it lacked the star power to compete with 1984’s summer blockbusters. Repo Man was ultimately released in just 39 theatres nationally on 2 March 1984, and half of those theatres were booked at the insistence of Michael Nesmith, whose contract demanded a certain scale of release for the film.
In its opening weekend Repo Man grossed US$95,300. By comparison that weekend’s most popular movie, Footloose, grossed US$6.3 million.
By the end of its one week of release, Repo Man grossed just US$129,000 before cinemas stopped screening it. Requirement three of the authentic cult film had certainly been met.
In the meantime Jonathan Wack and Peter McCarthy had successfully sold the soundtrack rights to MCA Records. For a film so heavily seeped in the punk scene, it’s not surprising that it has such a great soundtrack, which includes Los Plugz as well as Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, Fear and the Circle Jerks. The film’s score was composed by Tito Larriva and Steve Hufsteter, two members of the local band Los Plugz, while the film’s main theme was written and performed by Iggy Pop.
When the soundtrack record successfully sold 50,000 copies, MCA started pressuring Universal Pictures to re-release the film into cinemas. That release earned Universal Pictures an additional four million dollars, turning Repo Man into profitable low-budget hit. One New York cinema screened the film every week for more than 18 months.
Over the years home video and late night TV broadcasts transformed Repo Man from a half-abandoned feature into a fully-fledged cult movie. While Alex Cox moved onto other projects, including Sid & Nancy and Walker, he continued to consider ideas for a direct Repo Man follow-up. ‘We took Repo Man sequels to Universal,’ said Cox, ‘and proposed they do it, but they weren’t interested. What they did instead is they brought out a movie titled Repo Men and pretended that was the sequel.’[vii] The film to which Cox referred, Miguel Sapochnik’s 2010 science fiction film Repo Men, was based on the novel The Repossession Mambo by Eric Garcia. The film was entirely unrelated to Cox’s film, save for a near-identical title and the same studio paying for its production.
In 2008 Cox wrote and directed his own unofficial sequel, Repo Chick. Shot on a budget of just $200,000 dollars, the film re-used several of Repo Man’s original actors including Zander Schloss and Miguel Sandoval, but featured entirely new characters. To save money the entire film was shot against a green screen with backgrounds and miniature models superimposed in post-production. While lawyers representing Universal Pictures sent a cease-and-desist demand to Cox’s producers, the film was completed without interference.
Cox’s original sequel screenplay, Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday, which had been rejected by both Universal Pictures and Emilio Estevez, was adapted in 2008 into a self-contained graphic novel by writer/artist Christopher Bones. It was published by the Australia-based Gestalt Publishing.
Today Repo Man is a widely accepted cult classic. It’s received well-curated DVD releases from both the UK’s Masters of Cinema and the USA’s Criterion Collection. It’s regularly cited in lists of the world’s best cult films. It continues to find new viewers today. It’s a film very much of its time: Cox could not have made it five years earlier, and he certainly could not get a major studio to fund a similar film today. Cox said: ‘It was authentically of its time and place, unlike the studio attempts – think Streets of Fire – to monetize youth culture.’[viii]
It’s a window into 1980s American punk culture, and in so many respects the perfect cult film: strange, quotable, initially unsuccessful, but utterly unforgettable.
[i] Craig Terlino, “Repo Man rides again: Alex Cox interviewed”, The Quietus, 24 February 2012.
[ii] Craig Terlino, “Repo Man rides again: Alex Cox interviewed”, The Quietus, 24 February 2012.
[iii] Alex Cox, X Films: True confessions of a radical filmmaker, Soft Skull Press, New York, 2008.
[iv] Thomas Wiener, “Out here on his own”, American Film, 1985.
[v] Quoted in “Repossessed”, Repo Man DVD, Umbrella Entertainment.
[vi] Quoted in “Repossessed”, Repo Man DVD, Umbrella Entertainment.
[vii] Craig Terlino, “Repo Man rides again: Alex Cox interviewed”, The Quietus, 24 February 2012.
[viii] A.P. Fryza, “AP film studies: punks in space”, Willamette Week, 31 December 2014.