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.
Yes, the Greatest Car Movie Of All Time wasn't even about cars! As a nuclear-war-obsessed 18-year-old gearhead equipped with a fleet of wretched hoopties rattling with Suicidal Tendencies and Stooges cassettes Repo Man was a Tzar Bomba dropped right into my skull. Lately, what with all the rumblings about Cox's recently-finished non-sequel, Repo Chick, I was inspired to email Mr. Cox and ask him the Repo Man car questions I've had for him all along. Even though he's swamped with Repo Chick-related work these days, he got back to me right away and was kind enough to provide detailed answers to my ranting, obsessive queries. Here we go:
MM: Let's get to the most obvious one first: why a '64 Chevelle Malibu sedan for J. Frank Parnell? One can easily imagine him coming home after a long day designing enhanced-radiation physics packages, easing the car into the garage attached to a wholesome Los Alamos ranch-style house, etc., and a Chevelle 4-door would have been just about right for a successful young bomb designer in the mid-to-late 1960s; unpretentious and practical, yet with a certain amount of sportiness not found in the lower-end Chevelle models. He's still driving it in the early 1980s (or he's just obtained it), and that must mean something. I've always imagined his family leaving him in '69 or so, as he proceeds with his downward spiral, with the house and car kept unchanged as a creepy shrine to happier suburban times, but some of my car-geek friends feel that J. Frank just stole the car at random (due to its easily hot-wired pre-steering-column-lock ignition) when he grabbed whatever the hell is in the car's trunk and fled New Mexico.
AC: I think you answered that one very well. I just liked the boxy aspect of the '64 Malibu: it seemed very sinister to me. What I didn't realise was how similar it was to the Impala, which the Repo Man drove. So maybe they are two sides of the same coin, too.
MM: Every time I watch Repo Man, I'm amazed by the excellent vehicular casting of the film, and the fact that most of the cars actually used in the film are as specified in the screenplay shows that vehicle selection was very important to you. How is it that an Englishman, living in Los Angeles for just a few years, could have developed such an eye for the nuances of American cars and their cultural overtones? Most Americans, even serious car freaks, would be at a total loss if they tried to do the same with British cars; you'd probably get 1979 London heroin kingpins driving Humber Sceptres, or worse. What was your crash course in American cars?
AC: I knew people who owned those cars. My motorcycle mechanic had the Malibu; our casting director drove the '73 Impala: we bought it from her for the film, then I drove it around for a couple of years until it passed away.
MM: That leads straight to the next one: What kind of car did you drive while shooting the film? For that matter, what did you drive while you were studying at UCLA?
AC: I wasn't a car person at that time. I had motorcycles: Hondas, old BMWs, and a 750 Norton Commando which was the coolest of them all, on the rare occasions when it ran.
My first four-wheeled vehicle was a Toyota pickup which I bought to transport the motorcycles when they broke down. Then came a beloved 68 Chevy Impala convertible (305 cu in) which I bought in Tucson Arizona and drove for many years until an actor borrowed it and wrecked it. For many years I had a 1986 Isuzu Trooper and my current, and I hope final, ride is a 96 Trooper. It is a fine vehicle as long as you don't drive at more than 70 or turn too many corners.
MM: The mirror-shade-wearing government agents drive AMC Matadors, at a time when most cop types would have had Ford LTDs and Chevy Caprices. The inept-yet-sinister effect comes through nicely with the off-brandedness of AMC products, but at the risk of overemphasizing the inept side. Were you influenced by the Matador driven by Stacy Keach's Sergeant Stedenko character in Cheech & Chong's Up In Smoke when you selected the Matador as the agents' car?
AC: No, I liked the Matador for its weird shape and for its name. But even it pales into insignificance beside the AMC Gremlin, perhaps the ugliest motor vehicle ever, prior to the Hummer at least.
MM: It's impossible to imagine Harry Dean in anything other than a '71 Impala sedan, of course, but did you consider other cars for the Bud character when getting vehicles for the production? If so, what cars?
AC: Wasn't it a '73? Anyway, it was always his ride.
MM: That Impala sure looks like a '71 to me (the '73 didn't have the turn-signal lights on the fender leading edges, and US government regulations mandated monstrous 5 MPH crash bumpers on '72 and later models, while the car in the movie has the pre-72 bumpers). Of course, the full-sized Chevrolets of that era were pretty much all the same under the skin, so it could have been a '73 that got wrecked and had '71 body parts bolted on; that way all the registration paperwork would have had "1973" all over it.
AC: I bet you're right about that Chevy. I never even looked at the paperwork, just thought of it as the '73'.
MM: How much thought did you put into choosing the cars that got repo'd during the film? Did you agonize over the cars with less screen time, such as the '78 Cutlass Salon Coupe ripped by Otto in his first-ever repo? Or were those cars selected more on the basis of what was easily available within budget?
AC: Those were based on what was hanging around the set. I think the Cutlass belonged to one of the Teamsters.
MM: I've had a nice PR lady from the Car-Freshner Corporation, maker of the "Little Tree" air fresheners, send me vast quantities of free trees to give away at races and so on, because of the exposure they got from my series of "you'll find one in every car" junykard-photography posts. Apparently the employees of Car-Freshner were totally unaware of their products' role in your film.
AC: Nonsense! They have forgotten now, or perhaps your contact wasn't there then, but Car-Freshner sent us a whole bunch of air fresheners WITHOUT the scent, which is too horrible for anyone, even an actor, to endure for long. This, plus the generic goods from Ralph's Supermarket, was the extent of product placement in the film.