Film Acoustic, the Carolina Theatre’s new series which pairs special guests with their favorite movies, went down in Durham earlier this week on Monday evening, February 23rd, which was luckily the night before the big snowstorm hit the Triangle area. It was an event that was highly anticipated and didn’t disappoint: Neko Case presents Alex Cox’s 1984 cult classic REPO MAN, with Very Special Guest Mike Nesmith.
Unlike last month’s program with Lucinda Williams, there was no music played but the discussion with the two fine musicians, Case and Nesmith, who was the Executive Producer of REPO MAN, after the film was lengthy and incredibly engrossing (it may have been too lengthy for my wife, but that’s another matter).
The last time I saw REPO MAN It was on its 25th anniversary on the big screen in the Cool Classics series at the Colony Theater (read my post about it from back in the day), and I enjoyed seeing it again. I think it’ll always hold up as Cox’s weird, funny curio and it has one of the greatest soundtracks ever.
After the screening, a video of Case’s was shown, “Maybe Sparrow” from her excellent 2006 album “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood,” then Modern School of Film founder and Duke graduate Robert Milazzo introduced Case, who was greeted warmly by the Fletcher Hall audience.
Case spoke about seeing REPO MAN and how it reflected how scary it was as “a 14-year old who grew up in the Pacific Northwest” living in the Reagan/Cold War era. “People look back now and talk about Ronald Reagan like he was this really beloved President, but people fucking hated that guy,” Case explained to some clapping from the crowd. “People thought George W. Bush was funny, nobody thought Reagan was funny.”
Case went on about the film: “I looked for myself in everything as well, and I never could find a female. And in this movie, the female characters are all just like fragments of women. Kind of like the men are fragments of men, like nobody’s a complete character. It’s very cartoony, which makes sense since Alex Cox drew a comic book strip first.”
After Case talked about how she “knew a lot of boys exactly like Otto,” how New Wave was the death knell of punk, and that this was the first time she’d ever seen REPO MAN on the big screen (“I’ve only seen it in rooms with shitty Christmas lights”),
moderator Milazzo introduced Nesmith who walked from the back of the theatre to huge applause. My wife leaned towards me and said, “that’s a Monkee!”
Milazzo gave the interview over to Case, and they revealed that this was a continuation of their three hour conversation at lunch (Case to Milazzo: “We cheated on you with each other…in a restaurant”).
Here are some highlights from Case’s talk with Nesmith:
Nesmith on the inception of REPO MAN: “I had just finished doing a movie called TIMERIDER. Harry Gittes and a friend of mine, Bill Dear, who I’d been working with for a while, directed that movie. And I made friends with Harry, and Harry was working over in Jack Nicholson’s office at Sony, and this script came across the desk, and he called me up and said ‘you’ve got to see this.’ So he sent it to me, and I read it, and I said ‘this is great! What do we do?’ He said ‘well the studios are going to make this picture but I thought maybe you would be interested in doing it as a independent producer.’ I said ‘well, let’s talk to the guys.’
So they set up a meeting with Alex, Alex Cox, and Jonathan Wacks and Peter McCarthy to his office. And I just went over, and, you know, at that point I was in the middle of kind of a roll-off of my artistic endeavors and so forth. Come off a bunch of albums at RCA, was done with the Monkees, it was, you know, everything was kind of behind me, and TIMERIDER had not been successful either in theaters, or artistically, it just hadn’t quite worked like I wanted it to work. But I had financial freedom because my mother had left me a lot of money, she died in 1980, and I was knocking around looking for something to do, in terms of how to keep going as an artist, because I figured it was over for me at that point.
So when I met them in Harry’s office, I was in a frame of mind which was, I thought maybe what I could do is help get this movie made somehow, and if I can do that, what I should do, not that I can, but what I should do is not mess with it. I shouldn’t try to fit this into some sort of mold. What I could provide as a kind of role where I could stand between the filmmakers and the studio, and the filmmakers could do the film they wanted to do, and the studio would get either delivered to them a product that they could quantify somehow.”
Nesmith on the screenplay: “It was like free association origami. I mean, I knew it was not gonna turn into a swan, but it was folded up somehow; everything had a point, it had a way of referring and closing up loose ends and so forth.”
Nesmith on the original ending: “It was supposed to end with Otto as a Salvadorian rebel. And Marlene and the Rodriquez brothers were really sort of the American conscription for South American rebels.”
Case: “And that’s why you see her in her Che Guevara outfit.”
Nesmith on revisiting the movie: “When I watch this movie, and this is the first time I’ve seen it with an audience in 30 years, as it develops along, one of the things that’s outstanding to me about it, and it just holds, is that it is a comedy that doesn’t have one gag in it. They don’t play anything for funny. Even ‘let’s go get sushi and not pay,’ he reads that line flat! And Alex never cuts tight on the generic food cans, you can barely see it say “food,” he’s eating food. And the standard play, the TV play, the formula play is cut, cut on “food,” so people go ‘ho ho, it’s food.”
Nesmith on the ending they used: “Alex called me up at some point, and he said ‘you know, I’ve been doing this movie now so, and I still don’t know how to end it, but I think something’s happened with Miller *. I think he’s come forward as a fulcrum, a kind of nexus of the film.’ And I thought, ‘this is genius. This is smart. This is right. What are you gonna do?’ He said ‘I don’t know. But can I have some money for special effects? I think I want the Malibu to glow.’ I said ‘that’s a great idea.’ ‘Can I have some money.’ I said ‘no.’ Million eight, that’s it. ‘I’ve got to make it glow for a million eight.’ So he went out and bought the reflective tube they use on the highway, and painted the whole car with a brush. And shot green lights on it – that’s what you see in the film! That was great filmmaking.”
Nesmith on what was in Otto’s can of “food”: “Corned beef hash.”
Nesmith on the killer punk soundtrack: “The soundtrack ultimately redeemed the film financially - it made money.”
Case: “Which is my favorite story about the movie.”
Nesmith: “It came out, Universal released it and put it in one theater in Boston, where it played for a year. And that was it! We were done, we were toast. And so we, you know, slumped shoulders and went home, and then suddenly, Universal people at music said ‘holy crap, look at this soundtrack!’ And they put it out and it sold 5 times what soundtracks sell, which was not a huge number but was enough to get us attention.”
Nesmith on nearly contributing the score for EASY RIDER: “Dennis (Hopper) said ‘would you be interested in doing the music?’ So I came up with some sort of thing, it was like a cross between Memphis horns and cherry pink and apple blossom pie– it was some stupid idea, about I would use brass band in sections, and I realized that I didn’t have a sense of this, I didn’t have any idea. And he looked at me and he was courteous, which was kind of a first for Dennis, and he was ‘okay, good’ and I was out! And then the next thing you hear is “If 6 Was 9” by Hendrix, and you realize ‘okay, they created a whole other world that I could’ve massively fucked up with cherry pink and apple blossom pie.’”
Nesmith discusses one of my favorite films ever, the Monkees' movie HEAD, a possible REPO MAN sequel, and much much more in Part 2.